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MV Hamnavoe Took Short Crossing In Severe Weather

Submitted by Bill Mowat

22nd January 2012

Photograph of MV Hamnavoe Took Short Crossing In Severe Weather

The 'short sea route' came into its own early last Saturday (21.01.12) afternoon in an unusual manner as storm-force Westerly severe gales swept huge Atlantic Ocean breakers into the Pentland Firth …

And the crossing of the narrowest Eastern End of the Firth between Canisbay Parish and South Ronaldsay enabled Orkney to maintain its sea-link with Caithness on one of the wildest sea-days of the 2011/12 winter so far, a season where weather patterns have been dominated by a series of deep atmospheric depressions sweeping in from the West in quick succession.

The trip was not done by Pentland Ferries' Pentalina, which normally plies the route thrice-daily, but by NorthLink Ferries' Hamnavoe which made an exceptionally-circuitous crossing from Scrabster to Stromness, adding just an hour to her scheduled 90 minutes' of sailing time.

A strong West-flowing ebb-stream was running in the Pentland Firth, opposing big incoming swells in the Merry Men of Mey tide-race giving multi-directional breaking seas of at least 8 metres in height, shore observers in Caithness said.

The 8,000 tonne vessel got into calmer waters once she emerged on the East side of the 1.5 miles wide tide-race, whose white-water breaking seas act as a natural 'breakwater' by soaking up and dissipating the force of the incoming swells anywhere to the East of Caithness's St John's Point, the western extremity of Gills Bay.

On an average during 40 crossings per year, Hamnavoe diverts from her regular route via St John's Head and the 'Old Man' … which is exposed to the full force of incoming Atlantic swells throughout almost all of its 28 mile length …. to enter the Firth and then catch the lee of Hoy by sailing round Cantick Head and through Scapa Flow and so on to Stromness. She often has to pass through the Merry Men of Mey, which is c. 1.5 miles wide and stretched from St John's Point on the North Coast to Tor Ness in Hoy while either inward or outward bound, as there are two ebb-tides taking up half of the time per day.

But last Saturday's route that her Captain chose was different; she continued to sail generally Eastwards parallel with the Caithness coast.

She passed through the Firth's narrow 1.5 mile-wide Inner Sound, stemming the ebb-stream and passing to within three-quarters of a mile of Gills Harbour and continued her eastwards journey until she was abreast of Duncansby Head, mainland Scotland's most North-easterly point.

There she turned almost due North for a point just off Burwick (South Ronaldsday's Southern tip) and Swona, before entering Scapa Flow by Hoxa South and sailing on to Stromness.

This is the first time since the Scrabster :Stromness link was established in 1945 that local folk on the Caithness shore are aware of this route being used.

But older local people, including retired postman/crofter Hamish Donn, of Lower Warse, Caithness, on the shores of Gills Bay, recalled that in pre-war times, the Royal Mail Steamer RMS St Ola, used to regularly sail through the Inner Sound during poor sea-weather in her once-daily crossing to Scapa Bay Pier. The official destination then was the nearby Kirkwall GPO; it ended in 1945, after which first-class post to Orkney went by air-mail at 'inland' prices. Prior to the 1974 introduction of RO:RO services with St Ola (III), diversions to Wick were not uncommon, but those trips did not involve sailings through the Firth's Inner Sound.

Very exceptionally, all three Pentland Ferries return crossings on Saturday were cancelled; during several previous winters in the 'Noughties' the Gills to St Margaret's Hope service managed at least one return scheduled crossing every day, even in 'poorish' weather.

Bill Mowat, chairman of Gills Harbour Ltd, the trading company 'limited by guarantee from the 450-strong Canisbay community that owns and operates the port at the inland apex of Gills Bay said; 'We have always backed experienced mariners in their correct claim that the 'short sea route' is the shortest, smoothest and quickest way to journey from Caithness to Orkney and it's reassuring that we've proved right in this rather unusual circumstance.

'But perhaps only persons that needed to travel would choose to experience such sea conditions. I expect that many Orcadians would have postponed their trips until the next day, when, as it transpired, conditions were back to normal'.


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