Moments on board

Monday midday watch

In a fresh northerly wind with all plain sails set Tecla headed westward from the Faroes toward Iceland. A day of bright greys. The wind pushed moderate waves toward the beam. Darker patches come and go amongst the waves; sometimes one is tempted to believe these more permanent lumps might be a whale, but mostly they just dissipate back into the sea. The sun shines through a thinner patch of cloud, catching the wave tops with dashes of sparkle. The sky is a complex of clouds, some low and heavy, threatening rain; some higher grey stratus; others in brilliant white in distant sunlight.

The masts and steel standing rigging is taut; the halliards have been tightened hard with multiple purchases and blocks; some feel like rods to the touch.The sheets holding the sails against the wind ease in and out with the roll of the ship, as do the preventers that stop the booms from swinging around dangerously. The blocks that hold the main sheet creak and scream, the boom lifts and falls, as wind fills and eases in the sail. The wind sounds like soft thunder in the rigging; a sail loses the wind for a moment and cracks like a gunshot.

A darker cloud approaches the wind gusts; a squall is approaching from the north. Tecla heels a little more and picks up speed. As the cloud passes overhead, sharp rain, then light snow, falls on those of us clustered around the wheel. A thump from forward as the a bigger lump of wave hits the bows. Some water sprays on the decks forward and runs around amidships, eventually running out through the scuppers. Tecla rises over a bigger wave, lurches just a little in response, then seems to slide down sideways into a trough. The person at the helm responds to bring her back her course, swinging the big wheel too and fro until she is settle back on course–and endless process that needs continual attention. Another squall passes, then a streak of pale blue cloud signals clearer weather behind. But it remains achingly cold.

We are often followed by flocks of fulmars wheeling around in the waves, staying close to the surface, turning on one wingtip almost touching the water. Sometimes a few gannets join them, the occasional great skua. There is great excitement when a pilot whale surfaces momentarily alongside—we just catch the curve of its back and blowhole before it dives underwater again. A pod of dolphins play briefly in the bows. Then the skipper points our something new to many of us, a long tailed skua, first one, then a group of fourteen or so. They are clearly distinguishable by their tails streaming out behind. We assume that are migrating.

Midnight watch

I was surprised earlier in the voyage at how it was scarcely dark and midnight. Now in even higher latitudes as I come on deck it is more like a long summer twilight. On the horizon, a jagged patch of silvery white. It might be a cloud, but no, it is too permanent, it is the first sight of land, the high glaciers of Iceland well behind the coastline. We are still a long way from land. The wind fades, Tecla lurches in the waves and the sails crack and bang unpleasantly. The skipper comes on watch and we hustle about getting the sails down and stowed. Everything is done with precision and care, especially with the mainsail, which if not kept under control will swing about alarmingly. Then all the halliards must be coiled and stowed again, the decks made tidy.

After my watch below, at breakfast time I come on deck to look around. The cliffs and mountains of Iceland are silhouetted against a pale orange morning sky stretching across from northwest to northeast. I feel an utter delight surge in me, but don’t have long to enjoy it: the wind has picked up again, it is time to hoist main, staysail, jib, mizen, then shut down the engine and carry on westward, so much more pleasantly, under sail.

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