9-12 June 2011

9 June
I’m sitting beside the companionway looking southwest to the northernmost point in the United Kingdom: Saxa Vord on the Shetland Island of Unst. The first-quarter moon sits low over Unst, in the twilight of a northern sky whose sun set just a short while ago. Despite the still-bright northern twilight, the moonlight shines off the sea. Moonlight on the water…a lovely sight. The full moon in another week will likely be the last full moon we see for a couple of months (if we haven’t already traveled too far north in the next few days to see it); the solstice is in 12 days.

To the lower left of the moon, there’s a lighthouse on a rocky islet just north of Unst that’s visible. That islet is known by the wonderful name of Muckle Flugga. I am not making that up. What a great name! And what a great sight it must be to southbound sailors.

We’ve been motorsailing since leaving Lerwick this afternoon around 1:30pm. It was a lovely trip — despite the sound of the engine — under warm, sunny skies and light breezes. A nice end to our time in Shetland.

We made our way north past Symbister (where we spent last Thursday night) and at the island of Yell, turned a bit east to head outside and run north alongside the islands of Fetlar and Unst. Upon reaching Saxa Vord about 45 minutes ago, we turned a bit east; next landfall: northern Norway.

It’s good to be sailing again, good to be at sea again. I dug Lerwick and will definitely return, but the urge to get moving and head for the next spot was strong. It’s that same urge that is the principal challenge thus far in my journey.

There are two reasons for this journey. One is to see places such as Shetland, that have been in my imagination for a good chunk of my life, and make them real to me. The other reason is to learn as much as I can about operating a modern sailboat. I can sail, I know that; it’s dealing with the minutae of keeping a boat operating — and operating well: safely, efficiently, fast — that I need to learn more about. And Boogie and Marlies, the skipper and mate, respectively, and my friends, are doing a great job of sharing their knowledge and experience with me at every possible turn.

The thing is: this is a commercial venture. Boogie and Marlies are here to run a charter yacht with paying guests. There’s only so much bandwidth they can spare in such an operation to educate a knucklehead like me. So sometimes I wonder if I might be better served just buying my boat and learning by doing. Hopefully it wouldn’t be learning the hard way because the implications of “the hard way” on a boat are frightening. And I’m very aware that I might know just enough to get myself into trouble but not enough to get myself out.

11 June
Didn’t pick up the iPad yesterday at all. Sue me. Right now, enduring a dreadfully boring motor on a freakishly calm Norwegian Sea. We’re paralleling the coast of Norway headed north, now about a hundred miles offshore of Trondheim. Spent a bunch of time yesterday afternoon dancing around a couple of ships towing seismic gear (ie: looking for oil) who pushed us a ways off course. The irony was that given our mutual courses at the time, if they’d just let us continue on our original heading, we’d have never intersected, never had to stay in touch on the radio, and never had to do any do-si-do in the middle of the freakin’ ocean! Argh!

The flip side of that annoyance was this morning’s 4-6am watch. Rapture! The Norwegian Sea was calm then, too, but the wind was brisk enough to power us along at 7.5 to 8 knots. We were sailing close-hauled and it was then you could see that Polar Bear was made for upwind sailing. The balance of the boat going to windward is impeccable: get the boat tracking on course, remove your hands from the wheel, then keep an eye on it and touch it up every now and then. A sheer joy to sail under such circumstances. And the break from the rumble and grind of the engine was a relief. Keep in mind, also, that at this latitude, we’re already into the all-night daylight, so that high-latitude summer twilight that I adore back in Alaska surrounded us and engulfed the sea from horizon to horizon. A wonderful two-hour watch.

The earlier-mentioned watch Thursday evening was lovely too, despite the motoring. The moon, the north coast of Unst, Muckle Flugga. Speaking of which: is Muckle Flugga the greatest name, or what? I’ve made it my new exclamation — stub your toe, yell “Muckle Flugga!” and a) feel better instantly, while b) offending no one. What a deal! I’m also thinking that now I’ll need to meet a nice girl, get married and have a kid, just so we can him or her Muckle Flugga Smith. Has a nice ring to it, don’t ya think?

Back to the present, we’re laboring along in the counter to this morning’s watch. This is what Polar Bear was NOT made for: she has an undersized engine for her enormous bulk (50-plus tons) so we’re doing 5-and-change knots right now (with a little bit of northerly swell slowing us too). Polar Bear could use another 50 percent in horsepower…or better yet, an engine off a supertanker. We had the bottom cleaned in Lerwick after the slog from Newcastle; the divers spoke of an inch-plus-thick layer of barnacles on the hull, with another wavy, green beard of plant growth on top of that. Even with that gunk (mostly) gone, Polar Bear is still no speed demon under power. Simply put: we’re not setting any records (almost typed “ain’t” there but I know certain friends who detest that word) so even though we’re a third of the way to Bodo, it’s gonna take us a while to get there.

We are, however, approaching the artic circle. That imaginary line lies at 66 degrees, 33 minutes north latitude; we’re currently at 63 degrees, 30-and-change minutes, which puts us inside of 180 nautical miles (1 minute = 1 nautical mile; 60 minutes per degree of latitude). At this pace, we’ll cross the line in a little less than 36 hours. I’ve never been above the arctic circle so I’m quite looking forward to that. Our destination of Bodo lies just north of that line so Monday/Tuesday will be a momentous day for a couple of reasons.

On the home front (ie: here aboard Polar Bear), the scene remains much the same. We plug along on our separate watches: eating, sleeping, reading, sleeping, sailing, sleeping. We’ve seen one whale (a minke whale) and numerous schools of feeding fish (likely mackerel), so it’s been a bit of a dud trip from a wildlife standpoint thus far. Even the bird life has tapered off: periodic visits from fulmars is about it. Still, the high latitudes and being at sea…I dig it out here.

Boogie and Marlies continue to be exceedlingly accommodating and helpful — and encouraging — regarding my education. The situation is interesting because for this leg, we have the owner of the boat on board. So while Boogie is the skipper, the owner has strong opinions too. Mix in another crewman with a strong urge to act on his own — oftentimes counter to the plans of the official skipper and mate — and it’s like there are three or four (three if you count Boogie and Marlies as one) skippers on board. Makes for a bit of a goat rodeo at times.

12 June
Still motoring along in the Norwegian Sea. We’re closing on the arctic circle, despite a couple of detours around more ships towing seismic equipment. We’ll reach the line tomorrow; I’ve dared folks to jump in the water when we cross and if anyone calls my bluff, I will do it (provided I can borrow someone’s big, fluffy towel; all I have are my small, chamois, travel towels). Stay tuned.

Had a delightful, if boring, motor watch this morning from 6-9am: bright sunshine and blue skies. That followed a dreadfully rainy, cool and dreary slog from 10pm to midnight last night. Gotta take the good with the bad, I guess.

Mr. Know-it-all crewman continues to try my patience so I’m getting a lot of practice counting to ten. I’m going to start counting in foreign languages — gotta learn Norwegian ASAP and Icelandic in the coming weeks — so this guy could prove a help after all.

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