Katy Stickland talks to Norwegian sailor Erik Aanderaa about why he searches out the worst weather the North Sea can throw at him and his Contessa 35
He doesn’t want people to emulate what he is doing.
The 37-year-old has spent years slowly increasing his experience of sailing in heavy weather, crossing the North Sea in the middle of winter aboard his Contessa 35, Tessie, to test his ability, the boat and his equipment, all of which will prove invaluable when he sails to Greenland in July.
Like many offshore singlehanded sailors Aanderaa wants to know how his boat will handle in different conditions and make sure his seamanship skills are as honed as possible before any big adventure.
The legendary Jean-Luc Van den Heede used a similar strategy ahead of the 2018-19 Golden Globe Race, spending a winter season sailing his Rustler 36, Matmut, out in Biscay as preparation for Southern Ocean storms.
Based on his Biscay experiences, the French solo skipper lowered the yacht’s mast by 1.5m. He believes this prevented the yacht from dismasting, after his end-to-end pitchpole in 11m seas, 1,900 miles from Cape Horn.
But is deliberately sailing out into a Force 10 taking it too far?
‘Fear is only produced by the lack of knowledge. To get knowledge you will have to face your fear,’ defended Aanderra. ‘Sailing in over 50 knots downwind, offshore is touching the limit for what the boat can safely take. But now I know how it is.’
Aanderaa started sailing when he was 11 years old. He had asked his father for a small motorised dinghy but instead received an 11ft sailing dinghy, similar to an Optimist, which he regularly sailed in the inshore waters of Haugesund on Norway’s west coast.
‘I was very negative to start with, but after some trying and failing I got to grips with sailing and one day I just sailed away without knowing how to get back. I got further and further out. My dad had to come and get me with the neighbour’s boat. From that moment I knew sailing was my thing and I became addicted.’
At the age of 14 he progressed to a 15ft Mørebas Duett, which ‘got me learning sailing in stronger winds and got me even more obsessed.’
‘I tried the Duett once or twice a little offshore and that probably triggered much of my sense for adventure,’ noted Aanderaa.
His passion also extended to his career choice. After leaving school, he became an apprentice-on-deck on a cargo vessel. His wage was soon put to good use, buying a 22ft Maxi 68, which gave him the freedom to go further afield.
At the age of 22 he accepted the position of first officer on a North Sea supply ship. The extra income allowed him to start looking for a new yacht.
He saw an advert for a 1976 Doug Peterson-designed Contessa 35, built by Jeremy Rogers in Lymington.
Heavily built, with a deep cockpit, manageable sail plan and short distances on deck, it was love at first sight and he bought Tessie on the spot. ‘Then the real fun could start,’ recalled Aanderaa.
In 2006-07 he sailed Tessie solo from Norway to Malaga ‘just to see how the boat and I worked together’.
The voyage also cemented his love of winter sailing in heavy weather. ‘Spain was hot. I stop functioning properly in very hot weather and didn’t enjoy it. I missed the cold North Sea weather, so I turned around and headed back to Norway,’ explained the adrenaline junkie.
‘I’ve always dreamt about winter sailing in the North Sea. Everyone said it was dangerous and that only stupid people would try it. I was told I would put the lives of rescue crews at risk. But I knew this was coming from people without proper experience.’
Aanderaa continued sailing Tessie off the west coast of Norway, developing his heavy weather tactics.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. In 2011 he ran aground on rocks outside Haugesund while sailing in sub-zero conditions, severely damaging the rudder. Lessons were learnt though. At the time, he had been wearing cotton gloves which, once wet, failed to keep his hands warm.
‘I lost the feeling in my hands and arms and couldn’t steer properly. I went down to get warm and I ended up in a state of hypothermia and forgot how close to land I was. The next thing I had run aground breaking the rudder to pieces, ending up on a rock out of the water.’
Tessie was pulled off by a rescue boat and, six months later, Aanderaa was sailing again.