Olly Wyatt sails from Norway to Scotland, but gale-force winds and on-passage incidents meant he got more experience than he bargained for...

In 34 knots of wind and a North Sea swell nearing mast height, our Nicholson 32 is beating with a momentum most modern cruisers lack. In a sense it isn’t surprising as we weigh in at seven-and-a-half tons. Crashing into a wave, a torrent of deck wash races towards us. Once again I take refuge under the weather hood to avoid a soaking.

Beyond the pitching transom white water trails every wave, but as far as I can see the horizon is free of ships.

Our heading isn’t quite our intended destination of Inverness: against the constant north-westerly we’ll need to tack northwards at some point. With leeway, I suspect our current track will take us somewhere between Newcastle and Hartlepool.

Two hundred miles astern is Norway. I recall our voyage so far…

It started with an email from Tris, who I’d met at an Ocean Yachtmaster course. He needed another crew to bring his Nicholson 32 Oosta back to Scotland after an extended Scandinavian cruise.

Alec, a fellow Nicholson 32 owner, was up for the expedition and Tris wondered whether I was too.

Before agreeing, I went fell running. From the summit the North Sea appeared bleak, and the pelting hailstones should have been a warning. It wouldn’t be plain sailing. On this voyage, I’d be expected to solo night-watch. I hadn’t even night-sailed before. I was keen, though, to experience the ocean first-hand and perhaps, if the distance was great enough, gain the practical element of my Yachtmaster Ocean qualification.

Landing at Stavanger Airport, the tarmac was whipped by a gusty headwind. Norway’s custom of doubling, sometimes tripling the prices we’d expect to pay back home came as something of a shock in the café. A four-hour bus ride took us to Kristiansand, where a quick supermarket dash saw us stocking up with the world’s most expensive cans of beer.

Re-epoxied bulkheads

Arriving at the shipyard gates and opening them by mobile phone, we spotted Oosta dwarfed by the gigantic cranes on the dockside. Tris had named her after Shetland’s most northerly rock, having grown up on the island of Unst where his RAF officer father had been posted to man the radar tracking station. The granite-grey hull was very much in keeping with Oosta’s name, as was something else Tris hadn’t mentioned in the email: Oosta had just been repaired after hitting her keel on a Norwegian rock the previous year!

The saloon still reeked of epoxy, but it didn’t seem to deter the yard owner from joining us below deck.

Over one of our mortgage-worthy cans of beer he celebrated having just signed a contract with Volvo Penta. I was more concerned about sailing in a structurally-compromised boat, and began having flashbacks of some YouTube footage I’d seen. Filmed from a fishing boat, it showed a yacht sinking off North Utsire. However, the yard owner tried his best to reassure me that Oosta’s re-epoxied bulkheads could take on the entire Atlantic, not just the North Sea.

We got to work restoring Oosta to her accustomed glory – unblocking sinks, refitting sails and jackstays, replacing bulbs, changing filters, removing gunk from the fuel tank and scrubbing the decks free of grime. When the temperamental Eberspächer heater finally woke up we celebrated with beers and chasers of Norway’s national spirit, Linie Aquavit.

The drinking, however, put added pressures on the toilet, which had begun to leak. Tris and Alec dismantled the entire unit and re-sealed the base where the shipyard had replaced a broken plinth. On departure day there was only one problem: the insurers hadn’t yet paid the shipyard, and Oosta wasn’t being released until they had. An exchange of emails and phone calls later, everything was thankfully sorted out.

Severe weather warnings

Sailing out of Kristiansand, we downloaded the latest meteorological data. Severe weather warnings had been issued for Forties, North Utsire and Viking, so Tris decided we’d seek shelter in Mandal. That night, while we were moored against the town’s quay, the North Sea was hammered by a Force 9, gusting 10. We would later experience gusts of Force 8, and that was quite enough. Tris’ decision was wise, and I was learning that frustrating choices are often required to make an offshore passage successful.

After breakfast, we found the bilges to be unusually high. Conversely, the water tank was unusually low. While heeling over the day before we must have lost a lot of water, as it was not a problem when level. We guessed the keel impact might have cracked the top of the GRP tank. Fixing it meant lifting the saloon floor. The 40-year-old screws weren’t budging, so more bottled water was purchased as a precaution.

Submerged rocks

Returning from the shops, we noticed a newly arrived British yacht beside ours. Bonaventure, owned by Paul and Liz Jackson, had just come across from Inverness, where we were headed. Invited aboard that evening, we enjoyed a taster of their extensive wine reserves – an essential provision for Scandinavian cruising. Bonaventure like Oosta, it turned out, also had experience of Norway’s many rocks. Over a drink or three, we learned of their previous year’s ordeal and how Norway’s lifeboats had charged them for their services. This made me extremely grateful to the RNLI and all the more keen to get Oosta into British waters.

Come the morning, we left Mandal and set a course for Scotland. The forecast – rough seas, but light-to-moderate south-westerly winds – turned out to be entirely inconsistent with the actual wind, in both direction and strength. It was accurate concerning the sea state, though: once clear of the harbour, harnesses were attached as Oosta was rolling 35° from horizontal. Alec was being sick over one side while I was trying not to fall over the other. Tris, meanwhile, was busy identifying submerged rocks, keen not to repeat Oosta’s earlier indignity.

Engine failure

Harnessed in and wrapped up warm, the crew stick to a solo watch system of two hours on and four hours off

Motoring into the wind to clear the coastal outliers, the south-west corner of Norway became our lee-shore. This became a real danger when the engine cut out unexpectedly. We quickly unfurled the genoa. Putting Oosta into the wind to hoist the main, we were inadvertently tacked by the swell and found ourselves heading towards the lee shore.

Keeping our nerve, we built up boat speed, waited for some flatter waves and tacked Oosta back round. The focus now was beating as close to the wind as possible while still maintaining good speed and a heading to clear the headland of Lindesnes. We figured that the excessive rolling had stirred up the sludge in the fuel tank and this had choked the engine filters.

That was two days ago. Now, another night at sea is imminent. We’re doing two-hour solo watches, with four hours off. This system creates comradeship and binds you together as a crew. You entrust others when you’re asleep and you are solely responsible for them when it’s your watch.

Harnessed to the jackstays

Beyond the pitching transom, white water trails every wave…

Dawn is not quite here, and we’re still sailing close-hauled. I’m trimming the boat against the masthead wind indicator that’s lit up by the red and green navigation lights. The sea is mercurial, the sky starlit. The waves jolt the mast as I spot constellations in the darkness. The Plough I’m almost certain about, the others less so – there are just so many stars. A quick look through the saloon hatch at the AIS radar shows no other ships around. Above deck, the flare stacks from the Forties oil field peek above the horizon when they’re allowed to by the swell.

Dinner this evening is eventful. Plating up, we hear an almighty bang from on deck. Abandoning the spaghetti, we all fear we’ve hit something, but thankfully it’s only the shackle on the mainsail clew giving way. We replace it before dinner is allowed to get cold. This is nothing compared to the night before, though.

Finishing my watch and heading to the forepeak bunk, I noticed the hatch from the foredeck anchor locker had been swept off by a breaking wave. It was hanging on its lanyard over the stanchions and crashing against the hull. We put Oosta hove-to in more than 30 knots and big seas. Harnessed to the jackstays, Tris went to the bow and in the process of re-securing the hatch was soaked to the core, leaving him somewhat below par.

Morning has arrived. The sea is glistening. Gannets swoop around Oosta, entertaining us on the waves. The sun is out and so is Tris’ Soviet–era sextant in the hope that, prior to sighting land, we might be able to complete a sun-run-sun for the Yachtmaster Ocean practical assessment. I know however that we’re going to be quite a few miles short of the 600-mile passage the RYA requires. I’ve constructed alibis of being hit by extreme wind-shifts requiring us to put in two tacks of around 50 miles each, but Tris and Alec aren’t keen. Despite knowing the passage won’t qualify, we suffer the cranial pains of calculating a sun-run-sun astro-navigation fix which turns out to be uncannily accurate. I almost want the GPS to fail so that our efforts might be of some use.

Home waters

Olly and Alec aboard Oosta as she locks into the Caledonian Canal at Inverness

It’s the last day, and while I’ve been asleep Tris and Alec have navigated their home waters up the Moray Firth to Inverness and the Caledonian Canal. Into the sea lock, and two hours later we motor Oosta to her mooring. Yellow broom flowers reflect from the banks. Scotland is certainly greener than when we left, and as we’re reintroduced into civilisation I realise I’ve not showered for five days.

Tris’ wife Annie has brought us fresh coffee and pastries that we complement with the last of the Linie Aquavit. It is, after all, 11 in the morning, and although I didn’t gain my Ocean Practical we have all enjoyed a voyage that will stay with us for many years to come.

Olly Wyatt is the author of an oceangoing novel, The Democrat: www.thedemocratbook.com

Originally published in PBO April 2013