The Whole Picture is Nothing But a Compilation of Details.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Coming Home

Exploration has driven mankind since the beginning of times, and leaving Sweden on a 44' Najad at age 19 was exciting, absolutely exhilarating. I had just graduated high school and was about to leave for one year and sail from Stockholm, Sweden to the Caribbean and back. Our plotted course would take us across the dreaded English Channel, the world’s busiest waterway where no rules of the road apply, to the United Kingdom; continue to Bretagne in northern France to provision the boat with gourmet French food and wine (any sailor knows food is important onboard); across the Bay of Biscay, notorious among sailors for its awful seas as the Atlantic swell hits more shallow water, and winds which will blow you off course and wash you up on the shores of France if you don’t pay attention. After landfall in La Coruña, northern Spain, our course was due south, following the coast of Portugal, pausing in fishing villages along the way; rounding the corner of the Iberian peninsula at Cabo de São Vicente where we would change our heading from 180 to 90 degrees. Our new course would take us past the Algarve and Spain, through the boiling waters of Gibraltar sound to our second visit to the United Kingdom this side of the Atlantic Ocean: Gibraltar.

Sister boat S/S Gugner, anchored at Isla Bonita

Leaving Gibraltar to our stern, we would continue 540 miles on a southwesterly course straight into the Atlantic Ocean to the amazing Madeira islands. This Portuguese island group boasts an incredible variety of flowers, lush vegetation clinging to vertical walls of lava based rock, twisting roads and waterfalls slicing through the mountains in the few places they could be penetrated. From the main island of Madeira, we would sail to our last stop on this side of the "puddle"; the Canary Islands before steering the boat into the sunset for a long time, crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The Caribbean was going to be explored and enjoyed until the trade winds decided we had to start the return trip and close the circle that began in the English Channel.

Our initial crew of five waved Stockholm goodbye on a sunny summer day with perfect winds, hoping this was a good omen. Sailors are superstitious. For the most part, the journey went as planned, including the usual leaky head, torn sails, hunt for spare parts, and batteries overheating on a far too regular basis.

The archipelago off the coast of Sweden consists of 24,000 islands, islets and skerries and is considered one the best sailing destinations in the world because of its sheltered brackish water, endless summer days and next to no tides. Telling other boat crews about our journey ahead felt surreal. Were we really finally on our way? Their three-week long vacations seemed bleak in comparison. Treated like royalty wherever we went, we followed the east coast of Sweden, and stopped at every happening harbor known to man, which for Swedish sailors enjoying the summer include most. We had a duty to uphold the Captain's tradition of a celebratory toast each time we were tied up safely in port. We took it very seriously and saluted with gusto each and every time the boat was declared docked by the Captain. Even after re-setting a dragging anchor.

The Kiel Canal, also known as the Nord-Ostsee Canal, is the wet highway between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. It cuts straight through northern Germany and offers recreational sailors and the shipping industry an irresistible alternative to contending with the North Sea between Denmark and Norway. We enjoyed sixty-one relaxing miles on flat water with no navigational hazards before being discharged like waste water at the mouth of the Elbe river. The feared North Sea treated us well, as did the English Channel.

Twelve hours into our rainy and windy crossing of the Bay of Biscay we added a crew member: an exhausted pigeon dropped out of the grey sky and made our cockpit his home. In between showers he would sit on the raised seat behind the wheel, and when it rained heavily, which was most of the time, he took shelter under the sprayhood. He made a mess of both. Well-fed and rested, he disembarked just before we reached the Iberian peninsula.

The west coast of Portugal, anticipated to offer smooth sailing, instead presented us with most unpleasant surprises: shortly after entering Portuguese waters we were bullied into playing an exciting chess game of collision course and last-minute tacks initiated by the incredibly aggressive fishing fleet. We played defensively which made for an interesting life onboard but served us well. Despite the serious fishing industry, there is a notable lack of vessel supply stores in the ports along the west coast of Portugal. As we rounded the southwest corner of Portugal, the threat of being rammed was replaced with the threat of being struck from above as we encountered the heaviest thunder and lightning storms any of us had ever seen. The debate onboard pertained to electronics: should we keep the radar on so we could see what storm systems to avoid, or disconnect it all to avoid a total blowout if we were hit? We alternated. And made it safely to port.

The Atlantic Ocean was a wonderful experience under double head sails and large rolling waves. After twenty-one days of a steady, rolling existence we sailed into Castries Harbor in St. Lucia where we were greeted with a basket of fresh fruit and a bottle of rum. In accordance with the Captain's traditions, once securely tied to the dock, we enjoyed a celebratory toast, size large. It was five in the morning. When we went ashore the next day it seemed at first that the island was moving under my feet, but it was just my sea legs that had a hard time adjusting to solid ground. Strange to feel off-kilter on shore.

When we reached Barbados, the ocean now pumping through my veins, I yearned to continue west and circumnavigate the globe. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds." I negotiated with the Captain and disembarked in pursuit of a vessel continuing on the other side, across the Pacific. Finding work on a reputable boat was harder than it seemed at first, and what followed instead was four months of beach life in Barbados, a year and a half working at a restaurant in Portugal, and a short visit to Sweden. One door closes, another one opens.

Life didn't change: In 1993, a friend in New York invited me to visit before attending university in London. Well, instead of London I went to university in Florida, then Connecticut. A job opportunity took me to a yacht club north of Boston which was fantastic and fun, but unfortunately kept me from being on the water for years. I was always working.

But life is generous with her wild cards.

Some cards are harder than others to play right, but since you can only use the cards you were dealt, you must do the best you can with what you have. Over the years, my cards taught me that it is not a game you win; it is a game that makes you stronger. La vida tiene muchas vueltas. Roll with it. Learn to identify, enjoy and be thankful for whatever comes your way.

My family is in Sweden; my closest friends live in Canada, California, Connecticut, Argentina, and France. I can relocate at a moment's notice, anywhere in the world. But unless I am presented with an interesting wild card, I won't. I have tied up safely in port and may stay awhile and enjoy the ocean for her good company, as a swimmer, diver, kayak guide, sailor, and power boater, depending on the occasion.

I'm an avid traveler with a home.

At last.

A celebratory toast is in order. Cheers, Cap'!

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