The island is a sand spit lying on the very edge of the continental shelf, about 100 miles off Nova Scotia. It is about 20 miles long and less than a mile wide. In past centuries it was a graveyard of shipwrecks. We arrived off the north beach at 1am and contacted Sable Island by radio when we were about ten miles out, we arranged to meet a guide on the beach about 9 am. We anchored in 15 feet and found a reasonable lee from the WSW wind. In the morning we dinghied ashore and met Zoé, a very experienced botanist who gave us a wonderful three mile walk around the west end of the island. To my disappointment she said the wild horses, which are an exotic feature of Sable, did not escape from a wrecked ship but were taken there in the 18th century as a commercial venture to take advantage of the free grazing and to harvest the foals. I had always believed the shipwreck legend, which seems much more thrilling. There are now about 500 of their descendents roaming the island. The government took over the island in 1801 and proceeded to protect the horses and establish a life-saving service as the island continued to attract ships to their doom. We followed the narrow pathways through the grass made by the horses, wild flowers of every color littered our way, which Zoe indentified. The horses we met were fairly tame and we could approach quite close to them, several mares had new foals. A highlight for me was to come across a rusty, abandoned Bren gun carrier of WWII vintage. On the south beach we found hundreds of grey seals enjoying the surf and sunning themselves on the sand. Our tour concluded with a visit to the scientific laboratories and instruments led by the station commander, Gerry Forbes. He told us Fiona‘s crew was the first to make it ashore in 2011. There is an extensive program under the aegis of Environment Canada to study everything from airborne pollutants to continental lightning strokes. Twice a day they launch balloons to collect upper atmosphere data. About eight people live permanently in a neat settlement. They are resupplied mostly by air, the planes land on a huge sandflat which is the remains of an old lake. Gerry took us for a look around in his van with 4WD and balloon tires. On the way we drove down a narrow lane in the tussock grass which was inhabited by thousands of terns, who made their concern obvious by wheeling and diving at the van with shrill cries. Gerry called it ‘The Valley of Death’. We also saw the island’s only tree: after 50 years it was about four feet tall. Zoé explained it was the scouring action of the sand that inhibited growth, not the wind. After all, in Patagonia I saw many trees that simply grew parallel to the ground in very windy places. Back at the base we met three sailors off a small boat which was on its way to France. We agreed to meet again at St John’s, Newfoundland. Bad weather was forecast to be on the way and we raised anchor in mid-afternoon. We were all profoundly impressed by Sable Island and the pleasant, courteous staff who took time off their own work to make us welcome.
Shortly after we left the weather deteriorated, with 30 knot winds, fortunately from astern. We were obviously very lucky that we got a window to visit Sable Island. With reefed main and jib Fiona forged downwind at speeds of up to 9 knots. But the blow lived up to the old sailor’s aphorism; quick to come, quick to go. By the morning the winds decreased to 10 knots or less, leaving us wallowing in the heavy seas with no wind to stabilize the sails. A low to our north had quickly intensified and then scooted rapidly to the east.We started the trusty Perkins. Three days out from Sable Island the familiar coast of southern Newfoundland at Cape Race appeared on the port bow and we enjoyed a sail north to the Narrows. We checked in with the St John’s harbor radio and tied up at Queen’s Wharf by lunch time.
The weather was very pleasant for a couple of days but then turned into typical St John’s clammy, damp days. Nevertheless the crew enjoined the great social life and managed to visit the wonderful museums. We climbed Signal Hill and walked to Quidi Vidi village. I looked up my old friend Jim Winter who drove me all over the city to find obscure spare parts. We refueled and changed to heavy weather sails.
After leaving St John’s on 1 August we shaped a course somewhat south of the direct rhumbline to Iceland. The intention was to cross the Labrador Current as quickly as possible and to give a greater offing to Cape Farewell on the southern tip of Greenland. This area is notorious for heavy weather. The Arctic to our north was lying under a huge high pressure cell and we did not see a wind over 20 knots for a week after leaving, in fact the winds were in the 10 to 15 knot range with sunny skies. The down side was that the wind was been mostly east to northeast; on the nose. We made slow but steady progress mostly under sail across calm seas. For the first time the horizon on the port shimmered under the Northern Lights. After about a week the wind picked up to 20 to 25 knots with higher gusts, we ploughed to windward under staysail and reefed mainsail. Due to a combination of lows to our south and highs to our north the wind blew persistently from the northeast and we beat slowly towards Iceland, not the pleasantest kind of sailing. Wayne and Ryan were both laid low by seasickness. Sue remained cheerful and even stood a few watches for Ryan. On August 9th we sailed 133 nm, noon to noon, only to make good 54 nm towards our destination. The same day we got a scare when copious amounts of water began sloshing about in the bilge and occasionally washing onto the cabin sole; the hose on the sink drain had come adrift and water spurted in the boat as Fiona slammed into the waves. Fortunately the thru-hull valve worked perfectly and furious pumping by hand and using the electric pump brought the situation under control. When we were about 600 nautical miles from Reykjavik the weather worsened and for a week we had to deal with strong winds with a large sea running. We hove-to for a day and a half under double-reefed main with gale force winds gusting to 50 knots. When conditions improved a little we set a reefed mainsail and staysail and commenced again the dreary beat towards Iceland. When Wayne and I were working in the cockpit on the 15th a big wave burst aboard and caused to us hang on for dear life. The life rings were washed away and even the bracket holding one was broken. The MOB flasher disappeared forever. Tack after tack we worked our tedious way to the northeast and on the 17th Iceland was in sight. We tied up at Reykjavik before dawn on the 18th. We logged 1,914 nm to make good 1,400 nm from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Iceland, a reflection of the long slog to windward.
Unfortunately Ryan quit the cruise at Reykjavik, he had originally signed up for the complete Atlantic circuit and his departure left me struggling for crew at each major port. Sue and Wayne had planned to leave; their places were taken by Marc, a retired dentist and Arlene, a retired accountant. Both had considerable sailing experience. We tied up at the Reykjavik Sailing Club, a new facility since my visit in 2000, it was located next to a spectacular glass building called ‘Harpa’. Besides the waterfront there had been considerable development in the town itself. We were only ten minutes from the town center which boasted numerous restaurants, internet cafes, etc. My friend Elli, whom I first met during the cruise to the Arctic in 2000, had married Hildur in the interim. We had dinner at their beautiful house with their three children and their parents. The Icelanders enjoy a very high standard of living, but it comes at a price; literally, food, fuel, etc are very expensive by American standards. Elli was very generous with his time and he took a day to give us a wonderful tour of some of the natural wonders of Iceland. Naturally the crew all had a swim at the famous ‘Blue Lagoon’. We refueled before leaving but the pump was a temperamental automatic thing that kicked out my credit card after we got our tanks half filled. From Reykjavik we made a twenty-four sail to Heimaey in the Vestmann Islands. On the way we sailed past Surtsey, an island created several miles offshore by a volcanic eruption in 1963. But it is disappearing fast; about half the island has been eroded away by the action of wind and tide. Just over 4,000 people live on Heimaey, the major occupation is fishing and it has a busy harbor. In 1973 a new volcano inundated the town and everyone was evacuated. Volunteers managed to contain the lava flow by cooling it with sea-water using massive diesel-powered pumps so that most of the houses and the harbor entrance were saved. We completed refueling and left after two nights for the leg to the Faroe Islands.
We had a wonderful downwind sail to the Faroes and arrived off the islands after two days. Unfortunately the current was against us as we struggled to Torshavn. The tidal currents are strong in these islands and cruisers are warned always to plan inter-island trips in conjunction with current tables. Off the island of Hestur we came to a complete standstill with the trusty Perkins engine roaring away but no forward progress as the currents spun the boat in whirlpools. Close to the rocky shore we found a counter-current but it didn’t last long and it took us a long time to battle past the cape at the southeast corner of the island. Eventually we sailed out the grip of the worst of the currents and we pulled up to the dock for visiting yachts at Torshavn in the late afternoon. A customs official cleared us in and we were free to wander round the town, which had a distinctly Scandinavian look. We asked the skipper of a local schooner moored just ahead of us about eateries and he promptly gave us soup and crab’s claws which he had prepared for a charter party who had cancelled out. There are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants and even a few take-outs (pizza and fish&chips), but prices are up there. Coffee and a small snack (cookie-sized pastry) at the coffee shop near the dock ran about $10. Checking in at the visitor information office we got plastic cards for the toilets, showers and laundry at the marina club. Cost $40, of which $20 was refundable when the card was returned.
There is an extensive bus and ferry network connecting the Faroe Islands, some of which are joined by undersea tunnels, with more planned. We visited several sites on Streymoy island by road which had interesting relics going back to Viking times. At Kirkjuboes there is an old church and 13th century cathedral now undergoing restoration. The 900-year old log cabin farmhouse has been occupied by the same family for 18 generations, and their graves proliferate in the cemetery. One day a very pleasant tour guide we met arranged for us to bum a ride to the ferry to Sandoy island where we enjoyed a brisk walk, but there was not a lot to see except the old church with its sod-covered roof. The Nordic museum was well worth a visit, it is located a couple of miles NE of Torshavn, we took a bus. A highlight was a visit to Torshaven by the travelling “Baldoni’ circus. The show took place in the town sports center, no animals; just acrobats, magicians and clowns.
On leaving the Faroes we had hoped to make our fist stop in the UK at St. Kilda Island, which lies about 35 miles west of the Hebrides. It was occupied for centuries by very hardy shepherds and fishermen but eventually abandoned. Very calm weather is needed for a visit and as it was blowing 25 to 30 knots during our trip south we gave up on the idea and headed for the North Minch in the Hebrides. The southwest wind forced us to tack round various headlands as we aimed for an anchorage at Rum Island. We arrived about 3 am but the anchor chain was firmly wedged in the chain locker and would not budge. Instead of dropping the hook we tied up to the massive concrete ferry dock for a couple of hours until the falling tide forced us to cast off. Apart from its name the main attraction at Rum is an elaborate Edwardian mansion built without regard to cost by a Lancashire industrialist who made a fortune manufacturing cotton spinning machines. We headed for Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, a quaint village I had visited before, and now enhanced by a large number of pontoons for visiting yachts.
The next day we endured a wet and windy sail down the Sound of Mull under power, the wind was on the nose, to Oban on the Scottish mainland. The marina is on a small island, Kerrera, about a mile west of the town. An hourly ferry connects it to downtown Oban. During the weekend we had a visit from an old sailing friend, Pauline Chapman, who had been following Fiona‘s Web site and was touring in the area. Also my cousin Philip, his daughter Sheena and her partner managed to get across on the ferry for a few hours, a short visit as the weather was deteriorating as the remnants of hurricane Katia approached and they faced a three hour car ride to the east coast. The next day Marc and Arlene decided that Oban was far enough and signed off. As Katia howled in the rigging I removed the engine exhaust hose and manifold, the hose was clearly very tired (I had installed it in Brazil in 2007) and a stud broke on the manifold, which had to be replaced. The marina manager arranged for a machinist to remove the broken stud on the mainland. This turned a three hour job into a two day job. Unfortunately after a couple of days at Oban I discovered a sore on my forehead. On my next visit to the town on the hourly ferry I asked the pharmacist at ‘Boots’ chemist shop for some ointment, but she was adamant that I should see a doctor. She told me where the medical center was, and a pleasant receptionist arranged an appointment in about four hours, even though I was not a resident of the UK. The doctor diagnosed shingles and gave me a prescription for week’s supply of pills. I had it filled at the nearby pharmacy, when I asked the price I was told firmly, “Och, prrrescrriptions are frree in Scotland.” I also began what was becoming a familiar routine of filling the crew berths. The days, passed by, mostly wet and windy and my old friend Barbara Fitzgibbon, whom I first met sailing round the world in Thailand, found me volunteer to sail to Portugal. Sometimes I ate in the restaurant of the marina, which is quite unique, at least for that climate; it is in a tent. I got the boat ready for the next leg, which included refueling at US$7/gallon for diesel. The new crew, Conor, flew to Glasgow from Cork and caught a train to Oban, He came across to the marina on the ferry and we left early the next day with a fairly grungy weather forecast, but Conor only had a limited time available to make the trip.
The trip to Dingle in southwest Ireland took a week, but we logged only 591 nautical miles. That’s because we had winds persistently on the nose, sometimes up to gale force, and we hove-to on three occasions, once for a day and a half. Setting the second reef in preparation for heaving-to, the storm mainsail tore along the leach, fortunately below the reefing cringle. When the weather eased up we removed the sail and bent on the regular mainsail, but within a few hours we had that sail reefed down as we hove-to again. We also suffered a scary repeat of the incident off Iceland that nearly sunk the boat – the hose to the galley sink came adrift. Fortunately I caught it in time before the water in the bilge reached a dangerous level. The weather moderated for the last day and we powered into Dingle Bay with a mild wind. I was very sorry that Conor had endured such bad weather for his first offshore passage, but he kept a stiff upper lip.
The crew at the Dingle Marina, Sean, Peter and the Harbor Master, Brian, were very helpful in taking care of our needs. We refueled from a truck at US$4.80/gal, a steal compared to Scotland, and a young woman, Monza, repaired our sail with an old sewing machine she normally used to stitch skins for the traditional Irish currachs. In the evenings we enjoyed the matchless Irish music available in almost countless pubs. A cruising American, Kevin on Exodus, put me in touch with a fellow Westsail 42 owner, Drake, who readily agreed to take Conor’s berth for the leg to Lisbon. A local sailor, Eanna, who was completing his yacht master certificate, was also happy to gain ocean time by signing up for the leg to Lisbon. Frank and Barbara Fitzgibbon, friends I had met on the 1995/7 circumnavigation, found time to drive over and gave Conor a lift back to Kinsale. The afternoon we planned to leave was complicated by the refusal of the engine to start; due to an ominously silent starter motor. We substituted the spare starter and that one also refused to function. We rushed the original starter to the only auto service shop in Dingle and to my relief a competent mechanic stripped it down and got it working inside of an hour.
We left at 6:30 pm on Friday afternoon, only a few hours after our planned departure and were soon enjoying a great sail, close-hauled on starboard tack as we headed for Portugal. The wind held for over three days before dying as we moved into the center of a high pressure cell. We completed the leg to Viana do Castelo under power in a little under 5 days, a distance of 713 nautical miles. Drake turned out to be a very enthusiastic videographer, he made extensive video records of Fiona‘s deck and interior to assist in his own upgrade of his Westasail 42. It was a real pleasure after the rain and chills of Scotland and Ireland to enjoy Happy Hour in the cockpit dressed in a T-shirt. The change in climate achieved by sailing a few hundred miles south was astonishing.
I had first sailed to Viana do Castelo after the cruise to the Arctic in 2000, the waterfront had changed dramatically as Portugal spent the Euros gained by joining the Common Market. The small marina, for example, were we stayed during my first visit, was blocked by a new swing bridge that formed part of a scenic riverside walk. I elected to tie up on the river bank to a small pontoon. Fortunately the old part of town was little changed and I was able to enjoy coffee and pastry at the quaint ‘Pastelerias’ on the medieval square that Bill Steenberg and myself had patronized eleven years earlier. I introduced the crew to the unique ‘Elevador’, a cable railway up the hill to the massive Basilica overlooking the town. The weather was perfect for strolling the quaint streets in shirtsleeves. On our last night we had supper at a restaurant in an old building with massive stone arches and a fireplace about ten feet wide.
We left the next day for a port a 130 miles down the coast called Nazaré, the GRIB forecast predicted completely calm conditions and that is what we found. We were a little short of fuel by this stage and we motored at a sedate 5 knots over a flat sea. We soon attracted a large school of dolphins, which gamboled round the boat for hours, much to Drake’s delight, who shot gigabytes of video from the bow platform. While we were still sailing he edited the footage into a charming four-minute video with captions, music, etc and posted it on Facebook when we got to port. You can see this video on YouTube using this link. When we pulled into Nazaré we tied up at a prominent ‘BP’ sign but the station was disused. When I attempted to start the engine to move, the starter refused to budge. We removed it (again) and began some serious maintenance , fortunately a couple of mechanics sent over by the dockmaster, Captain Hadley, whom I had called on VHF to explain our tardiness in departing the dock, quickly took over and had the starter stripped, cleaned and functioning again in about an hour. We refueled at a pontoon, paying the outrageous price of $7.30 a gallon, and then tied up at the marina. The next day we explored the town and took the cable railway, of which the Portuguese seem very fond, to the top of the precipitous peninsular jutting out into the Atlantic north of ther town. In a supermarket I discovered one of my favorite Portuguese delights – white port. A bottle lubricated Happy Hour. We left for Cascais (pronounced inexplicably as ‘Kas Keyesh’) where I intended to leave the boat while I returned for a couple of weeks to New York. We sailed overnight to Cascais with a fine northeast breeze and tied up before the marina was even open.
The marina had grown enormously since I spent a night there in 2000, a vast complex of shops and restaurants has been built, along with many more boat slips. After we were tied up in slip K08 we walked into town and caught a train to Lisbon. Eanna was returning to Ireland the next day, and I wanted him to see a little of Portugal’s capital. After Eanna departed Drake and I stayed for a few more days. One day we took a bus to Sintra, where there is a palace of the former royal family. On October 25 I flew to Long Island for my usual mid-cruise sojourn at Brookhaven. Since leaving Fiona has logged 5561 nautical miles.
Fair Winds, Eric
The Victorian Academy at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
Eric with wild horses on Sable Island.
The impressive glass building, Harpa, at Reykjavik, Iceland.
Eric and the famous ‘Blue Lagoon’, Iceland.
A geyser erupts, Iceland.
The Gold Foss waterfall, Iceland.
Church with sod roof, Sandoy, Faroe islands.
Ad for the Baldoni Circus, Torshavn, Faroe Islands.
Oban waterfront at low tide, Scotland.
Highland cattle on Kerrera island, Scotland.
The restaurant in a tent, Oban Marina, Scotland.
The annual Horse Fair, Annascaul, Ireland.
The South Pole Inn, built by Ton Crean, Annascaul, Ireland.
The Royal Palace, Sintra, Portugal.