It was always going to be difficult, I knew this before I started. I’ve had a bit of a fascination with this place for a while after seeing photographs of the waterfall Múlafoss in a gallery in London. I’d read a post online from someone asking about kayaking in the Faroes and the reply from an irate tourist saying that it is far too dangerous and no one should ever consider it. Now, you know what happens when someone says not to do something... there is a strand of common sense in her reply and a wise warning about these turbulent seas. I put the idea to bed until it cropped up again as one of the Forecast areas, now I had to do it. I bought Justine Curgenven’s ‘This is the Sea 2’ in which she documents a trip to the islands where they are battered by strong winds, hampered by quickly changing conditions and are fighting wild tidal currents. This pretty much sums up my time here too. Nigel Foster wrote about it in the 80’s in the book ‘Raging Rivers, Stormy Seas’ which I’m able to get online for 2p and when the rare tidal streams atlas arrives at work, I assume the huge areas of red tails flowing from the Islands means ‘bad’. I later find this was the inspiration for a trip by two Norwegian kayakers that they called ‘Sea of Flames’. None of this was helping to make this area seem more approachable. Nevertheless, I booked my ticket from Iceland to the Faroes negotiating at length the taking of the kayak onboard without a car.
The ferry is operated by Smyril Line (meaning eagle) who brand themselves as ‘Explorers of the North Atlantic’ it is called the Nøronna. Now for all those who have been kind and encouraging, calling my trip an expedition and me an adventurer, here’s the reality. This bit is basically a mini cruise on a boat which boast hot tubs, a (very small) football pitch, a gym, bar and shop. It’s not my idea of a fun holiday so perhaps this is also part of the challenge! I’ve booked a couchette which is a below the waterline dorm room with 5 others, swing doors in red and green and very efficient spatial planning. The journey takes around 17 hrs and we arrive in Tórshavn at 3.30 the next morning to strong gusting winds and lashing rain. Just the welcome I’d expected. After wheeling the kayak around town for a while, I decide to tie it to some railings outside the government ministry for trade and foreign affairs, hoping they’d be understanding. I don’t want it to blow away. I crash out at the campsite after lugging bags of stuff along the road out of town in the summer lightness of the early morning.
I took an old and slightly broken iPhone with me which was a bad move for lots of reasons. it’s now struggling to hold charge and the bottom of the touch screen has stopped working. I left a new one at home and have asked a friend to send it post restant to the Faroes, after some searching, it’s found in a drawer in the main post office and I’ve just enough time to restock on food and check my plans before meeting a local kayaker who has offered to show me round their club. It’s great to see and we chat for a while about the weather, kayaking and the Faroes. I’m shown a traditional Faroese rowing boat with its thin oars and talk to a guy whose dad made it. I’m given some weather advice, largely that it’s hard to plan, only trust the forecast for 8hrs and that my best bet is to look out of the window and see what’s happening or check the weather stations and webcams around the coast. The phone reception is patchy and I’m without internet. He thinks I’m mad and as we say goodbye, waves cheerily and says ‘I hope you survive’ it feels like a test.
There’s a gap in the weather over the next few days. I’ve seen the wind Forecast and observed it is dropping. Residual swell from a storm that hit Ireland is making its way up the Atlantic and I can track the approaching big red and orange blob heading our way (red means bad again) A friend I met in Iceland gave me a great tip for an app developed by fishermen to show the tidal movement around the islands. This is a bit of a game changer as it makes tidal planning easier. Not easy or simple and not necessarily predictable but certainly more accessible than the book of flames. I decide to kayak as far as I can north away from Tórshavn to position myself to take on the exposed west coast in the weather window. This means I have a whistle stop tour of the relatively small city with its grass roofed houses. Swish bars and eateries are nestled around the two harbour areas with rowing boats and a range of fishing vessels including some large trawlers. There are noticeably more sailing boats than I’d seen in Iceland and some traditional ones with thick tree trunk masts. My friend from the kayak club tells me stories of the skipper of one of them throwing his beautiful wooden ship with blue painted hull into one of the most notorious tidal flows around the Islands for a bit of wild fun.
It’s early evening by the time I bite the bullet, leave the harbour and round the corner to the east of Streymoy, heading north, flanked by Esturoy. The strips of land are like reptiles waiting in the waters just showing their backs, the green and black colour palette like scales. Sharp shafts of light piercing through the moody grey skies highlight spots of vivid green on the hillsides. The effect is a dramatic contrast like a fresco in an Italian cathedral. I half expect to see an arm reaching out of the sky ready to save someone from eternal damnation or imagine that I’m witnessing an alien abduction. Instead, the wind gets up and it starts to rain. Then it stops and the sun comes out. Cold side winds blow down the fjords and make progress slow. I also have a building tide against me and it all gets too much as I near my target and decide to pitch the tent under a road bridge to wait until the flow starts going the other way. I’ve been paddling for nearly 7hrs and the hot drink and food I’ve fantasised about for the last few hours doesn’t materialise as my stove seems to be broken. Great. I eat some sweaty cheese and salami I’ve been carrying for a few days. Waking early, I see the water is starting to flow the other way. I pack up quickly, the flat topped mountains in the distance looking like a collection of jaunty hats.
As I approach the northern end of Streymoy, the swell starts to get big and a bit chaotic. I tell myself it’s because of the headland and the water being pushed into a thinner channel from the open sea. I thought my get out could be the surf beach at Tjørnuvik but a glance over to it as the swell builds and crashes confirms that’s not an option. I decide to push on and round the corner which reveals a sculptural wedge of a cliff rising at an angle out of the sea. Its black face looking a bit like a slice of rich chocolate cake. Puffins are bobbing up and down on the water and seem very tame considering they’ve been hunted on these islands for centuries. The looming cliffs of this exposed coast reveal themselves as I make the turn into a building sea, I realise quickly that I’m not making any progress, bad timing having put me right where I didn’t want to be, in the tidal race at its strongest flow. I keep telling myself that I’ve been in conditions like this before. Perhaps not all combined together and perhaps not on my own with a loaded boat in a hard to reach corner of the world. I head into the cliffs in search of weaker flow but wary of breaking waves. Gradually I start to make a bit of progress and taking breaks just to sit and feel the movement of the water makes me feel more at ease in this challenging sea. I’m willing the gap in the cliffs to emerge and signal my first landing opportunity. It comes after about 5hrs on the water and couldn’t be soon enough. I’m exhausted and need some food. The small town of Samsun is nestled in behind a channel cutting through rocks but isn’t visible from the beach. I know it must be there as there are people around, tourists milling around, giving a scale to this vast landscape, watching as the sea level drops and the dumping surf build. I know I can’t stay here as if the conditions change there’s a real chance I won’t be able to leave. I refuel on cheese and refocus, launching into the surf for the next few hours stretch along the cliffs. There have been patches of sea foam along this whole stretch, floating like marshmallows in the stirred up water, reminders of the recent storm. In desperation I head toward the town on Vestmanna which is marked with a camping symbol on the map. It turns out to be a dodgy trailer park with nowhere to pitch a tent. Having punched the tide all the way in, I crash out between some fishing huts on the edge of town.
Rounding the headland the next day at the corner of Vágar, the tidal flow is chaotic with eddies and streams colliding and the occasional flat section that always makes me suspicious. The swell has dropped significantly overnight and this bit of the coast is sheltered from the southwest, the flatter seas allow me to explore some caves, arches and get closer to the cackling and cawing of the bird cliffs. I’m aiming for an odd shaped, pointy headland where I have another tidal gate to meet. As I round the slightly bumpy point I am suddenly hit by a strong headwind, I know I have limited time for the crossing to Mykines before the tide starts building. Fog starts to descend and I check my bearings in case I loose sight of the Island. As I near the eastern tip, I can see a large, wide tiderace building across the channel. It’s picking up quickly and I start to push harder to head towards the point. It looks a bit like the kind of thing that in other situations, could be fun to play in. It’s big and fast and I’d prefer to avoid it. I skirt round the headland and into two further races mixed with building swell from the southwest. This continues along the layered green cliffs of south coast of Mykines which is now covered in a blanket of fog. The wind is pushing my boat inwards in the direction of breaking surf waves on the rocks below. Fulmars and guillemots come to check up on me as I desperately wait for the harbour to appear. At the last minute, it reveals itself, a small wall tucked in behind a narrow rocky cove with some sheds and huts on the cliff top, a sense of relief descends as I can feel the conditions building and know the weather is closing in. I drag the heavy boat up a slippery, narrow ledge and consider where to leave it. After clambering up the steep steps leading up the cliff there some discussions in Faroese. My friend from the kayak club in Tórshavn works here as a warden and helps negotiate. An old man with a collie dog suggests we haul it up on the trolley winch, something the bearded harbour master who looks like my uncle Bill, also agrees with. I’m glad of this as he says the waves will be over 6m tomorrow, battering the harbour wall and smashing into anything in the way.
As predicted, the wind and rain set in and there are just a couple of others camping on the hill outside the village. F9 Gusting blasts give my tent a good shake and slamming for the next two days and I spend the first of these almost entirely in my sleeping bag, trying to keep warm and stay dry. The village comes to a standstill, the other campers have taken shelter in a public toilet and the angry sea makes the small harbour look like the top of a frothy coffee. Huge swell had developed and the crashing waves pound their energy into the small inlet. There won’t be any boats for at least a few days. There is a distinct Marie Celeste feeling about the village as life stops until the next day when the sun comes out and the wind starts to drop. Slowly people emerge from their houses and various jobs start again, building sheep pens, cleaning up and preparing for the possible return of the tourist ferry the next day. I decide to take a walk to the lighthouse at the westernmost tip of the island. The wind is still strong and it’s hard to stand up in places. I’m treated to great views of the gannet colonies on the island as they glide and soar close to the cliff top.
In the early evening sun, I’m standing looking down at the harbour and meet a man who I later find out was the son of the last lighthouse keeper on the island. He’s friendly and I tell him about my project and ask him if he has any Faroese stories of the sea. I’m invited to his house and meet his wife and elderly beagle who lies on the sofa snoring whilst the World Cup is on the TV in the background. A large picture window looks out over the coast towards the point and on the opposite wall hangs a puffin catching net or hárfur. I’m given a very welcome cup of hot coffee and some rolled, pressed lamb and cheese. We chat about living here and if it feels isolated to which they both answer ‘no’. With growing tourist numbers, an expanding airport and regular helicopter services, I can understand this and as a former fisherman, he’s used to being connected across the seas. I worry that the tourist slogan of ‘unspoilt, unexplored, unbelievable’ might be a series of contradictions as others on the islands have said, the land is extensiveIy grazed and the road connections carved into the hillsides and under the sea make the place more accessible to the hoards of camper vans that the ferry disgorges here. I get the sense it’s time to leave as my host disappears outside to clean the windows but I’m quickly ushered back in and given some cured, dried lamb to try. He suggests that we watch the sun setting on the ridge above the village where he has joked that the monument to dead kayakers stands next to those lost at sea and those falling off the cliffs catching birds. I amble up and he arrives on a quad bike to tell me a Faroese legend of whales, timber and the ‘Sula’ or gannets that Mykines is proud of. I wander back down to the tent feeling lucky to have had this chance encounter and go to sleep with stories swirling around my head.
It’s been suggested by a few people that I take the ferry back with my kayak, looking at the tides, the weather and the calming seas the next day makes me think otherwise. I watch the ferry leave before we haul the kayak on the trolley winch back down to the harbour. I’ve a series of tidal gateways to meet today and the conditions are favourable with the wind now more westerly, pushing me back. I pass the sharp, pointy and photogenic islet of Tindhólmur and follow the tide along the coast of Vágar, with the weird shaped islands of Koltur and Hestur on my right. Sandoy reveals itself as the wind changes direction slightly and the tide against me starts to build. I round the headland of Streymoy in jubilant or delirious excitement and am treated to a beautiful sunset through the whipped up clouds and some interesting caves on the way back to Tórshavn. I’ve been in the kayak for over 12 hours and stumble wearily out of it, cook a quick dinner and fall asleep on the floor of the canoe club. I spend the next day fixing kit and repacking my boat ready for the ferry ride to Denmark. I’m exhausted but happy to have made it back. As expected, it’s been challenging, not just physically but mentally too. I’ve had to push harder and draw on my stubborn determination, adjust to changing situations and have faith in my ability and judgement. The exposed and hostile coastline that has been brooding in my mind has rewarded me with spectacular, unique scenery, dramatic skies, interesting seas and fast changing weather that I’ve experience directly. I board the ferry in the early morning rain, pulling the kayak behind me, pleased to have survived and thankful not to have my name added to the fictitious monument in Mykines to fallen kayakers