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An English Girl’s Guide to Norwegian Sailing

By Samantha Joy Firth
10th October 2003

Right now, I am tucked up in bed writing by candlelight. Earlier today, there was a gas explosion in my village. No one was killed, but a few were injured, and half the village is now in blackout. Without electricity my heating doesn’t work. Thank god for laptops. I have three hours battery power, thick woolly socks, a large glass of wine, and a bar of chocolate to keep me warm.

Sam before arrival in Puerto Rico, Gran Canaria

Stories are very important to me and it was a story that brought me to the Rozinante; a story about anger and love. The story below is about discovering new things, making new friends, and maybe a little bit about life and death. Some of it will end up in the story about anger and love, and other bits will turn up in the stories that I’m yet to write, so I’m thankful to the Rozinante and its crew.

By the time I arrived in Lisbon bus station, I had already been travelling for fourteen hours. It never struck me how ridiculous it was to travel for so long, just to save myself sixty pounds (how much it would have cost to fly to Lisbon at a reasonable hour). On the journey, I listened to two divorced London coach drivers discovering that their sons went to the same school. I slept beside a rubbish bin on Luton airport floor. I explored Faro’s small and pretty marina; I watched a dog piss inside a cafe and its owner clean it up. I learnt that in Portugal buses go twice as fast as trains.

I texted Paul-André several times during the journey; I didn’t want to say when I would arrive because I didn’t believe this last statement was be true. Each time, I contacted him I contemplated casually mentioning that I was a girl. The closer I got to the being on the boat the more certain I was that nobody had told them. Before I left, my friends had laughed at the possibility that these Norwegian strangers thought I was a man. They told me that women were bad luck on boats. Then they laughed some more. As I sat on the steps of the bus station, I knew it was too late. I was a victim of my own stubbornness, a throw back from my angry young women’s officer days. Why should it make a difference if I was a girl or a boy? Because it helps people to recognise you if they have never met you before.

Raggy watching the police parade outside the marina.

I had told Paul-André exactly where I was and I was the only English person in the whole street, let alone the steps of the bus station, yet Paul looked straight at me and turned away. I called over and enjoyed how surprised he looked. I enjoyed it because he didn’t look disappointed, just surprised. Staale and Ragnar were equally surprised when they saw me. But then so was I. I had seen the pictures of Paul, Ragnar, and Staale on before leaving Britain and briefly read what they had said about themselves. None of it had sunk in and none of them looked anything like their pictures. Instead of pale scary Norwegians in big woolly hats, I was met by two of the blondest, tannedest men I have ever seen.

It was clear that the boys were desperate to leave. After a brief tour, I was left alone with the Rozinante. I liked her already. She seemed solid, and friendly; just like all the Norwegian’s I had met before. She was as full of wood as a boat should be and she was big. She even had a private loo. I would be thankful for this later on in the trip. It was the one place you would not be disturbed. A few times, I went and sat there just because I could, knowing men usually assume that all girls take ages in the toilet - another time it makes a difference being a girl.

One of the magnificent bridges with Jesus posing.

Within three hours, the Rozinante was motoring under the same magnificent bridges I had arrived on (From directly below you could see the cars moving on the bridge). There was no turning back. I reassured myself that if things didn’t work out it would make good material for my story. I didn’t need to worry.

Once out of Lisbon harbour the boys set up sail. They were swift and efficient. I wanted to help but the best thing I could do was to stay out of their way. A soon as the sail was up they begun looking concerned. Even though they were talking in Norwegian, I knew something was wrong. I found out later that the rigging had failed. If they left the sail as it was it could come down at any point damaging the boat and us. The decision was made quickly taken to bring the sail back down. I tried to hide my disappointment that we wouldn’t be sailing and couldn’t help remember the jokes my friends had made about women bringing bad luck.

Staale went below deck and returned with some calculations, we had enough fuel for five point eight days and the journey would take six. He smiled as he told us this enjoying the irony. For now, we would continue motoring. I didn’t know at this point that Staale and Ragnar always have a plan for fixing things.

Instead, I tried to accept the situation and get to know the boys.

As soon as we were sitting down, Ragnar told me about his and Staale’s change of plan, they were no longer doing a year around the Atlantic but three years around the world. Ragnar’s excitement summed him up. Ragnar is the enthusiastic chilled out person I have met.

For most of the trip, Paul enjoyed firing the names of hundreds of American films at me that I should have seen but hadn’t, and then telling me how much I was missing. I came to think of it as a kind of Sam-bating. I am still expecting to receive a comprehensive list of films he recommends.

Staale on the other hand, said so little to me at first that I assumed he didn’t speak much English. This is, of course, completely wrong. I later realised that he just didn’t make conversation for the sake of politeness. I grew to have a lot of respect for Staale. He was a consummate captain and I felt very safe in his hands. He also has a natural aptitude for command. This was true even on land. When he told me to shut up, I did without complaint. My friends will know what a remarkable achievement this is; for me it usually has the opposite effect.

Seasickness is a weird thing. It creeps up slowly and catches you unawares. As darkness drew in, I found myself shivering. I couldn’t tell whether this was sickness or the cold. All I knew was that I did not want to move. Thankfully, Paul noticed and fetched me a jacket. It was the warmest jacket I have ever put on. I could have stayed up all night in that jacket. Paul told me the one rule of sailing was not to be cold. Later Staale corrected him. The one and only rule of sailing is not to fall in. After several nights at sea contemplating the thick dark water and the possibility of ever being found, I came to understand why. If you looked out to sea even in daylight, it was hard to see anything on the surface past a few waves. Staale told me about his accident between Denmark and Norway. Another sailboat had watched him go down, but lost sight of him in minutes. He also told me about the sailors who lost their cat and sailed back for seven hours looking for it. Miraculously they found it and so we coined a new phrase. Instead of a needle in a haystack, a cat in an ocean.

Despite feeling ill and a little cold, the night sky was ‘fantastisk’, as they say in Norway. I will never get over what the stars look like away from London, away from artificial light. I don’t think I had ever seen them properly until I was eighteen when I moved to the country to live in a commune. I spent four months singing to cows for the milk and looking at the stars. Even in that environment, I was seen as a bit dreamy. In the sea, it’s even better. That is, as long as you didn’t look at the mast, which swung about sickeningly in the sky. Every night the Milky Way appeared as a big starry blanket and not an inch of the night was empty. That night I saw so many shooting stars I had to repeat my wishes. After a couple of nights, I was better prepared and had a stack of wishes ready.

The first night, getting into bed was so difficult I didn’t even bother to put my pyjamas on, clean my teeth, or even take my contact lenses out. This behaviour is usually confined to when I am drunk. It’s a similar feeling. I had been told to arrange my bags around myself wedging myself in, which I did tentatively at first. It wasn’t long before I was woken by the motion and moved them much closer. I got so used to being surrounded by bags that a week later on dry land I would wake up and feel as though I was going to roll off the bed without them. Sometimes I woke and I was actually precariously close to the edge. I had been rolling about in my sleep. It was a strange sensation. I think my body missed being at sea.

That night however was a restless one. I was aware, of the boats motion, made worse by lack of sail, and of the boys changing shifts and moving around the boat. By the end of the week, I was amazed at what I could sleep through. But something else kept me awake. Half asleep I could hear the water around me. While awake I knew that the boat was solid, but half dreaming my imagination took over. I imagined being engulfed in this small, enclosed space and drowning in the company of strangers, in deep, deep water where I would never be found, in the cold and the dark.

When I awoke, the queasiness had gone and I felt warm safe and secure. The night before I had seen the boys cleaning their teeth using no water and I felt a little guilty as I lent over the sink. I tried to remember what we did in Africa where water was also in short supply. I remembered that we used to try and do it standing on one leg, that wasn’t much use now. I also remembered that I used to be able to wash my whole body in half a litre of water, including my hair. Washing was an issue. There was a shower on the boat, but I had no idea how it worked. It took me a day to realise that the water went straight through the floor. Instead, I imagined myself climbing into the sink and crouching there. Thankfully, it never got to this point. The first night Staale strung a ladder over the edge of the boat and climbed in for a ‘bath’. I was under the impression that this is exactly the kind of thing you shouldn’t be doing on a moving boat at sea. Another approach was fetch buckets of seawater and pour them over oeself, a ‘sea shower’. It was a few days before I worked my way up to this, but when I did, it was lovely. There is nothing like sitting on a boat in the middle of the ocean covered in nothing but soap and seawater. I’m sure solo sailors must be tempted to stay naked all the time. On the first morning I was still a little timid however and opted for a quick wash in the sink. I didn’t know the water would take two days to drain away.

Raggy prepareing to climbe the mast.

By mid morning, there was much talk of ‘the plan’. They were not going to give up on sailing and Ragnar was preparing to climb the mast and make an alternative rigging out of rope. I was very impressed by this and watched a little concerned as he swung about in the air. It seemed no time before Raggy had fixed an impromptu rope rigging and was back on deck with some impressive bruises. I can’t remember whether it was at this point that I made my first round of tea for the boys, or whether I just had the urge to do so. Being below deck was still a little uncomfortable so I imagine it was the latter. Tea making is very British and. I think the boys thought I was a little strange with my constant brewing but, as far as I am concerned, if you have been up a mast for half an hour, whatever your nationality, you deserve a cup of tea. After a well-deserved rest, the sail went up and in no time, we were sailing. The plan had worked. It was only later I found out that there is always a Plan B.

It was quite early on that bread making was mentioned, and when I saw the photos of their earlier attempts, I understood why. I probably shouldn’t have laughed, but I did. Yes, I could make bread, and as soon as I could spend more than ten minutes below deck, I promised to do so. I love cooking for people. In the meantime, I ate the super noodles I was given and tried not to make a fuss about the raw onions in the spaghetti bolognaise. I usually wait until I know people quite well before mentioning Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it doesn’t conjure particularly pleasant images especially when you are in the small confines of a boat. So I said something weak about getting stomach upset and was glad they let the matter rest. I was sure at this point, they thought I was a total wuss and I got the same look from Staale when I went down to get the lovely jacket I had worn the night before. I wasn’t actually that cold, but I couldn’t say I was just wearing it for the comfort of sitting in a big mans jacket, how girly was that?

On the second morning I woke early after a comparatively good nights sleep. As soon as Ragnar saw movement, he came bounding downstairs. He had caught a fish. When I came on deck, I saw what he was excited about, as the photos show, it was the biggest, ugliest, fish I had ever seen. Ragnar showed me the fish guidebook, which said ‘edibility: excellent’. Hoorah! Luckily, he had already gutted it already, but I was surprised that he wasn’t as sure how to fillet it. So, after watching for a bit I plunged in with the knife and got my hands dirty for the first trip. It felt good to be doing something useful and practical. For the first time, it felt like there might be a place for me on this boat and the guidebook was correct, the fish was ‘edibility excellent’; it lasted for three meals.

Tackling the fish gave me the confidence to start on the bread and we ate very well that day. The boys were impressed by the amount of kneading I did. I didn’t tell them that I hadn’t used enough water. Usually it takes me half as long. But the bread rose, tasted good, and went very quickly, which with boys is always a good sign. Being on a boat gives cooking an added dimension, nothing can be left out on the surface, and you must always find a way of wedging yourself solid so you don’t fall on your face. In retrospect, I might have cooked a few things differently. There was still a large stain on the oven left from an oversized pizza I cooked when I left the boat.

The rest of the trip was plain sailing. The wind was behind us so we caught it and flew. I cooked something different everyday and enjoyed the pace at which you have to do things on a boat. I alternated between dozing, reading The Life of Pi, and thinking about my other story. I got to know the boys favourite music and learnt to count in Norwegian as well as say a few rude words. I even learnt a couple of knots. At night, I would make hot chocolate and watch the stars. Every day the sea got bluer and every night the air got warmer.

I can’t remember when it was that Staale gave up wearing trousers and started walking around in just his pants, but this was the beginning of a slow trend amongst the boys on the boat. Ragnar followed shortly after, and by the time the Canaries were in sight, they were all permanently in their pants and nothing else. Had I been on the boat a while longer, I may well have joined suit!

Most of the drilling equipment on this oil rig named "Stena Tay" are designed by National Oilwell Norway (Hydralift)(Staale's employer), we observed it 50 n.m west of Lanzarote in operation at 3500 meters depth.

The boys were blasé about seeing dolphins, they had seen so many, but I was sad that they hadn’t joined us much on this trip. On the first day, they had briefly passed us but since then there had been very little wildlife. I think it was the fourth day they appeared and played around the boat. It was truly magical. The wait was worth it. They seemed to know the boat wasn’t just made of wood, that there were people inside.

As the trip went on I noticed a difference between Paul and Staale/Raggy’s approach and I could see why they were parting ways. Paul liked his home comforts; he had a favourite seat and even favourite pockets. For him sailing was about having fun and he was heading for Syden, sun, sea, sand, and relaxation. Raggy and Staale on the other hand were far more serious about what they were doing. This was life and death for them.

When we finally approached land, Raggy began to wax lyrical about Swedish girls and this became an ongoing topic.

We came ashore and the concentration, and sobriety of being at sea for a week exploded into mayhem. Three of us went on the rampage. We were in British package holiday hell so we did our best to out drink the best of the British lager louts. Being was disorientating and the drink didn’t help. I ended up dancing in my bare feet in a filthy inch of beer before singing Radiohead at the top of my voice all the way home ‘caaalll the poli-eee-ce arrest this maa a an....’. Luckily, no one else can remember this.

Paul steering the boat towards Puerto Rico.

The rest of the week in Gran Canaria was a little quieter. It took us only one night to exhaust the possibilities of Puerto Rico, and discover that there were no bars full of Swedish girls (or handsome Scottish men). After walking around for a day, I concluded that British people aren’t that attractive, at least not the ones that come on package holidays in the Canary Islands. I tried hard not to be embarrassed by my fellow countrymen.

One night I cooked Steak in Norwegian Pøpper Sauce and we stayed below deck watching films and eating chocolate. It was a perfect girls night in, except with boys. I don’t know what the temperature was but we looked like American trailer trash sprawled on the sofas, the boys in their pants and me with my dress hitched up and unbuttoned - it was too hot to be shy. I had nearly joined the ranks of the men in pants.

The last few nights we drank lots of Gin and Tonic, which sounds a lot more civilised than it was. The gin was cheap and flowed much quicker than the tonic. These nights I stayed up until the early hours laughing at Staale and Raggy’s stories and pictures. These were good nights and during them, I learnt more about Staale and Raggy than I had all the while at sea. I began to find these two young men inspiring. Their approach to life was to live it to the full. They saw obstacles as challenges and challenges as opportunities to learn. Most of all they cared about each other in a way that most young men are too afraid to show. I wondered whether Staale’s brush with death was the reason for some of this. I’m sure it was. Later I thought about my nearest comparable experience and whether it had changed me. When I was, eleven I fell head first towards some rocks and remember thinking I was going to die. In the end, I had to walk eight miles before getting stitched up at hospital. When I think about it, I was less afraid after the accident, of everything, especially death. It must be like this for Staale even more so.

The final night of drinking was the night Staale left. I was too far-gone to stay awake and crashed before I could say goodbye or thank him properly, but long goodbyes are probably not his style. Nor any of the boys for the matter.

I am embarrassed to say I left the boat owing quite a large sum of money after loosing a ridiculous bet on Greenwich meantime (English arrogance!). I am hoping if I pay them back, they will waver my fees next time I am on the boat. In the meantime I plan to send them a good book about philosophy and fixing things and if they are lucky some proper English tea.

The rest of my holiday is another story involving my friend Tania, an Anglo Indian hotel owner, and some hairpin bends in thick fog (on the wrong side of the road). I got back yesterday, and after the Canary Islands, England seems very cold.

Staale back in Norway..

Back here tucked up in bed the power cut reminds me of my childhood. My sister and I used to pray for a natural disaster to provide excitement in our lives. A flood was our favourite, but a power cut would have done. I have learnt over the years that you can choose to wait for something to happen, which sometimes works or you can go and find your own adventure, which is exactly what Staale and Ragnar have done.