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From the fiords of northern Labrador to the icefields of western Greenland, from the outports of Newfoundland to the tiny fishing villages of Iceland and the Faroe Isles, best-selling author and lifelong sailor Myron Arms chronicles the experience of two-and-a-half decades of voyaging into some of the most remote destinations on Earth.Presented as a series of sixteen personal essays,True North is at once a tale of white-knuckledadventure, a celebration of natural places, and aquest for contact with the planet we ...
From the fiords of northern Labrador to the icefields of western Greenland, from the outports of Newfoundland to the tiny fishing villages of Iceland and the Faroe Isles, best-selling author and lifelong sailor Myron Arms chronicles the experience of two-and-a-half decades of voyaging into some of the most remote destinations on Earth.Presented as a series of sixteen personal essays,True North is at once a tale of white-knuckledadventure, a celebration of natural places, and aquest for contact with the planet we live on. Thought-provoking and environmentally savvy, True North expresses one man's fierce determination "to encounter the natural world, to live deliberately within it, to strive to minimize one's footprint upon it, and to bear witness to it before it is altered irretrievably-before it is lost.Also by the author:Riddle by the Ice: 9780385490931Cathedral of the World: 9780385494762Servants of the Fish: 9780942679298
Overhead the sky is black. The stars shiver in the cold. The air temperature on deck skids down through freezing, with crystals of ice forming where there was moisture just moments before. I hang a kerosene lamp on the headstay of Brendan's Isle and check the anchor before heading below.
In the saloon the diesel heater begins to draw. I join four others around the dinette table, and as the cabin temperature rises, we begin a ludicrous striptease to the rumble of the fire. Layer by layer the outer wear comes off-parkas, heavy oilies, caps, mittens, sweaters, wool trousers, boots, wool boot liners, insulated shirts-all thrown in tumbled piles on the port settee. I am comfortable at last in cotton longjohns and a turtleneck.
The teapot whistles on the galley stove. John twists the cap off a new bottle of Mount Gay rum. He arranges a row of tea mugs on the table and fills them with hot water and rum. He raises his mug in a toast to the crew. Then a toast to the vessel-she sailed fast and dry today. And finally, a toast to the Faroe Isles-may there always be a gentle lee and safe harbor in their fiords.
It is easy to imagine Brendan's Isle at anchor this very night in one of those fiords of the Faroe Isles, perhaps on the island of Streymoy, under the lee of black granite hills. From somewhere outside come the cries of curlews and Arctic terns from their nesting places on the cliffs above. A river sparkling like diamonds tumbles down the rock past phalanxes of sheep grazing in the valley. A pale Arctic sun hovers over the jagged terrain. These are the islands I have dreamed of visiting under sail, islands that the fabled sixth century Irish navigator, Brendan of Kerry, may have visited and named the "Paradise of Birds," islands stark and pristine, that have come to represent for me a remote and irresistibly beautiful wilderness.
These are the islands where our vessel will be anchored, if all goes well, in another six months' time. But tonight is still winter half a world away, and Brendan's Isle lies at anchor near a creek mouth in the Sassafras River, Maryland, after a brisk shakedown sail in the upper Chesapeake Bay. The five who are aboard tonight are the same five who plan to sail the passage to the Faroes (and then, by way of the Shetland Islands, to Scandinavia) next summer. As skipper, I have organized this mid-December crew meeting both to tune the boat and to tune our minds and spirits for the challenges ahead.
As the first and longest leg of a high latitude north Atlantic crossing, the passage to the Faroe Isles promises to be an exciting ride. These sub-Arctic islands lie in latitude sixty-two degrees north, about two hundred fifty miles shy of the Arctic Circle. The most direct offshore route from the northeast coast of the United States to the Faroes will take a small sailboat out past Newfoundland to the Grand Banks, and then, through the certainties of ice, fog, and fast-moving North Atlantic depressions, along a great circle that will curve several degrees southeast of Reykjavik, Iceland, before homing in on Streymoy and the other seventeen islands of the Faroese archipelago.
Trees do not grow in the Faroes. The weather there in June is often damp, windy, and raw. A parade of cold westerly gales and green sub-Arctic seas will chase Brendan's Isle across many of the three thousand sea miles she will need to sail before landfall. The passage promises to be a thorough test of crew, vessel, and gear. The vessel and gear are nearly ready. This evening I want to be sure that each member of the crew is ready as well.
The conversation on deck all day has focused on practical matters-where to lead safety lines for the harness tethers, where to sheet the trysail, how to rig warps astern, how and in what sequence to change down the head rig, where to lash baggywrinkle on the backstays, where to sew chafe patches on the mainsail. Around the saloon table the same kinds of practical concerns dominate the conversation at first. We talk through several options for watch rotation and cooking responsibilities. John, who is the veteran of the group with three previous Atlantic crossings under sail, asks about medical experience. Who can stitch up a gash wound? Set a bone? Administer a needle? Who has taken recent instruction in CPR? Who can serve as dentist?
Kell, my oldest sailing pal and one who has looked forward to this journey almost as long as I have, asks about various responsibilities for maintaining machinery and equipment. Who will be engineer for the diesel? Who will be bosun? Sailmaker? Plumber and electrician? Kell volunteers to bring his scuba gear and be responsible for overboard repairs. I know from other passages we have sailed together that he will also volunteer to be the "monkey man" who goes aloft in the bosun's chair for any needed repairs to the rig while we are at sea.
Andrew, at twenty-two years old, is the second youngest on the crew. He will graduate from the University of Massachusetts this coming spring, and, along with all his formal education in the past few years, he has also managed to gather many thousands of miles of cruising, racing, and offshore delivery experience. He pours himself another rum and hot water and asks a question that has obviously been weighing on his mind. How about food? Who will plan menus? Who will stow the various items so we can find them when we need to?
Everyone laughs, but Andrew remains stone-faced. Food, his expression warns us, is no laughing matter. We need a "steward," he suggests-someone who will monitor menus from week to week and keep the galley stocked from stores hidden in the remote ends of the vessel.
Steve has been unusually quiet all evening, but suddenly he chimes in with a loud second to Andrew's suggestion. Steve is my youngest son and, at sixteen years old, the youngest member of this crew. He is a fine sailor with more experience than most who are many times his age, but I sense that he has been a bit overwhelmed by all the technical conversation. He is normally talkative and relaxed; today he has been preoccupied with silent questions about his own qualifications and mental readiness for the challenges ahead. When he volunteers to be Andrew's "steward," he seems to speak as a novice among seasoned journeymen, deferring to those with more experience in jobs that require specialized skills.
For several months I have been thinking about Steve's role in this undertaking. I want somehow to be sure that if he sails this passage, it will not be just because I have asked him and obviously want him along but because he wants the experience for himself. I remember vivid moments at sea with him when he was a small boy-golden sunrises, sudden encounters with whales and porpoises, long dark nights when he would not leave the helm until the end of his trick. I want to be sure that next summer's north Atlantic marathon is the proper next step for Steve-that it is in sequence, not too much too soon. I want him to be able to grow, as I suspect each of the others on this crew has grown, into an endless desire for seagoing encounter.
The rumble of the diesel fire and the warm rum soon combine to work their magic on Brendan's Isle's five inhabitants. I set my pad and pencil aside and snap off the bright overhead bulb. Kell lights the oil lamps on either side of the dinette table while John and Andrew begin preparations for dinner. Warm, safe at anchor, in the company of shipmates and friends, each feels the ancient atavism, the echo of some preconscious memory, perhaps, of safe haven around a communal fire in the caverns of pre-history. Unhurried, apart from the rest of the world, these are the times for inner searching and reflection.
"All of you should know that Steve and I have been talking pretty seriously about this journey," I say. "About a month ago, I asked him to reconsider-to search his own motives and decide whether he really wants to do this crossing-for his own reasons, not for anyone else's.
"The same goes for all of us. If you have any second thoughts, now is the time to say so."
I glance over at Andrew. "No second thoughts," he says simply.
John speaks up. "Maybe we should think about going even farther north," he says with a grin that reveals several of the broken teeth that he received thirty years ago in a near-fatal fall in the winter Alps. "I mean north around Iceland-the Denmark Strait is usually free of pack ice by late June. If we push north of the circle, we'll see the midnight sun at the solstice. That would be something worth seeing, lads!"
Does John really mean what he is saying? I try to read his expression as he stirs a bag of instant rice into a pot on the stove. I know John well-not just as a friend, but also, more recently, as a teacher. John is a talented shipwright and cabinet-maker. We have just finished twelve intensive months working side by side, as master and apprentice, building the accommodations of Brendan's Isle from a bare hull and deck. That project was something of a marathon in itself, involving more than thirty-five hundred hours of work between us. We talked often and long during those months, and I think I know some of the ghosts and some of the dreams that feed his imagination.
Once upon a time, back in the years when John used to divide his time between yacht deliveries and alpine climbing, he was asked by the legendary Bill Tillman to sail aboard Mischief to Greenland and Baffin Island in the Davis Strait. Tillman's timetable was sufficiently vague that John was away on a yacht delivery when Mischief set off, and he missed an adventure of a lifetime-or so he felt. Now comes another chance to sail north-to see the glow of the northern sun at midnight, to sail with minke whales and bluewhite bergs, to hear the shriek of northern gales in the rigging, to climb into the sub-Arctic hilltops of the Faroes and breathe an atmosphere as frigid and pure as any on this planet.
I know there is no way we can afford the time to detour five hundred miles north around Iceland and also be in the southern Baltic in time for a summer cruise, but I realize John is dead serious when he talks of Iceland and the Denmark Strait.
"I wish we could, John. I wish we had the time."
"Maybe you ought to read that poem of yours again," says John. He refers to a paraphrase of the C.F. Cavafy poem "Ithaka" that I mailed to each of this group in my last crew letter. A copy of this poem is taped right now to the bulkhead near the companionway steps, where it will be framed and hung permanently for the crossing. I ask John to read it aloud if he'd like, as he is standing closest to the stairway. He pauses-then reads the words:
As you set out for Ithaka Ask that your journey be long and hard and full of adventure. Along the way keep Ithaka always in your mind, But do not hurry the journey at all- Better if it lasts for many years. When you arrive, wise and full of experience, You'll find her poor, with not much left to give you. No, she'll have nothing to give you, But she will have given the voyage, And that is something; perhaps that is enough.
"Am I a shameless hypocrite then?" I ask the question out loud. Maybe I am, for I find myself dreaming continually of the Faroes these days. Every time the telephone begins its incessant ringing, every time I glance at another headline about chemical waste or acid rain or a new oil spill somewhere in the world, I find myself focusing on that little cluster of hashmarks on the chart of the North Atlantic as if it were some kind of magical Shangri-La. "Maybe it's just that I am not yet wise enough and 'full of experience,'" I say to John. "Maybe I'll need the voyage itself for that."
"I don't care that much about getting to the Faroes-or Iceland either." Kell is talking now, looking at Steve as he speaks. "For me it's the weeks and months of anticipation, and the satisfaction afterwards-of knowing you've done something challenging and difficult. I've sailed offshore-we all have. It gets long and tedious-days and days of wet sleeping bags and canned soup. But I've never sailed all the way across, and later, when it's all over, I want to be able to say I've done that. I guess, for me, the trip is going to mean one more notch in the gun handle-a big notch-one that I've wanted to put there for a long time."
Kell and I have been friends since our college days, and with him perhaps more than with any of the others, I feel I can read between the lines and translate his metaphor. In school Kell was a natural athlete and a fierce competitor. Winning was important to him because it always had something to do with who he was. When he sailed, he raced-and when he raced (as he did on a national level for several years), he did so with a ferocious concentration, and won.
Seven years ago Kell became the co-founder and part owner of his own computer software business, which is flourishing. In his spare time he has become an accomplished horseman; lately he has been training and riding in endurance events, the longest of which are grueling one-hundred mile rides. He has won several such events in the especially strenuous "cavalry" class, riding the events solo, without any aids to horse or rider.
A year ago Kell ran a marathon and finished. He didn't win. At forty-three years old there was no reasonable chance of winning. But he set a personal goal that would test the limits of his ability, and he achieved his goal. Some of the "notches" in the gun handle have thus become private and personal accomplishments-but they are notches nevertheless, and Kell has always found the wellspring of his tremendous energies in the pursuit of that next "notch."
Andrew looks at Kell with an expression of transparent bewilderment. "You make it sound so mechanical," he says. "Like passing a test for your next merit badge. But it's not that at all, at least not for me." He turns to Steve and seems to struggle to find the right words. "I just want to be out there, to feel the power of it all, the size, the incredible size of things. I want...." He opens his arms in a sweeping, wordless gesture and never finishes his sentence.
Andrew is seven years older than Steve. He has already sailed his way through the rites of passage and into young adulthood. He has worked on a charter schooner, raced to Bermuda, sailed a delivery north from the Bahamas, served as mate several summers on a private yacht. Next month during his January break from college, he will be skippering the delivery of a 32-footer from Beaufort, North Carolina, to the Virgin Islands. He is an addict who craves the sea experience-for its romance, its beauty, its challenge, its simplicity. "A yearning for something genuine in a world of trivialities"-these are partly his sentiments, partly mine. They seem to fit.
And what of my own reasons for wanting to do this voyage? I have been listening to each of the others as intently as Steve, although for a different set of reasons. I will add little tonight to what has been said. I've already sensed in each of the others' motives some part of my own. I want to sail with John for the adventure, with Kell for the feeling of personal achievement, with Andrew for the affirmation of something beautiful and simple-and with Steve, too, if he should decide to come, for the rite of passage into a new sense of self-reliance, competence, and mature adulthood.
A phrase from one of my favorite writers-Joseph Conrad-comes to mind, and this one I do mention to my shipmates. Conrad often wrote of "the fellowship of the craft," and by this he meant two things at once. The "fellowship of the craft" is a universal and unspoken bond among all those who have ever practiced the "craft" of sail and shared its secrets. But it is also the bond of intimacy that forms among the crew of any particular "craft" during the course of a single voyage. It is this second kind of fellowship, born of interdependence, trust, and mutual respect that I will also seek on the way across next summer. I'm certain that the challenges and rewards of a solo voyage are tremendous; but for me, the rewards of a comradery of shared risk and shared accomplishment will always seem far greater.
Excerpted from True North by Myron Arms Copyright © 2010 by Myron Arms. Excerpted by permission.
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