Across the North Sea to Norway
By Alec Blanc, Figment II, #212
(reproduced with permission of Mainsheet, the Catalina and Capri Owners Magazine)
The crew assembled at Dover Marina on the evening of Friday 28, April. Figment II was already there, having been delivered from The Solent earlier in the week.
The crew of four had all sailed on figment before during our "shakedown" weekend in the Solent in March, so stowing our gear didn't take as long as we knew all of the nooks and crannies aboard although lots of them were now crammed with food. On our shakedown we had experienced 45 knots of wind and snow in the English Channel, and the crew was interested to notice that since our last stay on board I had fitted lee-cloths to stop them from falling out of bed if the boat was heeled over and an EPIRB, an electronic gadget that uses satellites to send an automatic distress signal to the International Search and Rescue Authorities. Did I know something that the crew didn't?
We were quite subdued the next morning as we motored across Dover Harbour and made out of the Eastern Entrance. Would we make it? Then it was sails up and we were off, past the White Cliffs of Dover and Ramsgate and into the Thames Estuary and the North Sea.
We settled into our shipboard routine remarkably quickly. We had designed a clever watch rotation, which gave us two hours on deck followed by four hours off. Every four hours off. Every fourth day brought cook duty and as responsibilities changed at midnight it meant that everyone got a full-undisturbed six hours sleep at night. The watch keeper was responsible for the entire boat. He had to watch out for the other boats, fishing nets and oilrigs, of which there were plenty. Keeping watch at night was fascinating, the sky was usually very clear with lots of stars and Figment's wake was usually sparkling with phosphorescence. There was lots of time to think during those night watches, and we all quickly realized how big the ocean was and how small we were. In fact, our world had shrunk to 32 feet in length and was inhabited by five guys. We got on really well together, and we didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a crossword during the entire expedition.
We had our high spots and low spots. One evening when we were about 200 miles from the nearest land a tiny finch fluttered on board. It was exhausted but wouldn't eat or drink. It spent the night in the aft cabin perched on a coat hanger. In the morning it flew to the deck and died. We buried it at sea but a seagull thought that Christmas had come and ate it. We were not impressed.
However, a few minutes later there was a great splashing, and we were surrounded by a school of about ten dolphins. They were marvelous. They played in the bow wave, jumped high out of the water and swam along side looking at us. They stayed for about half an hour and then suddenly turned off and left us. I don't think any of us will forget them.
At night on the fourth day we could see the lights on our port beam of small Norwegian coastal towns, and as dawn rose we could make out Faerder Lighthouse, landfall! As we started the last sixty miles up Oslo Fiord, the wind dropped completely and one of the crew decided it was time for a swim. We lowered the boarding ladder and put a bight of rope over the stern and towed Tony at two knots. The water was eight degrees centigrade, so he didn't stay in long. When he came out, Alec showed him the depth gauge; he had been swimming in water that was over six hundred meters deep!
The sail up Oslo Fiord was impressive with forests and hills on each shore. Soon Oslo came into sight and before we knew it we were moored at a marina in the center of the city. The feeling of achievement was incredible, and we all knew what it meant to "feel like a million dollars." Handshakes and hugs were exchanged and a celebratory bottle of champagne was opened. We had done it! Six hundred forty miles in five days and ten hours.
The next morning we were awakened by a twenty-one gun salute! For us? No, it was the start of the VE Day celebrations and Oslo Harbour was filled with warships from Canada, Poland, France, America, and of course the United Kingdom in the form of HMS Cardiff.
For the next three days we became tourists. Alec knows the area well and on his advice we hired a car to see as much as possible: The Kon-Tiki, The Fram, The Viking Ships, The Resistance Museum, Holmenkollen Ski Jump and the Folk Museum to name but a few. We also drove into the mountains and went part of the way up Njorfjell which is one of the biggest mountains in Southern Norway.
The Peace Parade on VE Day brought a lump to a few throats, it's hard to imagine what it must have been like to be occupied by an enemy and we were proud of wearing Union Flags on our jackets.
The next morning we were under way by 0400 and we were passed on the way down the fiord by HMS Cardiff doing twenty knots and with whom we exchanged greetings. As we were leaving the fiord in late afternoon, we were amazed to see a Viking ship under full sail about two miles away on our starboard beam. It was of course a replica but what a fitting farewell to Norway.
The voyage home was uneventful until about 200 miles from Dover, the sea decided to show us its true power. The wind blew about forty knots from the north and the waves were soon as high as houses. Steering with the wind on the stern was difficult and required lots of concentration, so we reduced our watches to half hour tricks. However, our little boat rode out the storm and we realized how lucky we had been with the weather.
On the late afternoon of the fourth day we sighted the Kent coast and by 0200 the next morning we were safely moored in Dover Marina. This time we had completed the voyage in four days and twenty two hours.
We had achieved our goals and discovered a little more about ourselves. The expedition was something we will never forget. The only question that remains is, What Next?
Figment II, my Catalina 320 sailed to Oslo from the UK in July 1996. This was Figments second cruise to Norway but the trip was very different to the idyllic conditions experienced in the previous year. There were a variety of crew members on board including Lewis, a retired civil servant; J. Bendt, a 67 year old Dane; James and David, both in their late 20's and looking for sea miles before they went for professional crew training; and Ralph, at 19 the youngest but most experienced, having sailed with me on Figment on many occasions.
The crew members soon settled into shipboard routine-two hours at the helm followed by four hours off with Ralph and me on permanent standby when required. Every fourth day each crew member was cook for a twenty four hour period and the variety in culinary skills had to be seen to be believed.
The first two days passed quietly, the main highlight being a visit from three dolphins, but the weather forecasts were for gales from the North. Figment has a NAVTEX fitted and this proved invaluable in receiving hard copy forecasts and navigational warnings.
The first crisis arose when the boat suddenly veered off course with a faulty autohelm and after that had to be hand steered. Then the wind increased and was soon blowing 40 knots.
Basically Figment coped well. A few days before leaving I had replaced one of the radio speakers in the cockpit and hadn't sealed it properly. When the boat heeled to starboard, the speaker spent most of its time under water and the sea trickled into the aft cabin. Soon the floor in the cabin was awash, bunks soaked and clothes wet. The fact that the fore-hatch was dripping didn't help.
By this time we had been driven towards the Danish coast and could see buildings about 10 miles off. The engine had been running for nearly two days it stopped due to fuel exhaustion. While we had plenty of fuel in cans it did little good as the engine needed to be bled to make it run. Not being an engineer, it took some time to figure the proper procedure to bleed the engine and bleed it I did.twelve times in eight hours. At last we got it running. After about three hours of continuous operation, I thanked one of the crew who knew just a little more about engines than I did, for his help. When the engine had stopped, I had just stopped talking.
The gods did smile on us, the engine behaved again and the wind dropped. We enjoyed a pleasant sail across the Skagerrak while we dried the boat out.
As we approached Oslo Fjord we could now see both the Norwegian and Swedish coasts and I will never forget approaching Faerder lighthouse silhouetted against a glorious sunset. Then it was 60 miles up Oslo Fjord in the dark. The sector lights all along the coast were invaluable. When Oslo appeared at the head of the Fjord and we moored in Hebern Marina the sense of achievement as we shook hands with each other vanished into insignificance. Together we had made it. Figment had brought us 687 miles in 5 days and 8 hours, an average speed of 5.4 knots.
We rested three days in Oslo, enjoying the sights and drying out mattresses and covers in the marina tumble dryers. On the day before our scheduled departure I changed the fuel filter while Ralph tightened the forestay. I was down below wrestling with the fuel filter, when I heard shouts and a splash. The forestay had parted at the mast head. We secured the mast and then tried to figure out what had happened. It would appear that the bearing at the mast head was too tight and had twisted the forestay until eventually it parted. In a perverse way, we couldn't believe our luck. We had come through a gale in the middle of the North Sea with our mast supported by only a few strands of wire.
Our return trip home, though delayed by 18 hours, was relatively uneventful. The approaches to Kent are not nearly so spectacular as Oslo and Ramsgate.
So, what is next? Norway beckons but I am also thinking of Northern Spain. Does anyone want to come along?
Alec Blanc lives and sails out of England