Venture Cruises To Iceland - Part Five

Venture II cruises the Isles of Scotland on her way to Iceland

 

My last blog closed with us standing on a bluff at the Butt of Lewis looking out at the North Atlantic in the direction of the Faroes - but we had not quite finished with Scotland. We had arranged to refuel at Ullapool on the Scottish mainland and we had to vacate the slip we had been allocated in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides because it was needed for landing cruise ship passengers.

We slipped across the 40 miles of the North Minch in calm conditions and anchored in Loch Ewe adjacent to Inverewe Gardens. Starting in 1862, this wonderful garden was created from a treeless wilderness by Osgood McKenzie and the work continued by his daughter who presented it to the National Trust of Scotland in 1952. At this time of year the gardens were a startling blaze of colour with azaleas and rhododendrons in full bloom. We were now at the same latitude as Kodiak, Alaska and we have to credit the Gulf Stream for making it possible to create this and other similar gardens this far north.

We spent two days visiting the gardens and relaxing in this beautiful anchorage before heading towards Ullapool. We passed Guinart Island which was intentionally contaminated by anthrax spores when the island was used for biological testing during WW2. There is movie footage on the Internet which shows the anthrax being released onto some unsuspecting sheep which of course all died. The Ministry of Defense finally agreed to decontaminate the island in 1990 and it is now supposedly safe but not everyone is convinced. We went up Loch Broom to Ullapool and were allocated a mooring in front of the town. The harbour master came out in a small launch to say hullo and a little later some guys in an Orkney power boat who had been out fishing asked if we were the vessel booked to take on 3,000 liters of fuel the following morning - which indeed we were.

We went ashore for dinner at Argyle Hotel and were surprised to find venison cheaper than local lamb!

The following day we moved alongside a high jetty to take on 3,250 liters (860 US gals) of fuel from a tanker truck at a total cost of 3,584 £, which had to be paid for in cash. This works out at 1.1 £/liter equivalent to around US$6.30/US gallon and it seems even more painful when you have to part with real money. On the other hand, mooring in both Ullapool and Stornoway was just 12 £ per night and a haircut in Stornoway cost 5 £.

We went ashore that evening to have dinner at the Ceilidh restaurant where they had live music played by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music. It was wonderful to hear local music with bagpipe and fiddles and we stayed until 10.15. It was still light when we took the tender back to the boat across the mirror calm waters of the loch.

We got underway for Stornoway at 1325 the following day and went past Coigach on the north shore of Loch Broome where the book The Wee Mad Road was set. This entertaining and moving story describes the experiences of an American couple who moved to a remote highland village for a couple of their midlife years. The scenery was both beautiful and dramatic. We re-crossed the North Minch to Stornoway where we tied up at the same pier as on our previous visit.

With the first phase of our Scottish peregrination behind us, it was time to get serious about the next leg of our voyage to Iceland. We reprovisioned at the nearby Tesco supermarket and visited the harbour master's office to thank him for allowing us to use the cruise ship passenger drop-off dock. We were invited to meet members of the harbour board of directors who told us about their plans for the development of the harbour with increased pontoon space and better facilities for visiting yachts.

George Sass, who was with us on our trip to Galapagos in 2008 and who wrote about that trip in Yachting magazine, joined us today together with Steve d'Antonio who is a regular contributor to Passagemaker magazine and who has his own marine consulting business. Christine returned home to the warmer climes of California as we made final preparations for our ocean passage to the Faroe Islands.

For the past few weeks our trip had followed a more conventional cruising pattern of visiting anchorages and small towns mostly within a few sailing hours of each other. Now we were venturing out into the open North Atlantic where there were no ports of refuge to duck into. We delayed our departure for one extra day waiting for the weather to settle and set forth from Stornoway on the morning of June 12th.

Just outside Stornoway harbour we passed the Beasts of Holme rocks which was the scene of a horrible tragedy on New Years Day 1919, when the Iolia was wrecked with the loss of over 200 lives. She was bringing soldiers and sailors back home when she ran aground almost within sight of the families waiting on the dock to embrace their loved ones who had survived that long and terrible war. It is hard to conceive that fate could have been so cruel as to inflict this unbearable pain on so many families in this small community reducing many of them to penury with the loss of their only breadwinner. There is a memorial on the shore and also a marker on the rocks themselves.

As we moved on up the coast we had an advisory warning on the stabilizer hydraulic oil temperature. A quick physical check with the infrared thermometer revealed that the water pump for cooling the stabilizers was hot. We decided to go inshore and anchor to investigate the problem. We dropped the hook off a sandy beach at Port Nam Bothaig just south of Tolsta Head just off the village of North Tolsta and found that the pump impeller had melted. We should have had a spare on board but this pump, having changed from a centrifugal to an impeller type, had been overlooked. Murphy is a constant shipmate and it was a reminder that you need to carry spares on board for every pump on the boat. We decided to substitute the pump normally used to circulate hot water from the engine through the water heater and wire it to the sea water pump circuit as neither of these two pumps were as important under the present circumstances as that for the stabilizers. Chris and Steve made the modifications and we were on our way again within a couple of hours.

In the distance we could just see the tall Butt of Lewis lighthouse marking the northern tip of the island. At 1900 we approached the remote and now uninhabited island of North Rona. In the distance we could just see the islet of Sula Sgeir which is home to another gannet breeding colony. We took turns working shifts of 2 hrs on and 6 hours off. The sun set around 1140 but it never got truly dark and, when I came on watch at 0400, it was full daylight. The sea was totally empty of ships and we were off both electronic charts but there were always a significant number of seabirds roaming over the empty ocean. As they skimmed the surface of the waves one could only wonder how they navigate the vastness of the empty ocean.

At 0800, we sighted the southerly Faroes island of Suderoy and then, one by one, the misty silhouettes of other islands slowly rose above the horizon. We pulled into Torshavn on the island of Stremoy at 1535 after 29 hours underway for the 247 nm distance. A very relaxed customs official came on board shortly followed by the harbour master. Both were very nice and helpful and spoke excellent English. We were moored right in the centre of town where Venture II attracted much attention. Many said that she was the biggest private yacht ever to have visited the harbour. We dined that evening at a local hotel where the food was good but very expensive.

The Faroe Islands are completely unknown to most people. I personally knew very little about the islands until I decided to pay them a visit and did some advance research. Now that I have actually been there I do of course know much more about the country and can say that it is a hidden gem and definitely worth a visit. The first parliament, or "ting", was established around AD 800 making it the oldest parliament in Europe and probably the world. The Faroes archipelago consists of 18 islands, 17 of which are inhabited. The population is just under 50,000 - almost half of whom live in Torshavn. In recent years, all the major islands - with the exception of Suderoy and Sandoy - have been connected by tunnels, causeways or, in one case, a bridge so that it is possible to drive extensively all over the country. English is widely spoken, the people are extremely friendly and hospitable and the scenery dramatic and universally magnificent. The islands are situated in the North Atlantic Ocean halfway between Iceland and Norway and are encircled by the Gulf Stream which tempers the climate.

The following morning we rented a car and set out to explore the islands not really knowing where to start. We talked to some local people who were admiring the boat and one said we should visit the village where his mother lived so we did. Something always shows up! We drove along the coast road past soaring mountains and through the first of many tunnels we encountered during our stay in the islands. We crossed from Stremoy to Esteroy over a short bridge and followed the west coast of Esteroy to the town of Eidi and then over the mountains to Gjogv. Shadows from the fast moving clouds created ever-changing patterns of light and shade flitting over the verdant landscape. The scenery was incredible and, all being avid photographers, we kept stopping to take gazillions of photos. Gjogv was a charming village with colourful houses, some with sod roofs, nestled into a valley with a stream running through it. Bright yellow Marsh Marigolds - the national flower - lined the banks and the shrill cries of Oyster Catchers could be heard above the gentle chuckle of the stream and the sound of surf hitting the shore.

The small island of Mykines was strongly recommended as a place to see puffins in vast numbers so the next day we drove to the adjacent island of Vagar to catch the ferry across to Mykinis. The road to Vagar passes under the Vestmannsund through a long and impressive tunnel for which a toll is charged by mail. If you have a hire car, they charge the rental company who charges you. The weather started off overcast but dry and we would have been satisfied with any weather condition other than rain or fog. Unfortunately we finished up with both so visibility was limited but the rain produced huge numbers of waterfalls which cascaded down the steep hillsides every few yards. When we finally reached the ferry terminal at Sorvagur we found that the ferry left at 1030 in the morning and we were much too late.

We decided to have another shot at reaching Mykines Island on the following day. The weather didn't look too bad when we left Torshavn but by the time we reached the ferry terminal it was not only raining and foggy but windy as well. The ferry turned out to be quite a small 40 passenger boat and there was initially some question as whether there would be room for us as space had been pre-booked for a large Rambler group from the UK who were all well equipped with full weather proof gear with hats, boots, gloves and telescopic walking sticks. Hmmmm! However, they squeezed us all aboard and we set off for the turbulent crossing in low visibility with sheets of spray bucketing over the boat. After 50 minutes of not being quite sure where we were and wondering how much further we had to go, the appearance - almost within touching distance - of some jagged and most unfriendly rocks, signaled our arrival at the island. The helmsman spun the boat around in a tight 180 degree turn and skillfully brought us alongside a stone jetty where we surged up and down in the swell. Getting ashore was quite a challenge and required a leap onto the jetty when the boat was at the top of a wave but there were strong arms waiting to catch and steady you.

There was a steep climb up many steps from the ferry landing and, when we got to the top we did not know which way to go through the mist and rain to look for the puffins which were the main objective of our trip. We asked advice from the Rambler tour leader who directed us up a steeply sloped hillside. The higher we climbed the stronger the wind so by the time we had staggered to the top, the cold grey drizzle was travelling at a fair speed and our clothes were thoroughly soaked.

The hills dropped almost sheer to the ocean on the other side of the slope and the path ran along a perilous ridge to the lighthouse at the end of the island. We could just make out the track through the mist and could see that it was very steep with many steps. There was also a bridge along it over a chasm which is known as the Bridge over the Atlantic. With visibility being so limited - and with ourselves and our camera gear getting wetter by the minute - we decided against taking the path although the British Rambler group were made of sterner stuff and were soon lost to view in the mist. Before descending, we made a short excursion along the cliff top in the opposite direction where we took a few pictures of soggy puffins. We descended back down to the village and, with several hours to wait before the ferry left the island, we sought shelter in the church and then managed to get a table in the tiny guest house where we had a welcome meal and hot drink while we chatted with some visitors from Denmark.

We were ready and waiting on the jetty just before 5 pm as the small ferry materialized out of the mist and spun around close to the rocks to come alongside the jetty. If anything, the height of the swells had increased during the day. Planks of wood and other building materials were unloaded as the boat surged up and down. Then it was the turn of the passengers to board. Timing was everything but eventually everyone was safely on board although one lady slipped on the steps. "Sorry" she said as she picked herself up off the floor. The passengers seated on the bench across the transom were periodically drenched in seawater that flew in sheets across the cabin roof and cascaded in torrents over them. "A tad wet" one woman remarked as she and others scrambled ashore when we finally reached Sorvagur. We ourselves were none too dry but we more concerned about our expensive camera gear which somehow survived its dunking.

Another British-flagged sailboat had arrived in the harbour while we were away so now there were a total of three. Also, through the invaluable services of Seakits, we had been told that that there was a place in Torshavn who might be able to supply a spare impeller for the stabilizer pump. We called them and the owner came around and, sure enough, the impeller he brought with him did the job. It turned out that he had a Polish-built boat Galeon, moored only a few feet from Venture, which he showed us. This was a modern type of design but very nicely built. The boat was named Sir Humphrey after the character in the British TV series "Yes, Minister".

The following day we drove to the northern group of islands crossing the Lierviksfjordur from Esteroy to Bordoy by means of another long and impressive toll tunnel. The weather was fantastic and the complete opposite from yesterday. We spent some time in Klaksvik which is the second largest town in the Faroes and the country's industrial centre.

We crossed the island of Bordoy using a pair of earlier generation tunnels which were single track and unlit with priority given to southbound traffic as indicated by black and red arrows at the entrance of the tunnel. Northbound traffic was required to stop in passing places cut into the sides of the tunnel when they saw the approaching lights of a southbound vehicle. We stopped in the small town of Norodepil where we were invited into the house of a local couple for coffee and Viking soup. The husband made documentary films and had won an award for the films he made about the Faroes. We swapped opinions on cameras and found we shared Apple's Final Cut editing program.

At their suggestion we drove to the small town of Vidareidiat at the end of the road where there was a lovely picturesque church. This was a beautiful spot where young girls were taking riding lessons in a field bright with buttercups. There were magnificent cliffs and views across the blue sea to Figloy Island (Bird Island) only accessible by ferry - by all accounts a similar ride to the one we had taken to Mykines.

Early on the morning of our last day in the Faroes we were awoken at 6 AM by another British-registered sailboat coming alongside. Actually she was flying the flag of the Orkneys and the owner said he was declaring independence from Britain. He told me he ran four charters a season from the Orkneys, north of Scotland, to the Faroes and Iceland to, as he put it, "keep the Revenue off my back". He said that the best place to go in Iceland was Husavik in the north where he said the whales swam around the boat.

George cooked a fine breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs and then Chris and Steve went off to return the hire car and do some last minute grocery shopping. The weather was fine but very windy, with gusts to 25 kts, as we got underway at 11 o'clock. We went through the Westmannasund between the islands of Stremoy and Vagar under which we had passed through a tunnel on our excursions to Mykines. We had hoped to be able to launch the tender and take photos of Venture but it was too rough. I had also planned to go around the island of Mykines but had to abandon this also because of the weather. It was a pity because in the distance we could just make out the cliffs we had climbed and it would have been interesting to see them from the sea. However we did see the high and dramatic bird cliffs of Westmanna behind us as the Faroes receded in our wake. The tall islands took many hours to sink below the horizon and once again we sailed off the edge of our electronic charts. The Atlantic rollers were on the beam whipped up by a strong northerly wind. Our heading was 290 degrees for 1.4 days on same course.

By the time I went on watch at 8 PM the seas were beginning to moderate. The sky had cleared and was virtually cloudless with the sun still well above horizon at 10 pm . By 11 PM the seas were gently undulating and glassy smooth with a wind speed of just 1 knot. By my next watch at 0400, the horizon was as flat as a ruler but the sky overcast. Other than one fishing boat two miles away the previous evening we had seen no other ships since we left the Faroes.

The wind started to pick up again at 0800 and gradually increased during the day so that the ride became progressively more uncomfortable. By lunchtime seas were up to about 6' and wind 17 kts. We ran into a fog bank and visibility came down to less than 1000 meters but wind continued to increase. By 1600 it was over 20 kts and reached as high as 31 kts in the evening. Some traffic began to appear on AIS and fortunately fog cleared away but the seas continued to build so our second night was very uncomfortable. Wind and waves were from the WSW so were hitting us on the bow slightly to port. The waves were steep and short and often came in groups so the bow flew up in the air and then crashed down into a hole on the other side. On a couple of occasions, with the forward part of the boat virtually unsupported over a great void, we hit with a bone-jarring crash. Water was coming through the bow chocks and striking the windshield like a firehose. These were probably the worst conditions we have ever experienced during all our thousands of miles of cruising in Venture 1 and II.

The sun sank below the horizon at 0030 AM and left behind an exquisite sunset which lingered for hours. It never got completely dark and when the sun rose out of the turbulent sea at 0430 we had Iceland in sight. The tall mountains back lit by the sun looked very dramatic. However, conditions remained awful and we kept reducing speed, which of course increased the time we had to spend out in them. Our speed dropped as low as 6.9 kts and for ages the "time to go" never seemed to drop below twelve hours. We began to see numerous fishing boats and had to alter course for one. We had seen birds during the entire passage but they greatly increased in number as we approached the coast. Conditions improved marginally around 0600 with not so many deep holes and really hard hits.

Finally - and with great relief - we made our landfall in Iceland in the Vestmannaeyjar islands at 0830 Icelandic time, which is one hour behind British summer time. Understandably, they do not bother with changing the clocks in Iceland as it never gets dark in the summer months. We are now at Lat 63 26 63 N and long 20 16 21 W. The Vestmannaeyjar islands lie between 5 and 10 miles off the coast of Iceland and only one of them, Heimaey, is inhabited. In January 1973 even this island had to be abandoned for six months when a mile long fissure split open without any warning and buried part of the town and threatened to block off the harbour. Two commercial dredgers pumped over 11 million gallons of water per day to cool the lava with the end result that they stopped the flow of the lava and finished up with a more protected harbour than the original.

We entered the narrow entrance of this harbour between towering lava cliffs and tied up in the small marina where once again we dwarfed the local boats. It was blessedly peaceful and still. We had been 46 hours underway from Torshavn, 394 nm away, and the word ending 'havn' - and its English equivalent "haven " - had special resonance after a good drubbing in the open ocean. Inspection of the boat revealed the total damage as one bottle of beer that lost its cap, a cracked wineglass and a broken filament in a light bulb in the forward cabin.

I will have more about this fascinating place as well as our arrival in Reykjavik in my next blog.