Cruising to the Shetland Islands: Open ocean adventure in a 25ft motorboat

A bold plan to cruise from Largs on the west coast of Scotland to the Shetland Isles in his 25ft Finnmaster shows that size is no limit to adventure for kayaker Andrew Morton.

I was brought up with boats from an early age. My father bought a Seagull outboard, without a boat. We just hired a rowing boat on holiday, fitted the outboard and off we went, exploring the myriad lochs and islands of the west coast of Scotland. I can still remember the starting technique: you unscrewed the petrol air lock, switched on the fuel, closed the choke, set the throttle to half way, wound the rope round the wheel on top and pulled on the cord, after warning all those behind you to sit well back!

In my teens, I was desperate to have my own boat but all I could afford was a kayak, or a canoe as we called it in those days. It was made of canvas and wood, and came as a kit. The handyman who assembled it for me also built a trailer for it so that I could fit it to the back of my bike and cycle the four miles to Loch Lomond and go canoeing any time I wanted. Happy days.

Why do I tell you all this? Because 58 years later I am still kayaking and all that experience on river, loch and sea has stood me in good stead for cruising on my bigger boat – Tiptoe. When I’m caught out in stormy weather or on a powerful tidal race, I’m less stressed because I’ve paddled on much worse in my kayak, and survived. A wave over the head is no big deal!


As a former kayak racer, Andrew is still a keen paddler

Paddle power

Wind the clock forward to 2005 and at last I could afford my own motorboat. It was a second-hand Bayliner, and cost me £10,000. The salesman said: “You’ll soon be on to something bigger and better!” And of course he was right. By 2011 I was onto my third boat, a brand new Finnmaster 76CA, which cost me close to 10 times the price of my Bayliner.

Recommended videos for you

But I still didn’t want to stop kayaking. In fact, I wanted to take the kayak with me on Tiptoe as well as a Brompton folding bike, to set myself up with the perfect package for exploring the British Isles. The difficulty was how to carry the kayak? That was a problem solved by an engineering friend of mine, also a kayaker.

He came to the boat one day with a pencil, paper and a few measuring devices. A few weeks later he came back with the most beautiful aluminium blocks, fashioned to fit Tiptoe’s handrail and hold the V-bars, which I use to carry my kayaks on my car. His aluminium blocks were engineered to perfection – they worked first time.


Andrew likens his 25ft Finnmaster 76CA to a mini Fairline Targa

Fortunately, Finnmaster build strong boats too and my racing kayak only weighs 9 kg. So the handrails have coped with the addition of V-bar and kayak for the nine years and the 1,200 hours I’ve put on the boat’s engines.

The Finnmaster has everything I look for in a boat: it’s a pocket rocket, a mini Fairline Targa. Not quite a gin palace, more like a wee dram. The Volvo Penta D4 engine and sterndrive give it 30 knots flat out and a very comfortable 20 to 25 knots on the plane at 1 litre per mile, so long as it’s reasonably calm.

I’m not one for hammering the boat at speed into waves. I know the hull can stand it, but I can’t. At 6 knots I get two miles to the litre, and there’s no economic speed between 6 and 20 knots. So it’s a simple choice – quick, quick, slow.

Article continues below…

Small is beautiful

Inside the fully enclosed cabin are three full-sized berths, a separate toilet with hot shower, a fridge with ice box, a two-ring cooker, which doubles as an excellent cabin heater, and two sinks, each with hot (very) and cold water. I had the shower hose extended so that I can have a hot shower on the aft deck, thereby keeping the heads bone dry.

I also specified an electric anchor winch, a bow-thruster, a chart-plotter and auto-pilot with a remote control. For single-handed cruising, these latter add-ons are absolutely essential, and worth every penny. I can sit anywhere on the boat: at the bow with my feet dangling over the front, and steer it with my remote.

What a joy that is, out on the open ocean with a following swell, watching the waves and the blue sky, with gannets diving and guillemots fluttering away from the boat as she cruises along at 6 knots accompanied only by the comforting rumble of the diesel engine and the swish and swirl of the bow parting the waves. I’m an addict.


A bespoke carrying rack for his kayak allows him to explore Scotland’s coastline to the full

Do I always cruise alone? Well, usually yes, if it amounts to more than a day or two away. But I do love taking out family and friends for day trips. There are so many beautiful spots to visit on the west coast of Scotland, and when the weather is good, it ranks as one of the best boating experiences in the world.

Why not a motorhome then? That’s easy: crowded roads, packed campsites, all resulting from over-tourism. Add to that the enormous sense of adventure, setting off on a trip to new horizons on the open ocean with an almost certain promise of a deserted anchorage in a quiet bay, hidden on a remote island, or in one of the many sea lochs which abound on the west coast of Scotland.

However, if you want a bit of company, and some stores, then there are plenty of welcome, safe marinas to choose from. It’s a win-win situation, and I’ve made much use of it over the past ten years, visiting many of the islands of the Inner Hebrides, Rathlin Island off Ireland, and a few years ago, the Isle of Man. My aim is to get to the Isles of Scilly one day, and going to the Isle of Man gave me the confidence to take it on.


Andrew’s Finnmaster 76CA is small enough for cruising solo but big enough for adventures

But last year I undertook my biggest adventure yet. My daughter had been working as a doctor in New Zealand for nine years but in 2019 decided to accept a post in Lerwick, Shetland. I’d always fancied trying to reach Shetland on my boat but now I had the perfect excuse.

So I started making plans for a week-long trip from my home berth in Largs on the west coast of Scotland to Scalloway on Shetland some 130nm out into the North Atlantic. The route would take me via the Crinan and Caledonian canals to Inverness on the east coast then north via Caithness and the infamous Pentland Firth to the Orkneys and on to Shetland. It would be a long trip for a 25ft boat but when a settled spell appeared on the long-range forecast I was confident I could make it.

What a boon these forecasts are to passage planning, so long as you have some flexibility in choosing your cruising dates. I have four different weather apps on my phone, plus one recommended by the Shetland boating fraternity: Windfinder. Surprisingly, I was rarely out of phone signal all the way from Largs to Shetland.


A folding Brompton bike and inflatable tender completes Andrew’s arsenal of transport toys

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail, so the saying goes. So what planning went into this project? I bought the tidal atlas for Shetland and Orkney as well as the Clyde Cruising Club directions for the NE of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland – I already had all the information I needed for the west coast.

I loaded up with 220 litres of diesel and checked where I could buy more en route. I’m a bit OCD about diesel and only buy the white stuff, which makes the planning stage even more vital. I have a 20-litre plastic tank and a strong folding trolley, which is easy to push to and from any garage.

I don’t use red diesel because I found it made the engine take longer to start and emitted blue smoke when it did. Car diesel is more expensive but burns cleaner, and in a small boat, I can cope with the chore of finding a place to fill up.


A glorious sunny morning and an idyllic mooring spot at the entrance to Crinan canal

When it comes to food, I keep it simple, with no cooking, even though there’s a Wallas hob on board. I tend to rely on basics such as bread, fruit, tea and coffee, cereal, yoghurt, milk, cheese, along with dried fruit, honey, nuts, biscuits, cod liver oil and some small bottles of wine and G&T in the fridge – I’m not a total health freak!

If I do fancy a proper cooked meal with all the trimmings, I just eat out, which is always possible and a bit of a treat. On the way up I ate ashore at Crinan, Fort Augustus and Kirkwall, which I found was more than enough during the eight days it took me to reach the Shetlands.

I left Largs late afternoon on 5 July for Tarbert in Loch Fyne. I had arranged for my son and grandson to help me through the Crinan Canal at the weekend. So that limited my choice of weather a bit, but overall, it looked fairly settled.


The long sea passage between the two canals

As luck would have it, the roughest passage of the entire trip was this first leg from Largs to Tarbert in the ‘shelter’ of the Clyde estuary, where I was running straight into a stiff Force 4/5 breeze for most of the way, limiting me to 5 knots, and giving me a problem when my kayak came loose on the V-bars. That was a tricky moment, out on deck in big waves, trying to tie a kayak down. Life is like that on a boat. There’s always something to catch out the unwary. But that’s part of the challenge, and the fun.

When I’m out on deck and the boat is moving, I always carry a PLB. If I fall in the water I press a button and I’m rescued. That’s the theory, but of course the big problem with falling in the water off the west coast of Scotland is hypothermia, not drowning. I try to mitigate this by always keeping one hand on a rail.

Canal country

I reached Tarbert late in the evening but still in daylight thanks to the long days at this time of year in Scotland – sunset is after 10pm for quite a few weeks in the summer. The next day saw me through the Crinan Canal with my son and grandson helping. I’ve done it a few times, and have had no problems, but always assisted. Two days later I reached Corpach, where I anchored for the night before entering the Caledonian Canal – solo.


Taking a breather at Loch Lochy on the Caledonian canal

I awoke at 6am with sunbeams streaming into the cabin. I didn’t bother with breakfast, relying on the short blast across the loch to blow the cobwebs away before tackling the Caledonian Canal. The locks are much bigger than those on the Crinan, allowing small cruise ships like the Lord of the Glens access to this heavenly cruising ground.

Once out of the locks and onto the lochs, I sped up to 20 knots to make up time. The advice is that it takes three days to get through the Caly but I wanted to do it in two. I made good progress and stopped for the night at Fort Augustus, where I found a pontoon at the top of the staircase of five locks leading down to Loch Ness. I feasted on takeaway fish and chips, eaten on board in the dying embers of the day.

The next morning I awoke to rain but thankfully no wind. Before tackling the locks, I wheeled my jerry can to the garage and back twice so that I was able to motor onto Loch Ness with a full tank. The loch was misty, dull and cold – making monster-spotting even harder than usual – but I whizzed along happily at 20 knots and was soon at the north-east end of the loch, entering the canal again to descend to the sea at Inverness.


Helmsdale Harbour on the route up the East Coast

I made it to the last lock at 5.30pm and was the last boat to escape to the sea. What a sense of freedom and adventure, firing up the engine and speeding out onto the Moray Firth on my way to the Shetland Islands. It was late in the evening now, so I anchored for the night in Cromarty Firth opposite the village of Cromarty.

As it was still light, I launched the kayak and paddled round the narrow entrance. I find an evening paddle or bike ride such an uplifting experience, especially after a long but not very physically active day at the helm.

Heading North

The journey from Cromarty to Shetland took four days, and that included a day off on Orkney. And it wasn’t as if I was going flat out, either. In truth, I was pegged back considerably by a good old Scottish haar (that’s mist for readers south of the border!) The bonus was that it came with windless conditions, which were appreciated, especially for crossing the infamous Pentland Firth.


Long summer days are a bonus this far north

On the way north I had to take it slowly and stick to relatively shallow water to minimise the chance of meeting other boats. The visibility was never less than 100 metres and at least it was calm, so it was doable but tiring and not a bundle of laughs. All achieved with the aid of a chartplotter and extreme caution.

On the way north I checked out Helmsdale and Wick, where I was met by the most friendly harbour masters. I cruised from Cromarty to South Ronaldsay, Orkney in one day, including two stops and a crossing of the Pentland Firth in calm conditions.

I had the day to myself at Kirkwall because I was waiting for Emily to join me off the Shetland ferry in the late evening. So Tiptoe lay quiet for once, and I took to shopping, filling up with fuel and exercising on my folding Brompton bike and in my kayak. That’s the beauty of a motorboat. You can get to where you want, in comfort, quickly and easily and then explore on foot, on bike and in kayak. There’s nothing to beat it.


The chapel built by Italian prisoners of war on South Ronaldsay, Orkney Islands

Orkney memories

As the weather was acceptable, with some sunshine, a gentle breeze and no rain I settled on a cycle run to the Italian chapel built by prisoners of war during World War II. The trip took me over two hours but was well worth it. The roads are good, there’s not much traffic and the islands are low-lying, all of which makes for easy cycling. I arrived at 5.15pm, expecting it to be closed. But to my surprise and delight, not only was it open till 6pm but I had the place to myself. Result!

I found the experience deeply moving: these were decent, kind-hearted, generous folks on both sides – Italian and British, prisoner and guard – living together in relative harmony, on these remote, windswept islands so many years ago. The interior of the chapel was painted by a particularly talented prisoner of war called Domenico Chiocchetti and is exquisite. In 1960, long after the war was over, he returned to restore his work, leaving the following message for visitors.

“Dear Orcadians – my work at the chapel is finished. In these three weeks I have done my best to give again to the little church that freshness which it had 16 years ago. The chapel is yours – for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality. I shall remember you always, and my children shall learn from me to love you too.”


Andrew makes the most of Tiptoe’s shallow draught to find a sheltered corner in Fair Isle’s small harbour

The last leg of the journey from Orkney to Shetland across 100 nautical miles of Atlantic ocean was remarkably uneventful. We left at 4.30am in the gentle light of the dawn to catch the tide and the calm conditions, which permitted us to cruise at 20 knots for an hour or so when the mist lifted. We stopped briefly at Fair Isle for lunch and to check the harbour for my return journey, before pressing on for Scalloway.

We saw many different birds as we crossed the open ocean including gannets, little auks, skuas, terns, fulmars, puffins, cormorants and thousands of guillemots but no mammals bar the ubiquitous seals, even though I had seen three separate pods of dolphins when leaving the Moray Firth.

We soon neared Fitful Head and cruised on up the west coast of Shetland before arriving in Scalloway at 4.30pm, almost exactly 12 hours after leaving Kirkwall. All in all, it was a great experience. I learned such a great deal and the journey proved once and for all that you don’t need a big boat to take on a big adventure, just good planning and the time to take things at your own pace.


A glorious sunny morning and Tiptoe arrives safe and sound in Scalloway, Shetland

Trip log from Largs to Scalloway

Date From To nm Litres
5 Jul Largs Tarbert 25 16
6 Jul Tarbert Crinan 18 11
7 Jul Crinan Corpach 56 46
8 Jul Corpach Fort Augustus 25 17
9 Jul Fort Augustus Cromarty 42 31
10 Jul Cromarty S Ronaldsay 85 63
11 Jul S Ronaldsay Kirkwall 49 29
13 Jul Kirkwall Scalloway 100 73
TOTAL 400 286

First published in the July 2020 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.