top of page
  • cs45yth

The What, The Why & The What Now

The What.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Regardless of the distance. Our journey began on Friday 12th April at 06:00 with the long drive up to the far north of Scotland. Well packed up with tea and sandwiches we made great time and arrived around 16:00 in Thurso, which is in the same bay as Scrabster Harbour. We launched the boat on the beach at the side of the Pentland Firth Yacht club. Donald the Commodore of the Yacht Club could not have been more helpful. On behalf of the Yacht Club he extended us every courtesy possible. From making space in their yard to store the boat overnight to then donning his dry suit to help us launch the boat from the beach. Which with his help and my brother looking like a seal in my wetsuit we successfully achieved. I moored Storm Petrel in Scrabster Harbour overnight. Another r massive commendation to Chris from the harbour. Over and above with his help, kindness and advice on the passage of the Pentland Firth. So massive thank you to the guys from the Harbour and the Yacht club. AWESOME. 

I had read as much as I could find on the passage of the Pentland Firth. Chatting to the locals around there that know of that stretch of water. You could fill a book on the scare stories and tales that they have of the Firth. Stories of tankers blasting on at full power against the tide and going backwards. 70ft yachts getting caught in the adverse tide only to be spun round in one of its whirlpool’s several times and spat out in the opposite direction than the way they were heading. I don’t recall being as nervous as I was when I woke up on Sunday morning. I’d managed around 3 hours of sleep that night. Which was about an hour less than the previous night. But all the chat and the constantly changing weather forecast made me glad I was too early for breakfast at the hotel. I couldn’t have eaten anything regardless. 

So the push off from the harbour. No fanfare. Just a hug from my brother and an instruction to stay safe. Then it was slip lines and off I went. 

My passage plan was to stay close to the western side after coming out of the harbour. The wind was coming strongly from the west with the forecast for it to swing round to the south west around lunchtime. I hugged the headland with a mixture of not increasing my distance too much but also staying in the lee of the headland. Once out passed the headland I was aware that the westerly wind would affect my direction. So the plan was to keep my heading more northerly than required and allow the wind to blow me across to Dunnet Head. If things had gone drastically wrong then I had the plan to make for Dunnet Bay which would have put me on the wrong side of the Firth and therefore protected. 

But it all went to plan. Perhaps a little too well. Ideally I needed to be at Dunnet Head and ready to round it into the Pentland Firth at 10:55 which was 5 hours before the High water at Dover. This would see the tide turn in direction and the passage plan was to run with the flood tide through the Firth.

Even though I arrived at the head about 45 minutes earlier than planned. I suffered no adverse effects of being early and seemed to catch the turning tide spot on and flew through the firth in a much quicker time then I had even feared or expected. 

All my what if’s, I had ready for the Firth didn’t come into play at all. And as I passed John O’Groats I was aware that the passage was almost completed. Round by Dunscansby Head and I was aware that I was out of the Firth and all my worries and fears borne out of the tales that this area could be a sailors hell, never mind some idiot in a rowing boat worst nightmare. Just didn’t happen.

So the next phase. The plan was to hug the coastline as tight as was safe to gain shelter from the South Westerly winds. All was going well. I was constantly looking over my shoulder for rocks projecting from the sea and checking the coastline for any possible anchor spots if required. The possibility of staying further offshore and in the flood tide didn’t seem like a sensible option. 

And that’s when things changed.

What seemed to be a change in the wind direction to the SSE meant that the wind was now blowing me towards the rocky shoreline. I rowed as hard as I could to get away from the shoreline. Only for the wind to seemingly increase and drive me back towards the shore. I dropped my anchor into the water and it held Storm Petrel in the shallows about 30 metres from the shoreline.

Now what to do??????

I ate some food. It’s probably the fastest 1000 calories I’ve consumed in my life, courtesy of my Expedition meals. And I weighed up my options……. Rowing back north with the wind didn’t seem to give me any options. I hadn’t seen any suitable anchor points as I rowed passed. There were spots but nothing that would allow the boat to swing round should the wind shift again. Rowing offshore and dropping my sea anchor (a large parachute anchor that would slow down my pace of being blown backwards) would put me in danger when the tide turned in a couple of hours. I would then risk being sucked back into the Firth. And with a sea anchor drifting below my boat and the tide possibly pulling that in a different direction to the tide affecting the boat above the water. I quickly scrubbed that out.

So what to do??????


Staying where I was anchored and getting thrown about in the swell didn’t seem like a great option. I knew from my passage plan that Freswick Bay was just around this next sheer rock face that I could see ahead. So with what I felt was no other option. I hauled the anchor up and as quickly as possible. Spun the bow round and rowed as hard as I could towards what I now know is called Fast Geo Head. I was making about 0.5 knots in the right direction. Eyes on the land confirmed I was making forward motion no matter how slowly. 

The distance of 0.75 miles took me an hour of solid rowing. (I guess I should be grateful to the guys at Jorvik for having me do so many weights and long rows. Haha. Cheers boys) As soon as I was in the lee of the rock face the rowing became so much easier. I got as close as I dared to the rock and dropped anchor again. Now I was in a slightly better position than the ones previously. Out of the wind but still with the swell ready to push me toward the rocky shoreline if the anchor came free. Assessing the situation while I am there. 

Option 1.

Row back to where I had come from. Back up and around Dunscanby Head and make for an anchor spot back at the end of the Firth. That would only be possible once the tide changed at around 17:30. And there was no guarantee I could make it back around the headland and get out of the flowing tide and into the bay for an anchor. 

Option 2.

Was to try to row around this rock face that was sheltering me and make for Freswick Bay. Gauging on my row to get to this spot while having a small amount of lee from the land. I doubted the chances of making progress south once my bow poked out passed the rock face and became Fair play for the wind. 

Option 3.

Was to stay put and hope that the wind died off enough. The initial forecast was not for that to happen in the next 12 hours. If I was to stay put. I would have to stay on deck until then as I didn’t deem it safe enough to leave the deck and not to have an anchor watch. I could set the anchor drift alarm but with the rock face 10 metres away from my bow. The rocky shoreline 20 metres away on my starboard side. Nothing but rocky coastline to my stern. And the open sea to my port side with the now changed ebb tide ready to take me back to the mouth of the Pentland Firth.

Lots of words would have to be bleeped out as I looked at my position right now.


So I phoned a friend. He had. Been tracking me on the AIS (A boat tracker that most ships have) The legendary Mr Ferguson went through the options with me. Chatted about my places of refuge which were all ahead of me. And after much deliberation and sole searching, added with the fact that there was probably only about an hour of daylight left. I sadly put in a pan pan call to the coastguard. No life was in peril or imminent danger at this time. So there was no need for a mayday call. A pan pan call just means I required some assistance. And as there were no other boats in the area. The RNLI boat from the station at Wick was dispatched. Within around 30 minutes I saw their boat round the headland. The contact call came through on the VHF radio. Whilst a part of me was glad to see them a massive part of me felt terrible that I had put them to this trouble. Sunday night they should have been watching whatever Sunday night tv provides, with their families. Not coming to the aid of some loon who wants to prove a point in his mind that this can be done. 

Because of the shallow waters I was anchored in they had to drop the inflatable rib in the water and come to me with that. I am not sure how many times I apologised to the two RNLI guys in the rib. But once I had finished they got a line on to my bow and used the rib to take control of Storm Petrel once I lifted my anchor again. I’d marked up my anchor in ten meter increments prior to launching so I would always know how much line and chain I had to pull in. The red whipping twine on the line told me I had ten meters of line and ten meters of chain to haul in. Once that was free from the sea bed I was towed to the deeper water and alongside the Roy Barker II lifeboat. The decision was made to tow Storm Petrel back to the safety of Wick Harbour. Which is why the tracker showed me having allegedly rowed in a directly southerly lane and swinging right into the harbour.

The Why. 

The RNLI guys on board looked after me like they would a family member. That may sound a bit extreme. But they offered me tea, coffee, and water. Biscuits. Chocolate bars. Enquired if I was ok. Didn’t judge me. Never once condoned my situation. There was mention that they should be at home. Nothing but kindness. Once they had Storm Petrel secured on to a bridle behind their vessel. They constantly checked on her. Checked on me. And made a steady way back to Wick Harbour. I slowly overcame my embarrassment of the situation and accepted a cup of tea from them. And to not hurt their feelings, I finally accepted a chocolate biscuit from them which they constantly forced upon me (honestly Emma, they were so forceful). When we made it back to the harbour I was requested to stay out of the way while they secured Storm Petrel to one of the finger pontoons inside the marina there. 

Once we were all safely back on shore I was interviewed by the local coast guard officers. 

We discussed the details prior to me making the call for assistance.  One of the coastguards interviewing me had been walking during the day up at Duncansby Head and watched me row round the headland. Several of the RNLI guys had been tracking me on AIS as I came through the Firth out of interest. The coastguard asked the details of what I had on board in terms of safety equipment. I had a life raft. All the required flares. Two personal locator beacons. One attached to my life jacket. The other attached to my safety harness that was round my waist and has a clip to keep me attached to the boat. An EPIRB. A mobile phone. Which proved valuable as my proximity to the rocks meant the fixed and handheld VHF struggled to make contact with the Shetland and Aberdeen coastguards. I had warm clothing on. My foul weather clothing. I had not waited until nightfall to make the call. 

I explained to them my processes and options prior to making the call. And again I wasn’t judged. Pronounce an idiot or reprimanded. None of which made me feel any less annoyed at myself for putting people to this trouble. Annoyed with myself that I had allowed it to happen. And very much "pee’d" off that I had failed so early in my attempt to row around Britain.

The What Now.

I looked at the option of restarting from Wick. I would need to do the Pentland Firth again which wouldn’t faze me as much as it had done the day before. I looked at the weather reports for the next week ahead. The direction at times looks favourable. But the wind strength and speeds were up above 20-25 knots.

I know the RNLI are not a call out service.

One of my fears I had spoken about prior to leaving Scrabster harbour. I would point towards the RNLI boat moored there, and decree that the last thing I wanted was for that vessel to be called out to be saving me in Thurso Bay or in the Firth. As it happened. Their boat didn’t have to move and they weren’t called out at all. As I’ve said. The RNLI have been awesome. Once things were tidied up and tea was drunk back at the lifeboat station. The coxswain kindly gave me a lift to a local hotel. Gave me his phone number and asked me to let him know my plans when I had worked them out. As it turns out. He is planning a similar rowing trip around Britain with his partner at the end of May time this year. So for those of you that think you will miss out on my dot watching. I will be sharing their tracking link for you to follow. I know I will be avidly following them as they attempt to become the first mixed pair to row round Britain. And chatting to them both. I’d bet good money on them succeeding.

So I now need to look at restarting the row or collecting the boat and going again in the future. Going again is nailed on. Writing this has dragged me back of the emotional floor. I’d say rock bottom. But I’ve had enough of rocks for the now. Prior to that I was on the train heading home feeling more and more like a failure. And that’s not a “woe me”. It’s how I feel. I am my biggest critic. I believe it’s what drives me on. And until I find another way or someone teaches me how. I will remain like that.

I have been told a solo row, it’s not possible. Sat anchored near the rocks prior to getting assistance. I knew that if this was a pairs expedition. One of us could have rested while the other was on anchor watch. Been their solo that wasn’t possible. But in a better anchor position or a calmer sea or. No wind there. Being solo wouldn’t have bothered me. Looking out of the window of this train right now as we approach Cockburnspath. The sun is shining. The sea looks calm. My weather app says it’s 4 knots out there. But it also tells me that before 08:00 tomorrow morning it would have built up to 25 knots as the low pressure begins to move south. The wind would hopefully be blowing in the right direction for me if I was out there. But this time last year when I was out there training it was blowing up to the north. 

So for those who say it can’t be done. Well you are right. Right up until the time that someone completes the journey. And you are entitled to your opinion. But I’ll ask one thing of those people. Please don’t get in my way when I am trying to prove myself right and achieve a goal. 

The What Next.

Well if you read on to this point. Well done and thank you. To the people who have donated to the charities I am supporting. I’m sorry if you feel you donated to early. But at worst I rowed over 100,000 meters alongside some wonderful people at CrossFit Jorvik. If that wasn’t worth a donation then I am sorry. I will be attempting again. And again if needed. I loved my short time in rowing this bit. And the experience has not quashed any resolve of my need to get this out of my system. In fact it’s made me look at what I can do better next time. 

Should I get a different boat?

Heck NO.

The comments from the RNLI guys were how well she carried under tow out the back of there boat as we powered along at 5-6 knots. If anything I just want to bring some of her system a little more up to date.

And to the Wick RNLI crew. All the respect that I had for the RNLI prior to your assistance has multiplied ten fold. Your kindness and help on the evening following the tow back to Wick was above your duty. And it was greatly appreciated. And you help, advice and hospitality in the following day showed what a great community spirit the town of Wick has. ❤️❤️. 

But a MASSIVE THANK YOU to everyone who wished me well prior to setting off. I didn’t have any social media or my phone with me once I had departed. So sorry for not replying to you. To those who believed I would succeed. Thank you. For those who didn’t think I would. Thank you. You were right this time. But you spur me on to try again. 

266 views0 comments


bottom of page