Voyaging on the North Sea
Arthur Ransome, favorite author of my youth, had his boats built with writing desks. Ketch Siri and our quiet routine onboard give us time and freedom to think and create, to write and to knit.
We live in voluntary media celibacy, where the only important news is the weather forecast. The author Sven Barthel said: “A sailing boat is an instrument of freedom.” The time and the unpredictability free us from schedules. Sea captain John Wilhelm Frostedt, my grandfather’s grandfather and the master of Brig Siri of Stockholm in the 19th century, signed his letters: “God willing, weather permitting.”
In Thyboroen, Denmark, you wear plain blue workman’s trousers, not designer jeans. Beer is in a bottle, and tattoos are large, to cover the arm and shoulder. This seaport is macho and smells of fish. Huge anchors and propellers decorate the gravel gardens. There are very few flower beds around the houses.
Lisa and I waited three days for the gale to blow over. Now the wind is calmer but the sea is still very heavy. Big North Sea trawlers depart, and waves break over them as they sail offshore. All the yachts stay in harbor. Germans with big bellies wait for big game fishing. They kill time with beer, story-swapping and loud laughter.
We needed diesel and Lisa finds the harbor office and the lady in charge of the pump; no marina with smart young men in white shorts here. The pump station is situated in the bottom of a narrow basin used by the fishermen for unloading their catch. At first they are irritated, but when they understand that we were trying to reach the pump, they become very friendly and supportive. They give us a bucket full of mussels and we trade beer for flounder.
Lisa fries the flounder for lunch, and serves them with capers and pickled beets and new potatoes. She saves the mussels for a few days, as they need to be rinsed of sand in several changes of water, then steam cooked. Then we will use the shells as forks and dip the mussels in “Siri sauce,” made from oil, French mustard, and honey and dill. Fresh baguettes baked on board together with Danish cheese and butter make it a wonderful meal.
Poets and sailors have for centuries sung about their fear and awe of the North Sea. On board Siri we have great respect for it, and prepare meticulously for our crossing to Norway.
We follow this checklist:
-Charts, pilot books, plotter.
-Engine, oil, sweet water, drive belts
-Reef lines in the main sail
-Goosenecks in Dorade ventilators closed
-Chain pipe closed
-Dinner casserole prepared
-Weather forecast from Denmark and Norway
We are tense; no point in denying that. So these activities reduce our anxiety. I walk around in the harbor and listen to the other skippers. Are they leaving or staying? At night I climb up on deck to look and listen to the weather. It is calm in the basin. We are protected from the southwesterly winds predicted in the forecasts.
We have breakfast and dress in long underwear; the water is still cold in June. Up on deck I see that our neighbors are busy too. We are all anxious to get going.
The swell from the gale meets us outside the piers, and Siri dips her bowsprit in the waves. Reed’s almanac warns against entering Thyboroen in Beaufort 5 or stronger. The waves can break dangerously in the sandy, shallow entrance. The professional fishermen do not obey Reed’s, but we who sail for pleasure follow its advice. We use the engine to get out on deep water before we set sail. The wind is around Beaufort 4, and mizzen and genoa give us a comfortable speed of five knots.
I take the first watch and Lisa goes below to rest. The sun breaks through the clouds and the color of the sea shifts from light grey to deep blue, reflecting the sky. Haze still hangs over land. The coast of Jutland is low and sandy, and I soon see only church towers and windmills astern. Regina Arctica, a boat from Spitsbergen, Norway, leaves harbor at the same time as us, but returns. The boys seem to have had some problems in the rig.
I am alone with the sea, and in contact with eternity. We sail literally in the same water as the Irish monk St. Brendan, and the Vikings. Water evaporates into clouds and returns to the Earth as rain, which turns into sea again in the cycle of nature. The sea is the last wilderness; passing ships leave no trace. Life pulsates here. Ninety percent of the biosphere — that is, where life exists — is water, and 75% of the Earth’s surface is sea. We live on planet Ocean, not the Earth. And Siri is the center of a circle with a radius of six nautical miles. That is the distance to the horizon. Upwards I look into heaven, and at night I seem reach to the outer stars in the universe.
Lisa prepares asparagus soup and sandwiches for lunch before taking her turn at watch. At sea we meet and eat. When one of us is on deck sailing, the other can rest or navigate below. We sail for pleasure, not for performance or endurance, but we know we can stay at sea several nights in this way.
The fulmars keep the helmsman company. Small and tubby, they live in the open sea and sail with stiff wings close over the waves. Their aerodynamics are masterful. The fulmar rests high on the water surface with a slightly bent neck. The people of the Faroe Islands call them seahorses; the Swedes call them storm birds.
Lisa takes the watch and it’s my turn to rest. We sleep on the sofa in the main cabin so that the helmsman can get help in seconds if necessary. The sofa is secured with bunk-boards, so we lie safely independent of the boat’s heeling.
When I’m back on deck Regina Arctica overtakes us, and my competitive spirit is aroused. We hoist the main sail, and though our sails only total 100 square meters, sail almost as fast as the Norwegians. But Regina is five tons lighter and 20 years younger, and slowly disappears ahead of us. I see an occasional steamer but no yachts, for they are rare out here.
We normally reduce the sail area at night but the winds are light and we’re traveling at a comfortable six knots, so I let them stay. Lisa does not like to sail when it is dark and I take longer watches then. Lisa supports me with tea and sandwiches and small talk. Now in June the nights are not really dark; there’s a brief twilight between dusk and dawn, and the northern horizon is reddish all the time.
In darkness it is difficult to judge the distance to a source of light, for we tend to believe that a strong light is closer than a weak one. We meet a ship whose course is crossing ours, and I see first the weak red light and a stronger white masthead light, then the contour of the ship’s bridge and finally the green light too. Now the ship is heading directly towards us, and I am all attention. Slowly the red light disappears and I understand that the ship will pass well by our stern. My eyes follow the ship steaming westwards, probably towards the oilfields. After midnight I see the light of the lighthouse on Lista, mainland Norway. Our GPS confirms our position: we are 12 nautical miles from the coast.
The wind dies, and in the east I see that dawn is close. The surface of the sea looks like fluid pewter - it seems to have the same density as the tin I used to make tin soldiers as a boy. The sails flutter and the sheets tap against the deck. The noise wakes Lisa and she brings coffee and breakfast to the cockpit. We wait to see if the wind will return, but we don’t have enough patience. We lower the sails and start the engine. It’s 35 nautical miles to Sirevag, Norway, our next port of call. The current is northerly and gives us two welcome extra knots. (Language is strange; a northerly current runs toward the north, a northerly wind comes from the north.)
We see the high mountains of the Norwegian coast, and the sunlight overpowers the flashes from the lighthouse. Lisa takes the wheel, so I turn in, ready to be awakened an hour before we enter Sirevag. A huge North Sea trawler overtakes us and leads the way into the harbor. Regina Arctica is berthed there already, and the boys are fast asleep. When we have our arrival breakfast of eggs and bacon, they wake up, and tell us that they have arrived four hours ahead of us.
Per Holmlov is a writer who sails with his wife, Lisa, for several months of the year. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Tales from a Summer Ship,” to be published in Swedish by Norstedts in August 2009.
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