Marsali Taylor experienced her first North Sea yacht crossing this year. Here, she describes a difficult and eventful journey.
Sailing across to Norway is something Shetland yachts do almost as regularly as south coast ones go to France, and I was keen to do a real open sea voyage. I crew regularly on Joe Irvine’s Cynara, from Brae, so when Joe said “How about the Lofoten Islands?” I said yes first, then went to the atlas to find out where they were. The other crew member was Graham Sutherland, the owner of Joe’s previous boat, Tigga.
There was a lot of preparation beforehand: making the ship ready for a sea crossing, a planning meeting to look at charts and dates, and of course a variety of forms, including customs forms. Then, in the days before we were due to go, the boat had to be stowed with food, water and fuel. Joe gave us a safety briefing: liferaft, grab-bag, danbouy, man overboard drill, lifejackets, clipped on at all times.
The forecast gave us a southerly wind, force four or five, but with bad weather coming, so we had to make it to Norway before it arrived. It turned out to be our first wrong forecast. We’d just set off from the marina when it began to rain, lightly at first, then heavily, and out in the Rona there was almost no wind, and a big swell that knocked what there was out of the sails. We blattered on up to Eshaness, getting wetter and wetter, and at last met a very nice breeze – in the wrong direction – meaning we’d miss the Flugga tide. We turned back to Vementry to dry out, and the next day set off for Cullivoe, to check the forecast again and wait for a weather window to go across.
We still hoped to get above the headland of Statt – the “corner” in the middle of Norway, and so notorious for bad tides that Måløy runs an escort service around it. The threatened low pressure was forecast as lighter the following day, and by Monday morning it had diminished to an area of force five, with a pinpoint of six off the Norwegian coast. It was time to go.
It was the most beautiful morning, with the hills that soft, dusted green, and the sea sparkling ahead of us. Unst was to port, with the clifs of Hermaness and Saxavord Hill cloud-shadowed behind the first green. The engine snuffled behind me, like a friendly seal, the wind was pleasantly cool on my face, and there was nothing but horizon ahead. Some thirty miles offshore we met three or four dolphins, flashing grey beneath the surface then bursting a sickle fin and shining back through the waves. They played with the bow-wave for a few minutes before continuing their passage south. Later, we came through a flock of sleeping gannets, heads pale sulphur lumps on their backs, grey beaks tucked under a half-unfurled wing.
By teatime we were out of radio range. Saxavord had become a grey shadow of a hill, the same colour as the thickening clouds above it. Tea was stew and potatoes and after it we began watches; Joe went below to sleep for a couple of hours, then it was my turn.
I was woken by footsteps overhead: the jib coming down. Then Cynara began bouncing about. What wind there was had shifted dead against us. Saxavord had totally gone now and there was nothing but pale blue mounds of water shifting the horizon from cloud to only ten metres away. The far sky was mottled grey and white, like a hand-splatch painting, and the nearer clouds were plump and black, lit from behind as the sun went down.
With darkness the wind picked up a little, and we forged along under main only, with one reef in. Oil rigs glittered neon-orange up on the horizon – Tern on our port side, Cormorant on our starboard.
At midnight it was my turn to go below again. I was conscious, even while sleeping, of the wind rising. At two I got up, dressed, and went on deck. Yes, there was now a distinct breeze, the force five we’d been promised. We talked about getting the storm jib up, and putting a second reef in. I wasn’t keen on someone going forward when Cynara was being bounced about, but Joe was right, if her engine couldn’t punch us through these waves all the way to Norway, it had to be done, and if it had to be done, now was a better time than later.
We got into our places. There was a cold hand clutching round my stomach as Joe made his way forward; then I was too busy nursing Cynara over each wave to watch. He settled himself into the pulpit, and got the jib hanked on. Graham got the halyard up, and I was trying to sheet in enough to stop the sail flapping at him, yet not enough to put on speed, while still watching each wave as it came towards us so that I could ease her over gently, not with one of those terrifying, bow-plunging bounces that could make him lose his footing. Now was not a good time to try our man overboard drill.
Reefing next. The sail came down, was hooked on and stretched. At last we were all back in the cockpit, ready to sit this out.
Cynara was much happier under sail. She was still taking the occasional wave sideways, and once she came over the top of a wave and then dropped to the bottom with a slap, like landing on concrete, but she was steadier and we were making better speed – over five knots. Joe wanted to keep on the helm; I wedged myself into my corner and prepared to doze.
When I surfaced properly it was light. The wind hadn’t strengthened, but I hadn’t realised the difference between a force five in our sheltered voe and here out at sea. For the first time I was afraid of the sea, this lead-grey mass that heaved a round shoulder up on one side of the boat, shrugged us away, then came up to buffet the other side. The horizon had gone, replaced by waves that came up between us and the sky, then subsided again to show a waste of grey water. Furthermore, we were completely alone: no oil rigs, no seabirds, just us. It was Tuesday morning now; we were just half way, with another full day to go. I tried to visualise the forecast map. If we were into the force five zone now, this was it until we reached Norway, where we might get that last pinpoint of six just off the coast. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
There was no magic wand to wave out here, though. We were in the middle of the North Sea, with a hundred miles to go. Joe would be okay for a bit; he’d had two sleeps. I was fine. Graham was more of a worry. He was being persistently sick, and determinedly helming between bouts. Although we were all wet, it wasn’t cold, and we had food and a flask of hot water ready to hand. There were cereal bars, rolls, dried fruit and chocolate biscuits.
We went on. The sick terror eased away, although I was always conscious that it would only take one small thing to break for us to be in real difficulties (Joe said later that he’d passed the time thinking of things that might go wrong). I was glad we had a rudder with a skeg. The rigging had been tested regularly at regattas. The water was, mostly, staying outside the boat; waves slooshed over the sprayhood and ran down the side of it onto our seats, and there was a stream running down inside the gunwale.
One thing I hadn’t thought of was the disorientation of being out in the open sea. Joe had a small screen with a pointer which showed how far off a set course he was, and in what direction, and he used that to steer. I’d lost all sense of time too. The only thing that gave me any idea of the hours passing was the log, slowly counting out the sea miles we’d done. 130 . . . 135 . . . that was another hour. Now the waves were exploding from within in a block of foam like white lava. When I was watching for other ships I kept thinking I was seeing white motorboats, so solid and angular did it look. In all that long day, though, we saw only one other, a yacht under bare poles.
Going below was difficult. Just getting turned into the companionway so that you weren’t going to fall straight down onto the cabin floor took careful thought of what foot, what hand, would go where. The upper handhold was vital for moving along to the heads. Diesel from the bilges had made the floor slippery: Joe knocked his head in one bounce, and Graham came up with blood running down the bridge of his nose. All the same, the cabin felt like sanctuary, and each time I went below I just sat for ten deep breaths before going up again. I was dismayed when Joe said we’d need to shut the washboards to make sure the chart plotter wasn’t taken out by a wave, but once the washboards were fitted in place and the glass hatch closed it felt paradoxically safer; the ship was battened down for sea.
It was a good decision. Not long after that we began taking waves over the sprayhood. The first one came right over the top of us with a cold, startling flurry that knocked a laugh out of us and drenched any dry bits left. Not that there were many. I was already soaked right through. My thermal mittens needed wrung out at regular intervals. I was even paddling in my boots from water which had dripped down my mid-layer into them.
Endurance. We’d all dozed a bit, hunched in the cockpit. It was a classic recipe for disaster though: an exhausted crew making an unknown landfall on a strange coast after a long day at sea. All the same, exhausted or not, we were still making cheerful conversation, and even cracking the occasional joke.
It was sometime in the afternoon that I became aware of a persistent delusion that there were four of us on board. I kept thinking there was someone else below when we were all three in the cockpit. I’d heard of this before, from a mountaineer friend; “the third climber” is very common at high altitudes. Later, Joe said he’d had the same feeling.
One hundred and seventy nautical miles. There was a thickening of the cloud on the horizon before us that suggested land, and a kittiwake came past us. Not much further. The wind had risen, though, and the waves had become a large, regular procession – great black rollers striped with streaks of foam.
Joe went below to look at where we were, and called up, “Four hours to Måløy”.
Four hours. It was a short time compared to the 20 we’d done, but it sounded like an eternity. Cynara was overcanvassed now, and we could have done with taking in the last reef, but it wasn’t a good time for people on the foredeck. Joe let the traveller off and eased the main a touch, and we battled on. A survey vessel loomed suddenly out of the waves behind us. I imagined the men on board peering down at this little yacht beating for safety as the air dimmed around us and the short Norwegian night set in.
I needn’t have worried about landfall. Joe and Graham went into what was obviously a well-used routine. Graham went below and sat at the chart table, calling up instructions which I relayed to Joe on the helm. We were aiming for a port they’d been to before, Kalvåg.
At last there were lights on the horizon, and an upturned pudding-basin of an island in a jumble of other hills. We were peering ahead for a red sector light to identify the island we wanted, and at last we found it: a longer, more jagged island than the one to starboard. Joe feathered Cynara over the waves, and I peered between the waves flooding the sprayhood to call our course. Gradually the red pinpoint became clearer, with a swarm of neon lights around it, seemingly floating right ahead of us, although they were still two hours sailing away.
The water was becoming more sheltered all the time. Once into the channel we were able to get the sails down. I took the helm and Joe and Graham went forrard. It was at this point that Joe realised, taking the storm jib down, that the spring of the snap-shackle holding it up had been shaken out. Only tension had kept the pin in.
One last alarm. Joe suddenly called back, “Cut the engine”. He’d seen what he thought was pink fishing net. It turned out to be some kind of algae. Both he and Graham were seeing red in front of their eyes, after staring at instruments.
Nearly in port. I followed instructions from below, steering towards the blinking white light, then tried to make sense of Graham’s instructions – “Those two port lights, you go in a dog’s leg behind the first one” – and resolved to look at the chart first next time. Joe brought her alongside a pontoon and we tied up.
It was 3.30am. We’d done 80 miles motor-sailing and the rest under shortened sail – a total of 215 miles from Cullivoe to Kalvåg. The 135 nautical miles of storm had taken us 24 hours. We slung our wet clothes over the cockpit rails, texted home to say we’d made it, and toasted Cynara with a well-earned dram. Then sleep, instantly.
* * *
We woke to a sun-drenched morning. To one side of us, a long bay ending in a curve of rock hills, with crescents of snow at their heights; to the other, a jumble of dark red, white and yellow houses in front of a pine-tree covered hill. The island we’d steered for turned out to be like something in Fiji: sharp peaks covered with hanging green vegetation.
Another mountain was a rounded cone with a spiral of pine-green wreathing up it; the bare grey mountain behind it was notched like tree bark, and crowned with snow. The air had that beautiful Norwegian clarity, as if everything had just been power-washed.
After a leisurely breakfast, we investigated the showers (wonderful) then began the cheerful bustle of liveaboards who’d just come in from a stormy voyage. Wet clothes were hung over the boom and along the dodgers, the cockpit cushions were stood on end to dry. Joe went below to bale out the port lockers and I tackled the melted ice in the perishables lockers and cool box. We probably radiated smugness, the three of us; we’d come through our first North Sea gale in good order, and were quite incredibly pleased with the ship, each other and ourselves.
Our experience hadn’t been unusual, though. Almost every one of the Shetland fleet who’s crossed to Norway has as good a tale to tell – like Robert’s return under bare poles with a following gale, or Drew’s trip under storm jib and only one portion of mainsail. Anyone going out in the North Sea has to be prepared.
My last two days were spent motoring through the fjords. That’s the way to see Norway, pottering at walking pace between those beautiful mountains. Here and there was a little village in a green hollow; a mountain slashed diagonally, like knife scars; a stream of twisted white falling sheer down to the water; stubby little towers of lights with a red or green cap, and one made to look like the bridge of a ship; a ferry passing us, its wake dusting the water with bubbles; a tunnel going straight into a hillside. We visited St Sunniva’s island of Selje, and looked out over Statt, surrounded by millpond-flat, sunset gold water – Joe and Graham’s next day’s voyage, but I had to go home.
Still, there’s next summer: Stavanger. Of course that’s a longer crossing . . .