Newsletter # 1- Four Canals & Four Crews

(photos at end of page)

London, September, 2004

This letter will cover the first part of the 2004/2005 cruise, in which we sailed from Long Island to Canada, to Ireland and Scotland and then to the Baltic, winding up by transiting the Kiel Canal on the way to London. The start was a couple of days late (12 June); last minute problems with the new propshaft generator required some machine shop work, ably performed by Bob Berg. The generator has worked very well during the trip, so the delay was worth it. The crew consisted of Shoel and Joe, Shoel is a veteran of several cruises aboard Fiona but it was Joe’s first trip. We had a short stay in Newport, RI, to attend a cocktail party at the New York Yacht Club for members of the Cruising Club of America who were sailing across the pond to participate in a rally, planned to start at Kinsale in mid-July, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Irish Cruising Club. Most of the other boats intended to stop at the Azores, we were the only boat heading for the northern route. After a transit of the Cape Cod Canal we stopped at Provincetown, compared to previous visits it was very quiet, I guess the tourist season had not cranked up that early. Our trip across the Gulf of Maine was without incident and we pulled into Lunenburg in the dark in order to clear into Canada.

In the morning I phoned Customs in Halifax. To my surprise they said they would make the one-hour drive to the dock to inspect the boat. Sure enough, just before lunchtime a small car pulled onto the old, wooden pier and disgorged four burly customs officers. They inspected the boat, including separate questioning of the crew. Fortunately I had declared my stash of rum, stored aboard from last year to lubricate this trip. Rather reluctantly, I thought, they agreed my three cases could be bonded, but told me Customs at St Johns, Newfoundland, our departure point, would confirm we had not broached our cargo, and thus threaten the economic stability of Canada. Naturally, Customs at St Johns evinced not the slightest interest in us, coming or going. A highlight of the trip from Lunenburg to St Johns was an amazing aquatic display as we crossed the edge of the Grand Banks. For nearly an hour pilot whales, dolphins and unidentified large whales cavorted at the sea surface; broaching, leaping and darting in a frenzy of eating, at least I assume they were eating something. At lunchtime on 27 June the narrow, rockbound entrance to St Johns loomed out of the fog and we entered the impressive natural harbor. I have always enjoyed my visits to St Johns, the town is unpretentious, the inhabitants very friendly and it has a number of old book shops and cozy coffee bars. We visited a few bars that dispensed the local rum, Screech, reportedly first discovered when they steam-cleaned used barrels of Jamaica rum and sampled the run-off. We rented a car and treated ourselves to lunch at the Royal Newfoundland YC on Conception Bay. On the way home we stopped at Brigus, a small village on the west side of the bay which was the home of Bob Bartlett. Like the man himself, his grave, which we found after some searching, was very modest. Bartlett was Peary’s captain on the North Pole expeditions. Just after WW I he captained the Karluk, a research ship that got trapped in the ice north of Siberia. Bartlett trekked hundreds miles across the pack ice and then Siberia to get help, a feat that compares with Shackleton’s amazing rescue of the crew of Endurance a few years earlier. On our last evening we were invited to a curious club near the waterfront called the Crow’s Nest, an unusual feature was a fully-functioning periscope mounted near the bar that was liberated from a German U-Boat which surrendered at the end of WW II.

The Atlantic crossing, my thirteenth I think, must be considered the quietest, least trying passage I have made across that ocean. No storms, we only reefed once, winds that rarely exceeded 10 to 12 knots. In the vicinity of the Labrador Current we experienced rather damp, chilly conditions, of course, but we saw no icebergs, much to the disappointment of the crew, who wanted a story to tell. When the occasional sun appeared Joe took the opportunity to brush up his celestial navigation. One day an errant line fell over the side and wrapped itself round the prop. That stopped the shaft generator so on the next really calm day Joe slipped over the side with a mask and wet suit to untangle it. About once a week we continued an old Fiona tradition by staging a movie. Only now we show DVDs on the laptop, some are even in color. Most days I talked to Trudi, who runs the amateur radio Transatlantic Net. Last year I visited her house when we anchored in Barbados. On the 15th July we spotted Dursey Head, Ireland, the next day we tied up at the Kinsale YC; a fifteen day passage from St Johns and almost exactly forty years since Edith and I made our first Atlantic crossing as crew for Barbara and John Knight aboard Arvincourt II. The light average winds for our trip resulted in a slow passage and our arrival was actually a day behind schedule. Shoel had arranged to meet his wife Nancy in Northern Ireland for a short vacation to recover from the rigors of the trip and so he left the boat the same day. That evening there was a reception for the participants in the Irish Cruising Club rally and the crew for the next leg turned up: David who sailed around the world with me last year and Frank, an old cruising friend I first met during the 1995-1997 circumnavigation. After a couple of days Joe caught the train to Dublin and a flight home.

The rally kicked off with a wine reception at the Royal Cork YC in Crosshaven, and then we were bussed to a full-blown dinner at the Cork City Hall. This set the tone for the one-week shindig, which consisted of beating to windward for twenty or so miles each day followed by a social event. As there were nearly 180 yachts in the rally it can be imagined that the social gatherings were crowded, noisy and great fun. The small coastal villages on the south side of Ireland are uniformly charming and they enjoy a very temperate climate due the impinging Gulf Stream. On the third day a photographer was stationed off Fastnet Rock lighthouse, a huge structure that signals the westerly presence of the British Islands. The poor photographer had to endure several hours in his pitching and rolling vessel south of the light as the rally yachts beat out and sailed past for a souvenir snap with the lighthouse. While at Glengarriff we tied the dinghy near the ferry dock and walked into the village for a drink and a meal, incidentally using the rigid dinghy with its old Seagull engine I had bought in 1968 for the Caribbean cruise I made with Edith aboard Iona. We got quite a few stares and comments as we chugged past sleek modern yachts exuding copious oil and smoke; a relic of a prior sailing era. Anyway, to get back to our walk in Glengarriff, on returning we noticed a sign indicating a short cut to the ferry through an area of trees and thick bushes. The foliage blotted out the sky and at several points the path came to ‘Y’ junctions. None were signposted, but we chose the direction that appeared to lead to the water. After twenty minutes, with the light fading, we realized we were lost. We pressed on and shortly after came across a small creek that seemed familiar; a hundred yards away was the original sign to the ferry; we had made a complete circuit. From there we stuck to the main road. One objective of the visit to Glengarriff was to form a ‘Sunflower Raft’ in the large, protected harbor. The raftmaster with his minions in inflatable dinghies tried to organize all the rally yachts into a circular raft but a high wind defeated him and after a morning that had the appearance of a Chinese fire drill the effort was abandoned. We had dinner that evening with Frank’s wife, Barbara, who had driven up from their house neat Crosshaven and the next day David, Frank and I left for Scotland.

At the start we had head winds as we clawed our way past the headlands that jut southwest into the Atlantic. But after a couple of days the wind shifted to give us fair sailing and we arrived at Corpach, the western end of the Caledonian Canal, just after sunrise, four days after leaving Glengarrifff. The Canal is an amazing piece of pre-Victorian engineering, it was completed in 1822 to provide a passage from the North Sea to the Atlantic, and thus permit sailors to by-pass the stormy Cape Wrath at the northern tip of Scotland. It is just over 60 miles in length, about 20 miles consist of man-made canals connecting natural lochs along a rift, of which Loch Ness is the largest. The canal has twelve locks up and twelve down. For our first evening’s mooring on the Canal we rendezvoused with my cousin Philip and his friend Mary, he lives in Pitlochry, about an hours drive from the Canal. We had dinner at a small hotel that advertised itself as the ‘Forsyth Family Hotel’ I asked the landlord if Forsyths got a discount and he replied with a heavy accent that ‘Forrrsyths pay a prrremium’. Our next stopover was the attractive town of Fort Augustus. From the earliest days of the Canal it has been a tourist center, specially designed elegant steam ships used to take Victorian tourists to view Loch Ness and Ben Nevis, but now, sadly, the ships are diesel propelled, and ugly. While tied up we got to meet a Danish sailor with whom we discussed our plans for the Baltic. He strongly recommended a transit of the Limfjord Canal rather than entering the Skagerrak from Scotland. This canal is a mostly natural waterway in northern Denmark which avoids the notoriously stormy seas of the Skagerrak between Denmark and Norway. We made the transit of Loch Ness in one day, we had intended to take two, but the intermediate harbor we had chosen was crowded and we just made the last lock-down of the day into the Canal terminus at Inverness. At Inverness Philip’s daughter Sheena met us and we used her car to do some re-stocking at a supermarket, there I was able to buy such British goodies as Marmite, Branston Pickle and mushy peas. Sheena insisted on feeding us at her apartment in Beauly, while she cooked a delicious supper we toured the ancient village and its ruined abbey. While at Inverness we linked up again with our Danish friend and made a Xerox of his charts which showed the entrance to the Limfjord at Thyboron, on the Danish west coast. After refueling we passed through the last lock and started our passage across the North Sea to Denmark.

The North Sea has a grim reputation for storms and heavy seas, but our three and a half-day passage was made mostly under engine, the sea was mirror-like. We tied up at Thyboron at midnight, a port that clearly declaimed its industry by the fishy smell we detected several miles offshore. In morning we paid our dockage dues and bought four detailed Danish charts of the Limfjorden Canal. We refueled from an extremely battered diesel scow in the commercial harbor, the operator was very reluctant to sell a mere 272 liters to a yacht when he had a large trawler waiting for 15,000 liters. But fortunately we had tied up to the scow before the operator arrived, with bad grace he pumped our diesel, then came the shock; I didn’t have enough money to pay. Welcome to Scandinavia, where fuel runs to nearly $6 a gallon. Fortunately David and Frank had also been to the ATM that morning and by dredging up every krona we had between us we just had enough to pay the bill. The Canal winds a leisurely way through flat countryside, dotted with literally scores of huge wind generators. There are no locks, curiously enough there is no tide in the Baltic. We tied up at two small towns, the temperature was very mild; about 75º F by day, surprisingly warm considering we were near 57º N. From the Canal we sailed south to Thuro Island where I had arranged to pick up some detailed charts of the central Baltic from a fellow Cruising Club member who keeps his boat there. After getting the charts at Walsted’s Boatyard we sailed directly to Bornholm Island against an easterly wind. This turned out to be a three-day beat, unusual as it turned out; the wind is predominately southwest. That’s the cruising life; the wind is never right. Naturally the wind returned to southwest when we started the return leg, but I am jumping ahead. There was an astonishing volume of sea traffic in the narrow sea between Denmark and Germany, at one time on a night watch I counted the lights of twenty ships in sight. We tied up at Ronne, a very pleasant town with a supermarket, e-mail and a reasonably priced restaurant within a few minutes of the marina. Cycle paths are a feature of most of the roads in Denmark, on our second day Frank and I hired bicycles and pedaled about 6 miles to a small village down the coast, the first time I had been on a bike in more than 20 years. The next leg took us to Visby on Gotland Island, Sweden, fortunately the southwest wind returned to waft us northeast. On the way the topping lift broke and when it fell into the sea it, too, was attracted to prop. Fortunately the shaft continued to turn but when we got into port Frank went for a swim and freed the prop of the trailing rope. David flew to Stockholm the day after we arrived, Frank also decided to leave the boat earlier than planned due to problems with some medical tests he had taken before we left Ireland and he caught the huge ferry that plies daily between Gotland and the Swedish mainland. I spent the time after the crew had left touring the stunning city of Visby. It was a major element in the medieval Hanseatic League, a network of trading ports. The old town is completely walled-in, every corner of the twisting cobbled lanes presents a photo opportunity. I must say my mind was blown away by an exhibit at the museum. After wandering by early stone-age artifacts and the Viking era relics I came across items excavated from a mass grave dug just outside the city wall during a civil war in the thirteenth century. Apparently about 1,200 bodies had been tipped into a massive trench just as they lay and covered up for the next 700 years. Eyeless skulls peered through the slots in the armor helmets and shattered bones protruded from iron gauntlets. One skull had three iron arrowheads embedded in it. Many of the bodies were not soldiers, however, old folks and children had died; their bones exhibited signs of rickets and arthritis. In the late afternoon I walked to airport to meet the 5 pm flight from Stockholm, Teresa and Catherine disembarked and thus became the third crew. Teresa has sailed aboard Fiona twice before but this was to be Catherine’s first trip. By this time the southwest wind had hardened and as our route lay back to the southwest we were trapped in Visby for a couple of days until the wind let up. One afternoon we took a bus ride to a nearby village to inspect a ruined medieval abbey. On our return we found the wind was piping up to 40 knots outside the harbor and I thanked my lucky stars that we were safely tucked up. But Fate was not going to let me off so easily. The captain of a German power boat also tied up in Visby decided to shift his berth for one that was more protected and as he sailed past Fiona his wife signaled me to take a line. I stood on the concrete wharf as they approached against the wind, took the line and passed a full turn round a steel ring in the dock. It was a heavy rope with a large knot on the end. The captain then panicked, reversed hard and pulled the rope through the ring. I let go but the rope whipped through the ring and the knot struck me a blow on the top of my left hand. This knocked me to ground, but my hand opened up like a squashed tomato and spattered copious blood on my favorite Falkland Islands sweater. To make a long story short, I then experienced the excellence of the emergency room of the local hospital where a Greek lady physician chatted with me in English and with the nurses in Swedish while she stitched my hand back together. The next day the wind had dropped and veered a little to the west, so we left and set full sail. It became clear that with two ladies on board and me with only one usable hand that we were a little short of muscle power. Later in the day the wind died and we started the engine. By the next morning we cleared the southern tip of Oland Island and were able to change course for Karlskrona and set some sail again. We tied up in the old Swedish naval center just after happy hour. We spent two days at Karlskrona, doing a little shopping to get rid of our Swedish money and exploring the wonderful maritime museum. Each day Teresa rebandaged my hand, which was very swollen and black and blue. Our next destination was Christianso, a small fortified island just off the coast of Bornholm, so we were back in Denmark. We arrived rather late in the evening but the one and only inn was able to lay on an elegant albeit expensive dinner for us. After a walk round the island the next morning we left for the short leg to Allinge, on Bornholm. On the way over we took some sights on the sun and plotted our position using a new program Catherine had installed on the laptop computer. She is the editor of the British Nautical Almanac and co-author of a book on computer methods of celestial navigation. Allinge is a pleasant tourist town on the north end of Bornholm, the next day we powered around the north cape and then had a nice sail under the jib to Ronne. We stayed two nights and then left for Rugen Island in Germany. The wind was persistently southwest, on the nose, but we motor-sailed and covered the 53 mile leg in eleven hours, dropping anchor in a quiet bay on the northeast side of the island. The next day we moved along the coast and anchored about half-a-mile from the beach at Dornbusch Island, this would put us within striking distance of Stralsund, our destination for a crew change. This is an area of the north German coast characterized by wide, shallow lagoons known as ‘Bodden’. The Boddens teem with wildlife and are all protected as a Nature Reserve. There is a very active sailing and chartering fleet. Our plans were put on hold by high southwest winds and a warning on the Navtex weather forecast of ‘near gale force’ winds. I elected to stay just where we were, even though the bay was rather wide and did not provide much of a lee if the wind shifted to north. So we hunkered down and in the evening watched a movie on the laptop. The next day we had no problems getting to Stralsund. When we docked I walked to the local hospital where a nurse snipped out the stitches in my hand; no charge. In the evening Catherine treated us to sumptuous dinner at one of the better restaurants, a complete contrast to a steady diet of Spam and beans yacht meals, and the next day the ladies left early by train. Stralsund is another city that was a member of the old Hanseatic League, the port is lined with traditional, narrow buildings with high-pitched roofs and small, square windows in the Baltic style. Besides a fleet of modern yachts at the marina on the north wharf there were a number of wooden Baltic schooners in the port and two large square-riggers. The marine museum was mostly devoted to fishing in the Baltic and had a truly impressive aquarium. As I waited for the next crew to show up I did a little maintenance and some food shopping. On Saturday morning there was a band in the main square and later several choirs and bands gathered on the waterfront for a musical evening. As ate my supper at an Italian restaurant entertained by the nearby singers and musicians I pondered how such a clever and cultivated country as Germany could have descended into the nightmare of the 1930’s and 40’s. I decided that under some circumstances it could probably happen anywhere, I hoped our political leaders pondered the same question occasionally.

The next day my forth crew showed up; David and John, my first father and son combo. David is a very experienced seaman who was coxswain of a lifeboat for many years. We had very pleasant conditions for visits to several ports on the German Baltic coast. Besides the wind, the prices were down too, compared to Scandinavia. In one small port we happened on a festival of sea shanties, most of the singers arrived in traditional wooden Baltic schooners and gaff-rigged ‘baders’ with huge lee boards. On the way to our last port in the Baltic we were intercepted by a German Coast Guard vessel and asked to change course five miles to the north; we were entering a live firing range. Our forth canal of the trip was the Kiel, it was opened in 1895 to provide access to the North Sea for the German Naval Fleet without the necessity of traversing the Kattegat. There is a lock at either end, in between the canal wanders for nearly 60 miles through attractive, flat land with the occasional small town. The canal is inhabited by a large number of commercial ships of all kinds and there are ducks, swans and fishermen on the banks.

We spent our last night in Germany at Brunsbuttel, the western terminal of the canal and then transited the last lock to enter the Elbe River. The forecast was for gales the next day, but if you wait for a perfect forecast you will never leave. Perhaps I should have waited; we had strong gale force winds on the nose combined with steep breaking seas and heavy currents caused by the spring tides. We reefed Fiona down and pushed on, driven north until it seemed we might sail over the notorious Dogger Bank, a graveyard pf ships. The genoa jib blew out a panel, we clawed down the wreckage off the headstay and bent on the yankee jib when we got a chance. The tremendous pounding seas dislodged the counter in the forward head, tipped drawers off their slides and forced water through every crack on the boat. Then a miracle; the wind shifted to northwest. With three reefs in the mainsail, a reefed staysail and reefed yankee we flew south, making 7 knots plus. By midnight on our fifth day in the North Sea the wind dropped and we started the engine. We faced a tricky navigational problem; our arrival at the Thames Estuary had to be timed exactly to match the start of the flood tide. Compounding the problem were the presence of many ships, seemingly going in all directions, and the shallow sand bars formed by the scouring currents. We powered through the night, fighting a stiff southwest wind that had come back and created a nasty chop. We all stayed on watch, monitoring the radar, GPS readout, helming the wheel in 30 minute spells and keeping an eye on the shipping. As the sun rose on the sixth day we were running two hours late.

We ran the engine much harder than usual but a leak developed in the rubber exhaust hose and we had to cut back the rpm. A quick calculation showed we were not going to make the lock opening at our destination at the slower speed. At a quiet stretch of the channel, free of commercial traffic for a while, we shut down the engine and fastened a rubber patch on the hose with a couple of clamps. This worked and with the engine roaring away at nearly 2,000 rpm we entered the Thames River, where the flood tide grabbed the boat and to our relief we soon saw the GPS indicating 9 knots plus over the ground. In a few hours the majestic Tower Bridge hove into view and we entered the lock into St Katharines Dock, London, with time to spare. The North Sea had certainly taken its revenge for the calm passage to Denmark in August, but in the end it let us off and we thankfully watched the lock gate close behind us as Fiona entered the tranquil haven. We arrived on 17 September, 2 days behind schedule.

David and John returned home the next day after a sound night’s sleep. I arranged for the jib to be repaired and booked a flight to New York. In a month I will start the reverse trip down the Thames with a new crew, bound for warmer climes, for a while, anyway. We have logged 6,078 nautical miles since leaving Long Island in June.

Best Wishes, Eric


The famous Canadian schooner BlueNose II at Lunenburg,

The foggy entrance to St John’s, Newfoundland.

The modest grave of Bob Bartlett, polar explorer and unappreciated sailor.

My first crew: Joe, Shoel and Eric.

Kinsale Harbor, Ireland; trying to accommodate nearly 180 yachts.

Fiona rounds Fastnet Rock.

Entering the Caledonian Canal, Scotland at early dawn.

Picturesque lock-keeper’s cottage and antique capstan.

1Loch Ness Monster topiary at Fort Augustus.

My second crew: Eric, David and Frank.

Wind Power: Generators and a schooner in Denmark.

A gate in the Visby outer wall, with portcullis, Sweden.

My third crew, ladies make a change: Catherine, Teresa and Eric.

The low-lying Baltic coast of Germany.

An angry North Sea boils up on the starboard quarter.

My forth crew: David, John and Eric near Tower Bridge, London, England.

John displays the result of North Sea gales.