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.

Arriving at Iceland

The picture above shows the rising sun around 3.00am on our approach to Reykjavik. Even at midnight it is as light as a long summer twilight in southern England; although so very much colder. I have read so many times about these lands were the sun scarcely set, but it is quite something else to be here at this time, to wake from my watch below, dress in many layers, then climb the companionway to almost daylight.

Our first sight of Iceland a few days ago was from well out to sea: on the horizon, what might at first have been a cloud became clearly the high glaciers of the south and east. We sailed on to reach the volcanic Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), more precisely Heimaey, an island that suddenly erupted in the 1970s. The eruption lasted for months, threatening to close the entrance to the only harbour–and this is an important fishing port. An experimental attempt was made to slow the flow of lava by pumping seawater over it, and over time pumps from all around the world joined the effort. When the eruption stopped, many houses had been overwhelmed, but the harbour was safe, indeed, the lava had made the entrance narrowed and better protected. It is a strange island, with a prosperous fishing port and local industries outside which are huge lava fields and at least two volcanoes to climb (I managed one).

This picture shows the lava field at the harbour entrance

And this the view from Heimaey toward the glaciers on the mainland.

We continued on toward the southwest corner of Iceland in light winds (although the shipping forecast said there were strong gales just to the south). The sunlight sparkled on a ridiculously blue sea as we sailed past the remains of earlier volcanic explosions. The winds were ideal for hoisting the main and mizen topsails. I was not able to video this as I was pulling on ropes, but I stood aside earlier to catch the hoisting of the jib. We are quite a good team now, most of us having learned how to heave on the ropes together, rather than get in each other’s way. We are watched all the time by our permanent crew, who are quick to correct any mistakes. The rigging and sails on this ship are heavy and dangerous if they get out of control.

This is the last day of the first part of this voyage. My fellow guests depart tomorrow, and a new group will join, and a new skipper too, for the next leg up the western coast of Iceland to fjords of the northwest and the northern town of Isafordur.

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.

Night Watch 2

Three of us came up on deck a little before midnight to take our four hour watch with the mate in charge. It was scarcely dark, more like a misty evening than the middle of the night. Colour had disappeared completely, the horizon was a vague smudge, the navigation light on the foremast swung against an overcast sky. Every now and then the ghostly presence of a fulmar flew silently close by the rigging. There was little to be seen off the boat: the white foam of Tecla’s bow wave, the flashing light of a weather buoy; the indistinct lights of a ship on the horizon.

We had left the Shetlands late that afternoon and motored between Yell and Unst, past Muckle Flugga, the most northern rock of the British Isles, and on directly into the northerly wind. The skipper wanted to be well to windward before setting course for the Faroe Islands on a starboard tack. The marine diesel thrummed under our feet, sending up whiffs of exhaust fume. Tecla pitched into the moderate seas, spray broke over the bows, sea water ran on the decks. For a while there was little we could do but keep out of the cold wind as best we could.

After an hour the skipper came on deck. He looked around, slowed the engine, checked the wind, and decided it was time to sail. Tecla was already carrying mizen and stay sails, so we were set to work hoisting the others. First we went forward to the jib. One team pulled the tack out along the bowsprit, while the rest of us hauled on the halliard to raise the head. At first, the sail went up easily, but grew heavier as more sail rose from the deck and the wind caught it. Getting it tight to the crew’s satisfaction was even harder work.

We then turned to the main, a heavy four cornered canvas with a gaff spar, hoist on one halliard at the throat and another at the peak. With the deck heaving under our feet, we hauled away at one rope, then another. At times I felt there was no strength in my arms, certainly not to get everything as tightly hoist as the crew wanted. Often it seemed that the line we were hauling on was already impossibly rigid. But each time we found a way to get our collective strength together and haul in that extra six inches that made all the difference. We returned to one rope after another—halliards, jiggers, sheets, preventers—to ensure everything was setting well. At last we were finished, the engine silenced, and we returned, now hot and sweaty, to rest on the bench in the stern. Tecla surged westward for the Faroes, the motion now easier with the sails balancing the ship against the wind.

Now we were invited to take turns on the wheel, steering the ship on a compass course set by the skipper. We sat behind the wheel, exposed to the wind, learning the trick of keeping the ship on course. It was important not to stare at the compass—for that is a sure was to lose all sense of direction—but to look forward at the ship’s heading, glancing from time to time at the compass for confirmation. But for none of us was this easy: Tecla is long keeled and usually keeps a steady course, but once she wandered away, or her bows are struck with a particularly heavy wave, it took a while for her to respond to the rudder. Then it was easy to over-correct so she went off course in the opposite direction. Or to do what I did on one embarrassing occasion, becoming confused as to which way to turn the wheel and take the ship right off course, bringing the skipper back on deck in alarm.

By two thirty we noticed that the sky was lightening again, but there was nothing but sea and more sea. The rigging creaked, sometimes even sounding like a human voice, easy to imagine some apparition from the sea calling us. Shadows appeared on the surface of the water, seeming like the floating islands of mythology, only to fade back into ordinary waves as we peered more closely.

As it got lighter the seabirds appeared. We were followed by a flock of fulmars swooping low into the waves, turning sharply with one wing tip just not touching the surface, then soaring over the wave tops with a couple of wing beats. For a while the fulmars were joined by gannets, flying higher over the stern keeping place with regular flaps of their long wings. Both birds were endlessly enthralling.

At four our colleagues came on deck to relieve us. It was by then almost daylight, the long day across the North Atlantic ahead of us. We climbed back down the companionway, discarded our layers of fleece and waterproof, and disappeared into the warmth of our duvets until we heard the sounds of breakfast prepared in the galley.

Fetlar, Northern Isles

A photo essay from the beach

Arriving rather footsore and weary at the southern tip of Fair Isle, I let the rest of the party carry on to explore the lighthouse while I found a seat in a little stone-walled graveyard. I had heard this island mentioned so many times in the shipping forecast, but had never imagined I would actually come here. I sat for a while looking out at the hazy line of horizon, and found myself thinking, “This is what it is, and that is quite sufficient”.

The horizon was not sharp and clear, but hazy with maybe a hint of sea fog. Below, the silvery grey sea, smudged with dark lines of a light swell, glinted where wave-tops caught the light. Above, thin cumulus covered the sky, heavier dark above, lighter where it met the sea. Nearer the shore, a line of rocks rose from the sea, black against the light, upturned strata forming jagged tops. The swell, blown in by an almost imperceptible onshore wind, gathered height as it approached the shallows and broke gently on the shore, except where a tidal race surged between two of the larger rocks, throwing up turbulence and broken waves.

A shag stood sentinel on one of the nearer rocks; gulls flew lazily past; an oystercatcher cried shrilly; the waves murmured as they rolled up the beach

It was a grey scene, but quietly so. A comforting rather than a gloomy grey, subtle watercolour greys. Something in this place captured me. It was the kind of simple place I had been looking for and not found so far on this voyage. It seemed like a place that accepted me. Where I could stay and rest rather than rush on to see the next sight.

All I really wanted to say was, it is what it is. This simple beauty. This is the world we have. And please will you stop wishing for something else.

https://onthewesternedge.wordpress.com/2019/05/19/497/

Patterns in the world

We left Stromness is a sharp south easterly wind, with a reef in the main and mizzen sails and a No. 2, smaller, jib. Sailed out through the sound of Hoy and turned north round the cardinal buoys up the west coast of the Orkney Mainland. There was plenty of wind to send Tecla, healing slightly, past the Bay of Skail, where we all visited Skara Brae yesterday round Marwick Head and Birsay, and into Eynhallow Sound between the Mainland and Rousay.

Both tide and wind were now against us, so we had to make a series of short tacks up the sound. We formed two teams, one of the foredeck managing the fore sails, another further aft with the running back stays. When the skipper called for a tack and brought the ship round into the wind, the team of the foredeck backed the staysail to push the bows through the wind. Then those of us on the back stays had haul in on the lazy stay, first with the main tackle and then to tighten really had with the jigger, which gives nine times purchase. As the mainsail crashed across—it is a huge piece of wood with massive blocks controlling the sheet tackle, we released the old active backstay, the foredeck crew set the foresails, and the ship gradually gathered way on the opposite tack. At times it seemed as if we were getting nowhere, simply crossing the same bit of sea time and again. We missed one tack, and lost way with the sails in irons. But then, quite quickly, the tide slackened, we were through the narrowest part, and sailing more freely.

Apart from the sailing, I have found myself fascinated by the patterns of land and sea. As we sailed up the coast, the wind blew the tops off the waves in white horses, which when meeting the bow wave of the ship rose up in a spurt of foam. In the tidal currents in the straights, patterns are formed on the surface of the water, complex shapes that arise and disappear in the tidal flow through the sounds. There are overfalls, where one stream meets another and tumbles over the top of it in a line of more of less permanent line of white for. There are swirling circles, with a oily smooth patch in the centre, maybe three meters across, surrounded by a ring of ripples. Whirlpools of various sizes, spin past the boat.

Then it struck me that the Old Man of Hoy is also such a pattern. The sheer cliffs are carved out by the force of the waves and wind over time, wearing away the sandstone, and somehow, maybe because the rock of the pillar left behind is a harder piece of rock; or maybe because of the pattern of forces caused wear in one spot and not in another. Not so long again, the Old Man and two legs, with an arch at the foot of the pillar, which is now gone. Whatever the cause, the Old Man and the cliffs are evidence of a natural pattern moving slowly in time.

And Tecla too, is part of that pattern. The skipper showed up the track we had made tacking through the sound, a zigzag that tightened as we passed through the narrowest part and the fastest current, easing out as we entered slower water. We could, of course, have turned on the engine and motored through in a straight line. But even though it was hard work for everyone, there is, even if unconscious, a great satisfaction is playing with the patter

Rounding Cape Wrath

 

 

Woke in time to be on deck for midnight. Bundled up in warm clothes I climbed in the companionway. After the darkness below decks the light of the half moon astern was almost dazzling. It hung in a sky dappled with patchy cloud, too bright for many stars to show. I settled with my watch companions on the bench around the stern. Ahead, the skipper told us, was Cape Wrath lighthouse; on our starboard quarter the light on Stoer, slowly dropping behind us; far to port was a white light we assumed to be the working light of a fishing vessel.

Then I noticed a more mysterious light over about the loom of the mainland. Dim, with a reddish glow, low on the horizon. Was it a land light on a mountain side? Or a rising star or planet? Slowly in rose in the sky, brightening but keeping its strange hue. Clearly a planet, rising ahead of the sun: Venus? Mars? I regret my ignorance of the heavens! Through the rest of the watch it rose higher in the sky, visible even as the sky lightened in the earlier dawn

The sea is smooth, almost oily, a long swell following the ship, lit by the path of moonlight across the water. No wind. The sails we urgently hoisted on leaving Stornoway, which caught the wind for a few hours, now hang limp—well, as limp as heavy canvas can hang—cracking occasionally as the ship rolls.

The Cape Wrath light slowly becomes more distinct as we approach. At first little more than a glimmer on the horizon, but as we pass the Cape it almost dazzles the eyes, by now fully open in night vision, as the group of four flashes casts a path of light toward the ship.

By 03.15 the sky is lightening in the northeast, taking on a flush of pink.

Through the watch we drink tea and eat biscuits, take turns on the wheel. Now and then one of us walks toward the bows, or does some knee bends to try to keep warm. Even though it has been a beautiful night we are happy with our relief watch comes on deck. We hurry back to the warmth of our bunks and sleep until breakfast time.

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