Paddling the sea of flames

A few minutes ago I comfortably took pictures of our bumpy approach of Bardid, the north-westerly headland of the island of Vagar in Mykinesfjordur. To avoid the even rougher water in the sound, we paddle close inshore. But as soon as we try to go around the headland, things start to change rapidly. We find ourselves paddling against a very strong current. Our timing should have been perfect. We are right there at 'slack'. Give or take an hour, we should not encounter a current as strong as this. And moreover no tide-race should be running right now. But what we see in the sound is definitively a tide-race with a northerly wind force four Beaufort. Nico and Pieter reckon that we might be paddling against an eddy and veer-off to check-out the current in the rougher water further off-shore. But almost immediately they are swiftly swept back and intermittently disappear from sight between the waves. So far for the eddy theory! My mood changes abruptly; this is serious! It takes them about fifteen minutes to get back to me; again paddling close inshore. The end of the headland is a mere hundred metres away, beyond which lies a bay and expected 'safety'. At first our progress is measured in metres. Then, after paddling flat out for a little more than half an hour we can hardly notice any progress at all. The small exposed rock on my right-hand side, that by now I am so familiar with, is still there... The tide has evidently turned against us in full force. Now, during the last stage of our futile attempt to pass the headland, the memories of last evenings planning session in the small town of Bour come back to haunt me.

We had only three days left on our twelve day trip in the Faroer islands. We originally wanted to visit the exposed island of Mykines across Mykinesfjordur. The tiny harbour on Mykines is very exposed to Atlantic swell. A small ferry crosses over to the island, but in the past it was not uncommon that visitors got stuck on the island for a few days before the ferry could pick them up again. Nowadays a helicopter picks-up stranded people. Upon evaluating all options and risks we decided not to cross to the island of Mykines. We did not want to risk getting weather bound and missing the ferry back home. Or worse, making a flawed judgement to try to leave the island in marginal paddling conditions. At one time during last evenings trip planning, Pieter stated a 'what if' that made me answer: "If you take 'that' (big Atlantic swell from the south to west) into account we can never leave Bour by kayak..."

On June 22nd, we started our trip in Kirkjubour on the south-western tip of the main island of Streymoy. This location bears a lot of historic significance to the people of the Faroer islands. The farm house, with a traditional grass roof, is in the same family since the year 1550. And further back are the ruins of St. Magnus cathedral built around 1300. Very apparent now are the new conservation works to prevent further deterioration.

We are only one day in the Faroer islands and we are already 'hit in the face' with, for us, a gloomy tradition of the people of the Faroer islands. On the slipway lies a dorsal fin of what can only be a Pilot, or Grind, whale. Pods of Grind whales are traditionally hunted by the people of the Faroer islands and whole communities join-in when a pod is sighted. All international efforts of environmentalists have so far been in vain. The people of the Faroer islands stick to this tradition. As a visitor of this country I merely register this for now.

The winds are forecasted to be north-easterly for the next few days. This gives us a good start for paddling south and crossing to Suduroy, the southernmost island of the Faroer islands. All our trip planning evolves upon the tidal stream atlas. This booklet graphically shows the direction of the current, the extent of tide-races and some 'special danger areas'; all in relation to the 'Vestfallskyrrindi Suduroyfjordur': the end of the west-going current in Suduroyfjordur. Tide-races and eddies appear to be everywhere apart from one or two hours around local 'slack'. I sealed a black-and-white photo copy of the tidal stream atlas for use on my deck; the tide-races show as grey area's; much less intimidating than the original colour: red.

After our first day on the water we stop at Skalavik on the Island of Sandoy. Here we are directed to what is undoubtedly the most beautiful 'mini campground' on the whole of the Faroer islands. A six by six meter grassy patch is fenced-in behind a small building. What we had mistaken for a rest-room, telephone and bus-stop is actually a meeting place for the elderly. The walls are covered with framed old black-and-white pictures of local scenes and people with names and dates. The caretaker turns-on the heating, leaves the door open for us and returns later with a weather chart and a tide-table. After he had learned that we wanted to make the crossing to Suduroy he wanted to make sure that we knew what we where doing. But we came prepared, so we thought. After dinner, the whole table is covered with charts and the tidal stream atlas; planning our next-day crossing of Suduroyfjordur; check, check, double-check.

We go ashore for lunch at Dalur on Sandoy. A car stops and a couple, Wilhelmina and Hilmar Larson get out. They tell about a group of three Dutch paddlers that had visited the Faroer islands in 1997 and that stayed at their house. Wilhelmina shows a letter and a hand-drawn chart of their route and asks if we know them. As soon as she turns-over the envelope we read a very familiar name and respond: "Yes, we know Hans!". It was Hans, by far the most experienced Dutch expedition sea kayaker, that as a sea kayaking instructor, inspired Nico, Pieter and me to start planning our own trips abroad.

There is high anxiety related to the crossing of Dimunarfjordur and Suduroyfjordur. Hans had visited the Faroer islands before in 199?. Then he did the crossing in bad visibility deteriorating to dense fog. Without the availability of GPS and only relying on compass bearings they encountered very strong currents near the time of 'slack water' around, what they thought, Littla Dimun and plotted their course accordingly to Suduroy. Only to discover the next day that they did not quite made land-fall on Suduroy where they had expected it. If they had not made Sandvik bay, they would have been swept around the most notorious headland of the whole of the Faroer islands. An area very prominently marked in the tidal stream atlas as a 'special danger area'.

Our crossing of Dimunarfjordur is slower than we anticipated. To give us all the options for a safe crossing of Suduroyfjordur we paddled the first part against the current. With the wind against tide conditions we find ourselves paddling for two hours in lumpy water. We get a first impression of what the 'reds' in the tidal stream atlas mean; tide-races on a grand scale. At Stora Dimun we decide not to cross-over to Suduroy, as we are already behind schedule. We had read in the pilot that there is a landing on Stora Dimun. And at Dalur it was confirmed that we could land there. But when we finally find the place where we can get ashore we look-up at a 350 meter cliff face. If there is any route up it will be a dangerous one; the grassy flats on top of the island are unreachable in our opinion. The rocks we are on now are not very suited for an overnight camp, not even thinking what would happen when the wind changes direction. We decide to leave with the next south-going tide. At 23:30 we set off. At this time of year it still does not get totally dark. Now the tide is less strong than we anticipated for. This gives us the safe option to enter the bay to Hvalba. While I 'scan' the horizon for the perfect spot to go ashore a scraping sound announces my landfall at 02:00. Distances are very difficult to judge in twilight.

Between Hvalba and Frodba, a stretch we originally planned to paddle last night, we encounter increasing swell. Reflected waves off the high vertical cliffs and 'boomers' over offshore reefs create 'entertaining' paddling conditions in sunny daylight already. Am I glad we cut it short last night!

The increased swell is the early warning to the strong winds that the weather reports forecast for the next days. Shortly after arriving at Porkeri, we meet Jon. He gives us the key of the Bethania community building to use when we want a dry and warm place to wait out the coming storm. The last weekend of June marks the most important holiday for the people on Suduroy. Festivities include a rowing boat competition. Team rowing is the national competition sport in the Faroer islands. Many towns host races during the summer month and the final race is held in the capital Torshavn on the National holiday in July. The ferry unloads the rowing boats for the competition. Youth groups wearing their school uniforms and accompanying head-wear cling together; one hand holding a friend and the other hand holding a bottle of the national brand of beer. Nico and I take the bus to the Akraberg lighthouse; the southernmost point of the Faroer islands. From up the cliffs we awe at the ebb current running into the south-easterly force seven to eight Beaufort winds creating massive overfalls. But in-between all of the breaking seas the safe route close inshore, though off-limits today, still can be clearly identified.

After two days in Porkeri we decide it is safe enough to try to go around the Akraberg headland. The wind and swell have dropped considerably. The passage of the southernmost tip of Faroer islands is unforgettable. Atlantic swell, tidal current, reflected waves, reef breaks, deep blue ocean, lush green land, white cotton clouds in a clear blue sky, sheer cliff faces, the lighthouse above, puffins all around, more birds, magic! At Sumba a guy is frantically waving at us from shore. It is Jakup from the Torshavn sea kayak club. While working on Suduroy he heard about a group of sea kayakers. He just barely missed us leaving Porkeri this morning and has finally caught-up with us. Jakup treats us with "Danish" and feeds us with local knowledge to help us on the rest of our trip.

Our aim for today is to continue to Famjin. In-between lies Beinisford, one of the most beautiful stretches of exposed coastline in the Faroer islands. We cannot be more lucky today. White clouds ooze down over the 600 meter high vertical cliffs as silk veils. Stacks, caves and arches everywhere. Swell explodes over rocky outcrops into high white fountains of spray. My senses work overtime and are near overload. I try to catch some of all this with my camera, which I should know is just a futile attempt. After we arrive in Famjin I take the time to reflect the day and watch how a cloud drifts over the high cliffs. Puffs of white appear out of the blue in front of the cliff and join the cloud. A golden sunset marks the end of surely one of my most memorable sea kayaking days ever.

Another high anxiety day is in front of us. Not only do we have to go around the notorious northern headland of Suduroy, the same tide should bring us all the way to Sandoy by the crossing of Suduroyfjordur. Jakup had pointed-out where we might get ashore for a break on this 'no landing zone' stretch of coastline. But at this location, surging swell makes us think twice before attempting a landing for any other reason than an emergency. So we float around for an hour for lunch and paddle through arches and caves to wait for 'slack' to get us around the headland. Near the headland we are 'picked-up' by the tidal current. On this windless day with almost no swell, I find myself into a large disturbed circular water movement with sharp eddy lines. Does the 'special danger area' in the tidal stream atlas mark a 'whirlpool'? Just another surprise! What's next? We should have the tidal current with us, but surfing down small standing waves can only mean one thing: paddling a tide-race against the current. We're not going anywhere, so forget 'slack', we have at least three knots current against us. Well, is this than a tide-race in an eddy? Pieter probes the current further off-shore to no avail. Do we have to go a mile off-shore to get favourable current? This does not correlate with the tidal stream atlas that shows the current arrows close inshore. We decide to stick very close inshore and just take the grunt of paddling against some current. The decision is quickly made not to cross to Sandoy today but to go to Sandvik instead. The tidal conditions are just too confusing to make a committing crossing. We already checked and double-checked all possible common mistakes like daylight saving time, year and month.

In Sandvik we are awaited by a group of children. Jakuppalli is fifteen years old and speaks perfect English. He shows a lot of interest in our sea kayaks and tells that he has been in a sea kayak once before in Denmark. This is their holiday and soon they go play with an inflatable dinghy near the rocks in their normal clothes. A mobile phone is saved just in time. With an on-shore wind, the dinghy bounces with the waves on the round rocks, an oar breaks, the dinghy capsizes, they swim and are having fun. We can put our tents up on the grassy slopes but we are asked not to wander about too much as not to trample the uncut grass.

Sandvik is the location of a very important part of the 'Faroer saga'; a collection of tales that was carried-over from generation to generation by story-telling. Almost a 'must-read' for every visitor to the Faroer islands. One of the heroes in the saga, Sigmundur Brettison, fled an attack on Stora Dimun by swimming across Dimunarfjordur to Sandvik with his brother. His brother died during the crossing and Sigmundur landed exhausted and weakened at Sandvik, only to be killed by a man who went after his golden arm bracelet and then hid Sigmundur's body. The murder was eventually discovered and the man put to justice. Every now and again someone swims across the four kilometres channel negotiating the fierce currents and re-enacting this major historical feat.

Next morning, while we pack our sea kayaks, Jakuppalli is there again. Nico and Pieter slide my kayak with Jakuppalli in it over the wooden 'steps' of the concrete slipway into the water. He has indeed paddled before. He has no problems with the feathered paddle. I follow him in Nico's kayak and after paddling around the harbour it is time to return Jakuppalli to shore. He tells us that there is indeed a way-up to the flat summits of both Stora Dimun and Littla Dimun but that only Faroer people know of it and are 'bold' enough to walk the precipitous route. Furthermore he has surprisingly detailed knowledge of the timings of the currents and tide-races around Sandvik. We start on our crossing to Sandoy in the north-east.

First the tidal current takes us south-east. Then, with a considerable swell running, the south-east tidal current hits and confluences with a north-west current through a patch of rough water. From there we aim for a long ferry glide that brings us north. And finally, cross our fingers, the tide should turn and sweep us right into the channel to Sandur. The GPS tells us that we do not maintain our longitude. We are swept north/north-west. My anxiety is kept in check by frequently seeing those 'comical' puffins bob on the swell; a good-luck charm? Once we are west of Skugvoy island we are slowly regaining on longitude. We are reasonably contend with our S-shape route towards Sandur on a fixed compass bearing, although we do not get help of the current on the last part. But the 'surprise' of the day has still yet to come. During the crossing the big Atlantic swell from the south-west merely moved us up and down. Now we can see the swell steepen to Hawaii-sized waves that curl and crash onto a reef in the entrance of Sandur bay. We have to paddle more than half-way across the bay before we can even consider an entry into the bay. Thinking of fog, always a risk and sudden danger in the Faroer islands, makes my heart go pounding. Realizing that in fog, we could have made a very, very serious mistake here...

We tried to leave Sandur the next day. That is, we left alright, but returned a few hours later with our 'tail between our legs'. Swell was still running high and we planned our passage of the south-west headland of Sandur at a time where the tidal stream atlas showed no 'reds'. Half a mile before the headland the shape of the waves starts to change. Ripples, whirls and rounded 'green' waves are the tell-tale signs of a tide-race forming. What we see beyond the headland worries us a lot. We make-out large patches of green-white disturbances in an otherwise dark ocean as far as we can see on this grey and rainy day. We quickly escape into the eddy behind the headland. A very close call and the thought of fog enters my mind again. Returning against the current and making the detour around the reef and back we are in Sandur.

We got stuck in Sandur for another day. The wind picked-up to a north-easterly force six Beaufort. The harbourmaster gives us his piece of the local knowledge puzzle: if boats move in his very sheltered harbour, than swell is running big to create hazardous conditions at the headland; regardless of what the tidal currents add to that...

When we finally leave Sandur, the swell is totally gone and we can paddle over the reef in the entrance of the bay. We aim to be at the headland before the tide turns. This way we can probe around the headland and when we don't like it are swept back out of it instead of into it. We should have done this known safe approach the first time around, but we were obviously too focussed on avoiding the 'reds' in the tidal stream atlas. Rounding the headland is a 'piece of cake'. We paddle along cliffs dotted with thousands of birds; kittywake colonies. Today's destination is Koltur, a small island off Streymoy. Without swell, Skopunerfjordur looks like a wide, but very swift flowing, river. We have to paddle as close to the cliffs as possible to make any headway. And we get our adrenaline rush from paddling at full strength around small headlands. In these 'sheltered' conditions the formidable strength of the current is less intimidating than it would have been in more exposed waters. In Skopun we slide our kayaks up the wooden strips on the slipway and over lunch wait for the 'perfect' tide to bring us to Koltur. Upon landing on Koltur we are immediately invited for coffee. We do not even have time to change out of all of our paddling clothes. Even before the coffee is poured we are told that dinner is in half an hour. While Pieter is 'time-managing' the setting-up of his tent we are invited to stay in the house overnight. Bjorn and Luka are the only residents on Koltur and share this island with a sheep dog, sheep, some cows and thousands of puffins. This weekend they are visited by their daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. There used to be two farms on the island. Now Bjorn has started to restore the typical historical grass-roof buildings to their original state for visitors to experience Faroer way-of-life up-close. We are overwhelmed by the hospitality of Bjorn and Luka. Breakfast consists of a whole range of home-prepared sausages, dried sheep meat and fish. Outside, under the roof of the shed, hang thick blackened strips of meat to dry...

Sunday at noon we say good-bye to Bjorn and Luka and are on our way to Bour, from where a day later we find ourselves loosing the battle to get around the Bardid headland. We turn the kayaks around in retreat and experience yet another surprise. By now the ebb current generates a strong inshore eddy that is against us. The alternative is to go further out, but the sea is quite rough out there. When we are clear of the strongest eddy current, Pieter shares a sobering thought. Not able to continue against the ebb current, almost not able to return because of the strong eddy and an uninviting rough tide-race further out; we might have been stuck at Bardid for hours.

We almost had gotten used to daily surprises during this paddling trip in the Faroer islands. On the water the conditions where not always what the tidal-stream atlas prepared us for. On the land we where overwhelmed with the hospitality of the people of the Faroer islands. But this day had undoubtedly the biggest 'surprise' for us in store. Here we are then, back in Bour. Has our preparation and judgement been right or wrong? All our experience of previous trips, our paddling in strong tidal currents and rough tide-races elsewhere for fun had only partly prepared us for this. The 'reds' in the 'Streymkort fyri Foroyar' only now makes all sense; we have been paddling the sea of flames.

Sunday 20 June 2004 (Hanstholm - Tórshavn)

Monday 21 June (Tórshavn - Kirkjubøur)

Tuesday 22 June (Kirkjubøur - Skálavik)

Wednesday 23 June (Skálavik - Hvalba)

Thursday 24 June (Hvalba - Fro­ba)

Friday 25 June (Fro­ba - Porkeri)

Saturday 26 June (Porkeri)

Sunday 27 June (Porkeri)

Monday 28 June (Porkeri - Fámjin)

Tuesday 29 June (Fámjin - Sandvík)

Wednesday 30 June (Sandvík - Sandur)

Thursday 1 July (Sandur - Salthøvdi - Sandur)

Friday 2 July (Sandur)

Saturday 3 July (Sandur - Koltur)

Sunday 4 July (Koltur - Bøur)

Monday 5 July (Bøur - Bar­flesjar - Bøur)

Tuesday 6 July (Bøur - Tórshavn)

Wednesday 7 July (Tórshavn)

Thursday 8 July (Tórshavn)

Friday 9 July (Tórshavn - Hanstholm)


- Faroe Islands Tourist Guide

- Kirkjubøur (Roykstovan)

- Koltur

© A.M. Schoevers