SAILfeed: Five days offshore across the North Sea


This post was originally published in four parts on I got inspired to edit and publish it here after reading Pat and Ali Schulte's Weird Things Happen at Sea post today. Mia and I had some similar experiences in the North Sea earlier this summer, namely with a moving oil rig (or so I thought) and a rogue wave on an otherwise sunny evening. Here's our experience...

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, N. Ireland 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 and 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. 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. 

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 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 happen now, 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. 

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 52º F). 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.

We had spent the previous 24 hours dodging oilrigs – 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.

On the morning of August 9th we entered the Eastern Hemisphere. As we sailed toward Sweden, the numbers on the chart started increasing again. 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.


The oil rigs 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.


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. 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 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.


Moving oil rig incident aside, 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. 

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 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.

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


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.

We were soon less than 100 miles from Marstrand.

On the evening of the tenth, I had predicted that the wind would die with the sunset and it did, in the middle of Mia’s watch (she has a knack for making the wind die). But before it did, it had kicked up a feisty sea. I was asleep on the starboard settee and the boat was sailing on a broad reach, the genoa on starboard and no mainsail. Earlier in the day a big wave slewed the stern round hard enough to disengage the windvane paddle (cleverly, Yves had designed a breakaway feature into the paddle for just such scenarios, or if the paddle were ever to hit a log or a turtle or something. Rather than break the paddle, it simply pops loose from it’s mount, and is held to the boat by bungee cord and an emergency piece of lashing line that normally just hangs loose when the vane is engaged). I hung off the transom to reattach it (see photo above).


When the wind eased off, the sea remained. Mia was sitting on the galley countertop and watched as a wave larger than the rest crested over the port stern quarter, filled the cockpit and cascaded down the companionway. I woke up with the boat pinned down to starboard and the splash having doused my sleeping bag. The water reached all the way to my head, which was facing forwards, and about amidships. It was nice out otherwise, so all we could do was laugh about it. I discovered later that the bilge under the engine was overflowing – the cowl vent over the lazarette had been open to the wave, the water filling that locker and the bilge.

The windvane cannot steer when the boat is motoring until we get a tiller pilot to adapt it, so for the time being, we have to hand-steer when motoring. Otherwise, good old Sune the Driver has the helm in the lightest of breezes, so long as we can keep moving. 

Mia had made some extraordinary almond-apple-cinnamon muffin/cookie things earlier that day. They were supposed to have been muffins, but without a proper muffin pan, they became more like cookies. The smell had woken me from my afternoon nap. I ate all four of mine (they were big, too) in on go.

And then we made landfall. All of a sudden Mia announced that she could see Sweden, and our ultimate goal was in sight. The weather cooperated, sort of. It was beautiful outside, crystal clear and warm, but the sea was flat and there was no wind to speak of. Knowing we’d make it in by nightfall no matter how slow we sailed, we were content to tack the remaining few miles, making only a knot or knot-and-a-half. There was no sign of the wind on the water – it was glassy – but there must have been some air aloft, because we kept moving. Had there been any sea at all we’d have gone nowhere.


About two miles offshore, we stopped the boat (actually, the wind died altogether and the boat kind of stopped on it’s own accord), and we took bucket showers, our first seawater baths since leaving Ireland, and our first washing since leaving Scotland, five days earlier. You can never fully appreciate a shower until you go several days without one. Standing on deck in the warm sunshine, completely naked, and dousing your body with icy buckets of North Sea water is one of life's ultimate refreshing experiences. After the shock of the first bucket, the next few are simply invigorating. The sense of cleanliness one gets after air-drying in the sun, shaving and putting on clean clothes is euphoric.

So we sailed the rest of the way into Marstrand, clean and fresh, physically and mentally, arriving at the crowded guest harbor late in the afternoon and finding a place among the holidaymakers at the marked

Gästhamn, with its friendly blue-and-yellow sign welcoming our arrival.

It took us three or four passes by the dock before we realized how everyone was tied up – bow-to on the floating pontoon, with fixed lines that hold the stern away from the dock, kind of like Med-mooring but without an anchor – and we took our place next to a big motoryacht and went ashore.


And with those first footsteps, we had made it to Sweden.