Sailing to Svalbard to visit the Polar Bears in a small sailboat
A while ago we interviewed Kari “Ruffe” Nurmi from Helsinki, Finland about his many adventures including his passage to Svalbard from Finland onboard his 30 ft Bavaria. Here is the full story from the Captain himself.
By: Kari “Ruffe” Nurmi
- The idea to sail around Svalbard had been brewing for years. Every now and then it surfaced from the unconscious, only to quickly disappear back to the mysterious realms of the mind. Gradually it developed into a dream, and, finally, matured into a decision.
It was the call of adventure, a desire to experience something rare, endangered, vanishing and demanding, something I could tell my grandchildren about, that forced me to embark on this trip. Another driver was the growing concern for the irreversible changes that climate change is causing to the arctic nature. Besides adventure, that was my motivation for the trip. I wanted to meet the polar bears before I would have to say goodbye to them.
Ready to go
It was Midsummer night in 2013, when we were finally ready to cast off from Helsinki. According to Polar View’s sea ice charts, there was still fast ice all the way from the North Pole to Svalbard. The success of our circumnavigation depended on how the ice situation would develop. Historically it has seldom been possible.
The boat was the same 24-year old Bavaria 300 that had already logged more than 30.000 miles on the Atlantic, the North Sea and all over the Baltic Sea. One could say that running in had been sufficient. I had complete trust in the boat. Of course, the prudent thing to do would have been to make a trip like this on a steel boat. But since I didn’t have one, fiberglass and extra care would have to do. There would be no business getting caught in the pack ice. The departure had been preceded by four months of thorough preparations, and “Ruffe” was up to the challenge.
New sails from WB-Sails, new mattresses from Unikulma (what a difference both made compared to their old and road-worn predecessors!), a new heater (a reliable Ebersprächer) and a huge pile of new electronics (even though the quarter-century-old stuff still more or less worked) had been carried on board and installed during the winter and spring months. The engine had been updated earlier. Everything on the boat had been checked, and small but vital fixes had been done to e.g. the rudder and rigging. As anyone who has ever done any boatwork can guess, things weren’t ready until the last minute.
Esa and Mika, a familiar crew
For the first leg from Helsinki to Tromsø I was joined by Mika, who had sailed with me on my first Atlantic crossing. Esa, who also was a familiar site on board from previous trips, sailed with us to Visby. From there he returned to work and would join the crew again in Tromsø.
The more demanding the trip, the more important the crew becomes. The truth is that you can’t afford to screw up with crew choice. I had sailed a lot with both of these guys, covering long distances. In a small boat you get to know each other, so I knew I could trust them. And, I was glad that they agreed to come. Apparently, the trust was mutual. The boat and the crew were one hundred per cent sorted, now all we needed was a little luck.
Test driving the autopilot
We sailed from Helsinki to Visby in nice weather with the autopilot keeping us busy. The new guy, “Raymond”, wouldn’t stay on course no matter what we tried. Finally, we thought of moving the compass unit to another location. As soon as we did that, “Raymond” got his act together. With hindsight it must be said that the manual did say that the compass should be placed away from other equipment.
We arrived in Visby at dawn and spent the only really warm day of the entire trip there. After that, our shorts didn’t come out until back home.
We drove Esa to the airport with the guest harbour’s car, worked a little on the boat, bought some groceries, went for dinner, and headed for the fuel dock only to find out that it was closed. To get fuel we had to call the number on the door and pay a hefty extra charge to get the attendant to come over.
Settling into our routines
Finally, we were able to set sail and start our watches. From here on, we would continue with just the two of us. We decided on a system of three-hour watches, which seemed to work well for us, and we held on to it for the rest of the trip. Three hours is long enough for the off-watch to get some sleep, but short enough for the lonely watch keeper to be able to pass the time and stay awake during the long hours of the night.
We glided along nicely in pleasant conditions. Life on board settled into the three-hour rhythm. Most of the time one of us slept while the other sailed. The autopilot made life easier, especially when we had to motor in calm weather.
For some reason I have always enjoyed being at sea, and never feel lonely or bored. On land, I’m social, talk a lot and find it easy to get to know people, but on a boat, I have no problem being alone. A boat at sea takes you to a completely different world, and I enjoy being there. Sometimes it’s funny to think that I remain the same but the world around me changes into a different one.
One thing that we have always held on to is a proper meal, regardless of weather or sea state. This trip was no exception. As often happens, meals become the high-point of the day in an otherwise monotonic daily routine. We took turns in preparing the meals, and now, at a more mature age, a glass or two of red wine always accompanied our culinary exploits. And, since it was the chef’s privilege to enjoy an extra glass of wine while preparing the meal, galley duty never felt like a burden.
A detour to Bornholm
The plan was to cover long distances instead of collecting harbours or hanging around in them. This way we would have more time in places that were new to us, like the long coast of Norway and Svalbard.
From Visby we aimed to sail straight to Copenhagen, but close to Bornholm we found ourselves pushing against a gale straight from the nose. Sailing was hard work and really slow against the big waves. When the rudder started making a funny noise as we were dodging ships in the middle of a busy channel, we decided to turn around and run with the wind to Bornholm for a good night’s sleep and to check the rudder that was worrying us. The forecast for the next day was much better, so in practice we wouldn’t even lose very many hours. No reason to push on and risk losing the rudder.
The forecast was right, and we set sail from Rønne in Bornholm the next afternoon in nice and sunny conditions towards the sunset and the city of Copenhagen behind it. We didn’t find anything wrong with the rudder, so we figured that the noise was just the new bearings that hadn’t yet settled in.
In the morning light we got sight of the Øresund bridge and other Copenhagen landmarks. We sailed to the Svanemølle harbour, situated next to the Tuborg brewery, under an uninterrupted flow of landing airplanes and surrounded by busy shipping traffic.
We made our way to the harbour and headed for a floating unmanned fuel dock to top up our diesel tank, which we almost managed to do before the machine gobbled up the rest of our money and refused to continue any cooperation with us. Again, we had to lick our wounds. We tried to call the phone number we found on the dock, but to no avail.
So, our visit to Copenhagen didn’t start well. We managed to find a decent spot in the marina close to the harbour office, and decided it was time for a well-deserved shower – except that first we had to figure out that we needed to purchase a prepaid shower card from a vending machine outside the service building. When even the rainy weather seemed to be against us, we decided that our visit to Copenhagen would be over the next evening. We headed towards the Danish straits and Kattegat.
In the Danish straits
The plan was to sail through the straits and continue across the Kattegat and Skagerrak to the Norwegian coast, and make landfall somewhere around Stavanger or Bergen. The weather gods, however, decided to interfere with our plans once again. We made it through the narrow strait between Helsingborg and Helsingør, dodging ships in the dark, but once we came to the Kattegat, the wind started to pick up. It didn’t take long until we were again fighting our way against a 35-knot gale blowing straight from our nose.
The waves were steep, and the going was wet and uncomfortable. Our speed over ground was about two knots. Adding insult to injury was the smell of diesel inside the boat that certainly didn’t make us want to sleep or cook in those conditions. Apparently, there was a leak somewhere in the fuel system. Inside the boat, I even started to ask myself what am I doing here voluntarily. Over the years this has only happened a couple of times before.
We tried to take turns napping in the cockpit, but with little success. We were tired and hungry, and our cookie supplies wouldn’t last forever. It was decision time again.
We could either continue pushing against the wind, without knowing how long the gale would last. Or we could turn back, and get a fast run to Helsingør, where we would arrive in about five hours. We had just spent the entire night and half of the day covering that distance, staring at the Kullen lighthouse next to us for hours on end.
It didn’t take us long to make the decision: to Helsingør, and – if available – plenty of Italian food in the evening.
But first we had to thoroughly clean the smelly bilges and dry the boat that had been soaked by the waves working their way in through the air vents on deck. After we had cleaned up, we took a quick nap and headed to town to look for an Italian Restaurant. Helsingør turned out to be a nice little town, and we even found a very nice little Italian restaurant.
The cab driver’s recommendation
Our second attempt at Kattegat was successful. Apart from a few squalls, the weather was nice. A cab driver in Copenhagen had highly recommended that we visit Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark. We decided to check the place out before moving on to the country of the fjords.
Skagen, with its many restaurants and a crowded harbour, could be described as touristy. The harbour was packed, and we were assigned a place on a raft as the fourth boat from the dock. On our outside there was one more boat from Germany. We mentioned to them that we would be leaving in the morning around eight o’clock. No problem, said the cheerful Germans.
We didn’t take the departure time that literally and were just starting to prepare breakfast when I happened to look out the window. The Germans were standing on deck, holding their lines and ready to let us go at exactly the agreed time. We had no other choice than to postpone our breakfast until we were at sea. We slipped our lines and let our neighbours get back to their bunks.
The northern tip of Denmark is a long sand dune that reaches out to the sea. After we had safely rounded it, we set our course over Skagerrak towards the Lindesnes lighthouse on the Norwegian coast in a nice beam reach. We even spotted the first dolphins of this trip. In the evening the wind died, and we were greeted by the Norwegian summer in the form of fog and drizzle. Once we got sight of the Norwegian coast, we followed it from a safe distance towards the north.
Our first landfall in Norway was Bergen. After two and a half days of sailing, we made a turn right at the Marstein lighthouse. Our cameras went into overdrive as we sailed in between the majestic islands. The scenery was immense, and the water was deep. Even right next to the shoreline the depth could be more than two hundred meters. Most of the time it was too deep for the echo sounder to get a reading at all.
We learned that Bergen is the rainiest place in Norway. It was supposed to rain two days out of three. Well, maybe so, but we spent two gorgeous and sunny summer days there, enjoying the nice atmosphere and the fish market’s offerings, like giant crabs and whale meat. The latter isn’t a very ethical choice, but we were curious and had to try it. We also got some good tips – and pitying looks – from local sailors when we said we would be continuing to the north.
We would have to pass the infamous Stad peninsula, also known as the Cape Horn of Norway. This was the first time we learned about the nasty reputation of the place. It is the westernmost part of Norway and is known for the dangerous sea state that the colliding ocean currents can cause. Even big ships have gone down there, and the place is thought to be so bad that there are plans to build a tunnel for boats through the mountain so that they can safely pass the place in sheltered waters.
The cape horn of norway
The weather forecast seemed OK, so we set our course towards the North Sea in the evening. After seven hours of motoring we were out of the archipelago, and the North Sea greeted us with confused two-metre seas, even though there was hardly any wind. We settled into our familiar watch routine and headed north. We decided to round Stad from a safe distance offshore.
Except for the uncomfortable seas, the conditions were fine, and we were making decent progress among the oil rigs. Everything was going well until a gale warning was broadcast on the VHF. By then we were used to them, but this time we got a little worried, because we would be precisely at Stad when the gale would hit us. It turned out that we were lucky, and the wind, that reached 34 knots, blew from the south and was from the same direction as the current. The seas rose to about three metres, and we were able to round Stad and pass back into the archipelago without problems.
Shopping in Ålesund
We decided to spend the night on the nearby island of Sandøya at the guest dock of a little fishing village. From there we continued in daylight towards Ålesund.
It turned out that darkness was the only thing the weather didn’t have in store for us. During the course of the day, we were treated to wind, calm, rain, fog and even a little sleet. Eventually Ålesund appeared from the fog, and with the second try we even managed to find the right opening in the breakwater and the guest harbour surrounded by houses built right on the waterfront.
Ålesund is known for its Jugend architecture, which isn’t found anywhere else in Norway. The reason for this is that practically the whole village burned down at the heyday of Jugend, and was therefore rebuilt in a uniform style. Nice place, with a nice festival going on.
We even found a very well stocked chandlery. Our shopping got a little out of hand as we stocked up on warm sailing gear. With hindsight it must be said that everything we bought did turn out to be useful up north.
From Ålesund we set our course to Rørvik, a small town 200 miles to the north-east. That meant a couple of days offshore again, and the weather was very nice for a change. Now we also officially entered Northern Norway. This was also reflected by the weather which was getting noticeably chillier.
Our brand-new autopilot, Raymond, resigned with a loud crunch. If there would have been enough wind to sail, this wouldn’t have been a big issue. But hand steering when motoring offshore in a calm without any visible reference point is tedious and mind-numbing. Staying on course requires constant staring at the compass, which is especially hard at night when you’re tired. The image of the compass rose keeps appearing in your field of view long after your watch.
Once in Rørvik, it was time to start the hunt for autopilot spare parts. The pilot was of course covered by warranty, but spare parts just didn’t exist anywhere near. And having them delivered somewhere along our route turned out to be a challenge. The parts travelled along their own routes, while we sailed on until finally our paths crossed in Tromsø. Phone calls were made to both Finnish and Norwegian distributors, emails were sent, and alternatives pondered. Even a service guy from a local chandlery came over to the boat to declare that yes, it’s broken.
Enjoying the scenery
From Rørvik we headed towards bodø. Now we decided to start following the inner leads in the archipelago and do day sails enjoying the spectacular views of northern Norway. We crossed the arctic circle and arrived at the foot of the Seven Sisters mountains in the evening – or rather at midnight. At these latitudes it doesn’t get dark during summer nights, so, provided there’s no fog, you can enjoy the scenery at all hours.
In the morning, we continued in typically varying conditions. The fronts coming from the North Sea kept passing over us at a fast pace, and the weather changed from sunshine to rain squalls and thick fog and back in a matter of minutes. You won’t get bored sailing up here. And as a bonus, you’ll get to enjoy spectacular light and rainbow shows.
In the evening we found an idyllic little guest harbour in Støtt, 30 miles south of Bodø, where we tied up next to the summer cottage of a nice young couple who even let us taste their delicious fish meal. The place was beautiful, although low-hanging clouds covered a big part of it. Anyway, it was time to go to sleep, listening to the wind howl in the rigging.
A bit of personal hygiene
Early in the morning we set sail for Bodø, where it was time to say good bye to the dirt layers we had carefully built over our skins at a hotel sauna close to the harbour. My sister Satu joined the crew for a few days, and we headed for the Lofoten islands.
The next night we spent in the idyllic and picturesque little guest harbour of Grotøy, enjoying a fantastic, calm and sunny summer night – dressed in woolly hats and long johns, of course. Through the crystal-clear water, we could see starfish lying on the bottom. The surrounding mountains were majestic. We felt that the further north we came, the calmer the weather became. There were very few boats in these waters, so the harbours weren’t crowded.
Next day we continued in calm and occasionally sunny weather. Our fishing pursuits still didn’t seem to bring in any results. We towed a lure as we sailed, and obviously our speed was too much for the performance capabilities of the local fish.
Once in Lofoten, we decided to check out the famous Trollfjorden, where the big Hurtigruten ships visit and somehow manage to make a breathtaking turn. Nice place, steep walls and snow-capped mountains. Our cameras got some serious action again.
For the night, we headed to a fishing village called Engenes. After tying up at the dock we were greeted in Finnish by a couple of passers-by. It turned out that the place was full of Finns on a fishing trip. Unlike us, they had even caught some fish.
First leg done
In the morning we set sail for Tromsø in the usual drizzle. We got there in the evening, almost exactly four weeks after our departure form Helsinki. Just as planned. One the way, we even saw another sailboat. Even more surprising was that it was Finnish. Later we found out that it was “Aurora”, on its way to completing a tour of Fennoscandia.
We tied up at the down-town guest dock and celebrated the first leg with some nice steaks. We had sailed the entire west coast of Norway. These waters, harbours, people and landscapes had left us impressed. You can’t help falling in love with this coastline, despite the rain and fog that so often covers it.
Tomorrow we would be joined by Esa and Möö, who would join the crew for the sail to Svalbard. The original plan was that Mika would only sail to Tromsø, but of course he couldn’t leave it at that after sailing all the way up here. So, it was decided that Mika would sail with us to Longyearbyen and fly back to Tromsø, where Esa’s car would be waiting for him and he would drive it home. So, the old gang was back together. The boat was a bit tight for the four of us and all our stuff, but I knew that it wouldn’t be a problem for these guys.
Staying warm in The Arctic
While we were waiting for Esa and Möö, we picked up the spare parts for the autopilot. The importer had finally managed to send them to a fishing store somewhere in the outskirts. There we found some Helly Hansen ice-fishing overalls that we decided would be ideal sailing clothes for the arctic conditions that we would be facing. The overalls turned out to be the perfect choice, and we were nice and warm during the crossing from Tromsø to Longyearbyen – unlike Esa who ended up buying Mika’s overall when he left for home.
We also bought a selection of different gloves to try out. Keeping our hands warm had turned out to be a real challenge. Gloves, whether they were waterproof or not, got quickly wet in the rain. Once wet, they didn’t have much of a warming effect any more. Heavy lined rubber mittens of the type used by fishermen and in the fishing industry worked quite well, as long as you remembered to stuff the glove inside the sleeve of your raincoat. Otherwise water would quickly trickle down the sleeve and straight into the glove. Really warm, but a bit clumsy, were gloves that are used for handling frozen fish. I really recommend them, even if their rough surface was a bit hard on the leather on the steering wheel.
And, while we’re at it, let’s continue with a few more fashion tips for arctic sailors. Shorts were already mentioned, you can forget them. Warm and odour-repellent merino wool is the underwear of choice for the long-distance sailor in the arctic. We wore the same long johns practically all the time that we were awake for five weeks straight without any serious odour issues.
Proper offshore foul-weather gear with a high collar is a must. So is a warm hat. Your head, ankles and wrists have blood vessels close to the skin, so these areas should be kept warm. Wool or fur hats are fine. Our mid layer consisted of a thick wool or fleece layer and our new lightly padded mid-layer jackets that we had bought from Ålesund.
Mika had leather sailing boots that were not only comfortable, but also surprisingly warm. Others had traditional rubber boots that needed woollen socks and insoles to stay warm. Rubber boots always become wet over time, so breathable Gore-Tex footwear and warm socks would be the ideal solution. The off-watch’s best friends are a powerful heater and a good sleeping bag. Our new Ebersprächer heater worked without problems. Apart from heating, its main job is to keep the interior dry.
We had a 580-mile arctic sail from Tromsø to Svalbard ahead of us. But it’s not a place where you sail on a whim. You need official permits. And before the Sysselmannen, the local governor, will issue these you need to have sufficient insurance to cover potential rescue operations. You also have to provide proof that you have the necessary competence as a sailor and with a gun. We had our own weapons (a rifle and a shotgun), so didn’t need to rent them. Svalbard is home to about 3000 polar bears, which is more than there are people living there. It is mandatory to carry a powerful enough weapon to be able to stop a hungry or otherwise too curious polar bear anytime you wander outside a residential area.
We were prepared for the bureaucracy. I had contacted the authorities six months in advance and managed to get the required insurance from the German company Yacht-Pool.
There was some excitement in the air as we filled our tanks and headed out to sea with our fresh crewmembers. According to the three-day forecast, we would have 16-20 knots of wind. The reality was about 30 knots, with plenty of rain and fog. The waves were enough to make the cook sweat. It turned out that up here it either blows hard or not at all. Ships or other boats were few and far between. We saw one fishing vessel during the entire crossing.
Things changed when we were roughly at the latitude of Bear Island. Suddenly the sea was flat calm. The sun came out, curious dolphins started to pay regular visits to us, and we even spotted a few whales. The beauty around us was stunning. We didn’t even mind that we had to motor the rest of the way. We had plenty of diesel in jerry cans, so that wasn’t a problem.
In the bright weather visibility was excellent. We could see Svalbard rising above the horizon from a distance of 50 miles. It was a beautiful sight. The glaciers also had an effect on the temperature. It felt like someone opened the freezer. For the rest of the trip we couldn’t get our eyes off the snowy peaks and glaciers. With daylight around the clock, it didn’t really matter what time it was. A couple of times It took me a while to figure out if it was day or night when I got up for my watch.
Svalbard was magical. As it stood there, bathing in the bright light, there was something threatening and challenging about it. It was rough and somehow featureless, but still it constantly revealed an infinite amount of new details. It was extremely beautiful and seductive, but at the same time it seemed to send out a warning. The islands would not take responsibility for the faith of their guests, to them it would be just a matter of fact.
Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, is an old mining village. Today, it’s populated mainly by scientists and tourists. In terms of services, there’s an airport, a couple of museums, a few bars and a row of tax-free and outdoor shops. Still, it has a unique atmosphere. All in all, a fascinating place.
A promising ice situation
After Mika left for home, we started preparations for the circumnavigation of Svalbard. The ice reports looked good. The edge of the Arctic ice pack had withdrawn to the north, and even the critical Hinlopen strait seemed to be open. Sailing around Svalbard has traditionally been almost impossible because of the ice. As far as I know, just two Finnish steel boats have been successful, the last one being Hannu and Auli Irjala on Manta in 2012. My Bavaria is a fiberglass boat, and much more vulnerable than a steel boat, so there was some anxiety in the air.
We had to prepare for three weeks of arctic wilderness, so food, drink and fuel were brought on board accordingly. The next chance to get supplies would probably be in Norway, a thousand miles away. From a well-stocked snowmobile store I got three more jerry cans for fuel, an Icom handheld VHF and a flare gun. We checked the EPIRB and charged the Iridium satellite phone. Guns and survival suits were taken out of their storage. The Navionics electronic charts only reached Bear Island, so the chart plotter was useless. It was time to bring out the paper charts.
We carried 220 litres of fuel, so we would be able to motor for about five hundred miles. The heater would only be used while sleeping. Our water capacity was 160 litres. Water consumption is lower than normal in the cold conditions, and in an emergency we could drink from streams on land. Care would have to be taken, however, because of the risk of getting a nasty parasitic worm that could cause serious illness later on.
To the north
We set sail in cloudy weather on Sunday, July 27, at six o’clock in the morning, headed for Ny-Ålesund, one of the world’s northernmost inhabited places, situated in Kongsfjorden. We got there at four in the morning. Because the sun doesn’t set, the time of day doesn’t really matter. We declared it was time for dinner. Continuous daylight is also an important safety factor, because trying to avoid icebergs in the dark would be a stupid gamble.
In the summer, Ny-Ålesund is a busy arctic research hub, and there’s no shortage of researchers or things to research. There was even a guy chasing geese and trying to imitate their honking. We had difficulty holding our laughter. One of the people we met told us that this was the rainiest summer in Svalbard for as long as anyone could remember. We would later find this to be true. We also met a guy who tests lunar vehicles for NASA, and learned that the landscape in Svalbard resembles that of the moon.
We got permission to fuel at the passenger ship fueling dock. The huge fuel hose had so much pressure that we spilled a little diesel overboard. We could feel the disapproval of the entire arctic research community, so quickly sent postcards from the worlds northernmost post office and headed north past the growlers towards the Magdalena fjord.
Careful among the icebergs
The Magdalena fjord is sheltered and beautiful. We dropped the hook in shallow water at just three metres at Trinityhamna. Here you have to be careful with the ice. Big chunks of ice break off the glacier at the end of the fjord, accompanied by a loud rumble. These masses of ice move around the fjord with the wind and tide, and can quickly surround a boat or get wedged over the anchor, so it’s necessary to keep an anchor watch. We also had some trouble getting the anchor to hold. This time the weather was calm, so we felt confident to leave the boat alone for a while. All three of us hiked with guns on our backs to the glacier a couple of kilometres away. There we had some well-deserved beers while constantly looking out for polar bears.
Later in the afternoon we weighed anchor as the weather cleared up. How different the place looked when the snow-capped peaks surrounding the fjord became visible as the clouds parted. Our plan was to motor to an old whaling station, less than twenty miles away, but there was a hard blow from the north that picked up even more speed as it came down the mountains. We decided to find a better place to anchor. The headwind made our progress painfully slow, but finally we reached Sallyhamna, a reasonably sheltered anchorage at the north-west tip of Spitsbergen. After a few attempts we got the anchor to hold, so it was time for a little schnapps on deck. We set the anchor and depth alarms and went to bed. The wind howled in the rigging, and I was only half-asleep. I still worried about the anchor’s holding.
As we woke up in the afternoon, the wind was still blowing hard. I took the dinghy ashore with Möö, while Esa was left to stand anchor watch. We met a couple of local officials, or sysselmanns as they are known, who were preparing to return to Norway. One of them was a policeman and the other a biologist. They had already spent two months in Svalbard. They gave us a tour of their little station. While there, we happened to look out the window, and there it was. A polar bear was casually walking along in the drizzle. It was a big male, weighing over 500 kilograms. It was only one hundred metres from us. We climbed on the roof and took out our cameras. We were safe but realized that the polar bear was heading toward our dinghy. We sighed with relief as it continued past it. He must have had something else on his mind. We quickly found out what, as we spotted another polar bear, a female, a little bit further away.
We watched the big male for a long time, admiring its ability to gracefully climb the rocky and steep mountainside. About 500 metres from us the bear made a u-turn and headed back toward us. Again, it went past us, this time heading to the north.
We waited for an hour. As the bear didn’t come back we decided it was safe to move on. The sysselmanns suggested that we check out a research village nearby. As we walked there, we didn’t see any more polar bears, but our flare gun and rifles were ready, and we were clearly more alert than normal.
We walked for half an hour until we found a little tent village full of Russian geologists. We were warmly welcomed. The area was secured with wires that were connected to explosives that would go off as a warning if a polar bear came too close. We were guided in through an opening in the wires. The researchers’ clothes caught our attention. One was wearing jeans and slippers. They also had a sauna tent, with a stove made of a big cooking pot. They were a hospitable bunch, and soon we found ourselves in one of the tents enjoying some local delicacies: pancakes and tea. We politely declined their offers for something a little bit stronger because it would have been their last bottle.
I had accidentally switched the handheld VHF to a wrong channel in my pocket, so I called Esa to make sure everything was OK. It wasn’t! Esa had tried to contact us at least twenty times.
”You have to come here quickly! The polar bear is attacking the dinghy!” Esa shouted on the radio. The tea party was over for us, and we started running back to the beach so fast that we were lucky not to stumble on the alarm wires. The rain had made the rocky terrain slippery, making it very difficult to stay upright.
Esa had tried to scare the polar bear away from the dinghy by shooting in the air with the shotgun. It hadn’t had much of an effect, because the boat was relatively far from the beach. When we finally got there, the poor dinghy was lying empty on the sand. Luckily the polar bear was gone. While we were trying to figure out what to do, we noticed that the polar bear had also broken the side door of the station and torn all the garbage bags that had been outside to pieces. The sysselmanns gave us a ride to the boat and invited us to their station in the evening. We were happy to accept the invitation. Dinner consisted of canned meatballs and mashed potatoes.
The best part was the local knowledge we got, especially about polar bears. They also told us some incredible stories about Svalbard.
A gun is useless if you can’t use it. A first timer, if even slightly panicked, will be in trouble if confronted by a polar bear. A polar bear can move five times faster than a human in the difficult terrain. You can’t run away. If it comes closer than one hundred metres, you should try to scare it away with a flare gun shot aimed in front of it. Shooting past or behind it won’t have much of an effect. When the bear is about fifty metres from you and coming closer, you have five seconds. That’s enough to fire two shots if you have practiced. If not, you’re in trouble. We heard some recent examples of this.
Shooting polar bears is forbidden unless the situation is really dangerous. You might end up in court or get a big fine for shooting a polar bear that’s further than one hundred metres from you.
Moment of glory
The next day we patched up the dinghy and headed east. By afternoon the weather had calmed down and the rain ended. We were north of Spitsbergen, rounding the main island of Svalbard. If we were to continue north, in 24 hours we would reach the edge of the Arctic ice pack that covers the North Pole. How far will the ice be in a few decades? It remains to be seen. We settled into our watch system and motored at five knots toward Mushamna, about 12 hours away.
The sea was flat calm when we arrived at the round and deep bay where we were guided by a low neck of land, many kilometres in length. Fog hung over the mast, covering up the surrounding world. The anchor held well in 25 metres. It was completely silent. The place felt unreal. We really were at the end of the world. We felt like we could have sat there forever in awe. One day you get the idea to sail to Svalbard, and the next thing you know is that you’re there. It took ten months, during which I quit my dream job in the movie business, prepared for the trip, and finally sailed six weeks to reach this point.
The greatest thing was to realise it was worth it. This moment alone made up for all the sacrifices that were needed to make this trip possible.
Next day the sun shone from a cloudless sky, but the unbelievable, magical scenery around us was even more dazzling. The bay was so sheltered that we could all go ashore. The patched-up dinghy seemed to be ok. After a little walk, we made a fire out of driftwood and grilled the only fresh steaks we had with us, chasing them with some Russian vodka and French wine. The constant polar bear hazard – or maybe it was the vodka – got us thinking about how nature’s power relationships turn upside down here in the wilderness. Here we are just prey, nothing else. The temperature rose to almost ten degrees Celsius in the sunshine. We felt like kings.
Kinnvika, 80 degrees north
In the evening, we were on the move again. We still had more than half of the way ahead of us, and we were approaching waters that would normally be frozen. During the night we crossed 80 degrees north and saw a few sperm whales swimming in the distance. The wind picked up at the northernmost tip of Spitsbergen, Verlegenhuken, and was straight from the nose. We were arriving in the Hinlopen Straight and wanted to get to the other side as quickly as possible, so we continued motoring. The going was rough, and our speed was 2-3 knots. A few walruses watched us bob up and down. In the morning we finally got to the other side to Kinnvika and anchored in the open bay, where we were accompanied by two big Norwegian steel boats.
Möö had been suffering from a toothache for a couple of days, and now it got so bad that antibiotics and pain killers were brought out and put to use. They made him tired and nauseous, but this didn’t stop him taking care of all his duties on board. Any medical assistance would not be available, so we just had to hope that the medications we had would help. Luckily, we had a good supply on board.
Kinnvika is on Nordaustlandet in the Murchisonfjord. Finland, Sweden and Switzerland built a research station there almost sixty years ago. Nordaustlandet is uninhabited and 90 percent of it is covered in ice. The weather is particularly cold, because the warming effect of the North Atlantic current doesn’t reach this far east.
On shore, we met the crew of the 50-ton, almost 60-foot Norwegian steel boat Polar Sector. They warned us of polar bears that had been spotted in the area. They also promised to give us some fuel, claiming they had more than enough for themselves. This was a stroke of luck, and we later went over with two jerry cans and got 40 litres of diesel. The price was reasonable. We also got weather information and the latest forecasts from them.
We took a closer look at the old research station. It wasn’t a surprise that we found a sauna there. We didn’t heat it, but later found out that it would have been OK to bathe there. Oh well, we had had plenty of time to get used to being dirty. We were still north of 80 degrees, which meant that it was time to take a dip in the sea. Even Möö jumped in despite his toothache. It must have been the euphoria caused by the icy sea water that inspired Möö and me to sit on deck in the warm sunshine until early morning. We allowed us to get a little nostalgic, listening to Finnish music and talking about life. We were happy. And we were fortunate to have gotten this far without any serious accidents. Next, we would turn south. It would be the first time in five weeks.
Hinlopen and the icebergs
I got up at eleven, and we weighed anchor with Esa. Möö slept. We drove to the Hinlopen strait and saw a gigantic iceberg. We estimated it to be the size of ten big office buildings, and it drifted slowly to the north with the current. The strait itself was clear of ice, but floes that had broken off the glaciers floated past us every now and then. The bigger ones were easy to spot. The small ones, about the size of a fridge, were worse. They were hard to spot between the waves. Hitting even a small one had to be avoided by all means, so we kept our eyes glued to the sea in front of the boat.
We planned to sail quickly through the strait that was surrounded by glaciers. The weather can turn bad quickly and there are very few possibilities to find shelter. We were far from everywhere and had to take extra care with everything. Help would be hard to get and would take long to arrive.
We were headed toward the infamous Heleysund, a narrow passage between Spitsbergen and Barentsøya. It would take us out of the Hinlopen strait and lead us to the southern part of Spitsbergen. We got the sails up and were able to beat quite nicely in a 16-20 knot wind. We couldn’t keep a high-enough wind angle, however, and were drifting off course. Fog made the matters worse, as the amount of ice was increasing.
We decided to look for an anchorage where we could wait for things to get better. We found one, but it was in an area marked on the chart as unsurveyed. That means that the area has not been sounded, so we wouldn’t know what would be looming under the surface. Earlier, we had heard from the skipper of Polar Sector that they had hit a rock at seven knots in a similar area, resulting in the capsizing of the almost 60-foot boat. With this in mind, we didn’t take our eyes off the echo sounder as we carefully found our way to the anchorage. We could finally relax at seven o’clock in the morning after we anchored in 15 metres in Binnebukta on the eastern side of the island of Wilhelmøya. The mountainside caused some heavy gusts, but the anchor held. A big anchor and a small boat is great combination! Finnish radio station Radio Rock called me on the Iridium satellite phone. With a hot rum toddy in hand I managed to give the listeners some kind of an account of our adventures among icebergs.
Dangerous currents at Heleysund
It was about 30 miles to the Heleysund strait, so we weighed anchor at ten in the evening. It was still blowing hard close to the island, but as we got out it calmed down. The steep mountainsides accelerate the winds on the lee side, so seeking shelter from the wind behind a high island is not a good tactic.
There was ice again, and it was everywhere. We motored slowly ahead, trying to say clear of the chunks of ice coming our way. One of us was constantly at the bow keeping a lookout. In a couple of hours, we got safely through the ice-strewn area.
We were getting close to Heleysund. The guidebooks warn about eight-knot currents in the narrow strait. Also, at the southern part of the strait, there’s usually ice. Problems arise when an unlucky vessel gets caught in a southerly current and hits the ice. Our speed wouldn’t be enough to escape an eight-knot current, so we were a bit anxious about entering the strait, especially as finding reliable current information was very difficult. On the bright side, there wasn’t expected to be any ice.
We immediately felt the current as we entered the strait. There were big eddies in the water, and our bow kept turning back and forth. The current was against us, about 3-4 knots, so we stayed in control and the boat was easy to steer. With a sigh of relief, we steered into a very narrow and sheltered bay on the northern side of the strait. Two Norwegian steel boats were anchored there, Polar Sector and a 43-footer called Alaska. We went alongside Polar Sector and offered beers for everyone. It was five o’clock, so we spent a nice morning with the Norwegians. We heard that a hungry-looking polar bear had been spotted in the vicinity, and the place was full of Svalbard reindeer bones.
South with the Norwegians
In the afternoon, we were on the move again, sailing toward the southern tip of Barentsøya helped by a favourable current. Before our departure, Esa lifted the outboard from the dinghy and sprained his back. He had to stay in his bunk for the next few days. We took care of the watches with Möö so that Esa was able to rest. Just getting from his bunk to the heads was a veritable via dolorosa for him.
We now had plenty of fuel, as we had filled up two more jerry cans with diesel from the Norwegians. We would be able to continue straight to Tromsø. We had been prepared to go around the southern tip of Spitsbergen and back up to Longyearbyen to fill up if necessary. That would have taken about four days. We had plenty of water and food, so we decided that instead of Longyearbyen, we would visit a couple of new places before heading for the continent via Bear Island.
After midnight, we arrived at Anderssonbukta at the southern part of Barentsøya, a sheltered anchorage in easterly and northerly winds. It was a nice sail. The wind died towards the end, and we dropped anchor in a flat calm bay in six metres of water. To celebrate our diesel situation, we decided to feast on the best our galley could offer, the good old tuna pasta. It wasn’t hard to find a volunteer to cook, the extra glass of wine for the chef was still an attractive perk.
In the afternoon the wind picked up and blew from the east behind the island. That was good for us, because it meant that the waves remained small. We started to prepare mentally for the crossing of the Barents Sea. Before that we planned to check out Russebukta on the island of Edgeøya, about 50 miles from where we were. Polar Sector and Alaska were headed in the same direction, but plans changed. Polar Sector had found out that with these winds, there was a better anchorage a little more to the south and had decided to go there. We only had a large-scale chart of the area, on which the place was barely visible. Polar Sector offered to guide us in once we got closer. I thought about it for a moment, and we agreed over the VHF that this would be the plan.
All went well, and we got there around five in the morning. The anchorage was very small. If the anchor would lose grip we would be on the rocks in an instant. We were invited on Polar Sector to check out the latest weather forecasts for the Barents Sea. The four-day forecast looked good, with max 24-knot winds from the north at first and veering to the west. We decided to leave as quickly as possible to take advantage of the good weather window. Alaska’s skipper brought us a couple of kilos of dark red meat from a seal they had shot a couple of days earlier. We were very happy to get fresh meat. We hadn’t had that for a while.
A relaxed crossing
We made the needed preparations for the crossing, filled the fuel tank (40 litres), emptied the dinghy and stowed it, and secured all loose items. In a couple of hours, we were ready to leave and set sail for Norway. We had a 500-mile crossing ahead of us. In my mind I hoped that the wind would stay behind us and that we wouldn’t have to face rough weather.
The last look at the islands we were leaving behind made me wistful. We had successfully circumnavigated Svalbard in two weeks. My dream had come true.
The return sail to Norway went well. We made a quick pit stop at Sørhamn on the south side of Bear Island to cook and eat the seal meat we had gotten. We only stayed for a few hours because the weather was still looking good. Esa’s back was getting better and he was again able to stand watch. We safely arrived in Tromsø on tuesday, August 13th, at eleven o’clock. Crossing the Barents Sea took us four days.
I had sailed 3500 miles in two months. Svalbard showed us its best face and we had been lucky with the ice and weather, even though it was the rainiest summer anyone could remember. The trip had been full of exciting and memorable moments. We saw and experienced the rugged minimalism of the beautiful but threatening and ruthless landscape and the breathtaking glaciers. We got to feel the danger of a polar bear, dodge icebergs and eat fresh seal meat. And this was just the summer of Svalbard. The world is different up there: magical, beautiful, bare, fitful, impulsive, challenging, alluring and threatening. It was impossible to imagine beforehand. And I will never forget it.
We left the boat in Bodø for the winter in the safe hands of very professional Norwegians. I sailed it back to home waters the next summer.