Dateline: Shetland Islands, UK

29 May 2011
1730 hours, local

Landfall in the Shetland Islands

We’re currently motorsailing along the eastern shore of the main Shetland Island. It’s rainy and windy out, with coast guard warnings of a force 9 gale imminent (thankfully, from the west so the island will provide some protection), followed by a force 10 gale in the not-too-distant future. We’re about an hour and a half from the port of Lerwick, where we’ll tie up for the night.

As an aside: we’re at just about the latitude of Anchorage (and Bergen, Norway, just a couple of hundred miles to the east) and the island scenery recalls that of the Aleutians Islands back in Alaska: treeless, green, windswept and rainy.

It’s been an interesting two days’ journey from Newcastle — not least of all because this journey has implications that past trips haven’t. In the past, I hadn’t sold my home, my car and most worldly possessions; I was just out for a temporary sojourn. In the past, I wasn’t contemplating a season in close quarters with complete strangers (foreigners to my Yankee sensibility, no less); I was just out for a few days with people of like interest. In the past, I wasn’t hoping to learn the lion’s share of what remains in my nautical knowledge with an eye toward possibly moving aboard for the foreseeable future; I was just out to learn a bit more on that quest and have a good time in the process.

So there’s been a lot going on inside my head the last 48 hours.

I broke with tradition this trip and didn’t throw up the first evening’s dinner. That might have been because I napped through the meal but who’s counting. On the whole, I’ve felt better than I usually do first day out — gratifying since I haven’t been aboard in more than a year. I did feed the fish at the end of my 12-3am watch, but it was no big deal and nothing too troubling.

I’ve been doing a lot of sleeping during my off-watch times, which is par for the course for many as one settles into life at sea. I find it’s not so much a case of getting one’s sea legs, but rather, a case of getting one’s sea head or sea stomach. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here but it’s a distinction that fits, I believe: I find that it’s my head that takes adjusting (hold the jokes, please) rather than my legs. My balance and ability to move on board a boat comes back quite rapidly; a clear mind and visual focus (when belowdecks, especially) takes a bit longer. I cooked dinner for the boat last night (chicken curry, and “cooking” is giving it too much credit…it was more “mixing jars together”) and am typing this belowdecks right now, so it appears that my mind is adapting to the marine environment.

And that mind has, as I mentioned, been doing a lot of thinking over the last 48 hours. As I did last spring en route from St. Maarten to New England, my initial thoughts were quite full of doubt: “I can’t do this full-time because it takes me too long to recalibrate to life at sea” and “There’s no way I can sail singlehandedly: I like to sleep too much.”

Those feelings have waned, particularly in the last day. Racing along at sunrise before 25 knots of wind with porpoises tagging along us in the moderate seas can lighten one’s mood. Being able to actually see the minute gusts-within-gusts manifested in the ripples on the water’s surface as you look into the sun rising over the sea to the east makes the very air seem like a palpable, conscious entity. It’s as if you can talk to the wind — and expect a reply. The reply, of course, is when you feel the sail grab the gust: the boat accelerates before the increased force, heels a bit and then you feel the wheel tug against your hands. Throw in an hour of accompanying ballet courtesy of the porpoises and those are the connections you seek when you come out here to sea.

And there’s no feeling that can compare to landfall after time at sea. Whether it’s your home port (or region, in the case of last spring’s sail from the Caribbean) or a place you’ve never seen before, there’s something special about doing the work and spending the time to reach a place on your own. Landing on an airliner just doesn’t compare. Quicker? Easier? Certainly. And maybe just as exciting. But it’s not as gratifying. Or as welcoming.

So thus far, two days in, Summer Tour 2011 is off to a good start. Not without its bumps; more on those later as we’re nearing Lerwick so it’s time to head on deck and prepare for arrival. And no, we’re not just putting our seat backs and tray tables in their full, upright position…

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