Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Navy Races Lady Across Maelstrom: Schooner Days MCLXXXVI (1186)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 18 Sep 1954
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Navy Races Lady Across Maelstrom
Schooner Days MCLXXXVI (1186)

by C. H. J. Snider

In Orkney, 1954

CROSSING the Pentland Firth in the wake of Johnny Gow, that Orkney pirate hanged two hundred years ago, at high noon on July 9, 1954, we came upon a little man-of-war crowding sail in pursuit of a blood-red flagship flying unfamiliar colors.

This red one was a varnished 14-ft. dinghy sailed by a woman in slacks, polo jumper and waterproof jerkin. The pursuer was a naval officer, in a standard Royal Naval Sailing Association 14-footer. Both were belted in life jackets.

This broad strait between Scotland and the Orkney Islands is not as wide as the English Channel, 700 miles farther south, but it can be just as wild and wicked as Ontario in a marathon swim.

Here wind, tide and current play tag between fearsome precipices rising to 500 feet and sinking a hundred fathoms. Escape the Skerries, and the Madmen of Mey can get you. If they are asleep, there is still the giant Swelkie to swallow you, boat, bones and all. The water is so cold it would be solid ice if it weren't so salty. Even the hardy seals we saw were all wearing fur coats in July.


Sometimes steamers have to give up the attempt to pass the Pentland. The bottom is paved with sailors' skulls. Between the Dead Wife's Geo (not an abbreviation for George, but an Orkney word for cut or slip)—or rather between Stromness and Scrabster —Schooner Days counted four rusting wrecks of iron steamers which had not been able to make the passage. Certainly not a regatta course is the Pentland, wherein two oceans, the Atlantic and Arctic, snarl at one another through the Orkney grill.

This day the Merry, Men, Swelkie and Skerries were quiet. The sun shone bright. Long swells all the way from Labrador broke in silent explosions of silver on the feet of the Old Man of Hoy. The Old Man is a square pillar of rock rising near 200 feet out of the sea. But for the slow-breathing swell the great cliffs of red and black sandstone on both sides of the strait were mirrored with their bronze mantles of heather, moss and lichen from time to time in the gelid jade-green Water. A moderate breeze blew, sometimes quite nippy.


The two varnished dinghies, both sloop rigged, one with red mainsail, one with white, seemed gnats or tiny moths, poised between sea and sky. They were sturdy little craft, however, higher sided than our 14-footers at home. The red-winged one was sailed by Mrs. Rosemary Vickers of Banniskirk, Scotland, fair haired and 24, and the white one by Commander Errol Bruce, RN, resident naval officer at Scapa Flow in Orkney. There, you remember, the German fleet was sunk in 1918—and the Royal Oak submarined in 1939.

There is a lot more to be told about Gow the Pirate et al and it will be done soon.

This was a challenge race. Mrs. Vickers, sea-hungry from childhood, sold her pet pony when she was 10 and bought her first boat. When she and her husband—they have a farm at Halkirk in Caithness—came to the northernmost part of Scotland there years ago there was no such thing as a yacht at Scrabster Pier. There is a yacht club there now, and Mrs. Vickers is the Commodore.

Commander Bruce is a great cruising man, and when he lectured on singlehanding across the Atlantic and other yachting joys Mrs. Vickers challenged him to a race across the Pentland Firth in dighies. He took her on — and this was it.

Mrs. Vickers had to give up a school prize presentation to keep the date, but her husband took her place on the platform and she took the tiller in the stern-sheets of the Hellespont, as she calls her dinghy. Commander Bruce's craft, also appropriately named is the Pomona, chief of the Orkney Isles.

We saw the start, and followed the race from the steamer St. Ola.


Pomona got away first across the line between Scrabster quay and an anchored launch, but the red one covered her all the time. Often the pair were abreast — sometimes half a mile apart, but mostly close together. The swirling ebb and flood made their course an "S" reversed, first carrying them Atlanticwards then pushing them back across....

[note: From here to the end was mis-placed in the middle of the printed article] the Firth. Towards the Atlantic they lost one another in a seafog sucked up by the sun's strong rays.

"That was my uncomfortable moment," said Bruce afterwards. 'So lonely, No horizon, no sky, no radar, no competitor. I had plenty of sandwiches, but was too busy for a bite, hiking out to keep Pomona sailing at her best.

"I was never anxious," Mrs. Vickers contributed, "but I couldn't touch the shipload of food I brought along. I was so busy all the time making the most of the wind. It was Commander Bruce's naval gallantry that saved me from being beaten, I'm sure."

They emerged from the seafog close together—and, would you believe it?—they actually finished beam-and-beam, a dead heat, nothing either way, a rarity in yacht racing. They started at noon and finished on the tick of 5:32 p.m., on the line off the island of Hoy at Longhope.

The distance from Scrabster quay to Longhope Bay in Hoy, is said to be 21 miles straight. Their course was probably nearer thirty.

Smart little boats. Smart sailors. And Lucky!

Snider, C. H. J.
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Date of Publication
18 Sep 1954
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Geographic Coverage
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 58.80347 Longitude: -3.19633
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 58.72886 Longitude: -3.12264
  • Scotland, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 58.61285 Longitude: -3.54573
Richard Palmer
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Navy Races Lady Across Maelstrom: Schooner Days MCLXXXVI (1186)