Night passages in the North Sea can be a daunting experience for new crew, as Michelle Segrest discovers
As I prepared myself for my first meeting with the North Sea, I thought about the legend among sailors. There is, it is said, a monster living beneath the North Sea, and it is forcefully breathing in and out. Each breath lasts six hours. The deep breath in is the low tide; the deep breath out is the high tide. Sometimes the monster has a hiccup, and this is called a spring tide.
Rungholt was a Danish harbour city in medieval times that in 1634 became the Atlantis of the North Sea. It was totally sucked away and now sits at the sea’s bottom thanks to these powerful and unforgiving tides.
With a four-day passage ahead, from Heligoland in Germany to Dunkirk, France, I dreaded coming face to face with the North Sea monster. However, our bright orange, 43ft steel yacht Seefalke was built by Dutch designers specifically for these conditions. She’s spent 43 years of her 45-year life sailing the North Sea.
Maik, the skipper, is a calm, matter-of-fact German with more than 20 years’ experience sailing challenging waters. I am the over-emotional American girl from Sweet Home Alabama who has been sailing for only six years. Seefalke and the North Sea are old friends – they get along just fine, but how was I going to cope with the 317-mile voyage with Maik and our two dogs?
We found our weather window last autumn – rare easterly winds that lasted for 82 straight hours – but even with these favourable conditions a voyage across the North Sea is never easy.
We planned to sail a short first leg from the island of Heligoland to Den Helder in The Netherlands. It would require sailing through the night and deep into the next day. For me, this was double-anxiety: my first night watch combined with my first-ever North Sea passage.
I was terrified, but I didn’t tell my skipper.
I prepared the boat for departure, then walked the four-legged members of our crew – our two beagles called Cap’n Jack and Scout – and put on a not-too-convincing brave face.
Since there are only two of us, the watch schedule required that we would rotate from the helm to the bunk every four hours.
We left Heligoland at 0500, 90 minutes into high tide. It was cold and dark, and there was a slight drizzling rain. Lighting our way were only the white lights on the masts of the other ships slowly leaving the marina, one by one, at high tide. It felt like we were in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
As we crept into the black of the North Sea, Maik took the first watch as the pups and I took cover in the cabin below.
My internal clock woke me at 0845, a good 15 minutes before my shift. From below I could see huge waves crashing against the small porthole windows.
We were already being pushed by the heavy current along with about 15- to 20-knot winds and were on a nice 25° heel. We were sailing smoothly at 5 knots, a respectable speed for our heavy, 11-ton, steel battleship.
My main objective was to stay on course, dodge any traffic or buoys, and adjust the sails if the wind shifted. But we also had to deal with a traffic separation scheme (TSS).
All was smooth, at first. The waves were about 3m high. Occasionally, a high wave would splash against Seefalke’s beam and give me a cold, saltwater shower.
I was facing the monster head on, and all was well. I enjoyed the ride and began to bury my fear.
A couple of hours into my watch I looked down into the cabin to see that Maik was sleeping, all nestled with the pups.
This meant he was relaxed and had confidence in me, which gave me confidence in myself.
Sometimes, confidence is a bad thing.
About 30 minutes later, something suddenly awakened Maik. Experienced sailors feel things that simply don’t trigger the senses of novice sailors like me. He sprinted to the cockpit in his underpants and stocking feet, pushed me out of the way, and took the wheel.
Somehow, I had managed to drift over into the TSS. We were flanked by three gigantic ships. I couldn’t understand what I did wrong. I was on the correct heading.
Maik explained to me that the current had pushed us over into the no-go zone. Even though I was on the right heading I’d still managed to drift into the TSS. It’s so easy to underestimate the force of these currents. Perhaps, the bully was playing a mean game with me. Maik turned the ship around, dodging the massive freighters, and got us back on track.
I was beating myself up over this extremely dangerous mistake. The thought of taking the helm again paralysed me with fear. I tucked my tail between my legs and moped into the far corner of the cabin, trying unsuccessfully to repair my wounded pride.
Around sunset, Maik briefed me about the night shift. I was still dealing with my confidence crisis after the TSS fiasco. Not only did I have to think about all the watch responsibilities, but I now had to do this in the black of night. Maik took the first shift, 2000 to midnight.
Nightmarish video game
At 2330, with barely any sleep and filled with a mix of anxiety and determination, I strapped on my lifejacket and slowly climbed the four wooden steps to the cockpit. Maik was exhausted from manoeuvring through the heavy traffic the past four hours. He briefed me, and then went down to sleep.
For some reason, looking through binoculars has always given me a headache. At night, I have even more trouble seeing through the lenses. I could see all the lights around me, but I was having trouble determining if that blob of lights was a ship or a buoy or an offshore rig. OK, that’s a ship, but is it moving, or is it anchored?
I was also having trouble with depth perception. Is that ship right in front of me or is it two miles away? I simply couldn’t tell the difference.
This was frustrating, and making me more nervous.
All I knew for certain was that I was failing miserably at what felt like a terrifying video game. It was totally black, and all I could see were lights of various shapes and sizes, blinking in different sequences, and moving at different speeds. The rules: you have no ammunition, and you cannot fire at a target. You can only play defence. You must dodge all the lights, avoid slamming into anything, and also avoid shallow water areas. Most important, in the night watch video game, you only have one life.
I could see the stationary objects on the paper charts. The plotter screen showed the ships within one or two miles, but only if they were connected to the Automated Identification System (AIS). Once in our path, within a certain range, their icons started blinking and an alarm screeched. On the screen, it looked like the other ship was on top of us, even though it was half a mile away. It showed where the ship would be in six minutes, but not where Seefalke will be in six minutes.
I looked behind me, then to port and starboard. I tried to focus on the various objects through the binoculars and through my own eyes.
Lights were blinking, the alarm was squealing. There was a ship on the screen in front of me but I couldn’t see it in real life. Why was this so hard? Why couldn’t I figure it out! Help!
Suddenly, the lights in front of me got bigger and brighter. There was nothing on my screen that told me what these lights were, nothing I could see clearly through the binoculars or on the chart.
What seemed like only an instant later, the shapes of two ships came into form. I was close enough to them now to identify them as ships and not just lights. I tried to steer Seefalke away from these boats, but the strong current kept pushing us directly toward them.
I panicked and screamed for Maik. He bolted to the cockpit, again in his underpants and stocking feet, and steered us clear just as we were about to slam into the two fishing boats.
When we were clear of danger, he asked me how this happened.
“I really don’t know,” I told him.
He asked if I was using the binoculars. I told him I was, but I was having a hard time seeing through them.
I wasn’t trying to make excuses.
Then I realised something to myself as I said it out loud: “Even if I see the danger, it doesn’t mean I know what to do about it.”
He stayed with me for a little while longer until we were out of the heavy traffic zone. By this time the sun was rising, and I could see better. Maik went back to bed and I just held my breath and gripped the wheel with clenched fists, trying with all my might to mentally make it through the rest of my shift.
While I was feeling battered and beaten by the beastly North Sea, Maik returned to the cockpit at 0500 and calmly took the wheel as if nothing had happened the night before. I waited for him to scold me or lecture me on the two near-fatal mistakes of the previous day. He said nothing.
My disappointment in myself bubbled to the surface, and I burst into tears. I felt completely defeated and incompetent.
I tried to look at him, but my eyes could only find the cockpit floor as I hung my head in shame.
“I think we need to have a serious conversation about whether I’m ready for this,” I told him.
Then, without letting him respond, I went below, collapsed on the bunk, and cried myself to sleep.
A new dawn
I awoke two hours later, made breakfast, and joined Maik in the cockpit. The air was crisp, cold and refreshing. The sapphire sea was spectacular. The water looked as though 50 shades of blue had melted together to form one brilliant hue that was created for our eyes only. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that colour blue before or since.
Maik said the weather was so good we should just keep on going and skip Den Helder. He wanted to take advantage of the easterly winds that were so rare for the North Sea.
This time my eyes found his as I reminded him of my last words before going to bed.
“I may just not be ready for this,” I repeated, this time more emphatically.
My confidence was totally shot. Maik needed a more capable sailor to help him. He can’t do everything. And I can’t do anything.
Then Maik admitted he had done a poor job of teaching me and preparing me. It’s difficult to transfer half a lifetime of knowledge and experience to someone else. I can understand that when something comes so naturally for you, sometimes it’s difficult to break it down into details and teach someone else how to do it.
Maik doesn’t have to think about how to sail. He draws from more than 20 years of experience and just sails.
He reminded me that he makes mistakes, too. Then he said something I’ll never forget.
“You just need experience, baby, and this is how you get it.”
In that moment, I thought about Yvi Habermann, a lifelong friend and experienced German sailor.
She once told me a story about when she was on an 18-month sailing trip with her husband. He was seasick for three straight days while they were sailing the North Sea. The conditions were really rough and she had to take the helm of their 7m boat for three straight days and nights without a break. She told me that in times like that you find out what you are truly capable of doing.
I snapped out of my pity party and asked Maik to teach me. I focused on asking good questions and not relying on him to remember to teach me every detail. I took responsibility for my own education.
I was on a mission. I practised for my night watch all day long. He challenged me and quizzed me with each oncoming vessel. He showed me how to measure the distance and how to tell if the ship was coming or going. I was determined.
Maik then reorganised the watch schedule. He no longer based it on time intervals. Rather, he based it on the situation. He would take the difficult, high-traffic shifts. I would take the longer, easy, open-ocean slots while he rested. Instead of switching at a certain time, I would wake him when I got to a certain waypoint, and we’d assess the situation together to determine whether I should keep going or if he should take over.
That night, Maik took an early shift and got through another TSS. Then he woke me and spent about half an hour briefing me. “There are two key contacts right now,” he said. “Tell me what they are.”
I looked through the binoculars and did a perimeter check. I identified every light.
“That’s a buoy. That’s a ship that’s not moving, so it’s anchored. That’s a huge wind park.”
I began to see things clearly.
“That’s a sailing boat under motor that’s going away from me.”
I did this with every single light in the perimeter. Then I identified the two key contacts.
Growing in confidence
I felt confident. Maik went down to sleep. I carefully did my checks every 10 minutes. I’d check my eyesight against what I saw through the binocular lens, then I’d check the paper chart to see if the object was already identified. At 0400, everything was clear. I was so wide awake I don’t think I was even blinking. I realised I’d safely made it through dozens of obstacles, but now there were none. Not one. Seefalke and I were all alone on open water.
I looked down into the cabin. Maik was all cuddled with four velvety beagle ears in his face, sleeping soundly. I let him sleep and extended my shift. Around 0530, the North Sea began to wake up, so I woke Maik.
He told me he finally got some deep sleep. I was proud. I had done my job. I kept us safe, and I let my skipper sleep.
We decided to continue to take advantage of the weather and favourable winds and kept going. I continued to practice for my night watch, trying not to exhaust Maik too badly with my barrage of questions. I was beginning to feel like a real sailor and not just a random first mate tagging along for the ride.
We passed some of the largest shipping ports in the world – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp. Our course was now set for Dunkirk, the last port in the North Sea right at the entrance of the English Channel.
The remainder of the passage would be complicated. We needed to manoeuvre through traffic separation schemes, tons of buoys, large busy ports, and – as a bonus – some areas with low water levels. This would be a long night for Maik if he took all of the heavy load.
I took my shift at 1800 and continued through to the first waypoint. Rather than fear the night watch, this time I decided to embrace it.
There is something special about that moment when the sun disappears behind the horizon. It’s not yet dark, but it’s not daylight any more either. Some of the anchored ships begin to light up like Christmas trees and others look like ghostly shadows in the distance. The only sound is the waves.
I performed my checks, surveying the perimeter every 10 minutes. I identified every light. Soon, everything was black.
When you are floating on the water, you don’t really see the world around you fade to black. For a while, you see all the colours left over from the sunset – orange, pink, red, yellow. The water changes colour, too. At first, it’s a brilliant blue. Then it softly fades to a silvery grey.
At some point it becomes black as coal – like the sky. It is so black that sometimes it’s difficult to see where the sky stops, and the water begins. But you can still hear the waves. On this night, there were millions of stars lighting the way.
It was so quiet and peaceful I could barely remember why I’d been so afraid.
At times, Seefalke would talk to me. A sail would flap. Her bones would creak a little, a sound kind of like when someone steps on a loose, wooden floorboard.
I could hear the waves lapping against her body and echoing throughout her steel hull. I like to think she was letting me know I wasn’t alone.
She is here to protect us – our bright orange bodyguard. I felt as safe as a baby in her mother’s womb. In return for her protection, we keep her in deep waters. We steer her away from obstacles. We show her the way home, and she takes us there – safely and securely.
Maik took over at midnight and brought us into the morning. He had a tough night with hundreds of obstacles to negotiate. I wished I could help more. But this was the plan, and it was working.
As the sun began to rise after our last night shift in the North Sea, we made our approach and safely moored at Dunkirk.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the beating I took from the North Sea would later help me through even tougher battles in the Bay of Biscay and on a three-week Atlantic crossing.
I can look back now and thank her for the lessons, the experience, and the scars that will stay with me forever.
About the author
Michelle Segrest has been a professional journalist for 30 years. She is a mother and a proud Southern girl from Alabama who loves travelling, tennis, and sailing. Read about her sailing adventures at sailorsandseadogs.com. She is the co-author of the eBook, How to Sail with Dogs –100 Tips for a Pet-Friendly Voyage.