The Aegre sails the Orkney Isles

With the completed Aegre delivered to Andy in Thurso, she was soon on a mooring in Scrabster harbour. Then Andy was off aboard her, across the Pentland Firth for a few weeks of summer sailing in the Orkney islands. Andy tells the story

The Aegre is launched

When I first launched her, The Aegre, like the Nelly Bly, lay over to one side but not to the same degree. Again this was solved with some bags of shingle.

Across the Pentland Firth

It was in this state that we set off to cross the Pentland Firth to Scapa Flow, we being my wife Elizabeth and her brother John, a joiner in Edinburgh who had come north on the overnight train, and myself. It was not a bad day with a fair westerly wind, and I tried to follow the advice I had heard of initially standing well to the north before heading more eastward through the Firth, thus giving Dunnet Head a wide berth.

[Andy Bryce sailed across the Pentland Firth a number of times and almost makes light of it. But don’t be fooled. The Pentland Firth is one of the roughest and most dangerous places around the coast of Britain. Tidal currents can reach 16 knots, creating violent overfalls and fast tidal races. Combined with gale force winds, they often give rise to extremely violent sea conditions].

The wind was slowly falling away, which made it a rather slow crossing, and as Elizabeth said afterwards, Caithness seemed to recede more and more, yet Orkney did not appear to come any closer.

Eventually, we managed to round Cantick Head, but by then, the wind had died, and we had to resort to the oars. We found that The Aegre was not easy to row as the side decks prevent one from lowering the oars sufficiently when coming forward – lesson one.

By the time we made Longhope, dusk was falling. The plan was for Elizabeth to stay overnight ashore at the Hotel at Longhope. We called in there for a pint, and when we asked the landlord for a bed for Elizabeth, he seemed very doubtful but eventually agreed to let her have a room. There was no mains electricity in Longhope, so the whole place was very gloomy. John and I returned to The Aegre for the night. The next morning, when Elizabeth came down, she related that there was a plaque on the wall to the effect that King George V had stayed there (Scapa Flow was a big naval base in both world wars) and by the look of the place, nobody had stayed there since!

We sailed over to Scapa Pier so that Elizabeth and John could continue north to Shetland, as it was their parent’s silver wedding.

Back across the Pentland Firth

After the regattas, I ended up back at Longhope and then set off to cross the Pentland Firth back to Scrabster. I was somewhat apprehensive about being on my own with an oversized mainsail already reefed down. However, the weather was fine, and initially, I held along the South Walls shore before bearing way south. As I came nearer to the Caithness coast, the wind again fell light, and I began to fear that the tide might carry me west of Holburn Head. Danny Bews came out in his boat, Fairway, and offered me a tow in but I wanted to make it on my own if I could, and the wind held out sufficiently for me to make it into Scrabster.

Winter improvements

Over the following winter, I thought there were changes to be made in light of the experience gained from the first summer’s sailing.

  1. I had some slabs of 2” thick Caithness slate cut to sit between the garboard and adjacent strakes, the keel and the midship frames.
  2. I decided the forehatch was of no real use so fastened it down permanently.
  3. The original floorboards were set down between the frames. I put new ones in that stretched the length of the cockpit fore and aft to give a full level ‘deck’. I also took out the partitioned-off bunks, which had proved highly inconvenient. Sleeping bags could just be laid over the new floorboards.
  4. I made a cockpit cover out of hemp canvas (ex H.M.T.S Alert) and dressed it with fish oil and ochre.
  5. I put through fastenings on the chainplates.
  6. The Aegre had to be laid up upside down at the gable end of the house, and a winter’s gale of wind had blown her sideways. The stem head fitting, an eye welded onto the turned-over end of the keel/stem band, had caught on the kerb and split the top of the stem. I cut the fitting off and repaired the stem using a wedged treenail. An athwartship hole in the stemhead was lined with a length of copper tube, and a brass bolt through this provided an anchorage for the fore stay and foresail tack.
  7. The sails eventually arrived from Jekyells, beautifully made but in white terylene. The mainsail appeared to be for a sliding gunter rig with the head of the sail and the luff being in one straight line. The head was also larger than the yard that Tom Edwardson had supplied, so they had to go back. In their place, I drew out a standing lug rig and sent off an order to the Montrose Rope and Sail Co. They made a suit in tan terylene, fully roped. The cloths were sewn together with a straight flat stitch rather than the more usual zig-zag across the edge. It did not look so good but had the advantage that the stitching would not be nearly so prone to [chafe] as terylene sails so particularly are. (I have often thought that the best way would be to have the sails double stitched, straight for durability and zig-zag for finish).

We were then ready for the summer season, which to me is really just limited in Caithness to June, July, and August when one can sail in the evenings.

A most memorable sail

On a lovely 11th June 1967, I was making The Aegre ready for an early sail when the lady from the Fisherman’s Mission shouted down from a window that I should go to the Dunbar Hospital, where Elizabeth had been expecting the delivery of our firstborn. The evening before, we had been told there would be no action for at least 24 hours by Myfanwy (who) obviously had other ideas. When I finally went back to Scrabster, it was mid-morning, and I had a splendid sail, drinking a one-pint bottle of Adnams [beer] on the way out across the bay and another on the way back again.

Two beer bottles
The two bottles of beer that Andy drank during a celebratory sail aboard The Aegre on the birth of his first child Myfanwy in 1967 kept on the kitchen shelf in memory for 50+ years

Back to the Orkneys

By that time the Orkney regattas had been re-arranged. Instead of being over one week, they were separated into individual weekend ones, obviously much more convenient for the locals but not so for visitors. However, Jim had come north again, this time in an old ex-GPO Morris Minor 850 cc van. We sailed across, [the Pentland Firth] going west about past The Old Man of Hoy rather than through the Firth. We thought we were not that far off the 1,100 ft cliffs of St John’s Head but when the St Ola came north inside us and seeing how small she looked against them made us realise how far off we were and how big they were.

Continuing our way across, as we approached Hoy Sound, the wind had come around to north-easterly, and the ebb tide was running out against us. We made a long board over to Burra Sound between Graemsay and Hoy, but seeing the remains of a sunken block ship, I thought we could not really continue through. We put about onto the starboard tack but could not weather The Ness to make it into Stromness due to the tide. As we approached the shore, there was a tiny ‘bay’ into which we sailed and hurriedly let go of the anchor, Jim having a struggle to uncoil and clear the warp. We lay there, cooked up and ate our tea, and by the time we had finished and cleared up, the tide seemed to have eased up a bit. Getting underway we could we could make progress, taking short tacks close to the shore and, finally weathering The Ness, sailed into Stromness as dusk was falling. The pint ashore was very welcome.

The next day we sailed over to the pier at the north end of Hoy. We set off to walk over to Rackwick but were soon given a lift by a local. On the way he suggested we should go and look at the Dwarfie Stane

[The Dwarfie Stane is a megalithic chambered tomb carved out of a titanic block of Devonian Old Red Sandstone located in a steep-sided glaciated valley between the settlements of Quoys and Rackwick on Hoy].

He stopped and said he would wait while we walked over to it, an amazing double chamber cut into the solid stone, complete with a stone pillow ledge in the bed chamber. There was also a stone plug, originally to fill the entrance, lying nearby. After looking over Rackwick we walked back over Ward Hill.

[Ward Hill on the island of Hoy is the highest hill in Orkney. It lies at the north of the island between Moaness and Rackwick.]

Returning to The Aegre we sailed down past Lyariva Bay and anchored in Pegal Bay for the night.

It was then onward to Longhope, where their regatta was due. The opposition there included the LAVERNE (“Wait ‘till you see the Laverne we had been told a couple of years before) and a couple of yoles from Westray. The racing was done under a handicap system based solely on length, under which The Aegre, being relatively long but close rigged for cruising, did not rate very well against the shorter but racing-rigged roles, but we had some good sailing even though we did not win anything.

For the trip back across the Firth, we had a fine fair N.N.W wind and sailed from Cantick Head to Holburn Head lighthouse (Holburn Head lies just north of Scrabster harbour) in 3 hours, which was a fine conclusion to a most enjoyable cruise. The modifications made during the winter had all proved to be entirely successful.

Sailing in Thurso Bay

For the next year or so, sailing The Aegre was more or less limited to Thurso Bay. Being rigged so easily, I could be underway in well under five minutes. Sailing out of the inner harbour was sometimes a bit of a problem, particularly at low tide, but we always managed it somehow. I once tried beam trawling, an interesting experience using the lead of the warps to steer the boat as much as the rudder, taking them forward to luff or aft to bear away. The trawling itself was not a success. I concluded that to be effective, beam trawling under sail was best done in muddy tidal water rather than over a clear sandy stretch with little current.

When towing the boat ashore, I found that the best way was to put her upside down on the trailer supported by a transverse trestle beam. One spring, I was launching the Aegre on my own. I thought I would try floating her off the trailer upside down and then flipping her over, hoping she would not ship too much water as she turned. It worked very well, and Danny Bews must have been keeping his beady eye on things as he came down and said that he had never seen a boat launched that way before. I replied, saying that I hadn’t either.

Back to Orkney

I did make one more passage over to Orkney. Jack Francis from Derby was working at Vulcan [HMS Vulcan as the onshore nuclear reactor at Dounray was known] and he came over with me. On the morning we had planned to set off there was quite a fresh westerly wind blowing, as evidenced by the surf at the base of Dunnet Head. It seemed to have eased off a little by lunchtime, so we set sail. I could not have followed the old adage of standing well to the north sufficiently as once somewhere off Dunnet Head a dollop of heavy spray came over the weather quarter and hit me on the back as I sat at the tiller. This was the only time The Aegre had shipped any water when I was sailing in her, but then we were never out in any real weather. As so often happens in the late summer, the wind continued to die away. By the time we rounded Cantick Head, we had to start helping her along with the oars. Rain was also threatening, and it was getting dark as we eventually tied up at Longhope Pier. We stowed everything, rigged the awning cover and went up to the pub for a belated pint.

The law requiring licensed premises to display a price list had come into force. In the hotel, it was met by a small handwritten page stuck on the shady side of one of the bar front pillars, the only artificial lighting being behind the bar. Also having a pint was one Bill Morrison, whom we had met on a previous visit. At closing time, ie when the generator was shut down, he suggested we go home with him for a bit of supper. He drove us there in his Reliant three-wheeler, and on arrival, he instructed his one-eyed wife to ‘get these two lads a bite to eat’. She lit the paraffin cooker, boiled up the best part of a dozen eggs, and mashed them up with tomato to make a great plateful of sandwiches, which we gratefully ate. Bill eventually drove us back to the pier. It was still raining, so Jack and I decided that the best thing would be to take our bedding ashore and sleep in the shed on the quay, the door of which was open. We managed somehow to bed down in the darkness. It was rather cramped, and it was not a very comfortable night; something angular seemed to be sticking into our sides. With daylight in the morning the something turned out to be a double bed, which was presumably being delivered to the island. If only we had realised!

Jack only had the weekend off, so he caught the ferry back, and I spent the week in South Walls, around that end of Hoy. The wind stayed quite fresh, so I did quite a bit of walking. One morning the local Bobby was fishing for sea trout off the beach at North Hope, and another day I passed the time of day with one of the island crofter fishermen and commented that it was staying fairly windy. “Yes” he said, “The glass is high so it will blow quite hard”. “What happens if the glass is low then?” I asked. “Then it will be a gale of wind” he replied. The local shop/store at Longhope kept a wonderful range of stock, and all domestic, farming and fishing needs seemed to be met. It was run by one of the Kirkpatrick family, which later suffered tragically when the lifeboat was lost.

Jack came over again the following weekend and we sailed back to Scrabster without incident.

The next spring Nick Grainger, who though actually a qualified optician, was working at John Ridgway’s School of Adventure at Ardmore (first on the left round the corner of Cape Wrath, just past Rhiconich), and was looking for a boat, contacted me. How he heard I had The Aegre I do not know. He came over to have a look at her and liking what he saw bought her at a price that suited both me and his pocket. The agreement was that I would tow her over to Ardmore. One of the Naval officers on a course at HMS Vulcan, came with me. It was a run out for him and insurance for me in case I needed any assistance on the way. Nick was there to meet us, and we unloaded her at the tideline. It was the last I saw of The Aegre, a splendid little vessel that never let me down.

The Aegre arrives at Ardmore, upside down on a trailer.
The Aegre arrives at Ardmore upside down on a trailer Adventure school instructors help unload and launch her
Launching The Aegre 1972, with Nick & Julie
Launching The Aegre 1972 with Nick Julie and two other instructors from the School
The Aegre on her way to her new mooring at Ardmore
The Aegre on her way to her new mooring at Ardmore

Next: Forward to 2005

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