“Next Stop, Canterbury West!”
Well friends, I have left IceBear and am en route to London via the 1 hour 12 minute fast train from Ramsgate, UK where we made landfall early this morning around 2am. It is now 11:40am, and we have much to catch up on. Apologies for dropping off the Social Media radar. Though the North Sea is chalk full of oil platforms and offshore wind farms, they have yet to install 5G. Let’s begin where we left off…
My trusty watch mate, Alejandro, and I assumed our post on Tuesday evening at midnight. The same routine ensued - sit up in my bunk, straining to keep upright as I am sprung forward and aft by the motion of the boat, while leaning uncomfortable against the taught chord of my lee cloth - I’ve come to love and loathe that damned thing with equal vigor.
On land, one would simply climb out of bed and put on the necessary clothes required for the day. Not so at sea. The mental gymnastics of reducing the process of using the head, brushing teeth, donning foul weather gear, consuming anything or nothing, and making it up on deck to relieve the current watch in the least amount of maneuvers began. Alas, the motivation overcame my procrastination and I reached up to the handhold above my bunk, clinging for life as I swung out both legs and grasped for the wall handhold before I was rocketed back to my bunk by the rolling vessel. Another day had begun. Or was it night? What day is this?
20 minutes later, I was adorned in my saturated bibs, boots, and jacket. These “foulies” must have been named for the rancid brine smell that they emit after a few days of marinating in the forepeak, scrubbed daily by the salt water bath they receive in the cockpit. What nausea disappears during my sleepless rest is at once recalled from a brief whiff of the clothes. Under the foulies, I’ve decided that my down jacket is much too wet to afford any warmth, and opt for a less saturated, still damp sweatshirt. Is this trip over yet?
On deck, starving, I took up position in the cockpit and anchored myself to a metal ring that, when called to duty, would tether me to our sinking vessel. Comforted by those thoughts, I slumped into position, awaiting my four-hour shift to conclude.
Unlike the night prior, we were under a starless sky. The darkness illuminated only by blinking red lights of offshore wind farms passed in the night, and the superhighway of cargo ships and barges eager to elbow us out of their way. We were heeled over such that with every couple waves, our life lines on the lee side of the boat would go under water and we were forced to stand nearly upright with legs braced against the opposing seat. I’m sure there was more comfort rotting away in the dungy caverns of the Tower of London circa Henry VIII‘s reign. I feel ya, Anne Boleyn.
Not surprisingly, too much sail aloft which causes the extreme heel is not good for the rigging. Never mind none of this was good for the crew hours ago, but who am I to complain? And so, Andy came up the companion way stairs and instructed Alejandro and I to leave the safety of the cockpit and crab walk up to the mast, fully exposed to the rain, waves, pitching, and darkness so that we could reduce sails, trim the sheets and help right the movement of the boat. “There is no fucking way I’m going out towards the bow in this weather, and let me tell you something about this trip and the abject disrespect for safety and comfort…” I thought to myself. “On it, captain” I said aloud, masking the fear of being swept overboard. I retract all former complaints on getting dressed belowdecks, for this new task made the former laughable.
20 minutes of slipping, swearing and yelling over the howling wind, head lamps intermittently lighting our way and blinding our crew mate, Alejandro and I completed our task and were back in the snuggly cockpit, exhausted yet very pleased that we had somehow cheated death and successfully bridled the bucking horse we rode. While proud of our work, I was more excited about evading the boredom and inescapable discomfort through the harrowing task. Yet, back to the discomfort my mind returned. But so briefly.
"What was that?!” Andy yelled back to me from his cozy perch at the top of the companionway? “Did the main release?!”
I looked up and saw the main sail uncontrollably flaking in the wind, while the reefing line that normally fastens it to the boom in heavy winds was happily waving at the passing ships in the distance, with complete unconcern for our safety. “WTF!” I said aloud or to myself or in my head. Who the hell knows, this wasn’t good.
“Hold on guys, I need to wake more crew!” And down Andy went, leaving Alejandro and I staring dumbfounded at one another. Should we just jump in the water and end all this? Enough with the foreplay, Poseidon.
Up came Nadim, Jim, and Jackson after their “quick” routine of gearing up under sail. Head lamps shining, hearts beating, we all listened to Andy’s quick instruction of who would go where and do what. Alejandro and Jim would remain in the cockpit to control lines for sails, while the three young men and most nimble (our inflated egos overpowering our sensibility) would go forward, reduce the main, lash her down, and return unscathed to tell all who will listen about our heroics at sea.
Another 20 minutes of battle with an ill-behaving sail ensued, perfectly choreographed by the three of us, like a 7-year old’s dance recital. Back in the cockpit, after a round of at-a-boys and fist pumps, the three off-watch mates returned to their slumber while Alejandro and I were left to our misery aloft. 2.5 more hours to go. Ugh. Anne, please God, trade places with me.
Needless to say, I’m not writing from the grave. We made it through the night, retiring to the comfort of another rolling evening in the bunk, followed by another exhausting day on the water. Why are you so angry with us, North Sea? I am vaccinated, and come in peace - please stop torturing me.
Wednesday is somewhat of a blur. The seas continued to boil, though the sun peaked out its head after sleeping on the job the last couple days. It’s presence improved the spirits of the crew mildly, though the exhaustion and discomfort was visible on all faces. Jackson had succumbed to his second bout of sea sickness, and worse than the Baltic, retired to a horizontal position for 18 hours. He complained of bed sores and cursed the seas while still exhibiting a friendly countenance and cracking jokes at key low points in the cabin discussions.
Finally, there was great hope. Andy had been downloading weather throughout our trip and each forecast had underplayed the wind we were experiencing. Like a great meteorologist, the reports were 30% accurate, half of the time - a report of 20 knot winds out of the west translated into 35 knot gusts from the north. And so, when he received the latest report showing 50-60 knot gales in the English Channel precisely as we were to pass through, he made the executive decision to make landfall in Dover, 150 miles East and north of our original destination of Portsmouth. We have 35 miles to go, he shared with his emaciated, waterlogged crew. And we rejoiced - only 6 more hours of hell.
Alejandro and I donned our battle gear and took up our watch at 8pm to fend off freighters, dodge windmills, and aim the boat for the final approach with the midnight crew. I have never been more cold, and began the shift hiding under the dodger to avoid some of the wind and splashing waves. But, left to my own thoughts, as Alejandro happily endured the elements in the cockpit, I could not escape my own misery. So I crawled into the cockpit and suffered less as we entertained one another for the last four hours of our watch duties.
At midnight I collapsed into my bunk, after reversing the process of assembling my watch uniform. I awoke to a still boat, laughter and the sound of beers opening. Removing my headphones, and pulling down my sleep mask (I’ve obviously become a diva at sea), I saw the smiling faces of a crew that was safely dockside. We made it. No I don’t want a beer, I’m going back to sleep. And I quickly dozed off again…
It’s now 12:45. My train delivered me somewhere in London. I just finished a tuna sandwich and chips, sustenance for the remainder of my journey - a taxi to Paddington station followed by an express train to Heathrow and a bus ride to the hotel. After check-in, find the on-site Covid center, pass the test, spend the night and fly home. I’ll share my thoughts on the entire trip once I’ve had a chance to bathe and spend a night in a bed larger than a floating coffin. For now, I’m more concerned with what side of the street to hail a cab.
It was a stark reminder of the dangers at sea. After a harrowing start to this adventure, cleansed by the recent few days of calm waters, downwind sailing, and traversing a canal under power, as if out for a Sunday stroll, it’s easy to let your guard down. I know there is a life lesson floating somewhere in there. I don’t want to live in fear or constant alert of danger, but in a minute’s time our trip to the UK could have been cut short by entangling our shrouds and spreader (the tall cross sections of our mast) and absolutely ripping our boat apart. Had one of us fallen between the two ships we would have been crushed. “Great work, boys, but let’s stay alert. We have the most dangerous section of the passage ahead - busy traffic, unsteady seas, and strong winds all the way from the North Sea down through the English Channel” Andy reminded us.
So much for finishing my chai tea and getting some shut eye until my 4am watch. My adrenaline is still pumping, an hour later as I write this. I had to capture this in real time. I’ll finish my entry tomorrow when I have something interesting to report on.
Time stamp: 9:01pm, Monday.
As if he just learned it was last call at a Madrid discoteca, Alejandro came bounding out of his room, adorned in his black thermal underwear with a concerned look mixed with productive intent. “What’s going on?!” he asked, as all who were assembled in the saloon wondered out loud about the incessant beep that suddenly alarmed us something was amiss.
After an uncomfortable delay given the certain demise of us all, Andy came sauntering into the cabin in complete unconcern, letting his panicked crew know that the bilge alarm was sounding. We lifted the floorboard that exposes the bilge and confirmed the water level had tripped the alarm. With the flip of a switch, the water was pumped out, the alarm stopped, and I was reminded once again that I wasn’t waking up in my own bed. As if the last several hours of restless tossing (literally), while the boat pitched and rolled, slamming down onto each wave that the North Sea threw into our bow wasn’t a clear reminder. Well, I guess it’s time to get up, thinking with mild amusement how absurd it is that we casually dismiss one perilous danger after another.
And so that is how today began. It’s now 3:45 in the afternoon on Tuesday, 12 hours after my abrupt wake-up call. I’m sitting on the floor of the cabin because, well, you have no fucking idea how hard it is to do anything when the floor below you is shifting between a 15-20 degree angle below you, while rocking back and forth with the consistent slamming down, like we are running aground every 15 seconds. I imagine this is an enhanced version of what are friends in California feel when they endure the 100-year earthquake…every 30 seconds.
I’m really not complaining. At this point, everything is pure amusement, keeping any boredom one would expect to feel out here at bay. I’ve been sleeping soundly all day, interspersed with a handful of pages in my novel. The “lee cloth” that creates a secondary wall around my bunk is a life saver. On this tack, I’m no longer snuggled into the couch back like I had experienced in the Baltic. Now I’m saved from rolling off my bed onto the cabin floor by a 6-foot long piece of fabric tied up at both ends. I now understand why hammocks were in vogue during the privateering days. The modern day set up leaves little comfort for hooked appendages or wooded stumps.
As I was first dressed for our shift at 4am, I asked Alejandro to make the coffee and warm me up one of those cinnamon rolls from Kalmar. Yes, dear, he responded. We’re such a playful couple.
As soon as I sat down at the helm, I was overwhelmed by the starry night. The Big Dipper pointed brightly to the Northern star, just off to Starboard, which confirmed our GPS-led pathway to the West. The waves were much less noticeable in the cockpit, though Ice Bear continued her forward assault of each one. We were motor sailing, which meant we had 2/3 of our main sail raised, no jib hoisted, and we were running the engine. The decision to do this was a precaution against the constant cargo ship traffic to our port, and the offshore wind farm to our starboard. We didn’t have much room for error, so for safety, running with the motor gave us an option to move against the wind in an emergency. And, if you’ve read anything in the last five minutes, you don’t need a reminder that danger lurks everywhere.
Jim - Jim is another pre-retirement sailor. Unlike John, Jim is very quiet. He hails from Southern California, and sails his small boat out of Marina Del Rey. He’s also married, but is unapologetically so quiet that if you don’t think to ask him a question, you may not hear from him all day, or week. But, he is quick with a smile, and I think he is just absorbing all of the newness and excitement of what we are doing. From the brief discussions we’ve had, I get the sense he is loving every minute, and if his wife will let him get a word in back home, she’ll learn about his adventures on the high seas. My father can certainly relate.
Florian - A little younger than me, Florian is a French born architect practicing his craft in Stockholm. He is the first legitimate Frenchman I have spent any considerable time around, and he grows on you like the wild mushrooms of his native countryside. He has a permanent scowl on his face like he is contemplating an architectural flaw, interrupted by a smirk that lets you know he is well aware of the humor in the situation. Florian was one of two last-minute stow-aways that filled an open birth 24 hours before we departed Sweden. We met his Spanish girlfriend, Maria, who also practices architecture and will be joining him on their future endeavors to live in Spain after taking an 8-month break from life on their sailboat in the Mediterranean. I have the hardest time understanding what the hell he is saying, and yet, can’t get enough. We learned that he needs to leave tonight so he can help move his sailboat back in Sweden before the season ends. We’ll all be sad to see him go.
Nadim - Just 40, Nadim is our well-bred crew-mate, born in Canada, raised in Egypt by his English mother and Sudanese father, Columbia undergrad and Harvard MBA. He is a partner at Blackstone in London, doing private equity across Europe. He and his wife have a sailboat in the South of England, an hour’s train ride from the city, where he visits every weekend in the summer. It’s clear that he works all the time, and this respite from the office is well deserved and much needed. Being that I am low bred, and barely squeaked by my collegiate years at Wisconsin, I find it more difficult to connect, but he is definitely a huge addition to the crew, is very nice, and has extended an invite to us all to sail Kestrel, should we make it back to England ahead of schedule. He’s declared that he will hide out until his office expects him back - I could get on board with playing hooky in an English pub until work and duty calls.
Jackson - This other stow away is the renaissance man of the group. Fluent in German, Jackson lives on a sailboat he purchased a couple months back in the Chesapeake Bay (he had zero experience sailing prior to purchase), is a budding guitar player, and eager to try everything (had his first egg on board last week) - all before the age of 30. I told him he’s like a little golden retriever. He walks around the boat, tail wagging, eager to do or learn anything, is the first to engage any stranger we’ve met on shore, and will happily wander off, returning some time later with dirt on his paws and a grin in his jowls, stick in his mouth. “I should go pick up my guitar in Austria, while I’m here” he said offhand, when asked whether he has his instrument on his new boat. Oh, he was deported from that country last year for an expired Visa, and prematurely ended the masters program he was pursuing. “I was tired of the material, anyways” he said with mild indifference. This kid is going to break some hearts along the way and have no clue it happened.
Alejandro - This brings me to my old buddy from Costa Rica. I met this 60 year-old (going on 25) on my first blue water passage a few years ago. We shared an apartment in Bermuda for a few days, mid-passage, and solidified our friendship. Though by day he manages all of Latin America’s personnel for Amazon, by night you can find this spicy little Latin wooing some unsuspecting 40-year old coed, looking for a companion to join him on the adventuring he hopes to do in retirement. At times I feel like his voice of reason, though I get my dose of well-deserved sagacious advice too. We were responsible for setting the tone of the relationships onboard at the outset, and irresponsible thereafter. I’m unapologetically insisting that he build the larger, newer boat he is contemplating, reminding him that I am the Jewish one in the relationship and he shouldn’t be so tight with his well-earned money. He brushes me off, highlighting that I’m failing my duty as a financial planning fiduciary. And so we both find humor and kill time on each watch exchanging jabs and shitty advice. As mentioned earlier in the blog, I love this guy.
So, there is our crew. Had you sought to assemble a more diverse, talented, interesting, and caring team you would have failed miserably. Andy is too humble to take credit, so we’ll just chalk this one up to Neptune for blessing our vessel with a bunch of knuckleheads who enjoy one another’s company.
14:12 on Sunday afternoon. If I was stateside, I might be enjoying a lazy day on the couch. Pro football and the Ryder Cup would be quietly playing in the background, the kids quietly building fortresses in Minecraft, and Tara assembling a grocery order for the busy week ahead.
The Sunday afternoon ocean-going equivalent is happening now. We are on a broad reach, wind 30 degrees off our stern at a gentle 15 knots, slowly pushing us through calm waters, south of Sweden. We’re meandering along at 6-8 knots in no particular hurry, though making good time toward our next landfall, as grey skies blanket the sun overhead. It’s a quiet afternoon on the Baltic. Oh, what a difference a couple days makes.
Since last writing, we spent a much-needed day of respite on shore in Kalmar, Sweden. I hope the videos and pictures told the story of a quaint little seaside town in Southern Sweden, complete with castle, local brewery, cobblestoned streets, and all the charm you would expect from the pleasant Scandinavians. I’m not sure it’s yet been discussed, but I am extremely impressed and appreciative of the overall cleanliness everywhere. From the public toilets to the immaculate streets, one would have to go to great lengths to discover a candy wrapper, cigarette but, or piece of lint anywhere. There must be a national cleanliness pride, or type B defiance, that keeps this place in tip top shape at all times. Sorry for the aside - it needed to be acknowledged.
I’m now down below, having concluded another watch, listening to John Coltrane in my headphones, laying down in my cozy sweats on top of my down sleeping bag, as the boat rocks gently. The sun has found it’s way through the day’s gray sky, and is casting a warm glow into the cabin below. I noticed ground beef thawing in the sink, and am anticipating another delicious meal aboard.
The serenity of sailing is the reward for choosing this adventure. The only noise intermittently heard over Coltrane’s meandering on the trumpet are the voices of the new watch crew drifting down through the hatchway. The symphony of sounds, motion, warmth and smells creates a peaceful haze that eases what little stress could possible exist out here. My crew mate, Jackson, commented earlier how difficult it has been to make headway on either of the two books he anticipated finishing aboard - “I start to read down in my bunk, and can’t help but fall asleep for an afternoon nap, even after a full 8 hours of sleep”. Of course he shares all of this with a smile. Nobody is complaining about the irresistible relaxation of offshore sailing.
The lack of excitement today has been the excitement. Everyone needs a break, and the placidity of the day was welcomed by all. We have entered the busiest shipping channels in the Baltic, where a Northern Europe bottleneck exists outside of Copenhagen. We barely flinch as massive cargo ships approach us astern for hours before making their way quietly ahead to some foreign destination, loaded with whatever Amazon items, autos, or oil was requested on a distant shore. We passed an offshore wind farm where dozens of 10-story tall windmills took in the breeze off the water and sent its power up to Sweden. All reminders that the world is still spinning out there, despite our absolute respite from it.
We are about 12 hours away from the entrance to the Kiel canal, in Northern Germany. We anticipate spending all of Monday making our way through the canal, reaching the North Sea on the other side by nightfall. At that point, we will be offshore again until making landfall 700 miles later in Portsmouth, UK. The decision was made in Kalmar that our debarkation will take place there, instead of Falmouth, UK, a hundred or so miles further. The culprit for our expedited exit is a faulty head. We now have one working toilet, and Andy wants to haul the boat out of the water after we leave to fix the problem, which can only be done in Portsmouth. For anyone who has owned a boat with an en-suite head, present company included, there is no job more foul and unforgettable then unclogging a stopped-up through hull from fecal matter. I still have nightmares of unclogging mine years ago - an odor I can never un-smell.
So, before I can’t help but drift off to a dreaming state, mid-afternoon, I’m going to make another go at my 1,100 page novel. At page 66, I should be stressing more about the work ahead, but I just can’t. The gentle swaying is just too powerful a sedative to get worked up about anything.
I hope your start to the week is as peaceful as the end of mine.
Update via video today. We head out in a couple hours but this gives a taste of our 18 hour stopover in Kalmar. Will be offshore again en route to Kiel, Germany. Should be there in a day or two. Point of this unplanned stop was to wait for a better weather window, attempt fixing one of the two heads, unsuccessfully, shower, air out the boat and relax. Been a great day following the best night of sleep to date. Two beers helped with that.
We're the Zimmerman Family!
Home Base | Denver, CO
A family of six that
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Set Sail 4.22.23 | Las Palmas - Across the Atlantic - Island of Antigua
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