Annapolis to Iceland. This was the voyage facing me, our crew, and our Farr 65 Falken this summer—3,000 miles that I knew would be challenging. The trick would be to make it look easy. The essence of seamanship is in fact just this, making the difficult look easy, making the extraordinary routine, and while any successful voyage is 90% preparation and 10% execution, anticipation and adaptation are integral to that math and that “easy” outcome.
Anticipation leads to proper planning and preparation. Cold weather? Pack thermals. Ice and fog? Install a good radar, learn how to use it. Challenging weather conditions? Learn how to really read and understand weather models ahead of time.
Anticipation, in other words, can be learned, and it’s critical to that preparation stage. You can study weather models, attend a radar course, speak to folks who’ve gone before, read all the books, etc. The idea that you can just go out there and wing it, figure it out as you go—the Captain Ron school of seamanship, “If anything’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen out there!”—well, I think that’s foolish. Do the work ahead of time. Learn to anticipate.
Adaptation then happens at the execution stage. No matter how well you anticipate, you’ll encounter surprises. A weather forecast won’t accurately model the real conditions on deck. Fog will roll in just as you need the visibility to navigate to a new and tricky landfall. Adaptation happens in the moment. Adaptation must be earned.
Falken’s summer was divided into three passage legs: Annapolis to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; Lunenburg to St. John’s, Newfoundland; then St. John’s to Isafjordur via the Prins Christian Sund fjord system in southern Greenland. The challenges would get steeper as we sailed north and east. Increasing fog, unreliable weather forecasts, ice as we approached Greenland, and colder and colder temperatures. Not to mention that each leg would bring a new crew to Falken with varied experience, and we were on a fixed and tight timeline to boot.
By now, nine seasons and well over 100,000 miles into running trips with 59º North, the anticipation part of the equation is second nature. For this Greenland passage specifically, I felt an added sense of confidence after having already sailed in high latitudes on Isbjörn in 2018 when we got to 80º North in Spitsbergen. Back then, all the anticipation was entirely learned—I’d never been there before. But going to Greenland, I could anticipate the conditions in a different way. I’d done it before. I knew what an iceberg would look like on a radar screen, and I’d gotten comfortable sailing in the fog.
Anticipation can become predictable. Adaptation, by definition, is never predictable.
We had our only real “sea story” of the entire summer when, on departure from Greenland as we were motoring out of the fjord with the mainsail set at one reef, our photographer, James, came out from the cabin and asked if I had noticed that half the electrical panel at the nav station was blacked out.
I rushed below to find the 24V house panel completely blank; the switches were still on, but there were no lights. No refrigeration. No heat. No propane solenoid. And on. It was 0430 and we were heading out into a pronounced swell on what was looking to be an upwind-all-the-way passage to Iceland.
I began troubleshooting while James and crew piloted Falken back into the shelter of the bay we’d been anchored in. We adapted.
I hadn’t noticed this in the cockpit because none of my navigation equipment went out. All the instruments were functioning, nav lights were on, the radar was still picking up targets from the icebergs offshore. This was by design, anticipated—Falken has a robust Lithionics lithium battery system installed with several redundancies should the lithium system, inherently more fragile than lead-acid, black out. While all the house loads run from the 24V lithium system, the “mission critical” navigation electronics and the engine start batteries are AGM lead-acid, running on a totally separate grid and isolated from the house lithium bank.
As it turned out, the issue wasn’t with the lithium system at all, it was simply a blown fuse caused by a prior chain jam in the electric windlass that we hadn’t noticed in the commotion of departure. A couple quick checks with the multimeter and I quickly found the popped fuse, replaced it with a spare and we were back in business. A successful adaptation to the situation.
The wind continued to build through our second day at sea, as we expected it would (anticipation again). By dinnertime on that second night, we were down to two reefs in the mainsail and just the staysail up front, sailing fast and on course but in a horrendous sea. The wind never got above 30 knots true, but the waves, which had been building all the days prior in the 45-plus knots of wind, were wild. Big and steep, flat walls kicked the bow skyward and then opened up a hole in the ocean which Falken would disappear into with a thundering crash. Sleeping in the aft part of the boat was impossible, but the crew in the fo’c’sle had to hang on just to remain in their bunks, going weightless between poundings.
We opted to heave-to for the night and let the weather work itself out (adaptation here again). It wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity. It was impossible to proceed upwind in those sea conditions, the risk of breaking the boat or breaking the people too high.
Land appeared on the horizon early next morning and then, as if on cue, the weather gods gave us our final gift of the passage as a southwesterly sprang up later in the afternoon, tempting us to hoist the kite and finish this epic adventure in style. So it was that Falken sailed the last 50 miles into Isafjordjup under her bright pink, 3,200-square-foot S2 spinnaker, making 9 to 10 knots on an easy flat sea, the crew taking turns steering and admiring the scenery and the skipper reveling in the last 50 miles at sea, the best 50 miles in what was a 3,000-plus-mile voyage from Annapolis to Iceland.
And then it was all over. Customs greeted us on the dock at 0145, completed the arrival formalities with kindness, stamped our passports, and that was that. We drank champagne. We ate cheese. We stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning retelling sea stories, then collapsed into our bunks. Satisfied. We deep cleaned Falken next morning after a short but deep sleep, and just like that the crew packed their bags and went on their respective ways. Eighteen days of intensity ending in the blink of an eye.
Skipper Nikki and Emma, first mate, arrived shortly thereafter, and I was officially relieved of skippering duties, happy to hand over the keys and to truly relax for the first time in two months.
Annapolis to Iceland. That you can even sail that route hurts my brain a little bit. That you can walk onto the boat in a place as familiar as the Chesapeake Bay, where I grew up sailing, sail for a while (OK, a long while), then step off again in a place as exotic as the Westfjords of Iceland…well, that right there is why I go to sea.
That we did it uneventfully, on time, in safety and in style—that we made it look easy—that’s seamanship.
Andy Schell is the co-founder of 59° North Sailing, which takes people from all backgrounds ocean sailing on the Swan 48 Isbjørn and the Farr 65 Falken. 59-north.com.