Beyond Spitzbergen

It was all Murray Carmichael’s fault!

Murray is one of my friends at the Port Edgar Yacht club and it was he who suggested, originally as a joke, that I celebrate my retirement by sailing to Spitsbergen and just above 80 degrees north. The plan was to take in the ice-free west coast of Spitsbergen, beginning with the North Sea Race from Banff to Stavanger. But this changed dramatically in Longyearbyen to a much more dangerous one – the circumnavigation of Spitsbergen through the unchartered, normally fully icebound waters of the east coast.

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the archipelago known as Svalbard and extends to above 80 degrees N. It has a population of about 3000 people consisting of Norwegian, Russian and Polish. Svalbard is not owned by any country but by international agreement is governed by Norway. The Governor of Svalbard is known as the Sysselmannen and what he says goes!

the routeI had crossed the North Sea before, but to go so far north in Equinox, a Moody 38, was quite a challenge. My ideal crew numbered 4 but none of my normal crew was able to make it for the whole two month trip, so I ended up with fourteen. Through an email discussion group, I was fortunate to attract a Norwegian Jan Erik Breen, who had been to Spitzbergen before, and Nick Leggatt, a professional sailor with great experience. Permission and a licence had to be obtained from the Sysselmannen and a Search and Rescue (SAR) bond had to be lodged with the bank, which can be called on by the Sysselmannen in the event of rescue.

As a ship’s captain (and there have been seven in my family!) I was well aware of my responsibilities and insisted on several training days before we finally set off. We left Port Edgar on 23rd June and sailed up to Banff with a slight list to starboard due to the beer, but with every intention of doing something about that in Banff.

The Race
We started the race on the 29th under light winds and had difficulty getting off the start line. But thereafter the wind picked up and we enjoyed ideal conditions, finishing in 5 minutes less than 48 hours, which was a very good time for us, considering the stores we had on board.

The third leg began from Stavanger on 1st July, after a crew change. The winds were light so we mostly motored, arriving at Alesund at 02.00 on Tuesday 4th, ahead of time. Alesund is twinned with Peterhead but I think Peterhead got the better deal!

Crossing the Arctic Circle
On Friday 7th, I wrote in my log, “This morning we sailed across the Arctic Circle, a most undramatic affair…. We found sea water leaking into the engine compartment but decided not to disassemble the valve till we got to Tromso where we could possibly get spares. We have not had any darkness now for some days and ‘night’ watches and day watches are merging into one. We have been eating well with full evening meals set out below with wine.”

After we crossed the Arctic Circle we called in at Holandsfjorden where the lowest glacier in Europe, Svartisen Glacier, is situated. From there we passed the Lofoten Islands and sailed on to Tromso. Tromso has been described as ‘the Paris of the North’ which is rather overstated. It has a mixture of buildings in timber from old, very modern to dilapidated. The town exports were mainly dried fish to Europe but now it has a range of service industries including supporting cruise ships. I hired a gun in Tromso with no fuss or questions and we repaired the engine compartment leak.

white waterWhite Water
On Friday 14th July, the new crew arrived but, on getting a personal weather forecast, we discovered that northerly winds were heading our way on Tuesday, so set off as soon as possible to avoid them. The sail from Tromso to Spitsbergen via Bear Island was a roller coaster ride with south westerly winds peaking at 44.6 knots. We had white water everywhere going down the huge waves, achieving a maximum speed of 14.1 knots, and were frequently engulfed with breaking waves. It was great fun and I can tell you that the only crew to be sea sick were the two professional sailors!

Hornbreen GlacierWe finally sighted Spitsbergen which looked spectral in the ‘eternal sun’ and spotted another yacht, Vagabond who, we later learned, had just been released from the ice on the SE coast of Spitsbergen after wintering there for 9 months. We visited Hornbreen Glacier, which is about 40 metres high, via an ice field and had to dodge icebergs of all sizes. According to our chart, dated 1962, we were about three quarters of a mile inside the glacier. That’s global warming for you!

We next visited the Polish research station and then went on to Akseloya Island in Bellsund Fjord. Here we met Lois ‘Hiawatha’ Nielson, a trapper who has lived there for over 20 years. ‘Hiawatha’ does not actually trap anything but collects and sells eider down from the nests of eider ducks. He invited us into his cabin and offered us hospitality, a rare privilege.

Change of Plan
My original intention was to go from the capital Longyearbyen north to 80 degrees north and return to Longyearbyen then Tromso. However this year, we heard that the ice had retreated enough, for the first time, to circumnavigate the island in a boat like EQUINOX. The opportunity was irresistible and I began making plans to see if it was feasible. Food was not a problem but water and diesel were. Calculations showed that we had enough water for the 16 days we would be at sea (I had only banked on 5). But we must sail over 400 nautical miles and could not use the heater in order to conserve fuel for windless days. I concluded it was doable.

I had to get permission from the Governor to change my plan but his office would not open again till Monday. On Friday night we hit the town and went to a traditional restaurant/bar called ‘Huset’ and had whale, sorry eco-warriors! Only minke. We got back after 04.00am – it was still sunny.

library-at-PyrmidenOn Saturday we left Longyearbyen for Pyramiden, about a six-hour sail further up the fjord. Pyramiden was a Russian coal-mining town of about 1000 people, which was abandoned in 1998. The ‘town’ is about 1 x 1/2 a mile in area with flats, houses, library, post office, swimming pool, bar, sports hall and workshops all intact. It was as if they were given 2 hours notice to quit. There were photographs on the walls, showing that this had been a very active community. During our sail to Bear Island, the drive coupling on our generator had failed and, while looking around the workshops, I found a part that enabled us to repair it. On the Monday I went to see the Governor of Svalbard who listened to my new plan, checked that I knew what I was doing and demanded a further bond.

We left Longyearbyen on Tuesday 25th July 2006 and arrived at Ny Alesund, a small coal-mining town which closed in 1962. Now it is full of polar research stations. This was our very last opportunity to get diesel so we topped up.

We motored north, since there was no wind whatsoever, to Virgohamna, a protected bay which 17th century Dutch whalers had used as a base. It is also the site that Salomon August Andrée, a Swede, used as a base in 1896 for his attempt to cross the North Pole in a balloon. Alas he failed and his balloon and remains were not found until 1930. Walter Wellman, an American journalist, was also based here for his attempt to cross the North Pole in a steerable airship. He had three failed attempts 1906, 1907 and 1909. The remains of his hangar and hydrogen tanks can still be seen.

The Water of Life
We left Virgohamna for Vulcanhamna, a volcanic area with reputed hot springs. As we anchored, Oosterschelde, a Dutch tall ship, anchored alongside us. They agreed to exchange 35 litres of diesel and 60 litres of fresh water for a bottle of 10-year-old Macallum malt whisky. This gave us an extra 90nm range. Little did we know how crucial that diesel would be. Never has the ‘water of life’ had more meaning!

bathing in the not so hot springWe motored further up the fjord in search of the hot springs. These required a hike of about 4-5 km. We took our towels, soap, GPS, radio, binoculars, map, compass, thunder flashes (to scare away polar bears) and gun (in case we didn’t scare them away!) Eventually we found a slightly less cold, muddy pool with lots of sludgy plant life – not what we were expecting. We stripped off anyway and took a dip and a very well needed wash.

We motored to another fjord, with a lagoon, called Mushamna, about 3 hours north and paddled ashore to walk to a trapper’s hut, which we had seen when coming in. We were about 150 metres from the hut when we saw a white rock beside a pool. The rock moved. At last it was a polar bear! Looking again through my video recorder, I could also see a cub. We returned to the boat as quickly as we could.

polar bearsMotoring round the point we could clearly see a mother and two cubs so we anchored to watch, photograph and film them. A few minutes later the trapper appeared on his way to collect water. He walked towards the bears, who got up and ran away from him. Further up the coast we saw another mother and two cubs not 400m the other side of the trapper’s hut.

the chart stops hereOur Goal
At 16.04 GMT on Sunday 30th July, we crossed 80 degrees N which is less than 600 nm from the North Pole. This was one of the main goals of the whole trip. The electronic C-Map charts stop at 80 degrees N, as if you are off the end of the world. We had to use all sensors: depth sounder, forward looking sonar, radar and the Mk 1 eyeball to navigate these waters. It was damp, cold (5 degrees C) and foggy with about 100m visibility. On our way to Moffen Island we spotted a lone walrus. It had very impressive tusks! We anchored, had dinner and celebrated with champagne.

We passed the most northerly tip of Spitsbergen (80 degrees 08′ N 16 degrees 24’E) heading for a lagoon on the north west tip of Nordaustlandet, the next large island to the northeast of Spitsbergen. This is where Jan Erik hopes to spend the winter in his boat in 2008. He will be frozen in and have 3 dogs as company. We said we would try and do a brief survey for him, as the charts show no details at all.

uncharted waters

On our way south, this time following the east coast of Spitsbergen, we saw some very large glacier icebergs about the size of houses and small hotels. The temperature reached a new low of 2.8 degrees C i.e. a wind chill temperature of –11degrees C. It was very foggy, cold and damp. Our below deck temperature was 9.4 degrees C without the heater. I was wearing 2 pairs of socks, thermals, fleece mid layer, lined trousers, salopettes, thermal vest, mid fleece, fleece shirt, fleece jacket, oilies jacket, ski gloves, and fleece beanie to top it off. Even in my sleeping bag I wore two layers. The cold just seeped right through the body. It was the most miserable time for all of us.For a week we had not seen any other indication of civilisation. Actually that is not true. We did unfortunately see flotsam washed up on the shores – mostly plastics from all over the world, bottles (a Russian tomato ketchup bottle) and an aerosol can of ‘Ellenette’ hairspray which still worked. But mostly the flotsam washed up are logging logs from Siberia. We had seen five floating past and had to steer to avoid two of them. If they had hit the boat we would have been holed!

We left Svalbard on Friday 4th August to good SSW/S/SSE winds, 4 occasionally 5. We had to sail, so started with a starboard tack. The passage was much calmer than on our way north, but, expecting the wind to back, we ended up further east than planned. Since we were 12 hours ahead of schedule, we decided to drop in at Hammerfest, the northernmost town in Europe. We showered at the Hammerfest Quality Hotel, our first for over two weeks!! (shower not hotel) (Our bath in the volcano pool probably made us dirtier, so doesn’t count!)

scenic shotCutting it Fine
When we arrived at Tromso, on 9th August, and filled up with diesel, we found we had only had 37 litres left. If we had not taken diesel from Oosterschelde we would only have been left with 2 litres, which is cutting it a bit fine! While there, I visited and joined the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society being member number 216448. Michael Palin also joined when he visited Hammerfest during his Pole to Pole TV series. We crossed the Arctic Circle again on 20th August and began to see some ‘night’.

We enjoyed our last supper of chili con carne, con what’s left, and a bottle of good red wine. We arrived at St Davids Bay (Inverkeithing) at 11.15 on Thursday 24th August, took the sail down and tidied up ready for coming into Port Edgar at midday. Then ‘Naiad’ appeared fully dressed with flags saying ‘EQUINOX’. On board were Murray and Rosie, Anne (my wife) and Rachel (my daughter). What a great welcome! Most of the Spitsbergen crew were also there to greet us.

I had been away for 62 days and covered 4801.2 nautical miles. I had the experience of a lifetime with plenty of stories to tell for years to come. I could not have wished for a better crew. Everyone pulled their weight and was very tolerant of me. I would like to thank all the crew members who took part for, without each person, this trip would not have been possible.

Gordon still has one sailing ambition left and that is to take part in the ARC race, the Atlantic Rally Cruise, with Anne, his wife and then go island hopping in the Caribbean. “It’s good to do the crossing as part of a race, he says. “You have some company, there’s safety in numbers and it’s more sociable.” (Especially if you take a few more bottles of the ‘water of life’, Gordon?!)

At the Port Edgar Yacht Club Dinner/dance and Prize giving this month, Gordon was presented with the ‘Millennium Quaich’ for the best log and the ‘George Adams Trophy’ for the most outstanding achievement. The latter trophy has been awarded since 1983 and this is the first time it has been awarded to a cruiser (normally it goes to achievements in racing).


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