Armadale Bay to Sandside Bay (Dounreay) – Section 6 | Day 3


Possible exits:
  • Strathy Bay
Route:
  • 4nm Armadale to Strathy Bay;
  • 3nm Strathy Bay to Melvich Bay;
  • 4.5nm Melvich Bay to Sandside Bay
Tides:
  • Corrected for BST, neap tides
  • Scrabster
  • High 04:02, High 17:14
  • Low 10:38, Low 22:51
  • Tidal co-efficient 45
  • Height 3.8 m
Hazards:
  • Surf in Strathy Bay, Melvich Bay and Sandside Bay
  • Swell
  • Wind/weather

Thank heaven, a late start today with rising tide at 1130. We set out from Armadale beach on what promised to be a good day launching into the very light surf – fairly breezy with an easterly, but that meant with the tide rising, we didn’t face a wind versus tide chop. Also, as it was neap tides, the tidal stream was negligible at less than a knot. There was only a light swell, so the launch went well, with help from shore support. The day’s big challenge was immediate: Strathy Point. Heading north along its sheltered lee side was a pleasant start, but we braced for the turn around the cliffs of the point and back into the wind.

Wonderful views of the stacks and arches, and the historic lighthouse kept spirits high, as did the company of several seals. The lighthouse isn’t especially old, being built in the 1950s, but it was the first in Scotland to be designed to be electrically operated.

As conditions were relatively benign, and we had a reasonably short stint today, it was decided a cup of tea was in order, so we beached in Strathy Bay, between the River Strathy and the eastern cliffs. It’s a popular surfing beach in winter, but happily surf was not up this day. The beach was busy only with oystercatchers, while fulmars and terns circled from the cliffs.

The next possible exit point was Melvich beach, another spot popular with surfers. We decided to push on, to avoid being hit by a turn in tide. Melvich’s claim to historic fame is Bighouse Lodge, built in 1765 as a home for the chief of Clan Mackay.

Puffin Cove
Although the swell wasn’t big, we noticed the effect on the water as it bounced off the steep cliffs along this stretch, creating clapoutis, a kind of standing wave pattern. The bird-watching enthusiasts in the crew were delighted to reach Puffin Cove, and we paused briefly (two rowing and two twitching) to watch the colourful birds come and go. The cove itself is only accessible via a narrow gap in the looming Caithness flagstone cliffs, and we were not tempted to see if a skiff would fit!

Sandside Bay
Soon we could spot the remains of the Dounreay nuclear power station, to the east of our destination, Sandside Bay. There a lovely old harbour is a relic of the once booming herring industry, the remains of the lock gates that once protected it from winter storms still visible.

Heading into the sheltered bay was a welcome relief from the rising chop of the Pentland Firth. We realised that this landing was going to be a bit more problematical compared to the previous day and summoned our shore support to give extra hands. Given the skiff does not really handle surf terribly well and we were worried about breaching on the shore, Flan coxed us in magnificently and we were recovered by the shore party, Jan and Vikki, before any mishaps occurred. Co-ordination was essential to limit any risk for both crew and craft, for once even Liz shut up and did what she was told!!

Sandside beach was contaminated by waste from Dounreay, but is regularly checked for radioactive particles and is deemed safe to use. However, we decided not to linger and headed to our accommodation for a well-earned libation.

“The Seal Killer” told by our storyteller-in-residence Jan B. Brown

“This story comes from a book of Highland Folk Tales by Bob Pegg. Bob says this story takes place at Duncansby Head, I’ve made it non specific North Coast. My favourite part of rowing is seeing the seals pop up their heads in the Firth of Forth at the clunk of oar on stage as we row.” – Jan