Sunday, 12 October 2014

Catfishing by moonlight... or...adventures in maritime veterinary surgery

The ship's cat - Kipling, like most cats, likes fish.

It may be my imagination, but I think that the lack of feline shipboard entertainment introduces a degree of boredom that somehow makes the prospect of illicit fish even more appealing to Kipling.

So we have found out by experience that no fish is safe on board when we're not looking unless it is seriously out of reach.

Our collapsible crab pot, for which we use fish heads as bait, had already been chewed through once so I had taken to tying it up high on the aluminium post which supports the radar and various other antennae on the stern.

This post also serves as a useful spot for storing our fishing rod and for keeping its array of large stainless steel hooks out of Beatrice (our three year old) range.

Those of a squeamish disposition should probably look away now, as while I'd like to be able to say that no animals were harmed in the making of this blog, this wouldn't be strictly truthful.

We were awoken in the night by curious clattering from the stern. Non-Beatrice related noise is usually my area of duty at night, so I climbed out to find a curious black shape lurching around by the radar post.

Curiously, Kipling wasn't crying out much. Perhaps he was still thinking that he might just get away without a beating but I'm not sure I could have kept that quiet if I was suspended 8ft in the air by just a fish hook through my arm. He was trying desperately and failing, to regain some kind of hold on the post which he had clearly climbed in pursuit of the fish head. I lifted him up to take the weight of the hook but it was a bit tricky to then release the rod and hooks, which he'd managed to comprehensively tangle up while thrashing around.

Lucia arrived at this point and promptly had to sit down before fainting, after which we lowered him down to start the process of extraction. The barb had gone right through but was fortunately only through a large fold of loose skin.

Apart from a slightly sheepish manner this morning, he seems none the worse. We are one fishing hook short, but at least he didn't manage to eat the fish head bait, so there's still a chance of crabs tomorrow.

Sunday, 7 September 2014


Our first anchorage - Mandal
My previous memories of Norway are from our family trip in 1968 in our 32ft Buchanan gaff cutter “Orlando”. I was 6 years old and so these are among some of my earliest clear memories. Well, I say clear, but of course in the way of early memories they are all shaped and warped and disjointed, sometimes blurred but with snapshots of exceptional but perhaps deceptive clarity. One facet of my memory of that time was the unbroken sunshine we had throughout the duration of our time there, which seemed like months.

Islands off Mandal
The unreliability of these memories was demonstrated to me by my father before he died in the Spring of last year. He had become increasingly disabled through recent years and clearly took vicarious pleasure in following our travels. I spoke to him about Norway not long before he passed away. He told me that we had been there for about 2 weeks in total.

Our little explorer
Many other elements of memory remained accurate and more drifted back as they were nudged by the scenery we came across.

Whereas in '68 it was a drawn out, rough and unpleasant passage from Dover to Stavanger, this time we had a single tranquil overnight crossing from the northern tip of Denmark to Mandal. The south coast of Norway is littered with small granite islands giving lots of shelter but anchoring is limited by the depth of the water. We arrived in late July in the heart of the short but intense Norwegian holiday season, so some of these anchorages were busy during the daytime and having heard that the West coast is quieter we decided to press on in spite of the scenic beauty and get around the corner.

Typical hairy roof
We were rewarded with less boats and increasingly spectacular scenery at almost every turn. The delightful anchorages and breathtaking views are simply too numerous to list, and this was our introduction to the real problem of cruising in Norway – there's just too much of it to see.

The memories started kicking in as we dropped the anchor off Klosteroy, not far from Stavanger; pictures of a young girl in a kayak curiously paddling out from an island to investigate us; picking and eating the delicious yellow rasberry-like berries, and the mountains.
The weather this year surpassed even my rosy recollection and locals were saying this was the best Summer for 30 years or more, so we motored ourselves around, swam and stood with our mouths open waiting for the next view and trying to think up new superlatives.

Jaap and Anneke
In an enclosed anchorage near Skudenhamn we met Jaap and Anneke from Enkhuisen in Holland on their boat Kim. We were immediately struck by their warmth and humour and on their recommendation crossed to Skudenhamn and ate waffles in Johannes front room cafe, which is a mandatory part of any visit. We parted company there, but this wasn't the last that we would see of them.

Tight spot but ever so safe!
August saw us working north to Hardangerfjord, in yet more implausibly beautiful surroundings.
Maybe we had become a little blasé about the weather, as when the barograph started to freefall and the radio squawked of an imminent force 10, we were caught somewhat unprepared.

We managed to retreat around to the lee side of Varaldsoyna island but were uncomfortably aware that the wind was set to shift in the night leaving us badly exposed. It was a worrying time, as while we were some 40miles from the open sea, the wind funnels and gusts strongly up the deep fjords and an unpleasant sea can kick up. Because of the steepness of the sides, sheltered harbours are few. We couldn't find anywhere where our anchor would hold and were preparing ourselves for a pretty unpleasant night when a shout from the shore changed things.

Glacier off Sunndaal
Ole was a master mariner who had returned to the island (somewhat reluctantly I felt) to run the local shop and taxi service. He had built himself a tiny harbour tucked behind his house and in short order had us installed and securely roped up, then supplied with bowls of ripe plums from his overflowing orchard. We said that we planned to head off the day after and he calmly and confidently said that no, we would be staying for three days at least. He was right of course, as the wind from ex-tropical cyclone Bertha tore up the fjord for the next few days while we remained tucked in our private refuge. Thanks again Ole.

The carrot and the stick
We tied up at Sunndaal early one morning and set off from the boat to walk up close to the base of a glacier, coaxing Beatrice on with regular handfuls of wild raspberries. Bizarrely, we were swimming in the fjord that evening.

Waterfaull - Lysefijord
Bertha seemed to unsettle the weather pattern, or maybe it just unsettled us, as we decided that it was time to stop heading further North. The trip south was a series of relaxed day hops. We made an unplanned stop in Haugesund where a branch of the fjord almost forms the main street of the town. A classic boat festival was in full swing when we happened past, the highlight of which for me was a tour around one of the original Shetland Taxis. The bravery and toughness of the folk who had manned and used her during the war years was almost palpable.

September became colder as we worked our way down in the almost complete absence of any other cruising boats.

Waterfall - Lysefijord
We stopped in the Kvitsoy archipelago to wait out another blow. Jaap and Anneke had been there for Bertha and had spend a couple of days at 30 degrees heel as, while there is complete shelter from the sea, the islands are low lying and somewhat windswept. They, and their few inhabitants are nonetheless delightful and we were given crabs to eat by a local fisherman.

Rock mooring
Our last stop before rounding Cape was one of the highlights. We squeezed through a narrow gap between the rocks into a small pool and tied ourselves to stakes in the base of a cliff in absolute solitude.

The softer and more sheltered south coast made for pleasant cruising in the increasingly autumnal weather right up to the island of Jomfruland where we had a long walk in the woodland and said goodbye to Norway before crossing over to the pink granite islands of the West coast of Sweden.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Pining for the Fjords?

No more, as the last days of July find us in Snigsfjorden on Norway's South coast, basking in an implausible heatwave similar to the hazy memory I have of Norway from some 45 years ago.

It seems to have been a little while coming.

We've been onboard Sula for 6 weeks or so, but as ever, the journey started long before that. Having finally found and bought our new boat at the end of 2013, a long Winter of waiting and preparing the house for renting followed, working up to an almost inevitably frenzied last few days before an epic 3 day shuttle of our gear from Devon to Holland.

After unloading all our stuff from the hired van into a huge pile on a patch of grass as near to the boat as we could drive, I grabbed a few hours kip before setting off to take the van back. I arrived back in Holland by plane and train to find Lucia surrounded by piles of tins and clothes and boat gear and looking a little beleaguered. It took us a full week just to transfer everything on board and find homes for it all. At first it looked pretty hopeless and I was wondering what and where we were going to dump, but gradually more and more storage spaces revealed themselves and were duly rammed. The process of re-homing and re-re-homing stuff or course continues.

Leaving The Netherlands
We managed a brief trial sail and narrowly managed to avoid taking lumps out of the the boat on returning to the huge and packed marina where we'd bought her and where she has languished for the Winter. Everything seemed to work, so we set off. After some discussion, we decided to head straight out of the Ijsselmeer and into the North Sea, but not before a renaming ceremony; peeling off her old “SvalBar” and putting on her smart new “Sula - Exeter”

Our first lesson in how Sula behaves differently from our old Fair Grace came in the sea lock where we discover that the kick in reverse gear is the opposite direction. To cut an embarrassing story to the bare minimum, we failed to get a line to the side of the lock and crabbed our way down, narrowly avoiding wedging ourselves diagonally across, but unable to straighten up. We figure that at least we gave the lock keeper some entertainment. Look out for it on Youtube! Thankfully the downstream gates opened before we piled into them, and we were out into the sea.

Typical Dutch sailing barges
 Well I say the sea, but in truth it was hundreds of square miles of drying sand flats riven by a maze of channels behind the Frisian Islands. First stop was Harlingen, still on the mainland, an exquisite old Friesland town where we tied up in the middle of the town and toasted ourselves in actually getting somewhere and escaping from marina-land. Harlingen was so lovely, we had seen it briefly before in the depths of winter when a biting wind had been coming in off the sea, that we stayed for another day before heading out to the nearest island, Vlieland, to try our anchor. And very pleasant it was too; doing little jobs and settling in, before a Dutch Customs launch arrived and asked us politely, but seriously, for all our documents, including our VAT certificate, which.... we didn't have!

Fortunately for us, they were convinced enough that we were legit to let it go with a warning to organise it quickly. Feeling somewhat shaken, we called the selling agent who cheerfully told us that yes, they still had it and just hadn't thought to actually give it to us. The quickest way to get it was to meet one of their people in Harlingen, which is where we returned the next day, but it all went smoothly and there turned out to be a whole folder of other paperwork that they also had omitted to pass on to us.

Dutch sailing barge
So, back to Vlieland and anchor down again.

The gaps between the long Frisian islands are narrow and the tide runs hard between them. The sandbanks and shallows extend outside for miles, all of which add up to it being potentially hard work to get out of the relatively few anchorages and get going. It is fair to say that the first day of open sea sailing in Sula wasn't an overwhelming success. This wasn't really the fault of the boat.

The long drag out from the anchorage, the classically short and lumpy North Sea, together with slightly squally weather for a longish day to the next available stop had the crew on the verge of mutiny already. I had half expected it would come, but just not quite so soon and so forcefully. I was left in the cockpit for the last 4 hours or so, seriously wondering if we were going to have to sell the boat and buy a cottage in the mountains instead. Encouragingly though, things perked up as soon as we arrived and I decided that maybe we could delay the sale for a short while at least.

Automatic pilot on the making - check the feet!
Borkum where we stopped can at best be described as dull, but a day was needed to recover so we lounged on board and did just that. The next passage on to Nordeney didn't start well, while motoring out in steep waves through another of the inter-island gaps, we managed to scoop one over the bow which swept the whole deck back to the cockpit, dumping a fair amount over the top of the sprayhood. However it all calmed down once out of the tide rip and we began to settle into the routine. The next couple of days of light winds and sunshine took us to Helgoland where we stopped for tax free diesel to fill our 1000 litre tanks. This does seem a lot of diesel for a sailing boat, but handy not to have to think about filling for long stretches and also to be able to take full advantage of places like this. But boy, Helgoland (or Legoland as we started to call it) is a strange place. It has the feel of a tawdry airport duty free lounge, with lots of ratty old shacks flogging cheap spirits to the hordes of (almost exclusively) Germans who flock here from the mainland. To add to the atmosphere, Germany was playing France in the world cup while we were there, so the harbour was very excited with plenty of horns sounding as the French were sent home.

Scary moment in the Kiel Canal - it's huge and far too close
But did we miss something? Maybe, as several people have subsequently told us how much they liked it and what wonderful nature they found there...

As a necessary concession after the traumatic first sailing day, we are heading into the Baltic rather than straight up to Norway. I don't feel too bad about this and although it is my third trip up the busy River Elbe and through the Kiel Canal in recent times (the second this year after delivering Fair Grace to Sweden), it at least gives me opportunity to finally get the tidal calculation right so rather than fighting the (up to 5 knot) current, it sweeps us up to the entrance of the canal, albeit in thunderstorms so heavy that the visibility is down to 10's of metres. This would be OK except for the fact that the Elbe has a narrow channel and is possibly the busiest stretch of shipping in the world, which made for some slightly tense moments but thankfully no close shaves.

Sea of jellyfish in Denmark
In Kiel we motor around to the British Yacht Club, but feel like we've been tied up too much in the last few days so stick our anchor down close by. It is also near a small and funky little German liveaboard community that I'd noticed with Oli last time we were passing through. We feel spiritually more connected to them than to the British Club and take the dinghy there to tie up on our visits to town. We are pretty soon befriended by Flo and Emmo, who are both living there on their boats and who come over later for a beer.

This brings up the inevitable topic of Sula and how we feel about her. This could risk becoming boring, so I'll try to keep it brief.

We are overwhelmed with what a wonderful boat we have somehow managed to buy. No boat is perfect and there are certainly a few things we'd like to change or add, but for the most part she so closely does all the things we were looking for that we have to keep pinching ourselves. So, getting to the point, the only real problem is that we feel a bit self consciously up-market. I'll no doubt return to this topic, but will restrain myself for now. I row in to join Flo and Emmo and the rest of the characters to watch Germany annihilate Brazil in the semi finals. While it is initially celebratory, it soon becomes a bit sad as the Brazilian fans all over he stadium are shown in tears at losing 7-1.

The Baltic happily brings calm tranquil sailing and for the most part good weather. The only downside is that this really is a popular sailing area and so the relatively few anchorages tend to be a bit busy. This is probably the German/Baltic equivalent of the Solent I guess.

We manage to sail through another German naval firing area on the way north, but this time get away without being caught. Otherwise it's pretty uneventful except for Beatrice's 3rd birthday for which we burrow under our bed to choose from the stash of toys and other presents that we've managed to accumulate through the   Winter. Decorations, cake, candles and fun.

New friend - Aarhus jazz festival
We're half way up Denmark before realising we haven't actually visited any towns. Aarhus is the chosen spot to visit, but as the mass of sheds and cranes appear through a drizzly afternoon, we wonder if we've made a mistake. We nose our way in, dodging fast ferries and freighters and tie up in a friendly little corner of a big harbour, next to a young couple with triplet boys of four. In spite of the dubious first impression, Aarhus is a lovely stop. There is a Jazz festival running, so we end up staying for 3 days, enjoying the music and meeting new friends. We're not sure if it's just this town, or the whole of Denmark, but there seem to be an implausible amount of unusually attractive women here and everyone is so fit and healthy looking... anyway, suffice to say that it's a very distracting stay. Even the pissed up guy who insists on broadcasting very loud 50's music from a nearby boat 'til the early hours can't really dampen the good vibe.

Skagen's rafted up yacths - low season
The last stop before crossing the Skaggerak is Skagen. This is supposed to be a kind of Danish St Ives, with a famous artistic heritage. Well, it may have the heritage, but it's definitely short on charm and the harbour is the most packed that we've ever seen anywhere. We end up being part of a stack rafted 8 deep against a wall. It's so rammed that when any of the inner boats want to leave, the whole stack has to explode and reform in a new order depending on who is leaving soonest. We leave the following evening after spending the day wondering why on earth all these boats would want to come here.

Sunrise sailing the Skaggerak
The Skaggerak has a slightly unsavoury reputation, but we have a tranquil crossing. We decided to set off in the evening so Bea could sleep through the most of it. It works well and we arrive in a wonderful protected anchorage on the south coast of Norway around lunchtime the following day. We feel like we've really arrived.

....More Norway stuff to follow....