When long-distance American sailor Nick Kats – now 62 - arrived into Clifden in far west Connemara nearly ten years ago with his 39ft steel Bermudan ketch Teddy, it started a fascinating new chapter in an already interesting life. For although his vocational training had turned him into a skilled carpenter and shipwright, his aptitude was as a sailor, he was also a doctor specialising in natural medicines, and in the exceptionally-varied environment of this part of Ireland’s always fascinating Atlantic seaboard, he was to find an area rich in possibilities, and his lifelong interest in foraging acquired new dimensions.
So although since 2012 he has had a longterm plan of sailing back to his home territory in the US’s Pacific northwest - ideally by using the Northwest Passage – events and changing circumstances have managed to prevent it, or at least put it on a very long finger. Certainly, he has made exploratory voyages to the High Arctic. But as often as not, he seems to have intentionally ended up well east of Greenland’s southern tip of Cape Farewell, way up around Iceland and Jan Mayen and East Greenland, and then Teddy invariably returns to her familiar winter berth, comfortably drying out at low water against the picturesque quayside in Clifden.
Apart from becoming part of the Clifden and west Connemara community, where he now has a shore base with a house set deep in that Land of the Sea, Nick Kats was already in several communications groupings when he arrived thanks to his eclectic range of interests, while he is also in a very special group of sailors in being deaf. Thus internet communications are a Godsend for him in recruiting crew, and the blogs by himself and various crewfolk hint at the diversity of characters that the wanderings of Teddy attract, such as Pierre the French chef who came aboard with rumours of experience in some very famous kitchens.
He’d been met through Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt where he’d been working as a boatbuilder with Liam Hegarty, the restorer of Ilen among many other major projects. Yet somehow Pierre managed to spend a long period sailing on Teddy without cooking a single meal. But as Nick can rustle up superb food, occasionally from some unlikely ingredients, that was no problem.
We learn of this from crewman Josh, a New Zealander who claims with some pride to have no fixed abode, who tells also how they all get along with Nick’s virtually total deafness since his birth in France 62 years ago. It seems they simply take it for granted or forget about it as time passes, learning to face him fully when talking in daylight, while at night there’s something resembling telepathy to keep things moving along.
Not that Teddy is an excessively labour-intensive boat, as she is one of those rare but wonderful craft which can easily be made to steer herself on most points of sailing. Designed and built in steel as one of two in 1988 by Arne Hedlund of Denmark, her design certainly gives a nod to Colin Archer. But she’s very much her own boat, with a transom stern which provides valuable cockpit and deck space right aft, where a classic canoe-sterned Redningsskoyte design from Archer tends to be distinctly cramped.
In fact, Teddy is a boat of moderation in everything, being neither too wide nor too narrow, neither too heavy nor too light, with as much accommodation as can reasonably be fitted without reaching sardine-can territory. Her hull balances easily, and having a ketch rig increases the options for sail combinations to minimize helm load while still providing driving power such that – like Slocum’s Spray – once set in the grove, she just goes effortlessly on steering herself for miles and miles, the ease of it all shortening the apparent distance.
Nick Kats’ pleasure in all this is such that, although he was in East Greenland waters as recently as last year, yesterday (Monday) Teddy departed from the comfort of Clifden, outward bound for his third visit to that remote area beyond Iceland, over towards Greenland, and up to Jan Mayen. There, the ice cover is certainly much less than it was when Lord Dufferin made his pioneering high latitude cruise with the schooner Foam in 1856, as a result of which the charts of that rugged and remote island still show a small cove named Clandeboye Creek on the eastern shore, far indeed from the luxuriant ‘Gold Coast’ of North Down where Dufferin’s ancestral lands were centred around Clandeboye House.
Teddy’s current voyage is limited only by the fact that two of the crew – Dutch finance student Arjan Leuw (24) and Italian architect Piero Favero (33) - have flights booked out of Iceland on 6th September, following which Nick and remaining Irish crewman Aodh O Duinn (29, and a veteran of tall ships) expect to head for home and Clifden double-handed.
But just what some of the remote ports and settlements that they expect to visit will make of a boat coming in from far beyond the seas in this time of COVID-19 remains to be seen. As things are, it is quite an achievement to have assembled an international crew and get free to voyage towards distant horizons and remote snow-covered peaks.
Meanwhile, there is much busy research currently under way among various cruising and long-distance organisations as to just what is or is not possible in the Arctic, where we instinctively feel that the disease will not be so rampant, thanks to sparseness of population and the purity of air.
Whether or not that is the case is a moot point. As it is, we cannot help but notice that, through the month of June, many frustrated Irish sailors were sustained by the wonderful thought of the one-armed voyager Garry Crothers successfully battling alone across 3,500 miles of the Atlantic in order to get home to Derry.
And now, the mantle of our sailing dreams has been taken over by a highly individualistic owner-skipper who has not let profound deafness limit his joy in voyaging and savouring the special nature of the High Arctic cruising grounds. Our thoughts are with the crew of the Teddy, and thanks to Damian Ward of Clifden Boat Club, we have this drone footage of the ketch taking her low-key departure from Clifden Quay, and heading out for other places beyond the northern seas.