By ROSALIND GRIFFITHS
THE FIRST gales of winter blasted the isles this week, disrupting power supplies and transport and keeping the emergency services busy.
The problems started with strong winds on Friday which forced the cancellation of NorthLink sailings in both directions. The Whalsay ferry was cancelled from 9pm. There was thunder and lightning too which, combined with high winds, caused five high voltage line faults in the Sandwick, West Mainland, Northmavine, Whalsay and other areas.
Saturday was the worst day with southerly winds gusting up to hurricane force and heavy downpours, and there were power cuts throughout the isles.
Operations manager at Scottish and Southern Energy Bob Kelman said the decision was taken to put all available island staff on stand-by. Most of the island staff were out prior to the 95 mph winds hitting the islands around 4pm, locating faults and isolating them, then restoring power and doing fault repairs when it was safe to do so.
The biggest impact was due to a double fault on the main 33,000 volt line supplying Scalloway, Gulberwick and down to Sumburgh. This affected 3,000 customers – all but those south of Sandwick had supplies restored in a couple of hours. The local linesmen, generation staff and retained staff worked into Sunday morning to repair that fault and others.
Some customers were still off on Sunday and the customers on Papa Stour eventually had power restored on Sunday night.
Mr Kelman thanked his staff “for the effort put in to restore supplies in conditions which were more extreme than we would normally face”.
Two additional lines teams had been due to come up from south, but the forecast changed and these teams were turned back to assist staff in the Highlands.
In spite of the wind nearly all flights operated from Sumburgh, with only one flight in and out of Aberdeen being cancelled. There was disruption to fixed wing and helicopter traffic from Scatsta on Saturday, however, and no flights at all operated from there on Sunday.
Saturday saw dramas on land and sea. The Lerwick lifeboat and the coastguard tug Anglian Sovereign went to the aid of vessels struggling in violent winds, severe showers and thunder and lightning.
Shetland Coastguard requested the lifeboat at 1.50pm to help the Fraserburgh-registered Shemarah II which had gone aground on a sandbank at Baltasound.
A nearby fishing vessel Valhalla had attempted to tow the Shemarah II off, but was forced aground herself. The Alison Kay and creel boat Kathleen then came to help and managed to tow the Valhalla off.
The Valhalla sustained a damaged propeller in the attempt and was forced to return to harbour.
The lifeboat arrived shortly afterwards.
The Shemarah II appeared to be undamaged but as a precaution divers examined the hull before the vessel set off at a slow speed back to Fraserburgh.
Later on Saturday afternoon, at 4.45pm, coastguards saw on their screens that the Russian refrigerated cargo ship Sapphire was in difficulty in the Fair Isle channel.
The ship was showing a “not under command” signal on their automatic identification system. The coastguard contacted the vessel, and the master confirmed the ship was having problems with its main engine.
The Sapphire was at this point 20 miles west south west of Foula, and drifting towards the mainland of Shetland in the violent storm-force southwesterly winds.
As a precaution the Anglian Sovereign was sent to the scene but the engineers on the Russian ship managed to fix the fault, believed to be either a fuel pump or a fuel injection system, after two and a half hours.
Coastguard watch manager David Robinson said: “Weather conditions have been very challenging.”
NorthLink ferries did not sail that day and most inter-island ferries were cancelled from the early afternoon, when gusts reached hurricane force.
Police and fire services had a number of call-outs.
The most serious was when a bus blew off the road near Sumburgh on Saturday evening.
The 43-seater Leask’s service bus was heading to Sumburgh when it was blown into a ditch at the height of the storm at 5.45pm.
Three fire crews, from Lerwick, Sumburgh and Sandwick went to the scene 500 metres south of Mainland’s shop.
According to Lerwick police there were around 12 people on board, including the driver. They were able to get out of the bus unaided and apparently unshaken. No-one was injured in the incident and the bus had minor damage to the lower skirt panels.
Most of the passengers made their own way home and two who needed transport to Scatness were picked up by the Quendale feeder bus shortly afterwards.
Peter Leask of John Leask & Son said the front of the bus had gone into the ditch and came to rest at an angle of 45 degrees.
Mr Leask said: “It happened in severe conditions and could have been much worse. No-one was hurt and the bus had only minor damage.”
The bus was later pulled out of the ditch by two tractors.
There were other tasks for the emergency services on Saturday.
They secured a trampoline in Brae and a bus shelter in Scalloway Road, Lerwick. There were also reports of a lamp post blowing over in Yell and a removal lorry being blown off the road in Quarff. A Portaloo was blown over at the Knab – no-one was in it at the time.
In general Sunday was a quieter day, but Orkney lost power supplies to all 12,000 customers for about an hour. This was due to wind damage which affected both lines into Orkney.
NorthLink boats did sail, albeit at unaccustomed hours – the sailing from Lerwick, postponed from Saturday, left at 8.30am while the ferry from Aberdeen left at 3am – and ferries were back to normal.
Monday was a day of respite and all ferries except the Snolda into Papa Stour ran normally. The backlog of passengers leaving Scatsta was reduced.
Tuesday started with snow and ice and a bad forecast forced the cancellation of NorthLink boats in both directions. Flights continued out of Sumburgh, however, with only a half-hour delay in the morning when the airport was closed for de-icing.
Ferries into Bressay and Fetlar were suspended as northwesterly winds increased to gale force. There were reports of 100mph winds at the coastguard station.
While other islands had a restricted service, the Good Shepherd IV was not able to leave Fair Isle at all. She was prevented from departing by a heavy swell and by Wednesday no supplies had reached the island for a fortnight.
The shop was beginning to run short of supplies, according to one resident, who said: “There’s no fresh milk and everyone’s baking bread. The shop is running out of eggs and we’ve been rationed to one egg each.”
Although five planes made the most of the good weather on Wednesday and took passengers in and out (including the nine school bairns returning to school after the October break), residents still had not got the mail and medicines normally delivered by boat. Some milk and fruit were brought in by air, however.
By yesterday normal service had been resumed.
The week’s bad weather has been unusual, according to Fair Isle weather man Dave Wheeler. He said that snow lying in October was rare and that Tuesday had had the coldest October night since 1980.
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A WITNESS from the Alison Kay said the drama of getting the Shemarah II off the sandbank started at 10.30am and took most of the day. The Valhalla ended up on the sandbank and the 30-ft Unst creel boat Kathleen played a vital role in passing ropes back and forth. “We couldn’t have done without her.”
He described the events, which took place in south-westerly winds of force 10 to 12 and fierce squally rain showers.
“The Valhalla managed to pull herself back to the pier with her own winch and attached another tow to Shemarah II, but then her gear box broke. The Valhalla limped back to the pier.
“The Kathleen passed a rope from Shemarah II to Ocean Quest but in the process struck her bow on the Ocean Quest’s stern.
“The Ocean Quest then tried to tow but did not have enough power and cut the tow rope and went back to the pier. By this time the lifeboat had arrived.
“The Alison Kay thought it was too dangerous to leave the pier and turned round so that her stern was facing Shemarah II and passed a trawl wire off the winch to the Shemarah II’s bow.
“The lifeboat managed to get a tow rope onto Shemarah II – the lifeboat started towing and the Alison Kay started winching at the same time and after about 15 minutes the Shemarah II came off the sandbank. She was then disconnected from the Alison Kay and brought alongside the Alison Kay on the pier. The tow started about 4.30pm and they got her alongside at 6pm.
“The lifeboat couldn’t get tied to the pier because there was too much sea so she had to dodge [the waves] in Baltasound bay until it eased.”
The Lerwick lifeboat Michael and Jane Vernon set out about 1.50pm with six crew on board and arrived at Baltasound around 3.45pm.
Lifeboat coxswain Bruce Leask said conditions were “not too bad” when they left Lerwick but got progressively worse as they headed north. He described going through Bluemull Sound as a “sleigh ride” and once they were past Fetlar conditions were even worse, with the wind gusting up to force 10.
Mr Leask said: “There was a lot of sea and spray. We could see nothing.”
On arrival at Baltasound the lifeboat was asked to stand by as the Alison Kay was trying to pull the Shemarah II off. Eventually the lifeboat assisted and after about 10 minutes the Shemarah II was pulled off the sandbank and moored alongside Alison Kay.
Mr Leask said: “That’s when the wind was at its worst, up to hurricane force. Sheets of water were coming across the voe – there was not much sea because the voe is sheltered but the wind was picking up the surface of the sea about 15ft. We couldn’t see the casualty because of the solid water, it was sheets of water.
“We were confident we’d get her pulled off because she wasn’t ebbed up very far on the sandbank and a sandbank moves under a boat when you start towing.”
Mr Leask, who has been with the Lerwick lifeboat 10 years, said he had seen worse seas, but the wind was “wild”. The lifeboat had to dodge in Baltasound for an hour and a half waiting for the wind to decrease or shift – eventually it swung round to the west.
Coming out of Baltsound in the dark was the very worst time of all, he said. The tide was against the sea and their speed had to be reduced to eight knots. This contrasted to the outward journey when the lifeboat was going “between 30 and 10 knots – 30 knots surfing down a wave and 10 knots climbing up the front of the next one”.
Throughout the rescue the lifeboat had been rolling beam on and pitching vertically. Mr Leask said: “It was an unusual strength of wind.”