Transatlantic bittersweet

The crew of Fiddler’s Green. The author is third from the right. Photos courtesy Reinhard Zollitsch

June 2022

By Reinhard Zollitsch

Nancy knew that I had grown up in a harbor town in Germany on one of the world’s busiest canals (the Kiel Canal, connecting the Baltic with the North Sea/Atlantic) and that I, too, like my grandfather, the sea captain, wanted to explore the oceans of the world and one day sail across the Atlantic, or “Pond” as it is euphemistically known.

But I had almost forgotten that dream – with graduate school, a new job, a family, a house – you know what I mean, the works. So, I had settled for sailing my 22-foot swing-keel sailboat up and down the Maine coast. But suddenly, out of the blue, my wife got this phone call from a friend in Camden, Maine, wondering if I’d be interested in sailing a 45-foot wooden schooner across the Atlantic to France as mate and third watch captain.

I must have dropped some hints during our 13 years of married life. She knew I’d been messing about in boats, from rowing dinghies and shells to sailboats of all sizes. She knew about my sailing trip from Kiel, Germany, to Scotland and the Shetland Islands on a 60-foot yawl. She also knew I had a sailor’s passport and had worked on a 1,000-ton freighter on the North Sea and the Baltic during college vacations. And she was well aware that I had arrived in this country on a coal freighter, in Norfolk, Va., as a penniless graduate student.

We agreed to at least see the boat and meet the people I would be sailing with, with no commitment but with the same fragility of one who asserts, “We’re just going to look at the puppies.” We drove down to Camden, and there she was: a traditional, two-masted, wooden schooner, 45-feet on deck with a 10-foot bowsprit, built in 1973 by Newbert & Wallace in Thomaston, Maine. Fiddler’s Green was designed by Pete Culler, who thought of the traditional Boston pilot schooners when he designed her for Ned Ackerman. Nancy and I looked at each other: Words were unnecessary, and it was settled. It was May 1977, and I had just celebrated my 38th birthday.

Ned Ackerman wanted to sail her around the world, but in 1976, in the wake of the 1974 oil crisis, he had bigger ideas and had the same shipyard build him a 97-foot coastal freight-carrying schooner, the John F. Leavitt, named after the author of “In the Wake of the Coasting Schooners.” To finance this project, Fiddler’s Green was sold to a couple from Paris, France: Vincent and Agnes. In May 1977, the two and Agnes’ brother Yves traveled to Maine to check out the boat and find three more crewmembers. These would include a mate familiar with wood and canvas and, hopefully, freighter experience for crossing shipping lanes here and abroad: me. Once all this was in order, they would shake the boat down before venturing out across the pond.

The skipper and his wife were to take the first watch, and they were responsible for navigation by sextant. Watch captain Yves, a competent sailor from Brittany, oversaw motor and electronics and took on a novice from Camden, 18-year-old Andrew. I found a compatible watchmate, Kevin, in Portland. I was responsible for wood and canvas as well as plotting our dead reckoning. So, we had three two-man, four-hour watches, with a four-hour daily progression due to two-hour lunch and dinner preparations with cleanup.

Our first sail, on May 31, was a joyride. Everybody, including the skipper, was grinning from ear to ear, trying to impress each other with how cool and competent they were. We got all sails up, including the topsail. Even though none of us had ever sailed a schooner or fully understood each other, there was a distinct language barrier on board. And the helm threw us all off-balance until I named it “Tilly” and treated it like a tiller: Turn it to port, and you’ll go to starboard, and vice versa. And I had to get used to steering by a direct-reading compass. The traditional compass, where you read your course off the top of the compass card, had become second nature and was hard to undo in my mind.

We flew across Penobscot Bay to Pulpit Harbor and back, reaching nine knots at times. The boat had potential, but we had a lot to learn. I could see lots of work projects ahead of us before we were ready to push off for good. But that night, the deck was filled with guests, friends, and well-wishers for a French-style lobster bake, aux flambeaux, with wine, champagne, French music, and loud talking under a splendid full moon.

The next morning, we were back to work: cleaning up and checking standing rigging from the top of the mast to all deck fittings. We greased the masts with Vaseline so the sail hoops would slide easier, checked the running rigging, and I insisted on replacing the bowsprit foot ropes. I wanted to know that the ropes would hold me if I were ever standing on them in the middle of the ocean, reefing and tying down the outer jib. I also measured for a canvas dodger all around the stern section, from the deck to the lifelines, to give the man at the helm some protection from the elements. Sailmaker Bohndell in Rockport crafted it in two days.

That evening was filled with more wine and music. A youngster with a guitar sang “Fiddler’s Green,” made famous by the Irish Rovers in the late ’60s. It is about a place “. . . where sailormen go if they don’t go to hell, where the weather is fair, and the dolphins do play, and the cold coast of Greenland is far, far away . . . I’m taking a trip, mates; I’ll see you someday in Fiddler’s Green.”

It dawned on me that the fiddler was Death and the “Fiddler’s Green” was the dance floor for deceased sailors. I became very quiet, went to my bunk, and rolled up in my sleeping bag. To me, it was not funny or wise to name a boat after the Grim Reaper. However, cool reasoning prevailed, and I nodded off, having convinced myself that fate is simply what you make of your life.

After our next practice sail, I noticed a pair of two-inch tears at the ends of batten pockets near the leech of the sail. I pointed them out to Vincent and suggested we test the material by trying to rip the tears further. And the little tears ripped and ripped and would not stop. We then touched a knife on a different spot, and the same thing happened. By then, Vincent was furious, while I breathed a sigh of relief that this happened now and not during a storm in the Atlantic.

Not only was the mainsail unusable, but all four major sails were also compromised. We found out from Ned that a sailmaker had treated the four-year-old sails to prevent mildew in a solution that included kerosene and Cuprinol, which, obviously, had burned and weakened the cotton fibers. Rockport sailmaker Bohndell confirmed our finding and agreed to make a new set of sails – of nine-ounce Dacron – in 10 days for $3,500, the cost of which old and new owners would share.

By then, June was almost gone. The sails were bent on again and fit perfectly. Provisions were bought, one brief practice sail was squeezed in, and a last scrumptious going-away party was thrown on Curtis Island at the mouth of Camden Harbor. And the next morning, on June 24, 1977, we ghosted out into Penobscot Bay, only to disappear in a fog bank.

We were finally off! What a relief. The last escort boat, with Nancy aboard, turned back, and it became very quiet on Fiddler’s Green. Only the diesel was helping us down the bay, against the incoming tide, into the open Gulf of Maine. We had a bare minimum of navigational equipment: shortwave radio, VHF marine radiotelephone (with a 30-mile range), and sextant. We had no Loran or radar and, of course, in the 1970s, no GPS, EPIRB or satellite phone. We were bound for France, and there was no way of contacting anybody until we got there.

We flew all sails, including the topsail, until about 8 p.m. Then we took down the outer jib and topsail for the night and, a bit later, reefed the main when it started to breeze up. By then, we were making great progress across the Bay of Fundy: 24 miles during our four-hour watch. We were approaching Cape Sable Island, at the southernmost corner of Nova Scotia, which we reached by noon the following day. We then had a wonderful reach along the barely visible shores of Nova Scotia, but eventually, we were becalmed and used the 20-horse British Kelvin diesel till 2 a.m. the next morning.

Kevin and I came on watch, and it suddenly started blowing from the northeast – a nor’easter, and I knew we had to reef down. I asked the next watch – the skipper’s watch – to help us. He, however, was noticeably groggy, said he was sure it would blow over, and refused to come on deck: “With nine-ounce Dacron sails, this boat can take anything,” Bohndell had assured him.

One hour later, I again asked permission to reef but was denied. By now, I could barely keep the rails out of the water and decided instead to use the “German fisherman reef,” which I learned on the North Sea and Baltic. You slightly overtighten the foresails, so each would backwind the next sail, taking power out of the sail and slightly luff the main.

Kevin and I managed to sail the boat dry this way until 4 a.m. when the new watch would come on deck, and we could finally reef down properly. The skipper still refused to shorten sail because we were still so upright and, instead, launched into a tirade: “Germans just don’t know how to sail . . . we are not reefing . . . we don’t need you . . . you can go below.” And we did.

Five minutes later, all hell broke loose. We were sailing on our ear, and the skipper called out the next watch: his brother-in-law and Andrew. The off-watch would only come back on board if it were an all-hands call, and Kevin and I didn’t mind letting him eat his words and learn a humbling lesson at sea. They managed to take down the outer jib, tie it to the bowsprit, and put two reefs in the two big mainsails. Soon, even that was too much for the boat, but instead of reefing the jib and the main down even further and taking the big foresail down, they took jib and main down, leaving the double-reefed foresail.

It was a terrible night, the worst of my life, and the wind steadily increased to 60 knots. Without any sails fore and aft, we had lost all control of the boat. With only one sail amidships, we could not heave-to or run with the wind, two major storm sailing techniques. It was a disaster.

We’d roll and corkscrew through the waves, rise into the sky, and fall off with a bang. Everything in that boat was vibrating, clinking, and banging; things would slide, fall and crash. And every time the boat fell off a wave, the bell on the foredeck would ring one eerie ring. I had to suppress images of the real fiddler.

He was playing all right – I clearly heard him – but it was not my song.

Kevin and I could not make any sail changes during our watch, either, but could only try to keep solid water from crashing on deck with our minimal steering. I had sailed in Force 11 winds before and experienced that force on a freighter, but this was the first time I felt I was sailing in the ocean, surrounded by towering waves.

Water was everywhere, and the wind whipped the rain and sprayed our faces. We had given up control and were at the mercy of the elements. I was thankful that this little boat could stand up to nature’s punishment.

It blew between 50 to 60 knots all the next day, too, and we were pounded into submission by the waves, the wind, the noise, the rain, the cold – and the lack of sleep. We shortened and modified watches to an hour on deck for one crew member, tied on with a sturdy harness. The other would sit inside the hatch, fully dressed and ready for action.

We drifted to the southeast, 120 degrees on the compass, slowly but inevitably toward the infamous Sable Island, and we could not do a thing about it. I could not know then that we were in the same area where “The Perfect Storm” occurred 14 years in the future, in October 1991. All I knew was that we had to stay upright and get out of there fast since there was not much sea room to drift.

During our 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. watch, our third four-hour watch during that storm, it was beginning to blow itself out, and we even got some sleep after we were relieved. That morning, the reefed main and the big jib were up again, and we were bound due east in dry clothes and with food. We all put on a smile and breathed a sigh of relief.

Even the sun came out, and we enjoyed a fast beam reach until sundown, which levered up a full moon on the opposite horizon: a wonderful image, and we in our little boat in the middle of a perfect circle. On the one hand, it looked as if we were the center of the universe; on the other, we looked like an insignificant speck in nowhere, surrounded by a perfectly circular horizon, which would keep coming with us like a halo, all the way across the Atlantic, making it look as if we weren’t going anywhere.

Then, we came upon what appeared to be a huge Russian spy ship, this being the Cold War era. It was anchored just far enough offshore to be in international waters. At first, it seemed deserted, but then heads popped up over the railing, staring at our little sailboat and waving, perhaps wondering how we’d made it through that storm. Even spies must be sailors at heart, I thought warmly to myself.

With Yves’ help, I persuaded the skipper to give each watch captain the authority to call for a reef, and night sailing would only be done with reduced sail. This meant with the topsail furled and without the outer jib since the latter had to be hauled down from the bowsprit, unsafe in the dark of night. The skipper reluctantly gave in, but he reversed his decision many times on our voyage across the Atlantic.

Part 2 will appear in the July 2022 issue. Reinhard is an avid solo ocean 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, having taught there for 42 years. Check out his website, zollitschcanoeadventures.com.