We’ll roll the ol’ chariot along
We’ll roll the ol’ chariot along
We’ll roll the ol’ chariot along
And we’ll all hang on behind.
NOTE from Andy, Feb 14, 2019: I’m hesitant to publish this, for risk of it being too personal, causing too much interference with the public persona I’ve created about myself and of the business. But you know what - f&%k it. If I don’t publish this, anything I do publish would just feel like propaganda. Yes, there are certain things I’ll never publish - to this day there doesn’t exist an online photo from our wedding, for example, and while I talk all the time about the decision to have kids or not, you can safely bet that if the day comes, you won’t read much about it here. That said, re-reading this now, which I wrote over 3 weeks ago while tired and just getting started on the trans-At…well, as I sit on the new Swan 59 publishing this, all the feelings I describe below are basically gone - I’m STOKED! But, this is how I felt then…here goes.
I’m tired this morning, a little weary. I didn’t sleep well last night, despite being in my bunk for about 12 hours. Not uninterrupted. The night was strange. Just before dinner we gybed the chute (flawlessly I might add) and rocketed off to the south while Mia served a chicken quinoa dish. ISBJORN was loving the big sail and I didn’t want to take it down. Some funky looking clouds on the northeastern horizon made my mind up for me. I wanted to sleep, and it’d be easier with the spinnaker in its bag belowdecks.
I put my head out the companionway and saw the leading edge of the earth’s shadow just beginning to take a bite out of the brilliant full moon. I made a pot of coffee for Mia, Walter & I, plus a cup of green tea for Fred. We shut off the tri-color and the instrument lights, put a towel over the VHF and started sailing by feel, wanting to black out any source of artificial light to give ourselves the best show.
T-minus 5 hours until departure. This will be our longest passage to date on ISBJORN, and the longest, mileage wise, of my entire sailing career. It’ll be Mia’s 5th trans-Atlantic, my 4th, and the 1st for the four crew - David, Walter, Etta & Fred - that joined us in Las Palmas two days ago for the voyage to Antigua. As I write it’s 8:10am, Mia’s making breakfast, the crew is stretching their legs one last time ashore in search of a shower, and I’m about to make the long walk down to the border police at the other end of the harbor to clear us out of Spain.
We’re five days into a warm, dry, downwind sail the whole way from Lagos. The boat’s been flat, the wind’s never been above 15 knots, there hasn’t been a drop of seawater on deck, nor a drop of rainwater from the sky. Not exactly an accurate representation of what life at sea can really be like. I’m not complaining.
The night’s have been dark. No moon and clear, cloudless skies makes for some epic stargazing. When I came up at 2230, I turned off the steaming light, which we’d been using to keep an eye on spinnaker trim in the dark. I also had Mia kill the tricolor and the instrument lights. With those extinguished, all that was left was the natural light of the stars, which filled the sky in a way impossible to see ashore. They covered every inch of black sky, from horizon to horizon, the lower ones even casting a shimmering light over the flat, dark sea.
I find it interesting how stretches of ocean seem to have a kind of character about them. The sea-state, despite the lack of wind over these first two days, has been decidedly annoying. Waves from both quarters slewing the boat around. If it’d have been calm, there would have been just enough breeze to sail. But as it were, yesterday afternoon, the waves overpowered the light wind and the sails, rather than pulling, just slatted and banged around.
When we added the Madeira passage, Jardim do Mar rocketed to the top of my list of places to see in the limited time we’d have ashore. I had this vision in my head about the place from reading the book, and I wanted to see for myself what it was like, see how that vision matched reality and see how much of the village had changed since the author spoke so highly of it.
Old town ended as I ran high above a public bath, far below the road at sea-level, a popular place for locals to swim and sunbathe. The road continued up and into the suburbs of Funchal. I passed two men smoking cigarettes outside their home on a narrow side-street, and 30 minutes later on my return they were still there, still smoking. A Sunday morning ritual.
In this way, the Atlantic islands exist in two parallel universes. That of those who earned these islands, and the one of those who didn’t. The sights look the same. All the colors are there, bright. The flowers smell delicious in both of these universes and the fish tastes great. But in the universe of those of us who make landfall in these places, we who earned it, there’s a feeling in the air that’s reserved just for us. If you’re reading this having made a landfall of your own like this, you’ll know exactly the feeling I mean. If not...well, you gotta go and earn it.
We’ve sailed almost 1,000 miles south from Svalbard and yet the temperature and the weather remains much the same. Grey, overcast skies, light drizzle, patchy fog and cold. Feels like we’ve gone sideways. I said to Mia earlier that when you leave the Chesapeake in November to sail south, you get a distinct change in climate along the way. By the end of it, you’re in shorts. Not so on this trip. We’re 14 degrees of latitude south from our northernmost point - but we’re still in the Arctic. It’s almost August, but still feels like winter here. As I type, I’m in my long underwear, jacket and hat. The hatch is open, so I guess the temperature has gone up a few degrees. But the climate feels the same.
There has been more wind than the GRIBs have indicated, and for longer. Just a few days ago we started thinking about conserving fuel. Motoring at 1500 RPM instead of 1800 to squeeze our every last hour, thinking it’d be mostly a motorboat ride to Iceland. Right now, at 0700 on a Thursday morning, it’s blowing 15-18 from the NW and Isbjorn is beam-reaching through the mist at 8 knots, urged south by the favorable East Greenland current. We can’t see where we’re going, but we’re getting there fast!
When we have wind, we’re making the miles. It’s 1100 on Wednesday July 18 as I write. Mia’s on watch. James just woke up and is in his bunk on the port (high) side, editing photos on his laptop. Jordan just woke up. Isbjorn is enveloped in thick fog. I’m at the nav station with one eye on the radar. We’re under full sail, the big genoa pulling in a ten-knot southeasterly and utterly flat calm sea.
We got ashore around 7pm and tied up the dinghy to a giant whalebone on the stony beach, keeping her offshore with a stern anchor and starting up the steep slope to the hill just west of Isbjorn’s anchorage. Large polar bear tracks led west in the snow across the little saddle towards the archipelago on the other side. We made the ridge in a few minutes and walked further south for a view over the alpine lake which feeds the little waterfall that plunges down towards the anchorage. The lake, on July 1, was frozen solid and covered in snow.
We’re back in Holmiabukta, my favorite anchorage in Spitsbergen so far, in the island’s NW Corner as it’s know in the local parlance. Mia is trying to figure out the labeling on the water tanks - we all showered yesterday and didn’t run the watermaker in the silty water, so all but one of the tanks (plus the bladder tank) is empty…
Four hours later, we moved the boat out of Hornbaekpollen and into the beautiful half-moon bay at Texas Bar. Turns out, the place is just a hut, and a tiny one at that, with a huge TEXAS BAR written on the front of it in wooden drift wood nailed to the walls. An old ship’s hatch sits out front with a couple of makeshift driftwood benches. The hut blends right into the grey scenery - it’s a very basic four-walled structured covered in tar paper to keep it watertight and with a stainless steel chimney sticking out the top.
0200. James just went on watch to relieve Brady. We’re ten miles out of Texas Bar, on the way back towards Longyearbyen after exploring as far north and east as we’ll get on this little adventure. The west wind is being kind to us so far - Isbjorn is sailing 7 knots on a close reach, getting lifted out of the fjord. Which means we’ll be headed once offshore, but the forecast is saying 10-12 knots…
“Man we’ve seen EVERYTHING today! Walrus, polar bears, the Virgohamna site. All we need now is a whale.”
Not 30 seconds after Brady said that in the cockpit as he drove Isbjorn north along the coast and towards our current anchorage at Holmiabukta, we spotted a spout off to starboard. Then another. And another.
“I thought it was ice on the water at first,” Brady said. “Then I saw the spouts and saw it was swimming, and just shouted BELUGA!”
They found it not much later in the form of an old whale carcass. It was mostly skeleton by that point. A few rib bones lay scattered in the shallows while the majority of the spine was on the beach, seagulls picking at the sinewy bits connecting the spinal bones. But adjacent to it was a large patch of blubber that must have survived the winter under the snowpack. Mama bear found it and directed her cub towards it, and they feasted while we watched from the RIB. To say it was an emotional experience would be an understatement. Just look at the photos. To be that close to nature, to the symbol of the Arctic itself...there’s no words.