North Sea Crossing

Phil Walton

Royal Northumberland Yacht Club

Millennium Race from Blyth to Mandal

It has been a lifetime ambition to cross the North Sea in a small boat ever since my first time to Norway by ferry forty years ago. My chance came with the Millennium race organised by the Royal Northumberland Yacht Club from Blyth to Mandal on the Southern tip of Norway. I was to be a junior and very inexperienced member of crew on the yacht ‘Bright Eyes of Gourock’, a 41-foot Oyster class built in Norfolk 20 years back. She had won the race once before in 1997.

Brighteyes of Gourock

Brighteyes of Gourock

Passing gulls

Passing gulls

The start at midday on Friday, 28th July was perfect from the Bell Buoy off the river mouth at Blyth, and we sailed in convoy for the first few hours, watching anxiously as gaps opened and closed between yachts. On into the first hours of darkness the navigation lights of other boats were still visible. However, alone in daylight on Saturday, the fair wind started to fade away, and by lunchtime friendly seagulls were paddling past even though we were still under full sail.
The GPS (Global Positioning System) is a wonderful device! Not only does it tell exactly where you are, but it directs you where to go, and even goes on to project when you will get there. After sandwiches on deck, and six more hours admiring the mirror-like water around, someone noticed that our ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) was 23rd September according to the GPS. We were going to miss the party in Mandal! So the engine was started thus disqualifying us from the race.

Wind speed = Boat speed= Zero

Wind speed = Boat speed = Zero

Close encounter with a dolphin

Close encounter with a dolphin

Picking up fair winds again, we sailed on through Sunday. The North Sea is not as empty as it used to be. Once fishing fleets and ferries were the main obstacles; now it is the oil and gas platforms and their attendant guard ships, which get in the way. We were almost perfectly on the GPS track past the spectacular rigs with their flares lighting up the night. And then the sting in the tail!
The marine chart for Southern Norway shows a square round Mandal marked ‘See Note’. The relevant purple comment says ‘Dangerous Waves’. They were! The last leg meant crossing the deep trench against the Norway coastline and approaching the notorious Sgagerak between Norway and Denmark. With breeze from the Northwest rising past 30 knots the wind speed meter failed but continued to increase as the waves became larger and larger. From that direction the blow has an enormous fetch with which to influence the water. Together with the tidal flow out of the Baltic coming against the wind, conditions became the worst that Bright Eyes had endured in the whole of her life. Survival aboard required gymnastics with strength, and night watch at the helm was full of the surprise of waves coming out of the darkness to wash across the deck.

Alex at the helm

Alex at the helm

Mandal

Mandal

The tales of other smaller yachts will be told for years to come. An Albin Express from Blyth suffered the temporary loss overboard of Captain and First Mate. Fortunately the mandatory lifelines let them maintain contact and quickly regain the swamped cockpit. But on another boat a Cockney new to sailing thought conditions were normal, and enjoyed his solo hours at the helm!Eventually dawn broke on Monday morning with a distant view of the Norwegian coast, still with large steep and confused white tops all around. But as we sailed on, the sun chased away the clouds, and Mandal was like a calm oasis in a desert of stormy seas as we dropped our sails and moored on the town quay. We weren’t first, and we weren’t last, but only three out of the nine yachts taking part managed to sail all the way.
‘Vennlig’ is the Norwegian word for ‘kind’ or ‘friendly’. The people of Mandal made us understand the meaning of the word. The prize-giving ceremony took place at a crab barbecue organised for us on the spectacular and historic offshore island of Hatholmen. During days enjoying the hospitality of the town we were given a bus trip to the cast iron lighthouse of Lindesnes overlooking the Sgagerak, free moorings, a fun race with the local sailing club and more barbecues. Not only did everyone seem to speak English, but they wanted to speak it to make us sailors feel very welcome, and the trip worthwhile.

Prize giving

Prize giving

Hatholmen moorings

Hatholmen moorings

 

Some stayed on to cruise the area; some reluctantly flew home to work. Bright Eyes attempted to return but stayed another day to see the start of the town’s Millennium celebrations and to wait for calmer seas. When we did eventually set off for home the hospitality even extended to a visit and a weather forecast from a rescue boat in decidedly lumpy seas as we passed a Norwegian drilling rig.

For our hosts –

‘Tusen takke’

(= A thousand Thanks!)

Tusen takke

Tusen takke!

Comments are closed.