“It’s blowing dogs off chains in Marstrand this morning!”
I wrote on Instagram at 0630 this morning announcing our delayed departure. I’d been up since 0500, planning for an early morning departure so we could ride the westerlies down the Kattegat, around Copenhagen & Denmark, and up into the Baltic towards the medieval city of Visby on the island of Gotland. A weather buoy just outside the harbor indicated sustained winds of 15.6 m/s, gusting to 19.7 m/s. That’s ‘meters per second,’ how they do it here in the Nordic countries. Roughly doubled, gives you the windspeed in knots. Translation? A steady 31 knots, gusting to 38 (!).
In any other scenario that’d be a very easy decision - no way, we’re not going! But our new crew - Wayne, Steve, Greg & John - just arrived yesterday afternoon to join the boat, and we’re all chomping at the bit, myself included, to get offshore and get our sea legs. So paradoxically, while our primary duty is to get the gang, and the boat, safely from Point A to Point B, I also feel the pressure to get going! Furthermore, windspeed aside, the wind direction is perfect, but it’s a quickly closing window. Once this strong westerly eases off, it’s going to clock right around to the SW, S, then SE, heading us all the way as we beat around the southern tip of Sweden (see image series below). To wait for another fair wind means staying here until Wednesday or Thursday. And given our timeframe, that’s not really an option either.
After our standard boat orientation and safety briefing last night, we had dinner aboard and planned the route around to Visby. All told it’d be about 400 miles nonstop - we’d make this 10-day trip a combination non-stop passagemaking, then once around into the Baltic, a few days of adventuring in the myriad islands that make up the Stockholm archipelago. It’d be a homecoming of sorts for Mia & I - the last time we sailed this was was exactly five years ago on Arcturus, our previous boat, after completing our first Atlantic crossing. So it’s a special trip for us too.
We had an early bedtime last night in anticipation of a 0500 wake up call to get underway. At 2100 last night the forecast said 11-17 m/s (22-34 knots), right on the edge of my comfort zone with a new crew. It’s one thing to head offshore on a fair wind, where once you’re clear of land, there’s open sea ahead of you. But this is another altogether - the only way out of Marstrand given the strong west wind, is through a very narrow canal to the SE of the marina, which then spills out into a 15-mile stretch of rocks and skerries with clear but narrow (and marked) channels to the south. We’d be fully exposed to the brunt of the wind, but the waves would likely have been broken up. A strong chop would have remained. All the elements would have conspired to set us onto the rocky shoreline to the east, including a 1.4 knot, wind-driven current that was showing on a weather buoy outside Gothenburg. When we woke up, the forecast had increased to 13-20 m/s (26-40 knots). Hmmm.
At 0600 the crew & I took a short saunter out around the corner to look at the seaward channel to the south of Marstrand to get a better feel for the real conditions. The wind was funneling through the narrow opening, kicking up a 2-3’ chop and whistling through the rigging of all the boats moored in the marina. It actually didn’t feel that bad - on the saunter back, I had almost made up my mind to leave.
Examine the images below from Weather 4D 2.0, our GRIB weather program - the green boat was setup to depart at 0500 Sunday morning, and would carry the westerlies all the way around Sweden and up to Visby. The red boat, alternatively, was setup to depart at 0800 Monday morning - you can see that the wind has eased by then, but has already shifted against us, into the SW. It just gets worse from there - in the last image, by the time the green boat is in Visby, the red boat is beating against 20-25 knots from the ESE around the bottom of Sweden.
These kinds of calls are tough - part of the reason folks pay to come sailing with us is precisely for these kinds of experiences - experiencing heavy weather in a ‘controlled’ environment, or at least one where the decision making is on me. I appreciate that, and usually raise my threshold on what’s ‘comfortable’ when we have crew aboard. At heart, I’m like any other cruising sailor - I don’t want to get wet & cold! But I enjoy the adventure and like to share it with others. What makes it tougher still is that it’s a ‘fair weather gale’ today - the sun is shining and puffy clouds race across the sky. If it was raining and dark, it’d be comparatively easy! But besides the howling wind, it’s beautiful.
In this case, we had to look at our possible ‘bail outs’ - what’s going to happen if something goes wrong, and where can I find safety? The narrow, winding inside passage to the south didn't offer much room for error with a strong onshore wind. And there was no way our engine would have powered us out and clear offshore - the main channel is dead to windward, narrow, and throwing a ferocious chop. Right of the bat, the narrow canal we’d have to thread through would have been tough - the wind would have been funneling down the canal, meaning it’d have been a log-flume ride for us, with no way to slow the boat down. If I’d have thrown her into reverse, we’d have instantly kicked sideways, and the canal is narrower than the boat is long. Then, had we cleared that hurdle, there were a few kinks in the marked channel the would have seen us close-reaching to make a mark on a lee shore - a blown halyard or broken sheet would have set us onto the rocks before we’d have time to launch the anchor.
So that - the lack of safe bailout options, and the inshore nature of our escape - ultimately made the decision for us. I couldn’t in good conscious make a decision that required everything to go perfectly to succeed - it rarely does.
So we had a big breakfast onboard Isbjorn instead. This afternoon we’ll take the opportunity to thoroughly debrief the weather that made this decision, and have a larger discussion on maritime weather in general, hoping to record it for a potential podcast. We’ll try again tomorrow, though it’ll be a beat down the Kattegat towards Copenhagen. But you can’t have it all, and we’re all here for adventure anyway, so bring it on!