instruction and tours
about nigel foster
contact us
sea kayaks
Video clips!

Nigel Foster of the Burwash Centre on the 1980 Expedition to the Faeroes  

Published February 1981, in “Canoeing Magazine", in UK  

“It’s not the twenty footers from behind that I mind, just the fifteen footers from the side…” It’s not often that I agree with someone’s estimation of wave height if it’s put above four feet, but for once I agreed with Len’s “fifteen footers”. There wasn’t a lot to be seen from the kayaks because most of the time was spent somewhere in the valleys beneath the crests, and during the brief moments on the top one could only really see the valley as far as the next crest. 

This was the “break-in” day for the seven paddlers accompanying me to the Faeroe Islands, and we were on the east side of the island of Nolsoy amidst a good swell complicated by cliff rebound and considerable tidal stream. The following day by popular demand we climbed the highest peak on the Faeroes, Slaettaratindur, at 2,894 feet, “to see if we could see over the crests”.   The expedition was part of a progressive programme of training for teachers in East Sussex carried out at Burwash Place Outdoor Centre, and was intended to advance the skills and widen the experience of BCU senior instructors in the area. (NB in 2008, that translates into BCU level 3 coaches) Linked with the kayaking would be environmental studies, so important a factor in the enjoyment of sea expedition work. Transport was by minibus and trailer to Scrabster in Scotland, a two day journey which was broken by a night at Phil May’s house in Cumbria where we collected yet another red and yellow Vyneck, bringing the total on the trailer up to five.     

Swirling tidal currents 

From Scrabster the ferry Smiryl took us to Thorshavn, the tiny capital of the Faeroes, from which we stretched our travel-tired bodies by paddling over to the island of Nolsoy, well known for the swirling tidal currents around its northern point. Having investigated the island’s turbulent east coast via its northern point, we crept back to the shelter of the west coast by a breath-catching route which took us as close as possible to heavy waves breaking over a submerged ledge in order to reach the eddies close under the cliffs. A few yards further out, as one person discovered, the tide was running at more than five knot, necessitating a frantic paddle to get back again.          

Having “warmed up” to the paddling and stretched our legs in the hills, we crossed the island and departed from the charming village of Kirkjubour. We had a gentle and short paddle to Koltur with tidal assistance. Kirkjubour has an unfinished cathedral started some 800 years ago. Apparently this proved so costly to the inhabitants that they killed the Bishop and nobody has taken on that job there since!

From Koltur, on the next day, we crossed the tide race to Hestur to look at some impressive stacks on its southwest facing coast. Crossing the race once more, we paddled the length of Koltur against a tidal eddy that logically should have been going in the opposite direction until we reached the island’s northern tip where we explored two long caves. One of these followed a weakness in the rock for well over 100 yards before turning sharp left. From the sound of crashing waves and the breeze blowing out of the cave it was evident there must be a route right through, but nobody braved the darkness of that narrow passage…  

From the cave we headed out into Vagafjordur on a route that kept us out from land until we were well past southward tide stream that followed land. Closing on land we picked up our northerly stream, and were rapidly pushed up to Kvivik with very little effort on our part to complete our 16 mile journey.   

 Archaeological remains             

Our camp site at Kvivik was directly alongside the archaeological remains of a Viking farm by the shore. Here we met up with our walking group, Frank and Bernie. Frank, a retired teacher and a leading authority on windmills and watermills, was hoping to see some of the remaining direct drive watermills on the islands. One of the most primitive in design and recently restored is situated at Kvivik and Frank explained to us how it worked.     

It was from Kvivik that Andy, one of the paddlers, unfortunately had to head for home due to business commitments. He left his kayak and equipment in storage space under the Kvivik post office to await collection at the end of our trip, and caught a bus back to Thorshavn. The bus service is something new to the islands. When I visited the islands on my way to Iceland in 1977, there were no buses at all. Changes at present on the Faeroes are rapid.           

Midvagur on the island of Vagur was our next destination. Although we were rain-drenched from loading the kayaks the paddle was exciting and we didn’t notice when the rain eased off. We headed into the main tide stream going southwest out of Vestmannasund, which in places reached a speed of ten knots. Lacking any detailed information on the tide rates, we had to keep sight of land for long enough to gain some idea of our speed before heading out into the mist. Wave height increased dramatically as we encountered a wind over tide situation and then a meeting of two tide streams. After a series of compass courses designed to keep us in a position to make best advantage of the tide, land loomed out of the mist ahead in the shape of Trolkenufingur, roughly translated as the “witch’s finger”. We felt the name was particularly pertinent as the overfalls at that point were dramatic, with kayaks occasionally vanishing under broken crests to surface like submarines through the other side. The wave height was enormous and one had a long steady downhill paddle before a change in angle and the long uphill paddle to the next crest. It was hard work keeping in sight of everyone even though we were close together. The conditions off the headland didn’t last for long as the powerful tide rushed us past, and we had more controlled conditions beneath the cliff from here into Midvagur. Accompanied by the booming of seas into the caves were long signs of relief and occasional outbursts of tension-relieving laughter from certain paddlers.     

Not the most attractive place.

Midvagur, where we picked up a tame shag which seemed to enjoy taking a ride on the backs of the kayaks, we decided was not the most attractive place on the Faeroes, and we left the next day for Bour. Just as we were leaving with a weather forecast and tide predictions that I considered just about ideal, (a light south-west wind and the tide stream moving northwest, both with us) a local man told two o the party that if we set out for Bour, we’d never come back, because the seas today would be too rough for small boats. He said that many boats had been lost along that’s section of coast.  

Whereas I appreciated his concern and opinion, I felt he didn’t have our experience of kayaks and their capabilities and that although we might not return; we at least would reach our destination of Bour instead. However there were a couple of apprehensive faces in the party as we reached Presttangi, where two tide streams meet and the sea was thrown into considerable confusion. Once around the corner, I reasoned, the sea should become simpler and the strong tide should carry us quickly along the remaining 13 miles to the next landing place. Return, once around the corner, would be out of the question. We would be totally committed.          

Big seas, but not breaking  

We carried on. True the seas were big, but not breaking and the party relaxed more as they got used to the size of the swell again. Len, our ornithologist pointed out shearwaters, gannets, kittiwakes, puffins, fulmars and black guillemots galore, and jokes started flying. The cliffs reached higher and higher, topping 1500 feet before we reached the islands stringing out toward Mychines. Mykines, famous for its bird colonies is protected by notorious tide races and usually hidden by fog. Today was no exception. Tindholmur and Gasholmur however stood clear and impressive, Tindholmur with its towering pinnacles. Tide races between these islands are locally notorious, but there is apparently a deepish channel between Vagur and an off-lying stack and archway in the gap between Vagur and Tindholmur. Leading the way I could see waves breaking right across the gap between the stack and Tindholmur, and could only see our route at the last minute. I shot through the gap and broke out into a large eddy on the right to see the rest of the group through. The peaky and broken water swirled round in the enormous eddy and also for a mile or so straight across the fjord. The centre of the eddy was a small area, glassy calm. We headed across the fjord using the tide, then along the shore to land at Bour; probably the most picturesque village we had stopped at. We had taken 2 ½ hours to cover 14 miles, and our paddling pace had been by no means fast.

Bour was to be our base for the next couple of days, during which I planned to take the more advanced paddlers over to Mykines by kayak. The rest planned to visit the island by ferry. The kayak trp however was aborted due to a combination of fog and the unavailablility of accurate information on the tide races in Mykinesfjordur. However the journey as far as we went was eventful with me capsizing whilst taking a photograph on a calm sea, much to the delight of my two companions. (I did roll)

Blowing gently from the north      

We had calculated the tide to have a northerly drift through the islands when we started but in fact when we paddled out from Gasholmur toward Mykines we were taken south. The wind was also blowing gently from the north, not as forecast from the south. There had been no sign of the ferry which does not run if there are signs of bad weather approaching. However, the crossing between Gasholmur and Mykines is only 2 ½ miles, and 6 ½ miles to the only possible landing spot, so we were not particularly anxious until the sky above Mykines turned a sickly tallow colour, low cloud started pouring over its mountains, and thick fog banks began rolling across the sea toward us from the north. We had the choice between continuing and chancing having to wait for hours until the next period of slack water in order to use a compass bearing with some confidence on our return journey, or turning back now.       

The Admiraly Pilot says of Mykinesfjordur; “because of its relative shallowness the tide streams in Mykinesfjordur are very strong, causing tremendous tide races and violent turbulence. During the strength of both streams there are also very violent, but irregular, eddies in mid-channel in Mykinesfjordur.” The only place the Pilot states actual tide rates is when it describes another sound, Sundelaget where “tidal streams run very strongly… attaining a rate of about 12 knots in both directions at spring.” The inference was that once the tide started running it would be quite rapid. We were at spring tides at the moment. To return during a running tide on a compass bearing in the fog with the information we had would undoubtedly be more “miss” than “hit”.           

Tide increased in strength         

We decided to return straightaway. As we headed back we used transit marks, lining up two peaks on Mykines behind us in order to ensure a straight course for Gasholmur. The tide rapidly increased in strength, accompanied by increasingly large waves on which we surfed whilst heading only a few degrees east of north in order to ferry glide in a direction slightly south of east. Eventually we reached the eddy behind Gasholmur and stopped for a while to watch the waves rumbling past both sides of the island. We were able to regain Sorvagsfjordur by working our way up behind rocks on the edge of the eastern shore of GAsholmur, then sprinting up the edge of the race to the initial curve of water, which resembled the glassy slope of a weir sill. Once on the clam water of the fjord we were tempted to turn around and shoot the race, and work our way up the eastern side of Tindholmur in a similar way, but concerned that if the ferry had not set out the others would be anxiously waiting, we left this pleasure for another day.

Tide race between Tindholmur and Gasholmur
Photo by Drew Delaney

close-up from picture above... you can just see Mike Watson appearing picture right.

After a day of walking, bird watching and fishing we were ready to leave Bour for the northern coast of Vagur when strong winds and driving rain forestalled our plans. Val and I hitched and ferried to collect the minibus and trailer from Kirkjubour and in the face of a weather forecast of still stronger winds we drove to Bour and planned a late morning play in the tide races when the southerly tidal stream picked up. This was an unfortunate decision as the Faeroes’ fickle weather gave us a shining calm day, and we had missed our on-going tide. The loss was no disaster as we enjoyed a day of playing in the tide races and fishing; everybody circumnavigating Tindholmur through the tide races. Then we struck camp and headed back to Kvivik by minibus to collect Andy’s kayak and our two land-based members.     

Tindholmur in background... tide running left to right

Fashioned a wooden key     

Frank, enterprising as ever, had drawn on local craftsmanship to fashion a wooden key to open the lock on the ancient watermill at Kvivik, and had actually got the water wheel working.

Returning to Thorshavn we heard that there had been a whale kill near Hvalvik, a town whose very name means “Whale Bay”. In haste we drove back to the scene of the slaughter, at the narrows between two islands at a place called Nesvik. Here pulled up onto the beach were some 230 dead pilot whales each neatly killed by a deep knife wound at the back of the head which severed the spinal cord. Each whale had also been disemboweled. There was little sign of activity except for a few boats zigzagging against the tidal stream in the search for whales dead and sunken, and a few locals who were thrusting their hands into the bellies of the whales to rip out the kidneys and liver which by ancient law belong to anyone who cares to take them.         

Carve up had started early           

Drew, anxious to observe the distribution of the whale meat, arose early the next morning to hitch to the scene, but found only bones! The carve up had started early and had been efficiently completed and the meat transported away long before he arrived on the scene. The traditions of centuries remain…

Our two weeks on the Faroe Islands had been exciting and eventful, adventurous and informative. I now have a group of paddlers eagerly awaiting the next Faeroes expedition, prepared for more moments of anxiety with the confidence inspired by their own wider experience and greater skill.