As an engineer Chris was in the engineering team who managed the 3 megawatt generator on the the headland above the tide races. It puzzled us that such a large system was needed when the tidal flows were so constant. People used to find their televisions screens were swishing as the blades rotated. We used to meet Paul Thompson from Aberdeen university. He and his team were tagging seals and seabirds by the ruins of a monastry on the island. Our trips around either from Evie beach or Tingwall jetty were full of new discoveries. Riding the tidal stream on the ebb through Burger roost we encountered upswelling over a reef that ran out towards Rousay. The surge of the sea under our boats turned us through ninety degrees before releasing us back into the flow. We met a lobster fisherman who struggled to control his own boat as the water surged through the roost.
The sixty or so Orkney Islands lie north of John o’ Groats. The weather systems that follow the Gulf Stream round the Northwest of Scotland, form eddylines that swirl on the edge of the currents created by tides and wind. We moved there from the East End of London looking for a more peaceful life. Having fostered a teenage girl with her new baby for a year, we needed a place to take our daughters aged one and two. Optimistically we set up a wholefood shop, first in Rendall, then later at the Tree bakery in Kirkwall. The business was never a success, but the experience enriched our lives. One misty day I sat by a lochan on the hill of Harray, watching red throated divers. Many resident and migrant birds found their way there in the wind. A young man called Chris White sat across from me. His manner was strong, blond haired like a Viking and pleasant natured. We soon became best of friends. I told Chris that I used to own a whitewater racing kayak called a Phantom 2. It had quietly vanished from a hall in Bermondsey, London so I needed another boat. We visited a dentist called Martin Green. He had recently purchased a new Nordkapp, so he sold me his 16 foot Huntsman. Chris and I both paddled Huntsman kayaks made at McNulty Seaglass. Here are some notes of our trips:
3rd May 1985 we set off from Houton slipway near Stromness we paddled past Graemsay over to Pegal bay on Hoy. The sides of the burn were steep and imposing, covered in Arctic vegetation. Our kayaks almost bumped the nose of a sleeping seal. A new salmon farm was being set up in the Flow. The shrunken trees had not yet renewed their leaves. Razorbills swam nearby undisturbed by our presence. A school of porpoises surfaced off Rysa Little. Topping up our water supply, we quietly paddled away, the sun shining through the morning haze. Paddling around Rysa Little two great skuas appeared, flying low like B 52 bombers. The first one slowed contemplating a possible dive. Chris said, “All we need now is an Arctic Skua.” Almost on cue, one appeared. The great skua or bonxie, is known to dive bomb walkers on the hills. The cautious ones carry a hat on a pole to distract them.
Houton slipway became one of our convenient launching sites. Launching one morning we saw a Vauxhall Astra, parked on the steep concrete slope. As we pulled into the small harbour the Astra had acquired a carful of seawater from the flooding tide. Later we learned that being a diesel, it had fired into life again.The tides emptying Scapa Flow run either side of Graemsay. We set off for Graemsay on a compass bearing; an ominous sign since the island was ten minutes paddling. The old lighthouse at the point of Oxon loomed into view. Crossing the strongly ebbing tide I followed Chris bouncing through the overfalls. Short, quick strokes were needed. The waves swept under us from three directions as the tide met the shallows. They rose in pyramids and snapped at the hull. A gannet appeared out of nowhere. I muttered under my breath, paddle by the seat of your pants, take one wave at a time. The heights of Hoy rose imposingly above us. We left Graemsay behind and turned more out into the ebbing tide. A lonely croft kept watch over us. The rollers were coming in now. Too close to shore and we would tumble into a salty soup of foam. Too far out and we would vanish in the mist. Medicine ball floats, some plastic, littered the beach. Chris called out, “Let’s go back to Barra. The tide should be slackening.” A wartime blockship guarded the sound. It was sunk over two more ships to limit the U boat access. A large eddy swirled through the fronds of kelp. High in iodine, the Welsh know it as laver bread. We could not resist running the rapids in the white water behind the block ship. It creates a whitewater river bouncing over the rocky metal seabed. We played at shooting the rapids then battling our kayaks upstream through kelp close to the shore. The mist thinned to reveal Ward hill 479 metres towering above us as the sun broke through. One of my dreams in Orkney was to see Manx Shearwaters who nest on Skokholm off the Gower peninsular. A small flock completed my day with their graceful appearance, their wings shearing the surface as they wheeled and turned.
The Old Man of Hoy
A memory of watching a film Joe Brown and his daughter climbing this unique stack has stayed with me. Their most uncomfortable moment was the yellow regurgitation spat at them from a defensive bird’s stomach.
Leave Stromness and turn right, then left under the Kame of Hoy. Don’t expect to return in a hurry. The 9-knot tide pays no attention to the presence of tiny creatures in kayaks. Allow 2 hours there and 2 hours back. Parachute flares are not much use. They only fire to 1000 feet, 100 feet short of the imposing cliffs. Watching a triangular fin shadowing Chris’s boat, the sun shining on the cliffs and the seemingly massive swell was like a dream of Vikings arriving. Arriving at the foot of the Old Man the swell was too powerful to land on the rocks. We sat in our boats offshore until the tide started to flood. Chris’s kayak had developed a leak, so we squeezed out the water, about 30 sponges full in total. I can’t remember whether we returned under the huge archway but we did take transit bearings. The St Ola ferry in the distance highlighted a 9- knot flooding tide. I remember the feeling of the waves just starting to break under my boat off the headland. It was unnerving to sense hardly any water under the hull as the rollers suspended our kayaks.
If you time is short launch at Breckness beach and look for shelter behind a rather large boulder called the Kirk rock. It will give you some protection from the Atlantic swell. Along with a friend John Cummings, we chose a cold, dreich June morning. As always, being on the water brings your body to life, slowly the cold seeps into your bones. The most pleasant experience was paddling through the swell of Warbeth and Breckness. Bending over to pick up my kayak I felt a tired ligament give way in my back. I vowed in future to always stop, straighten up and stretch before ever picking up a loaded boat. If time and swell permit, you can continue on to explore the wonderful caves and archways towards Yesnaby.