Newsletter #1- Iceland to Norway

Alesund, Norway
August 2000

Fiona will soon be heading for Scotland and as we leave the Arctic Circle it seems an appropriate point to the list our adventures so far. On board, as we left Patchogue in mid-June, 2000, was myself, John, an Englishman who flew over specifically to join this caper and Chris, a German physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory who was squeezing out a month’s vacation in order to sail as far as Iceland. We should have stayed in port: as we sailed out of Fire Island Inlet we encountered a stiff easterly wind that did not let up for a couple of days as we clawed our way to Block Island. Normally this leg takes about 20 hours from Patchogue, this time it took us a day and two-thirds, it was midnight when we picked up a mooring in the Great Salt Pond, Block Island. A good night’s sleep, a brisk walk to the Southeast light-house and supper at Ballards restored our good spirits. We left the next morning, bright and early, for a sail to the Cape Cod Canal and a mooring at Provincetown, on the top of Cape Cod. Here the best entertainment is to sit on a bench in front of the Town Hall and watch the throng passing by. The prize goes to a creation on 6-inch platform shoes dressed in gauzy pink, of indeterminate gender. Probably there is no greater contrast to Provincetown than Lunenburg in Nova Scotia. We tied up there after a three day trip across the Gulf of Maine, mostly in foggy, windless conditions. Lunenburg was one of the leading fishery and shipbuilding ports on the Nova Scotia coast. Now the collapse of the cod fishing has had a dramatic impact. There is an interesting museum devoted to the Atlantic fishing business including a genuine Grand Banks schooner. Tied up at the Scotia Trawler dock we encountered a fascinating yachtie – Bill Butler. He and his wife survived 66 days in a life raft in the Pacific after their sailboat was sunk by a whale (they think). He now has a new wife and a new boat.
Our next stop was in St Johns, Newfoundland. St Johns was England’s first colony, a tribute to the enormous value of the cod fisheries, now fished out. It is the capital of Newfoundland, and an impoverished town. The residents are extremely pleasant, one cruising couple invited us over to their apartment for supper. It is unnerving for a New Yorker to step into the street and finding all the traffic grinding to a halt, crosswalk or not. The residents complain a lot about the weather.

The passage to Iceland took 11 days. The logbook is full of “foggy”. The Labrador Current, coming down the Davis Strait on our port gave us plenty of fog, sometimes calm, sometimes winds to 25 kt. The period of darkness fell to a 3 or 4 hours as we gained northing. The boom and sail dripped and condensation appeared in the cabin. The seawater temperature fell into the 40’s. Chris was not impressed. It reminded me of my first transatlantic passage with John and Barbara Knight aboard Arvincourt. When we entered the snug harbor at Reykjavik we found a NATO exercise in full swing with six frigates tied up. The public telephones in the town were very busy with crew calling home. Reykjavik is a pleasant town with striking architecture. Virtually all the buildings are heated by geothermal springs as Iceland lies on a major fault line in the earth’s crust. These springs also provide electric power in such abundance that Iceland is a smelter of aluminum using bauxite transported from half way around the world. The thought crossed my mind that when we run out of fossil fuel the Icelanders will still be warm and and running cars using hydrogen obtained by electrolysis. In Iceland a friend of a fellow South Bay Cruising Club member, Eli, had been prepped to meet us- he was waiting on the dock when we tied up. He was a treasure, we had a great supper with him and his partner, Hilda, in their modern apartment. On the day Chris flew home he gave us a tour of the southwestern corner of Iceland. Near the coast the terrain is barren; jumbled rock with little vegetation. Inland it is a little greener. We walked through the rift which is slowly tearing Iceland in half. It is in a dramatic setting and was the site of the first parliament when the Vikings settled Iceland in the 900’s. It was a society ridden with blood feuds- parliament was a neutral place with weapons laid aside.

We had an elegant meal with Eli and Hilda in a small restaurant one evening which was astonishingly expensive by American standards. Perhaps it was the fare: smoked puffin for appetizer. One can only wonder at the energy and productivity of the Icelanders: it is a fully functioning democratic society with good social services, international and national airlines, ferries, a fishing fleet, etc and virtually free energy (but imported fuel is very expensive), all with a population of 280,000 souls. When Chris left we were joined by Doug, a recently retired professor of oceanography who flew in after just completing a field trip to the Great Barrier Reef. He likes his life to be full of contrast, obviously.

After leaving Reykjavik we sailed by Surtsey, an island formed in the 1960’s by a volcanic eruption off the south coast. After that we tied up next to a trawler in the Vestmann Islands. Legend has it that they were first inhabited by escaped Irish slaves during the Viking period, figuring no one would venture to such a wild place. But the Vikings tracked them down and killed them anyway. The main island, Heimaey, was threatened by an eruption in 1973 when a river of lava might have closed off the harbor. They imported dozens of big diesel driven water pumps and cooled down the flow so now the lava forms a nice breakwater, the harbor was saved. We climbed to the top of the volcano, Eldfel, which is still gently steaming and warm underfoot. Halfway up is a monument to the occasion when the harbor and town were threatened- a rusting diesel engine and pump!

Our next landfall was Jan Mayen Island, north of the Arctic Circle. We were not sure if we would be able to land- there is no harbor thus one must get ashore by dinghy and, perhaps more of an obstacle, prior permission is required from a Norwegian government office on the mainland. The passage was a study in contrasts: high winds then calm, fog then sunshine. The nights grew shorter. A day before we arrived the first sign of engine trouble surfaced. Early in the morning the smoke detector in the engine room clanged away; there was steam everywhere, the engine had lost its cooling water. The leak was in the water pump, the problem would continue to plague us, as you will learn. Jan Mayen is dominated by a 9000 ft or so high volcano, permanently covered with snow. When we had it in sight we called on the radio and were directed to anchor in Walrus Bay, on the west side of the island. It was late afternoon when we finally got there and conditions were calm. We were formally given permission to land “for two hours” and a knot of people met us on the rocky beach, including the station commander. I think the two hour limit was simply to meet some official directive about admitting strangers to the island, we stayed over five hours. A jeep-like vehicle transported us to the main base 18 km away, dubbed ‘Aluminum City’ from the style of the clustered buildings there. Twenty six people live on the island manning radio transmitters and a meteorological station. There is a sprinkling of women, we met a couple in the cozy lounge while being served tea and cake. First our guide insisted we take a shower- towels and soap were ready. Was that for our benefit or theirs? After visiting most of the facilities and a small museum we return to the beach. Even though it was after midnight it was quite light. In the museum were some pieces of a German Kondor that crashed on Jan Mayen during WW II. It was probably damaged spotting Allied convoys that were often routed this far north. The pilot obviously hoped for a successful crash-landing on this rocky island but all six aboard were killed, a story we will never learn. It was still clear when we left and we got several snaps of the volcano, Beerenberg , as we left. According to the guide book we carried, the peak the Beerenberg can only be seen one day in a hundred, so we were lucky.

We got good ice charts from the met office in Jan Mayen. The pack ice was a little further south than usual this year. The last tendril of the Gulf Steam is deflected along the west coast of Svalbard (also known as Spitzbergen), this causes the pack ice to be further north close to the coast. As we sailed northeast from Jan Mayen we encountered northerly winds which pushed the sea ice to the south. We finally encountered ice at 78o 37’N, about 10% sea coverage. Some of the floes were 100 ft long and perhaps 10ft high. John spotted a dark object on one but it slid into the sea on our approach, it was probably a seal. We started the engine to keep maneuverability and took lots of photos, we had no difficulties working free of the ice as we sailed east and a day later we raised Ny Alesund, near the north coast. At 79o N it claims to be the world’s most northerly settled town. It was founded in the 1920’s as a coal mining village but a series of explosions, culminating in a shocker in the 1960’s, shut down mining operations. For the last couple of decades it has been the home of a number of teams interested in high arctic scientific research. It is very busy in summer with visiting investigators, a few hardy ones winter over. I talked to one British scientist who knew Dave Burkett , the chief at Port Lockeroy, who I met in 1999 during the Antarctic cruise- small world. A museum full of mining artifacts and photos testifies to the hard life the miners and their families lead. Some coal mines (mostly operated by Russians) are still in business in other parts of Svalbard. Ny Alesund must be one of the few places on earth where you are not allowed ashore WITHOUT a gun. Doug had put his 12 gauge shotgun aboard before we left New York and it was checked by a policeman on our arrival. The danger is polar bears, which in summer move north with the receding pack ice looking for seals to eat. For some reason a few forget to go north and they hang around the coast looking for something else to eat- you! This is a historic spot in the story of arctic exploration. Many expeditions set out from Ny Alesund, for example the tower for mooring Nobile’s dirigible, in which he flew over the North Pole in the 20’s, is still there, about half a mile from the dock. We tied up next to a very interesting fellow, Hans, who had built his own steel sailboat which he charters each summer to scientists going further north. The same length as Fiona, she weighed 50% more- the bottom and bow were made of steel plate over an inch thick. I asked how far north he had sailed and he replied 83o N in a good year, this must be a record for a yacht; only 420 miles from the pole. One afternoon as John and I walked into the village an Arctic fox raised havoc among the nesting terns by searching for eggs. Ultimately it found one despite the distracting attacks by the terns and then scampered away.

After a couple of days we sailed down the scenic Forelandsundet, a spectacular 90 mile journey past high mountains and wide glaciers to Longyearbyen , the capital of Svalbard. This too, was a coal mining village and overhead cables and supports dot the rugged terrain. Although the population is under 2,000 the village boasts “the second best restaurant in Norway”, to quote a guidebook. Doug felt a trip there for the crew after all our hardships ought to be his treat and so one evening off we trooped. The room was impressive: gleaming glasses and plates on snowy table cloths, each setting had four knives and forks, not counting the little fork for desert. Now it has always been my maxim that the bill is proportional (not necessarily linearly) to the number of forks, in the past I have steered the guys away from places with only two forks. Four forks would be a new point on the curve. The meal was indeed sumptuous, the wine list ran to about six pages. The waitress was disappointed we only ordered one bottle, as each course appeared she suggested the appropriate bottle, which we declined. Doug did pay the bill, for which we thanked him. It was in the stratosphere. On the day we arrived as we walked past the police station on the way into town we noticed the police unloading three dead polar bears from a trailer. Apparently they consisted of a mother and two two-year old cubs. The mother was shot by a Polish scientist at a base out of town when it destroyed some equipment. The police shot the cubs, which appeared fully grown to me, as a precaution based on past experience. It was tragic to see these wonderful animals lying supine and bloodied.

Alcoholism must be a problem in these northern communities, we discovered residents are rationed as to how much they can buy and they are given a ration card. Unfortunately visitors don’t get a ration, we had hoped to add a couple of cases of beer to our dwindling stock. Fortunately Hans showed up and when he learned of our plight, got himself a card (he resides permanently in Svalbard) and went with me to a store to get a case. One evening we went to a pub in town for a quiet drink before returning to the boat. When the owner heard our accents he insisted on setting up tots of vodka on the house, to be downed in one gulp, Russian style. After the fifth round we staggered home in the light of midnight sun. While in Ny Alesund I had called my ship’s wife, Red, in Bellport on the phone and asked him to mail a new water pump for the engine to my English friend Derek who is planning to join FIONA at the end of August. Since Jan Mayen it had been necessary to add fresh water to the system whenever we ran the engine, but I felt we could live with that for a few weeks. This turned out to be a miscalculation. Shortly after we left Svalbard, while still under power, there was a loud shriek from the engine room followed by the now familiar clamor of the smoke detector. This time it really had detected smoke- the pump had seized up solid and the slipping fan belt had caught fire. Our destination was the Lofoten Islands about 600 miles to the south, but still above the Arctic Circle. After I removed the pump it was clearly past fixing on board- broken ball bearings fell into my hand as I pulled it apart. Thus we decided to head for Bodo (pronounced Buddha), a fairly large town just south of the Lofotens. One problem was that without the engine we had no way of keeping the batteries charged, so we instituted rigorous electrical economy, no heater and only one side of a tape at happy hour. As we sailed south Murphy struck again: the jib fairlead came loose, the sheet chaffed on the after turning block and broke. The subsequent flogging of the jib caused the roller furler foils to separate and the jib got ripped. This left us with only the main and staysail as a means of propulsion. Over the next few days we rigged a spare bilge pump so we could run the engine and we stitched the jib so it could be hanked onto a temporary stay. We crossed the south end of the Lofotens near the infamous Maelstrom and tied up at Bodo eight days out from Svalbard. We were able to contact a charming lady sailmaker who bore away the jib for some TLC. Next to us was a 103 year old Colin Archer sailboat owned by an amazing character called Steinar. When we said we needed a new water pump he cell-phoned an acquaintance on a nearby island who ran a diesel repair business and arranged to have a new one shipped to the airport by the local SAS carrier that afternoon. By half past-five on the day we arrived I had the new pump in my hands. I was deeply impressed by the demonstration of Nordic efficiency. Not only had I the pump I had also paid for it at a bank on the waterfront who transferred the money electronically to the vendor’s account. The next day I installed the pump while Doug and John took a bus ride to some of the local scenic spots including Saltstraumen, the fastest flowing tidal stream in the world (20 kts). A couple of days later our sail was delivered and we left for an abbreviated cruise to the Lofoten Islands. These islands, lying about 30 miles off the Norwegian coast, are famous for their mountainous beauty and rugged coast line. The night we crossed over the wind piped up and we ducked into the old whaling port of Skrova for shelter. Later in the day we ran downwind to Stamsund, which is Steinar’s home port. He was nice enough to pick us up at the boat that evening and give us a tour of Vestervagen island. On the morrow we caught a bus to the interior to visit a reconstructed Viking long house and ship. Although the coasts of these islands are forbidding and look like the homes of trolls the interiors are quite gentle, with fertile valleys, farms and grassy meadows. A veritable northern Shangri-la. We visited two quite charming fishing villages, one of them, Nusfjord, is a world heritage site, we liked the pub there anyway. Then we left the islands from Reine for the 400 mile leg to Alesund on the Norwegian mainland, crossing the Arctic Circle on our way south. This concludes the arctic phase of the cruise, since leaving New York we have logged 5,493 nautical miles.

Photos from the Cruise to the Arctic (Iceland)

The incredible landscape of Iceland
The new lava “breakwater” at the Vestmann Is.
FIONA is illuminated by the midnight sun, Jan Mayen Is.
Beerenberg Volcano, Jan Mayen Is.
The edge of the icefield, near 79N (note we do not believe in using the dodger)
The coast of Spitzbergen
The memorial to Admundsen, Ny Alesund, Spitzbergen
Loaded for bear, in a snow shower, Ny Alesund, Spitzbergen
A spare bilge pump in the pail cools the diesel engine.
The rocky coast of the Lofoten Is, Norway
The picturesque harbor of Nusfjord, Lofoten Is.