Saturday, February 9, 2013

The art of boating: Out on the ocean

When I started writing this blog in 2010, I was happy to include some posts written by others--guest bloggers. Today's post is written by my husband, Trond Stokke, who has been sailing up and down the Oslo fjord for many years now. 

In my last post on this subject (, I tried to define the different aspects of “the art of boating”. However, I barely managed to leave the harbor in that post, so I will in this post discuss the things that matter when you’ve finally left the harbor and are headed off on a trip. A lot of important things must be done before you leave, in addition to the routine maintenance. The engine must be checked thoroughly, as an engine failure on the open sea can be disastrous. When this happens in a car, you may simply leave it at the roadside, grab your cell phone and call the towing company. Not so out on the open ocean. The check includes oil, cooling water, exhaust tubes, through-hull tubes, and a number of small details varying from boat to boat. Also, one needs to fill gas and fresh water and bring food for at least a few days. Plan beforehand where you will refill gas on the way, which requires that you have an overview of where gas stations can be found along the way. A supply of fresh water is very important, as salt water is neither good for you nor your engine (if needed). Also, you need to bring batteries for flashlights and a GPS (global positioning system). Although I use the GPS frequently, I also have a set of maps with me, and we have a working compass in the boat. I do not fully trust modern electronics. If you’re alone, consider how you will tackle “trivial” tasks like going to the toilet, fetching food and drinks etc, before you leave. When your wife or some good mates are joining you, there will always be someone who may take over the helm.

A happy author at the start of a boat trip
So you’re off, and you get this great feeling of freedom that I never experience on land. So now you’re on your way to somewhere specific, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s the feeling of being at sea and getting adjusted to the movements of the boat in the waves-- as though you’re directly connected to nature. After a few hours you automatically compensate for the tilting and wobbling, to such a degree that when I get back on land, it’s as though the firm ground keeps moving under my feet. It takes about 2-3 hours of sailing to get out of the inner Oslo fjord. The “outer” Oslo fjord starts when you’ve passed Filtvedt lighthouse outside of the city of Drøbak; at this point the course is set according to whether you want to go south (S) towards Østfold or Sweden, SSW towards Denmark, or SW along the Norwegian coast. The destinations of our trips have included Fredrikstad, Halden or Strømstad/Koster southward, and Tønsberg, Risør, or Langesundsfjorden along the west coast. Langesundsfjorden is mentioned because from here one may proceed up the Telemark canal via an extensive lock system to Dalen, or alternatively to Notodden, if you enjoy the blues festival that occurs there each summer.

At this point you also determine whether you would like to travel along the shoreline and opt for visual maneuvering with the help of the map, or whether you would like to sail entirely away from the shoreline aided by compass and GPS. A good piece of advice right from the start: if you choose the first one, don’t sail too close to land. It’s always good to keep a safe distance from land in case something happens, e.g. if the engine stops in spite of all precautions taken. Also, the worse the weather is, the more important it is to stay well clear of land, i.e. the grounds. This is counter-intuitive; most landlubbers tend to be drawn towards firm ground. A good example of this is the route around Rakkebåene (see map): 

Map of Rakkebåene, outside of Larvik and Stavern

You should not follow the red- and green-labeled routes along land with a larger boat (>30 feet), even though some locals may tell you it’s a walk in the park. Follow the blue-labeled course south of the light buoy located to the SE on the map, go westward and south of the Tvistein lighthouse. The Rakkebåene are strange; they get shallower there well outside of the grounds visible on the map. The waves slow down  the shallower it gets, but since the energy remains constant, the amplitude, i.e. wave height, increases. Additionally, outside Rakke, there are currents moving in the SW direction. When it’s blowing from SW, and old swell from the North Sea also comes in this direction, heavy and unpredictable wave patterns are often created. A friend of mine used the word “messy” to describe them. Thus, even if you follow the blue route, this will not ensure a smooth trip. If the weather is bad, I choose to go further out. It’s exhausting when the boat bottom hits the water with a “bang” after each wave. However, old sailors say that it’s not the boat breaking down in rough seas, but rather the helmsman and the rest of the crew. There is at least one more reason to stay away from land and regions with grounds when there is heavy weather and swell: water is blown off the wave crests so the sea looks white all over. It is exactly this kind of breaking of the water that you look for to avoid grounds. The latter are thus difficult to identify if all you see is a sea that looks white all over.

Visual maneuvering is obviously more difficult in the evening and at night. Here’s where the lighthouses and light buoys come in handy. The 360 degrees around lighthouses are typically divided into sectors, such that they shine white light in one direction, green in another, and red in others again (can be seen on the map). The coloring is such that you should be in the white sector, while green or red means unclear waters. Along the coast of southern Norway lighthouses are spread such that you’ll always see the previous and the next one. Often you see a third one too, and triangulation is possible in such cases. Light buoys give position, and exposed grounds in fairways may also be equipped with lights. It’s not difficult to set the course based on the position of lighthouses, but you need to have a good map. I have also noticed that distances can be misjudged at night. Also consider that the most difficult part at night may be to sail into the harbor, especially if you don’t know the surroundings well. I remember the first time we came into Helgeroa, just outside of the upper left part of the map. It got dark very quickly, and we had to pay attention to local grounds and islands that were barely visible. The next morning, when we left in daylight, this was not a problem at all.

If you’re crossing open stretches of ocean without sight of land, e.g. over to Denmark, you need to know where you are. Only 25 years ago this was tricky business, although we had some idea from the compass course and the speed of the boat. At that time I took my first trip around Rakkebåene together with a good friend of mine in his sailing boat. We had only the lighthouses to tell us where we were since it was the middle of the night (luckily it wasn’t foggy!) Nowadays, the GPS gives you the actual coordinates. Our GPS does not have built-in maps, since I prefer having an actual physical map with me on our trips. With or without electronic maps, you’re now all set for a memorable boat journey.

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