The Farne Islands

The Farne Islands provide the same sort of interest that we find in the tidal waters of western Scotland, but in a daytrip within a relatively short drive from the area where most SOC members live. It is also a premier wildlife destination early in the summer, but there are restrictions on where and when landings are permitted, as you might expect for a nature reserve. We have at least one trip out to the Farnes almost every year and if the weather is good, there may be several trips over the course of the season.

Map showing typical spring tide trip with tidal info and links to more photographs. The GPS tracklog shows one particular trip which passed north of Staple Island both ways. Often, especially if it's not too rough, we'll visit the south side of Staple Island where there are some good stacks.

Inner Farne from the crossing

As a rule of thumb for planning trips, high tide at springs (a day or two after new or full moon) is mid-afternoon (around 15:30 BST), so the ebb stream will be starting late afternoon, and the peak of the flood will be experienced about two O'Clock when a typical trip will be on its way back. If the winds are from the SW, this will make for rougher water than on the way out, so do take this into account when judging conditions at the start of the trip.

Our usual put-in was on Bamburgh beach using limited parking at NU 2032 3355 by a farm track, but this has now been fenced off leaving almost no parking. From here, a path leads down through the dunes below a derelict coastguard lookout and onto the sandy beach. The top of the dunes is a good place to judge conditions as the Inner Sound has fast tides which may be opposed by the wind, and the beach itself is very exposed to swell, which can result in big surf.

A sand bar gives a second break when a swell is running onto Bamburgh beach at certain states of the tide

Alternative launching spots are preferable to avoid the parking issue, or indeed if surf on Bamburgh beach looks too serious. Be aware that a lot of the trip is exposed to wind, tide and swell and the beach is the best place to judge sea conditions, so is worth a look even if you can't launch here. If the surf looks bad, a lot of the trip could be quite serious ! On the other hand, on a day with swell and no wind, we had a paddler backlooped 90 seconds after the start of the trip getting out through the surf, but the rest of the trip passed without incident after he rolled up. Wind and tide may be more critical than swell once away from the shore.

Playing in more moderate surf at Bamburgh beach

If high tide is early enough in the day that the flood is not going full-tilt on the way home, an alternative put-in is further north from the Wyndings on the golf course road north of Bamburgh (NU 1792 3537), though this also gets surf. Since 2010, there's also a 2.1m height limit on the entrance to the carpark here, which is low enough to be a problem for bigger cars with boats on top, so take care! This put-in is a favoured option at neap tides when the last of the flood helps you south, and the ebb is still going on the return to help you home. Since the ebb is going full tilt mid-trip (but not as fast as at springs, of course), the best route tends to be south of the islands out to Longstone. There's a map showing a neap tide trip which went out via Megstone (where there were a lot of seals). It's also possible to put in at Seahouses, parking along the road north of the town and launching from the beach. Avoid the expensive Pay-and-Display in town - the harbour is not a good launch spot and it is quite a carry. Even from the beach, you will want to keep clear of all the tourist boats which drive fast and expect paddlers to look after themselves in their wake. You'll want to avoid paddling from Seahouses on the flood, or back to it on the ebb, as this can be a hard slog...

Tidal streams around the Farnes run on for a couple of hours after high and low water. The North Sea floods south and ebbs north, so that the streams set NW at 1:40 after high water North Shields, and SE 4:45 before HW North Shields in Inner Sound - possibly later further out. The chart gives a spring rate of 2.5 knots in Inner Sound, but this is in mid-channel. Races form at both ends of Inner Farne, but most noticeably off the northern tip on a spring flood (which is at the sort of time kayakers will be out there). The rate here may well be double the rate in the middle of the Sound and the water can be quite rough.

Coming round the southern tip of Inner Farne on the outward journey, one can enter the Kettle, often by eddy-hopping against the tide. This is a particular place to watch out for the tourist boats, as they tend to need to use quite a bit of power to maintain manoeuvrability, and if running down the tide, this means they go very fast indeed ! You are only allowed to land on Inner Farne after lunchtime, and not at all on the tempting sandy beach - too close to tern nest sites. Use the rocky beach to the right of the jetty. If the tide is low, you can stop briefly below the high water mark any time, although you may find yourself arguing with the staff if you get out of your boat. To visit the island, have a National Trust membership card, or be prepared to pay actual cash. Typically, a trip will arrive here too early in the day for a landing (but it's an option on the way back), so we have a brief rest in the sheltered water before moving on towards the outer islands.

The Kettle, Inner Farne

Staple Sound is the longest stretch of water to cross, and it has various shallows, and tides faster than the Inner Sound. Since swell refracts round islands and over reefs, the dominant direction is quite changeable, and if you combine this with wind and tide, you will frequently find quite rough water, with waves breaking, often in different directions every hundred metres or so. Once at Staple Island, you can pick the sheltered side, but beware of being down-tide - it can be a bit of a fight if you have to work against both wind and tide to get back into the shelter of the islands. The tide runs fast through various guts, and getting to Longstone often involves sneaking up eddies and making a hard ferry glide across Craford's Gut. On the other hand, at neaps with the weather from the south, the ebb may produce a glassy calm here.

A high tide (springs) trip when there's only a tiny bit of Longstone left for lunch. Photo: Andy Waddington
High tide springs leaves only a small landing and lunch spot

If it's not too rough, the outside of Longstone becomes an interesting option, and if the ebb has not progressed too far, you can cut across just north of the lighthouse to the lagoon shown in the photo below. Longstone makes a fine lunch spot.

Lagoon between Longstone and Northern Hares

The way back can be a reversal of the way out, or the tides might make it more fun to go the other side of the Harcars and down the side of Brownsman. If you've been efficient, you'll now have time to land on Inner Farne, and although it can be crowded, it really is worth it during nesting season, but make sure you keep your hat on, as the terns will defend territory, and nest right next to (or even in the middle of) the path.

Wear a wide-brimmed hat - that beak's sharp!

If the flood is running, there is a tendency to get carried too far south on the return (not an issue if your destination is Seahouses), so it's a good plan to start from the northern end of Inner Farne, or even work your way towards Megstone before heading inshore. Be aware that there is quite a race off the northern tip, and in a southwesterly, it can be rough for a short stretch.

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