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The Love of Landfalls

For the author, every landfall is memorable, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
For many years I have made landfalls for a living, and I confess it isnít a bad gig. As a professional sailboat skipper I have delivered hundreds of boats to far-flung quaysides. And while swift sloops, plodding cutters, stout ketches, graceful yawls, and reluctant schooners all run together in my brain like characters in a Garcia Marquez novelóone facet of every voyage remains crystal clearóall the landfalls Iíve made, the good, the bad and, the ugly. For some reason, I never forget a landfall. 

There are few events filled with as much promise as the prospect of making landfall after a long voyage. Of course long is relative and can be defined many ways. Long for me was the 72 days it took to con my diminutive Contessa 32 from Valparaiso, Chile north to the Golden Gate. We were down to the last few cans of provisions, canned asparagus at that, and fairly serious water rationing. It was time to make landfall. Long, however, for a former student of mine, was an eight-hour transit of the Gulf Stream. He whooped and hollered like old Chris Columbus when the spindly tower on South Bimini hove into view, swearing heíd never go to sea again and offering to buy the crew drinks at the Complete Angler once we made it ashore.

Landfalls require patience, they almost never sneak up on you. Nature provides plenty of hints that land may be imminent. Towering cumulous clouds are one of the first clues that tierra firma lurks ahead, especially if your destination is a tropical island. Depending on the wind direction and strength, seasoned sailors may observe a change in the wave pattern and note a sudden disappearance of swell as a sign that land is in the offing. Of course, if youíre making landfall on a continental shelf, the change in water color indicates that youíre closing the coast. And, when sea birds give way to shore birds, like gulls and pelicans, you can be certain that land is near.

Gradually, what begins as a thin, dark line takes shape as a land form, beckoning the sailor with its promise of relative safety.

Finally, the moment occurs, a dark silhouette appears, steadying the distant rolling horizon. You canít help yourself, you bellow out, "land ho." Sure itís corny, but it feels good to hear it just the same. Gradually the thin dark line grows and takes form. Eventually it assumes a recognizable profile. Then, as you draw near, the sea buoy waves and approach marks define the channel. Soon youíll be propped up in a seaside cantina, spinning yarns and planning future passages. The leaks, the breakdowns, the gales, they fade away like a pale sunset, landfall is the great elixir, it cures every ailment.

Even in this age of GPS navigation, where landfalls have become merely inevitable, for me the thrill of reaching a new destination never wanes and I wonder what surprises lurk. I clearly remember a long cold night 10 years ago, working my way past the offshore islands Scharhorn and Neuwerk, beyond Cuxhaven and into the mouth of Elbe River. It was late February, a North Sea gale was brewing and I was ready for a break. The river is well marked, but visibility was poor and ships were steaming to and from Hamburg with little regard for our yacht. We anchored just outside the channel to await slack water.

It was anything but restful as we sounded our horn every couple of minutes. When the tide changed, we raised anchor and skipped from mark to mark, heading toward Brunsbuttel, a small town perched at the southwestern terminus of the Kiel Canal. It was past midnight and I assumed we needed to make arrangements to transit the canal in the morning, I just wanted a spot to tie up for the night and to collapse into my bunk. I hailed the canal office on the VHF, not really expecting a reply. A stern, female voice cackled back at me in clipped but precise English. I told her that I was surprised that the canal was open at that hour. The voice changed to exasperation. "Captain, you are in Germany now, the Kiel Canal is open 24-hours, prepare to enter the south lock chamber immediately." Some landfalls offer no relief.

Not every landfall is a welcome one. If clouds or haze obscure the destination, the sailors work is intensified.
Why do I remember landfall details so clearly? Maybe itís because of the intense chart work that goes into a landfall. After the freedom of being at sea, landfalls demand precision and concentration. I quietly study the harbor chart days before arrival, storing away bits of information. Still, I suspect there is something more. Landfalls become the bookends of a passage, rightly or wrongly, passages are shaped and judged by landfalls. Yes, the landfalls remain sharp in my mind, those rough edges of sand and rock, where sea, land, dreams, and reality collide with thundering certainty. 

Naturally, after years of sailing about, I have some favorite landfalls and a few that I am not particularly fond of. Of course impressions of any landfall are based on the conditions of the moment, but for what its worth here is a look at some landfalls that occupy space in my mindís hard drive.

Rio de Janeiro    Iíll never forget a Christmas morning arrival many years ago. Guanabara Bay is a near perfect natural harbor, as a one-mile mouth widens into a broad but well protected bay. Verdant, lumpy peaks provide the backdrop while Rioís towering skyline explodes up from waterís edge. Anything seems possible in Rio. Indeed, it seemed a bit surreal, after 30 days at sea, to sail in the shadow of Sugar Loaf Mountain and wind our way to the elegant visitorís dock of the Rio de Janeiro Yacht Club. The incredibly lovely dock girl who corralled our lines confirmed my earlier hunch.

"Anything seems possible in Rio. Indeed...the incredibly lovely dock girl who corralled our lines confirmed my earlier hunch. "

Hilo, Hawaii    We had been at sea for 34 days when I spied the distant peak of Mauna Loa. Reaching well above the clouds, we were still 70 miles away from the Big Island. Normally, itís anticlimactic and frustrating to spot land and know that youíre still a half a dayís sail away from a shore-side shower and a cold beer. However, in this case, the long passage from Panama had been trying, and just knowing that the splendors of Hawaii loomed ahead was most reassuring. Even a Tsunami warning didnít dim the pleasant memories of making landfall in Hilo.

Colon, Panama    There is nothing dramatic, at least geographically, about making landfall at the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. In fact, most of my landfalls have been made in haze and drizzle, as sky, water and horizon merged in a gray, languid conspiracy. Usually you spot the many ships anchored in the roads before you observe the huge outer breakwalls. Passing through the imposing stone ramparts, you make your way past shabby Colon to the yacht staging area. The harbor is filled with commercial traffic, the water is dirty, and yet I love the place. It suddenly feels so tropical, and just knowing that Iíll soon be transiting the canal fills me with wonder and awe.

With volcanic Pico towering in the distance, the harbor at Horta is spectacular destination for weary transatlantic sailors.

Horta, Azores    This may be my favorite landfall of all. Then again, I say that kind of thing all the time, but I do like the port of Horta on the enchanting isle of Faial. Most approaches are made from the west, as Horta is a waypoint for almost all eastbound transatlantic passages. Invariably the first land you spot is the improbable island of Pico. Lying just beyond Faial, Pico explodes out of the water like an island version of the Tower of Babel. The approach is straightforward. Faial is steep-to and there are few off lying dangers. Once you round the outer breakwall you spot the crowded docks of the marina. You can breath easy, the 1800-mile passage from Bermuda is behind you, there is good camaraderie among fellow voyagers, and a cool Super Bock in Cafť Sportóthe Atlanticís best watering holeóis just a short walk up the street.

Falmouth, England    Landfall in charming Falmouth means that the Atlantic is at last behind you and you can let your guard down. Falmouth is the perfect harbor to collect your thoughts before you make your way into the busy English Channel and congested Solent. The approach is safe in all weather, even in a southerly gale, in fact Falmouth Harbor is one of best natural harbors in Europe. Once in the broad bay, you curl back west into the inner harbor and can make your way well up the Penrhyn River. I usually find my way to the visitorís quay at Yacht Haven Marina. Once cleared in, I head to the somewhat stuffy, glass-lined dining room overlooking the harbor in the Greenbank Hotel and have a ceremonial meal. This is the very spot, or so the story goes, where Kenneth Graham wrote one of my favorite stories, The Wind in the Willows. After an Atlantic passage, those immortal words about messing about in boats never seem more appropriate.

Of course there are also landfalls that you remember for other reasons too. For some reason, every time I sail into San Francisco Bay an ugly and unlikely easterly makes the approach miserable. Approaching Bermuda from the northwest in an autumn noríeaster isnít much fun either. And once I nearly impaled my boat in an offshore fishing weir searching for Bombay Harbor in a polluted haze. Of course currents, tidal range, and poor visibility made the Brittany port of Brest a difficult landfall for me a couple of years ago, and any North Sea landfall can be challenging.

However, the tough landfalls donít linger like the good ones, I donít know why. When I close my eyes I see St. Thomas or Barbados in the distance, I see Tahiti and the low peaks of Tonga. Ah landfall, there is nothing else like it.

John Kretschmer is offline  
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