The worst part of this kind of holiday is the journey to the start point. We met the yacht Anne Margaretha in Harstad on the north coast of Norway after 56 hours of travelling including lost luggage and cancelled flights. We ended up going Auckland, Bangkok, Oslo, Evenes and then a bus to Harstad and a short walk to our hotel. We had two nights and a day to recover before setting sail.
On boarding day we met up with the other passengers and boarded the yacht. It was like coming home as we had travelled on this ship before, from Ushuaia in Argentina to the Antarctic last year. Here in the Arctic Circle at this time of the year we have no night, it is the land of the midnight sun. It’s great for sailing because you can always see and can travel safely for 24 hours a day, but it is easy to forget whether it is day or night and that you have to sleep sometime. As is often the case on this kind of holiday, our travelling companions cover a variety of ages from early twenties to early seventies, but we are all interested in conservation and have a desire to see the ends of the earth before it is totally raped by mankind.
It is late springtime here and the sea ice has already retreated away from the north coast of Spitsbergen, taking away the seals that the polar bears are dependent on for building up their fat reserves after the winter hibernation. We are hoping to see some polar bears on the next leg of this journey and are also hoping that they will be fat and well fed and not skinny and desperate in the last stages of starvation.
Chatting with Heinz, our captain we learnt that there has been a massive reduction in the biomass in this area. When the area was alive with whales and seals and walruses there was adequate food for everyone. Relentless whaling has reduced the population of whales dramatically and whereas there always used to be a whale carcass on a beach somewhere, preserved by the cold climate and providing emergency rations for the bears, now they are an absolute rarity. If you take out one element in the food chain, you compromise every other element and the loss of the pack ice so early in the season could be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The hungry bears are now eating anything they can get their paws on including whole rookeries. One bear can clear a rookery of its eggs and chicks in a day.
Once on board we stowed our gear and made up our bunks then gathered on deck to cast off and get underway. We instantly felt at home. This is an environment that we know and love, going to sea. While we motorsailed to our next anchorage, Endenes we had dinner and got to know each other a bit. Watches were allocated and once again we were in the 4 to 8 watch with Mirek, Winnie and watch leader Karinne. Most of us took a turn at the wheel to get a feel for the ship. It was a short journey and not long before we were able to get some much needed sleep.
The next day we all had a stroll round the small settlement then headed off towards Tromso for refuelling. A long day motorsailing into a northerly wind but calm enough in the fiords to eat dinner underway at the table. This would prove not to be the usual pattern on this trip. The forecast was for strong northerlies for a day or two followed by calmer weather as the front moved through, to be followed by a high pressure system. The plan is for two nights in Tromso while we assess the weather and get fuel. Our arrival around 10:30pm was celebrated with a beer each to wrap up the day.
A sad breakfast next morning as our cook had to leave the boat due to an injury which was not reacting well to the sailing. This left us short of a crew member but the remaining two crew Michael and Karinne rose to the occasion with a bit more help from the passengers. We all pitch in with dishes and vegetable prep so all is not lost. Whilst Heinz and the crew took the boat to the fuel dock the rest of us went by bus and gondola to view Tromso from the top of the surrounding hills or are they mountains? Either way it was an impressive view surveyed to the tune of a helicopter collecting left over building materials from the nearby café/lookout/gondola station and ferrying it down to the town. The helicopter worked continuously all the time we were up at the lookout. The views were however, quite spectacular. Back to the boat for lunch then some went off to the botanical gardens and Al and I stayed on board and read for the afternoon. A good dinner on board with lots of conversation and followed by my Antarctic Presentation as requested by Heinz.
Next morning we hit the town for a coffee and then the Polar museum which was quite outstanding but pretty gruesome. It was less about exploration and more about killing seals, whales and polar bears. They really didn’t have a chance. There was even a polar bear trap in which the bear commits suicide by triggering a gun which shoots him in between the eyes. One man alone, Rudi, killed 700 bears.
At around 1.00pm we cast off and headed off in the wind and rain to a tiny fishing settlement where we hoped to find some puffins nesting in the cliffs. It was a short motorsail north (into the wind) then a bit of expert boat handling by Heinz to make us secure on the end of a small wharf. The end of the wharf was about one third the length of Anne Margaretha and there was a fresh breeze blowing us off to add to the complications. It was a great lesson in how to use a spring line to pull a boat alongside a dock and to secure it safely with nothing to attach the bow and stern to. A group of us set off towards a saddle in the high hills which apparently has cliffs where the puffins nest on the other side. After a damp climb up through a quarry and some light scrubby bush we emerged on the top of the cliffs. Charlotte, our naturalist and a couple of the others made their way to the edge of the cliffs and were rewarded with some sightings. The rest of us were a bit too cold and wet and decided to head back down for dinner. Everyone arrived back in dribs and drabs for another great meal and an early night. Charlotte and Annette planned an early morning hike back up to the cliffs for another viewing. The rest of us declined.
After breakfast we cast off again and headed up the coast in the shelter of some islands while we decided whether to head out into the ocean proper or wait another day for the wind and waves to subside a little. It was Annette’s birthday so we celebrated with a magnificent chocolate cake constructed by Winnie. Maybe not the best food in preparation for a rough passage.
The decision was to go for it and it was pretty bouncy. One by one people headed for their bunks with their buckets until there was only captain, crew and a few of us still sailing. A bit of a tough call with not many on each watch and it was cold on the helm outside. The wind was still gusting into the 30 knot range and the seas were short and sharp on top of a significant swell. No-one was eating much, just grabbing a bit of bread and the odd cup of soup before climbing into a bucking bunk for a few hours’ sleep between watches. It is easy to lose track of time. Is it Saturday or Sunday and when did we leave? Am I on morning watch or evening watch? Am I eating breakfast or dinner? With no darkness to delineate day and night your body clock goes a bit awry.
It wasn’t till the end of the second day out that conditions started to calm down a little and the sun crept out from behind the clouds offering both warmth and a bit of cheer. On the morning of the third day at sea people began to emerge from their bunks and before long everyone was out and about. Some were still feeling a little grim but hot soup and bread soon sorted them out. Al took over the helm but two days and nights horizontal had its effect and he got light headed and subsided onto the seat. Dehydration is insidious and has to be watched for. Amazing how restorative a good drink of water can be. We all tucked into a good meal of chicken and vegetables as Bear Island came into view. Half way to Spitsbergen already. How time flies when you are having fun.
Heinz took Anne Margaretha close under the cliffs so we could see the birds and the air was alive with bird chatter. There were puffins and guillemots galore, on the water, in the air and in their nests on the cliffs. It was an awesome experience. We made our way slowly up the east side of the island to where there is a research station. We anchored off and headed in to the wharf in the dinghy in relays. It’s was a bit difficult getting from the dinghy onto the quay with the surge but we all managed it and headed up the path to the station where we got permission to go for a short hike provided someone had a gun. Mirek and Charlotte chose to take a short walk along the cliff top looking for birds and the rest of us headed overland with Heinz who was armed in case of Polar Bears. We tried to keep together as a group. The bear that gets you is the one you didn’t see and they are stealthy. It is unlikely that there are any on the island and the guy at the station was probably covering himself when he said Heinz had to carry a gun.
We found a couple of world war two wrecks of aeroplanes but they were too weathered by winds and rain to tell what kind of aircraft they were. We also found a lovely sandy beach, perfect for swimming if the water had been somewhat warmer.
Speaking of swimming, back at the station Winnie and Karinne decided to go for an Arctic dip to get a certificate each. They went down to the stony beach across from the wharf and stripped off and ran in. They ran out somewhat faster than they ran in amid squeals of shock and some interesting descriptions of the temperature, which, by the way, was just above freezing!
No rest for the wicked, back to the dinghy and out to Anne Margaretha to continue our journey. The weather was kinder now, the sea was down, the sun was out some of the time and the wind was gentler. 160 miles to go to the south tip of Spitsbergen. Some whales were spotted and later identified as humpbacks by their tail fins when they dive. Everyone was out and about on their watch and it was easy sailing with a bit of an increase in the wind for the last three hours, to the southernmost fiord on the west coast. Here there is a Polish research station which we are hoping to visit in the morning. Anchor down around 1am, engine off, beers all around then everyone is assigned an anchor watch. Some of us stay up till our watch and others disappear for a few hours’ sleep. Breakfast is scheduled for 9am, will I make it I wonder as I come off watch at 5:30am.