An adventurous passage in a 30 ft Bavaria from Finland to Arctic Svalbard
Adventurer, Sailor, Producer and Environmental Stuntman are just some of the labels you can put on 49 year old Kari “Ruffe” Nurmi from Helsinki, Finland. During a circumnavigation of Svalbard his inflatable dinghy suffered a near lethal encounter with a Polar Bear. Now he plans to cross back and forth the Baltic Sea the distance of an Atlantic Ocean crossing!
We had a chance to hear from "Ruffe" himself on sailing in the higher latitudes and future plans.
- While researching an article for the magazine about sailing to Svalbard, you showed up in a video on YouTube sailing a 30 foot Bavaria from Finland to Svalbard. Before getting into that story, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in sailing
My childhood dream was to become an ocean sailor, and when I was 20-years old I managed to get a small Bavaria 300. I don’t come from a sailing family, so I needed to learn everything by myself, and the best way to learn was long distance sailing. In 1990, without any cruising experience, I sailed from Helsinki to Kiel in Germany and back. The following year to Shetland and Faroe Islands. At age 23 I sailed my small Bavaria from Finland to the USA and did my first Atlantic Ocean crossing. Next year, in 1993, I sailed my boat back to Finland. It was one of the toughest sails I have ever done. I became the youngest Finnish skipper to cross the Atlantic Ocean both ways, and with the smallest sailboat.
Fifteen years later, in 2009, a book about my early adventures at sea was released and quickly sold out.
- What was the motivation behind sailing all the way from Finland to Svalbard?
For me sailing has always been about exploring the seas and unique places, as well as testing my boundaries as an adventurer and sailor, not sitting in marinas. I also became more and more aware of environmental issues and wanted to find ways to express my concerns. Sailing to Svalbard combined these elements and also promised a great adventure.
My idea was to show that climate change in polar regions is real, by sailing around Svalbard with a small plastic sailboat. This has previously been almost impossible because of the arctic sea ice, and only two Finnish steel boats had previously circumnavigated Svalbard. I also wanted to see polar bears and glaciers with my own eyes, not just on Netflix or in books. And think about it, you can sail five weeks from Finland to the north, and you’ll find yourself in one of the most raw and magical destinations you can imagine!
The fact that we did succeed in sailing around Svalbard left me with slightly mixed feelings. We experienced the most amazing adventure, but at the same time it was clear to us that something drastic is happening in the polar region.
- Tell us more about the Bavaria and how it coped with the trip to Svalbard?
The boat is almost 30 years old, and I’ve owned it from the beginning. It’s still in amazingly good shape even though it has a lot of offshore miles behind it. It’s well built and strong. I know the boat from inside out, which is a major advantage when sailing in remote places. Yes, the boat is a bit small for long journeys but that only makes things easier: small boat – less problems.
Generally, the boat did very well in Svalbard. We had hardly any problems during our sail in the high arctic region. The biggest threat was posed by floating icebergs, and naturally I was a bit worried about the fibreglass material in the event of a collision. I however relied on our strict watchkeeping system and 24/7 daylight, so no hits were registered. But yes, it was stressing from time to time, sailing through the glacier ice fields with frozen eyes trying to spot those dangerous blocks of ice on the sea surface.
My Bavaria’s water and fuel tanks are a bit small, so we needed to carry a lot of extra fuel in jerry cans and water in canisters to be self-contained for 3-4 weeks, which took up a lot of room. Heavy arctic clothing and safety gear also took up a lot of space inside the boat. But the good thing with a small boat is that it warms up quickly when using the heater. We could only use the heater when sleeping because of the fuel consumption.
- What sort of preparations did you make and were there any modifications made to the yacht?
I checked the boat and motor more thoroughly than ever, and replaced everything old and worn out, e.g. fuel hoses and rudder bearings. In addition to that I updated my old sails, furling system, sleeping mattresses and original navigation instruments, adding radar for spotting icebergs in bad visibility.
I also replaced my old Eberspächer heater with a new and more effective one. I actually did quite a lot of work on the boat because everything needed to be in good condition. You don’t want to sail to the high arctic wilderness without good preparations.
I always carry paper charts on board, and this time it was particularly important because Navionics charts did not cover the Svalbard area. I also took a lot of extra tools and spare parts, as well as a rifle and heavy bullets, because in Svalbard you need to carry a gun if sailing out of the Longyearbyen area.
Otherwise no special modifications were made to the boat.
One of the videos from the journey to Svalbard shows a dramatic encounter with a Polar Bear where your inflatable dinghy is attacked. Can you tell us more about what happened?
That was an amazing situation. We were in Sallyhamna, a small anchorage cove in the northern part of Spitsbergen. Me and my friend went ashore with the dinghy, and one crewmember stayed on the boat because the anchor holding was poor and the wind was blowing heavily.
Once on shore, we saw this huge Polar Bear coming out of the sea and walking straight towards us. We climbed to the roof of a small hut. I had my gun and camera ready. The distance to the polar bear was about 50-75 meters. It was heading straight towards our dinghy, but to my surprise went right past. Then the Polar Bear suddenly turned around and started heading back to dinghy again.
At this point I was sure the dinghy would get destroyed. But no, once again the Polar Bear just went past and walked away, disappearing to the north.
We waited for an hour and started exploring the island, but extra carefully and on guard.
After walking for a while in extremely difficult and slippery terrain, we found a small research village. While there, I heard our third crewmember calling us on the VHF. He was shouting THE POLAR BEAR IS BACK! COME BACK QUICK! We ran back to the shore only to find out that there was nothing we could do - the dinghy was destroyed, and the Polar Bear was gone. We fortunately managed to repair the dinghy with our repair kit and continued our sail to Nordaustlandet.
You can watch the dramatic encounter in a video on Ruffes YouTube Channel.
- If you would sail to Svalbard again, what would you have done different from the first journey?
I was actually planning to sail back to Svalbard in 2017 but wasn’t able to get insurance to cover it. My boat was considered too small and cheap. Many insurance companies have changed their policies in the arctic region, so I advise to check with your insurance company well before a trip to Svalbard.
But back to the question. I would install an extra heater that runs when using the boat’s own engine, and I would also get an Iridium phone package to download weather forecasts and GRIB-files.
- Being from Finland you are well accustomed to cold weather. Can you give any advice on how to cope with the cold to our readers in warmer climates?
Cold is something the body gets used to when spending time in a cold environment. Stay pro-active! As soon as you start feeling the cold just do something to get yourself warm.
Invest in quality clothing. Use many layers. Merino wool underwear is fantastic. I used the same merino wool underwear for three weeks without any major odour problems. Svalbard is normally a very dry environment, so we mainly used insulated jump suits from Helly Hansen as outer wear. Head, hands and feet are critical.
Sailing boots need to be big enough to have at least two warm socks and a thick insole inside the boots. The best headwear was a modern fur hat that would cover your ears.
Hands are the most difficult to keep warm. I had at least 5-6 different waterproof gloves, and none of them worked very well. The best were Norwegian fisherman’s gloves. We also used ski goggles to protect our eyes from the cold arctic winds.
- The magazine, being based in Thor Heyerdahl`s home country, is of course curious on the Kon Tiki story. What was that all about?
This was one of my favourite projects because of my respect for your national hero Thor Heyerdahl. It also was one of the craziest and most fun environmental stunts I’ve ever done.
The Gulf of Finland is one of the busiest shipping areas in the world and it is a huge environmental risk. Just one oil tanker collision would be enough to destroy the nature for decades to come. My idea was to increase awareness of this by sailing across the Gulf of Finland with a Marinetek pontoon pier on top of which I had built a Kon-Tiki replica. Nothing like this had ever been done before, and it got a lot of coverage in national media.
- You seem like a fellow with many plans and ideas. What will be your next adventure?
Well, I’m glad you asked! Next summer I will cross the Atlantic Ocean on the Baltic Sea!
My idea is to sail 2700 nautical miles (the distance of crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean) non-stop and offshore in the Baltic Sea area. This means 30 days at sea. It will be a tough challenge because of the cold headwinds and busy ship traffic.
My idea is to show the Baltic Sea in a different way, and also inspire people to spend more time at sea. When you spend two or more days at sea your perspective towards nature and yourself changes, and that gives you amazing experiences. There will also be an environmental message behind this project.
It’s a challenge anyone can try. And best of all, you can start from your own homeport. I would like this ultra-sail challenge to be of interest to sailors all over the Baltic Sea area. It will be tougher than crossing the Atlantic Ocean, but much safer.
Thank you so much for sharing your very fascinating story, Ruffe. And the best of luck on your Baltic - Atlantic adventure!