Sailing in the midnight sun – Tromso to Longyearbeyn

Sailing in the midnight sun – Tromso to Longyearbeyn

When I was offered the chance of sailing from the Norwegian mainland to the wilds of Arctic Svalbard, it sounded too good to be true, so I jumped at it. Here is my story.

Clare Burkitt

Thursday – Joining Prolific in Tromso

69 47’N 19 01’E 

I joined our vessel Prolific in Tromso, Norway and found the crew in their survival suits half way through a safety briefing. They welcomed me in warmly and all spoke excitedly about the trip ahead: a 600 NM voyage north to Spitsbergen, Svalbard.

We set sail at 1620 for Kristoffervalen where we were to stay the night before striking out for Svalbard. We entered the tiny harbour at 2232 and moored up in the midnight sun. Two local men helped secure the boat to the pontoon and promptly retreated back to their cars. The island had only 20 or so inhabitants and in our 14 hour stay, we encountered only those two men.

The midnight sun burnt the island to a deep orange. We took the opportunity to explore and found our way to the drying racks where hundreds of fish heads hung. The bodies, considered a delicacy, had been sold in the local market – leaving the heads to be ground into a fine cooking powder and exported to Africa.

Once back on board, the crew toasted to the start of their adventure before retiring to their bunks down below.

Friday – Wild Reindeer at Kristoffervalen

69 56’N 19 30’E

Before setting out on the main stretch of our travels, 450 Nautical Miles across the Barents Sea, it was vital to ensure that Prolific was ready for the challenge. The steering, which had been pulling starboard the day before, was checked and the crew was shown how to operate the rudder manually in the case of a steering failure. Whilst the final checks were conducted, I left the boat and walked around the small bay. I clambered up a grassy mound overlooking the water and was met by two wild reindeer. The larger stag began to advance towards me and I took the precaution of retreated back to the water, leaving them to graze peacefully.

We set sail at 1300, working in watch teams and taking four hour shifts to allow the others to rest. The remote island of Kristoffervalen would be the last harbour we could shelter in before Spitsbergen.

Saturday – Sea Legs

The watch teams continued to share their duties of manning the boat, trimming the sails and navigating through the fog which hung around Prolific for the majority of the passage to Bear Island. The crew had been divided into 3 teams and were bonding quickly, some through stories and others through a shared feeling of sea sickness. Astrid, our cook, prepared a hot supper to keep spirits high and the groups rotated from deck to bunk to deck again.

Sunday – Getting naked at Bear Island (Bjørnøya)

74’22 N 19 09’ E

Bear Island appeared on the starboard bow at 0244 on Sunday morning. The night shifts had been dense with fog – the land only came into view less than 2 NM offshore. Had we not been able to use our instruments, the quantity of birds would have been the only indication of landfall.

“Bjornoya, meaning Bear Island, is a triangular island 120 NM South of Sorkapp, Spitsbergen’s southern most tip. The island was named in 1596 by the Dutchman William Barents, after one of his crew shot a bear there. From the mid 17th to 19th centuries it was visited by walrus and whale hunters. An attempt at colonisation in 1882 failed when all inhabitants died of scurvy. 

In 1920, Bjornoya came under Norwegian sovereignty, as part of Svalbard. A few Norwegians live year round at the weather radio station on the North coast. The approach is usually ice free from April to November and, although the weather can change rapidly, the island serves as a good port of call en route to Spitsbergen.”

(Norway, Imray royal cruising club pilotage foundation, July Lomax first edition)

Prolific anchored roughly 200m offshore and the crew went by tender to the small sandy beach at Sorhamna. There, attempts were made to climb the tall cliffs with minimal success due to the steep fronts and scree underfoot. HP, our polar bear guard, briefed the crew on how to operate the flare gun and rifles – permitting each member a shot. It would be important for us all to be able to operate the gun once on Spitsbergen. A hiking party set out to cross the island on foot and a group returned to Prolific in order to sail her round to meet them on the NE of the island. Stefan and Henry took the opportunity to bathe, Norwegian style, by soaping up onboard and then jumping into the Arctic Waters – a bit chilly!

The boat was taken round to meet with some of the crew who had made their way to the cove at Kvalrossbukta. Once anchored, those of us still onboard went by tender to the inlet (carrying hot chocolate and a guitar). Linda lit a fire of drift wood on the sand and we sat surrounded by the rusting ruins of a small whaling outfit.

Having collected one half of the hiking party, Prolific sailed further north to catch up with the remainder of the crew. We were to meet them at the radio station some 10 miles from where we left them. The radio mast could be seen from anywhere on the island and the group had both a PLB (emergency locator) and marksman (HP) to ensure they were safe.

The boat turned through the rain to a craggy bay called Herwighamna where the radio station rose out of harsh grey cliffs. The rocks were so close that it was necessary to lay two anchors to secure the boat. Emil took to the galley to prepare supper, some red wine was poured and HP radioed in to confirm they would soon be arriving. Once the whole group was back together we sat down to eat and to hear about the hike. Night caps of brandy and rum added to the laughter in the warm belly of Prolific.

Monday – Fishing and Fin Whales

The wind, which had caused us to race at 10 knots the day before, had died and we had no choice but to motor. With the boat in gentle motion, two fishing lines were cast into the cold waters below. Within less than 15 minutes, and in no more than 4 casts, 7 large cod were lying on the deck. Gudrun and I had dropped the lines and Rune and Emil helped tug our heavy load on board – I caught my first fish, weighing approximately 4 kilos.

My watch took some rest, having worked the 0000 – 0400 shift, and woke to a supper of fresh cod and roasted vegetables.

It was just before midnight when three fin whales were spotted a short distance from the port side. The crew below all raced to the deck and gathered to watch as the family of whales turned to join Prolific. Standing at the bow you could hear the explosive rush of their blow as they swam around the boat, keeping a 20 meter distance. Fin whales are the second largest animals on earth after the blue whale; they can grow to more than 27 metres in length and weigh 74 tonnes.

Eventually we decided to fill our sails once more and continue on, leaving the whales behind us. Henry and I returned to our bunks with hot chocolate and whiskey to eased us back to sleep.

Tuesday – Hornsund

77 00′ N 15 38′ E

Sorkapp, the southern tip of Spitsbergen, came into view at 0210. I stepped into the freezing mist at 0400, a feat made better by good gear and the constant daylight. There had been little wind in open water, but as we neared the dramatic coastline the wind speed lifted.

We sailed along the coast and turned into Hornsund, where a magnificent glacier stretched out across the fjord. We anchored at a safe distance from it and took in the beautiful sight. Mountains covered in scree stood to the East of the ice mass and, with HP and Linda to guard us, a group of us set off in the tender for a hike. The footing was loose at points, and the mud heavy, but the view looking down over the calving glacier was spectacular. Three members of our crew and the skipper remained on prolific, preferring the vantage point from the water. Henry, Liz and Oyvind (and his trust GoPro) took the tender through the ice laden waters to view the glacier from below.

After collecting the hiking party by tender, Henry caught a bucket of ice from the fjord to cool the white wine for dinner and the whiskey for night caps. Prolific was moved to a safer anchorage away from the ice, and the crew settled into its usual shift pattern for anchor watch.

Wednesday – The Picnic

77 00’N 16 32’E

We started our day with hot salted porridge and cinnamon and set sail further into the fjord. The crew took turns to man the bow and watch for icebergs and growlers, directing the helm through its slalom course. As we approached the biggest berg we had yet seen, a large cracking noise came from it. A chunk of ice the size of a car sheered off the side of it and the whole thing began to gently roll over. At 1430, we reached the head of Brepollen where we lay our anchor. Prolific was at the foot of a large mountain range, cut by five separate glaciers. The crew strapped on their hiking boots and headed for the shore.

Rounded lumps of moraine lay at the base of the mountains. We worked our way up to the top of the nearest peak, through the slate chips, mud and snow. HP led with his riffle and Linda stayed at the back of the group with hers – huge paw prints confirming the need to be cautious!

We stopped for lunch just before the summit and sat together admiring the view. The sun was so strong that a heat haze had formed above the rocks, distorting the snowy peaks in the distance. Some of crew, spurred on by the achievement so far, decided to continue across the range; others headed back to the shore. Linda and HP split with the groups so that neither set were without a rifle.

The first team back to the boat enjoyed an hour’s rest before HP radioed in requesting collection. Henry took the tender to meet the second group at the foot of a large glacier where, sheltered from the wind and warmed by the sun, the four hikers were bathing in the ice water. Skinny dipping at 77’N, we all decided, deserved a beer.

That evening we moved the boat west, sailing past Bautaen, a 487 metre high monolith-like peak. We anchored in the small bay of Gashamna where ruins of a whaling station stood exposed against the sea. We slept on anchor in peaceful waters.

Thursday – Rough Seas Ahead

The crew had breakfast together at 0800 and went to explore the ruins on the sand. A small number of Arctic Terns were protecting the beach front with severe determination, rushing at our heads (especially Emil who wore bright orange) as we moved towards the hut.

The deteriorating wooden building was surrounded by large whale bones and the scattered foundations of its neighbours. Small mouse-ear flora sprung up amongst the rusting rubble.

The group returned to the boat and set about an aptly termed ‘happy hour’ – scrubbing the floors and washing down all of the surfaces. Hot soup was served up and Chris lead a briefing on what was to come.

We were to tackle the final leg of our voyage and head further north to Barentsburg. At an average speed of 6 knots the journey would take us 20 hours. Shortly after leaving the calm waters of Gashamna, however, we were met with a large rolling sea. The swell caused the boat to peak and trough wildly and the wind, of at least 30 knots, set Prolific heaving sharply to her port side. The crew were enjoying the thrill of the rough sea and persevered for almost 3 hours in the hope that the swell would subside and the winds would calm – when they did not, the decision was taken to turn back to sheltered waters.

At 1900 we anchored back at Isbjornhamna to wait out the weather.

Friday – Barentsburg

78 03N 14 12’E 

We left Isbjornhamna at 0400 and traced the frozen coast north, sailing through the icy winds for a 20 hour stretch. The watch teams rotated swiftly to allow each member some reprieve from the cold. Astrid served up hot soup and Liz kept the crew in good humour – singing and dancing despite the falling temperature.

At 2330 we moored up in Barentsburg, a Russian mining town black with coal. The sea port office was a green wooden building with a large metal phone hanging on the outside – the dial tone sounding both familiar and foreign.

The town felt empty, as if abandoned in a hurry some years before. We walked past broken buildings with new roofs and houses with their windows left swinging open. Beautiful murals had been painted on the school and the billboards acted as large picture frames – it seemed that the town was trying to grow colour into the darkened landscape.

The crew explored the strange streets in a tight group and the few locals we spotted seemed as wary of us and we were of them, all apart from Alexander. I crossed paths with Alexander on his way back from the mines, he spoke soft fragmented English and shook my hand, a kind gesture which endeared me to the town.

The crew returned to Prolific where red wine was poured, all remarking that Barentsburg must be the most peculiar place on Earth.

Saturday – Longyearbyen

78 13’N 15 37’E

We reached our final destination, Longyearbyen, at midday and set about cleaning the boat. In an hour we had Prolific shining and headed for the showers ourselves. Walking back to the boat, past the husky dogs and snow mobiles, a sense of what we had just achieved began to sink in. We had sailed further north than I had ever imagined I would travel, climbed glacial terrains and shot rifles on a hidden beach. We “cheersed” to our successful voyage – the first of many many toasts that night.

Oyvind had made a video of our adventure, which we watched together on the projector in the saloon before heading to dinner. The evening was spent laughing and teasing each other as we moved from bar to bar. The revelry ended slightly outside of town, at a white building which did little to project what lay inside. “The House” is the island’s night club – where the DJ and decor could challenge any uber cool London spot and the cocktails were poured on glacial ice.

Having spend the last 9 days in the wilderness, Longyearbyen suddenly felt very cosmopolitan. No one is allowed to be born or to die in Svalbard and as a result the community is very diverse and, in a sense, transcendent. The township functions like a capital – but Svalbard is not a country – it is a collection of beautiful island, governed by charter and home to more bears and foxes than people.

End: ‘The one who comes sailing to Svalbard in clear weather will see the mountains rise like teeth on a saw blade. Closer to shore he meets an almost frightening sight of what seems to be a naked and frozen land. Odd eroded mountains with huge scree slopes at their feet are flanking the deep fjords. Glacier by glacier stretches its blue green tongues into the sea and high up they change into white inland ice. Not a single tree is breaking the stone grey landscape. No place for life, you may think.

But strangely enough life has found a foothold also here in the furthest north. If you look closely, it shows in many different ways. Seals are like black spots on the ice along the coasts, and out there the Polar bear is roaming, lots of them. Millions of birds flicker like snowflakes around steep cliffs and islets. In the valleys the wild reindeer and the Polar fox are strolling around all over. The grey gravel ground is lit up by mounds of Reindeer moss, grasses and Cotton grass while scented polar flowers in red, yellow and blue are swaying in the polar breeze.’

(From Helge Ingstad (1948): The Land of the Cold Coasts)

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