The Nordic Challenge – 2003
An account of the challenge by Dave Le Geyt, the skipper of Balstara - editor of this web site. The narrative which follows describes a trip which took in the following places:
Douglas (Isle of Man) - Laggan Locks - Muirtown Locks - Leirvik on island of Stord (Norway) - Sunndal - Bergen - Bövaagen - Lerwick (Shetlands) - Hamna Voe - Wick of Triesta - Outer Skerries - Grutness Voe - North Haven (Fair Isle) - Backaland, Eday (Orkneys) - Talmine, Kyles of Tongue (Scotland North Coast) - Loch Carloway (Isle of Lewis) - Dubh Thob, East Loch Roag - Linshader - Traigh na Berie (West Loch Roag) - Floday (West Loch Roag) - Loch Dunvegan (Isle of Skye) - Soay Harbour (Isle of Soay) - Acrahanish, Loch Aline, Morvern Penisula (Scottish mainland) - Glen Arm (Northern Ireland) - Carrickfergus - Bangor - Douglas Isle of Man).
On Friday evening the 20th June Balstara set forth northward on unfinished business. The skipper had intended to reach Norway during 2002 as part of The Viking Challenge but F9's and 10's right at the start of the trip delayed progress northward during the first week, and when the Shetlands were finally reached persistent strong winds effectively resulted in insufficient time to cross over to and back from Norway.
With Paul Robinson assisting, the 2003 challenge started with a passage from Douglas direct to the Caledonian Canal. Expensive to transit but once inside, you have two days for which you can be sure that strong winds won't delay progress. During the first evening whilst moored up close to Laggan Lock, the skipper gave the engine it's first service. The passage through the canal went very smoothly with very helpful staff often handling warps for us. Paul was continually bitten by midges, and a lock keeper called out "Why do you think we all end up taking up smoking hereabouts ?".
The North Sea crossing was gentle. We arrived off the coast in dense fog. Very convenient having GPS aboard as we carefully made our way in between the coastal islands and skerries using the CARD (Collision Avoidance Radar Detection system) as a back up to listening to the foghorns of other vessels to judge where they would pass. We had a split second sighting of an anchored cruise ship just before dawn - which we both remarked as looking very UFO like.
The sun broke through the fog just a short while before we altered course to head into Leirvik Harbour on Stoord. Topped up the fuel, had a shower and lounged around in the warm sunshine for the rest of the day. Celebratory meal and a few drinks followed in the evening.
Next day absolute calm as we headed up the Hardangerfjorden and then Maurangsfjorden. To fill up the time, Paul ascended the mast to take photos and shoot video footage. Anticipation built up as we began to see ice capped mountains. I had my fingers crossed that we would be able to find somewhere to tie up at our destination. I knew that our mission objective, the Bondhusbrean glacier, was accessible by foot from Sunndal - the village for which we were headed.
As we neared the village the glacier could be seen shining blue and grey in the afternoon light at the head of a great valley. Overhead a helicopter was circuiting the fjord, taking care to keep above the wires crossing the fjords - marked along their length by orange balls. Fortunately there was a pontoon (if a little rickety), and just enough room to go alongside, just inshore of a Norwegian yacht.
We wasted no time in getting ashore and started
our walk toward the glacier. A signpost led us through the village and to the
track leading toward out target. Half walking briskly/half running we wasted no
time in pushing on in order to reach our target before evening. In the back of
my mind, was the thought that the fjord might not afford any shelter should the
wind swing to blow onshore. With such mountainous land and fjords cutting deep inland it
is difficult to be certain from which direction the local wind will spring up
when it returns.
After skirting a large lake, and crossing a few spray soaked bridges over sizeable waterfalls we came to a more open area, but cris-crossed with streams and ridges. We made our way as close to the foot of the glacier as we could and started taking photos to prove that we had reached our mission objective.
We made our way back at a more relaxed pace, and reached a restaurant bar in time to be served up some refreshing beer. We sat under an umbrella outside - just as it started to rain. Moved across to the adjacent campsite, where the staff rustled us up some welcome grub.
We took an interesting route between islets and transited narrow passes connecting fjords as we continued northwards. Paul yelled from the cockpit that a fork of lightning had just missed him by inches. I noticed that the wind speed instrument had gone a bit nuts - it was reading 98 knots ! I turned all the electrics off for a while, and a little later the instruments started to provide normal readings. The thunder and lighting continued during the afternoon whilst we avoided standing in contact with any metal fittings - just in case !
It was fairly evident that the locals hereabouts use boats just as back home they use cars to commute. All motor cruisers of 25 to 35 ft, with large engines. Obvious as we made our way to a berth in the centre of Bergen that their boat handling skills are well above standards seen elsewhere. We choose an alongside berth a little walk from the main area of the town. Clambered up tractor tyres to get ashore. Only £5 a night to berth, which included use of the shower and toilet block (you pay either at a machine at the quayside, or at the Tourist Information centre where showers and toilet block access cards are obtained). That night had a slap up meal, and found a karaoke bar serving the cheapest beer in town.
When ready to move on, I elected to continue further north. The last night in Norway was spent tied up to the quay belonging to a timber yard - after checking with the staff carrying out an evening stock take that it would be okay to do so. Had a very restful night before slipping out in the morning to make our way seaward. Almost due west of us lay the Shetlands - the shortest option for crossing the North Sea.
We hadn't long been into the crossing when the wind returned. A Northerly 5/6. The boat yawing quite a lot as the steep seas were beam on. I elected to put a reef in to calm the motion - but in the process a mainsail slide got jammed. After 10 minutes without any luck, it started to look as if someone would have to go up the mast - when it suddenly freed. Had to shorten our usual 4 hours on 4 hours off watch system for a while as it was fairly rough and quite cold. Needed to be reasonably alert to avoid the oil rigs which were more numerous than the charts would suggest. For a while went down to 1.5 hr stints at a time. Some water breaking over the deck was forcing its way through the deck mounted ventilators - but fortunately just a few drops found their way below - to be absorbed by the off watch crew's sleeping bag.
Conditions eased as we closed in with Mainland, Shetlands. Pleasantly surprised to find that a pontoon has been installed in Lerwick's small dock that is often used by visiting boats. Previously tying up alongside meant securing to a steel faced quay with large fenders and a fender board. Quite an international fleet assembled, as Balstara lay berthed amongst Norwegian and American yachts.
We hadn't lingered too long in Norway as I had wanted to avoid a long windward bash against the prevailing winds and had taken advantage of the predicted Northerly winds. I was now beginning to wonder if we might continue to be bold and manage to visit the Faeroe islands before finally turning southward ! In a fresh breeze we shot northwards and anchored on the southern side of the island of Yell. All we needed was for the NW breeze to die down and we could head through Yell Sound for the Faeroes. Next day we didn't yet have suitable winds so visited the island of Fetlar.
We were running out of time for awaiting suitable weather for the Faeroes and so decided to turn southward before heading westward along the North Coast of Scotland. After a brief stopover at the Outer Skerries we sailed past Lerwick inside of Bressay, close to the Moussa Broch on our way to Grutness Voe. Anchored in clear water over sandy bottom.
Had a good kip though the anchorage was a little rolly to start with, and started off early with the possibility of stopping at Fair Isle - if the sea flattened off. Nearing Fair Isle we were surprised to be buzzed by a light plane, which circled and made several overhead passes. There were no messages via the VHF, and we couldn't see any vessels looking like they required assistance when we gave the horizon a scan with the binoculars. Maybe its passengers were just taking photos !
Closing with Fair Isle, discovered that the Stack which forms the front mark of the leading line into North Haven had been incorporated into a breakwater. And just at this time - a Customs ship loomed up astern and dispatched a RIB. We soon had a number of visitors onboard just as I was followed the leading line carefully between the rocks in toward North Haven - had to ask one of the officers to shift so that I could see the depth sounder ! We berthed up alongside a Norwegian yacht which we had encountered for the third time during the cruise. The Customs officer asked if they could tie their RIB alongside Balstara whilst they went ashore to inspect the other boats in the haven.
Paul took a walk to see if the island's village store was open, whilst I took a walk round the cliffs to watch the birds. Quite amazing how unconcerned the puffins seemed to be by my presence. Only on Skomer island (off the Welsh coast) have I been 10ft away from puffins. But that was nothing compared to what would follow ! That evening Balstara's crew made use of the showers at the bird observatory, and had a few bottles of beer whilst the ornithologists compared their notes of the day's sightings.
Slipping out from North Haven, we turned eastward to round the island on the last of the east going tide, before catching the west going tide down to the Orkneys. We hadn't been going very long when I spotted a Gannet in obvious difficulties. Altered course to take a look. It was caught up in monofilament net and rope, its neck pulled to once side, unable to move its wings and feet freely. Quite obvious it would die if left. Paul went below to get the boat hook. It tried to swim away as we approached - but on the third approach we got close enough to lift it onboard by sticking the end of the boat hook into the net in which it was trapped. It was quite exhausted by this stage, but this helped as it stood quietly as we took 15-20 mins to cut the rope and net free, the latter had also wound itself tightly round its lower bill. Afterward it seemed quite content to remain on deck resting - but we needed to push on for the Orkneys ! Rather than risk it trying to fly off and injuring itself on the guardwires, after all our careful work, Paul lifted it overboard. It seemed okay - but there was no wind and Gannets find it difficult to fly in such conditions. Hopefully a breeze would return and the Gannet have enough energy to take to the air and start feeding again. We hadn't lost too much time over the rescue, the west going tide carried us nicely down toward the NW corner of the Orkneys, and we made our way down the west side of Eday in slack water to anchor off Backaland.
Negotiating Westray Firth was as interesting as usual. We rounded the south side of Eday just as the east going tide was slackening before turning westward. As we made our way seaward, and I would never have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, Balstara sailed through a rainbow, with its ends clearly visible on the sea to port and starboard within the confines of the firth - truly amazing. The sea got lumpy as the west going tide built in strength before we escaped from the Firth and into a more regular wave pattern. I had long been waiting for conditions to visit the Kyles of Tongue and it was a question of whether we would reach the Kyles before darkness descended - in which case we would either have entered Loch Eribol (which has a light), or continued on past Cape Wrath. Fortunately, luck was with us with sufficient wind which just enabled us to lay the course close hauled for our preferred destination. Interesting to reflect on the boats performance following modifications prompted by my experiences in the same location the previous year - the new deck and inner forestay brace seemed to be doing the job it was intended to do.
We reached the Kyles of Tongue in the last of the daylight, fortunately the tide was well on its way down exposing the large unmarked drying reef just waiting to catch out careless navigators. A few quiet night at anchor.
One way of keeping a long term interest in/motivation for sailing is to always try to visit new harbours and anchorages instead of visiting somewhere you've been previously. With both sides of the Minch fairly well explored during the return legs of previous cruises, I was pretty keen to spend more time on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides where only Village Bay St Kilda, Taransay, Loch Carloway and Borve Bay had been bagged. So after Cape Wrath lay on the port beam we shaped course for the Butt of Lewis. Another strong wind warning for strong southerlies had been issued - strong winds feature regularly on cruises through this area ! Only when the Butt of Lewis had been rounded did the very light wind begin to build. Loach Roag our intended destination can be entered in all weather, and within it lie so many islets that good shelter can always be found. As we made our way down the west side of Lewis so sail area was progressively reefed. Not for the first time, we were making entry into the Loch during the hours of darkness. Being familiar with Loch Carloway, a small Loch lying just within the northern side of the mouth of Loch Roag, we edged our way in there. Paul standing in the bow with a torch to keep an eye out for the unlit buoy and reef on the south side of the loch and the fish farms moored in its northern side.
After a good kip, the morning saw the wind round to the west - to blow into Loch Carloway. Time to shift anchor. Had a short but wet passage deeper into Loch Roag, with Dubh Thob providing the next anchorage. Hadn't long been at anchor when we were hailed to row over to another yacht to share a crab salad. Had a good gam over lunch and into the afternoon. With Balstara's crew craving fresh meat, Paul kindly volunteered to take the long trek to the island's village, with a large rucksack and part of the ship's kitty, there was no knowing what goodies might arrive back onboard ! Meanwhile I rowed back and forth to top up the ships water tanks using a portable 5 gallon tank - taking water from a tap on the quay (open faced not suitable for yachts).
We spent a second day at anchor at Dubh Thob whilst the wind raged overhead. By the next day, though the wind had eased, I was keen to move on - so we headed deeper into the lock to see whether it would be possible to find somewhere to drop the hook and row ashore to visit the Callinish Standing Stones, the 'Scottish Stone Henge'. We anchored in a channel and choose a lull in the wind to head ashore. After inspecting the standing stones, called at the village store/post office, and then at the craft centre to consume a few toasties. Back onboard we had to find a anchorage for the night, and being keen to visit West Loach Roag (Loch Roag effectively being divided in two by Great Bernera Island) we made seaward. Quite a swell running as we threaded our way through the islets north of Great Bernera before finally swinging into West Loch Roag. Anchored off the sands fronting a wide bay called Traigh na Berie. About a F7 underlying breeze, the water was flat, though the boat was sheering considerably in the gusts.
In the morning we decided to see if progress southward was possible. Out to sea a very large swell running and still windy. We plodded on southward for 10 miles or so - but two things were clear. Conditions unsuitable for heading through the Leverburgh or Stanton Channels (to pass from the west to east side of the Outer Hebrides), and would be difficult making entry into the bay in which Loch Tarbert lies - even if it could be reached before nightfall. Only one option - about turn. We enjoyed surfing back even if it as over with too quickly ! This time we headed deeper into West Loch Roag and dropped the anchor SW of the island of Floday. That evening quite a spectacular red and pink sunset.
Conditions had eased considerably the next day, and good if slightly dull progress was made down to the west end of the Leverburgh channel - which provides plenty of interest as the pilotage through is intricate. Once back into the Minch, the navigator can relax again as open water free of hazards is regained. With a forecast of fresh Easterly winds, not for the first time I had to pass up the chance of visiting the elusive Eriskay (of Whisky Galore fame) - some calculations showed we could just about make Loch Dunvegan in time for a meal ashore and a visit to a hostelry. All went according to plan, found a vacant mooring, launched the dinghy and rowed swiftly to the slip adjacent to one of the hotels. Venison and a bottle of red wine - yummy. Only afterward did we walk over to another hotel and enquire as to the possibility of a showers ! Spent the remainder of the night in the pub.
A calm morning, though still fresh Easterlies anticipated at some point in time. Quite interesting to make progress close in to the Skye coastline - normally with an onshore breeze I like to keep well to seaward. With the absence of any kind of swell it was feasible to explore Loch Brittle and anchor for a brew up at its head. Not recommended as an anchorage, as it lies open to prevailing wind and sea, and even in offshore winds there are spectacular squalls from the high mountains. With the 'hook' back onboard we made our way round to the Island of Soay, which with an early evening and early morning HW would not delay progress southward. Carefully approached using the transit to keep clear of the unmarked reef. Inside we anchored in the small pool with two other yachts for company. In the morning I rowed ashore to explore the former basking Shark factory whilst the crew remained onboard to catch a few more hours kip and to avoid the midges.
Was even thinking that we might manage a mid day stop at Eigg (the Fresh easterlies not yet having arrived) when the shackle securing the kicking strap to the mast step disintegrated. Spent the next hour or so exploring every locker trying to find a shackle of the right size. Oh well, another time for Eigg. Anyhow progress good, keeping toward the mainland Scottish coast best option. That night we anchored at the head of Loch Aline.
Pressing on we fought a foul tide through the Sound of Mull in order to catch a fair tide through the Sound of Luing. Here there could have been a catastrophe. With full sail and making good speed - a catamaran began to catch us. Two people on aboard. Very soon they were sailing close alongside, the skipper (autopilot on) pointing out the logos on Balstara's topsides to his canine companion before suddenly shooting close across our bows. One gust and a spurt of speed and the result could have been ... I was not amused by the risk the catamaran's skipper had exposed us too.
The Sound of Luing was good fun, maximum flow of water and good boat speed meant fantastic progress. I was beginning to wonder if we might just be able to cross over to Northern Ireland with stopping off at some intermediate point... still something more fantastic was too happen. Later on I was down below working out our position relative to the Traffic Separation Scheme, where we would have to alter course to cross it perpendicularly, when Paul yelled out that a Minke Whale had just stuck it's head out of the water close to the boat. Initially I thought yeah, yeah - having never seen one do so before. But after while on deck, I too saw the same thing. I presume it was feeding. We couldn't hang around being close to the edge of the lane, and set course to cross. Round about midnight we entered the large bay in which Glen Arm lies having made very swift progress along the coast in the swift east going stream. Kept a very careful eye out for the extensive fish farms located in the bay, before approaching Glen Arm. Secured up alongside a vacant berth in the new marina, in light rain.
After shopping in the village, we set off in the morning in a gusty offshore wind, didn't need much sail up to move quickly through the water. With the east going tide under us it seemed to take no time at all to reach Belfast Lough. Made for Carrickfergus marina, and were delighted to be allocated a berth as far away as it is possible to be from the bar which tends to play music very loudly into the early hours. Unfortunately, during the night a workboat tied up on the other side of the finger berth and proceeded to run its generator through the night. I was sorely tempted to ask the marina staff for the return of my berthing fee as I managed no sleep - it was an inconsiderate commercial boat owner that caused the nuisance. Weather not great, and not wishing a second sleepless night, we moved to Bangor Marina (my favourite marina - as it has generously spaced and sized berths, its quiet enough, and the staff are always helpful).
We were well rested for the final hop back to the Isle of Man on Sunday 20th July. We had a wet, fast, reach across to the Point of Ayre, and a milder passage down the island's east coast than we had expected.
Another very successful challenge. 1625 miles logged, 21 new harbours and anchorages visited, we reached our mission objective - the Bondhusbrean glacier, and helped the Friend's of Chernobyl's Children raise £6,120.
Many thanks to Dean, Martin, and Craig - whose efforts ensured that Balstara was prepared and launched in time for the challenge. A few late evenings were put into the refit - some days allowed only a brief break for supper !
Time now to plan and prepare for the 2004 Biscay Challenge ! If you think that participating in the next challenge may be your cup of tea - follow the link and have a read.