In a sense we’re all beginners. At least we feel we are until we’ve gained enough experience and knowledge to find out that there’s so much more to learn.
So here we are. The beginners. We crossed oceans and sailed further than we thought we’d ever dare. When we started our long journey we were coastal sailors with no experience of the challenges and trials of long distance passages. Yes we’d read, yes we’d watched and yes we’d prepared. So we set sail. We left, on our big journey. Our big journey with our beginners mind. We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into, so we just got ourselves into it.
We sailed from Norway to Sweden to Denmark. Across Skagerrak and Kattegat. Motored through the Kiel canal. Washed down the Elbe estuary through the churning currents and out to the north sea. We negotiated the narrow channels of northern Holland. Sailed the English Channel and down the coast of north-west France. The tidal differences through Europe were quite fascinating and quite complicated. Nothing we were familiar with sailing in Scandinavian waters. Spring tide, neap tide, high tide, low tide, ebb and flow, the moon, the wind, the waves and currents. A system of sorts. A system that we tried to understand and get to know. It all matters. It all comes to play. It all makes sense in a strange and chaotic way.
We left Norway with an open mind. A curious mind. A mind lacking experience.
We fixed and upgraded our boat in almost every marina and every stop on the way. We learned that we should continue to push on for the dreaded Bay of Biscay. We loved northern France and would’ve liked to spend more time there, but we knew we should cross Biscay and arrive in northern Spain way ahead of the autumn storms. All the choices that had to be made! All the knowledge that had to be gained. All the planning, the thinking, the learning. In the beginners mind all is possible. We pushed ourselves and we sailed on. As we did so we gained more and more confidence, experience and knowledge. A natural progression of sorts.
Something common for us all are the mentors we meet on our way. At work, at school, in every day life. There’s always someone with knowledge and experience exceeding ones own. Thanks for that! This also holds true to sailing. Journeying in the simple and complex way of wind, wave and sail. The many sailors we’ve met on our way have been so friendly, so kind, so sharing. Always willing to help and share their knowledge and experience. The Norwegian sailors, the Swedish, the Danish, the English, the Dutch, the Germans, Spanish, Italians, Canadians and of course the crazy French sailors. Gratitude to you all! A sailor once said: “Yes, I helped you today. Maybe someone will help me tomorrow?” The mentors we met gave us the courage to push on. The courage to continue our progression in becoming sailors that can cross oceans and sail to distant shores. We all need mentors in our lives. The gratitude one feels of being helped and helping is strong in us all. Maybe we’re all mentors in a way?
We crossed The Bay of Biscay and arrived in La Corūna in the beginning of September. Our sense of achievement was gratifying as we sailed through the morning mist of northern Spain. Our children weren’t traumatised, we weren’t traumatised and none of us were scared out of our minds. Exhausted? Yes, but we did it! We patted ourselves on our backs, got some well earned rest and sucked in the beauties of Galicia. Eventually we continued our journey down the coast of northern Spains Costa del Muerto (the coast of death) and continued on to Portugal and The Algarve coast. A couple of days before we rounded the Cape Sao Vicente we were put to the test. The Atlantic ocean gritted it’s teeth. The wind and waves were greater than we’d ever experienced.. Our autopilot couldn’t cope with the heavy seas and we were overpowered under too much sail. I climbed on deck to the mast to set a reef (reduce the mainsail). Cathrine took the helm. I remember the towering waves chasing behind us and I was certain the boat was about to be swamped. I set in a reef and hollered to Cathrine who probably couldn’t hear me in the howling wind: “You can do this. Yoohuuu! Steer her like never before!!” We were small and fragile in the majestic waves. Cathrine steered, while I struggled at the mast to reduce the sails. Yet again we were reminded to trust our seaworthy sailboat. The children were strapped on with safety harnesses and the sails were set correctly to the weather. We rode the waves beautifully. Eventually the harsh weather calmed down and we continued on to Cape of Sao Vicente. The southern tip of Europe. The last outpost before Africa. We rounded the Cape at 6 o’clock in the morning in a breathtaking sunrise. I was alone on watch. Cathrine and the children were down below sleeping. I felt that we had reached a point that might prove us worthy of sailing to distant shores. It was a special moment. A moment of achievement. I said to myself: “We are all captains now”.
Three weeks passed on the beautiful Algarve coast in southern Portugal. Time spent with lovely friends visiting from Norway. Time spent making new friends. Time spent on the beach. Time spent homeschooling the children. Time spent learning how to fix bilge pumps and exhaust manifolds. Sailing and the realities of the sea seemed to distance itself, but after a while we felt a sense of restlessness and the urge to push on. The next leg of our journey was a natural progression. Our longest passage to date, from Portugal to The Canary Islands. Yet again we started questioning our abilities, our commitment. We left Portugal with mixed feelings about ocean passages. We looked forward to what lay ahead, but we also dreaded what might lay ahead. It’s probably a lot like getting on stage in front of an audience. Butterflies. Oh those butterflies. Won’t they ever just flutter and fly away?
We sailed out from Portimao, Portugal and set course for Lanzarote. Africa to the east and the vast Atlantic to the west. The sea was moderate, but still it took some time getting used to the sea. Off to sea once more. We were all a bit queasy the first day, but eventually we got used to the motion and the mood of the sea and settled into our routines. Sailing, navigating, eating and sleeping. We adapted to the motion of the boat and the motion of the sea. Our sea legs were set. The conditions varied and we sailed through a number of low pressure systems. Lightning striking the sea on the horizon at night can be somewhat overwhelming in all of it’s raw beauty.
We sailed conservatively and steadily towards Lanzarote day after day, night after night. It was a bit rough at times, but not that rough. Towards the end of the passage we had that feeling of accomplishment, of mastering what we had set out to do. The day before we reached Lanzarote we noticed a change in the air. The sea transformed into a magic silk carpet of crimson blue, and we were becalmed. What else to do than to stop for a swim in the great abyss, far out at sea?
A butterfly, a Red Admiral, landed on our boat and spent some time with us. Perching on our hands, resting on our boat. She was there to remind us that those butterflies never go away. They’re always there. We just have to live with them. Learn to live with those butterflies.
The following night of our passage the for-warned change came upon us. I was on watch and the winds picked up again. The sails filled with air and Katja glided beautifully through the waves under a full moon and clear skies. We could sea the contours of land far on the distant horizon. After a while I started noticing black clouds approaching the Islands ahead. I didn’t really give it much concern until the wind suddenly died. The horizon lit up with lightning. Then thunder. The combination of a full moon and black clouds gave an eery feeling. Something was definitely in the air. I woke Cathrine and had her come up to help me evaluate the situation. We were about 5 hours off Lanzarote when we saw lightning and thunder swallow the Islands to the west. The bad weather was headed strait towards us. We couldn’t sail away because we had no wind. Not good, not good at all. Cathrine called the coast guard over VHF radio to try to get an update on the weather situation. No luck there, only bad news in Spanish. “Thunderstorm and heavy winds about to approach. We advise heading for shelter”. I started the engine and gave Katja full speed ahead towards the coast. Eventually we were within 4G range of land. Messages started ticking into our phones. We checked the weather and it didn’t look good. The vast Canary Islands were about to be struck by massive thunder and lightning.
We braced ourselves and threw all our mobile phones and electronic gadgets into the stove in case we were struck by lightning. The energy of the weather system was intense, but we just had to push on through. The thunder and lightning intensified. The winds and waves picked up and the rain poured down upon us. After 5 hours of motor-sailing we arrived in Arrecife, Lanzarote, at 6 am in the morning. It was pitch black, the wind howling, the rain bucketing down and the lightning striking all around us. It’s amazing we didn’t get struck and even more amazing that our children slept through the whole ordeal. We docked Katja onto a pontoon in the soaking rain and when I turned her engine off she coughed and coughed as if to tell us she was tired and needed some rest. We all needed some rest.
Arriving in Lanzarote gave us a sensation of having sailed far. We were there at last, on foreign shores far south in the Atlantic.
We stayed in Lanzarote for a long time. The reason being engine trouble and we had to wait for spare parts. Things take time in Spain and the long six weeks living in the marina wore on us. We started questioning ourselves and the trip ahead. Maybe enough was enough? All the fixing, the insecurity. Is this what we were seeking? Living in a marina week after week? Waiting for spare parts and being dependant on other people to help us fix things? We didn’t have to cross vast oceans. Couldn’t we simply turn around and head back north. No more big challenges. No more insecurity. No more seasickness. No more fixing stuff that breaks. Our children responded to our doubtfulness and insecurity with: “NO!”, “WHAT?”. “We thought we were sailing to the Caribbean?”. “Why not?” “Is it that difficult to cross the Atlantic in a sail boat?” , “It can’t be that difficult?”. The child’s mind. A beautiful mind. The mind where all is possible.
We felt their disappointment. We felt our disappointment. We were aware of the challenges that lay ahead if we continued, but also the joys and excitement. Maybe our doubtfulness was proof of our gained experience and our gained knowledge? We discussed our options realistically and finally we agreed to continue on our adventure. We sailed to the beautiful beaches of Fuerteventura. Sailed the currents of the Canaries. Eventually we arrived in Las Palmas where we planned to fix and prepare Katja for her longest passage to date.
We left on our journey to the Caribbean via the Cape Verde Islands on 19th of December, knowing we would spend Christmas at sea, off the coast of Africa somewhere. Somewhere under African skies and the fine red dust of the Sahara desert filling the air above us. We knew we had to sail far and wide for weeks on end. We set sail, and left to cross the great Atlantic Ocean.
How can you learn something you already know? People lacking knowledge can always learn something. All knowledge starts with ignorance.
In the beginners mind, all is possible.