“Swimming in Norway”

April 7, 2008

2006 began in Stavanger, where Dolphin had been left with Ingi Larusson moored at his Båtbyggeri. Ingi is a must for any visit to Stavanger, nothing being too difficult or amusing and he offers a safe mooring for one’s boat. The previous year had been spent amongst the islands of the Swedish Archipelago and its benign but brackish sea, once through the ‘hokey kokey’ of the Göta Canal it was back to salty waters with tides and wind and waves.

 

Northwards once again with Diccon and Jan, then later with Tommi, the trip had started in May, normally cold, but this year hot, at times twenty degrees, interspersed with hail and snow! A kaleidoscopic passage amidst islands and steep cliffs, through passages of seemingly newly cut gneiss and granite, raw and black and pitiless at times. Whole mountains disappearing in moments beneath black clouds and whipping snow, soft and tranquil with sand and heather shimmering in sunlight at others. The Norwegians were generous and helpful, and they like the British too! Despite Blair’s legacy of the Labour Government’s illegal war and the British people’s compliance with the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis. The Norwegians like the Swedes and Germans before them appeared sympathetic to my decision to fly the Welsh flag in preference to the butcher’s apron.

 

 Once in the vicinity of Bodø 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle we explored the area encompassing the Lofotens to the North West, the mainland and the thousands of islands between 67 and 69 degrees that are scattered in the Vestfjorden, finally leaving Dolphin just north of the Arctic Circle. It was sailing interspersed with walking in the mountains, the whole summer was spent exploring this glaciated landscape of dark rock, of isolated houses and villages scattered amidst the vastness of the geology often accessible only by boat. 

intentions when planning this trip. Amongst these was an intention to read the Odyssey. At the end of a day spent travelling past islands and through passages, after a supper, which would often be fresh fish and, later in the year, followed by blueberries picked on the shore we would sit in the saloon and read Homer aloud.


Towards the end of the summer when the nights reinstated themselves, after a strenuous walk of eight days or so, in the area between Narvik and the Swedish border, that marked the end of Emma’s visit, I sailed south with Diccon’s daughter Lily. Having meandered through the islands and fjords, each night mooring against a rock in a desolate cove or anchored in some wild place, we travelled to a small boat festival at the head of Saltdalsfjord, where, on the last day Lily had rowed five miles in a race, and, with her fellow rower, came fourth.

 

The rosy-fingered dawn found us on our way westward out of the fjord. Our Norwegian hosts still silent, asleep, in their boats. When all sails were set I persuaded Lily to go below and sleep some more whilst I enjoyed a crisp and soon almost windless morning.

 Suddenly, a blow on the shoulder, the pressure of the cap rail on an ankle, the deep corkscrew fall. The horror of the view of a stern as I made the surface, already too late, perhaps ten yards away then twenty. Through the shock of the intense cold I screamed again and again, each time the distance seemed to double. Below, the engine was overpowering all noise from the deck, and Lily was asleep in the Pilot berth beside the engine. 

 

As I watched Dolphin plough on, now slowly turning towards the far shore of the fjord, the horror of Lily asleep in a boat that at five knots was approaching the cliffs with nothing and no one to help her caused me to sink below the water. A terrible unbelievable sight, my fault, nothing to do, no one to help. The cold. Treading water, the boat far away now another gust breaking the almost airless day turned Dolphin again, she jibed again but still no one appeared on the deck. Rapidly Dolphin was reduced to a tiny white sail on my horizon, turning again, back whence we had come. Watching, terrified, helpless, guilty, the cold and below the surface cold and no air, drowning and back to the surface choking, still the white sail.  

 

 I had become bored with holding the tiller, tied it, then with my back to the boom, busied myself with changing the huge Welsh flag that I had been flying at the festival for the smaller one that did not trail in the water, a stupid, stupid unnecessary task to fill the time.

 

Treading water, watching, alone, waves of dread, guilt pushing down. Then suddenly out of nothing my mind takes over. I reason that I can do nothing except watch. That boat and Lily are no longer a part of me, it is my fault but I can do nothing, they are on their own, I now have to ignore them and concentrate on myself.

 

The last page of Pincher Martin comes into my mind. I have to shake off my shoes, break the first spell, and make the first advance. Despite myself I turn to see, and as I watch, the sail disappears behind the rocky shoulder of the turn of the fjord. Now I am alone, a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, at least a mile from shore, very cold. Fortunately the boom had hit me on the shoulder not the head, but now swimming was not so easy. I could make out the shore. Behind me, not far away is a marker buoy, I am too frightened to swim even further out and I am afraid it would not hold my weight or I would not be able to hold on to it. I turn to the so distant shore, with dread.

 After seven years Odysseus with the help and influence of the bright eyed Goddess Pallas Athene has escaped on a raft from the island of Ogygia and from Calypso, the demi-Goddess. Poseidon, the Earth shaker, the father of Cyclops who had been blinded by Odysseus sends monstrous storms that cause his raft to break up and he is thrown into the sea. Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus intervenes, and checking all other winds in their courses, summoned the north wind and flattened the waves in the swimmers path so that Odysseus, favourite of Zeus might be rescued from the jaws of death. For two days and two nights he swims, driven by heavy seas. As well as Pallas Athene he is helped by Ino of the slim ankles, daughter of Cadmas who now lives in the salt depths of the sea. Taking took pity on the forlorn and afflicted Odyssesus, she rose from the sea like a seagull on the wing and gives him her veil to wind around his waist, this will protect him.

 

 The Guernsey jumper, with the four layers beneath, and the padded trousers are heavy and constricting, impossible to remove. Their weight is dragging me down and makes my poor swimming worse. The cold begins to creep into the core of my body, having done its work on the limbs. No Ino of the slim ankles or a Goddess to help me. As I slowly swim towards an impossible shore, Poseidon, Pallas Athene, Ino and Odysseus fill my mind, spin and interplay. I am conscious that only my effort and not my musing of these heroes can help me. However much I struggle towards the dark cliffs on my horizon they come no closer. Low on the cliff is a curious red gash in the rock and I choose this to swim towards. The cold creeps through my chest. My clothes pull me under more now, I am very afraid. I stop and sink, then coming to the surface tear away this fear and think of those names and the wonderful survival of that epic story. I turn on my back and kick with my feet for a while, not knowing that it would be better to do the breaststroke action with my feet. I know I am hardly moving, that I still have to swim a greater distance than I have ever swum before. I force myself to kick with my feet, I had given up, hopelessly bobbing just surfaced, and the cold had taken over.

 

“There were no coves, no harbours that would hold a ship; nothing but headlands jutting out, sheer rock and jagged reefs. Odysseus’ knees grew weak and his heart failed. Oh misery he groaned, against all hope Zeus let me see land after I won my way across that vast expanse of water, only to find there is no escape from the foaming sea. Off shore the pointed reefs, all around the raging sea, behind, a smooth shear cliff; deep water near the shore; no place where a man can touch bottom and scramble to safety”.

 

There is a terrible noise, a tearing groaning. I look around at first not understanding the source then realise it comes from me. An awful sound, death’s rattle perhaps, I can no longer catch my breath, I want it to be over. Then I see the red gash is closer. Turning on my back I kick and kick. I was closer but I now see I am being swept past my gash to where the cliffs fall shear to the water. I have to counter the current or swim across the cliff. I follow my hero’s path. Now time has no meaning, an endless period of effort and loneliness and cold. Imperceptibly the cliff nears but again and again a great fear enters me. The cold and the weariness, the loneliness and the dread of Lily’s fate whisper me back below to the end of effort. My legs can work no more. The groaning follows me, echoing against the cliff. It was like nothing I have heard, neither animal nor human. I am terribly alone, uncontrollably frightened, self-pity consumes me, I slip below the surface. Beneath the water I see rocks, I am perhaps fifty yards off the cliff and now I can see the place where the cliff finishes and there are boulders articulating the shore.

 “Presently Odysseus’ progress brought him to the mouth of a fast flowing stream and in his heart he prays to the river god “ Hear me Lord whoever you are. I come to you as many others have come, with a prayer; I am a fugitive from the sea and from Poseidon’s malice. The river checked its current, and holding back its waves made the water smooth in the swimmers path, and so brought him safely to land at its mouth.

 

 I had no such Gods.

 I felt it was too much, too far, only twenty yards but too far, I am so frightened and so cold but I see stones beneath. Forgetting that an anchor could be seen fifteen metres below in the sand I try to stand on one and sink in a chaos of water and lungs and moaning. Terrified I paddle on, but now I cannot die. Again I try, and sink again. Then seaweed around my feet, the bruise of a stone, then another. On my knees my white and wrinkled hand touches the land. I crawl, clutching to a great rock and lie shaking in the sun! Watching myself spread-eagled I cannot believe that I have made it.

 

It had taken about an hour. After a while despite the uncontrollable shaking, I manage to stand, take off my clothes ring them out then replace them. Unable to walk, I crawl away from the sea up a bank of dense vegetation to a house. I find it locked, but discover a yellow tarpaulin which I wrap myself in despite the slugs. I fall into the grasses and later watch a helicopter go over, towards the turn of the fjord and where Lily and Dolphin had gone, behind the cliffs. Does it look for Lily or for me? I am so worried but dare not think so much. Later, when I am a little warmer I discard the tarpaulin, rewrap the lawn mower with its cover, then slowly make my way back to the edge of the fjord. I dare not sit. I stand and shake.

 

 Eventually, in a haze, the curved and gaily painted prow of a Viking ship. Slowly it reveals itself from behind the cliff, the silent silhouette of figures stark against the sunlight, then it moves inward to me and I have been found.

 

 All is action. I am given dry cloths to wear. They had found the computer on Dolphin and seen where her erratic course had begun, far away from where they had presumed. There is Dolphin high and dry on the shore. Here is Lily, safe. There are perhaps a dozen boats quartering the sea, now returning from searching for the body. The helicopter roars away. Later, when the tide turns, and the boat floats, we slide it out from the small river’s mouth, where she has pushed aside the rocks and lain in the only bed of sand on the southern shore. We sail once again for the mouth of the fjord.

 

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