Across the North Sea, Part 3

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If you missed Part 1, click here.

If you missed Part 2, click here.

It was just after 1:00 am on the 10th, on my morning watch. I had gotten the GoPro working again after it’s leaking incident, and – knock on wood – maybe it wasn’t broken after all. I left it lay on the portside shelf wrapped in a paper towel and a few of those moisture absorber things that come in clothing, and that you’re not supposed to eat. After reassembling it, it appeared to be in order, I hoped.

I am supposed to be doing an article on the camera for Yachting World. The 10th was the first day I actually had the thing out of its case. It had been sitting in the locker for 3 weeks previously, untouched. I did get some pretty amazing video of those dolphins swimming underwater at the bow of the boat, with the camera held under on the end of the boathook (at that time, Arcturus was only making 3 knots – but then how can you possible surf – and fall – with the thing if you can’t drag it behind the boat at 5 knots?). I also got some amusing candid shots of myself by accident, trying to set up the shot. The camera was set to shoot a photo every two seconds automatically, so from the time I clicked the shutter until it was in the water, several photos were recorded. The thing has an extremely wide-angle lens, with a 170º field of view, so the photos offer a pretty unique perspective. It’s actually pretty cool. I initially had some regrets on the money spent (we have too many cameras as it is), but they were for naught – it was worth it.

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I was really starting to enjoy myself. I was certain I’d regret saying it, but I admitted to myself that the North Sea was turning into one of the finest offshore sails I’ve ever experienced. After a day and a half of frustrating calms and light airs, moseying along at 2-3 knots, the wind finally filled in from the NNW and we bowled along on a reasonably flat sea. We took two reefs in the mainsail earlier on the 10th, just as the dawn was creeping in. The deck was light enough that I didn’t need my headlamp (but it was still before 4:00 am). I had led the second reefing line slightly incorrectly – it was too far aft on the boom – so the foot of the sail wasn’t down as far as I would have liked it to be. I lashed a sailtie through the reef clew and forced it down a bit, but I re-led it later when we shook out the reef. 

Arcturus was bang on course, riding along just a few miles south of 58º north. We were 80 miles from the tip of Norway, and I expected to see the lights on shore some time later that night. I heard Norwegian spoken on the radio earlier that morning for the first time, which was unexpected and exciting. We were closer to Sweden than Scotland at that point, officially passing the halfway mark at 004º E. The sea was friendly but building, steady out of the NNW. The North Sea is a shallow sea, plunging only to a few hundred feet, so the ocean feels the bottom quite often and can kick up an uncomfortable sea state. We experienced that a bit leaving Inverness, the sea much bigger than the light air would have suggested, steep and coming from two directions. At times we actually lowered the mainsail, which was too heavy to stay filled in the light wind and sloppy ocean, sacrificing a bit of speed for the sake of our mental states. There is no worse sound in the world than a slatting mainsail when you’re tired. And it’s not good for the sails or the boat.

Thanks, I think, to the shallow bottom, the ocean was a strange color blue in the North Sea, not the deep purple of the open sea, but rather a greyish blue, like the color of gunmetal. It could also be the lack of sunlight – it was overcast probably 5/6 of the time – and the grey sky simply projected onto the surface of the sea. The wind was getting up a bit then, and there was a distinctive hum in the rigging.

The birdlife, as it was the entire way across the Atlantic, was thriving in the North Sea. I’d seen mainly two types – one that reminded me of a sheep, with a high forehead, stubby tail and symmetrical, short wings, very aestecially pleasing. He was white on his head and body, with grey on the tops of his wings and a distinct white pattern that brought to my mind angels. The other, more comical type of the two – and my favorite – reminded me of my dog Lewie. They were longer and dopey, with longer stretched necks and beaks, and long, thin, high-aspect-ratio wings. They were all white, with the last 1/3 of their wingtips, top and bottom, painted black. They were very serpentine when they flew, resembling a dinosaur in a weird way, or a monitor lizard. I liked watching them.

A fleet of four sheep-birds circled the boat in close succession, flying round and round for no obvious reason.

Those big dolphins came back – one seemed enchanted by the windvane and cruised along with his nose nearly touching the vane paddle. He sat there, doing 5-6 knots with the boat, for several minutes, his body sideways in the water, acting like he was looking up at me. He was only two feet away. I could have touched him. It was a magical feeling, that close to nature.

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Norway was soon in sight off the port bow. Norway! Scandinavia! The north! Holy moly. It was starting to get surreal for me, the end of that enormous challenge we set for ourselves, which was then nearly in reach. I wouldn’t allow myself to see the finish then, but setting eyes on the mountainous coast of Norway was exciting.

And what a day we were having. I predicted the day before that the wind would hold, and it did. It continued to build, blowing away the dampness and cloud cover of the morning to reveal a sparkling blue day. The air was clear up there, the clouds thin and whispy, transparent almost, the sea that dark greyish blue and flecked with foam from the occasional roller that jumped aboard. I started seeing a red sort of jellyfish in the water, many of them, which apparently have been plaguing the west coast of Sweden all summer (as it turned out, after speaking to our diving friend Anders in Gothenburg, that this summer has been normal – it was just that last summer there were none around, and people got spoiled).

Those birds with the angel wings were wheeling and diving in the fresh breeze, working to windward by first swooping down to the surface of the sea, then turning abruptly into the wind and riding it up in a long, banking turn before diving again and repeating the pattern.

Mia handed the rest of the mainsail earlier in the day, and we were absolutely boiling along, hanging onto the genoa probably longer than we should have, but enjoying the ride. A wave slammed into the boat and knocked us 30º off course and nearly found its way into the companionway, where I was sitting, and about gave me a soaking. It didn’t though, and I was grateful (ironically, shortly after thinking that a wave did find it’s way into the cockpit and down the companionway, splashing me (I was asleep in my bunk) and drenching Mia, who was sitting on the galley countertop. It filled the cockpit to the locker lids and sluiced down the after cowl vent into the lazarette, filling the bilge up to the bottom of the engine. Mia’s clothes were soaked. Had the weather not been so fine otherwise, it might have been a worrying situation. We just laughed it off and pumped the bilge).

I predicted that night that the wind would abate as the sun went down. It did, and never came back.