Fair Isle

21st June 2018

I may never come back to Fair Isle.

After all, how many people visit Fair Isle in the first place: A tiny lump of rock midway between the Orkney Islands and the Shetlands off the North coast of Scotland, it is barely more than a mile long and famous for two thing: Fair Isle sweaters and seabirds.

And if I showed any sense of occasion, I should go ashore and look at it. But then I’m not supposed to be here at all. I had safely passed it to the south – and very forbidding it looked in the oily yellow light of a stormy dawn.

I had chanced to hit the Fair Isle Channel at the exact moment the tide turned against me – and much stronger than I expected, it proved to be. So instead of “popping out into the Atlantic” as according to the plan, the track on the plotter seemed to be going backwards and forwards over the same stretch of sea.

And the Shipping Forecast’s “occasionally gale 8” seemed to have become a fixture. By breakfast time, I had the storm trysail set and was calculating that I could always heave-to and slide backwards the way I had come.

And then, unbidden, a bored Scottish voice filled the cabin. It’s always a bit alarming for the single-handed sailor when this happens. But if you will leave the radio turned on, then it’s bound to happen. Reception was poor and while it was obvious this was some sort of coastguard broadcast, I couldn’t make out where he was based – and worse still, when he started reading out the gale warning: “Gale force 8 to severe gale force 9”, I seemed to miss the part where he explained which sea area this referred to…

If it was area Fair Isle, then it was bad news. A gale is bad enough but a severe gale is disproportionally worse, like earthquakes on the Richter Scale…

Then came the clincher: “Outlook for the following 24 hours: North-westerly gales continuing.”

There are times when common sense takes over. Fair Isle was just five miles away with a narrow rocky inlet called North Haven which offered good protection from North Westerlies. I could be there in a little over an hour.

It took longer, of course. These things always do but now Samsara lies at anchor in an impossibly small space between the pier, the rocks, the slipway and an awkwardly-placed lobster pot just opposite a huge ocean-going fishing boat hauled up in what appears to be a man-made gully hewn out the rock. I’m beginning to realise what kind of weather ranks as normal up here.

So now the charcoal stove is fired up, the wet clothes which festooned the cabin have gradually dried and been put away, there appears to be no mobile phone signal and only Radio One. I could have blown up the dinghy and gone ashore to explore but quite honestly, I don’t want to. At times like this, your world can get very small. I had a comfort lunch of beans and eggs. The other half of last night’s mixed bean stew only needed warming up for dinner (seems like a lot of beans). Thank heavens I picked up a cheap lighter in a convenience store last summer “just in case” – the gas lighter has packed up and all the matches are damp.

Meanwhile the awkwardly-placed lobster pot marker turns out to be a seal which remains motionless for minutes on end just staring at me. Eventually he dives, swims under the boat and looks at me from the other side.


Meanwhile the BBC forecaster seems to know nothing about the mysterious Scottish “outlook” so maybe sI shall be off again tomorrow – with dry clothes, a good sleep … and full of beans.