The North Sea - Taming the Bully (Aug. 31-Sept. 3, 2018)

317 nautical miles, 82 hours, 4 days, 3 nights, 0 stops

Total Since Stralsund Departure – 603 Nautical Miles

I mentioned in a previous blog that if The Baltic Sea is the mean girl you love to hate but can’t help but love, then The North Sea is the schoolyard bully. After our battles with the Baltic, I was wondering if The North Sea would accept us onto her turf . . . or punch us in the face.

Maik has a little experience sailing these waters, but this was my first meeting with The North Sea. We wanted to be cautious and strategic. 

How do you tame a bully? You stand up to her and face her—head on.

Or . . .  you catch her in a good mood.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt if have a big orange bodyguard with an iron fist and a steel jaw to protect you. Let me assure you, Seefalke and The North Sea are old friends. And they get along just fine.

Seefalke was built in The North Sea by Dutch designers who carefully constructed her specifically for these brutal conditions. She spent 43 years of her 44-year life sailing The North Sea.

On Friday morning, we caught the bully in a good mood. And the North Sea gave her old friend Seefalke a hearty welcome home with rare easterly winds that lasted for 82 straight hours . . . long enough to push us 317 nautical miles over four straight days, without stopping, from Helgoland, Germany to Dunkirk, France. 

DAY 1 – 31 August, 2018

Our original plan was to sail from the island of Helgoland to Den Helder in The Netherlands. It would require sailing through the night and deep into the next day. This meant I would experience my first night watch.  Maik strategically created a watch schedule. Since there are only two of us, we would rotate from the helm to the bunk every four hours.

When we departed Helgoland at 05:00—90 minutes into high tide—it was cold and dark, and there was a slight drizzling rain. Maik wanted to take the first watch. He told me that it would be especially important to rest when we are not on watch. This is a different schedule than our bodies are accustomed to, and he told me even if I didn’t feel tired, I should still rest.

After the departure I did my usual first mate duties of pulling in and securing the fenders and neatly tying all the mooring lines. I made Maik some coffee then crawled back into the bunk and cuddled with Cap’n Jack and Scout. I had no problem at all falling back into a deep, sound sleep.

My internal clock woke me at 08:45 – a good 15 minutes before my shift. I emptied my bladder, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and made some coffee. We were already being pushed by the current with about 15- to 20-knot winds and were on a nice 25-degree tilt. We were flying at around 4.5 to 5 knots. 

Maik had carefully briefed me on what to expect during my shift.  My main objective was to stay on course, dodge any traffic or buoys and adjust the sails, if needed. But we also had a traffic separation scheme (TSS) to deal with. He showed me on the plotter the areas to avoid.

Traffic separation schemes are common along busy waterways, especially in areas like The North Sea where there are gigantic ports with hundreds of huge oil tankers and container ships passing through.

A TSS works kind of like driving on a highway or expressway. There is a “median” which is a “no-go” zone. On the navigation chart, it’s indicated in pink. Unlike driving on a highway, there are no lines in the middle of the road, and no grass in the median.  These sections can only be seen on the charts.  The idea is to separate the huge ships from the smaller leisure craft, like Seefalke. If you need to cross the TSS, then you must cross it at a 90-degree angle and only if traffic is clear.

I began my shift and all was smooth. The waves were HUGE—about 3 meters high and they were rolling in on our starboard side while the easterly winds were pushing us along perfectly on our heading. I was standing on the high side of the cockpit (in this case the starboard side), even though the instrumentation panel is on the port side. I seem to handle the motion better riding on the top of the waves rather than in the bottom dip.

Every once in a while, a high wave would splash against Seefalke and give me a nice saltwater shower. That will definitely wake you up!

I was fighting the seasickness and my nerves a little. Every time I felt queasy, I started reciting the Greek Alphabet.  Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta…. I don’t know why I started doing this. I believe it was helping me to focus on one thing so that all the other crossed signals of emotions and motion couldn’t find their way to my brain and cause me to be seasick.  It was working. At times, I would try counting to 100 in German. This was also giving my brain something to think about other than the motion and queasiness.

I looked down into the cabin. Maik was all nestled with the pups and it looked like he was sleeping. This made me so happy.

I have a sailing idol, Lin Pardey. She is an extremely accomplished sailor and book author. She and her husband Larry have circumvented the globe three times in sailboats half the size of Seefalke. I remember reading in one of her books about how one of the most important things you can do on a watch, is let the rest of the crew SLEEP and RELAX. This is especially true when your crew consists of only two people. I was a couple hours into my shift, and Maik was finally sleeping. This meant he was relaxed and had confidence in me. This was giving me confidence in myself.  

Sometimes, confidence is a bad thing.

About 30 minutes later, Maik woke up and looked at the control panel from the Ipad in the cabin below.  He sprinted to the cockpit in his stocking feet, pushed me out of the way and took the wheel. Somehow I had managed to drift over into the TSS and was flanked by a couple of huge ships. I couldn’t understand what I did wrong. I was on the correct heading.

Maik explained to me that the current had pushed me over into the no-go zone, so even though I was on the right heading I had still managed to drift into the TSS. It’s so easy to underestimate the force of the currents. This is an extremely dangerous mistake, and it’s also illegal. He turned us around and got us back on track. Then we were able to cross the TSS the correct way – at a 90-degree angle.

I was really beating myself up over this mistake and frankly, afraid to take the helm again. I tucked my tail between my legs and moped into the cabin, trying to repair my wounded pride. I tried to rest with the cuddly pups, but was worried that I may not be able to find the courage to come back out for my next shift.

Then I got distracted again. I was laying there and the waves were rocking us fairly roughly. Nothing was flying around the cabin, which meant I had finally found a way to secure all the items. At least I can do SOMETHING right. However, I could hear things rolling around inside the lockers. I have organized and re-organized these lockers so many times I can tell you with great detail the exact contents of each one of them.  I think even Maik is amazed when he asks me where something is, and I can pinpoint the exact spot inside the exact locker. It’s also kind of funny because we have names for each of the lockers, but they are not names that we picked. The original owners organized their things in the lockers and gave each one a name—the tool locker, the bread locker, etc. Sailors are very superstitious and apparently, it’s bad luck to change these names, but it’s ok to reorganize. For example, we keep our tools in the bread locker. This really amuses me.

I started playing a little game with myself. I heard a sliding sound in the middle drinking glasses locker (which is where we keep canned veggies and canned fruit). That’s a can of peas. Then I heard a clankety-clank sound coming from the cleaning supplies locker (which is where we keep the pots and pans). That’s definitely the small pot that doesn’t have a lid. Then I heard a rolling sound coming from the silverware and cooking utensils locker (which is where we keep the condiments and spices). Yep, that’s the can of salt that I had to turn sideways because it was too tall to stand upright in the cabinet.

When we first did our provisioning, those lockers were stuffed so tight you could barely even fit air into them. Nothing was moving around. But we’ve been living on Seefalke for about a month now and have consumed some of the food items, so now they are not so tightly packed and things have room to move when Seefalke is in motion. Finally, I got irritated with the game and all the sounds so I took some large beach towels and stuffed them in the lockers making all the noise to keep everything from moving around. I can’t believe I thought I would have nothing to do on a sailboat all day…

We had dinner around sunset, and Maik briefed me on what the night shift would be like.  I was still dealing with my confidence crisis after the TSS mistake.  Not only did I have to think about all the watch duties and responsibilities…but I now had to do this in the DARK.  Maik took the first shift – 20:00 to midnight.

At 23:30, my internal clock woke me. I got ready and came up to the cockpit. Maik was exhausted. He briefed me, and then went down to sleep. I already have trouble looking through binoculars during the day.  For some reason, this has always given me a headache. At night, I really have a lot of trouble seeing through the lenses. I could see all the lights around me, but I was having trouble determining if that blob of lights is a ship or a buoy or an offshore rig. Ok, that’s a ship, but is it moving, or is it anchored?  I was also having trouble with depth perception. Is that ship right in front of me or is it two nautical miles away? I simply couldn’t tell the difference.

This was frustrating me, and it was also making me nervous.

The rocking of the waves combined with the pressure and strain of trying to see through the binoculars and identify all the moving parts was making me queasy. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta…. I tried to distract my brain and focus. But I was failing miserably at the night watch video game.

This is how the video game works. It’s totally black and all you see are lights in various shapes and sizes. All the objects are coming at you or going away from you from various directions and at various distances. You are moving. The water beneath you is moving. And most of the lighted objects are moving. You have no ammunition and cannot fire at a target. You can only play defense. You must dodge them and avoid them. And you only have one life. Literally. 

You can see the stationary objects on the paper charts. Then we have the plotter screen, which shows the ships that are within one or two nautical miles of you. When they are in your path within a certain range, their icons start blinking and an alarm sounds. But on the screen it looks like the other ship is right on top of you, even though it may be half a mile away. It shows where the ship will be in six minutes, but it doesn’t show you where Seefalke will be in six minutes. I look behind me. I look to the right. I look to the left. It keeps blinking on the screen. The alarm is sounding. I don’t see it. Where is it? The screen says it’s on my stern. Arrrrgggghhhhhhhhh. Help!!!!

I wanted to wake Maik, but I remembered what Lin Pardey said about letting the other person sleep and rest. Why is this so hard? Why can’t I do this?

Suddenly, the lights in front of me were getting bigger and brighter. And they were moving. There was NOTHING on my screen that told me what these lights were.  Some of the ships don’t have AIS, and so these don’t appear on the screen at all. You have to trust your eyes for those. Suddenly, two ships came into form. I was close enough to them to identify them as ships and not just lights. I panicked and screamed for Maik. He bolted to the cockpit, again in is stocking feet, and steered me away from slamming me into the two fishing boats.

When we were clear of danger, he asked me how this happened. “I really don’t know,” I told him. He asked if I was using the binoculars. I told him I was but I was having a hard time seeing through them. I wasn’t trying to make excuses. But then I said, “Even if I see the danger, it doesn’t mean I know what to do about it.”  He stayed with me for a little while longer until we were out of the heavy traffic zone. By this time the sun was coming up, and I could see a little better.  He went back to bed, and I just tried to get through the rest of my shift.  He came back at 05:00 to take the next watch.

I fixed him some coffee, and then just burst into tears. I felt completely defeated and incompetent.

“I think we need to have a serious conversation about whether or not I’m ready for this,” I told him.

Then without letting him respond, I went to bed and crashed.

DAY 2 – 1 September 2018

I awoke two hours later and joined Maik in the cockpit. I made us both breakfast and sat with him. The air was crisp and cold and refreshing. The water was beautiful. And it was calm. Low waves. Just a little wind. Maik said the weather was so good, we should go further than Den Helder and just continue to take advantage of the easterly winds that are so rare for the North Sea. The bully was tame. She was in a good mood. She and her buddy Seefalke were having a great time, and we should let them keep playing.

I reminded him of my last words before going to bed. “I may just not be ready for this,” I reminded him. My confidence was totally shot. After two huge dangerous mistakes in one day, I just didn’t think I was ready to continue on this journey. Maik needed a more experienced sailor to help him. He can’t do everything. And I can’t do anything.

Then Maik looked at me the way only he can. It’s a look that makes me feel safe. He’s always had the ability to talk me down from the ledge. He admitted he had done a poor job of teaching me and preparing me. I know that it's difficult to transfer half a lifetime of knowledge and experience to someone else. I can understand that when something comes so naturally for you, sometimes it's difficult to break it down into details and teach someone else how to do something that is innately a part of you. Maik doesn't have to think about how to sail. He draws from more than 20 years of experience and just sails.

He reminded me that he makes mistakes, too. And then he said something I’ll never forget. “You just need experience, baby. And this is how you get it. I have confidence in you. If I’m going to battle, I want you with me. You would be the first person I would pick to be on my team. You can do this.”

I thought about my friend, Yvi. When we met with her in Heiligenhafen a few days earlier, she told me a story about when she was on an 18-month sailing trip with her husband. He was seasick for three straight days while they were sailing on The North Sea. And they didn’t have the conditions we are having. The bully was in full force. She took the helm of their 7-meter boat for three straight days without a break. She told me that it’s in times like this that you find out what you are truly capable of doing.

So I snapped out of my pity party and asked Maik to teach me. I focused on asking good questions and not relying on him to remember to teach me every detail.  He has probably forgotten a lot more than I will ever know.  I practiced for my night watch all day long. I let Maik get plenty of rest. He challenged me and quizzed me with each oncoming vessel. He showed me how to measure the distance and how to tell if the ship was coming or going.  I was determined.

Maik then re-organized the watch schedule. He didn’t base it on time. Rather, he based it on the situation. He would take the difficult, high-traffic shifts, and I would take the easy, open-ocean slots. So instead of a switch at a certain time, I would wake him when I got to a certain waypoint, and we would assess the situation together and see if I should keep going.

That night, Maik took an early shift and got through another TSS. Then he woke me, and spent about half an hour briefing me. “There are two key contacts right now,” he said. “Tell me what they are.”  I looked through the binoculars and did a perimeter check. I identified every light. That’s a buoy. That’s a ship that’s not moving, so it’s anchored. That’s a huge wind park. That’s a sailing boat under motor that’s going away from me. I know this because there is a white light on the mast and I see the green navigation light. Green is on the starboard side and it’s moving to the right of me. It’s going away.

I did this with every single light in the perimeter. Then I identified the two key contacts. One was a ship that was heading straight in our direction. “What do you do?” Maik asked me. I measure the distance. I see on the plotter where the other ship will be in six minutes. I wait to see if he changes his heading. Ok, he just changed his heading to avoid me, so I do nothing and stay on my heading. The other contact is in the distance. It’s a ship and I see the red navigation lights. Red is on the port side, and it’s coming toward me. It’s not changing its heading so I’ll make a slight 20-degree adjustment so he will see that I’m moving out of his way. Alarm stopped. We are in the clear. Now I adjust 20 degrees the other way, and I’m back on course.

I felt confident. Maik went down to sleep. He told me to wake him at 04:00. I carefully did my checks. I was starting to see more clearly through the binoculars. I would check my eyesight against what I saw through the lens, then I would check the paper chart to see if the object was already identified. The stationary items are all on the chart. At 04:00, everything was clear. I was so wide awake I don’t think I was even blinking.  There were no obstacles. Not one. Seefalke and I were all alone on open water.

I looked down into the cabin and Maik was all cuddled up with Cap’n Jack and Scout. Sleeping soundly. So I let him sleep. Around 05:30, The North Sea began to wake up, so I woke Maik, too.  He told me he finally got some deep sleep.  And I was proud. I had done my job. I kept us safe, and I let my skipper sleep.

DAY 3 – 2 September 2018

We decided to continue to take advantage of the weather and winds and keep going. I continued to practice my watch. All day long I worked hard with the goal of making sure Maik could rest. I took easy long shifts and let my well-rested skipper fight the shorter heavy battles.

We passed through some huge ports throughout The Netherlands with lots of heavy traffic. It was so cool to see all the gigantic container ships and oil cargo ships. Maik decided we would take another night shift and head to Dunkirk…the last stop in The North Sea.

However, this passage would be complicated. We needed to maneuver through traffic separation schemes, tons of buoys, large busy ports, and as a bonus, some areas with low water levels.  This would be a long night for Maik if he took all of the heavy load. I took the first shift at 06:00 and would continue through either to the first waypoint or midnight—whichever came first. The first waypoint was just before a challenging area with a lot of obstacles.

This time, rather than fear the night watch, I decided to embrace it.

There is something special about that moment when the sun disappears behind the horizon. It’s not yet dark, but it’s not daylight any more either. Some of the anchored ships begin to light up like Christmas trees and others look like ghostly shadows in the distance. The only sound is the waves. You can’t even hear the wind. Only the waves.

I perform my checks. Check the perimeter every five minutes. I identify every light and see if anything has changed. Most of the time I go clockwise, but just to be sure, sometimes I switch it up and go counterclockwise.  It’s an old editor’s trick. Sometimes when you read an article so many times you just don’t see the words any more. So if you edit the article backward…start at the end…this is where you can see things in a different way and catch the mistakes.

Soon, it’s just black. When you are floating on the water, you don’t really see the world around you fade to black. For a while, you see all the colors left over from the sunset—orange, pink, red, yellow. And the water changes color, too. At first, it’s a brilliant blue. Then it softly fades to a silvery grey.

And then it’s black—like the sky. It’s so black, sometimes it’s difficult to see where the sky stops and the water begins. But you can still hear the waves. And on this night there were millions of stars lighting the way. I saw a formation I recognized. I think it was the Big Dipper. Or perhaps it was the Little Dipper. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it was one of the Dippers.

It’s so quiet and peaceful.  Sometimes Seefalke talks to me. A sail will flap. Her bones will creak a little, kind of like a loose floorboard. I can hear the waves splashing against her body and echoing throughout her steel hull. I like to think she’s letting me know I’m not alone. She’s here to take care of us. I feel as safe as a baby in her mother’s womb.

“Don’t be afraid,” she tells me. “I’ve got this.”

In return for her protection, we keep her in deep waters. We steer her away from obstacles. We show her the way home, and she takes us there. Safe and secure.

DAY 4 – 3 September 2018

I had come off the night watch at 23:30. Maik took over and brought us into the morning. For the first time on this trip, Cap’n Jack got a little seasick during the night, so I took care of him and calmed him. He was fine, and drifted back to sleep after a very short uncomfortable spell.  

Maik had a tough night. It was a challenging leg, and I wished I could help more. But this was the plan, and it was working. I joined him around 06:00 and made coffee and breakfast for him. He told me we would be arriving at Dunkirk by early afternoon. I took a short shift around 09:00 for a couple hours while Maik rested a little. Soon, we were approaching Dunkirk.

Maik wouldn’t let me celebrate until we got safely moored into the marina. He’s superstitious that way. He says as long as we are still on the water, there is danger. And we were not quite there yet. We crossed the Belgium/France border on our approach and raised the ensign flag.  We had traveled 317 nautical miles in four days, three nights, 82 hours, and with no stops.

Maik and I are not heavy drinkers of alcohol, but we have some mini champagne bottles to celebrate key accomplishments along our route. At all our major milestones, we have toasted the journey. First stop, Kiel. First passage on The North Sea to Helgoland. And now, we have a mini bottle chilling to celebrate our non-stop passage all the way across the North Sea. Perhaps we need a full bottle for this one. We are in France, after all.