Stompin' on the Terra

"And he said, 'Stomp upon the Terra.'" – Lord Buckley (via Hunter Thompson)

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Location: Plum Island, Massachusetts

28 July 2011

American Interlude

I arrived in the United States at midday a week-plus ago after a five-hour flight from Reykjavik...and what a transition it was.

I left behind the soft, cool blue of the northern summer sky at almost-66 degrees latitude and arrived in the hazy, 90-degrees-Farenheit heat of a New England summer. I left behind a small, chic city of a hundred thousand and landed near the gritty sand of Revere Beach. I went from the routine and isolation of being on a boat in the middle of the sea to the go-go-go lifestyle of 2011 America, complete with ubiquitous Web access and 24-hour news cycles that leave one numb (and not writing). I left the tranquility of blue ocean and white snow and green hills and wound up being bombarded by never-ending tales of an ineffective government acting like a bunch of spoiled, petulant kids.

Seriously: in just a few hours I went from 32 degrees with wind-chill factors in the teens, fog and drizzle to a scorching, 100-plus-degree-with-equally-high-humidity heat wave that rivaled any I've ever experienced anywhere. Throw in the BS going on in Washington, D.C., and I've been counting the days until I return to the much more benign soap-opera drama of Polar Bear and its owners.

But I'm here in the United States for the wedding of two dear friends. That will take place this weekend in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, as lovely a place as any I've seen on this summer's trip. And that's been one of the great takeaways from this year: that every single place on this planet is nothing short of spectacular; it's up to us to see the beauty -- and that perspective is something we carry with us everywhere we go, it comes from within and not from a mountain or an ocean or a sunset or a whale sounding.

I'd always thought that what made Americans American was the land, that sense of frontier and wide-open spaces that evaporated from the Old World so long ago that it had been lost from the collective unconscious. It always seemed to me that this land ethic infused our culture to such an extent that it created our sense of who and what we are, and so a sense of location, of home, has always been so important to me in my life.

For instance: I was born in New York City. On the edge of Harlem, as a matter of fact. But I've always considered myself a New Englander whose home was a small island about 30 miles north of Boston. And over the course of the years, I've lived in some pretty amazing places, including some that I've come to regard as home. The lineup reads like a vacation wish-list: Utah, Montana, Idaho, San Diego, Austin, Alaska. I've even lived in Europe. Some places resonated with me more than others, but that sense of location, of where I was on the planet, informed, I believe, who I was.

It was upon leaving San Diego last spring that I realized that I've enjoyed and hated every single place I've lived. I love Anchorage, Alaska...but when I'm there I miss the beach and even the night sky in summer. I always bad-mouthed Southern California when I lived there...but the climate afforded me the active lifestyle I so cherish.

So I've come to realize -- prior to this summer, to be sure, but this trip has cemented the notion -- that while I may have what I consider to be a home (or two), I can be happy in any place on Earth. That every single location on the planet is special and unique and beautiful, and I should take joy out of every place and every moment I'm here.

And right now, that means reveling in being home in New England with friends and family. For another week I'll be here, eating lobster rolls and sweating bullets, and then I'll head back to Iceland and on to Greenland for the home stretch of this summer adventure.

And then it'll be on to the autumn adventure...

27 July 2011

On Iceland

Iceland. The name conjures up some wildly divergent images. You'll hear that it's actually green and gorgeous, and that Greenland is the ice-covered land. You'll envision volcanoes spewing ash into the sky, disrupting air traffic the world over. And you'll hear about it being a modern, vibrant financial center (prior to the recent worldwide implosion, that is) with a flair akin to Paris.

In reality, Iceland is all of that and more.

We made landfall in Akureyri on the northern part of the island. In that part of the country, Iceland features a greener-than-Ireland palette, with flat-topped mountains creating fjords that cut in from the sea. Farms dot the landscape up to a certain point on the hillsides, above which the terrain goes alpine pretty quickly.

And the landscape over on the southwest coast, over where the population is centered, recalls nothing more than southern Idaho with its vast lava fields dotted with power lines and cell towers, where nothing grows but small grasses and mosses (you Sun Valley friends will know what I'm talking about). Unlike Idaho, however, there's a deep blue ocean abutting the black-lava desert and snow-covered volcanoes on the horizon.

In between the two coasts, Iceland is uniquely fascinating and a place I hope to explore more, perhaps come September. Flying over the island's center revealed a terrain reminiscent of the moon, or maybe the American Southwest. Four-by-four roads crisscrosed the scenery and made it clear why there are so many jacked-up Jeeps and pickup trucks on the roadways. Scattered clear-flowing rivers could be seen flowing from the high country of snow-covered volcanoes and glaciers, and the thought of chasing salmon there is very enticing. And the doubtlessly bizarre notion of walking across Iceland occurred to me as I winged my way to the capital...any takers?

And Reykjavik itself is a wildly intriguing city. If I were in my 20s, I'd take up residence there -- at least for the summer -- in a heartbeat. It's a hip, young, chic (three adjectives you'd NEVER apply to me) city and they live la vida loca, for sure. The bars and clubs hop nonstop and the beautiful people outnumber my clique by a wide margin. It's a joyous, gleeful party scene until the wee hours.

In the morning, however, it's a different story. The city center then is deserted apart from a couple of women in high heels doing the walk of shame, and a legion of street sweepers and cleaning trucks removing the detritus of the night before: broken glass and takeaway food wrappers everywhere. It's a shame that such joyful, beautiful people can't exert a bit more foresight toward what they're wreaking.

The morning after kinda cast a pall over the image Reykjavik seems to try hard to cultivate: one of fashion, of chic style and urbane attitudes. For instance, there are several top-notch, good-looking outdoor-clothing companies in Iceland -- this is a people that plays hard in harsh environments and still looks good doing it. It would be nice if the hangover wasn't so ugly.

Of course, a lot of that hangover might be due to the myriad foreigner visitors in Iceland: in less than 24 hours I heard English, American, French, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Norwegian, Swedish and German in addition to Icelandic being spoken (and frankly, all the Brits and Yanks in Reykjavik was a rude awakening that I was, in fact, off the boat and back in the mainstream). All of the Icelanders I met were friendly and helpful -- and like Norway, the female of the species tended toward the very lovely -- with a refreshing combination of urban and outdoor lifestyle.

As I mentioned above, Iceland is definitely a place I'd like to explore further. And given the changes to Polar Bear's schedule, that exploration might just take place in early September. Stay tuned.

16 July 2011

Akureyri, Iceland

Gonna fire one off the cuff here...

Sitting in a bookstore in the small city of Akureyri, Iceland. It's on the north coast, at the end of a 30-plus-mile fjord, and it's an interesting city.

As we motored toward the city yesterday morning, there was universal agreement on board Polar Bear that the town was kinda ugly. And it was, because all we could see at the north end of town was the industrial side of things: dry docks and factories and commercial-fishing boats and the like, all beneath a depressing, gray overcast.

Pardon the interruption: Whoa! A DeHavilland Beaver on floats just took off from the fjord! Takes me back to the AK...! Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

But after we turned the corner to the dock, things took a turn for the better. The town climbs a hill to the west and plateaus out before rising up into mountains a few kilometers distant. An interesting, modern-style church adorns the hillside right next to the main road leading up from the waterfront. A small promenade is quaint and charming and people -- a lot of them tourists -- meander around the various shops.

Atop the hill, a municipal pool complex was our destination after we cleaned the boat and checked in with customs. And oh...what a treat! A 43-degree (Celsius) hot tub, steam room, water slides...all were available to us for about $3. Yes, $3 -- I don't think we're in Norway anymore, Toto. A decadent hour or so of lounging in the facilities, followed by a shower and shave, and I was a new man and Akureyri was looking like a new town.

And today, in the sunshine that has just broken out from the clouds, it's looking even better. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time to explore, which is why I'm
writing this post on the fly: I'm headed to the airport in an hour or so to fly to Reykjavik for the evening and then on to Boston in the morning. So exploration of Iceland will have to wait, and given the schedule changes for Polar Bear's season, I may just make some time come September.

Now, though, I'm heading back to Polar Bear, and back to the United States.

15 July 2011

Haiku, Part Two

I promised a friend that I was going to try to write one haiku per day on this Bodø-Jan Mayen-Iceland journey. As has been my tendency throughout life, I got lazy and blew off the task.

So while on watch this afternoon I whipped out my little moleskine (oh, you cheeky monkey, you!) and scribbled. As with my past haiku efforts, you are hereby warned not to proceed unless you can stomach infantile poetic efforts by one with less than zero skill in such matters. With that caveat out of the way, here goes...

(NOTE: For those who aren't familiar with haiku, this is actually several attempts (17, to be exact) since haiku is a three-line poem of strict format.)

Blue sky overhead
Fog obscures the horizon
Alone on the sea

Deep blue underneath
white wings stretching to the sky
Bird sails to the sun

White specks on deep blue
Bird on the sea, boat in the sky
Same destination

Southward on the wind
Iceland hides in the distance
Warm sun on our backs

Our shadow points south,
hull and sails on the same course.
North Pole hides my heart

Great Circle route or
shortest line between two loves?
Boat points south, heart north

Southward bound to where?
On a sphere, all paths lead home
North to the future

Spherical planet
Going south means going north
leaving, arriving

Small blue dot in space
This is all we'll ever know:
grain of sand and sea

Fulmars squawk, sea rolls
fog drifts before northern sun
mares' tails point southeast

Ear flaps up, gloves off
north wind cold but we head south
summer has returned

Summer has returned?
Or: we head south to summer?
Far south, it's winter

Summer and winter:
Strange names on a calendar
with no start or end.

Ear flaps up, gloves off
sun shines through long northern night.
Birds prep for flight south

Winter is long, dark
Birds stock up for migration
Sun shines high in north

Solstice is now past
sun dips below northern edge
Earth returns southward

Solstice may be gone
sun warm on upturned faces
winter's not here...yet.

The Coast of Iceland

We're about 20 miles off the north coast of Iceland now, 30 from the mouth of the fjord we'll enter to head to Akureyri. From there, it's another 30 or so to the dock, so we're about 10 hours from tying up and being finished with this expedition.

My watch starts in half an hour and runs until 3am. Given the timing, this will likely be my last official watch of the trip as well. Boogies mixed up the lineups for the leg from Jan Mayen: I've been teamed up with two 50-something physicians from Oslo. Nice guys, both of them named Tore (pronounced: "TOR-uh" with that rolled R that Americans are largely incapable of pronouncing), they have some sailing in their backgrounds and are both very active. They've run the New York Marathon and, as you might expect, climb mountains. Both are personable and intelligent, too, so it's been an enjoyable watch detail this trip.

And as always, it's with mixed emotions that I near port. Offshore passages are, to be honest, pretty exhausting, even when there's not a lot of work to be done -- as on this trip. But the motion of the boat, the wind, the short sleep all adds up to being a fatigue-producing effort. Throw in current conditions -- thick fog, an island off our starboard beam, several fishing boats at work -- and the workload that was so small suddenly ratchets up a couple of notches.

But on the plus side, there is the joy of simply being at sea: sailing on the wind (conditions permitting), birds and dolphins coursing by, the deep blue water, the freedom. I always fear these things could disappear from my life forever upon tying up to a dock and going ashore. I know they won't but there's always that fear.

Switching gears: Boogie said that the tenor of my posts had been on a downward trajectory since the trip started back in May. I went back and examined this here blog and I don't see it, but just in case some of you do, let me stress the fact that I'm having a great time out here. Any negative vibes that come through are due to two factors: one, the introspection that this trip and this whole stage in my life has engendered, and two, the shennanigans with the owners changing the boat's (and my) plans for the year.

The first factor, the introspection, is the main reason I'm out here. Yes, there's the learning-more-about-operating-a-boat aspect to the trip, but that's clearly less important in the long run than figuring out what the hell to do with my life, boat or no. The navel-gazing I've been doing -- and my apologies to all who've bothered to read such tripe -- is my way of following Robert Frost's "through" directive. I'll come out the other end at some point, I promise.

The second factor, well, 'nuff said on that one. As you may have read, I'm pissed at the owners and what their timidity and stupidity have done to plans made by both friends of mine and me, and their callousness when confronted with the news that hey, you clowns are jerkin' us around.

So any negativity that comes out from either of those factors is either me working through things or me venting, and I beg your indulgence. On top of that, my mother says she prefers when I get more of me and less travelogue into this gibberish, so I'm searching for a balance between the two. Again: your indulgence, please.

At any rate, we're nearing the end of this leg, and I'm nearing the end of the first half of this summer of soul searching at sea. I'm looking forward to getting back to the States in a couple of days and sleeping in a stable, wide bed for a bit. The posts will continue; it is to be hoped that the change in venue will provide an equivalent change in perspective, a new way of looking at these same things, so to speak.

13 July 2011

Another Lesson Learned

I've always loved sailing. From the time I used to push my Hobie Cat off the beach in front of my house and just go for it, seeing how fast I could make the thing move or seeing how far up onto one hull without tipping over I could push it, I've always dug the feeling of being in a vessel powered by the wind across the water.

And that always included upwind sailing, when the boat is heeled over, the little world aboard exists at a slant, and the boat pitches and hobbyhorses over and through the waves. I never could understand why those people who were sailing around the world -- or even just in the neighborhood -- would bemoan the lack of off-the-wind sailing.

Now I know. With all of the upwind sailing we've done thus far this summer, I've come to realize: it's a lot of work. It makes everything you do on board a challenge. And it's just plain wears you out.

When just getting out of your bunk is difficult because the floor of your cabin is sloping upwards at 45 degrees, it's a challenge. When walking a few steps means hip-checking the wall on either side of the hallway with each and every step, it's a challenge. When using the toilet means making sure you have a three-point stance with your head against the wall and your feet splayed out wide just to make sure you don't miss, it's a challenge (my stupid male pride won't let me sit down to pee unless the boat is really bouncing all over the place).

So call me a wimpy downwind sailor now but yeah, I'm on board, so to speak. Give me those downhill runs, where the horizontal is just that: horizontal, and I'll be happy. It's nice when you can sail straight ahead and not go almost 90 degrees out of your way because the wind happens to be blowing straight from your destination. And cooking is a whole lot easier when you don't have to wedge yourself into a galley before a stove that is swinging wildly with each passing swell.

I may be getting soft in my old age but screw it. Comfort isn't such a bad any age.

Mountain Summits and the Deep Blue Sea

Just under 200 miles to go until we reach the shores of Iceland; another 30 or so beyond that to our docking spot in the city of Akureyri. And it has been a tumultuous couple of days since I last puked on this keyboard.

Our climbers summited on Sunday the 10th and were met at their base camp on the 11th by the station chief with whom Boogie and Marlies had dined; he was kind enough to drive out and grab their gear, then drive back and bring them back to the station on the south side of the island. We loaded them aboard Polar Bear and then we all went back to the station for hot showers; some in the group even enjoyed the hot pool the station has on-site. That evening, I took the climbing crew back to the station for drinks at the bar there. We spent a nice evening socializing and learning more about the people who work there, and it was a nice, final bit of off-the-boat time before our morning departure. And yeah, a couple of beers were nice too.

Then yesterday, the 12th, we got everything in order in the morning and pulled the hook at noon. Destination: Iceland, about 360 miles southwest.

As if getting to Jan Mayen wasn't enough, and climbing a volcano there still not enough, the Norwegian Sea was going to make sure these folks paid their dues. Within minutes of being back on the boat, several were green with mal de mer again -- and that was in the lee of the island, where the water was calm and the wind slight. Once we emerged from behind the south cape, the wind picked up, humping up the seas into a chop on top of a longer-period swell rolling in from some distant disturbance. Within hours, the wind had backed around to being right on our nose, making the journey even more trying.

And COLD! Again with the low temps: right at zero Celsius -- that's freezing, or 32 Farenheit, for you folks keeping score at home -- with fog, drizzle and an incessant wind making for much colder conditions.

And if that wasn't enough, about 12 hours into the journey, the engine decided to puke up its coolant. Again. This time, half an hour from the end of my 9pm-12am watch, so I stayed up for two hours of Boogie's watch, cleaning that mess up and helping him remedy the situation. We got rolling again -- after an hour-plus of moving at barely 2 knots -- and I got a measly three hours of sleep before I was up for a four-hour, 6-10am watch in the coldest conditions so far: same zero-degree temp with thick fog coating everything in a sheen of mist and a strong, 25-knot wind cooling everything to well below freezing. Let's just say that I wasn't a happy camper at that point.

Once that watch was over, I slept the sleep of the dead until around 3pm, when I got up and got dinner going. Beef goulash. And boy, was it blah (I cooked it so I can say that). Something like that needs to simmer for hours, not just 30-45 minutes. While I'm not proud of my creation, it warmed the inside and everyone seemed to like it.

But the wind and seas have calmed now and the fog has lifted enough to let a touch of sunshine in. And the air has actually warmed up to 2 or 3 Celsius...balmy!

So I'm sitting in the snake pit -- the little alcove beneath the boom, forward of the cockpit and aft of the mast where all the lines from the mast are led -- typing this silliness out, just to get in the habit again. The water is, as I say, much calmer now though the lighter wind persists in being on the nose. But no matter: we're motoring more or less toward our destination with an estimated midday-Friday arrival.

And now the water is an amazing shade of blue. It's the same shade I enjoyed in the North Atlantic aboard Star Chaser last spring, when the gulf stream turned the inky black water into a deep azure; a blue so deep it's like you're looking into the eyes of a lover, one whose soul you feel a part of. Corny, I know, but it's true: this is a blue that goes way past the easy-to-love turquoise of the tropics. Here, the key word isn't "blue" or "azure," it's "deep" -- and I'm not referring to how much water there is below our keel. No. Here the depth starts right at the surface and draws you in as though you're looking into the heart of the Milky Way galaxy or the very universe itself. Perhaps it's what it would be like to look into the atom, the building block of all things -- it's a connection that defies description and is beyond one's understanding, but is not beyond one's feeling a part of a greater whole. It's welcoming and frightening, awe-inspiring and forbidding, all at the same time. It is irresistible and peaceful and comforting at the same time it is defiant and provocative and terrifying. It's beautiful.

10 July 2011

The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Rose-colored Shades

Sitting alone in the saloon on Polar Bear. I dinghied Boogie and Marlies in to shore about a half-hour ago; they're off to find the station chief and tackle the pleasantries. A radio report a few moments ago said that the chief was due back in an hour, so Boogie and Marlies were settling in for a cup (or two) of coffee with the station crew in the meantime.

In contrast to the tea party ashore, I find the tranquility out here on board delightful, which again will come as no shock to anyone who a) knows me, or b) has read any previous posts from this summer. It's as close to being on my own boat as I'll get this summer: no guests to tend to, no to-do lists to check off. Yes, if it were my boat (and I wasn't in as forbidding an anchorage as Jan Mayen, which is why I was left behind: as insurance for the boat) I'd likely be ashore hiking or in the water surfing or swimming, or even -- gasp! -- out sailing. But regardless of where I was or what I'd been doing, there would also be down time during which I'd enjoy the gentle rocking of a boat at anchor, a cozy saloon in which to sit and chill, music on the stereo (Neil Young right now, FYI), the sound of the wind in the rigging overhead.

In this particular boat saloon, I can see a calendar hanging in the galley. Today's date -- Sunday, July 10 -- has a red square highlighting it, and it also highlights that at this time in one week, I'll be back at my childhood home on Plum Island. I'll leave Polar Bear in Akureyri, Iceland, on Saturday and fly to Reykjavik. The next morning, I'll catch a flight to Logan Airport in Boston, and then a C&J Trailways bus to Newburyport, Mass. Sometime after lunch on the 17th, my folks will pick me up and we'll head out to the island. And the curtain will come down on the first act of this summer of my life.

The intermission will likely bring much introspection, a big retrospective on the show so far. And as I sit here, a week out from that break, I'm curious as to what the tenor of that analysis will be.

I'm concerned that being back in the States will be so comfortable and familiar that a return to the normal, to a life back in Corporate America, will be really appealing. I'm also concerned that being back in the States will be so comfortable and familiar that I'll be clamoring to get back to the new-vista-around-every-corner aspect of life at sea. It's likely a question of which rose-colored glasses I'll find most comfortable (though it's obvious that I'll wear out both pairs pretty quickly).

And in reality, some of that analysis will take place in the next five days, particularly the three or so it will take to cover the water between here and Iceland. Because if I decided that a return to the mainstream was in order and opt not to return to Polar Bear in Greenland in early August, I'd need to pack everything up and take it with me on Saturday.

I've gotten some good and kind advice with regard to that analytical process from friends over the course of this summer so far. One reminded me of the Robert Frost line, that "the best way out is through." I was encouraged to embrace the challenging lines of thought, the painful, to not take the easy way out (who, me?!). Another friend recalled times in her past when longing for the familiar had gotten in the way of true emotional and psychological growth, and encouraged me to push through those times when I wanted to pack up and go back to what I knew. She said that once she survived those easy-to-quit weeks, she made real progress and found that being out there was indeed just what the doctor ordered.

Putting that sage advice into practice is another reason why my current line of thinking is as I mentioned earlier: rejoin Polar Bear in August for the Greenland-Iceland-UK run -- and then figure it all out. At the very least, I'll get to see one of the world's unique places and log another thousand or so open-ocean miles. And it might just be that getting back out there after a big dose of the warm, the comfortable and the familiar will enable me to clearly see which glasses fit me best.

Besides, I think I can survive without lobster rolls, In 'n' Out Burger and the Red Sox until September.

Constant Companion

I've lamented the lack of mega-fauna throughout this journey. And with good cause: the tally so far is one visit from dolphins; a smattering of whales, only one of which was up close; zero orcas; and sea eagles so skittish that they remained little more than dots. But one feathered friend has been with us through thick and thin from day one in Newcastle: the fulmar.

This chunky, gull-like pelagic bird gets little respect, probably because it's a chunky, gull-like pelagic bird. The bump on his upper beak makes him look like a boxer who's broken his nose more than a few times. The implacable black eyes and flat expression give him an air of haughty arrogance, as though he's a little put out that you're intruding on his space out on the open sea. He doesn't work hard, certainly not as hard as you do out here. Instead, he'll flap two or three times to rise up out of the water and then he'll just glide, riding downwind like a jet or coursing upwind in a series of rises and falls. And then he'll glide past, just out of reach at eye-level as you stand on the deck, wondering why you're going so slowly. But he's not above taking a lift, either, riding the rising wind spilling off the sails whenever it suits him.

A few hours ago as we rounded Sørkapp, the southern cape of Jan Mayen, we were surrounded by thousands of fulmars. They sat in great rafts upon the water. They tumbled and climbed and dived on the fierce winds wrapping around the high, colorful headlands. They drifted by Polar Bear within arm's length. Thousands and thousands of fulmars all in this one place out in the middle of the ocean: it was Hitchcockian at the same time that it was comforting to have so many familiar faces around.

Fulmars may not have the cute factor of the puffin or the awesome wingspan of the eagle; instead they're the workaday bird of the North and Norwegian seas, and I just wanted to call 'em out.

Adventure A-Plenty

Beerenberg emerges from the clouds for a quick glimpse from our anchorage

I have three words for you today, boys and girls. Wind. Chill. Factor. Put them together and what do you get? You get Lukey freezing his little ass off in the middle of @#%#$% nowhere.

We arrived at the anchorage off the old meteorological station on the north coast of Jan Mayen around 10am. The landing area is a black-sand beach that rises steeply out of deep water. It lies at the base of the Beerenberg volcano which, upon our arrival, was hidden in the clouds. And that's when the first real adventuring of this summer of adventure sailing took place.

The forecast called for north winds around 10 knots. When we arrived, the wind was north around 15 knots and rising. By the time the climbers had gathered their gear and we bus drivers were ready to shuttle them to the beach, the seas were rising too.

Boogie was the first into the dinghy, and with the way it was getting bounced around by the waves, it was easy to see that he was tense...which made Marlies nervous, too.

I was next. I donned a surplus immersion suit -- an orange Gumby suit of thick neoprene that is used in emergencies by oil-rig workers, Alaska fisherman and others who work on low-temperature ocean waters. The suit keeps you dry and warm, and also adds flotation, all of which is supposed to save your life if the shit hits the fan in the Gulf of Alaska or, say, the Norwegian Sea.

By now, Polar Bear was rising and falling in semi-steady rhythm on the short, steep waves driven by the wind. The dinghy, tied along the starboard side, was bouncing around at the end of its painter line before every little ripple, gust and wave like a kid with A.D.D. having an epilectic fit. Getting into the dinghy meant timing a jump from the railing of Polar Bear down into the dinghy just right.

In truth, it wasn't as hard as it sounds but it was still nerve-wracking. The cold water and roiling seas meant a steep price for any misstep, regardless of the immersion suit.

I timed my leap and fell a few feet to land with a thud in the bottom of the inflatable. Then Boogie and I prepared for our first shuttle run to Jan Mayen. First up: three climbers whose seasickness had returned in the hour that we'd been at anchor in the ever-building waves: winds were now in the high teens with wave height increasing by the minute.

Not surprisingly, Jarl was among the three who joined Boogie and me in the dinghy in the first run for the beach. The trick in landing on the black sand was to time our approach so we could ride in at speed on one of the lesser waves. The problem was that we didn't know how far out deep water extended and thus, how long we could run the engine to provide propulsion.

With that in mind, Boogie killed the engine just outside the impact zone, the spot where the waves were breaking onto the beach. First miscalculation. I was in the bow and immediately started paddling toward shore. The dinghy rode in on a wave and I jumped over the side, expecting to find the bottom quickly. Second miscalculation: the water was almost chest deep. And right behind the wave that was big enough to push us to shore were three others in a set. Third miscalculation.

The dinghy got swamped by the second wave and the guys all floundered out as though they'd been electrocuted. The truth was: the immersion suits did keep you dry -- all except your feet, which were soaked and, well, immersed in cold water. Wool socks were a good idea; barefoot would have been better as the neoprene was insulation enough. Warm? No. But not terribly cold either. My feet have been colder surfing in Southern California in the wintertime.

Boogie and I grabbed the dinghy and pulled it as far up the beach as we could -- but not enough before the third wave completely filled the boat. The flotation provided by that third wave enabled us to pull the boat largely out of reach of the remaining, lesser waves and up onto the black-sand beach -- really: black gravel since it was ground-up lava, a clear reminder of the volcanic origins of the island; the other reminder, the volcano looming above us, was out of sight, still hidden in the clouds.

Three sickies safely if not stylishly deposited on the island, Boogie and I bailed the boat as best we could with only two paddles and started dragging the waterlogged beast back toward the surfline. Despite our efforts, two more waves filled the boat before we could get clear of the breakers, at which point I paddled like mad until Boogie could get the engine going.

On our way back to Polar Bear, we sat, submerged to our waists in the now-filled inflatable dinghy. What else could we do? And what was the big deal? Yeah, it was a stupid way to do things -- we should have landed on the south side of the island where seas were calm, but then the clients would have had to hoof their gear seven miles to this starting point of their climb.

And yeah, it wasn't actually the most comfortable of experiences. But hey, we'd come this far north for adventure...and now we'd gotten it: we were at 71 degrees north latitude sitting in an inflatable dinghy in waist-deep water that was probably in the low 40s to high 30s, the air temperature was an even 32 Farenheit with wind-chill factors in the teens, the seas were building by the minute, and we were off-loading mountain climbers who were en route to scale a volcano 500-plus miles from the nearest continent. To prove the point, the three other boats present when we arrived departed the anchorage while we were running our shuttles, indicating that conditions were deteriorating -- but that only upped the challenge, right?

We rode back to the mother ship, got some buckets and bailed the inflatable out, and then we took on several bags and one passenger. This time, our arrival on the beach was better timed. Knowing the depths involved, Boogie could keep the engine going longer and I knew when to leap for the beach and start pulling. Follow-up waves still dumped some water in the boat, but not nearly as much. And a couple of waves still dumped more water in the boat on the way out, but again, not as much. And we had remembered to bring the buckets with us, so on the way out I bailed while Boogie drove. The launch was mostly cleared by the time we arrived at Polar Bear.

Two more trips to the beach that got better and better -- the landings in particular were timed well -- and we had put the entire climbing party and their pile of equipment ashore. Mission completed, we reversed the earlier comedy of dinghy-and-mother ship and got the inflatable back on the davits at the stern of the vessel. We crawled out of our monkey suits, surprised to find things still mostly dry: soaked with seawater from the knees down, wet with sweat from the waist up, and only a little cold. Once on deck and out of the neoprene, however, the wind-chill factor took over, and it was a race below to get into warm clothes and get the boat's heater fired up. A late lunch of eggs, bacon and toast completed the process of regaining normal body temperature.

That was earlier today. We're now motoring southeast along the north coast of Jan Mayen, the anchorage having become untenable. The other boats had been right; we saw two of the three in a more protected spot halfway down this coast a short while ago. We're headed for the south coast, over near the base that passes for a settlement here. The base commander told Boogie that there was no swell in the bay there so we'll go hole up there for a couple of days, until the climbers finish what they're doing, and then go retrieve the lot wherever it's safest. In the meantime, Boogie, Marlies and I will clean and repair what needs fixing on Polar Bear, and I'd also like to get back to where we put the climbers ashore: while we were doing our shuttles, several antennas appeared on the bluff by the defunct met station. The rumors of a ham-radio expedition were apparently true and, as I wrote earlier, being the nerd (and licensed amateur-radio operator) that I am, I'd love to check out what they're doing, help out however I may and maybe even operate a radio or two for a bit.

09 July 2011

Land Ahoy

Jan Mayen off in the distance

Just started what will likely be my group's final official watch on this outbound leg. Jan Mayen came into view about three hours ago and is visible about 15 miles off the starboard side. We're making for the southerly point of this southwest-to-northeasterly aligned island, and that point is just about three hours away. We'll transition to the next watch at 6am and I'll go right back to sleep for the remaining two hours or so before we reach the anchorage on the north side.

Why back to sleep? Because I was just roused from what had to be the worst sleep of my trip so far. Or I should say: I was roused from having not really slept at all. I'm not sure why I couldn't sleep, just that I definitely didn't.

Which is surprising since my group had had a great previous watch. I cooked a decent pasta dinner for everyone and we went on watch at 6pm. At about 7:30pm, the wind came up to about 20 knots apparent AND it moved far enough aft that Jarl and I rolled out the staysail. The minute we did that, our speed on the engine and main alone, which had been hovering in the low 5's, jumped up to 6.5. Over the next hour, Polar Bear ranged between 6.3 and 7.3 knots, and frankly, was a lot more fun. That wind only lasted an hour before dropping again, at which point we furled the staysail, but it was fun while it lasted. And shortly thereafter, we changed watches.

As a result, I expected a quick, happy drop-off into sleep, but no such luck. So now I'm even more irascible than normal and really feeling the biting breeze and cold temps. It's in the mid-30s (Farenheit) and the wind is blowing in the teens from off toward Jan Mayen. The island is shrouded in the clouds that form a low ceiling from horizon to horizon. As expected given what we've seen from the marine charts and topo maps, Jan Mayen rises quickly and steeply from the Norwegian Sea at the north and south ends, with a low middle area linking the two. The Beerenberg volcano, which our guests will try to climb, forms the northern half of the island.

According to a welcoming email from the island's station commander, there are three other yachts already anchored at Jan Mayen. I'm assuming at least one of them is for the group of amateur-radio operators that Jarl mentioned upon our departure were en route to the island. If so, I'll definitely look to connect with them, see if I can't offer a little assistance...and maybe operate a bit on the ham bands. What can I say? I have nerd tendencies. The other yachts are, presumably, also climbers, since Beerenberg and it's 2000-meter-plus summit is the main reason people come to Jan Mayen.

08 July 2011

Plus Ça Change...AND Changes in Latitudes

Self-portrait in Fog

And so it continues. More motoring, more autopilot. What has changed is that the wispy clouds that created such great light conditions last night have been replaced by denser cousins, making for a plain old gray day. There's a breath more wind -- maybe 8 knots true -- but it's right on the nose. If we really wanted to sail we could bear off a bit to the north and shut off the engine, but that would mean moving at about two knots as well as adding to the distance to our destination. Since this is a commercial venture and we have guests with plans to climb a mountain, that's not going to happen.

But there IS enough of a breeze that it's freakin' cold out here. I'm layered up big-time: long johns and a thermal shirt, Polartec pants (liners for my fly-fishing waders) and a heavy wool shirt, down vest, foul-weather overalls and a wind- and waterproof shell. I'm also sporting my mushing hat -- as in: dog mushing. I got it years ago when I volunteered for the Iditarod (back before they started charging you to volunteer; charging volunteers...WTF?!) and never really used it. But it has a waterproof shell with a fleece liner -- and ear flaps that can either velcro out of the way on top of the hat or under your neck so the sides of your head are protected. I'm currently in the latter configuration. In order to type, my hands are bare, but I'm sitting by the hot-air exhaust from the engine so every now and then I shove my tootsies in there to heat 'em up a bit. The things I do to report home...

What kind of a fool spends his summer bundled up like this? The kind of fool who lives in the high latitudes, that's who, where the summer is more light than heat.

And we're now, with every passing minute, moving higher in latitude than I've ever been. We crossed 70 degrees while I slept last night, and depending upon where we anchor at Jan Mayen, we might reach 71 degrees. That parallel bisects the island, and while our time in Greenland (in Scoresby Sund) will also be spent above 70, we'll be just slightly south of Jan Mayen. Therefore, Jan Mayen, at just about the latitude of Barrow, Alaska, is the northerly apex of my trip.

Would I like to go farther north? Sure. But as chilly as I am right now, I believe I'll content myself with 71 degrees north latitude. Doing so gets me nearly into Ned Rozell territory and he's a badass (for a Yankee fan). And isn't that always the goal? To be a badass? Nah, didn't think so either, but I'm gettin' a little punchy here in this cold drizzle. Better put the keyboard down.

On Norway

What is there to say about Norge? After many years of wanting to visit this country, I've been here for about three weeks and have come away with mixed emotions.

I'd always wanted to visit because Norway seemed to combine a lot of attributes I've always loved: mountains, ocean, winter sports, active people, attractive people (sue me) and so on. And the Norwegians I'd known in my life -- mostly ski racers from my days back in Utah -- had a joie de vivre that I envied and hoped to find upon visiting. In all those regards, Norway has lived up to and even surpassed my expectations.

I had no idea the Lofoten were as amazing as they were, and I definitely plan to return there someday, preferably with skis and surfboard and climbing gear in tow.

I can't say whether the people were really all that active because I didn't venture far from the boat and the waterfront. But they sure looked a lot fitter and healthier than they did in England. A lot rode bicycles and there were bikes parked everywhere: outside business buildings, supermarkets, bars. Far too many of them smoked, which of course is prevalent throughout Europe. And forgive me for being male but yes, the stereotypes are well-earned: Norwegian women are very lovely.

And all the people were very friendly. Everyone spoke great English and didn't mind that I couldn't even properly pronounce Norwegian words that were spelled out in front of me. They were willing to engage on any topic and other than those two schmucks back in Lerwick, no one wanted to get in the American's face. The drivers were all very courteous, yielding to pedestrians even before they'd reached the start of a crosswalk.

One thing I hadn't expected was just how expensive Norway is. And I'm not talking just a bit spendier than I'm used to, I'm talking astronomically more expensive. Pizza and a couple of beers: the equivalent of 60 bucks. Entry fee at the aviation museum: 25 dollars. One of those single-serving cups of Haagen-Dazs: 4 bucks. A 10-minute shower: 6 dollars. One load at a laundromat: 10 bucks. A pair of hiking boots: 450 bucks.

So any plan of moving here soon, or even visiting again before I've made my fortune, seems to be too rich a proposition for my blood.

But the bottom line is that I'm glad I came to Norway, and glad I came to an out-of-the-way part of Norway for my first visit. I'd like to check out Oslo and the south, which I hear is very different from this northern area, and I'd really like to get here sometime during winter-sports season. I'll just have to save up a lot first.

Surrealistic Skies

The light outside right now is simply surreal. The sea is so calm it looks like the cellophane strips dance companies wave to simulate the sea, and the evening light filtering through the clouds and reflecting off this too-still surface makes it appear as though the water actually slopes up as you look into the distance. Again, I've tried a few photos and videos; we'll see how they do. It's times like these I wish I were a painter. No artificial lens on the planet can do justice to the ethereal light we're enjoying this evening.

We're one-sixth of the way into one of those watches: engine on, autopilot on, plodding our way toward our destination. Where yesterday was an ideal sailing day, today is just plain boring. But...gotta take the good with the bad, I know.

And we are, indeed, moving inexorably toward Jan Mayen. The forecast is for more of the same so we'll likely be in this motor-on state all the way there. And once there, we'll likely be anchored off the southeast side of the island; it's not the preferred anchorage but with a wind from the west, however slight, we need to sure we're not on a lee shore. For those wondering: that means that a shore that's to leeward -- downwind -- from you, and if you should drag your anchor, say, you'd wind up aground. Not good. Better to be blown offshore than onshore, to put it simply.

Just saw the last flick of a whale's tail off the port bow about 40 yards. I should be saying meters, but you get the idea. I ran to get my camera but of course, by the time I got back on deck, there was nothing more to be seen. So now I have my camera by my side and I'll sit here for another two hours, hoping for another glimpse.

Some of the funky light surrounding us right now:

07 July 2011

Alfred and the Boy Wonder

Well, if the owner's son is Boy Wonder, I guess that makes the old man Alfred, doesn't it? Not sure who the Caped Crusader would be in this scenario (not sure there is one), but Alfred took care of the Boy Wonder every bit as much as Batman, didn't he? Works for me (for now) so I'm goin' with it...

I don't know all of the history, but from what I understand, Alfred came by his money as a businessman. He owns a bunch of filling stations in northeast England and not surprisingly, given western civilization's dependence on the motor car, he did quite well for himself -- until recently when grocery stores started cutting in on his business, so now he's sweating bullets.

At some point, Alfred took up sailing to complement the extensive climbing and other alpine sports he enjoyed, throughout the UK and from his chic cabin in Chamonix. As is so often the case, the son immitated the father. Boy Wonder took to the mountain sports and even got into the sailing a bit, enough to get his yachtmaster's ticket -- the UK equivalent of a captain's license in the U.S. but much more highly regarded and no mean feat.

On one mountaineering/skiing trip to northern Norway, Boy Wonder had a burst of insight. As he looked down from some summit, he saw peaks stretching out to the horizon, all gorgeous, all untrammeled and all inaccessible -- but all with fjords cutting in along their bases. "What a treasure trove," he thought. "If only one could reach those untouched peaks!" And when he saw the water, Boy Wonder realized that a boat could reach those places, and people -- people like Alfred and Boy Wonder -- would pay to join the boat heading to those pristine mountain playlands.

But where could such a boat be found? Lo and behold, the perfect sailing vessel appeared: a huge steel racing boat, one that had been around the world multiple times with large crews, was for sale -- and it was cheap. Alfred stepped in, he being the businessman and all, and stole the boat for something like 400,000 pounds, along with a shipping container of spare parts. He was offered another boat and another container of spare parts for a mere 100,000 pounds more but, he being the businessman and all, he thought he could haggle 'em down a bit and offered 95. When he realized that even at 100 the offer was another steal, one that would enable him to sell off a lot of the excess and recoup his outlay, he went back to the seller only to learn that he was too late: the extra boat and equipment were gone. It was a portent of how Alfred would approach things in the future.

Alfred set up Boy Wonder with a business they could share: sailing to the great northern destinations. No one was doing it and there was a market. Lofoten, Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen Island, Greenland...for adventurers these names ring out like a siren's call. No, there weren't as many people looking to sail to these places as, say, to the Mediterranean, but those other markets were saturated. This venture wasn't going to make anyone rich, but it could be a going, profitable concern and hey, the principals involved could spend considerable time each year in places they adored.

But from the start, there were challenges, paramount among them the relationship between those two principals. It wouldn't be anything new if a father created a business to set up his little boy with a livelihood. And it also wouldn't be anything new if a father created a business in order to keep his son in check.

Who knows what really goes on behind the eyes of those involved, but it's telling that Boy Wonder said this summer that even after five years of business he'd never seen the books for the venture. Nor had he insisted upon seeing them. He didn't know if the business was profitable or not, didn't know what the expenses were and where costs could be contained. That was all up to the father.

Boy Wonder ran the business -- except when his father did which, it turns out, was whenever there were substantive decisions to be made. Could it be that Alfred didn't really trust Boy Wonder? For whatever reason, the father insisted on keeping all the purse strings well in hand.

Keeping those purse strings in hand included having all work on the new plaything done in-house, even though those doing the work had no experience with the unique needs of a marine-based venture. These were handymen who did work on petrol stations. On land. Maybe if those stations got tossed from side to side and from front to back, constantly, while immersed in seawater and while being regularly doused with heavy quantites of both fresh and saltwater, well, then maybe these nice gentlemen would be qualified to work on a 72-foot ocean-going steel racing sailboat.

But they weren't. So when they installed a bow thruster, they didn't realize the thing needed its own isolated power source; that tying it to the engine meant the only way one could use the bow thruster to help the boat move sideways when docking was to be going forward at four-plus knots. A 52-ton vessel creates a lot of momentum so approaching a dock at four knots is not exactly prudent. So now Polar Bear sports an inoperable bow thruster, a hole in the hull's flow that returns no value whatsoever. What did that failed attempt cost?

And for a boat that was going to a lot of places without marina facilities, a solid anchoring system would be a requirement. First up, a good, heavy CQR anchor and a lot of chain. Well done. Then, a roller on the bow to support the anchor while underway and make it easy to deploy when anchoring would be a good idea. For this, the owners went in-house again, with similar results to the thruster. Now the anchor has to be muscled into place on the bow when raising or lowering, and it's tied with a half-inch line to the aluminum bow pulpit while underway. And because the bow is vulnerable to the anchor coming up so close to the hull, the owners had a custom-made nose pad -- at a cost of several hundred pounds -- fitted to the front of the boat that needs to be installed and removed manually whenever anchoring is in order.

There are countless other examples of penny-wise-and-pound-foolish behavior, not limited to: an in-house designed and built freezer/fridge system that not only cost a bunk on the boat (read: a paying customer) but was also wedged into a spot where the doors to access both spaces are so small that only items a few inches wide can fit; a watermaker that was rewired incorrectly (also in-house) so it's inoperable even as we head to Iceland, and if it can't be fixed there then Greenland, the bulk of the summer season, is off the schedule; not cleaning the hull of more than an inch of barnacles and plant growth -- so the boat moves more efficiently (read: cheaper) -- while at home rather than on the road where it cost twice as much; and so on.

The bottom line (to use a business expression) is that Alfred treats Polar Bear like a plaything and then wonders why it's not profitable. The whole impetus for pondering a winter season south of the UK was to keep the boat from sitting idly and paying quay fees while doing so. Heading to Madeira, the Canary Islands and across the pond in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers -- the biggest sailing rally in the world and one popular enough that several charter boats already cater to would-be racers -- would enable Polar Bear to attract the sailing crowd.

Think about it: summer up north for adventurers, winter down south for sailors -- and all the while Polar Bear is generating revenue. And the ARC's popularity meant that one event would likely pay the costs for the entire winter; everything else would be profit. Head back home in spring for one month of cleaning and refitting, and out you go on the next season. Now you have a business, something one would think a businessman could recognize, especially when given very clear numbers that demonstrate how to make it work.

Apparently not. But if Alfred treats Polar bear like a plaything then Boy Wonder is equally culpable: he doesn't have the cajones to assert himself and make the business his.

For instance: If Boy Wonder can't captain the boat himself (read: save on costs) because he has a little girl at home, then he could be out marketing the venture at various no-brainer places in the UK where his enthusiasm for the project would be contagious. If Boy Wonder were doing so then the venture could cut loose the woman (read: save on costs) currently supposed to be doing the marketing but really, no one is quite sure what she does. The venture's website is woeful, marketing materials are ancient and even the guest information for upcoming trips never makes it to the crew in time for provisioning and planning purposes.

The bottom line is that promises were made by Alfred, promises that have now been broken and often come in contrast to the edicts from Boy Wonder. And given many of Alfred's explanations, explanations that fly in the face of all evidence, it seems as though he never had any intention of sending Polar Bear south. Which makes one wonder if he ever really wanted it to be a going venture. Now that he's avowed that he'll seek to sell Polar Bear after this summer, the answer seems clear.

It's highly doubtful that Alfred gives a shit about the impact his dishonesty has had on several lives -- least of all his son's. Clearly there are father-son issues to be resolved and it's to be hoped that Alfred handles those issues better than he handles his business. And it's also to be hoped that Boy Wonder grows up enough to be the father to his little girl that apparently Alfred couldn't be for him.

Whale Ahoy!

Wow, was that a boring 10am-2pm watch: motoring the whole time (we're still motoring now), with nary a whale in sight. I spent most of the watch below, cooking lunch and tackling our assigned cleaning duties so Jarl wouldn't have to be below (not good for one subject to seasickness) and Carmilla wouldn't be the only one in their pair doing all the work. It was also warmer in the cabin.

We're up again from 9pm to midnight, and dinner is at 6pm so I'm just gonna stay up for the duration and head to bed after the next watch. And that plan paid off in one dividend: we just saw some whales. Two or three humpback whales off the port beam, just lazing in the sun and blowing their spouts now and again. Tried a couple of photos...we'll see how they come out.

On Polar Bear

Polar Bear is a Challenge 72, one of a set of a dozen or so 72-foot steel sailboats built for a now-defunct round-the-world race. Sixteen amateurs would pay 30,000 pounds for the opportunity to cram into one of these boats, take orders from a skipper and get their asses beat up by the southern ocean all while racing similar set-ups the wrong way around the planet. By "wrong way" I mean: against the prevailing winds. Yes, they surfed some big waves in the southern ocean, but most of the time these knuckleheads were heeled over at 45 degrees and pounding through big waves for weeks at a time.

That they succeeded attests to the capabilities of this boat. It really is built like a brick shithouse. Apparently last year's captain, in an ever-escalating test of what the hull could withstand, sailed Polar Bear at 6-plus knots into an iceberg roughly half the size of the boat -- and didn't even blemish the outer coating on the hull.

So yeah, the boat is tough. What it's not, however, is very comfortable. In order to accommodate 16 sailors, pipe berths are used for bunks. These consist, as the name suggests, of two pipes with a padded cloth platform strung between them and velcroed secure. The cloth platforms extend beyond either pipe and have three straps from head to toe that are strung overhead to create lee cloths, fabric walls that keep you in your bunk while the boat rolls around the ocean. The pipe berths are, to be honest, more comfortable than you might expect, though that might be due to the fact that when you crawl into yours, you're so tired you could sleep on the side of a Southern California freeway at rush hour with no problem.

Polar Bear is also, as I've mentioned, made of steel -- and there are no cushions in the cockpit area so your ass gets cold and sore pretty quickly. Also in the cockpit, the floorboards at the helm are angled so that when the boat is heeled at 45 degrees, your feet can be on a horizontal surface. If you're not heeled at 45 degrees, as we rarely are, your feet are torqued at strange angles that never quite get comfortable.

The boat is also very demanding. A 72-foot, 50-plus-ton boat requires big sails to get it going. Big sails require a lot of effort to hoist and control. So the lines are big, the weights and forces involved are big and the spares required take up a lot of space.

All of which is to say that it's not a boat made for cruising. Which, to be fair, in its current incarnation, is not really what it's doing. Polar Bear is a bus, with stops at obscure, hard-to-reach places that are popular among climbers and kayakers. The goal is to cram as many people into the boat as possible for each trip, thereby maximizing profits. Hey, I'm a capitalist; I'm all for that.

What's missing, however, is the acknowledgement by the owners that this is not an ideal platform for such adventures.

A power boat -- say, an old, local fishing boat -- would be a better vehicle for taking adventure seekers to Lofoten. You could fit hard-shell kayaks on the foredeck since there wouldn't be any headsails or spinnaker poles in the way. Wind, or the lack thereof as we saw last week, wouldn't be an issue, and diesel would be a fixed cost. Most importantly, you could get your clients where they wanted to go in half the time it currently takes; Polar Bear is a sailboat -- with an undersized engine, no less -- it's not made to motor fast.

But there's another way to make Polar Bear work as-is as a charter vessel: market to sailors.

Sailors familiar with the boat's history -- its use in the Challenge races, its later use by Dee Caffari to become the first woman to sail nonstop around the world in the wrong direction solo (wow, that's a lot of qualifiers) -- make it something that armchair racers would kill to experience...right down to the pipe berths. Sailors would welcome the opportunity to work hard and endure discomfort if it meant they could say they did it on a famous racing boat.

But that would mean different destinations than those currently on Polar Bear's itinerary. It would mean doing things where there's reliable, strong wind -- places such as the trade winds and events such as the ARC, originally in Polar Bear's 2011 schedule.

But sailing is not among Boy Wonder or his father's interests; they're climbers and kayakers who dabble in sailing. We'll cover these two illustrious folks in detail in a subsequent post (pops needs a nickname, don't you think?), but the bottom line is: Polar Bear is a magnificent vessel for what it was designed to do. It handles beautifully when it's going to weather in big winds. It rockets downwind when it's blowing like stink. It can take pretty much anything that can be dished out. And it does all of that very efficiently and with speed.

I'm grateful to have spent time on this boat and I'm looking forward to whatever time remains. But I would never want a boat like this. I wouldn't even want to spend more than one season like this on board. It's just too big with too many concessions made in the interest of sailing speed -- speeds that aren't reached often enough now because, frankly, it doesn't sail enough because of its itinerary.

Polar Bear is a different platform for different folks. For me, it's a learning platform, and it's been educational even in what it's taught me I DON'T want.

Dancing in the Northern Summer Sky

It WAS quite peaceful once we turned off the generator. We ghosted along at speeds ranging from 3.5 to 7.9 knots, with bizarre and beautiful light displays overhead. It wasn't the aurora but rather the midnight sun playing on the tops of the clouds, on the thin veils of drizzle, on the ocean surface. I tried some photos but I doubt they'll capture the wild and varied shapes and colors that danced in this northern sky.

That was last night. Shortly after we went off watch at 3am, Boogie was forced to turn on the engine. Whereupon, the engine immediately puked up all its coolant. Apparently Boogie fixed everything because we're now on the 10am-2pm watch and proceeding along on said engine. There's more blue sky overhead and a bit of sun, but still quite a few bits of drizzle and a chilly north breeze. The other watches reported whale sightings, but we've yet to see any wildlife save for the fulmars that constantly circle the boat, gliding on the breeze, riding the wind spilling off the mainsail or landing in the water nearby, seemingly looking for a handout.

Can't Keep a Good (cough, cough) Man Down

Jarl took a body blow in round one. He missed the second round, but the judges in this match are forgiving, and when the third round sounded, Jarl was there, answering the bell.

That was last night. Aside: "Last night." What does that mean at this latitude in early July? We wake up for a watch and it doesn't matters what time it is, the gear is the same. Sunglasses at midnight. Cold-weather gear at high noon. Hour of day is irrelevant at 68 degrees north latitude on 7 July.

Anyway, that was last night. Jarl, Camilla and I tackled the 2-6pm watch, which featured greatly diminished wind and seas, but still plenty of power to sail rather than motor. We came off watch at dinnertime, which meant we were assigned to dishwashing duty. Jarl missed that extracurricular -- no surprise since it takes place belowdecks -- but here he is, at the helm to start our 12-3am watch. The fourth round, as it were.

I just took a photo of the featureless horizon to the north. It's the same for 360 degrees, but north is where the sun is now (more or less) and the sky in that direction features a very diffuse glow filtering through the low marine layer overhead. The slate-gray sea is really only a few shades darker than the white-gray clouds, with just the sharp line of horizon -- with the glow of the hidden sun -- dividing the two. And if not for the rumble of the generator, it would be quite peaceful.

06 July 2011

Here Comes Ol' Irony Again

Well it has been an interesting 19 hours or so. Right after my watch took over at 6pm yesterday, we cleared the Lofoten Islands and jumped headlong into a bunch of wind. Coming off the starboard bow, we were getting anywhere from 20 to 32 knots of apparent wind -- and Polar Bear was loving it.

Our guests, well, they were a different story. Joining me on watch were a couple: Jarl and Camilla. Jarl is a big guy, about my height and a wee bit chunky. He seems eager and excited about the adventure he's embarked upon, but also appears to be a bit of, well, a nerd. Camilla is a cute young lady, with freckles and bright eyes and a eagerness to engage in debate on any topic.

When we started the watch -- right after we had cooked and served the chicken-curry dinner -- Jarl took over the helm while I sat beside the cockpit on the port side. He toiled along for an hour with a big smile on his face. When he stood down, he moved to the starboad side and Camilla took over. Jarl sneezed loudly, at which point Boogie appeared, wide-eyed, in the companionway hatch. He pointed at Jarl and then pointed to my side of the boat -- the downwind side. I asked Jarl, "Are you gonna be sick? Come down here to this side, OK?" Jarl did, and proceeded to spend the next two hours puking the curry and all the rest of his guts out while I dangled a bucket overboard and washed off the detritus.

And Jarl was not alone. Everyone else among the climbers was either white-faced in the cockpit, down below curled up on their bunks or puking into a bucket or the head.

Which is a shame because the sailing was great. Bumpy? Sure. And we were sailing tight to the wind which meant the boat was heeled over at 45 degrees or so and bucking over the waves like a bronco. Camilla, to her credit, soldiered on gamely, keeping us mostly on course and smiling at the same time she was concerned with her husband's well-being.

Once our watch ended, she put Jarl to bed and I provided buckets to all the other cabins, just in case. And then I went to bed. When our next watch came up at 3am, Jarl couldn't answer the call. Camilla and I alternated half-hour stints at the wheel for the three-hour watch, at which point we both went back to our bunks.

The other watches are keeping on and we've had wind ever since. We'll go back on watch again in 25 minutes, at 2pm, and do a four-hour run. It'll be interesting to see if Jarl is up for it since I learned during this morning's three-hour watch that he's the impetus for he and Camilla's journey to Jan Mayen. He's the one who's into the north and winter scenes, and apparently fancies himself the rugged adventurer. Jarl is hoping to get a gig someday on Jan Mayen; he's an engineer and hopes to get on at the meteorological or LORAN station there because he wants to live in a place on the edge, where nature still rules.

Camilla, on the other hand, hasn't been south on a vacation since they met and her climbing experience is limited mostly to the indoor gyms in Oslo. She tags along so they stay together, and she's even willing to live solo in Oslo should Jarl get his longed-for six-month tour of duty on Jan Mayen.

Time to go wake them up, see who answers the bell. As an old Doonesbury cartoon once put it, "Bravo for life's little ironies."

05 July 2011

Once More Upon the Sea

We finally left the dock in Bodø this morning around 9am. The original plan was to leave yesterday late afternoon but the customs office was closed when Boogie went to check us out. Apparently there were no international flights in or out of Bodø yesterday so the office just closed up and went home. Grrrreat.

When Boogie arrived at the customs office this morning at the 8am opening hour, he was asked why he was bothering to check out since Jan Mayen is part of Norway. "Because you told us we had to check out to go to Jan Mayen and on to Iceland when we arrived," he replied. Grrrrreat. Well, at least we got signed out quickly and were off.

We got off the dock and maneuvered out of the harbor, raising the mainsail and getting the new group lined out as a slew of fighter jets roared off the runway at the nearby airport. When things were set, we turned and motored through the narrow waterway that heads north from Bodø. Once clear of the small island that guards Bodø's west, we turned left and headed for Vestfjord, the south end of Lofoten and the open waters of the Norwegian Sea.

We're now about 20 miles from Røst and Vaeroy, the southernmost islands of the Lofoten archipelago. There we'll turn a bit north and head for Jan Mayen, about 500 miles away. And I, for one, am looking forward to being on open water again.

I dug Bodø and even moreso the Lofoten. But as in Lerwick, there comes a time when it's time to motivate and hit the road. That time had come for me in Bodø. I'd very much like to return sometime -- especially, I think, in March or April when I could take advantage of the wintersport options. A combo surfing Unstad/backcountry skiing trip in Lofoten, perhaps? Sign me up.

Right now, however, I'm sitting below and have been jotting notes as to possible paths come this summer and fall. "But isn't that path set?" you ask. Not anymore...

Boy Wonder's father, the owner of Polar Bear, informed Boogie and Marlies a couple of days ago that the boat will not be doing the southern season. The season will end in Scotland in early September, at which point he plans to sell the boat. Needless to say, this development has put Boogie and Marlies in quite a predicament: sailing is their career and this is the middle of one of the prime-time seasons each year.

As for me, it definitely pisses me off to say the least, and not just because it cuts short my sailing year but also because of what might have been: when I turned down the job offer I had in Anchorage, I was asked how long I'd be gone. When I said six months to the rest of the year, the director of the organization said that was a bummer, and that if I'd only been gone two or three months, they'd have held the position for me.

Well, shit. If I'd known this trip was going to get cut short, I'd have been able to have my cake and eat it too. I could have sailed this first half of the season, flown back to the U.S. next week for my buddy Tom's wedding and then returned to Alaska, complete with a job and my home waiting for me. So as far as I'm concerned at this point, ol' Boy Wonder's father can just blow me.

That said, I still feel the universe is giving me points for taking this leap back in the spring. I've seen some awesome places, learned a whole lot more about sailing, gotten myself into completely debt-free and liquid financial shape, and have limitless options before me. And on top of that, I've begun learning some things about me that needed to be learned...some of which I've chronicled herein, some of which I'm keeping to myself.

So the path at this point is as follows: arrive at Jan Mayen in about four days, hang out there while our guests land and climb the Beerenberg volcano, then retrieve them and sail on to Iceland. From Iceland, I'll do my already-planned trip back home to the U.S. for the wedding of my friends Tom McLaughlin and Deana Moody.

And after that, we get into a gray area. My current thought is to return to Polar Bear in Greenland as planned and then finish the season's trips there, to Iceland and on to Scotland. And from there, the gray area goes kinda charcoal. Tour Europe as planned? Try to get on with another boat sailing the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (the ARC) as Polar Bear had planned from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean? Or maybe get on with a boat doing the American version of the ARC from Virginia to the British Virgin Islands? Go visit Mike and the gang in Scotland? Maybe bring my board with me when I return from the States and surf a bit while I'm over here? A combo of the above?

Or do I just chuck it all and head back home, buy my own boat -- the goal all along, right? -- and take off? Or take the lessons I hope I've learned and rejoin Corporate America? Maybe I've gotten the bug (and the touch) back that I once had and can give the freelance thing a go? Hell, maybe just pack up and head to Hawaii for the winter surf season. I don't know. I'm debating all of these options and more at this point.

In the meantime, I've lined out a bunch of topics to cover in the coming days. I won't be able to post any of them until Iceland (about 12 days from now) but I'll put 'em up in sequential order. And I'm gonna cover everything, including those that might just piss off certain people. To that end, before leaving Bodø, I published a post from early June titled "Progress Toward Norway" that detailed some of the goat-rodeo aspects of the trip with Boy Wonder. I pulled it on the outside chance that he or his dad might find it, object to my characterizations and order me off the boat (though Boogie assured me that as skipper, he had final say as to who was on board and who wasn't). It's nothing too inflammatory but I was playing it safe, I thought. Silly, right? Well, yeah. But enjoying the irony that is so prevalent in life has been one of the most educational and entertaining takeaways for me on this trip, and since we're all off the boat in the not-too-distant future anyway, well, the joke was on me.

03 July 2011

Where We Be

Here's a good map of where Polar Bear has been so far and where we're headed in the coming weeks (click on the image to enlarge, and then click again to see it at full size). I've done some quickie edits to this image so you can see where Bodø and Lofoten are here in Norway, and you can see where the Shetland Islands are in relation to England and Scandinavia. I've also circled where we're headed next -- Jan Mayen Island -- and where we'll head from there: Akureyri, Iceland. And finally, you can see our destination in Greenland: Ittoqqortoormiit and Scoresby Sund.

And, of course, you can always click on the "where are we now" link in the left-hand margin; that Spot fix is usually on and updates every 10 minutes while we're moving.

Brooding in Bodø

Sitting in the saloon of Polar Bear all by my lonesome. And it's…wonderful. Given my earlier anchor-watch posts, I'm sure that sentiment isn't surprising to anyone, but…just thought I'd throw it out there. The midnight sunshine from the boat is gorgeous, with some clouds to reflect the light and glow in a pink-orange tint reminiscent of alpenglow on a mountaintop. It was just six minutes ago that the sun "set" and started up again…all of which took place above the horizon (but below the neighboring mountains, as you can see).

The view from Polar Bear's hatch in the Bodø harbor at 1:02am...

In addition to the light, what's interesting about right now is that I'm currently in the situation I've sought for some time…and I have no clearer thoughts about a path than I did when such a situation seemed so far off.

Throughout most (if not all) of the past several weeks' worth of trips with clients, I've often thought, "If only I were here in my own boat, with friends rather than paying customers, on a schedule of our own choosing, this would be perfect." Well, now I have some of that -- I'm on a boat by myself in a harbor in an awesome place -- and I haven't had any life-shattering bursts of insight anytime in the last little while. Certainly no exultations along the lines of "yeah! THIS is what I was after, baby!"

...and at 1:54am

Not that I really expected any. But what is very interesting (to me, anyway) is that my internal dialogue has revolved around a question I hadn't anticipated: do I really want to go cruising? That's surprising because for so long (hell, back to my teenage years many centuries ago) the question was never DO I want to go cruising but always WHEN and HOW will I go cruising. The dream for me was always a sailboat, my surfboards and other toys, and…buh-bye. And now that I have some semblance of that image, it's not an affirmation or even a negation that arises, but rather a new and unforeseen emotion. A question, actually, that I thought had been asked and answered so long ago but now seems scarily current: do you really want to go cruising? Do you REALLY want to go cruising?

And the answer is: I don't know. Before it all seemed so clear-cut. And now that I've been out there tasting the dream in ever-so-small morsels, what I'd be leaving behind looms larger. I can go tomorrow, if I so choose. The question now is: do I so choose?

The old saying that you don't know what ya got till it's gone is powerful because reality usually frames the saying as: "you didn't know what ya had till you threw it away." I've already thrown a lot of things -- important things, to me -- away to chase this dream, so this lack of clarity, this doubt, that has arisen is a wee bit troubling. As a result, sitting here in the saloon of Polar Bear all by lonesome, I'm now WAY inside my head…and as you folks know: it ain't pretty when I get deep into my head. So…stay tuned and we'll see how it turns out.

But in the meantime, it really was a beautiful twilight from the boat this evening.

01 July 2011

Returning to Land

Arrived in the harbor in Bodø this morning around 11am. And not a moment too soon...

This has been a trying week. As you all know, I'm not the most social guy around. In fact, I might even qualify as a misanthrope. ("The hell you say," you reply...) But even a saint might have been tried this past week.

That's not to say there weren't great moments. There were. There was even some connecting going on -- AFTER a stupendous meal of group-caught halibut and (especially after) peer-pressure-induced sampling of the various types of vodka. But for the most part, it was a case of "never the twain shall meet," and rather than get into specifics (and be accused of being yet another Ugly American), let's just leave the week as an incident of divergent cultures.

As a recuperative measure, and to escape the final night of our Polish guests' presence within the close confines of Polar Bear, I've rented a hotel room overlooking the harbor for the night. A solid bed; no one other than me snoring; a long, hot shower with no time limit; a clear mirror in which to shave at an unpressured pace...these are wonderful things, and all unavailable on a charter boat.

The goal is to recuperate before our next charter begins on Monday. An interesting way for an American, ugly or otherwise, to celebrate the Fourth of July: heading to sea en route to Jan Mayen Island with seven Norwegian hikers/climbers. We'll spend a few days there while they try to summit the big volcano at the northern end of the island, and then head south and west to Iceland.

Before that, however, there are two days of cleaning and prepping to do. And I hope to recap a bit of the past week -- highs and lows -- in between boat chores.

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