ACROSS THE NORTH SEA

A train­ing sail from Scot­land to Swe­den is both an ad­ven­ture and a feast for the senses

SAIL - - Contents - STORY BY KARL WESTMAN PHO­TOS BY JAMES AUSTRUMS

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.

SET­TING OUT

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!

CON­TIN­U­ING ON

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

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