Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Northwards and the North Sea

[Kyle]We made a point of getting up really early to get out of the Clachnaharry Sea Lock at Inverness as soon as it opened up. The lockkeeper was especially accommodating and even told us he’d be happy to let us through at 8:00, when he showed up, instead of the ‘official’ opening time of 8:30. The wind was now forecast to be light and I knew we needed as much time as we could get for the long sail to our next stop at Helmsdale.

The firths, and then the North Sea itself were completely windless. A slight swell rolled in from somewhere distant and the water heaved up and down like mercury as we motored over it. It was several hours before there was enough wind to justify putting out full main and screacher. Once we did, we alternated between zero on the speed wheel and just under a knot. At least it was quieter without the engine. We had a lot of time to kill because Helmsdale is only accessible at half-tide or above, which was not supposed to occur until just before dark. We distracted each other from the noise of the slatting sails by reading to each other in turn until it got close enough to half-tide for us to need the engine again so we could get there in time. We were advised to look out for Bottlenose Dolphins - who are at their most northerly limits here in the Moray Firth, but we saw none; seals though did appear regularly, and in the calm conditions it was easy to see them idling around and enjoying the calm day.

Despite scare stories, we experienced a too calm North Sea, and arrived with the evening sun for our first views of Helmsdale

The harbor at Helmsdale is very shallow and very small, requiring careful piloting and full-rudder turns to negotiate our way to the single free spot. Once inside, we found ourselves very well protected by huge break walls on all sides. Filling the harbour otherwise are small fishing boats (apparently mostly lobster boats) and a restored older, traditional "Fifie" boat - sail powered, wide, low fishing boats. Footprint looked enormous compared to the local fleet, it seemed very odd for us to be the big guy in the pack.

Traditional Fifie Boat... Update, actually probably NOT a Fifie... but pretty nonetheless!

Footprint safely tucked into the harbour, and the old customs building (now the Harbour master's office)

We did a short walk around the village before darkness fell. Helmsdale is actually very quaint and quite pretty. The brochures do describe it as "one of the prettiest harbours in Scotland", but we've seen such things many times before and don't choose to always believe such marketing; "one of" is far to vague for Maryanne to take seriously. I originally only chose it because I wanted a stop between Inverness and Wick so that it could be done with day sailing. Helmsdale is the only remotely decent harbor between these two towns. I wasn’t really expecting much. It is a two-berth town miles from anywhere with a population of just under a thousand. The only mention we have seen of it is as a base for salmon fishing excursions. The River Helmsdale is reputed to be the best salmon fishing river in Britain. There are plenty of opportunities to hire a ghillie and have a go yourselves.

There was something I really liked about Helmsdale, though; it’s complete lack of traffic, its feeling of remoteness and its quiet, unhurried pace. Mostly, it’s because it’s set in a beautiful gem of a valley, the hills rising high on either side. Navidale Hill, behind the village, is covered with prickly Gorse, whose flowers turn the whole hill bright yellow.

We returned to Footprint for the night felling pretty chuffed about our little find, this little off-the–beaten-path jewel that we would call home for the next couple days.

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