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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