Isbjorn Offshore: A Black, No Horizon Night

May 21, 0900

Low, grey clouds overhead. They're moving off to our right, carried by the chilly northerly wind. A few hints of blue sky are visible to the north. Thane & Brenda are on watch. It's dry outside, but cool. They're in fully foulies, gloves & wool hats. The wind has a bite to it, especially without the warming sun overhead. It's a proper North Atlantic day today.

Isbjorn romps east on 60 degrees apparent under small sails - triple-reefed mainsail & double-reefed genoa, the staysail rigged and furled on the foredeck just in case. We're slightly under-canvassed now, but the motion is smooth, the helm is light and we expect the wind to increase throughout the day as it backs into the NW. Mia just finished washing up from the morning's breakfast - eggs over easy forThane & Brenda, Cheerios for Mac (whose feeling a bit of mal-de-mer) and 'mung' (that's eggs scrambled with leftover burger meat and potatoes) for Mia & I. David is asleep in the forepeak.

After a slow few days, we laid down the miles yesterday. Around noonish the wind started building from the WSW. We had been broad-reaching on port, angling farther north than ideal, but needing to to keep the light wind in the sails in an annoying swell. As the wind & seas built, we set the pole to port and ran downwind, wing-on-wing. By mid-afternoon it was blowing 20-25. We threw two quick reefs in the mainsail and made fast for the east-northeast.

We gambled with the forecast. Our goal all along was to be the farthest north in the fleet, to ride the top of the Azores High and hopefully keep the breeze right the way across the Atlantic. A big low pressure was lurking to our north, centered over Newfoundland, with strong winds on its back (west) side forecast to extend far south and towards our position. WRI forecast gale force winds and 17-20 foot waves towards the far northernmost grid regions, around 40 N. So it looked as though we needn't go so far north as we'd planned, and indeed looked like a BAD idea to do so. There'd be plenty of wind farther south it seemed, so why play with fire?

We gybed the downwind rig before dinner, swapping the poled-out genoa to starboard and the reefed mainsail to port. The wind was still strong out of the WSW, our course now about 100 true, slightly south of east. We'd gone far enough north we figured, and would run east just beneath the 37th parallel. (As I write, on Sunday morning, were at 36 46 N).

At the 2000 watch change we decided to take action. The GRIBs predicted a wind shift from WSW around to NNE sometime overnight as the remnants of the cold front stretching off the Newfoundland low passed overhead. We were on the wrong tack, with the complicated downwind rig up, and heading into a dark & potentially stormy night...

May 20, 2000: Watch Change

I wake up from a short, fitful nap while Mia finishes off our 1800-2000 watch. We're splitting the 'dog watch' on Isbjorn - the 1600-2000 watch is divided in two, with dinner served at the 1800 changeover when everyone's up. I'm anxious about the predicted wind shift and the rig we have up, which is right for the current conditions but all wrong for the change.

Thane & Brenda emerge in full gear just as the sun is setting behind an overcast, grey sky. I take the helm while Mia, Thane & Brenda go forward to stow the pole. We put the genoa away altogether. With the pole safely secured, we rig the staysail halyard as a precaution, then gybe the mainsail and go back onto port. With the breeze still 20-25 from the west, Isbjorn makes a comfortable 5-6 knots running under triple-reeled mainsail alone, prevented far out to starboard and pinned on the rigging. We're ready for the wind shift & whatever it brings. I go below and turn in, felling less anxious now the boat is strapped down tight.


'We've got our windshift!' says Brenda as she rousts me from a light snooze. I stick my head outside through the hatch, still just in shorts and my sleeping t-shirt. The night is DARK! No kidding, there is no distinguishable horizon. Just black sky melting into black sea. The only indication we're not just charging through outer space is the occasional whitecap that glows in the greenish light from our masthead tricolor. Thane's getting pummeled by a heavy rain that's coming in sideways and under the bimini, which in any case leaks like a sieve. But the wind has indeed shifted. It's blowing 20-25 from the north now.

Thane rigs the genoa sheet and passes me the furling line. I'm dry under the dodger. Let him get wet! We deploy the genoa to the second reef point, and the added sail area gives Isbjorn the extra kick she needs to slice through the waves at 7-8 knots. We've still got a tiny amount of sail up in general, but she's an easily driven hull and the motion belowdecks is downright cozy.

I turn in again for another 90 minutes of sleep before the next watch change, much more comfortable now that we've made it through the shift, and very confident to have been so prepared for it.

Sleep didn't come easy last night. All sorts of things swirled around in my mind as we waited for the weather to do something. The anxiety of wondering if we'd gone too far north. The occasional hard roll to starboard that jolted me awake when a particularly big swell passed under the keel. The inescapable feeling that I'd rather be on the couch back home with a fire blazing and a good movie on TV.

I've always said I go through some real ups and downs emotionally offshore. When I'm really down, I fear death. No kidding. It's not logical, and my analytical brain knows that - we're safer out here than most morning commuters driving down the freeway at 75 mph. Probably a holdover of emotions from dealing with my mom's death almost exactly five years ago. It's hard to admit that - as a captain and a leader I'm not sure I SHOULD admit that. But behind my hard exterior facade of confidence & bravado there's a soft inside that shares the same fears as anyone else. It's just how you manage them that matters. I actually believe that all leaders feel these emotions, yet few admit it, ironically also out of fear. I think it's the good ones who can negotiate that knife edge - keep the scary stuff on the inside while projecting confidence and commanding action on the outside.