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A sailor cannot sail without luck

"As we approached the narrows I wondered how on earth Michiel de Ruyter entered the bay with a man of war. The swell bashed against the steep rocks and the water in the narrows was in full motion. We had our engine and rudder to control the situation but Michiel de Ruyter only had his sails and the wind to get through."

Voyage 181, the orders
I received the orders at the end of October. We were happy to depart from Cascais, a beautiful small Portuguese port west of Lisbon. We were waiting for orders and nobody likes that. It’s a dull period and the time goes by very slow. Waiting at anchor is even worse. That’s what we found out a week earlier on October the 17th. The weather forecasts showed a passing low pressure area with winds up to 30 knots. Alarm bells were ringing, but normally this can be dealt with quite easy. That’s it! Start the engine and anchor aweigh! We were the first ship at anchor to react quickly to the upcoming windy conditions. The other ships took just a bit longer to react and for them it was too late. One large crude oil carrier crashed on the rocks of the piers of the marina and a large container carrier got tangled up in her anchors and ended up close to the beach. We proceeded against the rising seas away from the near land and with only a half knot Fairlift made it to deep water. That was quite some afternoon. That evening the agent called me because he saw us in the news. Outside the safety of a port it’s always best to be underway.

We were ordered to head for Rostock in Northern Germany to pick up a Liebherr crane that was partly assembled. We had cargo and a job to do! As I studied the orders I quickly discovered the challenge of this particular voyage. It was loading in Rostock and discharging in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. And to spice things up a bit the budget told me to sail the northern route which is the shortest route connecting Rostock to St John’s sailing via the north of Scotland. A common route to sail in the summer months, but a harsh and well feared route in winter months. And as November is officially a winter month we started to get a bit concerned.

Loading the cargo in Rostock went smooth. All the loose parts of the shore crane were loaded below deck and the shore crane itself was loaded high on our deck. On this last day of loading I decided which route to take to St John’s, Canada. It’s like being a general in war time. You know the strength and capabilities of your army but in order to win the battle the general must have good knowledge and understanding of his enemy. Only then can he claim a safe and solid victory and carry out his orders. My orders where clear, my army my ship, my troops my men. My enemy the weather and the high seas of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. My route was where the enemy was weak… And surprisingly that seemed to be the shortest route way up north as planned. And so we went on our way eager to claim our victory at St John’s.

It is luck we need
That spirit of good hope only lasted a day. Winds in the Kattegat became so powerful that we got blown away. Continuing our journey as planned was not possible. The high deck cargo couldn’t cope with gale force winds of 10 and 11 on the scale of Beaufort. This was the first fight of many to come on our way to St John’s. In the first four days of our voyage we faced four storms. They all lasted only a couple of hours but were strong enough to get us into trouble and caused a stormy North Sea. We were on a very tight schedule because the weather forecasts showed a large low pressure area approaching. It’s path was northeasterly passing below Iceland and above Scotland. If we could make it on time we could be pushed into the Atlantic going fast, sailing on stern winds. If we would be too late the system would block the northern passage and there would be no way to proceed. Those are always difficult moments. We had good hope for the best but at sea hope is not a thing to rely on. At sea there is not such a thing as “you cannot help yourself, let’s hope for the best”. The sea is unforgiving and so hope is something to leave at home. No it’s luck we need. “A sailor cannot sail without luck” is a very common expression. And it’s true. We got lucky… Winds became calmer and seas lower. Fairlift found her speed and we managed to catch a ride on the northern quadrants of the low pressure area guiding us full speed into the Atlantic.

When sailing past the south of Iceland the voyage changed from a rollercoaster ride to smooth sailing. The plan worked and the general was discretely happy with the battlefield smoking behind him. As the night sky was clearing up, we even got the opportunity to observe the Aurora Borealis. A phenomenon which lights up the Arctic sky at night as particles from sun flares light up following the earth’s magnetic field. It was not as spectacular as the pictures on google but it was close enough for us.

Battles are rarely won without losses. In the remaining days of the voyage to St John’s the reports came in. Two cylinder heads of the main engine were leaking petrol/diesel. This was the result of what we demanded from the engine during the bad weather earlier. We decided to repair the engine in St John’s as we could safely continue our voyage without a problem.

On November the 18th around 0800 ship’s time land was sighted. A steep coastline of rocks made it clear we had almost arrived at our destination. With binoculars we looked for distinguished landmarks revealing the narrows, a small passage between the cliffs that leads to the port of St John’s. As nobody of the crew had visited St John’s before it was quite a search. Times do not change on the sea. In June 1665 the great Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter was approaching St John’s in exactly the same way as we did now. Looking through binoculars finding the passage between the rocks and confirming landmarks with paintings and sketches made up in the pilots. He came to St John’s to kick the English out and he succeeded however only for a short period of time. The second time the Dutch came to take St John’s was unfortunately a failure as defense forces were setup pointing at the narrows, the entrance to the bay.

The narrows of St. John's
We eventually found the narrows when we saw a small tower on the top of signal hill. It’s Cabot tower built in 1897 and was used by Guglielmo Marconi to send the first radio transmission over the Atlantic Ocean to England. He used a kite to fly an antenna high in the sky from Cabot tower. The letter S was transmitted in Morse code.

As we approached the narrows I wondered how on earth Michiel de Ruyter entered the bay with a man of war. The swell bashed against the steep rocks and the water in the narrows was in full motion. We had our engine and rudder to control the situation but Michiel de Ruyter only had his sails and the wind to get through. Guess in the early days luck was of a whole other proportion. The pilot that climbed onboard was worried. He asked me if I could sail into the bay by myself. Immediately I said yes, and immediately after saying yes my conscious self said “what?”….

When we entered the narrows guided by a leading light on the shore it became clear the helmsman could not control the ship as she was rolling and pitching on the swell bouncing around in the narrows. Our auto pilot did a much better job and we got her through with only a minor cold sweat. It was like a surprise party because after clearing the narrows we entered a fairly spacious bay with the City of St John’s on the north bank. This new view just appeared around the corner of the narrows like you open a door. In the meantime the pilot came onboard. We shook hands and lost steering. At least that’s what the helmsman was claiming. The ship turned to port towards a small fishing harbor. I took manual control myself and corrected the situation. It turned out later that a dead fly got the rudder indicator needle stuck. So she was actually steering fine but the indicator was not reacting. After this small moment of potential disaster the pilot made it clear this port was not ready for us.

He told me where to go and it was the very smallest spot in a small corner of the port in between fishing ships and leisure boats. There were no tugs available which could assist us during the manoeuvre. We had to go into this far corner, turn 180 degrees and move backwards close to the city’s boulevard into a small dock where there was not enough room to accommodate our entire vessel. So that was the new challenge. Fairlift only has 1 engine, propeller and rudder, no thrusters or other fancy things. Because of the wind the agent quickly arranged a very small workboat with a 370 horsepower engine to help us along. I tried once and did not succeed as Fairlift was slowly blown off track by the wind. The second attempt went better. We took a longer approach closer to the city’s boulevard with the small workboat pushing the bow into the wind constantly. I controlled our stern sticking it inside this small space quite well. After finally securing the ship’s mooring lines I wondered how all these admirals did it way back in time. They had no means of thrust at all and had to fight the city’s defenses whilst docking their ship. That thought made my job a lot easier.

Exploring St. John's
Except for the engineers who needed to repair our main engine’s cylinder heads the crew had a good chance of exploring St John’s and its surroundings. The Canadians were as always showing good hospitality and were very friendly. We explored the city during the day and the night. My chief officer was taking the walk around the bay visiting all these sites of great historic value. The Dutch influence in and around the city is clearly visible and not forgotten. A lot of the local people have Dutch relatives or roots.

Sunday the 22nd of November we left St John’s for the high seas. It was an interesting voyage under challenging circumstances. But even in her 25th year of service it’s just another job for mv Fairlift.

Captain Dennis Terpstra and crew
MV Fairlift 

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