Tim and Emmie sailed in 2017 on their capacious S/V Shadowfax from Liverpool to Norway’s Lofoten Islands picking up hitch-hiking sailing superstars and rescuing stranded German climbers along the way. Once there they skied from sea to summit and back again, climbed prodigious rock faces, cycled, hiked and ate tons of cod.
During my time on board I documented the changing landscape. Sketching everyday as England turned to Ireland, to Scotland, the Sheltand islands and then the big push over to Norway riding on the back end of gale which pushed us over to the pristine landscape and meticulously cared for ‘huts’ on islands and inlets of the Norwegian coastline.
Traveling so slowly meant that I was often able to paint and sketch while skiing, being careful to listen out for changing weather when your whole world would suddenly tip sideways with the propensity for paints, pens, water and half made work to scatter in all directions unless fast enough to secure them.
The wind and chopping seas would also lend themselves to capturing an atmosphere as you were sometimes buffeted from all sides and wave spray merging the colours on paper in unplanned but interesting ways. The viking spirit as water wanderers and fishing people is still an integral part of the Norwegian pysche, many of the fishing villages propped up on stilts to accommodate the multitude of fisherman who used to descend in the winter. Celebrations were made for safely reaching the stunning Lefotens islands. This did seem like like a minor miracle as much to the skippers constanation I hadn’t know my port from starboard at the beginning of the voyage!
It’s the land of the whales, where claw-like mountains rise from stormy seas. The sun never sets, bathing the landscape in a red, pink glow for hours through the night making it an artist’s paradise. The piece (below) ‘Lefoten, life above waves’ is created from maps, nets, champagne labels and other recycled materials found en route. Depicting life and fishing as seen from harbour life. Some of the buildings continue as fishing warehouses while others have now been converted into the trendy summer residences of Norwegian families.
We made a safe crossing from Lisbon to the Canary Islands 630 miles and five days four nights at sea. One morning a mini squid with little deep red flecks all over him and a large beautiful blue iridescent eye was found, not quite sure how he found his way into the deck but thankful he didn’t launch himself from the sea onto my face during night watch! We had steady winds the whole way which takes on its own personality when you come so reliant on it, at times calm and contained at others emotionally disruptive! However, consistent enough that we didn’t need to touch the sails much. The nights were dark when you feel a mixture of desolation and euphoria. Phosphorescent so bright though at times it looks like electric sparks scattering from the bow and further away you wonder if you are seeing oncoming boat lights. During the crossing you are able to get a small taste of what is experienced when on a longer crossing, after the initial anxiety getting away from the dangers of the coastline and the first night or two of slicing through the darkness you can start to appreciate the feeling of remoteness and your senses and not being connected to this fast paced world.
Belle île had an old world Gallic charm to it that seduced us as well as for many other visitors. The colours on the windows, shutters and shop signs are an easy on the eye light pastel colour, life is slow and there is a creperie at almost every corner.
First port of call was Sauzon, inching the boat up into the drying harbour carefully dropping the anchor, the water started to drop! It was nerve racking, there is not much time to maneover the legs which sit at either side of the boat to hold it in place. You can quickly dial them up or down on either side of the boat and then wait and hope they will hold fast! The water drops fast but once it finally retreated from below the keel we could lower ourselves part of the way and then plop into the mud below! The glamorous task of cleaning the anti foul awaited. This was really a highlight of the trip as cold blue and algae sludge drips down your bare arms. However despite the strong wind, the legs were thankfully holding fast or you could be in trouble fast, with the possibility of the boat topplying over and not much you can do about it. The port village was serine and tranquil, possible the nicest we visited. Little whitewashed houses stacked up against each other, their golden lights gently glistening in the dark that evening.
After two nights on the beaching legs we moved back onto a mooring buoy here though the chop proved difficult to avoid boats colliding with each other, not happy to leave Shadowfax like this while going on a bike adventure we pushed onto le Palais. However, here a fraught hour was spent waiting on the choppy dock with wash from frequent ferries and sea swell saw us and a number of other boats try to moor up alongside the picturesque citadel rising high above in order to enter the calm locked harbour. We ended up casting off again as it was too hazardous. Due to the swell making it difficult for everyone to anchor, inside the locked gate was busy and little room to manoever and we ended up getting hit on the bow by a training boat trying to leave. After this it did all seem to settle down though.
The plan was so to leave the boat for a stint inland cycling around the island, the was a great success and highly recommended for anyone thinking of it. we ended up bivvying out ‘sous les belle etoiles’ (Small film to follow)
Ils du Glenans. You could be mistaken for thinking they were in some tropical paradise…well at least a chilly paradise anyway. Turquoise waters and huge (clean!) sandy beaches. It is the only place to find a rare narcissus which grows on one of the islands, different to other varieties its head dips demurely and perhaps rather sadly more like a bluebell than the happy daffodil family but none the less delicately. That evening moored up, which had taken some time to find as it is all relatively shallow, we were cooking when through the hull of the boat came strange noices. Running on deck there was an unusual scene… A dolphin with a deep piecing roaring noice was assertively head diving around the mooring buoy Shadowfax was attached to. He then moved onto several of the other boats before returning to the stern where he appeared to want to have some interaction and attention, trying to get as close as possible to us, perched on a little ledge. He seemed friendly but strong, this was a big dolphin quite different to the smaller ones we had seen swimming together before….
Conditions proved to be kind to us for the subsequent days and as we rounded the Pointe de Raz even on the calmest of days you could feel the wild currents with the boat wanting to pull from one side to the other and see little overfalls on the horizon. The tide was in our favour so we made good progress being pulled through it and onwards to the Odet river. There are many interesting points along this coast so you feel spoilt for choice but a happy couple of days were spent up the Odet river. You enter the river. You pass large chateaux on the riverbanks, their lawns coming down to the water getting a passing boat a great view of the turrets and pointy rooftops and facade details. Seeing this gave you a chance to really appreciate the charm of sailing in France and have the chance to glide past these historic monuments. The surprise was then to find yourself in a relatively wild feeling woods in between these grand properties. The odd shy heron, his neck elegantly silhouetted against the dark banks. A good anchorage was found which we were able to pin ourselves to a quiet stretch of water sheltered amongst the trees. The next day the mist hung atmospherically over the water. On going ashore wild oysters were found here on the banks. Their shells fragile but strong each one totally unique. Barnicles having found their home on many of them, made up of lines like contours as if they are little planets made up up many kinds of ivory white.
Tim got to work early on dismanterly the inmast furling, this had been problematic since the beginning making it very difficult for one of us to take the main sail in or out easily or quickly. He is very good at fixing things, almost everything, but this was always going to be a challenge and we were now in an isolated anchorage, at least up a river and not out to sea but in a remote location if anything didn’t quite go to plan or any other materials needed. A long day was spent taking panals off, degreasing, regreasing, checking bolts and cogs, readjusting ropes. True to character all back in place by the end of the day and mission accomplished the sail could be furled and defurled much more easily. This was significant as it makes being able to handle the boat solo much easier and if at times conditions are getting more difficult the sails need to be got in as quickly and easily as possible. The forfeit for the feat though was a race, run, strip to bow, dive into freezing water and swim to the stern to calm down after all the excitement!!
Finally the wind turned in our favour, the journey could be resumed and a calm journey was made to the outlying island of Ile Molene, infact it was flat as a mill pond. Feeling appreciative of having the luxury of time to take the opportunities to sail when conditions align and are conducive, or fast and then hunker down and find a sheltered spot, work and explore when they are not.
Ile Molene this is not so much chic as a little shabby compared to the more Southern French islands with lowly maintained grey buildings, a working island with a number of fishing boats in use. I hadn’t even realised there were islands off France before researching in the weeks before and they turned out to be a real highlight of this leg. We were moored up on a visitors buoy, one or two other boats around but otherwise quiet. Before going ashore some boat work was undertaken and Tim was up the mast, the was suddenly a stark of alarm and feet came pounding above on the deck. The world around appeared to be on the move!! The wind had switched and the boat had inadvertently sailed over the mooring buoy taking the rope, attached off and leaving us sailing free in the harbour! We quickly got the rope prepped to try to lassoo the buoy we were about to float by in the meantime a small fishing craft having seen the predicament came to our rescue and pushed us in the right direction! The rope was this time attached to the mooring buoy rather than just around it. Lesson learnt!
The discovery to be made on shore was not only that even a small island like this had three creperies(!) but also finding a plant called Alexanders which is quite common and the stem can be used as a vegetable or sweetened to make a sweet. Careful identification was made to avoid a close cousin.
Finally conditions started to improve and we jumped at the chance to sail West in choppy seas with close hauled sails and made our way towards L’Aber Vrac’h on the North West of France. Like many harbours from out at sea on first appearances it is disorientating to find that it doesn’t actually look like there is an entrance there and with the abundance of rocks pertruding and waves crashing over them you question yourself that a mistake hasn’t been made. Our pilot book describes it as looking like an ‘unlikely haven from offshore and there seems no way in through the rocky chaos until you spot the Liberter buoy with its doleful whistle.” Of course with the accuracy of modern day charts and GPS you can be pretty sure that there is an entrance. However, we all contemplated that this was the place during the Second World war where the Navy worked with French resistance to repatriate airmen shot down. The motor gun boats would creep in during a moonless night having crossed 100 miles from Uk with no instruments and find this rocky, wave ravaged, highly tidal little bay on the darkest of nights before picking up their clandestine cargo and creeping back out again before the first light of day.
One thing which is retained from the past is the tradition of seaweed harvesting. Every now and then the ‘Geomoniers’ as they are known, glided past in a flat bottomed boat with a small crane attached piled high with this slimy iodine rich crop. In the past and the present day they were used as fertilisers and spread on fields but today there are also more sophisticated uses in the pharmaceutical industry for cosmetics and as natural ingredients in herbal remedies.
This is now true oyster bed territory and with the huge tidal range of 9m these are totally obscured when the tide is up. However, when the sea goes down this intriguing sight of row upon row of metal mesh bags slowly appears suspended on racks above the mud containing the precious shells. They start as larvae floating around in the sea and then attach themselves to terracotta tiles, the ‘ostreiculteur’ then scrapes them off and puts them into the mesh pillows. They are pollution sensitive and will only grow in relatively clean water taking about two to three years to grow before being consumed. We were to go on to find some wild ones and other times we sampled cultivated ones. Cooked and sizzling they are delicious shallots, garlic, butter, breadcrumbs and parmesan and parsley.
We were waiting for conditions to calm before rounding the Western most part of France and tackling the Chenal Du Fort. However, fustratingly our progress was once more hampered by more bad weather and strong winds predicted so the decision was made to move upriver to a sheltered anchorage with big banks and trees all around. Boat work, artwork and general area exploration was made appreciating the calm, the birdsong and gentle lapping of water against the hull of being upriver. The other discovery from here was ‘les crepes’! On the way back from a walk we stopped in at a little place, I have always thought that pancakes are pancakes but this was quite something else and as it was to turn out in subsequent weeks of travel through Brittany, utterly irresistible! They are large, thin, have a lace like crispy exterior, a light vanilla flavour and a lot of butter. These can be eaten any time of the day, so there is little way to resist the temptation.
The next few days proved a frustrating wait for the conditions to improve before we could make round the headland as 40miles an hour howled outside and the boat bobbed around in the harbour. However, time was not lost as Roscoff, a pretty fishing town and old fashioned holiday resort of times gone by with picturesque architecture and a quintessentially Bretan character also offered an incredible array of (edible) sea life!We quickly became experts at clam collecting, at least we should have been with the research which was done however, without a lot of luck in finding them!Tim though, resorted to befriending locals who fed him a raw one at one point. The beach was a beautiful mosaic of all different coloured sea shells and we ended up resorting to collecting winkles or ‘bigorneau’ in French which were easily available and we were enthusiastic reassured a number of times ‘Ils sont délicieux pour l’aperitif”!! Of course once garlic, parsley and butter was added this could have been true of any little morsel and it certainly was a little morsel if a little chewy, tasty enough. Another intriguing find came as Tim shouted across the raw of the sea “This man has steak of the sea!” The Roscoffian bought out a huge fleshy creature the size of a small hamburger which came out of the most beautiful of turquoise inlaid iridescent shells. He smacked his lips with appreciation of “le steak du mer”! The other thing which was learnt about Roscoff and as you will find out in true Tricolour style this is mainly about eating, was that this was the port the ‘French Jonnys’ as the English like to put it would be sent off to work from dawn to dusk with nothing but their gallic charm, seductive broken English and strings of up to 100kg of pink onions to sell to passing housewives.
After some debate about whether to leave or not at the end of March as the wind was likely to be strong and a conditions a little rough or wait for a clearer weather pattern to emerge at some unpredictable point into April, the decision was made to go for it! After months off the boat over winter and no test run, it was with excitement and not a little trepidation that the ropes were cast off for the final time from Plymouth and we exited the open lock gates, welcomed into the sea by a massive seal bobbing its head meters from the lock entrance. The lock gate master shouted from above that he’s a well known character and has been around for years, turning up promptly when the lock gate open to guzzle delicious fish guts floating past from where the fishing boats would offload their cargo at the fish market warehouse, which had been our neighbour.
Weather warnings of yet more snow predicted manifested in the clouds hanging dark and heavy over the bay and cliffs as we glided past all the old war battlements and out to sea, the flag rippling sideways in the wind. We had a strong starboard beam reach for the whole crossing and made good, if rather cold progress, with the wind constantly blowing at 37nm. The initial plan had been to cross to France’s West coast and through the infamous Channel du Fort, renowned because of its strong tides and overfalls (breaking waves which are fixed in the same place and don’t move) but because this would add another complexity at night and potentially with less favourable conditions coming, a quick zip across of 120Mn to the closest port of call Roscoff, was made. We arrived at 2am in time to sleep and avoid a true night passage and then celebrate Easter later that day with an on board Easter egg hunt with Chloe and James who joined us during the crossing and seemed game to join in with everything!
It was March 2017 and suddenly a rare consistent Easterly had appeared on the forecast. We made it first to Ireland in a cold rough crossing then towards Scotland and through the picturesque Caledonian canal which is more of a river and than a canal and goes through the lochs including Loch Ness and you can cross the whole way through Scotland with Ben Nevis (sadly no snow that year) to one side. Then the bigger crossing over to Norway via the Sheltands on the back end of a big gale which saw us there in 72 hours.
Exciting to see snowy peaks as we arrived after the long crossing. The skiing turned out to be incredible, big sea to summit assents on slopes that stayed more stable than I was used to in the Alps. Due to the angle of the sun it means the conversion rate to less stable snow tends to be slower.
You go through a wide variety of landscape each day going from fishing boats to delicate silver birch trees to big wide open mountain. No we hadn’t made it in time to go up to the legendary Lofoten Islands which looks like skiers paradise, perhaps another year, but what we found was just as good, really good. We had no preconceived ideas about whether we would even make it in time for the end of the winter to be able to ski. When you are travelling at the mercy of the wind, time constraints have to go out the window in preference of the optimum conditions for speed and safety and sometimes even the destination need to be changed! We then spent 2 weeks sailing in the fjords of the spectacular Sunnmøre Alps in search of snow which did not take long to find. The day after leaving Alesund we were moored up in one of the many remote harbours in Norway with virtually no other boats around and ski toured our way up a valley of pristine powder snow from virtually sea level. After some fresh snowfall we were even able to start skinning up the mountain straight from the pontoon!
One of the (many!) best trips was into Trollland. By this point it was the end of May and The pass above had opened. Down in the valley the full heat of May baked us in our ski gear and (unusually) no car seemed to be stopping to give us a ride only looking at us strangely with all the ski gear as there was no clearly no snow to be seen anywhere here just flowers and green grass and we did start to wander if we had made a poor decision. Finally a man with his Thai wife and family kindly stopped to picked us up, he was going up the pass and to show his in laws snow for the first time, they found us our ski gear entertaining and when we finally made it up to the pass there were shrieks of laughter and a plethora of photographs taken. Thankfully there was also snow!
The trail we wanted to take could potentially be a circuit depending on conditions and how steep we wanted to go. The first part was a very gradual incline up along a big wide barren valley dodging grass, a couple of rivers and lakes on the way. We were making for a dramatic viewpoint where cliffs descend and you could see the sea beyond.
We spent the night here, listening to the silence of the mountains and having watched the sun go down it started to come back up again as we cooked up a late supper by the midnight light!
Then laid out our sleeping bags next to a weather station on some concrete, it looked like people hadn’t been here for weeks maybe months, maybe they just came in the summer? In a matter of hours our question to that one was answered when a loud engine roared above, suddenly a chopper was swinging overhead balancing a precarious load. We scrambled all of our stuff to the side in a matter of seconds as it descended! The staff, surprisingly friendly given the inconvenience offered us coffee and said they had already seen us on all the cameras around before leaving! Lesson learnt if you come across a large piece of concrete in the mountains with no snow. After deciding against the full circuit with uncertain visibility and without ice axe and crampons we instead toured up to a small peak.
The mist swirled around making us an island in the sky overlooking another couple of peaks, we waited a little and then in one of those wonderful moments as we clipped in, they clouds parted to give us a beautiful long clean descent on soft spring snow with just the odd rock hop and river jump.