Sailing Across the Atlantic Ocean
I grew up in Riverside, CT, close to Long Island Sound, and my friends and I spent much of the summers of our childhoods in small sailboats. Stepping onto a sailboat was entering a different yet changeable and much wider world. Changeable because wind, weather and tides combined to change in infinite ways the physical environment in which we sailed. Wider because, as we could see from the ships that occasionally passed our harbor, Long Island Sound was part of the oceans of the world. But most important, sailing took us to new places. Nothing too exotic, of course, just to other harbors on Long Island Sound for a regatta or an excursion to an unfamiliar beach. But we got there in our own boats, not in a school bus or a mother’s car.
As I stepped onto the dock, I was met with: “Why didn’t you take the tow and come back with the others?”
The answer to that question had to do with the sense of independence and self reliance they had given me by allowing me the freedom of a sailboat.
I spent the summer after graduating from Amherst “doing” Europe. In those days, the cheapest way across the Atlantic wasn’t on frequent flier miles or, indeed, in the air. I and my young wife traveled in both directions as passengers on merchant steamships. The outbound voyage was on a World War II-era Liberty ship, which had a maximum speed of just 10 knots.
Upon our return I had to face the unpleasant fact that the draft was still in operation, and to avoid involuntary service as a foot soldier, I joined the Navy as a Reserve officer. I spent three years on a wooden minesweeper, much of it at sea, and made another transatlantic round trip. This time I was part of the crew, standing watch as “officer of the deck” four hours out of every twelve.
These passages opened a new dimension to my childhood love of the water. The open ocean was fascinatingly beautiful, and even on a naval vessel shipboard life at sea was not only a different world but had an unforced, “slow boat to China” quality. I began to dream of doing another transatlantic passage but under sail in my own boat.
That dream became a reality during the course of my professional career. I had been posted to London, and when it came time to return home in 1987, I had a sailboat on my hands. One way of getting her home was on her own bottom.
I had not bought STORA NASSA with a view to sailing her across the Atlantic. She was a stock, fiberglass cruising auxiliary sloop. And she was small — only 29 feet. But she had an easily driven and strongly made hull that I considered suitable for a transatlantic passage. To make her ready for the conditions that might be encountered offshore, she needed modifications and a lot of new equipment, including storm sails, a better system for reefing sails, self-steering devices, instruments for offshore navigation, a life raft, emergency radio beacons and other safety equipment, enlarged scuppers to drain the cockpit in case of heavy seas and a completely new fresh water system with significantly greater capacity.
The fitting out was done by the Ferry Point Boat Yard in Youghal (pronounced “yawl”) on Ireland’s south coast. This was a tiny yard, but it was run by a man, Bruce Bell, with whom I could relate. He had left a more conventional business career to open the yard, which was located at the site of a ferry that formerly had crossed the Blackwater River, a famous salmon-fishing stream. The old ferry cottage served as home for Bruce, his wife, Jill, and their two children. Bruce insisted on having me as a guest in his home every time I came to Ireland to oversee progress. The Bells were unique in another way — they were Irish Protestants.
But I had not intended that STORA NASSA be fitted out in Youghal. My plan had been to have the work done by another Irish yard, in Dun Laoghaire near Dublin on the east coast. So that it could be done while she was hauled during the winter before the transatlantic voyage, in the previous October I moved STORA NASSA from her summer berth in Lymington, England (near Southampton). My companion was Diederik Kohnhorst, a young Dutchman living in London. Our first stop was Penzance, Cornwall, 170 miles west along England’s south coast. We were fortunate both to have easterly winds rather than the normal southwesterly and to arrive at Penzance during the two-hour period within which it is possible to enter the locked harbor. It was an auspicious beginning.
The next leg was not so auspicious. Stormy conditions prevented us from moving on for three weeks, but late in a November afternoon, Diederik and I got underway from Penzance in a 25-knot northeasterly. Once we had rounded Land’s End we had rather uncomfortable going through the night until the northeasterly blew itself out. A much milder southerly took its place and, with an electronic steering device at the helm, we had a pleasant run north across the Celtic Sea. So pleasant that I may have failed to appreciate that the following wind had built to 16 knots. In any event I failed to set a vang on the mainsail to prevent an accidental jibe. Which is what happened.
It was growing dark, and we had a lightship and the looms of two lighthouses on the Irish mainland in view when STORA NASSA, running on port tack, dipped into a trough. She rounded up to starboard, and the mainsail jibed. As the boom whipped across the cockpit, the mainsheet block struck my right arm below the shoulder and broke the humerus bone cleanly into two pieces. The break was evident when I first attempted to use the arm. We immediately altered course for the nearest port, Dunmore East, in the Waterford River estuary.
It took four hours to get there. Diederik had to sail the boat with navigational assistance from me, and it was a traumatic event for him as it was for me. He told me later that he had very little previous experience sailing at night and had difficulty sorting out the lights on shore. But he rose to the occasion, and we got safely into port. I was quickly taken to Arkdeen Regional Hospital in Waterford, about 15 minutes away.
I arrived at the Emergency Room of the Hospital at around 11:00 pm. The young doctor on duty seemed to have his hands full with a large number of patients of uncertain sobriety whose most urgent need was probably a place to spend the night. After the condition of my arm was confirmed with an X-ray, the doctor disappeared for a length of time that suggested a telephone consultation with an orthopedic specialist. When he returned, my clothing was cut off of me, my arm was put in a cast and I was suitably doped and bundled off to bed in the well-populated orthopedic wing of the hospital.
The next morning the head of the hospital’s orthopedic department, Dr. Mark Flynn, and attendants came to see me. After further X-rays, he satisfied himself with the cast and the position of the bone. He then inquired how it had all happened. Upon learning the facts, he offered me his own mooring (his boat having been hauled for the winter) on the Waterford River 10 miles upstream from Dunmore East as at least a temporary berth for STORA NASSA. I gratefully accepted. Dr. Flynn subsequently recommended the Ferry Point Boat Yard, which is approximately 37 miles west of the Waterford estuary, and secured a neighbor to move STORA NASSA there.
I had long known the route I wanted to follow across the Atlantic. The route most commonly used by sailboats follows the trade winds at the latitude of the Canary Islands and the Caribbean. Apart from the fact that it is a warm route, it is popular because the trade winds blow from the east, while the prevailing winds farther north are from the west. However, the trade wind route is not only longer but following it in the summer runs the discomforting risk of encountering a hurricane. Given the time of year when I would be making the voyage, the route used by the first Europeans to reach the American continent seemed preferable.
This route is marked by a group of islands that describe a broad arc across the northern North Atlantic. The Shetland Islands, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland represent, for the mariner, a series of stepping stones to the American continent, never more than about 300 miles apart. In the course of the Norse migrations during the so-called Viking Age, Norse mariners discovered, and then settled, the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland.
Historians believe that the settlement of Greenland occurred during a period of relatively warm weather in northern latitudes. The settlement was established in the late tenth century and survived into the fifteenth century — roughly 500 years — when it was abandoned or destroyed by pressure from more severe climatic conditions and from Inuit moving south in response to those conditions. But while it existed, the impetus of the westward migration resulted in a short-lived attempt, launched from Greenland, to settle “Vinland”, as the Norse called the North American mainland. The attempt failed, apparently due to the hostility of the natives, but for the Norse explorers it completed the stepping stone route across the Atlantic Ocean.
Norsemen may not have been the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic and return. They were certainly preceded both to the Faeroes and to Iceland by Irish monks, whom the Norse settlers found, and displaced, in both places. And there is reason to believe that they reached America. An ancient Irish poem may describe a voyage by St. Brendan to America. The vessels used by the Irish in St. Brendan’s day were not substantial vessels like those used by Norse mariners but leather-skinned curraghs.
The route to America pioneered either by Irish or Norse explorers is an unusually interesting one. In addition to affording places to stop, each of the islands possesses, in its own way, the rugged beauty that is unique to high latitudes. There are other advantages, if the route is followed during the early summer. The frequency of the storms for which the North Atlantic is notorious is considerably reduced. And because the route lies generally north of the track of most Atlantic storms, there is an increased likelihood of easterly winds. (This was important both for the Viking longships and the Irish curraghs, since neither had the ability to sail to windward.) Finally, the ocean currents are favorable once the vestigial Gulf Stream is crossed between the Faeroes and Iceland. I particularly liked the idea of following the route that was used by these ancient mariners.
I also had to find companions or, to put it in maritime parlance, to recruit a crew. My objective was to find two crew members, partly because insurance for a transatlantic passage was available only in the case of a crew of at least three but also because of concern for the condition of my arm. Naturally I turned first to friends with whom I had sailed before. Living with someone on a small boat over an extended period is difficult under the best of circumstances, and I had considerable misgivings about doing so with strangers. In the end, that is what I had to do.
Like myself, most of my friends and acquaintances were in the middle of business careers, and none could take the uncertain amount of time needed for the voyage. I turned to a crewing service operated by The Cruising Association, a London-based organization. The Association published a mimeographed list of skippers looking for crews, and prospective crews reviewed the list and contacted skippers with whom they might like to sail. When my name first appeared, there were almost 100 skippers listed, but most of them were just looking for crew on weekends or for cruising within the British Isles or Europe. There were only two others planning to cross the Atlantic. My entry on the list described my needs in the following terms:
CRUISE/PASSAGE: May-Jul, For 6-8 Wks, From W.Coast Scotland, Via Faroes/Iceland, To NE USA, Crew Needed: 1-2, Part Trip, Skills: Fit/Offshore, Expenses: Return travel/food.
This produced a large number of applicants. Many were unsuitable, including no less than three who had served with the French Foreign Legion but had no particular sailing experience. Others whom I thought suitable either concluded they couldn’t take the time or, more likely, opted for a warmer voyage.
I eventually recruited two Englishmen. One of these was John Harrison, a graduate student in engineering, who eventually made the trip. The second was a former British naval officer who sailed with us from Youghal to Holyhead, Wales; he withdrew a short time after that passage, apparently uncomfortable about the small size of STORA NASSA. I had 10 days to find a replacement and was fortunate to recruit another young Dutchman, Pieter Coers (not his real name), whom I contacted through a commercially-operated crewing service.
But now it was my turn to be uncomfortable. Pieter proved to be far less experienced than he had led me to believe, and, frankly, he was a flake. I soon learned that his objective in joining me was to get to America on the cheap. I also learned that he had unusual dietary tastes and supplemented the food I had stocked on board with various oddments he had brought. These he stowed wherever it pleased him, oblivious of the stowage plan I had worked out for the limited space aboard STORA NASSA. I began to find caches of his food in all sorts of inappropriate places.
I imagine I could have put up with all this if I slept well when Pieter was on watch. But I didn’t. Unlike Diederik, he proved painfully slow to learn, and his evident lack of practical good sense left me with a nagging concern about how he would react if faced with a crisis situation. In Reykjavik, Iceland, I was able to replace him with a young American, John Peterson, who had learned that I was looking for crew only after the voyage had begun and with whom I first was able to speak when I was in the Faeroe Islands. I helped Pieter with a cheap flight from Reykjavik to New York.
Departure from Youghal during a late afternoon in early May marked the real beginning of the trip. Accordingly, it was difficult to resist the notion that the 40-knot squall with hailstones that accompanied our exit from Youghal harbor was not an omen of things to come. The squall passed quickly, and with an offshore northerly blowing at 25 knots much of the way, we had a fast passage in relatively calm water to Dunmore East, which we reached at around 11:00 pm. Needless to say, arrival at that port at that hour produced a sense of deja vu.
From Dunmore East we had a somewhat longer passage across the Irish Sea to Holyhead, Wales. We tried a watch rotation suggested by John Harrison under which each crew member was on watch for three hours and off for six. Since the self-steering devices did most of the steering, one man was sufficient to maintain a lookout, navigate, adjust sail trim and alter course when necessary. One off-watch crew member was on standby in case anything required an extra hand. The system both permitted a long sleep between watches and automatically varied the watch hours each day, so that crew members were not standing watch during the same hours each day. We were pleased with the system and used it during the transatlantic passage.
Holyhead was reachable by car from my home in London. STORA NASSA remained there for three weeks while equipment and food were brought from London, put aboard and stowed. The departure date was fixed to enable me to be present for the first birthday party of my daughter, Kate. After the party was over, I took a train to Holyhead.
When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted at the train station by Chantal, Marianne and Stephanie, members of the staff of my London office where I had been based for over six years. They joined John, Pieter and me for a meal and a pint at a local pub. After a convivial evening, the crew rowed out to STORA NASSA, sorted out personal gear, discussed a watch schedule, listened to a marine weather report — and got underway as the tidal current was shifting in our favor.
The story of the voyage need not be told here. Briefly, we had calms as we went north along the west coast of England and Scotland requiring us to proceed under power. A problem with the fuel line developed, and we put into Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis to effect a repair and to refuel. After 24 hours we continued north to the stormy and ruggedly beautiful Faeroe Islands, where we spent four days. At this latitude there is continuous daylight around midsummer, and the Faeroes turn off their lighthouses on June 1 and don’t turn them on again until July 15.
Our next ports of call were in Iceland. After a day in the volcanic Westmann Islands off the south coast, we went on to Reykjavik, where Kate and her mother met us and we remained for four days. Then the biggest hop, to St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, a distance of 1444 miles that we did in 13 days. We began to encounter fog on this passage, and the fog was with us on and off until we were well into Long Island Sound. But we had enough clear weather to observe the astonishingly fecund bird and marine mammal life of the northern ocean — and as we approached Newfoundland, icebergs. We remained in St. John’s another four days and then called at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Nantucket, MA, Newport, RI, Stonington, CT, and Guilford, CT, before completing the voyage at harbor where I had learned to sail as a child.
Including more than two weeks in port, the voyage covered over 4000 miles and took slightly more than seven weeks. The time at sea was on a wet and constantly moving platform and was physically exhausting. All of us were seasick at one time or another. Satisfying sleep was impossible. Often it was so cold on deck that only the man on watch was there. The frequency of fog during the last five weeks of the voyage created the outlook, and the feeling, that the world consisted of just our cocoon of fog. Each of us found that he had lost weight during the crossing. Clearly creature comforts were not the rewards of the voyage.
There is a refreshing freedom in the wide open space of the ocean. The cycle of a landfall, and a new port, inevitably succeeded by the compulsion to be at sea again, to be hungering for the next landfall, the next port, is habit-forming, if not intoxicating. It is a habit that cannot be rushed. The pace of a voyage under sail is dependent upon wind and sea conditions. Indeed, shipboard life revolves around the natural cycle of the day and the wonder of sunrise and sunset. Of necessity one rediscovers the virtue of patience and the concomitant pleasure of adjusting one’s pace to that of nature.
Whatever the discomforts of shipboard life and the other limitations imposed by the sea, it is very beautiful. It is a beauty that manifests itself in many moods, some peaceful, some not so peaceful, but all with wholly natural ingredients. There are times when the wind is fair, the seas calm, the birds are about, the clouds are varied, the sun plays on the deep blue surface of the sea and one’s ship drives easily through the water. In an imperfect world, these are times to savor.