Sailing to and around Orkney

Sailing to and from Orkney: an Introduction

This sailing guide provides a brief introduction to getting to and from Orkney. You are strongly advised to read this in conjunction with the charts and pilot books relevant to these waters (see Pilots, charts and notices to mariners).

The major pilotage consideration when sailing to Scapa Flow from the South is crossing the Pentland Firth.

When sailing to Scapa Flow from the West, the timing of entry to Hoy Sound is important.

Approaching Orkney from the north (e.g. Shetland) or the east (e.g. Norway, Denmark, Germany) presents few navigational difficulties.

For information on clearance to enter the UK, see our 'Plan your trip' page. 

Crossing the Pentland Firth to Orkney from the South

This introduction covers heading to Scapa Flow and Stromness from the South.

When crossing the Pentland Firth, avoid strong (F6 and above) wind against tide conditions and plan your use of tides carefully. Spring tides can run at very high rates as you will see from the tidal atlas, so if possible aim to transit with neap tides if any significant wind is expected.

Wick Marina is a good starting point for the journey to Orkney. Whether leaving from Wick or further afield, aim to arrive at a point roughly halfway between Duncansby Head and the Pentland Skerries at slack water, before the start of the westgoing ebb tide. From there head towards Lother rock and then enter the middle of Hoxa Sound. The tidal rates then fall quickly and there is very little tide in Scapa Flow.

When crossing the Pentland Firth heading south from Scapa Flow, leave via Cantick Head and aim to arrive halfway between the islands of Stroma and Swona at slack tide, before the start of the eastgoing flood tide. From there head southeast round Duncansby Head.

Heading to Kirkwall from the South

This passage east of the Pentland Skerries and round the island of Copinsay is relatively straightforward. It is important to give a wide berth to the Sandy Riddle, a bank which runs southeast from the Pentland Skerries. The tides run strongly over this bank and in wind against tide conditions the sea can be nasty. Go well east of this bank to find easier conditions. Aim to approach Kirkwall via The String with a favourable tide.

Approaching Orkney from the West

This voyage involves rounding Cape Wrath (which should be given a wide berth in any breeze) and heading straight for Orkney. Frequently chosen departure ports are Stornoway or Kinlochbervie. Some voyagers prefer to overnight at anchor in Loch Eriboll. Navigation is straightforward on this route, with clear water from Cape Wrath to Orkney.

Time your arrival carefully at the west of Orkney as the tides can run strongly in Hoy Sound, which is your entrance to the port of Stromness. Transits of Hoy Sound in either direction are best begun at slack water. In particular, avoid transiting the Sound when there is a strong ebb tide. This is particularly true with westerly wind against the ebb tide, but breaking waves can also form with no wind if there is a large swell from the northwest against a westgoing ebb tide.

When heading for Stromness or Scapa Flow from the west, you should aim to enter Hoy Sound at slack tide just before the start of the eastgoing flood tide.

If you arrive early you can either wait for the ebb to end or approach carefully on the south side of Hoy Sound and look at the current wave conditions during the ebb before entering the Sound.

Seas in Hoy Sound are always much calmer on the eastgoing flood tide, even with winds up to 30 knots against the flood tide.

Note that there is a test area for renewable wave-energy devices just to the North of the entrance to Hoy Sound. This is clearly marked on charts with 5 cardinal buoys. It should not be entered under any circumstances as it contains large floating and partially submerged devices, along with infrastructure for mooring these and connecting them to the electricity grid. There is a passage inshore which may be used for North-South traffic in calm weather.


There is more information on sailing in Orkney waters in the sailing guides below. These have been written by locals from within our very own sailing community with a wealth of knowledge. We hope you will enjoy reading these guides and find the information a great encouragement to experience Orkney for yourself!

If you find you have further questions, or would like advice on planning your trip to visit us in Orkney, please use our 'ask a local' form to send your question to us. A local sailor will be happy to answer your query as soon as possible.

Download the 'On Board Orkney' cruising guide

Click the following links to download various sailing routes around Orkney. These are 'kml' files which can readily be opened in applications like Google Earth or navigation software.