Sandside Bay to Scrabster – Section 6 | Day 4

Possible exits:
  • Crosskirk Bay (waves permitting)
  • Scrabster
  • Corrected for BST, neap tides
  • Scrabster
  • High 05:07, High 18:11
  • Low 11:37, Low 23:54
  • Tidal Co-efficient 50
  • Height 3.6m
  • Tidal Conditions
  • Boat traffic in Sandside Bay Harbour
  • Ferry Crossing – Scrabster
  • Boat traffic in Thurso harbour
  • Wind/weather

At last, a glimmer of our usual weather conditions – sunshine and a very light easterly breeze greets us on our last morning. This weather was set for the day. Ahead of us we have an extremely challenging row. It is not a long row, only 12 nm, but the sea conditions may be difficult with rips and current that we have no experience of and little local knowledge to go on due to our lack of recce. We need to leave Sandside Bay with a good amount of water under us and an outgoing tide. This means once again a very early launch (and a very grumpy Flan).

We arrange to launch at 0600, an hour after high tide and two hours after sunrise. This allows us to leave the bay and enter the open sea in the ebbing tide giving us a boost. Sandside Bay has a small harbour, built in 1830. The bay is described as ‘rocky, shallow and quite dangerous because of the irregular form of the reef’ so a recce of this area would have been critical to check the launch possibilities. This early launch ensured sufficient water to avoid these awkward formations. We launched successfully and emerging out of the bay feel the strength of the nudge from the rising tide with the easterly breeze negligible. Surprisingly, we encounter a brief downpour soaking us to the skin (not in the forecast!) and such is the joy of rowing. The cox (Barbara) wet weathers-up to keep warm but the rest of us keep going to make good time in the tide. The rain soon clears and the sun soon dries us as we row.

From there we head east and pass the historic Dounreay nuclear site, where different types of fuel were tested and recycled until the 1990s. There is now a restoration project ongoing around the Dounreay area including regular monitoring of local beaches for nuclear active particles, which sit in the sand (so no stopping here). There is also a 2km exclusion zone for fishing in this area, so catching breakfast is also out!!

We continue along the coastline, admiring the jagged cliffs and making sure to keep our distance and avoid the rocky formations close to shore. There is a distinct compromise when navigating these conditions; there is a very strong tidal race offshore which we absolutely don’t want to enter but we also have to navigate the confusion of breaking waves that are created by the cliff face. This is a very difficult balancing act for the cox who has to concentrate fully, no sightseeing today. Our first leg of cliff rowing for today comes to an end when we arrive unscathed at Crosskirk Bay. Given our very early time of departure, this is our morning breakfast site or a very early lunch! This looks like an excellent stopping point for landing, comfort and bracing ourselves before attempting to circumnavigate Ushat Head. On our recce mission, we would have visited this to see if it does look like somewhere we could potentially access land as this is not clear from the descriptions or the satellite images available, but does looks possible …

Our lunch stop is one of the most critical parts of the day. By day three, all sausages are definitely gone and the menu consists of remnants of well-travelled, well preserved high protein and carbohydrate feasts! We tuck into the recommended fare of hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter (oh the joy of a spoon in the jar), oatcakes, apples, nuts, chocolate and cheese. We are also lucky enough to have a premade bean salad which the shore support had supplied us with for the day.


Take canned mixed beans in water (drained), add chopped spring onions and cucumber. Make a light dressing of olive oil and white wine vinegar and plenty of salt and pepper. Unleash a can of tuna on it when you are ready to eat if that’s your taste. Tried and tested on all previous expeditions. Ideally travel in a cool bag, in the bow – delicious and healthy).

Fully replete, we launch with no drama from Crosskirk Bay and continue wide of Brims Ness (Point); a popular spot for the surfers rather than the rowers and maybe here is the reason why…

The water is bonkers inshore, seething and boiling, and well avoided by a small skiff full of hardy souls. From there, we continue round the headline, spotting Brims Castle and avoiding Clett Rock, to have Scabster Bay in our sites. The idea of getting out of the sideways roll and enjoying a celebratory drink spurs us on. Cox is now very attentive as she is on lookout to make sure we don’t overlap with the Scrabster-Stromness ferry. We had decided to come into Scrabster Harbour as it has more in the way of pontoons and our experience with working ferry terminals and the very helpful and kind workers has always been excellent. Scrabster was no exception and as ever, we receive our usual harbourmaster welcome, fuelled by curiosity and kindness. As in previous times, a bit of friendly chat and we have secured ourselves a free pontoon for the night and the promise of a hand getting the skiff out of the water. All is well – and thoughts turn to fish and chips for dinner, with a celebratory glass of something!

But first, the baton is put onto the Northlink ferry for its journey across the Pentland Firth to Stromness in Orkney, ready for its next adventure with Orkney Rowing Club.

The Queensferry Questing Quines tell it like it is

Queensferry Questing Quines
How do you feel when you are out on the water?

It depends on the weather, obviously! But with a crew of friends keeping a good rhythm, a few waves to keep it interesting and the wind at our backs, it’s pure bliss. The sound of water and seabirds, the chat and laughter, the ever-changing light, the rocking of the boat, the scenery, the occasional drama, it all adds up to an experience like no other. Sometimes there are jelly babies too.
Alive! I love the sense of space and the combination of quiet, noise of the the skiff and good expedition rowing chat and laughs. I feel privileged too as we get to see something so few others do. 
Anne (Flan):
Being on the water brings a calmness and rhythm all of its own. When the crew are pulling together the boat glides across the water and I feel that we could go on forever. When the wind and water combine to test us, it’s a reminder that we are not really in our natural environment and need to be aware at all times of what we are doing. 

Leaving Portree 2019 expedition in Renegade’s Arapaho
All at once excited and calm; the possibilities are endless. You get to be part of a team that you are contributing to, whether it’s racing or expedition or just a wee plooter on the river. It allows me to de-stress and gives me a reality check about what is really important in life. Coxing a race and watching a crew who are not that sure gaining confidence and rowing out of their socks to finish, watching others grow with confidence and ability.​ Coastal rowing makes me happy, just really, really happy!
Anne P:
Absorbed. Every row is different, conditions continually changing. Some rows are a relaxed, contemplative time, others are a focused, intense, adrenaline ride. Always rewarding, especially when on a longer row where the rhythm develops and the crew work together. The combination of physical and mental is satisfying and life affirming.

Who got you into coastal rowing? Or why?

Shieldaig 2019 expedition
I’d seen the boat on the water, so when the marina had an open day shortly after I retired I had a go, and joined the club immediately.
I’d previously trained and raced in sliding seat rowing and when I found out about the coastal rowing, and the fact that it was on my doorstep and there was no expectation to train six days a week, I thought ‘great’! I joined when South Queensferry was still a very small club so it has been great to watch it evolve. I also like that I meet such a diverse range of people through it and the Expeditions have been the icing on that cake. Five women in a boat who are probably pretty different, but the dynamic just works.
Anne (Flan):
For me coastal rowing didn’t start with the rowing. I saw the boat being built in a shop near where I was working and it was the build and idea of learning about the construction and maintenance of the boats that took me down to the Queensferry Rowing Club. As the boat was new, I discovered that there wasn’t a lot of work that needed done until the end of the main rowing season! So I started rowing. One of the first rows I remember was on a fog-bound morning when we couldn’t see the shore and around us was the eerie sound of the fog horns. Atmospheric and then some. That was me, out regardless of the weather, to start with being terrified by of some of the waves and winds that get generated on the Forth.
I had just finished my final exams for my Fellowship and I was looking for a way to meet new people and get some significant exercise; I felt like I had been studying for about eight years! I was lucky and a friend who sailed at Royal Tay Yacht Club invited me to the launch of Broughty, our first boat. I had been in and out of rowing boats most of my early life, fishing with my father, so the idea of getting back onto the water was appealing. There were other skiffs at our launch from Fife. I got in the Pittenweem boat, pulled an oar, caught a huge crab, and that was me challenged and hooked.
I’d seen the boat on the water and went along to give it a try. I’d been a kayaker and loved being on the water but I liked the simplicity of stepping into a boat as part of a team; no fancy gear, nothing special required and instantly being transported to another world.

What do you love about these coasts and waters?

We’re very lucky on the Firth of Forth to have such interesting waters to row in – three fantastic bridges for a start, one a World Heritage site, plus plenty of river traffic, some fine beaches and a few castles. Further afield, regattas, long rows and expeditions have taken me to parts of Scotland inaccessible by road, to wild islands, through narrows and across sounds, stepping through locks along canals, the length of several lochs and along the country’s great rivers. We’ve rowed in fog, rain (all stages from torrential to a smirr), hail, sleet, snow, squalls, heatwaves, rough water and glassy smooth. Rowing lets us see Scotland at her best!
Training locally in South Queensferry, I just love that this is my hometown. I like that we row all year round and the colours seem to change completely from day to day. For the expeditions, we’ve seen parts of Scotland I’d never been and you can only access by boat and also met wonderful people in the local towns and harbours. 
Anne (Flan):
The regattas have introduced me to both places and people that I wouldn’t have meet in my everyday life and a camaraderie that is unique to rowing, both friendly competitiveness and immediately inclusive, it has allowed me to row in other countries with people who have welcomed me with open arms – all down to coastal rowing. Expedition rowing has allowed me to have these feelings of calmness (most of the time), camaraderie and adventure spread over a longer period of time as well as allowing me to see the coast from a totally different perspective.
The variety of places and scenery whether at home, regattas or expedition rowing, it changes all the time. We have had the chance to go to some utterly amazing places and see some totally awe-inspiring things. There is also the challenge of both racing (not really competitive me!) and expedition. The unadulterated pleasure of being in a boat with four other women with whom you have a real bond is joyous; working together for a common goal including getting scared out of our wits but still coming through as a team. Many, many things stand out especially our team work at Kyle of Lochalsh (we all said after that day that we were so glad that we had that crew). And lastly the wildlife, the things we have seen from the boat both in and above the water make Scotland such a special place and I’m always very privileged to be part of it.
The range and diversity of the coastal geography, waters and wildlife. There’s always something different to see and new places to go. Expedition rows have taken us to places not easily reached by land accompanied by a great sense of achievement through getting there under our own steam. When the wind, weather and water are on our side there is nothing better; Scotland looks glorious and my heart sings.

Oban to Largs expedition 2018. “Into every life, a little rain must fall.”
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