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Visiting the Faroe Islands

Dec 16, 2011

To the editor: For the adventuresome sailor cruising in the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands are well worth a visit. We passed through this archipelago and spent a few days in the northern group of islands on a trans-Atlantic passage from Nova Scotia to Scotland via Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland on our J-46 Cielita in 2005. On that occasion and in need of some electrical repairs, we spent the better part of about three days in the town of Klaksvik on the island of Bordoy, where they happened to be celebrating the First Annual Klaksvik Harborfest. This proved to be a wonderful and entertaining diversion. And on a return trip from Scotland to Iceland via the Faroes in the summer of 2011, after cruising around most of the rest of the archipelago, we happened to wind up in Klaksvik for what turned out to be the Seventh Annual Harborfest. So we got to know the town, the islands, and a number of the locals quite well. The whole experience was most rewarding.

Located about halfway between Scotland and Iceland, one of the most remarkable things about the Faroes is their spectacular geologic layout. The islands were pushed up over millions of years by waves of volcanic activity leaving layers of basaltic rock that give many of the islands the appearance of wedding cakes. They are all bare rock and grass with valleys and cliffs and waterfalls that are most beautiful to behold. There are 18 major islands that form this archipelago, and almost all of them are inhabited. The total population is something in excess of 50,000. Most of the islands are long and relatively narrow, with mountainous ridges up to 3,000 feet above sea level and spectacular headlands. Many of the islands are separated by narrow passages running roughly north-south, with strong tidal currents that make sailing in these passages a challenge.

An extraordinary feature that one comes to appreciate if spending any time ashore is the elaborate infrastructure. During the last few decades the Faroese have built a system of tunnels through the mountains and under the ocean passages between islands to accommodate a system of roads that connect all the towns and even the small villages. Children will speak of how many “tunnels away” they live.

For the cruising sailor, of course, the first issue is getting there. From Cape Wrath on the northwest tip of the Scottish mainland to the southernmost Faroe Island of Suduroy is about 180 nm. The passage from Shetland is only slightly shorter. The passage from the east coast of Iceland is about 230 miles.

Another issue is the tidal currents in the Faroes. Although the rise and fall is generally only a meter or less, the currents generated through the many narrow passages can be fierce, and the overfalls (breaking standing waves) near the entrances to these passages can be frightening and may be dangerous. A local publication with hourly diagrams called Tidal Current Around the Faroe Islands created by Fischer Heinesen is worth having aboard — but is presumably only available after you get there and is useless unless you have local knowledge of when high water occurs.

Then there is the weather. The Faroes lie pretty much right in the track of the North Atlantic lows that march across from Labrador, skirting the southern tip of Greenland and southern Iceland before slamming into Scotland and southern Norway. So one can expect wind and rain in the Faroes from time to time throughout the sailing season. But there are plenty of places to seek shelter once arrived in this island group.

The adventuresome sailor shouldn’t be deterred, for the Faroe Islands are truly spectacular. The people are very friendly, and almost all of them speak good English. Most of the fjords and inlets have towns with man-made harbors in which it is usually possible to tie up, although it appears only Torshavn has a marina with pontoons large enough to accommodate a yacht of 40 feet or more. There are few, if any, uninhabited gunkholes in which to drop the hook for the night, but we did anchor in the lee of big breakwaters on several occasions.

Diesel fuel is available in towns throughout most of the Faroes, as are fresh water and groceries. Cell phone coverage is good and propane (or butane) tanks can be exchanged in places like Torshavn and Klaksvik. There is bus service on several of the islands and local ferry service to the more isolated islands.

One of the highlights of our stay in the Faroes was a ferry ride from Klaksvik to the island of Kalsoy, followed by a four-tunnel bus ride for a spectacular hike among the sheep up to a lighthouse on one of the outer headlands, where the views were breathtaking. We all agreed this was one of our top 10 all-time hikes.

In 2011, we sailed from the northwest coast of Scotland to the southern Faroe Island of Suduroy in less than 48 hours. We spent a week cruising through and around the islands visiting many of the towns and enjoying the scenery before securing a berth in Klaksvik and putting the boat to bed for a month while we returned to the U.S. before resuming our cruise. We had the good fortune to have made some local Faroese friends on our previous visit to Klaksvik six years previously, with whom we could entrust the boat for four weeks while we were away. On our return, these good people pitched in to help us with a couple of complicated repairs and treated us to their wonderful Faroese hospitality. Nothing was impossible — just some things took a little longer.

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Retired surgeon Ned Cabot sails aboard his J-46 Cielita and is based in Boston.

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