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Pionier and Senta




Sailor's humor

Senta to greenland.


  The first owner of SENTA, Dr. Cees den Hartoog, published this article in the February 1976 issue of Yachting World

Singlehanded sailing high latitudes must be the most demanding sort of cruising. Dr. C. den Hartoog finds the challenge irresistible.

Why should a hardworking general practitioner spend the whole of his precious holidays on tiring voyages to distant destinations? I don't know, dear friends, but my wife believes that most modern males are, from nature's viewpoint, having such miserable lives that the craving for corporal and spiritual challenges at last becomes irresistible and then a good, long sailing voyage is a very fitting solution. Maybe she is right: at any rate it simply makes you happy to do it and afterwards offers the same satisfaction as a long skating trip in heavy weather, climbing difficult trees or swimming in surf in a strong onshore breeze.

To become a reasonable sailor it is not quite sufficient to cross the North Sea or to make a summer voyage to the Baltic. Now and then you should choose a difficult passage, with small crews, and accept the setbacks of such a voyage as a necessary training and education. With these considerations in mind the intention to sail to Greenland was born. Don't suspect me of masochism, all my close friends know better.

In our newly (1970) completed transom-sterned aluminium sloop (length 10.87 m, beam 3.00 m, draught 1.70 m, my wife and I made, in the same year, a very pleasant voyage to the Azores and back, and on the way praised the designer Dick Koopmans, the builder Wolter Huisman, and the sailmaker Ubbe de Vries. In our former yacht, a steel double ender of 28 ft, we had already visited all West European coasts. However, the idea to sail to the Arctic did not fall on good ground with my faithful mate. Especially when I told her honestly that during the outward voyage strong and often stormy head- winds were to be expected, that beyond Cape Farewell during 40 per cent of the time fog could be met and that it would be necessary to acquire the fine art of ice navigation. She quite rightly concluded that this would be a bit too much for a grandmother. I had to sail alone. Not cosy, but very instructive.

That year, 1971, I first called at Reykjavik, where I was happy enough to meet Major Tilman, a most inspiring man. I was told by experienced ice pilots that at that moment all harbours of East Greenland were beset by heavy pack, and for a ship like mine would be only accessible after 4 to 6 weeks. That was too long for me to wait, so with a heavy heart I sailed back by way of Scotland, where I took my wife on board. Next year I was better informed. North of Frederickshab, on the west coast of Greenland, during summer, it is usually possible to circumnavigate the pack. You have only to deal with bergs, which can be avoided one by one. The general course from Holland is NW. 500 miles to the 60th parallel, after that 1300 miles west to Cape Farewell and finally 200 or 300 miles NW. to Frederickshab.

On the 10th of June. 1972, at the Naval Yacht Harbour of Den Helder, I said goodbye to my wife, my eldest son and my youngest granddaughter, and driven by a fine sou'westerly breeze Senta quickly brought the dunes of Texel below the horizon. No need to steer, Hasler's Trimtab Vane Steering kept her nicely on her course. In the afternoon we passed some of the drilling platforms, that nowadays disfigure the North Sea. For the rest attention had to be paid to the numerous trawlers, cutters and drifters on the Doggerbank, Silverpit and Fladengrounds, names that brought back memories of my youth when I was sent to the herring fisheries for educational reasons. The wind was free: during the last few days I could set a trade wind rig. Senta runs beautifully under this rig, but as soon as the sea begins to rise she rolls rather heavily.

After four days Fair Isle came in sight after which the course became west, right into the wind. On the North Atlantic Ocean the direction of the prevailing winds is between WSW. and WNW., so for a passage to Greenland a yachtsman has to reckon with a tacking course of about 1500 miles. Senta is very close winded: even in Force 8 she still easily wins height, too easily I think sometimes, for under those circumstances the onrushing seas can deal such heavy blows that at some places the plating between the frames becomes dented, as I found out already during the voyage to Iceland last year. Yet making west must be the first and foremost object in the mind of the Greenland sailor. He must in this respect be a bit of a monomaniac, otherwise he simply won't arrive there.

Two days after Fair Isle everything pointed to an approaching gale, falling glass, low and heavy skies, backing and rising wind. I can just take a bath on deck with seawater and detergent, but then Senta needs her storm staysail and treble reef. A gale at sea in a good ship is not as bad as some stories try to tell you. There are only two worries: will everything remain intact and is there enough room downwind? Room a-lee is no problem on the ocean and Senta is a well-built ship, so when all necessary measures are taken there is no reason for worry and the only thing to do is to wait watchfully until the weather improves. The sight of the ocean in a gale is a sublime spectacle. It frees the human spirit from lower matters and lifts the soul to higher planes.

This first gale meant no problem, but alas, after a slight improvement the Shipping Forecast warned for a new and very deep depression with westerly winds of Force 10. When this promise was fulfilled we were 200 miles north of Rockall. All sail is handed, and Senta, her helm lashed a-lee rides the enormous seas with the wind a little forward of the beam. Every 10 minutes the steering well is flooded by the overcoming water, but to my great joy and relief the ship herself throws most of it out again with the next sea. Like a living creature Senta struggles, rearing and rolling over the breaking crests, rising against every on- storming sea and diving deeply into the following valley. When all work on deck was done and I was looking at this awe inspiring scene, both hands secured around the lee lower shrouds, we were thrown completely flat by a particularly heavy breaker. The ship lay on her port side, her mast in the sea. Her skipper went under water and was pushed outboard along the shrouds by the roaring sea. After some seconds Senta recovered and swung me aboard again with an enormous sweep. At that moment I felt myself considerably less at home on the ocean than I thought before. For some days the muscles of my lower arms were stiff and sore, but I was lucky enough to be able to tell you this story. It would have been safer to run, but in this gale that would have meant an hourly loss of 5 or 6 hard-earned miles. Twenty hours later a small sail could be set again and the battle for making west resumed. In the weeks to follow a long procession of lows, several with gale force wind travelled from west to east. In the centre of such depressions it was sometimes almost calm, but it never paid to un reef. It was gradually getting considerably colder, 5° C down below and still colder on deck. The loneliness and lack of human contact were dull, but it caused no significant spiritual decay as far as I could perceive myself. However, when on a certain Sunday I heard an Eskimo minister launch a preach over the Greenland Radio system, I liked the sound of it, although the only words I understood were Jesus Christ and Amen.

On the 5th of July I sighted the sharp and icy peaks of Greenland in the neighbourhood of Cape Farewell, on the starboard bow at a distance of about 50 miles. Through Radio Christansund I could transmit a radio telegram for home that all was well and started to look out for bergs. Alas, in Davis Strait I met strong northerly winds, so more tacking ahead, but, apart from periods of hail and rain there was a reasonable visibility, and so when after a few days numerous icebergs appeared, no difficult situations arose. A big iceberg makes a very deep impression on the insignificant man. The enormous mass of ice, in its irresistible course is a symbol of silent, but relentless might, capable of careless destruction, but at the same time a spectacle of unearthly beauty in countless shades of light blue and soft, green hues. I circumnavigated them all at a safe distance, for the thundering surf on their weathersides inspired deep awe.

On the latitude of Frederickshab I asked the local radio station whether the coast was bound by pack. A very helpful radio officer inquired at the coastguard and called me again after half an hour, telling me there was no pack of any significance, only bergs, so that calling at Frederickshab would not be very difficult. Not that difficult perhaps, but in front of the coast of Greenland are countless archipelagoes of small rocky islands, many of them just below the surface at high water. Moreover, icebergs often obstruct the view of important marks ashore. But all went well and on 12 July, after 31 days of almost continual tacking I could moor Senta alongside a small wooden cutter, assisted by four Greenland girls, who apparently had nothing else to do at this time of the night (2 am). After having expressed my thanks for the pleasant help at the radio station I tried to sleep, but I did not succeed; everything was much too quiet.

In the morning a Danish engineer came on board, a very nice gentleman who had a prompt solution for all domestic problems, like having a sauna and the handling of the ship's laundry. He invited me for lunch, and seated at his table in a very comfortable prefabricated Norwegian bungalow I could hear over the Greenland radio quite a story about Senta's voyage, apparently already passed on by my host to the news agency.

Frederickshab, with its 2000 inhabitants, is one of the two big settlements of Greenland. It can only be reached by sea or helicopter if the weather permits. It has a small hospital, and the doctor who runs it, together with his wife, showed me over the place and told me about his principal worries: gonorrhoea, alcoholism and tuberculosis. The local Greenlanders are of mixed Eskimo-Scandinavian blood. As far as they work they are fishing and hunting, but there is not enough employment for the rapidly expanding population. The Danish Government tries to meet this by founding fish-processing industries, while the local doctor extensively promotes birth control.

Nature around Frederickshab is grand and relentless, the mountains are steep and barren, with everywhere snow in the shaded places. The village is very picturesque with its wooden houses in blue and red colours, but just as everywhere plastic and other rubbish begins to spoil the landscape.

After four days in Frederickshab I started looking more and more to the mouth of the fjord, and when a telegram arrived from Holland saying that all was well at home. I saw no reason to postpone the homeward voyage. Some sporting Danes gave me a grand send off and when the sea between the skerries became a bit too much for their little motor launches, fired their rifles as a farewell, while Senta again put her stem in the icy swell.At first many icebergs required constant watch, but 50 miles outside the sea was practically ice free. Next day in the afternoon we met a brief gale which made me very seasick during a few hours, but after that everything went very smoothly. A running wind at Cape Farewell and then a fine south-easterly breeze was maintained by a high (very rare in these seas) that travelled east just in front of me. After a fortnight of excellent sailing, mostly under full sail, sometimes making more than 170 miles a day, the first Scottish trawlers were sighted. To my regret on the North Sea visibility became worse and worse and the last two days before Granton Harbour, where my wife should come on board, were sailed in dense fog and little wind. During the last hours extra attention was needed for the numerous ships waiting for the end of the harbour strikes, at anchor on the Firth of Forth. The vane cannot be trusted under these circumstances, so the ship had to be steered. On the night of 30 July the good vessel could be moored to the wooden jetty of Granton Harbour.

After some hours sleep I was awakened by footsteps on deck. Must be the immigration officer, I thought, a small man, no doubt, his steps are very light. But to my great joy my good wife came down the companionway. She arrived the day before and stayed at the house of Barry Crowther, one of the members of the hospitable Royal Forth Yacht Cub, an institution of which we both already had very happy memories. We spent three fine days in Granton Harbour and on 4 August went to sea again for the last part of the voyage, 400 miles to Den Helder, which took about three and a half days of happy sailing.


Severe conditions make great demands of the body, physically and mentally. Dr. den Hartoog outlines some of the lessons he has learnt.

Fatigue at sea is or a great part a psychological and spiritual weariness. The typical muscular exhaustion, as experienced after a long run or a long- distance cycling or skating trip, with the accompanying rise of lactic acid in the tissues, rarely occurs at sea, but long periods of fog or a few days of gale puts a heavy strain on our central nervous system and our senses, particularly on eyesight, hearing and vestibular apparatus, which are battered by an enormous excess of incoming impulses.

Although generally speaking youth and an excellent physical condition are an advantage, yet experience and stamina are of predominant importance. That is why in my opinion long voyages in unfavourable climates, single handed or with small crews offer the best training for the necessary endurance.

To recondition the nervous system after a difficult spell, sleep is of paramount importance. Usually a long sleep is out of the question. A quick nap is better than nothing at all, but if circumstances allow you, a good farmer's night will make you a new man.

As for drugs, I myself never use any, neither to induce sleep nor to stay awake. The harmful side effects of drugs, especially those of the stimulants, never outweigh the benefit of them, which is moreover of very short duration and always followed by substantial depressions that can be very unwelcome.

Food under tiring circumstances should be light and not abundant. Your blood is needed in your brain and not in your digestive tract. Small meals of sweets and biscuits and hot broth or tea will do, with an occasional apple to clean the mouth. Heavier stuff like fried bacon and eggs should be reserved for after the crisis.

Fatigue is more difficult to endure when you are wet and cold; wetness and cold mean an extra burden. Choosing the right foul weather gear means greater power of endurance.

Finally, I would like to mention one of the most important, maybe the principal factor to stand up against fatigue, namely peace of mind. Peace of mind is acquired by skilful fitting out, by knowing your trade, by confidence in your crew and in your own capacities, even by a happy marriage at home and last but not least by considering yourself as a privileged person when called upon to surmount difficult and trying circumstances at sea. Every devoted sailor who has fought his faithful ship through a really bad gale in a seamanlike way will know what I mean.