ACROSS THE NORTH SEA
A training sail from Scotland to Sweden is both an adventure and a feast for the senses
Conventional wisdom says sleeping in the V-berth while offshore is a bad idea. It can be like a diabolical amusement ride that tosses a sailor to and fro, inducing stomach-churning weightlessness. And yet, here I am, nestled in the tilted corner created by my berth and the teak-battened hull. We’re close-hauled on a flat sea in a moderate breeze and heeled over maybe 10 degrees. The bow wave, just inches from my head, makes a whoosh, gurgle, gurgle sound that loops over and over putting me in a hypnotic state. I feel the cool rush from outside against my face while the rest of me is snug in my sleeping bag. It’s sublime, for now. This the North Sea after all.
I’m aboard Isbjšrn, a 1972 Swan 48, owned by Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson of the 59 Degrees North charter company. I’m one of four crew on an expedition that started 12 days ago in Oban, Scotland, bound for Marstrand, Sweden. We are now on the last leg of the trip, and my watch is four hours away, allowing me plenty of time to ponder the joys of the trip so far.
MEETING THE SHIP
I arrived in Oban a couple days before our departure to adjust to the time difference. The train ride from Glasgow gave me a taste of the rugged Scottish Highlands. Dense forests, misty lochs and lone castles set the stage for the weeks to come. This is an ancient land whose inhabitants are a special breed of legendary brave hearts. When I stepped off the train, I was met by a group of young bagpipers performing in the town square. These were a dozen or more kids who undoubtedly took time away from their iPhones to follow tradition. Their sound was infectious and stirring. If it weren’t for the damp chill of the evening air, I would have listened a while longer, but it had been a long day.
Fourteen hours earlier, I had been in steamy New York City. In Scotland, chilly was something I would have to get used to.
After a day of knocking around Oban, I received the skipper’s orders via email to meet the crew at a nearby cafŽ, where it took but a minute for me to know I was in good company: Rhea and Steve, a fun-loving and quirky couple from Minnesota; Will, an ever-curious fellow New Yorker from Brooklyn; and myself, the old fart, made up the complement of eager deckhands. James, who hails from Bristol, England, was also aboard as a photographer charged with documenting the trip. He would stay with us until Shetland and proved to not only be part naturalist, part historian and part tour guide, but an all-round great guy.
I first came to know Andy and Mia through their podcast, On the Wind, and had met them in person in Annapolis when I took one of their celestial navigation workshops. They are a likable and genuine pair. Andy, who started sailing when he was kid, spent his youth plying the waters of the Bahamas and Chesapeake Bay. Swedish-born Mia, is new to sailing by comparison, but already boasts three Atlantic crossings, one more than Andy. They met in New Zealand while following their youthful wanderlust. They married and now call Sweden their home when not at sea.
On the day of our departure, we wheeled two shopping carts full of last-minute essentials to Oban Harbor where we were to be ferried to the not-so-distant Isle of Kerrera off which Isbjörn was berthed. Thanks to a 10ft tidal range, the exposed rocky seabed was littered with small boats on the hard as we loaded our sea bags and provisions onto the launch. Once onboard Isbjörn, we were assigned our berths and shown the ins and outs of our new home. After that came our first meal aboard followed by a briefing from Andy on his passage plan, in which he stressed the need to be flexible. According to Andy, the weather for the foreseeable future was cold, wet and gray, but we had favorable winds to head northwest through the Sound of Mull to the more open water beyond. He also made it clear we were on a sailboat and sailing was what we were going to do. Sure, we’d motor if need be, but we should be prepared to use wind power whenever possible.
Andy also pointed out several target destinations on the chart that quickly revealed a none-too-carefully hidden agenda—distilleries. It turned out we had more than one Scotch Whisky connoisseur onboard. Later, with drams raised high, a toast was made to our first night onboard. I was happy to join in with a hot mug of tea. Our first destination would be Tobermory.
The next morning, after breakfast, we were briefed on safety protocols, which included our muster list: assignments for each of us in the event all hell broke lose. We also changed the headsail from large to small to accommodate the forecast. As this was going on, Mia announced that, despite a back injury incurrred crossing the Atlantic, she would stay aboard for this leg. For Mia to not finish the journey was out of the question, as she and Andy had left Annapolis with the goal of sailing to Sweden together.
Tobermory is located at near the very top of the Isle of Mull, and after we had entered the harbor and scoped out an anchorage, Andy and Mia decided a mooring would be best. At first glance the shops lining the harbor looked like a box of Crayola Crayons, each one a vibrant color of flamingo pink, pumpkin orange, sky blue and fire engine red. After dinghying ashore to get the lay of the land, a lazy stroll brought me to a chandlery where I purchased a traditional wool striped sailor shirt. All I needed now was a knife between my teeth and a yard arm to swing from. Arrr!
From there I met the crew at the Tobermory Distillery for a tour. The distillery was being retooled, so we got a close-up look at the towering copper stills without having to endure the noise and blistering heat of normal operations. Making whisky is part art, part science and mostly waiting. The longer it ages the better. We ended our tour in a small, dark cask storage area where the single malts mature. Fun fact: Tobermory recycles used bourbon casks from America to help create its distinctive favor. Someone figured out how to bottle the best of the Old and New World.
The next stop was Loch Scavaig on the Isle of Skye, and true to his word, that morning Andy challenged us to sail off the mooring. He’s a fine sailor and patient skipper, and given our duties, we threaded the crowded mooring field without once having to resort to the engine. This is what I love about sailing on Isbjšrn. It’s not all about the wind in your hair, it’s about building skills and confidence.
From there we tacked our way out of the Sound of Mull, aimed the bow north, passed the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Ruhm and after some amazing close-reaching came upon a fjord-like setting at the southern reaches of the Cuillin mountain range, where Andy sent a party ahead in the inflatable to check for rocks. ( Isbjšrn has a draft of nearly eight feet, hardly a gunkholer!) Once the anchor was set, we were treated to a violet red sunset reflecting on a mirror-calm sea. The surroundings were awe inspiring and except for two other boats, our only company was a herd of seals and the towering mountains overhead. Our plan was to stay for two nights and explore. It was a great day on a great boat. We were getting our sea legs and getting to know each other, all of which made for a happy crew.
“Happy Birthday America!” Mia shouted a little later, as she waved a small Old Glory she received when becoming a U.S. citizen. But while it may have been July 4, there would be no fireworks, no cookout today. The crew had other plans. First was a swim, or more accurately, a quick saltwater bath. Full disclosure: I’m a waterborne soul. I’ve spent a lot of time on, near or in the water. But as of late, jumping into water that is a temperature less than my age is out of the question. Not gonna happen. The hardy Minnesotans, however, went for it, as did Will. Although they
didn’t exactly linger to do a water ballet, I might add.
Meanwhile James, an avid climber, had his eye on the rugged terrain that started at the water’s edge and rose sharply above us. For him, the hike to the nearby summit wouldn’t be much of a test. But while some of the other crew was up for the challenge as well, I opted out because of a bum knee that had begun acting up several weeks before the trip. Instead, after ferrying the climbers to shore, Rhea and I took off on a more sea-level adventure, visiting the seals that were sunning themselves on the rocky outcropping not far from the boat, that and having fun playing hide-and-seek with us. Just as I’d get my camera focused, they would duck underwater only to reappear elsewhere. “You silly humans,” they might have been thinking, “you’re so easily amused.”
When the landing party returned they were so exhilarated they launched into yet another mission—fresh mussels for dinner. Enclosed in wetsuits, masks and gloves, Andy, Will and James all went to work, eventually presenting the rest of us with a sizable harvest. Steve and I then set about cleaning the black-shelled delicacies while James went ashore to forage myrtle and juniper. Later, when the boiling pot lid was lifted, the entire belowdecks space was filled with the aroma of land and sea. We made short order of the mussels while talking about tomorrow’s daysail to Carbost on Loch Harport, the home of—you guessed it—the famous Talisker distillery. When in Scotland, do as the Scots do. Slˆinte!
The following day we met a fresh breeze on the nose as we entered Loch Harport, causing us to tack from shoreline to shoreline. It was here that I appreciated what a wonderful boat Isbjšrn is. She is a joy to steer, closewinded and has quite a history to boot. Once seized in a drug bust, she later became a training vessel at the U.S. Naval Academy, then went back to private ownership where she ended up in Connecticut. Andy calls her his dream boat. She is a thoroughbred oceangoing raceboat from the drafting table of Olin Stephens. With her long overhangs, narrow beam, graceful sheer and tall rig, she is often the prettiest boat in the harbor.
Not surpringly, a major refit had to be completed when Andy and Mia set their business afloat, and due to her age, Isbjšrn is undergoing constant upgrades, with a repower on the docket. Nonetheless, I always feel good about a boat that has miles under its keel. I liken Isbjšrn to a favorite well-broken-in baseball glove. While it may show the scuffs of time, when you slip it on, you know you can count on an old friend.
At Carbost, we picked up a mooring under sail within sight of the distillery. That night we dined at the Old Inn, the epitome of a small village pub where food, music, conversation and laughter abound. A quartet played foot-stomping bagpipe and fiddle tunes well into the night. We were so taken by the Old Inn that we returned the following morning for a proper Scottish breakfast, complete with haggis and black pudding. Don’t knock it until you try it!
As the trip progressed, the distances between destinations grew. Nonethless, assuming the weather gods showed us favor, we had three more stops in mind before our North Sea crossing: Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Fair Isle and Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. At this point, we were all enjoying being in coastal mode, especially Andy and Mia who had been offshore for most of the last 30 days and on our way to Stornoway, we planned a stop at the Isle of Harris. However, the anchorage proved to be less than ideal so we continued on. There’s something special about exhaustion at sea. When I woke the next morning we were already at the dock in Stornoway. I hadn’t heard a thing.
After that, we had to wait out some stinky weather for a day or so, which allowed us to prepare for the longer days ahead: doing laundry, napping, reading, and catching up with friends and family via the town’s internet cafes. We weren’t total boat potatoes, though, as Stornoway offered up two thought-provoking experiences, first and foremost the Callanish Stones, a Stonehenge-like ritual site erected during the Neolithic Age between 2900-2500 BC.
The other was an impromptu On The Wind podcast recording session with two Irishmen, John and Paul, who are part of a group of roaming minstrels making a musical and charitable journey to the Arctic aboard a 40ft steel ketch. The proceeds from their gigs go to an organization that helps those in need of mental health services back home in Ireland. As part of the session we were treated to an intimate performance of Irish folk songs and heard yarns spun like only the Irish can. I make music for advertising for a living and was humbled by these guys. Their music flowed as freely as their caring.
After that, our next leg was an overnight run to Fair Isle, a speck of an island between Orkney and Shetland. Catching the tail of a passing cold front, we had clear skies and quartering winds, so we set the spinnaker at 2000, still in daylight, and by dawn, as we neared Fair Isle, we were greeted by dolphins and puffins.
I had no expectations for Fair Isle, as it wasn’t included in our original route. But as I struck out on my own for a long walk to the south under the warmth of the afternoon sun, I felt like I had stepped into a timewarp. The island is home to thousands upon thousands of seabirds, hundreds and hundreds of sheep and 55 humans. Yes, 55. The people here embrace their centuries-old history as fishermen and makers of their famous Fair Isle sweaters. Beware of imitations—the real deal, with their distinctive patterns, are pricey, but are handmade with wool hand-spun by the locals.
My walk took me over rising hills and sloped valleys marked with stone fences that once kept flocks of sheep in place. The seaside topography was stunning. Sheer cliffs, sea stacks and arches stood face-toface with those same crashing waves that had shaped them over the millennia. I visited a small wood chapel that overlooked the sea. As I sat in a pew thumbing through a hymnal, I could hear the voices of the congregants echoing from the past.
Later on, after spending the morning with all the hatches open to air out the dampness belowdecks, it was time to gather our foulies from where they hung drying from the lifelines and shove off for Shetland. Our third sunny day in a row and favorable winds made for an exhilarating closehauled sail to Lerwick, where we dropped sail within chucking distance of the marina. Lerwick is an oil town, but from our vantage point, you’d never know it. The hillside town begged for exploration, but Big Oil wasn’t welcome unless the community was assured its home would be protected.
This was be our last stop before the big push to Sweden, so we spent a couple days here. The crew split up to explore the winding streets and charming shops. I had my eye on a fiddle, but then got a grip on reality. Why torture the folks back home with the squeaky-squeaksqueak of a rank beginner? Some things are better left to others. A trip to the Shetland Museum revealed the island’s historical volley between Norway, which originally colonized the island, and Scotland. Back when marriage was a form of diplomacy, the King of Norway used Shetland as collateral against the payment of a dowry for his daughter to marry the King of Scots. As fate would have it, the King of Norway didn’t make good on the payment, and the rest is history.
The night before our departure we dined at the museum restaurant. With the end of our trip in sight, there was a sense of anticipation and a bitter sweetness in the air. The next morning we said farewell to James and set off to cross the North Sea. As we set off, we each made an ETA guess for our arrival at Marstrand, and the watch schedule began.
THE HOME STRETCH
Back in the present, nestled in my berth awaiting my turn on deck, I think toward the future. The forecast is calling for light winds for the next two days, after which things will turn gnarly as we near the Swedish coast. There’s some anxiety about the heavy weather, and I share in that. But the way I see it, the possibility of 30-knot winds and a third reef is also what I signed up for. I’m here to bank some challenging sailing time under the command of an experienced skipper.
Of course, I’m also here because I love sailing and all its aspects—steering a well-tuned machine to weather, the self-reliance of moving from one place to the next under wind power alone, the anticipation of landfall and the satisfaction of swinging safely at anchor with the kettle on. But more than all these things, in my sleepy haze I realize it’s the people and the experiences we’ve all shared on board Isbjšrn that I have come to appreciate most.
In fact, the approaching cold front did catch up with us and dished up some impressive wind and seas, making for a wild ride. At one point, Will and Steve could be heard shouting with glee as they steered Isbjšrn from one crest to the next. This time, I took my off-watch amidships on the high side with the help of a lee cloth. Only as we approached Marstrand, did I truly feel the finality of the journey’s end. Memories will now have to work their magic to keep the experience alive. Rhea won the ETA pool by guessing our arrival within an hour. Andy flawlessly maneuvered Isbjšrn Med-style up to the town dock, and soon after, the bluest of blue skies emerged from behind the scudding clouds as if to say to all of us onboard, “Well done.” s