Heave To, Felix! Thar Blow th' Faeroes!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1996

Heave To, Felix! Thar Blow th' Faeroes!

For good nautical fun, nothing beats the blizzardy, icebergy waters of the North Sea. Which makes it just the place for two friends willing to go anywhere in the name of unjustifiable adventure.
By John Skow

The Black Sheep's voyage north through the Irish Sea was cold and cursed. Presumably the North Sea, where we were headed, would be worse. So Laine and my old mountain partner Felix had told me, at length and with conviction, in the taxi from the Stornoway airport. Laine was a 27-year-old biology student and waiter from Santa Rosa, California, who had met Felix, the Sheep's owner, a couple of years before in dire midwinter weather in the Sierra Nevada backcountry. This sort of meeting cuts quickly through social uncertainties. If you are both there, you are both crazy. An agreement to sail together ensued.

They had started from Cork in early May, and for two days it--the great, uncaring it that rules life, warmth, direction, and whiskey intake on a small sailing boat--had snowed. Snow at sea does not have to be plowed, but it makes the world soggy and uncomfortable, and the Sheep's peat-burning heating system, a midget parlor stove called a Tiny Tot, was strictly an in-port luxury, not something you want glowing red-hot when the heave of ten-foot waves is pitching you from one end of the cabin to the other.

As the weather turned contrary, my colleagues recounted piteously, the boat's newly rebuilt 25-horsepower diesel had swooned with high fever. So back they went, through a blizzard, to Cork and the Sheep's wintering boatyard. The blizzard part sounded doubtful to me, but a friend does not question his pals' baloney unless he is willing to be held to strict truth himself. I nodded sympathetically. A mechanic at Cork diagnosed vapor lock, as mechanics always do. It is their tactful way of saying "hmmm."

This clever fellow freed the engine's unjustly imprisoned vapor, or released the fuel line on probation, or at any rate jiggered something, and the Sheep was on its way in a jiffy. But again the engine overheated, and in a succession of Irish ports diesel wizards of ever more august reputation twiddled and thumped. One of them, so revered that townspeople cast down their eyes in his presence, finally got it right, and the Sheep reverted to its customary sensible behavior.

"Good trip," said Felix, summing matters up. "Really," said Laine. They seemed happy, though since they were both mountain climbers and thus pain-is-bliss types, this was not reassuring.

Felix turned to me. "So," he said, referring unkindly to a climbing weekend two decades earlier for which I had packed hurriedly, "did you bring your pants this time?"

I was the crew change for the Sheep's second leg, which was to begin at Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Hebrides. The Sheep can be sailed single-handed, a simple matter of going without sleep and abandoning yourself to fate. It can be worked well enough by two people, but for long, open sea voyages this requires a fairly punishing schedule of four hours on watch, four off, and then--this is the hard part--four on again. A crew of three works out best, with a watch schedule of four hours on, eight off.

But the Sheep is not one of those shag-carpeted, color-coordinated suburban living rooms around which a yacht hull has been confected. It is a tough, slow, seaworthy 32-footer into which a small cabin has been crammed. What space it has contains a propane stove but no refrigerator, a chart table, and a couple of narrow berths. There is also a claustrophobic sail-and-dunnage locker in the bow, in which a sleeping bag can be stretched, as well as a form-fitting head, useful chiefly as a repository for sea boots. It is not employed for peeing, which is accomplished with a plastic bucket. Washing is a matter of heating the teakettle and dabbing under the arms with a bandanna. Three people are a crowd in this beloved but unyielding vessel. Each pilgrim must learn to sleep with his watch cap pulled down over his eyes and to do a lot of "I'm not here, I'm somewhere else" Zenning.

The Sheep's austere living arrangements, which are not what the landsman thinks of when he hears the word yacht, may complicate the problem common to all small-boat captains, which is how to dragoon friends into serving as crew. Boat ownership at this level is a great equalizer, and not simply because if you start out rich, you end up poor, though that certainly is true. It is the recruitment problem that is humbling. The prosperous, confident fellow who buys a sailboat discovers first that his wife doesn't much like his uncomfortable toy and second that he is eight years old again, standing in front of his friend's house, yelling, "Hey, Mrs. Smith, can Jimmy come out and play?" But Jimmy is 40 or 50 or 60 years old now, heavy with job and family and good sense, and Mrs. Smith, who has other vacation plans, is his wife. There is a similarity to peddling insurance. You run out of friends and family members and have to turn to strangers. The crewman I replaced at Stornoway, an 86-year-old retired surgeon, had not met Felix until ten minutes before he tossed his bag on board at Cork. A friend of a friend had recommended him, and he did fine.

The last time I had seen Felix, we were thawing out over beers in a steak joint at the foot of Mammoth Mountain. We had just spent a week in the Sierra backcountry with our friend Eddie from Reno, and pulling off the trip felt good, even if it was nothing more than a long, high hike. Felix and I had been messing around in the mountains together since we were frisky young fortysomethings and recently, for several years, sloshing at sea aboard the Black Sheep. But now Felix was 65 and I was pushing 63. This felt strange. I ski, play tennis, climb, and put a fair number of miles on my road bike, not with any fanaticism, but with enormous enjoyment. Felix runs, snowshoes, and makes long solo treks in the Sierra. But always, every day, each of us feels a slight, barely perceptible fatalism: next year or next month, maybe not. I've been put back together several times by orthopedic surgeons. Felix spent a year in an iron lung as a child and wrecked a weakened knee in a college wrestling accident. The brace he wears as a result did not stop him from guiding climbers in the Swiss Alps for a year or from making a good try a few years later at a solo ascent of Tirich Mir. Still, the late-life degeneration experienced by many polio patients is a possibility. So, for either of us, is a call from the doc who after a routine physical says we'd better come in for more tests.

Right enough, mate, a little self-pity never hurt anyone. In the meantime, we're old, oddly assorted partners. That's probably just as well. Two Felixes would be rolling on the trail, pummeling each other in the first hour, and two of me would simply get lost and stay that way. He's irascible; I'm sweetly reasonable. He's precise; I'm delightfully vague. And a bit snotty. He buys provisions, cheerfully quadrupling the food supply when I'm along, though he is puzzled by my enthusiasm for a substance he regards simply as fuel. He makes the plans; I smile and agree, often not knowing what mountain I'm on or what sea we're sailing. We know each other's stories and are always pleased to hear them. One I enjoy has Felix stopped by cops while jogging at night through Georgetown some years ago. Felix is thin and intense, but that's not against the law. Nor is carrying a brick in each hand, which he did for upper-body toning and possibly for defense. But the officers wanted to check. They let him go when he showed an ID card for the position he held at the time: chief parole officer of the Washington, D.C., federal district court.

Our strengths balance each other fairly well in the mountains. Felix is a far better technical climber, but I've climbed higher, and for some reason I can tie more knots. But Felix is a skilled, lifelong sailor, and I'm only ballast. About ten years ago, when he sold a house he had owned in a past life, he luxuriated in prosperity for 15 or 20 minutes and then bought four boats: a skiff, a pulling boat, a kit that turned into a beautiful little Friendship day-sailer after several thousand hours of carpentry, and a somewhat beat-up teak-and-fiberglass oceangoing sloop. This he restored lengthily and named for himself as he sees himself: the Black Sheep.

I had served several enlistments on the Sheep, including a very rough passage from Connecticut to Bermuda and a lovely trip up the western coast of Ireland. I tagged along not because I am a good or obsessed sailor but because...I forget why. Maybe I keep sailing to puzzle out why it is I keep sailing. But the truth is I hadn't planned to sign on this time. Months earlier, I had listened to Felix murmur on the phone from California: "That's right, Stornoway, Scotland, to the Faeroes, to Bergen. Icebergs, enraged narwhals, the worst weather north of Cape Horn. Oh, it'll be great. Nobody has been to the Faeroe Islands since St. Brendan was there in the sixth century..." Sure, sure, but I had commitments, things to do. Not enough time, not enough money, the usual.

"I think that's a wise decision," said my wife.

But as the weeks went by, wisdom eroded. I began to tell myself that the only escapades I regretted were the ones that had never happened. There is a positive side to being a moody, high-mileage jock. You give yourself permission not to postpone unjustifiable adventures.

"You said that last year," my wife pointed out as I began leafing through catalogs for arctic foul-weather gear.

The forecast in Stornoway was for southerly winds, force five to six, changing to force six to seven. The direction was right--we had 241 miles to go, due north, to Thorshavn in the Faeroes. But the temperature wouldn't rise much above 45 degrees, and the wind would be punishing. I've sailed in the Sheep in force-seven winds, and though the boat felt solid, it was a rowdy ride. So we cooked a vast, gratifying, train-wreck breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes, and bacon and hung out for another day at dockside.

Stornoway, a big, workaday harbor town below treeless hills, is shut tight on Sundays in fear of the Lord. Scottish churchiness rules, as dour as its reputation, though Laine said he'd heard that in case of dire need a couple of bars could be entered discreetly from the rear. Laine, who looked haggard, had been doing anthropological research among the young. After a very late Friday night, he reported that socializing among single twentysomethings resembled the paseo of a nineteenth-century Spanish village, in which girls cruised with girls, guys with guys, and each group did a lot of scoping and checking-out of the other while taking pains to look bored and unimpressed.

Saturday turned out to be the evening when boy-and-girl couples paraded to show their pair-bonding. Status, Laine said, seemed to depend on recognition by the town's ranking drug dealer, a twentyish fellow who had claimed the town's best-looking young woman.

Fascinating stuff--a research paper for some earnest sociologist--but by the next morning the wind had calmed, and it was time to leave. As usual at the start of a voyage, I tried acupressure wristlets and mind-over-belly techniques against seasickness, and as usual they did not work. I swallowed a couple of meclizine pills and crawled into a bunk. Later, when I half woke, I lay for hours and miles listening to the Sheep's attendant spirits, freed by the rough weather. Wind whistling through the stays, speeding and slowing, produced the same progression of flute notes: C-G-A-low-G. The voices of madwomen and lost children called wildly to one another, their words ("Why, why?" "I no know, I no know") veering in and out of my head. Deep male voices ("Who?")--the shifting of the rudder, I suppose, or the grumbling of lead in the keel--spoke so clearly that I would start out of my doze, thinking Felix or Laine had spoken, sit up, bang my head on the low cabin ceiling, and answer, "Huh? What?"

The Sheep was alive at such times, but it was in no distress. It did fine, as it always does, rolling along happy as a dolphin. It sailed itself, in fact, adjusting the tiller to the heave of the waves with a magical self-steering gadget called a Monitor Wind-Vane, a reliable and splendidly nonelectronic complexity of stainless steel struts, gears, and cords.

When I came back to life a few hours later (Meclizine works. Why can't I remember that?) we were motoring again. The wind had died, though jumbled eight-foot waves left over from the blow to the south were still hitting us. The self-steerer operated only when there was wind, and I was on watch with one hand on the tiller. A big wave hit the starboard stern and sloughed crazily underneath the hull. Still holding the tiller, I put down a mug of sausage-and-potato soup to pick up a hunk of bread. (As I said, meclizine works.) The soup launched across the cockpit at high speed, splattered to maximum effect, and filtered down through the teak grating. Colorful language from the cabin suggested that something similar had just occurred there.

This was good nautical fun, exactly what we had come for, as those near and dear would have agreed. But enough was enough. We had been heading to Thorshavn, the capital of the Faeroes, but we cut the merriment short at Sudhuroy, the southernmost island of the cluster. (By my rough-and-tumble etymology, sud is German for "south," ay or oy is Old Norse for "island," and hur I haven't a clue about. Still, we had arrived at South Something Island.) Finding Sudhuroy did not require a global positioning system widget, though the Sheep had two of them. A big, muffin-shaped cloud of mist sits over each of the Faeroes for most days of every year, visible at the distance of half a day's sail. These islands were the first stage in the Vikings' stepping-stone route to North America (Faeroes-Iceland-Greenland-Newfoundland), and they would have been nearly impossible to miss.

Sailing, like mountain climbing, feels absolutely great when it stops, and a night's sleep with no sleigh-ride waves left us smug as cats. What we saw the next morning was a neat fishing village rising up the sides of a narrow fjord. Or what would have been a fishing village, had there been anything to catch. It's an exaggeration to say that there isn't a fish between Norway and Newfoundland these days, but not much of one. The fishing boats in Sudhuroy stay tied to the docks.

A friendly and not overworked customs official turned up, asked our itinerary but didn't bother to check the Sheep's registration, and told us that a freighter had gone aground the day before not far from where we'd been. Apparently there were no fatalities, but it was still spooky to have been that near a shipwreck. As in the mountains when word of an accident spreads, the hair rises on the back of the neck, and a primitive message thrums through the skull's subbasement: "It could have been us. Better them."

At a junk shop in a village near Stornoway, in a fit of antiquarian whimsy, I had bought a battered copy of James Boswell's A Tour of the Hebrides with Dr. Johnson. Leafing through it, I saw that the learned doctor, as Boswell reported, found the Scottish islands interesting enough but abhorred the means of getting there. "He repeated his remark," wrote Boswell, "that a man in a ship was worse than a man in a jail. 'The man in a jail, (said he,) has more room, better food, and commonly better company, and is in safety.' "

Blundering on precisely this complaint in nearly 400 pages of genial irascibility at first seemed a poor omen. At Thorshavn I began to think otherwise. In Samuel Johnson's time there were no tourists, only travelers. Now travelers are nearly extinct, and tourists--which is to say migratory pests, despised and self-despising--have infested the globe. Locals everywhere ignore tourists, sidestep them, shun eye contact, or simply avoid the places where they swarm. But if you make port in the North Atlantic on a small sailboat with "Tomales Bay, CA," painted on its side, you are a traveler. This is precisely because you have taken absurd pains to arrive in an unsafe and uncomfortable manner. A tourist is a fool, but a small-boat sailor is foolhardy, and the difference nudges curiosity. Unofficial port inspectors stroll by the dock, ask a question or two in careful English about rig or route, and wait politely to be invited aboard for tea.

Meeting after chance meeting, we got a sense of the Faeroes. People were astonishingly friendly. A fellow named Birgir Enni, the captain of a lovely two-masted schooner that he used to take sightseers on overnight cruises, stopped by with three gallons of magnificent mussel chowder and a couple of bottles of red wine. "Bon appetit," he said, and left.

A bit earlier, a man named Doru Radulescu, who had escaped from Romania a decade before by swimming the Danube, invited us to his house to meet his wife, Guidrid. She was a potter, whom he met when she was an art student in Spain. He had been a nuclear technician, but since that profession was, as he said, obsolete, he had taken a job with an offshore oil-exploration project run by the Danish government. He crunched numbers stored by computers in ships that towed seismic exploration gear, and the numbers seemed promising. The islands needed another source of income, Doru said, unless fish returned in large numbers, and maybe oil was the answer. But he was worried. Thorshavn had a couple of good hotels and a shopping mall and a laundromat with a disturbing sign, BJORN UNDER 15 AR MA IKKE BRUGE CENTRIFUGEN, which I took to mean, "Don't put children under 15 in the centrifuge." But it is a peaceful, pleasant town of about 5,000 people. An oil boom could push the population to 10,000 or 15,000. Did the Faeroes want that? Doru loved the Faeroes, he said, and he had seen enough big-city commotion, though maybe commotion was needed--young people were leaving every year. Was there some way to take the money and pipe the oil, the crowds, and the inflation somewhere else?

Though Doru tactfully did not say this, I gathered that while in the Faeroes I should refrain from bragging about my Danish ancestry. The islands are a kind of semiautonomous protectorate under the rule of Denmark, "but only by accident," Doru said. "Really we should be Norwegian." They were, once, but a few centuries ago the king of Norway, short of cash, threw in the Faeroes to fill out a royal dowry paid to Denmark. The 40,000 people in the islands today speak a sharply distinct Germanic language that is close to Icelandic, a bit further removed from Norwegian, and indecipherable to Danes. Denmark subsidizes the economy of the Faeroes, paying for and running the hospitals, the police force, and the Lutheran church, but not the schools. The problem, Doru said, was not that the Danes were oppressive but that they were officious and inclined to look on the islanders as bumpkins. Denmark is a member of the European Union, and the Faeroes, whose underemployed fishermen fear an invasion of EU trawlers, are not. Full independence from Denmark is much debated, but only as an issue for comfortable grumbling, not as a likely reality.

I asked Doru about unemployment, health insurance, and the like. He said that he made about $70,000 a year, which was average for a job that required a college education, and paid 60 percent of that in taxes. He and Guidrid owned a house, a car, and a small motorboat. All social services, including health care and pensions, were guaranteed. If he lost his job, he said, he would collect his present income or even a bit more.

Didn't that encourage people to quit work and loaf? No, he said; that would not be respected. And self-respect was very important in the Faeroes. "Yes, we have a few people, you might call them bums, but not so many to be a problem," said Doru. "Such people, you know, can be amusing."

Since Phoenician times, the truth about sailors has been that sooner or later they sail. The tide changes and they're gone, leaving promises and taking post office box numbers and, in the case of Laine, a smelly package of semipreserved whale meat and dried fish handed to him at dockside by a beautiful and bashful young hotel clerk named Unn. "Eat it or chuck it," Felix and I said sternly at least twice a day thereafter, but without effect.

Laine wasn't paying attention. He was cocooned in his bunk, paging doggedly through a dense text on the biology of moral systems, whose thesis seemed to be that every act of man and beast, apparently including BASE jumping, can be related to the overmastering drive to pass one's own genes along to the next generation. The logic was elusive, but our shipmate's research appeared to be an effort to reconcile two goals: to be a professor of biology and to join a mad friend in bungeeing off the Golden Gate Bridge. Felix, in geezer mode, harrumphed about bungeeing, though he once rappelled several hundred feet off El Cap on a single seven-millimeter line. That's close to bungeeing. Laine set aside his tome and listened patiently. Anyway, we said to him across a gap of nearly 40 years, go ahead, pass on your genes. We're both fathers and, more often than not, pleased about it. Laine, like a lot of his generation, was unconvinced about begetting. Talk about harebrained, talk about scary...

So our floating seminar proceeded. We had intended to sail due east along the 60th parallel to Bergen, Norway, skirting the North Sea oil rigs to the north. But an hour or two after the Faeroes dropped below the horizon, a shift in wind made the Shetlands, to the south of the busiest oil fields, a likelier destination. We set the self-steerer to southeast, and the Sheep drove along hour after hour at five and a half knots in clear weather, murmuring to itself. We were so far north and so near the summer solstice that there was no real night, merely a yellow afterglow between 1:30 and 3 A.M. At about 4 A.M. on our second night from the Faeroes, our radio squawked: An oil-exploration tug warned that it was pulling two kilometers of seismic cable. "Yes, thank you, sailing vessel Black Sheep sees you." By the third night we were in Lerwick, Scotland, a busy oil port, eating Chinese food in a restaurant reverberating with happy Norwegian yachtsmen.

The weather was clear, wind at about force five and shifting to the east. Our watches were now four hours on and four off, because Laine, strongly encouraged by Felix and me, had deserted. Shortly after we had docked at Lerwick, a magnificent Norwegian three-masted square-rigger, the Staatsrad Lehmkuhl, had entered the harbor under full sail. It turned out to be a former navy vessel now owned by a nonprofit foundation in Bergen. For $100, Laine could sign on for the return trip to Bergen, not as a passenger but as crew. Go for it, we told him, we'll meet you there, and he did. We left Lerwick in heavy fog as the Lehmkuhl prepared to hoist anchor. An hour later it ghosted by us, barely visible at a distance of 200 yards.

Now, past midnight, Felix was sleeping. Uneasily, perhaps, because he didn't fully trust me as a sailor. Did I trust myself? Not fully, but I had asked myself, on the first day out of Stornoway, whether I could bring the Sheep to port if Felix and Laine were to fall overboard and be devoured by herring. Easy, was my answer; too bad about those guys.

The moon had set, and the sky was half dark. It was chilly, and since the self-steerer was working smoothly, I huddled in the doghouse, reading a sea story by flashlight: Desolation Island, the seventh novel in the wonderful long series by Patrick O'Brien about the British navy during Napoleonic times. These books work as adventure and sly comedy largely because they balance the absurdly contrasting characters of two lifelong friends. Jack Aubrey is a bluff, direct Englishman, a brilliant fighting sea captain and a total innocent on land. His pal Stephen Maturin is Catalan-Irish, a slight, subtle naval surgeon and intelligence agent who has difficulty distinguishing larboard and starboard. Each of them is about 10 percent fool, probably the minimum necessary for adventure, and in their contrast, though not in character, they remind me a bit of Felix and myself.

In this installment Captain Aubrey, aboard the Leopard, was being pursued across frigid southern waters by a monstrous, 74-gun Dutch warship hell-bent on destruction. Maturin, for the moment, was not on stage. "A burton-tackle to the chess-tree," Aubrey called, loud and clear. "Lead aft to a snatch-block fast to the aftermast ring-bolts and forward free. Look alive, there, look alive..." I had calculated that the horizon was about four miles away from my perch on the Sheep, and every five minutes I popped my head out, scanned the sea in a slow circle--nope, nothing--and checked the compass. Then back to the early nineteenth century.

"'Are you ready, Mr. Lane?'

"'Ready, aye ready, sir.'

"'Cast off all. Maintopgallantsail, there.' The yard rose up; the mast took the strain without a groan; the Leopard's bow wave grew higher still with her increasing speed. They raced furiously over the empty, heaving sea."

Time for another horizon check. I stuck my head outside and--hello, there--what appeared to be a big car ferry, lit up like Christmas, was bearing down on the Sheep at a distance of about 300 yards. I grabbed the radio mike and sang out: "Calling large vessel approaching from my port beam, do you see my masthead strobe? This is the sailing boat Black Sheep. Do you see me?"

That sounded pretty good, I told myself; "port beam" was quite nautical, and there wasn't a quiver to my voice. I waited for action. Nothing. Then a deep voice asked, in accented English, "What are your bearings?"

I tried to remember the coordinates I had checked a few minutes before. "Um, let's see," I answered. By now Felix was glaring up at me from the galley, doubtless wondering whether I could distinguish larboard from starboard.

"Yes, well, thank you," said the fellow on the big vessel, which swerved into a sharp westward turn.

Was the other helmsman reading a novel, too? Tom Clancy, maybe, or even Patrick O'Brien? I decided not to ask. "Thanks for the course change. Black Sheep over and out," I said, and hung up the mike. Captain Aubrey never shows fear. But I turned up my collar and for the rest of my watch stayed on deck and followed the lovely progress of the dawn.

A couple of days later I was lolling in the sun, reading a day-old International Herald Tribune in the cockpit of the Sheep. We were tied up in Bergen. Felix was sorting laundry. Laine was out somewhere, pursuing beer and beauty. A large, familiar shape loomed. I squinted. "Yo, Jack!" it said, and sure enough, it was Eddie from Reno, last seen shedding snow in the Mammoth Mountain parking lot. Laine and I would be flying home, and Eddie was the new crew, bound for Oslo on the Sheep. We whacked each other on the back several times, old friends reassuring each other of solidity, and Felix turned up the fire under the teakettle.

John Skow is a reporter and reviewer for Time and a longtime contributor to Outside.

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