A Long Honeymoon to Europe
The three of us were still in foulies. We settled into the cockpit, the first time we could truly sit down and relax together in 23 days. Somehow we made the anchorage before dark, but only just. Since we had first sighted land some 50 miles off, at exactly noon, we had been racing the sunset. The sky was black, and the stars were out by the time the anchor dug in. There were lights on in the pub ashore; the Guinness sign over the door glowed like a beacon.
It did not take long to launch the dinghy next morning. I want to say I was land-sick upon setting foot on solid ground for the first time in nearly a month, but in fact I never felt a thing. Clint did. Mia was distracted, walking down the road and stopping every 15 steps to eat blackberries.
One nice thing about Irish pubs is that they open their doors at 10 a.m., and Dermott O’Sullivan made us feel perfectly at home in his namesake establishment. Clint had a 23-day beard and his long hair was matted and tangled; not one of us had bathed in four or five days. Dermott congratulated us when we told him where we’d come from and quickly brought out mugs of coffee and homemade bread with jam and butter.
Aside from the pub, the O’Sullivans run a small restaurant and B&B next door. Dermott noticed Mia’s accent and, after feeding us breakfast, told us that the chef, William, was also Swedish, and that we should have a chat with him about a shower. William emerged from the kitchen wearing blue-striped pajama pants, a bandana and a black T-shirt that read “I (heart) Goats.” Mia was delighted to speak in her own language, and William was delighted to receive us in his apartment. Clint spent an hour shaving his beard and emerged from the bathroom resembling a small child. We did laundry in the back of the restaurant’s kitchen.
Afterwards, Mia and I strolled up the hill to an old church with a remarkable view of the harbor to the north and Fastnet Rock to the south. We walked barefoot through the sun-warmed grass in the meadow above the road. Half an hour later we rejoined Clint, who had planted himself in the pub, and we started on the Murphy’s Stout. We grew roots and did not leave until long after dark.
The Wedding: Sweden
I cannot tell the story of our crossing without first telling the story of our wedding, which really is the conclusion of a story that started in 2006.
I had just graduated from college and decided to travel before becoming a “real person” with a career. In Fiji I made friends with Clint and his brother, Glenn, from England. Over several stubbies of Fiji Bitter we decided to fly to New Zealand and explore the countryside until our money ran out. In Auckland we bought a car for NZ$800 and set off. Shortly thereafter we met two blonde Scandinavian girls; I liked the tall one.
Fast forward. Mia and I got engaged and spent two years planning a wedding and a transatlantic crossing. We would get married in Sweden, then fly back to the United States to start a lengthy and adventurous honeymoon. Johanna (the other girl in New Zealand) was Mia’s maid of honor; both Clint and Glenn attended the ceremony.
Clint stayed an extra day after the wedding and over coffee agreed to join us as crew. He was fit, strong, smart—and not a sailor. I knew he would be keen to learn and would listen to me offshore. I might be woken up more often at night (I was), but this seemed a fair trade for being able to sail with someone we knew well and who had an adventurous outlook on life.
In the span of just two weeks, Mia and I got married, flew back across the Atlantic, threw a party for 70 people under a tent in my parents’ backyard, (almost) finished putting our boat, Arcturus, together and set sail for Canada.
My mom and dad joined us in Newport. Having them onboard for the leg to Canada was cool. In 1993, when I was 9 and my sister was 7, they took us out of school for a year, and we sailed to the Bahamas on a 36-foot ketch. These are some of my earliest memories, and I attribute everything that has happened in my life since then to that one adventurous year we spent afloat as a family.
Now we sailed together for Nova Scotia in thick, wet fog interspersed with spots of sunshine. The fog condensed on the backstay and dripped mercilessly on whoever was on watch in the cockpit. During the day, I worked the endless punch list—wiring the AIS receiver, splicing a bridle for the series drogue, installing control lines on the Cape Horn windvane, mounting the oil lamp Mom and Dad gave us, running up the radar reflector.
I had sold the headsail furler to pay for the windvane. Our wardrobe of hanked-on headsails included a big drifter, a 130 percent genoa with one reef, a working jib and a storm staysail. Seventy miles out from Lunenburg, a nor’easter blew up, and we could not sail to windward because I had not yet installed the blocks we needed to sheet tight the small jib. Soaked and tired, with a grim forecast on the VHF, we fell off on a beam reach and sailed toward Shelburne, which according to the sailing directions had a sheltered harbor.
Dad and I stayed awake all night. I was at the helm and let Mia sleep through her watch the next morning. We had only paper charts aboard, so Dad was plotting positions every 30 minutes as we approached Shelburne. We were four days offshore and too excited to sleep once we tied up, so with a belly full of coffee, eggs and Mia’s fresh baked bread, we rallied and explored the small town. At four that afternoon Mia and I crammed into one side of the V-berth (the other was full of gear), wedged shoulder-to-shoulder behind the lee cloth. I slept for 17 hours and did not wake up until 0900 the following morning.
The 200-mile passage across from Baddeck, in the Bra d’Or Lakes, to St. Pierre proved a perfect introduction to offshore sailing for Clint, who joined us in Lunenburg after my parents flew home. St. Pierre, psychologically, felt farther from home than I had ever been before. The island’s rugged coast was utterly alien; puffins surrounded the boat as we entered the harbor. The locals not only spoke French, they were French. The stopover was the first chance we had to reflect on the trip already behind us–the wonderful downwind sail Mia and I had enjoyed to Block Island; our moonlit landfall in Lunenburg, where Dad, who had slept in the cockpit, woke everyone up like a little boy on Christmas morning.
We made ready to sail for Ireland on the evening of July 31. Clint went ashore to fill the diesel jerry cans, and we quickly showered one last time at the yacht club. I had been watching the weather all day. We had woken to thick fog and rain, which was the norm during our few days in St. Pierre, but by late afternoon the clouds began breaking up. The cliffs behind the town became visible for the first time and a brisk westerly wind settled in. This seemed a good omen, so we bid the island and North America adieu.
Nothing Ever Happens on My Watch
All three of us were anxious on leaving. The boat’s new rig, self-steering system and centerboard were untested, and we had not yet learned her creaks and groans. We could not yet distinguish the normal from the alarming.
Once our nerves settled down, we quickly grew frustrated. The first week saw us sailing southeast in light headwinds. Our course should have been east-northeast, and we should have had strong westerlies. Instead we were going in the wrong direction and had managed only 300 miles in our first seven days at sea. They say it takes a good sailor to make a boat go in light air. But it takes an engine to make one go in a flat calm, and we did not have the fuel to spare.
We finally caught some weather as we neared the tip of the Grand Banks. Arcturus took flight as we eased the sheets and rode the west wind on the south side of a depression, covering more distance over the next three days than we had in the first seven, with runs of 140, 130 and 140 miles.
Mia or Clint often woke me up at night for sail changes while I was off watch. Once I made the mistake of grumbling, “Nothing ever happens on my watch.”
Later that same night, during my shift, I noticed the small jib, which had been lashed down up forward, was dragging in the water. I went forward and tied it down. Not long after, I was below making coffee and heard a thumping sound on the hull. One of the diesel jerry cans had jumped overboard when the lee rail was buried in a puff. I grabbed it, and noticed the jib was dragging in the water again. I tied it down again. I went below to finish my coffee, and the thumping started again. I finally moved both diesel cans into the cockpit. At dawn the jib went overboard again, so I bagged and stowed it, which is what I should have done in the first place. I never did finish my coffee.
Clint, Mia and I got really good at changing headsails and setting up the spinnaker pole. With the wind strong and aft, our favorite sail combination became the working jib forward on the pole with the mainsail double-reefed on a preventer on the other side. The jib was remarkably stable, and we could fly it on the pole at angles approaching a beam reach. Thus attired, Arcturus, with only 24 feet of waterline, regularly took off on surfing runs over 12 knots.
One night the moon was nearly full, the sky was clear, and the air had some bite to it. Invoking my inner Moitessier, I scrambled forward, climbed onto the inboard end of the pole, and stood there in the moonlight while the windvane steered in the big following seas. From my perch aloft, I watched as each wave reared up astern, perfectly visible in the surreal light. Arcturus would heel slightly and slew to windward before the vane squared her back round. Then the stern would lift and, sounding like a freight train, she would suddenly blast ahead on a foamy crest, surging forward for many seconds.
After 23 days offshore, I was wearing a thong.
By the third week, we’d gone mental. Clint started sleeping with a stuffed animal. Mia and I entertained each other thumb wrestling and playing battleship on graph paper. We’d lost track of the one bar of dark chocolate Mia bought in St. Pierre, and 20 days into the trip, this became a serious problem.
So we got creative. I had packed some baking chocolate, and Mia took several rock-hard lumps and heated them over the stove in a tin mug. Meanwhile, I melted an alarming amount of cane sugar on an adjacent burner. We mixed these ingredients, together with raisins and almonds, and made some delightfully tasty chocolates of our own. Mia later emerged from the forepeak with not only the missing dark chocolate, but also a hidden Snickers bar she’d brought for Clint. He was practically hysterical and shared the treasure with his animal friend, whom he was actually starting to resemble.
My thong. It was a wedding present from four of Mia’s friends from her high school swim team. At the wedding they disappeared for a few minutes during dinner, only to return wearing their swimsuits. They made a hilarious speech and presented us with a package of 30 gifts we were to open—one per day—on the crossing. The leopard-print thong was one of these. When we were about 700 miles west of Ireland, we made a bet that whoever was closest in predicting our landfall could choose who had to wear the thong after we sighted land. Mia won, and I had to wear the thong.
It is impossible to describe what it was like to see land after 23 days at sea. Mizen Head gradually rose up in front of a cloudbank, and we were able to spot the mountains surrounding the headland some 50 miles off. Clint climbed to the spreaders to get a better view, and I stood on the starboard pinrail with the binoculars to confirm what we were seeing. Arcturus blasted along on a broad reach, averaging over 7 knots for many hours, well beyond her theoretical hull speed.
We closed the coast and saw great grey cliffs plunging into the sea. The green hillsides stretched far and wide, crisscrossed by ancient stone walls. A ruined castle stood atop the highest of the hills to port; Fastnet Rock loomed to starboard. Mia stood in the galley, plotting our position every 10 minutes or so, while Clint and I sailed the boat, praying we would make it to Crookhaven before dark. When it came into view, we gybed, hardened up, and made for the white lighthouse that marked the entrance to the narrow harbor.
Not until we rounded that last bit of rock and left the heaving Atlantic in our wake did the fact of the voyage sink in. It was the smell that did it. A light breeze settled over the boat, and with it came the smell of a wood-burning stove, of moss in the forest, of earthy things, indescribable things that were instantly familiar and yet unbelievable.
Clint honestly and unashamedly shed a tear. Mia kissed me.
Photos by Mia Karlsson