Reclaiming knowledge of the sea - Norway Diaries by Richard Andersen

Richard Andersen

8/22/202210 min read

“Good luck to the farmer! Good luck to the one who owns this place, the one who works it, the faithful, the virtuous! I can love them, I can revere them, I can envy them. But I have wasted half my life trying to live their life. I wanted to be something that I was not. I even wanted to be a poet and a middleclass person at the same time. I wanted to be an artist and a man of fantasy, but I also wanted to be a good man, a man at home. It all went on for a long time, till I knew that one cannot be both and have both, that I am a nomad and not a farmer, a man who searches and not a man who keeps.”

Herman Hesse

The wind is approaching gale force and the waves are growing in size and menace. We’re 20 nautical miles from Brønnøysund, heading for Rørvik on a plotted course outside the protective archipelago hugging the Norwegian coastline. After a phone call to my sailing mentor we’ve decided to try our hands at offshore sailing in more challenging conditions than our normal conservative sailing routine would allow. But the promised north-easterlies have backed north-westerly and are now hitting us square on the beam without the option of altering our course due to the skerries and shallows off our port side. This is why sailors fear a lee shore in bad weather.

It’s late November and myself, Thomas from Norway and Seb from Poland, and later Al from Manchester, are sailing Cecilia from Lofoten, on the northern tip of the Caledonian mountain range just inside the arctic circle, to my hometown Stavanger. It’s a long, cold and mostly dark trip of 900 nautical miles along the Norwegian coast at the onset of winter, but when the lights are on they are dazzling. Snow capped mountains glide past and most of the time the archipelago protects us from the swell of the Norwegian Sea.

For now we have no option but to stay on the current heading until clear waters allow us to head south and get the wind and waves on our stern. Thomas is on the helm, steady as a rock, his years of army training, wilderness expeditions and organic farming giving him the calm and collected pin sharp focus needed to read the waves and bear away every time one of them threatens to break on top of us. The finely wound nylon cordage around the steering wheel is in tatters from his constant frenzied helming to keep us from being swallowed by cascading water.

Luckily the sea is lit up by the comforting light of a near-full moon. The foam of each breaking wave shimmers magically as it tumbles, and the mast and deeply furled genoa cast a pleasant silhouette against a million little stars. We’re not quite ready for celestial navigation yet, but picking out a star in the sky and keeping it ‘just so’ to port or starboard of the mast is still a fun way to keep a true course, provided you change your star every now and then. Mixed in with the shear dread of how much worse this can possibly get and how much of a beating the boat can take is an unbounded childish glee at being so intensely alive.

Earlier that night we were treated to a celestial display of aurora borealis, along with something I never even knew existed, a ‘moonbow’, or a rainbow caused by the moon rather than the sun. It’s an eerie rainbow cast in a monotone greyscale, but a long exposure photograph revealed it’s colours in a shaky haze. Sailing in high northern latitudes this close to winter solstice is mostly a journey through shadow lands. Coastal mountain ranges hover alongside the boat like black rifts in a dark sky. Other boats appear and disappear like fireflies and not a single other sailboat to be seen, funnily enough.

I bought the boat unseen two summers ago on the Norwegian equivalent of Gumtree and enlisted a crew of adventurous souls to bring her, and us, safely down south. This month-long journey has so far proved as much a rite of passage as anything I’ve done before in my life.

The idea of acquiring a sailboat arose as far from the sea as it is possible to get in Norway, in the eastern forests where ‘my’ winter cabin sits nestled among the trees and the moose. I found myself there when lock-down happened and decided to stay for a while longer. A year-and-a-day turned into two and a half years and deepened my relationship with the lands and the crafts and the people. A new logical family formed around me. It became apparent that I didn’t want to give up on either my extended family of friends in the UK or my fledgling little tribe in the north, as well as my newfound closeness to my biological family. Driving back and forth was out of the question. Sailing was just kind of the logical thing to do.

I’m not a very experienced sailor. I have a competent crew qualification from a gaff rigged wooden cutter in Falmouth some years back, and have managed to sail between Stavanger and Orkney on a couple of occasions, pretty much unscathed except for falling overboard in a gale once. Both my granddads were sailors in Norway’s merchant navy. Not on sailboats mind, but close enough for the allure of wind and salt water to feel close at hand. Not to mention the illustrious seafaring traditions of a native land that is pretty much all coast.

Sailing in these kinds of conditions is definitely what you would call type 2 fun. The kind of adventure that makes you cry in the middle of it and wonder why the fuck you ever put yourself in this position in the first place. But when you come out the other side it’s like something’s changed inside you. You’re the same but not the same. Smaller worries are seen with a new perspective and getting up from a fall and carrying on regardless becomes an ingrained habit.

And falling over is definitely the new normal. Shit happens. Regularly. Stuff continuously breaks on a sailboat. All. The. Time. It’s not like the occasional repairs of a motorhome that chugs along on country lanes and if the breaks squeal you make a mental note of looking at them soon-ish. There is no ‘I’ll get to that later’ when your life literally depends on it working. So you repair. And replace. And repair. And replace. Until one day you sell the boat with a relieved sigh, or find yourself so in love with the freedom of open waters that you never look back. But I haven’t gotten past the honeymoon period just yet.

For now I want to try out being a seasonal nomad between my two homelands. Sailing is just another ancestral skill I’m determined to learn whilst I still have the health to do so. And as with any other craft I learn, the motivation is just as strong for passing it on as for picking it up. Part of the plan is therefore to take people along for the ride. Back and forth across the north sea like the old ways from the old days, but more trade, less marauding hordes.

Getting the boat to Stavanger was just the start. After leaving Cecilia tucked up in a sheltered fjord with my dad and brother checking in on her from time to time I made it across the mountains to my winter lair and Norwegian tribe near Rena. I made it there for solstice and hit the cabin floor with a thud determined to go into hibernation for a good long stretch. Seeing my friends again was a delight. New year’s eve was duly celebrated with a monster bonfire and monster rig. Lucy popped by to a continued wow at the virgin experience of a northern winter at its sparkling best, and after they left 70 reindeer skins turned up at the door, ready to be processed and exported as sail cargo. Another stint teaching grindbygg timber framing at Hjerleid capped my visit, and suddenly another shockingly mild winter (rarely down to -20C) was ebbing and I had the curious thought of a boat waiting for me in a fjord on the other side of the country.

A month of prepping lay ahead once I arrived in Stavanger in April. The starboard spreader had come loose in a crash-gybe and needed seeing to. Turns out both shrouds needed replacing too. The genoa was patched up with sticky back sailcloth and stitched by a local sailmaker, a wizened old salt from the USofA washed up on these shores many moons ago. Leaks were found and sealed, light fittings replaced, play in the steering tightened, railings made taut, engine cooling system dismantled and refitted, filters changed, electrical faults chased, and so on.

Sam and Jamie arrived for the feast of repairs before crewing with me to Scotland, and friends and family dropped in to say hi down at the harbour. It’s the first time in over 20 years that I’ve had my own place in Norway where I can receive guests and it put an entirely new spin on coming ‘home’ to visit. I am no longer just visiting, but can feel part of the furniture with my own space to retreat to.

From the eastern tribe and western family in Norway we sailed to Orkney via Utsira, after a very bouncy journey in a boat heavily laden with a significant amount of axes and a few more kilos of old steel tools. We were violently sick for most of the crossing due to the combined factors of an overweight boat, crossing waves and stale water. The latter was due to my schoolboy error of neglecting to change the water in the tanks which had sat there all winter. I literally poisoned my crew on Cecilia’s very first commute. Please forgive me Jamie and Sam!! Nonetheless, the day was saved as we arrived to the delightful tunes and heart opening hospitality of Craig and Jane on Tingwall harbour. The tribe of the Egilsay solstice gathering felt like a tantalising memory soon to be made real.

After a couple of days recovery and fattening up, Jamie left us to get back to work and myself and Sam headed south past the Pentland Firth on a 22 hour gruelling sail into the wind to arrive in Wick at 4am the next morning with a limp engine and a very tired looking harbour master there to guide us in as we sailed into the harbour.

After Wick we were treated to a stiff offshore breeze with hardly any waves and wooshed across the Moray Firth to squeals of delight. Deciding to go via the Caledonian canal made me reach out the Scottish Anarcho Folk Festival and got me in touch with Jim at Thistleflat. Cecilia was happy to stay in Lossiemouth for a few days and Jim beckoned us to follow him to a tucked-away glen where his own Scottish tribe put on a wee rave. Dirty basslines and green Scottish valleys provided a welcome distraction from the mini rig on Cecilia and the endless blue of the sea.

The canal itself was largely uneventful. Full of middle class men and retired couples in shiny plastic boats. None of them got their sails out for the duration of the canal, although me and Sam doggedly beat against the winds the entire length of Loch Ness and Loch Lochy. But the real magic came upon us in the middle lake, Loch Oich. Not more than perhaps 100m across in places, and billowing trees hanging over each bank, this really gave us the eerie sensation of real world magic it is to sail straight through the Scottish highlands, with mountain peaks looming behind steep valleys. It was also here I felt the keenest sense of the displaced native inhabitants, who were forced to flee their lands in the Clearances, and generations later taken on as indentured labourers to dig the the canal with spades to the whims of Victorian aristocrats.

Jen and Cecilia joined us in Fort William and we had dream winds all the way to Wales. Anchoring in sheltered coves along the way, a nifty hand-brake turn to moor alongside a Russian shrimp trawler, uneventfully passing the dreaded Mull of Kintyre and eating the worlds most bland chinese take away in a pub in Glenarm in Northern Ireland. A slightly more tasty fish and chips was had in Holyhead but leaving port we were treated to the most intense wind-over-tide conditions I’ve ever experienced and provided the latest in a string of steep learning curves. Four metre waves steeper than a skate park half-pipe grew out of nowhere and lasted for a good hour until we cleared Anglesay and could turn with the tide and head south. Sam got airborne trying to go to bed and I sat with clenched knuckles holding on to the railing behind the steering wheel, praying to Njord that the engine would hold it together. It did, and we sailed on Bardsay with a following tide and wind a-beam.

The next day, after guerrilla mooring on a lonely buoy outside Abersoch, we were treated to a homecoming stretch of azure waters, gentle winds and no waves, with Jen dangling from the spinnaker halyard and myself in tow in the dinghy behind. We approached Barmouth harbour with the entire Snowdonia mountain range bisecting the horizon. Coming home from home never felt so real.

The expectation is that one day I’ll find the uprootedness of sailing between two families too much and a desire to choose a place to settle will come naturally. But before then I might need to get a bigger boat. I want more space for tat, tools and reindeer skins. And humans. Above all it’s an experiment in new-old ways of being in the world. Because change is happening and we need to change with it.

Our environment is crashing in slow motion. So slow that most people haven’t noticed yet. Commuting between Norway and Wales by sail is one of many ways of getting people’s attention and start conversations around climate change and resilience. If we’re going to weather the coming storm we need to think outside the box and dust off some of the old boxes too. We need the farmers and the hunters, the weavers and the tanners, the builders of bridges and the builders of community. We need the theorists and pragmatists, the neuro-typical and the neuro-diverse, the boys and the girls and the non-binosaurs.

Most of all, we need to experiment with ‘other’ ways of being, old others and new others, because that’s how evolution happens. When the pressures on an environment grow past the inhabitants’ capacity for absorbing those, nature starts experimenting. Epigenetics teaches us that evolution is not a series of blind shots in the dark, but a process of switching genes on and off to meet new challenges, a process some would even claim has a conscious element to it.

And at the same time as acknowledging the looming challenges it’s also important to celebrate the joy of life in all it’s guises. One thing that is becoming apparent with this sailing lark is the connections it forges. Through my relationship with Cecilia I have had the pleasure of dropping in on string-of-pearls of friends and family and tribe stretching from the easternmost reaches of Norway to the western edge of Britain, spanning a considerable chunk of the Norse and Celtic stomping grounds. New friendships have been forged and old ones reaffirmed. I have danced my socks off and I have feared for my life. And I have so far lived to tell the tale. Perhaps a little wiser but most definitely more alive.

Rich xxx

Barmouth, August, 2022