Heave To, Felix! Thar Blow th’ Faeroes!
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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.
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
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,
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“‘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
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
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
John Skow is a reporter and reviewer for Time and a longtime contributor to Outside.