Tomorrow, we sail for Greenland.
Falken is parked in St. John’s, Newfoundland, along the bulkhead of the enormous fishing and commercial harbor, tucked as far into the southwest corner as you can get. It’s an industrial place—black, gravelly street grit covers the deck, with no dockside water to wash it off. A couple boat lengths away, a large container loading terminal is bustling with cranes and ships and trucks zooming around at all hours of the day and night. A French steel boat is rafted next to us; in front, a big Oyster is tied onto the wall, two smaller boats rafted onto it. And forward of them is a very large sailing yacht, I’d say 90 to 120 feet, with (conspicuously) nobody rafted to it (that’s another story altogether—suffice it to say, if you ever enter a port like this with no marina, expect to be rafted onto, and be gracious, even welcoming, about it. It’s part of the etiquette in far-flung places like this).
Departing to the icy north from a resort-style marina just wouldn’t feel right. We’re on the edge of adventure here, and even the preparation feels adventurous. We’ll have to motor across the sprawling harbor tomorrow morning and tie up at the fish plant to fill our freshwater tanks and wash the grit off the deck. Just this morning a big tanker truck delivered our diesel fuel at the dock.
In 2018, ahead of my last really big adventure when we first took Isbjørn to 80º North in Svalbard, I had spent the winter planning, prepping, and studying, and still I had a legit panic attack as we were preparing to depart the west coast of Sweden. I managed to get us off the dock and across the Kattegat to Denmark, then I snuck away to the local hospital to get an EKG because I thought I was having a heart problem (I was fine). My anxiety was unnecessary of course, but the preparation paid off, and we had an exceptionally uneventful summer in the high Arctic and came back with stories to last a lifetime.
This time, the Greenland planning feels routine. I know what to expect. I’ve done the research, spoken to the right people, and feel like I have a firm grasp on the crux of the passage, which is navigating the ice-strewn waters south of Cape Farewell to get through the famed Prins Christian Sund and out the other side, ultimately bound towards Iceland. We’ll need good visibility and calm winds to do it safely.
In many ways this trip is far more complex than the Svalbard passage. While much farther north, Svalbard is ice-free—we didn’t see glacial ice until entering the first fjord we passed. There was no night in Svalbard, above the Arctic circle, and little fog. Conversely, the infamous Grand Banks are the foggiest piece of ocean in the world, and this far south it’s dark for a good six to eight hours overnight.
All of these things should be triggering my anxiety, but they’re not, and that creates a different kind of anxiety: I’m worried about being complacent. Taking for granted the challenges on trips like these, at every level, is the quickest path to problems. A little while ago on our Quarterdeck website, amid an interesting discussion about this very thing, one of the members related a story he’d heard from famed rock climber Alex Honnold on a podcast.
“Being at the really sharp end is not the dangerous time,” Honnold had said, “but rather it’s when you have a lot of experience and let your guard down that you end up taking a big fall.”
Honnold went on to explain that when you’re “amped up” at 75 to 100%, you’re paying attention and will typically stay safe if within your limits. It’s when you’re in the 50 to 75% range of excitement that accidents happen. That’s complacency.
Ahead of Svalbard, I was beyond 100% capacity, and that’s what gave me the panic attack. This week, I definitely feel like I’m in that 50 to 75% range. But, as I replied in that Quarterdeck thread, recognizing this is the only way to counter it.
So, how do I amp myself back up? I’ve learned since Svalbard that I don’t have to, at least not consciously. I’m going through our routine checklists, following the procedures we’ve created to get these things out of our heads and onto a piece of paper. Like pilots in a pre-flight check, if you follow the procedures, there are fewer holes to fill from memory. Once the crew arrive, when we hoist the sails tomorrow and sign off the Internet and land life, that adrenaline is going to kick in whether I want it to or not, and my focus will return.
All this is to say that doing hard things is great! The anxiety is worth it in the long run, and it makes subsequent hard things that much easier.
It remains to be seen if we ever see Greenland on this trip. The conditions have to be right as we make our final approach to the ice and waters around Cape Farewell. All I know is that I’ll be mentally ready to make the right decision, come what may.
Andy Schell is the co-founder of 59º North Sailing, which takes people from all backgrounds ocean sailing on the Swan 48 Isbjørn and Farr 65 Falken. 59-north.com.