Marsali Taylor encounters difficulties with unseasonable weather during a midsummer night sail from Brae to Aith in Shetland…

Philip, my husband, needed the car so I decided to take my Offshore 8m Karima S from Aith to Brae, where I teach sailing. Last time had been a bit off-putting as my engine had refused to start outside Brae marina, and I’d had to sail into the berth.

Still, it had run nicely all the way home, and if it was playing up when I got down to the boat, Plan B was go into town with Philip, drive to Brae, leap from the water back into the car and rush to retrieve him and his music gear from outside the Methodist Kirk.

The morning forecast looked good: a Force 3 from the south-west to take me there. I zoomed home from the school where I worked and headed boatwards, just catching the forecast: Force 4 to 5, and drizzle later.

Hmmm; a bit breezier than I’d like, but the Met Office always gave a force more than I’d get in sheltered Aith voe, and the pattern for the last fortnight had been for the wind to fall in the evening – indeed, I’d warned Philip not to worry if I was late, as I’d be dawdling home on a dying wind.

I checked the fuel: perilously low, after last week’s journey home, but enough to get me into and out of both marinas, if I sailed the rest of the way.

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It was a lovely sail up. We swooshed silently along at five knots on glittering blue water, with the wind warm on my back, and black and white guillemots raising their auk bills to inspect us.

I let Karima sail herself while I ducked below to make a cup of cocoa and dig out oatcakes from the supply locker. Down in the cabin, the water trickled and rattled along her fibreglass hull, and my hanging heavy weather gear swung gently against the bulkhead.

I ate my impromptu picnic coming through Houbinsetter, went goosewinged to avoid ‘the Blade’, then braced myself for the extra wind you always get across Cole Deep.

Marsali wrapped up for a sail far south around Isle of Wight. Photo: Colin Sinclaur

From being peaceably flat, we were suddenly racing at a tilt, with the water slapping at Karima’s topsides, and the occasional wave flipping over her bow. The log registered six knots.

Second thoughts

Karima wasn’t hard pressed with the wind behind, but I was beginning to have misgivings about fighting it homewards. I eyed the cushions and polar-bear fleece in the cabin.

If needs must I could spend the night aboard in Brae marina, and sail home in the morning – except there was a Force 5 forecast, with rain, so unless it really blew up I’d be better home.

Karima coming around Papa Little on a much better evening. Photo: Peter Nicholson

I had a shot at it. By the time I was moored in Brae marina the sea was steely grey, wrinkled with white crests, and the wind was whistling in that ominous way.

We made sure the children’s Picos were reefed into small neon-pink triangles. The larger Sports were still rocky even with only half their sail up, and the teenage boys managed to capsize pretty quickly.

By the end of the session, though, the wind had fallen back to a nice Force 3, and I prepared to head homewards. One reef in the mainsail; kettle pre-boiled (as I’d be hanging on to the tiller all the way home) and oatcakes set ready. I stowed the lines and put on my warmer oilskins.

Karima S competing in Aith Regatta. Photo: Gordon Stove

One reef was enough to keep us moving briskly, but not so much that Karima was tilted over unmanageably. The wind was bang on the nose; I’d be zig-zagging all the way home.

By the time I’d got the length of Busta Voe, taking four miles on the water to do two as the crow flies, I reckoned the Sound of Houbinsetter would be a real pain – the wind would funnel through it, and it would take half a dozen tacks to get through. I had to tack right out to the Rona to get into it, so I decided I’d keep out in clear wind.

We were doing fine, and I hadn’t had to let the traveller off yet, in fact I was rather enjoying myself. Karima felt reassuringly solid beneath me, and I was in home waters, with the Vementry guns sharp on their curve of hill. I headed for them – tacked back in to Papa Little – headed across for Vementry – tacked back again.

Howling wind

A mist was gathering around Vementry House, and I remembered the ‘drizzle’ bit of the forecast. Gah. The wind was rising. Karima heeled to a gust, and I heard a thump below as something re-located itself. Traveller off; that flattened us a bit.

By now it was 2210. I wasn’t sure a phone call with backing track of slushing waves and howling wind would reassure Philip, but with night approaching, visible whitecaps and no sail in sight, he might worry enough to send the lifeboat out.

I ducked below for my mobile then leapt back for the tiller as Karima came upright, sails flapping. No signal. At the far end of the Rona channel, I tried again, just as Karima heeled to the wind funnelled between the hills.

I braced my legs on the opposite seat, hooked an elbow around a winch and spoke from a standing angle.

“It’s me – I’m fine – I’ll be in the voe soon.”

“I can’t hear you…”

“I’m fine, nearly home. Can you hear me?”

“I can only make out a few words.”

“I’m fine – having fun.”

The phone cut out. Dash. Now he would panic, wondering if I’d wanted him to call the coastguard. I punched out a text, one-handed: ‘i fine nearly home look out vindox.’

Simmer dim evening

When I turned into the voe at last, Aith was gloomed under a mist so thick I could only see the orange glare of the building site lights.

I nipped below to switch the masthead lights to full, and battered on. Across to Slyde; back to the bight of Braewick; across to Selkieburn. By now I’d had enough. Surely my fuel would manage this last half-mile?

I rolled the jib up to flatten the boat a bit, and turned the key. Silence. I breathed a fervent prayer, skooshed WD40 on the terminals and tried again. It rattled into life.


Enjoying Aith voe on a much better ‘simmer dim’ evening. Photo: Simmer Dim Charters

I sighed a thank you and pointed Karima’s nose for home. After 200 yards, bumping into the chop, the rattle died to a rumble and faded out altogether. Oh, really, Lord. I switched it off, looked at the dim waste of water and cloud around me, and was too exhausted to formulate a plan B. Sailing home it was, then.

I unrolled half the jib, set Karima’s nose to the Ayres and began calculating. The wind would be coming through the marina mouth towards me, and it was too narrow to tack in.

Could I get close enough to the shore to get in in one go? If not, I’d moor to the end of the pier for the night. Our second beat brought us down to below the Voehead and glory be, when I tacked the outer buoys were straight ahead with the marina mouth lined up behind. I took a deep breath and went for it.

Another golden evening: Papa Little to starboard, and the Atlantic ahead. Photo: Marsali Taylor

A slanted line between them, then Karima wavered in the wind shadow of the mouth, and I caught my breath as we slid sideways to the slip, but she recovered and forged on like a pony that had seen her stable ahead.

Once we were in the square of the marina I bore away a touch, to get speed, then tacked and rolled the jib away in one movement. The mainsail filled again and I slacked it off, letting her momentum take her up to her berth.

Marsali with her Offshore 8m Karima S. Photo: Terry Atkinson

A final turn and we were inside – in as lucky an exhibition of precision sailing as you’d see. I was just sorry nobody in Aith was awake to admire.

I stepped ashore, grabbed her rails to haul her forward and got the bow lines on. We’d made it. It was 2330. It had taken me three hours and 12 miles to do the 6.5 mile journey.

The mist still hung thick, with squally gusts, and it was drizzling hard as I hauled the main down and Velcroed the cover over it.

A bonny simmer-dim evening. I was the dim one though. If I’d got more fuel I could have used the iron topsail and been home in just over an hour – but then I’d have missed a truly memorable sail.

Lessons learned

  1. Refuel – for eventualities, and it’s better for the tank anyway.
  2. Sailing without an engine, particularly into your home marina, is a useful skill to practice.
  3. Like reefing, the time to prepare for a night on board is when you first think about it. If I’d had my downie, pillow and breakfast, I could have got Philip to pick me up in the morning, and left Karima until better weather.
  4. I was too casual about the forecast, partly because it was a ‘regular run’ in familiar waters. I should have taken it seriously.
  5. I’d have liked a tracker or better communication with Philip to keep him updated.

First published in the September 2022 issue of PBO. Send us your boating experience story and if it’s published you’ll receive the original Dick Everitt-signed watercolour which is printed with the article. Email