Across the North Sea, Part 1


By August 8th, we were were back to sea, Inverness in our wake and Scandinavia just over the horizon!

Arcturus was gliding along at 4-5 knots on a beam reach, full sail on the first full day in the North Sea. The sky was low and overcast (I expected we’d see a lot of that), and we could still see Scotland off the starboard quarter, though it was quickly fading over the horizon. Keith, the yard worker in Bangor told us that “if you can see Scotland, it’s going to rain – if you can’t see it, it is raining.”

We left Inverness the day before in a downpour, the current at the sea locks too swift to let us lie alongside and finish getting the boat (and ourselves) properly geared up for going offshore. So we headed straight out to sea, bucking the last of the incoming tide and following in the wake of Walkabout, the big steel Swedish boat we’d just made friends with the day before our departure. They were at the tail end of a four month ‘trial cruise’, and on their way back towards Norrtälje, just north of Stockholm, and had completed basically the reverse of what we initially set out to do, sailing first to Shetland, then round the West Coast of Scotland, down to Belfast and back again via the Caledonian Canal. It had taken them seven years to build the boat (or rebuild the boat, as it were). They bought the hull and gutted the interior, starting essentially from scratch to make it their own. Not wanting to take any loans out on their dream, they instead took the time out, saving dollars and time off year after year, the effort culiminating in that four-month cruise that was bound to be a preview of things to come for the couple. He was a ferry captain in the archipelago, she worked for the local government (‘kommun’), and they’d been able to take the four months off without risking not having a job when they got back. They seemed quite happy with the cruising lifestyle.

On the day we left Inverness, they led the way, aiming for the Kiel Canal, the shortcut into the Baltic. I had had it with canal cruising, so we decided to go direct to Marstrand, outside Göteborg, on Sweden’s west coast. We were actually sailing towards Sweden! This was really it, the last big leg of our big adventure, already one day down. From where we were then, it was a scant 400 miles or so to that ultimate destination of ours that we set out for over a year ago (nearly four years ago mentally). 

Mia and I were alone on the ocean for only the third time (the first en route to Florida on Arcturus, and then again delivering the big Cabo Rico to Newport).

Mia had encouraged me to adopt a ‘boat first’ attitude to help stave off the inevitable exhaustion of the first two days at sea, and thus far it’s working. I have been working on my grumpiness when I’m tired – being rousted in the middle of the night is one of my least favorite activities, and I do not function well when I’m tired, often taking out my grumpiness on whoever is on board. It kind of becomes a problem when we’re offshore and something needs to be done. Like reefing the mainsail. Sometimes that sort of stuff has to happennow, and I often lay in bed trying to pretend I’m somewhere else, somewhere not in the middle of the ocean where I can safely go back to sleep, confident that nobody is going to wake me up. Obviously this doesn’t work. It usually only lasts for the first day or two until I get in the routine of waking up every 4 hours for my watch. But this ‘boat first’ attitude has proven a good little mental trick to take myself and my own immediate needs for sleep out of the equation. Out there, it’s not about you. It’s about the boat. Treat her right, and she’ll take care of you. I’m slowly learning this.

Anyway, I rousted Mia that morning at 5, the dawn having arrives long before that, and she could just about keep her eyes open. I slept the sleep of the dead afterwards (having been woken twice the night before, Mia needing help furling the sails, as we’d been becalmed yet again on her midnight watch), and those last 4 hours of sleep flew by way too fast. I got my coffee in the morning though, and I must admit I was in a delightful mood in spite of myself.

In keeping with this ‘boat first’ mantra, I had spent a half hour that morning sitting on the lee rail and applying service to the two feet or so of lifeline that the mainsheet, when eased, rubs up against. I still needed to fix the leather cover on the forward mizzen shroud (and add one on starboard), and Arcturus will be one step closer to complete.

The North Sea is notorious for several reasons, namely because it’s north – we were sailing along at 58º north latitude, where the minutes of longitude were now less than half a mile apart. And in the North Sea, the water is cold (about 11ºC). And finally, the North Sea is notorious because it’s so shallow. Oil fields litter the chart (we got a great passage chart from the Norwegian Hydrographic Office) and I counted no less than 14 that were immediately in our path.

The sea was strange there that first day. You could tell it ‘felt’ the bottom. The wind was only 5-10 knots from the north, but every 4th or 5th swell was steep, kicking up the bow and dropping it off the other side, and the motion was uneven and at times annoying. But with the light wind on the beam, the sailing was most pleasant – we were making 5+ knots and pointed in the right direction, so I couldn’t have asked for much more.

To be continued...