Rounding the Final Turn: Iceland to Shetland

We’re about five miles from the entrance to Yell Sound, the entry point into the Shetland Islands. We still have 30-odd miles to go to Lerwick from there, but by that point we’ll have made it to the Shetlands and this leg of the voyage will be complete.

And it’s been an interesting leg. Following the diversion to Husavik, it’s mostly been a motoring or motorsailing journey (surprise, surprise). But in the last 36 hours or so, we’ve been sailing, more or less. For the past 18 hours, we’ve been rockin’, actually.

The wind has been from the starboard quarter, meaning we’ve been running off before the wind on a broad reach. And once the wind shifted to that direction, it started building…and it built into the night until it was in the high 20s and low 30s. It made for a fun, but dark, 9pm-12midnight watch; the 6-10am watch this morning was still fun but with visibility, occasional patches of blue sky, and seas that had had all night to build. Big, rolling swells of deep blue, flecked with white manes, all beneath a powder-blue sky…it was a wonderful morning.

Thankfully. Because prior to that, the journey had been a real drag. Teamed up with the Finnish couple, it was a day or so into the trip when I realized: for the second time this summer, we have a Nordic couple in which the female is the stronger member of the pair. And in both cases, it was the male who’d brought the couple to sailing and the Polar Bear adventure in particular.

In this case, the fine gent took the fabled Finnish stoicism to an extreme: he pouted and sulked through every watch, spending the majority of every watch below in the cabin, and never lifted a finger to help with any of the assigned team chores. His wife, on the other hand, was topside for pretty much the entirety of every watch, no matter how cold and damp, and was tirelessly helpful when it came out turn to clean up the galley.

I don’t blame the guy, really. He, and all the other guests on this trip, signed up for a sailing trip from Greenland to Reykjavik and on to the western isles of Scotland via the remote outcrop of rock known as St. Kilda. What they got, instead, was a delivery trip. Instead of savoring the journey and exploring new places, these guests got stuck on a trip where the be all and end all was to get Polar Bear back to Newcastle by Sept. 10. No time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and no time to dawdle en route. It’s a go-go-go task, which mandated the excessive use of the engine and a reliance on the autopilot on pitch-dark nights. Bottom line: these guests got screwed. And they know it.

But they didn’t get screwed by Boogie, Marlies or me, or even the weather. In the case of the weather, it is what it is, to spout that idiotic maxim of today; they knew bad weather was a likelihood on a trip in these waters at this time of year and they were OK with it. And Boogie, Marlies and I are only the crew; we didn’t determine the course of this trip.

No, the fault lies solely with the aforementioned Alfred, owner of Polar Bear and the only one involved on the supply side of this service-oriented business with no regard for the customers. But I’ve been over his idiocy before so let’s leave it at that.

However, for this silly Finn to pout like a 12-year-old is pretty asinine. We’re out here in the middle of the sea, nothing’s going to change the circumstances until we reach port. You might as well enjoy the trip as best you can — and then beat the shit outta the owner once you’re on land. OK, maybe there’s no need to get violent but you get the idea: take it up with Alfred. In the meantime, get with the Monty Python plan and always look on the bright side…

And there was a lot of bright side, particularly in the last couple of days. The sailing was been a zippy, rollercoaster ride to the southeast and we’ve seen a bunch of wildlife en route. For the first time — the FIRST! — this entire summer, we encountered a pod of orcas. Woohoo! I dig orcas, having watched them back in Alaska quite a bit. Before I started preparing for this summer, I had always thought they were a Pacific-only species. So when I learned they were common along our route from the Shetlands on, I was stoked. And then…nothing. Not a one until today, so that was some small bit of last-minute redemption.

We also had bioluminescence on last night’s sail. Swirling in the waves along the hull and in the wake behind Polar Bear, the little glowing blobs mirrored the brief starry skies we enjoyed early on, and then continued long after the clouds had obscured the skies. Always one of my favorite parts of sailing, bioluminescence is one of those magical special effects of nature that still make me feel like a little kid every time I see it.

Also notable on this leg were the gannets, pelagic birds we’ve seen since the start of the summer but not so often up in Greenland and Iceland. Ever since we neared the Faroes, however, their number and size have increased. In particular, I’ve seen a bunch of juvenile gannets that have been just enormous: wingspans that, on first glance, made me think of an albatross (which, it must be noted, I’ve never seen in the wild). If those are young of this year and they get that big in just a few months…yikes. They’ve been THAT big as they swoop and soar in circles on the wild winds, never alighting on the water but instead disappearing downwind, only to return (the same bird?) a little later on. Majestic. Like frigate birds of the north.

And then this morning we were engulfed by hundreds of fulmars, all gliding on the winds around Polar Bear and dotting the waters around her as she plowed through the swell. It was reminiscent of that evening we rounded the southern cape of Jan Mayen, with countless fulmars in every field of view. It called to mind Alfred Hitchcock, to be honest, but these birds seemed disinterested, at best.

Sure, the monotonous motoring and the damp, foggy skies were a drag, no doubt about it. But that’s what you sign up for on northern waters. Deal with it. That this Finnish bloke couldn’t see past his own nose was a bit of a downer. I was letting him drag me into his funk but the conditions of the past 24-plus hours snapped me out of the fog and back into the sunlight of a fun passage at sea.

So now it’s on to Lerwick, where we’ll spend the evening at the dock and then head out in the morning, bound for the final two-day run south to Newcastle.

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