Transatlantic Bittersweet

July 2022

By Reinhard Zollitsch

Part 1, in the May issue, took Reinhard and the 45-foot wooden schooner Fiddler’s Green through a week of heavy weather, bound east for France, during which unsettling red flags had unfurled, born of weak leadership, poor decisions, inept seamanship and personality conflicts, all exacerbated by an aging but charming vessel.

On our seventh day out, we approached the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland, and hit fog, which lay thick over the water but allowed some sun to filter through overhead, a strange sensation. We were barreling along under full sail at seven knots, relying on our tiny metal radar reflector and mast strobe light to be seen by other boats. We heard some distant fishing boats, but made it through the fleet fine to Cape Race, the corner of Newfoundland, our jump-off point to Land’s End, England.

We’d covered 135 nautical miles in the last 24 hours, our best day’s run yet, and even got a sun fix at noon, just when we needed it. And, with some 2,000 miles to go, our team was working together somewhat better, even though we hardly saw each other except at mealtimes. Kevin and I had made each other co-responsible for the safety of the other, we worked well together, and knew what we were doing. Yves was a competent sailor and very patient with newcomer Andrew, who did admirably well, was cheerful, and learned quickly, especially how to stay out of trouble.

Skipper Vincent and wife Agnes, on the other hand, were difficult, and they turned the trip into a less pleasant experience. Tension between them created stressful moments on board with crewmembers.

Frankly, at many moments, I would have gladly stepped off the boat, rather than have to be around that or act as a peacemaker in quarrels between them or others.

Food was another bone of contention. We were all cooking and cleaning up on a preset schedule — two hours of the lunch and supper watch — but Agnes would set out the food for each meal. Typical lunches were corned beef or tuna on either potatoes, rice or spaghetti, for 25 long cold days at sea. No real vegetables to speak of.

Supper usually consisted of three cans regular Campbell’s soup for six people, with dry crackers, a hunk of ripe cheese, and, occasionally, apples for dessert. Lots of cans and alcoholic beverages were locked away in the bilge “for emergencies.” The emergencies never happened, and the supplies stayed locked until we landed in St.-Malo, France, with Agnes as guard dog, even sleeping in the saloon, fearing we would snatch food during our off watches.

I have to admit that, on our 10th day out, we celebrated our 1,000-mile marker with a real feast compared to our normal fare. Agnes dug deep into the bilge and came up with canned turkey, peas, creamed corn, and a canned fruit dessert. And Vincent offered everyone one glass of sherry. On this boat, that was a special occasion.

Dealing with the cold was always a challenge. We’d left Maine on June 24, and stayed north of the shipping lanes, and it was frigid. How cold? I lived in thermals, wool socks and sweater, extra jacket and oilskins for almost the entire trip. In my trip log, on Day 13, I wrote: “Clean socks and underpants, combed hair, brushed teeth with toothpaste, all for the first time.” The temperatures were simply too low to bare one’s skin, and we were too tired and cold to function fully. We were either shivering on deck or warming up in our sleeping bags, with minimal socializing during mealtime. The first couple of days east of Newfoundland were extremely cold. The water was bluish-green; according to my pilot charts, we were crossing the Labrador iceberg zone, and had to be on constant lookout.

The night of our 1,000-mile celebration was lit up with heat lightning, frighteningly close, with the wind suddenly gusting up to 50 knots in seas coming from all directions. Agnes had a hard time keeping from jibing the boat, and ultimately the metal foremast peak fitting broke, and sail and gaff crashed down onto the deck.

The real storm, our second, hit the next day. This time we were ready, with triple-reefed main, single-reefed big jib and no outer jib. The foresail was already down, thanks to Agnes. The waves were gigantic but regular and predictable, unlike those of our first storm, which was total confusion.

This time we were sliding down the backs of the huge waves at frightening speeds. At the end of each glide, to avoid pitchpoling, we’d turn slightly to windward until the crest could catch up with us and rumble under our hull. It was intense. The boat would track like an express train, and Kevin and I alternated turns at the helm every hour. Our concentration was shot after that.

The next day, Kevin and I managed to replace the broken mast fitting with a sturdy steel strop shackled near the top of the mast. It held for the rest of the trip. But, nerves still raw, a sonic boom that night made us think the gaff had crashed again to the deck, or something had blown up under the aft hatch. We rushed on deck and searched all around with flashlights, but nothing had happened.

It finally began to get warmer. We must have entered the Gulf Stream, because suddenly gannets were overheard, and porpoises and dolphins were riding our bow waves, racing beside us, or even doing aerials. It was fascinating hearing their “tsiu-tsiu” from the forepeak below. However, my fresh socks from the day before got soaked while taking pictures.

From that point on, time seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace. The routine on board, including the food, became repetitive and monotonous, especially when relationships became even more strained. I had trouble with Agnes. Kevin, Yves and I got along fine, though. Andrew was too young and inexperienced to figure in this equation, but he was certainly a cheerful, eager learner. I stopped counting the miles already sailed, and looked ahead at the distances to Ireland, The Scilly Isles off England, and St.-Malo, France.

The weather did not lift our spirits either. The wind shifted to the southeast, instead of coming from the west, and was too light to move us along in any direction. So, Vincent started the engine, then sailed a bit, only to start the diesel again. We used up half our fuel in the middle of the Atlantic, even started on our second tank, which we’d wanted to save for the English Channel crossing, and for getting into St.-Malo, when we’d really need it.

The days dragged on until, on Day 22, we had Ireland abeam, with only 120 more miles to The Isles of Scilly, off Land’s End, the southwest tip of England. The next day, I spied the two flashes every 15 seconds of Bishop Rock Light, just west of the islands and 28 miles from Cornwall, England. I’d read that this area was one of the most intimidating places around, and I was willing to give the Scillies a wide berth. The only seven-masted schooner ever built, the Thomas W. Lawson from Quincy, Mass., foundered here in 1907 in a winter gale, taking 15 of the 17 crewmembers with her, and we were headed right through that same boulder field. When I mentioned this to Vincent, he grinned at me fiendishly.

On we went, past Wolf Rock, east of the Scillies, and straight across the approaches to the channel. This was the hairiest sailing I’d ever done in my life. It was like crossing a six-lane superhighway, with everybody going full-speed without any brakes. Fortunately, we had daylight and plenty of wind — actually much too much wind in the choppy tidal maelstrom.

At one point a Polish freighter from Gdynia changed course to look at us. I knew there’d be trouble when the wind hit the deckload of containers from the windward side: The freighter would change course drastically and be upon us before he could get his bow under control. I suggested running away on a fast beam reach, which we did, but it was a close call.

Then a huge Japanese tanker appeared way off on the horizon, and we thought we’d easily cross over before he got near us. I insisted we let him pass in front of us, even if that meant changing our course slightly. Sailboats do not have the right-of-way crossing shipping lanes, and tankers cannot — and will not — change course, or slow down, because they follow prescribed instructions. We passed close astern of the big tanker and were fine.

I was thankful that Yves took over the navigation into the Gulf of St.-Malo. This is a formidable coast, especially at night, with lots of headlands and lighthouses, rocks and ledges, and legendary tides. St.-Malo’s tides rival those of Canada’s Bay of Fundy, and it has a huge tide-driven powerplant.

On July 18, our 25th day of the trip, at 7 a.m. local time we motored into the inner nontidal St.-Malo Harbor Basin. We tied up against the stone promenade, along with a bevy of hot racing boats that had just finished the Cowes, England, to Dinard, France, race, and which were preparing for the 1977 Whitbread Race Around the World. Our boat looked completely out of place, like a ghost from a different time. We were dwarfed by the English yacht Great Britain II, moored beside us, and the French Rothschild super yacht Gitana. But this didn’t matter; what did was that we had arrived.

And nobody was there to greet us. Agnes and Vincent did some paperwork, then ran off to meet friends, and they were gone until after lunch. This moment was a letdown, maybe the biggest one in my life to that point. Here I was in the city of Jacques Cartier, one of the great explorers of the new world, and I did not feel a thing. It was a total wash-out.

Momentary elation had turned to disappointment, and then to relief. Thousands of tourists now gawked at us as though we were caged animals in a zoo or a painting in a museum. Nobody knew we had just sailed 25 days across the Atlantic – 2,652 miles to be exact – and barely made it at that.

After a perfunctory goodbye dinner in a restaurant, I packed my duffel the next morning, boarded the express train, Le Rapide, to Paris, and could not wait to get back to my family and friends in Maine. I was sad, though, to leave that beautiful wooden, Maine-built schooner in the hands of the new owners.

They sailed her for another 20-some years in northern France waters, until the boat dragged anchor and hit the rocks in the Isles of Chausey off the Normandy coast and sank. All aboard were saved. I never heard from any of the crew again. So ends the somber story of the schooner Fiddler’s Green.

Reinhard is an avid solo ocean sea canoeist, having paddled a 4,000-mile loop around the New England states and Canadian maritime provinces. He has sailed across the Atlantic twice, first on a 45-foot schooner – from Maine to France – then from Antigua to Hamburg, Germany, on a 75-year old, 60-foot steel yawl. He retired from the University of Maine in Orono, after having taught there for 42 years. Check out his website: zollitschcanoeadventures.com.