Boat life Part 2: Sailing
“One learns a great deal from the sea. I tell you, you may walk through country after country, through lands and through huge cities you’ve never seen before, and over the whole wide earth, and never learn as much as you will from the sea.” (Pilgrim At Sea, Par Lagerkvist)
Sailing is the main aspect of life on board Exiles, facilitating our expedition, travel, living, passion and safety needs. Life on a boat, navigating the seas under sail is an all-consuming activity, requires 24hr careful attention. Throw in the potential Arctic hazards of icebergs and enveloping ice and the stakes get even higher, but also, the rewards. Smoothly weaving your way between sculptured chunks of ice, in sun glistened calm water, under full sail and with only the noise of the bow cutting through the water with the odd groan of ice cracking somewhere nearby, is a truly magic experience.
As a 43ft sailboat, it is of course our primary ambition to travel under sail as much as possible (ie, move under the natural power of the wind) but this is not always possible. Sometimes there might not be any wind and we simply need to keep progressing. Other times, the intensity and compactness of the ice makes manoeuvring of the boat simply too difficult and dangerous under sail. In these times we rely on our trusty engine to artificially move us along. Either way, the boat needs to have at least one person fully dedicated to steer and respond to the boats’ needs. To divide up this responsibility between the team, we use the ‘watch’ system.
The ‘watch’ has been used by mariners for centuries and is the most structured aspect to our voyage. Given our very system-based work, and no doubt our personalities, we try to avoid that our trip becomes too regimented. But the watch is an essential thing, ensuring that we can progress as planned and safely, whilst maintaining a healthy life balance. Working a bit like a shift at 24hr workplace, it is the time when you are the principal person responsible for the what is happening with and to the boat (with the exception of the Captain, who is of course the end responsible and always keeping and extra ear and eye out). Then when you clock off, someone else takes over and you are able to use the other hours of the day for yourself, and other errands.
We run a schedule of four watches of three hours, meaning we all do six hours on watch over a period of a full day. This might not sound like a lot, but allows for a good balance between being at the wheel/on deck and being ‘off’, where we cook, tend to other jobs, relax and of course sleep. And after three hours exposed to the Arctic elements, you are usually ready to get down below to warm up. The off time is not always a given, as you might be called upon to spend more time outside helping each other to manage the boat (eg, sailing in tougher weather conditions), or trying to navigate and negotiate stretches of heavy ice (pushing ice out of the way or identifying potential paths/leads in the ice). And sometimes with the number of jobs (repairs, maintenance, cleaning, cooking, etc) that need be done, you wish you were still just plain sailing!
To set sail we manually hoist the sails based on the wind speed and direction. This gives a nice workout. Then we have to steer a course. Nowadays, nearly all boats have autopilot technology, whereby the boat will mechanically steer to a pre-set course itself (based on a compass bearing) and the person on watch merely has to keep an eye out that for potential obstacles or issues on route. However here in the northern latitudes, there is so much magnetic interference that this often renders the autopilot useless and even dangerous, as it can suddenly steer the boat in wild directions, potentially towards the shore or nearest iceberg! Therefore we spend most of our watch hand-steering, which can also be quite demanding when in challenging weather. In addition we have to give significant time and attention to the weather, navigation and ice charts – a careful eye is kept on the radar and GPS screen and quite some time spent at the chart table pouring over maps, possible route options, downloaded reports and sailing direction/pilotage books.
Fortunately for us, Exiles is an aluminium-made expedition boat meaning she is strong but light. It doesn’t take much wind for her to start nicely cruising along and we’ll tend to progress at an average of 6 knots, not too bad for a sail boat. This equates to about 7mph, about the speed of a fast runner. To non-sailors, this might seem amazingly slow going, and you can’t deny that it is a slower way to travel. But we are often sailing 24hrs a day, and at times making passages of up to 7 days straight so the miles do clock up. Today we just past the 4000 mile mark, and we still have a long way to go yet. Despite being content with a steady pace, it’s also no surprise that we get very excited about sailing in favourable winds where we might notch up to 12 knots – that’s when we really start flying across the waves!
As a team we all come to the table with differing amounts of sailing experience, ranging from complete novice to experienced Arctic sailor. But what we all have in common is a real enthusiasm for sailing and we take great enjoyment in trying to make Exiles move beautifully through these waters under canvas, well, as much as mother nature allows! To sail with her in such a spectacular wilderness is a real privilege and we have been treated to many wonderful sailing moments. It can be full on, at times exhausting, but we love it.