Reputations and Reality - The 3rd Corner

Day 52 – Dunbeath to Harrow – 11th July – 38.4 nm

Without even trying I had been growing increasingly nervous for a while. As the miles ticked off and Duncansby Head approached, sleep became even more fitful and shallow. Much as you try, things tend to get to you eventually.

The books talk of endless doom and gloom within the Pentland Firth, while, on the ebb, the Merry Men of Mey are reserved only for the foolhardy it seems. Worrying reputations have long since been created. But I have to remind myself that we have heard all this before, and before. Things get exaggerated - sometimes it’s a view from a different perspective, sometimes it happens unconsciously, other times it’s done to lift egos and reputation. I try to remind myself that with a combination of slack water and good weather, it’s just a lake - a big one, granted.
Such is the plan anyway...

We head down to the small harbour again, and again we find ourselves under suspicious eyes. I can’t be arsed with any more of this, we move the van up the road and I wheel the boat across the footbridge to launch from the other side of the river. Sod the lot of you.

The forecast is for light winds for the day. There is a bit of a swell running but it is a lazy, gentle one. I was rather stressed that there would be the ultimate go / no-go decision to be made, but my prayers have been answered it seems. It’s going to be a long day if I go around the corner but I can’t ask for conditions better than this. For once I feel that the day’s destiny is in my hands rather than those of the Weather Gods. It feels good. Time to deliver the goods...

I don’t spare the effort to look over my shoulder as I leave Dunbeath, I’m not unhappy to move on and the way the van shoots up the hill I guess that I'm not the only one.  Out of the harbour, turn left and head for the rocky bit at the top. The tide is gently helping and I tick along nicely, 5kts + towards Wick, guillemots and skuas join the party - life could be worse. Oh yes.

As I cross Wick Bay dark clouds loom, yeah...bring it on, today is Happy Bunny Day - I don’t give a bugger. Staxigoe calls from the map; I spent a pleasant time there in 2012. It will put me foolishly behind the tide if I visit, but I am fed-up of being on the back foot, of always paddling reaction days – today is my day, I’ll do what I want. Captain Initiative.

A quick call and it turns out that Team Manager is not too far away, we make a dinner date for Chez Staxigoe – the best picnic table in the north east.

I dodge a couple of small breakers on the gateguard reefs and sneak in through the narrow entrance. I look for the ‘Star O'Staxigoe’ and there she proudly sits, memories flood back, along with a smile. Unfortunately the skipper is not around, a rather slim chance I guess. I listened raptly to his tales on the previous visit; it would have been nice to say Hello.

It’s a calm spot, hidden from the breeze and lunch is an indulgently relaxed affair, I could get the hang of all this. It’s a rare chance to let a little of the stress ooze out. But of course the clock ticks, it’s a valuable day and not one to squander, too much. I do become a little too relaxed and as I ponder the tidal times for the corner it dawns that I've screwed up the times somehow. I'm now behind.

I pay for my Staxigoe luxury as I slog against the tide across Sinclair’s Bay. A few more numbers get mangled as I paddle across and I realise that it doesn't really matter as long as I get there in time to leave Skirza by 19:30 or so, in order to catch slack at the top.

After a couple of hours of slogging I start to think it does matter a little actually, as the flow drops the speed below 3 kts. It’s time for a bit of scratching and I head in towards the shore. The cliffs bring the speed up a little and eventually I reach the elusive and pretty Freshwick Bay, to land on the stone pier at Skirza.

Team Manager has been spotted by the locals once again, they send a team down to investigate, but TM tells of an inquisitive but friendly chat, north of Wick is a stare-free zone it seems.

The sun is out and it is a beautiful spot, we sit and do nothing for a couple of hours.

The plan now is to arrive at Duncansby Head at slack water; the theory being that I use a friendly eddy along the cliffs to get me there. Soon it’s time to head out and see if there is one.

Skirze Head is easy, a small tide race just to wake things up a little. It’s 5 kts+ again for the first ½ hour, a good eddy. But then I suddenly find myself working against a 2kt flow, an eddy of the eddy I guess. This stacks the swell up too and I get my first chunky bit of the day.  It takes 20 mins to work through it and I'm glad to get clear, but now I get chance to take in the impressive scenery while I up the pace a little, to regain the slack water schedule.

The strengthening smell of guano heralds the arrival of the corner. I poke my head nervously around to take a look, pessimistically expecting a confused eddy with doom and gloom conditions. It’s ok.

The sky is grey now, with a chilly breeze and a bit of drizzle, but the water’s flat. The tide is just starting to turn and what’s left of the swell even misses the corner, and nobs off towards the Orkneys. Game on.

The conditions are so good that we can’t stop now, the Men of Mey has to be given a go. Unfortunately they are still 5 nm and an hour away. I'm not sure what they will be doing by the time I get there, it could be party time. The light is fading and there’s only one get out, it’ll mean a bit of a clumsy, in-the-dark back track if it doesn't work out. Oh well, nothing ventured and all that...

I can feel the tide race grow as every minute ticks by. It concentrates the mind a little, it's been a 30 nm day so far but now it's time to earn my money - race on. I work my nuts off to get there as quickly as I can. Of course, on arrival it’s a bit of an anti-climax, a welcome anti-climax that is. It’s just starting to run and looking across in the gloom and it’s clear that there is looming potential for a chunky time here.

The final miles end in the failing light and the small harbour at Harrow, accompanied by a couple of slightly annoyed seals. 22:00 off the water.

It was a 3 stage day, and other than the slight tidal fluff-up at Staxigoe, it worked well. A good feeling.

The stress falls away, the welcome sleep is deep. In a dark corner of the campsite, snores leak from a van, sounding like a who’s-got-the-loudest-chainsaw competition.