Arrived Torshavn, Faroes Sunday Sept 9
We left Reykjavik on Tuesday night, we have been sailing steadily since then and we arrived at Torshavn, Faroe Islands this morning Sunday at 7am. At 10:30 last night we passed the lighthouse on the outermost Faroe island, whose name I can’t remember, and we were demonstrably in Faroese waters. Our expected arrival time was around 10am, on our watch, but when I awoke at 7 this morning to have breakfast and get ready for my watch I could feel the way coming off the boat so I knew all was good.
It’s been an exciting couple of days sail, most of it spent motor sailing under our mizzen and foresail and with the engine pushing us. After my encounter with the dreaded lasagna on Tuesday evening’s watch I awoke the following morning with sea legs intact and all right with the world. At that point we were under mizzen and foresail, sail having been reduced in the night and with the exception of one brief period under sail without the engine, that was was our rig for the next 4 days. Why under engine power? A storm system was heading from the Faroes right in the teeth of our usual route to the Islands and the captain wanted to sail around it since it was packing serious winds. We would not be able manage the diversion solely under sail power because of the adverse winds without going a long way out of our way so engine power it had to be. However, the sun was bright and warm and at that moment the sky was bright, cloudless and a clear artcic blue, but the swells from the previous night were still very much in evidence so we spent the day pitching and rolling our way to Vestmannaeyjar, an island off the south coast of Iceland. We arrived at 3pm in a small circular harbour with a narrow entrance, flanked on one side by enormous cliffs filled with the nests of screeching and diving birds. The other side of the entrance was a relatively low, hilly piece of land which was not there before 1973 but was created by a volcano which added significant real estate to the island and which helped to enclose the harbour and make it more protected . The island was very neat and trim and judging by the number of very new and expensive cars and trucks, one that was also very wealthy. I heard various stories to account for the wealth, and as far as I can judge it came down to the fact that when Iceland was going to have new fishing quotas imposed a number of years ago, a couple of parliamentarians with family on the island managed to secure extremely preferential treatment for the island, far in excess of what should have been the case, and the whole population of the island, fishermen all, has amassed significant wealth in the ensuing period. Certainly the supermarket on the island is apparently much better stocked with a better range of products than the supermarkets in Reykjavik and boats would rather re-supply here than on the main island. The island was also apparently once the home to Turkish pirates many centuries ago who raided Iceland and stole women and sheep; the things that you hear on shipboard! but I plan to look that up when I have better internet access.
We stayed in harbour, had dinner and off to an early and non-bouncy bunk. The boat sailed at 4am to continue our journey to the Faroes and when I came on deck at 8am for my watch the weather had undergone a significant change, dark, lowering skies, strong winds and the sea now filled with white capped waves. We continued that way for the next day and a half without much change but as we were skirting the northern edge of the weather system it was clear that had we tried to sail through it would have been a very uncomfortable ride. As it was, we were being bounced around about as much as I wanted. On Friday the captain decided that it was worth trying to run under sail and we began what was a very hard piece of work, raising the jib and the main. We did the work at 12pm when the next watch was replacing ours so that there were two watches on deck to do the work and two watches were needed! The jib was relatively straightforward but the main was a very brute. Because it’s gaff rigged there are two halyards to raise the sail, one attached to the throat of the gaff, the end closest to the mast and another attached to the peak of the gaff, the end farthest from the mast. The two halyards have to be hauled simultaneously and the gaff kept relatively parallel. It takes 2 or 3 on the halyard to haul the gaff and attached sail up the mast up and 2 tailing on to the halyard and belaying it against a cleat between hauls and it has to be done by two teams in tandem one on each of the halyards. In rolling seas and given the weight of the sail and the gaff it was a bastard. I have been working out at the gym 3 days a week for the last 3 months to try and get ready for this trip and triple the amount of time would not have been enough. To get the 2 sails up, trimmed and secured was 45 minutes work and when we were finished I collapsed in my bunk, boots, clothes and all.
We sailed for about 5 hours but while we were making about 5 knots, we were only making about 2 towards our destination. Since at that point we had about 200 miles to go, it was clear that we could not afford to spend another 4 days under sail to get to what was after all, only our first stop in our journey. So down came the jib and the main and once more under mizzen and foresail we re-started the engine. I for one was not heartbroken, for added to the rolling and pitching experienced under engine power, while under sail was added the complication that everything was now being done at an angle of 20 degrees as the boat heeled. Try that in your spare time!
The following day, Saturday, we began to see edges of light on the horizon that broke through the grey dome that we had been sailing under continually for the previous 3 days and the sea began to settle from white capped waves to long rolling swells. Personally I preferred the waves! And so on through Saturday night until our arrival this morning.
As soon as moored, my first act was to shower since my last contact with water was a shower on Tuesday morning before I left my hotel in Reykjavik. In case you’re wondering why, there are no showers while at sea, in a heeling rolling boat there would be water from one end of the cabins to the next, a slippery and dangerous situation so showers verboten. And you must also know that to my shame, at the end of my watch at midnight I have been known to brush my teeth, take off my coat and boots fall into bed in my clothes. Not a pretty sight.
Standing watch in the 8 to midnight shift was a combination of frightened exhilaration and magic. Our watch is only 3 people, the other watches are 4 people so we started by taking an hour each on the helm and then my French watchmate, Emanuel, the most experienced sailor of the three of us took the last turn. Because it was tiring work on the helm during the heavy weather we shifted to 1/2 hour turns to spread the load a little better and make each turn at the wheel a little easier. I have to tell you that handling the helm on a 35 long meter boat that is bouncing and rolling and being headed by winds and waves is a challenge. Because the boat is relatively big it takes time for a turn of the wheel to make itself felt when changing course and because the pressure of wind and waves is constantly affecting the boat’s course, the need for constantly adjusting the course to stay on your compass heading keeps you fully engaged. If the boat starts to drift off the compass heading that you’ve been given to steer to, and it always will because of variations under the pressure of shifting winds and waves, you need to steer to correct it but because it takes up to 30 seconds for the boat to respond you need to start bringing the wheel back to its point of equilibrium before it really settles on the course you have steered to. You will have counted the number of spokes of the wheel that you moved so that you can move the wheel back before the turn been completed, and if you get it right, you’re back on course. But of course, you’re not always right, and its very easy to over-correct and over-steer so veering too far to port and then over-correcting too far to starboard and screaming in frustration as the boat refuses to come to the proper course rapidly can become becomes an endless series of iterations as you try and get back on the proper course. The secret is, as it is in much of life, that less is more, since when the boat swings off course and if you are patient and trusting it will often swing itself back to the proper course without any guidance. Knowing the boat and how it behaves and having a feel for the environment and its effect on the boat allows you to have a sense of when to correct the course and when to allow the boat to find its way back. It does take concentration!
So what’s it like at the helm on the night watch when the seas are running and the wind is roaring past your ears? Exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. The roar of the wind, the rain streaming down your face, cold, noisy and pitch black so that nothing on deck can be seen or recognized and the only break of light is the white of the waves and the spray seething along the sides of the boat. The bow rises up on a wave and shouldering aside masses of water crashes down on the other side throwing up a huge spray of white water in which, surprisingly, sometimes can be seen spots and flashes of luminescence from night creatures caught in the wave like trapped, watery stars. Magic!