Across the North Sea, Part 2


If you missed Part 1, click here.

I hadn't had a chance to write anything since our first day out of Inverness. I’d either been too sleepy, or busy hand-steering while we motored through a few calms. We left Inverness on the 7th in the midst of a developing high pressure, and by the 9th, it had developed. Right on top of us. The barometer had climbed steadily since we left, and just then was hovering around 1028 millibars, up from 1022 in Inverness (comparatively, on the crossing last summer, it plunged to 990, the lowest we saw all summer, and the wind blew hard). Every time I glanced at it, the needle seemed to have moved slightly upwards.

We were moseying along at 2-3 knots, with barely enough breeze coming from the west to allow Sune the windvane to steer us steadily east. We had the genoa sheeted to the end of the mainsail boom, which was mostly full. Thankfully the sea had quieted down a bit, save for the occasional rhythmic rolling every few minutes, and it was actually quite comfortable onboard.

We had spent the previous 24 hours dodging oilrigs. At one stage the night before, I counted at least ten in my immediate surroundings – there were rigs north and south of us, and we aimed to sail through a twelve-mile gap just north of 58º to try and avoid them. They lit up the evening sea like Christmas trees. Off in the distance I thought I saw the sun rising in the northeast – it was actually an enormous rig burning fumes off the top of it. Every few seconds the low clouds above it would light up a bright orange and the sky flickered ominously. It was too far distant to see what was really going on. It looked like Mordor. We sailed to the south of it.

The morning of the 9th we entered the Eastern Hemisphere. As we sailed toward Sweden, the numbers on the chart started increasing again. On the Atlantic crossing last summer, we counted down the longitude to measure our progress – crossing 20º west was a big milestone for the crew last year. We’d started somewhere in the 70’s I think, so by the time we reach the Swedish coast (at about 12º E), we will have sailed nearly a quarter of the way around the world, at least in longitude (which reminds me of that joke about jogging around the world at the south pole – a circumnavigation takes only a few steps).

It had not at all sunken in that we were actually sailing towards Sweden. Mia would soon be speaking her language, and for the first time since we owned the boat we’d be able to fly the Swedish flag from the starboard spreaders, as a courtesy flag from a visiting boat in a foreign country (up to then, it had flown from the port spreaders, to indicate the presence of a Swedish guest or crew onboard). However, at the rate we were moving in that light air, it was going to be a while, so I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. We’d be sailing down the coast of Norway first (after the oil fields), so that would be out first glimpse of Scandinavia. I enjoyed my oatmeal and tried not to think about it.


A few hours later we passed the last of the oil fields, according to the chart. There were still four in view then, two to the north, two to the south, and we were about in the middle. The ones that side of the sea past the halfway point were aflame, belching fire and smoke out of the top of large scaffold structures, higher than the main platforms themselves. The yellow flames were thick with black smoke that hung on the wind, a good telltale of the weather.

Speaking of which, it had been extraordinary that day. Around 2 or 3 that afternoon the wind abruptly shifted from WSW to NNW on Mia’s watch, the big drifter aback on the mainsail boom and the boat bobbing on the waves. I was asleep, and had only just woken a few minutes earlier because I had to pee. We did nothing for ten minutes or so, but the wind seemed to want to settle in, so we jibed onto port, set the mainsail and started gaining steam. The sea had flattened right out.

It was warmer than I expected, both the air and the water. I was up and about in shorts and tee shirt, barefoot on deck and ticking off a few boat projects on my 9-1 morning watch. I finally served the portside lifelines where the mainsheet rubs, spliced up a new jib halyard and replaced the spin halyard with what had previously been the jib halyard. Which solved two problems – the spin halyard was so thick and stiff at the splice that it barely turned on the masthead block. It was impossible to get enough tension on the drifter for the furler to work correctly. And, the new jib halyard is now the correct length, and a bit thicker and easier on the hands. I’d forgotten how to do a double-braid splice, so consulted Brion Toss’ book and managed to bring it all back to myself. It’s not the prettiest one I have done, but it will work. I should have smoothed out the bury a bit more before pulling the whole thing tight.

Mia was asleep, and I was on deck enjoying a private dolphin show. This was the third time that day that a group of these guys had been hanging around the boat. They were absolutely enormous! And easily the most beautiful sea creature I have ever seen. Their snouts were stunted and they had very high, thin dorsal fins, almost like a killer whale, and their bodies were a striking dark grey streaked with white that was easy to spot in the water. I might have broken the GoPro camera already trying to get some photos of them under the boat. It’s such a privilege to be out here in the wilderness, enjoying the life in the sea. I sat on the bow for 30 minutes just smiling at the sight and giving thanks to the world for it’s wonderful nature.

Strangely, the North Sea with its oilrigs scattered about offered a dramatic opposition to the beauty of the ocean.  In the same field of view I could see the cold dark blue of the sea, the white streaks of dolphins beneath it and the gargantuan, filthy, geometric structure looming not far away, darkening the sky with smoke and fire.

I love being out on the ocean. The days were already starting to blur together and it was easier to stay awake at night. The freedom is addictive. Just the thought that our little boat, our home, was so far from where we began, and heading for such a vastly different new land, all on its own, a new continent, was incredible! New language, new culture, the cold northern air and that unmistakable northern sky! This was it, this was why we came out there, all this hard work for the freedom to travel independently on the ocean, it was all worth it. This is such a fabulous, beautiful, astounding world in which we live, and seeing it from the little perspective, traveling on the sea at a walking pace really reminds one how big our planet actually is. You could fly from Scotland to Sweden in under two hours, and it would take us five days.


I had a scary run-in with a ship that night. We were motoring on my 1-5am watch. The sky was black except for a faint glimmer on the horizon where the sun was making it’s way slowly up, and the boat was in a channel of sorts, between several oilrigs. There were 4-5 north of us and 4-5 south of us, and we steered down the middle, with about four miles to spare on each side. All the rigs have AIS, which was reassuring. But I was stuck at the helm, and unable to read it (the display is on the VHF down below) and being it was such a clear night, I might not have looked at it anyway. I had a rig picked out off to port, all lit up like they are, and getting closer as we steamed east. Oddly though, it felt like it was getting closer faster than I was going towards it. I kept turning the boat south to go around it and it kept getting closer, quickly now at an alarming pace. I woke Mia for an extra set of eyes and she scurried on deck to inform me that this rig was in fact a ship, and that I had been altering course precisely into its path. We got close enough that I actually turned right around and headed off to the northwest to let him pass. I’m sure whoever was on the bridge of that ship that night told a nice few funny jokes at my expense. The incident really did shake me up though, because I had no idea what I was looking at. My brain was playing tricks on me in my sleepy haze, and we ended up way too close for comfort. Had I simply held course, he would have easily passed safely in front of us.