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Sunday, May 23, 2010, in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland


Hi everyone. We just crossed the North Sea to the Shetland Islands. Last week, we were still in Norway, in Mandal. Here’s what’s happened since then.

The weekend was quiet. Sunday’s weather was enough to keep us onboard, rainy and chilly. By the end of the day, the rain had been so incessant that we noticed a leak in the hatch over the bed in the aft cabin. Specifically, I noticed it when a cold drop fell on my toe just as I got settled into the bed. We now had a task on our list again. Well, Art did, anyway.

Luckily, the skies rained themselves out in time for a sunny National Day on Monday. Our first National Day in Norway was a sunny and cold day two years ago, in Bergen, so we knew what we would see. At 7:00 AM in Mandal, we heard a large boom kick off the festivities. It emanated from a mountain and seemed to target the harbor, meaning us, and felt for a moment as if we were under attack. Slowly, the level of activity increased around the square where we were docked.

Students were in groups all around the square. May 17 is the last day of Russ, which is the celebration for students being graduated from Norway’s equivalent of high school. They wear overalls color-coded for their field of study (red for academic, by far the most commonly seen color.) Tradition prevents them from changing or washing these togs for weeks until after the National Day is finished. We’d seen a student walking a dead fish on a leash and doing other stunts. Because this moment is also the time that young people are allowed to drive and to drink, the partying can get out of control, and occasionally the authorities step in and change the rules to mitigate the situation.

For everyone else, it’s a day of formal wear. Most people wear costumes of embroidered black. The men wear what wed call pedal-pushers, but probably have a more historical name, and the women don aprons and bonnets. It’s obviously the garb of the actual Constitution Day in 1814, and together the population looks as though they’ll all gather onstage soon and sing something from “The Sound of Music.”

Most of the little children wear tiny versions of the same costumes, foretold by so many clothing shops displaying these doll-like clothes in their windows for the last few weeks. Even the kids who weren’t wearing these outfits (which are expensive and too easy to grow out of) are carrying flags. Strollers were decorated in flags, and several adults pushed grocery carts decked out in banners and flags as well.

The line of strolling participants became more and more dense as the hours went by, as we sat on the boat waiting for the first parade to reach us. When it did, it was the parade of little children. All of the local schools, including those from neighboring towns, placed their kids in formation and set them in motion, like little wind-up toys. The smallest kids were first, staring into the crowds searching for familiar faces, wandering out of step, and poking each other inadvertently with their little flag sticks. The kids got bigger and bigger, and the oldest ones were formed into marching bands. Every so often, some adult within the procession would call “Hip hip” and be rewarded by the crowd with ����������������Hoorah!”

The parade ended and the street became quiet again. A truck that had parked across the street from our boat opened its lateral doors onto the square, revealing a cavernous interior. Within minutes, it became a stage. Drums were set up, music stands and microphone stands unfolded, and two little boys climbed in. They performed some sort of Norwegian rap song, these two pre-adolescents. There’d be no need to contact Eminem’s agent.

We had a printed program for the day, and knew to avoid the presentations (in Norwegian), the temporary café (too expensive) and much of the music. Instead, we waited for the adult parade in the afternoon. When we’d seen the town parade in Bergen, it went on for a surprisingly long time, causing Art to wonder if people rotated in and out of the viewing areas, as the entire population seemed to be parading, leaving nobody around to watch. In Mandal, the parade was surprisingly short, shorter than the kids’ parade in the morning, leading one to speculate of a population boom in eastern Norway. In any case, we were solely spectators, and retired into the coziness of the boat when the parade was finished.

By now, we’d been in Norway for two weeks, and we hadn’t made nearly as much cruising progress as we had planned. This hadn’t been due to weather; many perfectly good sailing days had come and gone while we were waiting for the package to arrive that was supposed to beat us to Sweden. The day after National Day, we called UPS and learned that it was out for delivery in Kristiansand. We got on a bus and notified the captain who’d be receiving it on our behalf that we were on our way.

This was our second visit to Kristiansand. It was a workday for our benefactor with the package, and although, at our insistence, he had coffee with us while we lunched, we didn’t press the occasion further, and we parted ways soon after midday. It was time to plan our crossing to the Shetland Islands in the United Kingdom.

The next day’s weather would be great for a quick trip to the west coast of Norway, where we could anchor overnight and get an early start for our overnight sail to the Shetlands. The forecast was for a little bit of wind in the morning, about fifteen knots in the afternoon, and then calm winds through the anchored night, and then two days of motoring to the UK. It wouldn’t be adventurous sailing, but it would work. After that, for as long as we could see, the weather would be so terrible we wouldn’t be able to leave whatever place we were already docked.

We’d given Mandal more days than there were things to do in the spring, and I didn’t mind that the morning motor around the point would be a little lumpy. The winds would die, and everything else would be easy. We left the dock at 4:30 AM in plenty of light, and motored into the sea. The winds were light, and there were a few waves. We waited for them to subside. There were some open fishing boats out there the size of our inflatable dinghy. The wind went from under ten knots to about fifteen. We thought that they’d stay at fifteen. It was too misty to see if any of the mountains still had snow on their tops. We passed a series of fjords listed on the chart: Lenefjorden, Rosfjorden, Aaptefjorden, Fedafjorden. I took an anti-seasickness pill recommended by Practical Sailor, the Consumer Reports of yachting. It worked. They don’t always.

The winds went to twenty. Whitecaps began to form. We could only motor into the headwinds; sailing wasn’t possible at any angle. Art began to wonder whether we should just stop somewhere. I resisted; confessing to being a little stir-crazy in preseason resort Norway towns. We thought about the weather. Stopping in, say, Egersund, would avoid an afternoon of possibly terrible sailing conditions – not dangerous conditions, just uncomfortable. But it had longer consequences. If we shortened this trip, we’d need another day to go up the coast. But then the window to the Shetlands was closed, at least for a week, and possibly longer. I wanted to press on. Our speed through the seas should have been about seven knots, but flopping into waves kept slowing us down to four or five. At this rate, it would take us late into the night to get to the anchorage. Egersund was our last chance for shelter, even though it meant captivity in a harbor for a while. We still had weeks in hand before we needed to be in Scotland. The wind went to twenty-five knots and the seas got ugly. Art turned into the channel leading to Egersund’s town dock.

We went ashore to the harborside stand for beer and French fries, and ate dinner aboard later, wondering how to fill days in this town. Then we realized that there’s usually a lull in winds overnight. Maybe we could use the morning relative calm to get a bit farther north, to some harbor that would let us leave for Scotland if the week’s forecast changed and the right day came along. We had left Mandal for Egersund that morning at 4:30 for a long sailing day. We knew that we could leave at 4:00 AM the next day for a shorter one.

Egersund is a nice town, but we’d been there before, and by now, we really wanted to get started on our summer’s cruising. Both of us share a characteristic, and not just about sailing: we don’t like to have big tasks, or onerous tasks, in front of us. If there’s a boat task that needs to be done, Art can’t enjoy doing much else until he’s finished that obligation. If I’m having guests for dinner on Friday evening, I can’t leave all the cooking until Friday afternoon. And, when there’s an overnight trip and its attendant stresses, we’d just as soon get it done and have it behind us.

So we decided to leave Egersund and head somewhere that would give us an opportunity to head west on a moment’s notice. We left the dock at 4:20 and motored out on the day that we had hoped we’d have gone to Scotland from somewhere farther north. I wished that I owned a pair of earmuffs. By 6:55, Art realized that he could draw a hypotenuse from where we currently were, across our originally-planned itinerary, and head straight to the Shetlands on the day we had hoped to travel. Wind direction wasn’t an issue; no winds were forecast.

Of course, we should have realized that if the forecast can underreport the winds one day, the forecast could also underreport the winds the next day as well, and it did. Fortunately, the direction was just on the wrong side of sailable, and Art reefed the main and jib to reduce the heeling of the boat to inconvenient but not scary. It still meant that we needed to be cautious when we opened cabinets (because everything will fall out on your head if you open them too far) and when we walked around down below. But I could eat (a major indicator of sailing comfort) and we could sail, an unexpected perk.

I’m pleased that we have both gotten kind of blasé about going on an overnight sail on a moment’s notice. Sure, we’d already done a lot of the planning. Art had set up jack lines along the decks so that he could stay clipped on if he had to go forward. We’d bought dinners that could be heated in the microwave and eaten out of a bowl. But it struck me that you leave a dock and you could go out and come back, or go to the next harbor, or sail straight around the world.

This would be a cold day under “Karen’s cover”. Mist and fog prevented the sunny and warm little greenhouse for us to sit under. We turned on the radar and looked for boats. Very little sea traffic showed up for miles around us. Even though the boat was heeled over too far to see over the leeward side, there would be no benefit to taking the trouble to look under the sail. We could see very little beyond our own bow.

But we started to go fairly fast, in just almost the right direction, flying on instruments. The boat was speeding into endless mist. I could sense our speed from the water rushing alongside us, as we crashed into the unknown. It was like being on a racehorse, feeling the power of its motion and aware of its crushing strength. Please let’s not hit anything, boat, please.

By evening, I was wearing three hats. The lowest layer was my bank robber ski mask. Next was a wool cap. Last was a blue polar-quality bonnet with a slight point to the top. Art thought I looked like a Ninja warrior. I thought I looked like Marge Simpson.

The radar makes life very easy, when sea traffic is so quiet. The AIS system finds the big ships and, well, there aren’t many small ships in the North Sea in May. We added AIS transmission in 2009, which sends our name and location to these ships, too. This gives me an added sense of security, and probably real security as well.

I was in my usual sleep pattern for being on watch. On watch by myself, then sleep, then watch, then sleep. The only thing is that my sleep pattern is only fair if there are three other people sharing the watch cycle. For poor Art, I’m on watch for an hour, and then I sleep for three. So he does the job of two invisible watch partners. Furthermore, for the few hours that I relieve him, he’s only able to relax enough to sleep for a fraction of them. He calls it “the strain of command” as a joke, but the real reason is, well, the strain of command. He’s watching the route, and the weather, and the ships, and the condition of the boat. And when he calms down enough to be able to sleep, I’m already dozing. So he gets about an hour or two of sleep during the night when we’re crossing. I don’t know how he does it.

At about seventy or eighty miles from landfall, we started to see lots of birds, seagull-looking ones with blotchy-colored wings who circled the boat. There were tiny black dots sitting on the water, and something that is a cross between a duck and a swan, with a brownish-yellow neck. As you can discern from my technical descriptions, I’m quite the ornithologist. This far from shore, there’s no hope of Internet access to ask about them. My Birds of Europe book doesn’t have categories for “blotchy” or “kind of like a swan.” Having to know what a bird is before you can look it up in a bird book is like having to know how to spell a word before you can find it in a dictionary. But Microsoft solved the word problem with spell-checkers. What I needed was Microsoft Bird.

I began to see the distance between us and land closing. At fifty miles out I saw the first bird I recognized, a puffin. These little tykes with stout multicolor beaks look like mascots for some sugary breakfast cereal. At eighteen miles out, emails began to arrive in my BlackBerry. That’s my early indicator that we’re close to civilization, and the arrival of data means that my first day in a new country doesn’t need to be devoted to hours of customer support. Thanks, AT&T.

A few miles from Lerwick, the main (and pretty much the only) town in the Shetlands, the fog got very dense again. Just outside the harbor, a 400-foot ship passed within a third of a mile of us. We didn’t see it, not even a shadowy foggy mass. If all we knew of it had been his booming foghorn, well, that might have been sort of scary. Thanks, radar and AIS.

We cut our speed and headed up the channel to the harbor, enmeshed in fog. When we were close to the town’s docks, a few buildings showed up alongside the channel. Lerwick’s buildings of grayish stone, with stair-stepped eaves and little chimneys, a panorama muted by the mist, had a village-y feel, as if inhabited by elves. We entered the harbor for visiting boats. There was room for about four average-sized boats on the pontoon. It was easy to estimate that, because four boats were docked and they took up nearly the entire space.

Our only opportunity at this dock would be if we could convince the sailboat farthest out to leave his space and raft to us. He’d have to climb across our boat every time he wanted to go ashore or come back on board. There was just a bit of extra space behind him that would accommodate the incremental length of our boat that exceeded the size of his.

Sailors are usually willing to do this, but it’s a big favor, and it’s understandable if they won’t. Our question was met with surprisingly enthusiastic agreement, although we all decided that Second Wind should first check out the commercial harbor next door. At that moment, our boat was called on the VHF radio. It was the harbormaster.

He, too, suggested that we go to the next harbor over, which was quite empty. The harbormaster was somewhat apologetic for the lack of visitor space for us, almost as if you’d surprised someone with a visit, and they apologized because the guest room bed hadn’t been turned down yet.

Commercial harbors are set up differently from yacht harbors, and this one was no exception. Along a visiting yacht harbor is most often a floating pontoon, so that when you dock your vessel, you rise and fall with the tides, connected to a float. That way, you don’t need to worry that your decks are a small distance below the street, and six hours later a very large distance below the street. The gangways of commercial vessels rise and fall with the tide on their own, so they don’t need to attach to a floating dock. I've done the equivalent of climbing a rock wall when we’ve needed to leave the boat, or get back on, when the tide happens to be at its lowest. It’s hard on your lines, as well.

Another issue is that commercial vessels don’t bother much with keeping the paint on the boat’s sides pristine. They dont want to smash up the boat, of course, and the standard protection in these harbors is a line of automobile tires chained against the concrete dock wall. On our polished white hull, this doesn’t offer the best protection, and rubbing up and down with the tides doesn’t help.

Thinking about our needs, the harbormaster suggested that we eschew the nearly-empty harbor and tie up instead to the lone antique wooden sailing ship that appeared to be some sort of tour boat or training vessel (it turned out to be both.) Later we learned that it’s a fishing boat called a Fifie herring drifter. This boat would act as our floating dock, and our own fenders would protect us and it from chafe. We complied.

The moment that we got secure, we longed to be back in the visitors’ harbor. The harbormaster worried that we’d have to re-dock if this wooden boat wanted to get out. I worried about climbing in and out of our patron boat and up and down to the dock from there. The herring-drifter didn’t have a gangway or an easy way to climb ashore. We all agreed that we’d talk to the sailboat that might be willing to raft to us, and we did. He was happy to comply, and we all decided that it was best if we moved right away. It’s a good thing we did that; just as we were finishing docking, yet another visitor came in and might have fit in the bit of extra end space that we had just commandeered.

We were in Scotland, and docked and secure. I had a strong first impression of the place, and that’s that the people were unbelievably friendly and helpful. Yes, maybe it’s because this is one of the only foreign places we’ve sailed where English is the first language. But that didn’t explain the sailor’s near-eagerness to let us take his space, the harbormaster’s intervention in our problem before we even called him, or the tactful way a passer-by (who happened to be carrying a book of flags, for some odd reason) showed us that we were flying the courtesy Union Jack upside down. (Go look at a British flag. You won’t believe this, but it’s not symmetrical top to bottom.) I can’t remember feeling this sort of hospitality since Turkey.

I’ll hold off on writing about Lerwick until next week. For now, it’s just nice to have that long trip behind us. We hope that everything’s going well with all of you. Please write when you get a chance; leaving Scandinavia put a real crimp in our ability to make overseas phone calls. But we still have lots of email, so please let us hear from you.

Love, Karen (and Art)