Snaefellsjokull

After a brisk day-long sail from Hvalfjordur northward, the skipper tucked Tecla in close to the shore, scarcely out on the wind on the south side of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. It is never easy, anchoring near mountains. They funnel the wind down valleys in unpredictable ways, and add their own catabatic influence as dense cold air drops downhill. It was quiet enough at anchor for us to enjoy a glass of whisky and dinner—roast lamb, no less—even those who had found the day’s sail distressing for their stomachs. Next morning the crew ferried us ashore to the little harbour and we walked through the nearby nature reserve and enjoyed the rocky basalt shoreline, with arches, pillars, and other spectacular rock formations.

Walking back to the harbour, we realised that the wind had increased. At times it was difficult to walk. The sea to windward, where Tecla was anchored, was covered with short, sharp waves, their tops blown off in streaks of white. The crew were at the jetty with the dinghy to take us on board, limiting passengers on each run to three. Those of us left on the shore watched the our fellows disappear round the end of the harbour wall, plunging to the waves. A local fisherman expressed his concern, ‘It is bad weather.’ When it was my turn, I settled myself securely on the side of the dinghy and found secure places to hold on to. As soon as we left the shelter of the harbour I realised I would be soaked, as I had waterproof trousers but just a fleece top. As we crashed into and over the waves, sheets of arctic cold water blew up from the bows and smashed into our faces. I felt cold water run down inside my chest-high waterproofs, over my torso, dribble down and soak my crutch, finally running down my legs and inside my boots. For the crew, this was their third soaking of the morning.

Once alongside the ship, the dinghy rose and fell dramatically, we were urged to pick our moment and then climb the rope ladder without hesitation—and there were willing arms on deck to heave us to safety over the rail. I shivered for a few moments on deck, but soon realised I urgently needed to get warm and dry.

The skipper wanted to get under way, and while I was below decks changing, the anchor was hoisted and Tecla was making her way round the headland. I was back on deck to help hoist staysail and mizen, and the skipper kept things quiet while we had lunch below. We were back on deck to magnificent views of the volcano Snaefellsjokull, which had been cloud covered during our walk but now was clear to the peak. It rises from sea level in a regular shallow cone, capped with a glacier from two thirds of the way up. From the sea we could see its flattish top, with two tiny peaks that might be take to be devil’s horns.

As we rounded the headland, the sails clapped as the wind shifted sharply. Suddenly, the sea was a turmoil of white, short, sharp waves showing no regular pattern. Even under short sail, Tecla heeled to windward. A howl rose in the rigging. Rope ends streamed almost horizontal. Spray from the bows blew right over the deck, soaking the lifejackets left out to dry after the dinghy rides. Shockingly cold, it became painful to face into the wind, so most us huddled under our waterproof hoods staring downwind. We plunged round the headland and on northward. Then, quite suddenly, the wind dropped, settled back in the north east, we had left the wild waves behind, and the ship pitched and rolled over moderate waves.

As we sailed on, I looked back at Snaefellsjokull and remembered Nick Hunt’s book Where the Wild Winds Are on the winds of Europe, winds not caused by marine anticyclones that we sailors are accustomed to, but by cold air literally falling down the mountainside. These winds have a wicked character: violent, unpredictable, often chaotic, bitterly cold. We may think we understand the natural forces that cause them, but to experience them directly defies this: they are weird, unpredictable, with a life of their own, strangely disturbing to the human psyche. Yet the mountain itself, glaciers gleaming white in the sunshine and clear northern air, was awesomely beautiful. It remained visible behind us all through the day as we continued north; even at night it’s ethereal image hung on the horizon until by dawn the following day it had finally faded.

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Hvalfjordur

Sailing out of Reykjavik a brisk wind throws up white caps, but in the lee of the land, the waves are small and the sea slight. With a reef in the main and just the staysail we tack into Hvalfjordur. The mountains each side of the entrance show the lines of eruption of basalt, slightly angled from the horizontal. In the distance a more jagged range stands dark against the sky.

The ship sails calmly, with just a slight roll, a lift of the bows, a wake stretching out behind. But on board there is constant movement. The mainsail lifts and drops, tightening and dropping the sheet and preventer, sometimes enough to draw out a gentle squeak from the block. The slack halliards lift and drop, their tail ends swing like soft pendulums. Shadows trace patterns back and forth across the deck. The mainsail fills with wind, then slackens; reef points flutter out to leeward. The Icelandic courtesy flag flutters from the rigging, the Dutch flag streams out from the top of the mizen mast. The skipper spins the wheel to bring the ship back onto the wind. There is a gust of stronger wind, the ship heels, gathers speed and all movement increases.

It is time to tack. We move to our stations at the foresail sheets and the running back stays. As the wheel goes over the ship comes through the wind in a clatter of blocks and screech of metal on metal as the travellers move across. Heaving quickly, the new windward backstay is set, The new lazy one released and stowed, and the ship takes up her new course through the whitecaps blowing down the fjord.

That was supposed to be the end of this piece of writing, a description of an quiet day sailing. But as we tacked up the fjord, the wind slowly increased. As we sailed from one shore toward the opposite, it also funnelled down through the hills, changing direction by the minute. Clouds gathered over the mountains to our north, a line of cumulus, a rolling coil with a heavy dark bottom. A catabatic wind was clearly dropping down from the cold peaks and adding to the day’s northwesterly. The pleasant whitecaps became full blown white horses, the wind howling through the rigging, water surging through the scuppers onto the deck, spraying up from the bows.

All the light movements I tracked above became exaggerated. The mainsail strained at its sheets; the reef points blow out almost horizontal. Coiled ropes hang at a marked angle to the heel of the ship. From time to time the sun glimmered through the cloud, refracting shy rainbows in the bow spray.

Time and again we tacked Tecla, the new guests getting the hang of the ropes, finding how to balance on the angled deck, and learning where to stand out of the worst of the wind. We found ourselves grinning at each other as we agree that this sailing is exhilarating. One last tack and the skipper called for the mainsail to be brought down. The boom and gaff come down neatly enough, but the heavy canvas blows out to windward, some of us leap onto the coach roof and struggle to get the gaskets round it, to tighten them so it is under control.

Under engine the skipper steers between an island and a spit of land; the crew prepare the anchor to drop. Soon all is quiet.

Zen and the art (of being an old man on a boat)

It’s all a question of self importance. Well, a lot of it is a question of self importance. As I write this, sitting on deck looking over an extraordinary pacific ocean, turquoise blue, glistening in the sunshine. It stretches to meet a pale blue sky at the razor line of the horizon. It’s real enough, and also a metaphor for empty mind, for empty awareness; thoughts just pass through like the fulmars gliding by the ship. No attachment.

But I do get attached. To what? To some image of myself; to being a competent sailor, well regarded. I get caught up in little whirls of irritation. Something doesn’t go as I want, and I dwell on it. When I am told to do something differently when I am ‘doing my best’; when I make a suggestion and it isn’t heard. My ego gets caught in a little whirl, spun around. There’s a catch of anxiety, a feeling of incompetence, when at the helm I allow the boat to wander off course, and then correcting go too far the other way. I should be better than this, I tell myself, irritated.

Then there is the cold. And it has been so very cold for weeks at a time: frozen fingers and toes, a chill in the body despite layers of clothing. This cold challenges every sense of civilised comfort, invites attachment to complaint. But it is just cold, not really anything to fuss about. Just be with it.

And it’s about age. Being less agile, less strong, not always hearing properly. How to accept being shouted at by someone young enough to be my grandchild, who is nevertheless both in charge and more competent than me? Wanting to be looked out for, but wanting still to be potent in my way, a grown up. How to accept all this without getting into a spin about it, about being an old man, without being a foolish old man. About learning to be an elder, less physically capable and yet fully present. And not getting attached to that, either.

In many ways this trip is like a meditation retreat, only without the formal meditation practices. I am continually challenged by my attachments. I can let myself go off into a miserable spin. And I can notice, let it go, return to emptiness and equanimity, to a sense of the expansive ocean. And that is how I need to treat it, with the discipline one brings to zen.

The ocean in front of me sparkles in the sunshine. Tiny wave caps break then disappear. A line of cloud bubbles up along the horizon. Fulmars hurtle pass, then wheel through the waves, one wingtip just not touching the water. Tecla sails smoothly with topsails set, gurgling under the hull. So many metaphors.

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