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....