There on the hill off the port beam, in the snow between two bare stretches of brown rock and dirt stood a big, white polar bear, meandering around in the snow only a few hundred yards from the water’s edge and our anchorage. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, walrus if anything were on my mind, and I think I was really just admiring the mountains. His fur, while white, was a tint yellower than the fresh snow he was tramping around in, and his movements made him very easy to spot in the otherwise frozen, still landscape.
Passing south of Burgerbukta, the captain (yours truly) was once again overcome by curiosity and awe at the view to the north. Off the port stern quarter the impossible knife-edge ridge extending in N-S line from Gnallberget was frozen along it’s top and blanketed with fresh snow, except for the jet-black flanks of it’s eastern-facing cliffs, which fell straight into the sea from 2,300-feet. The ridge line extended all the way up this adjacent fjord for nearly five miles, gaining altitude as it gained latitude, framing another glacier in it’s eastern valley. Further east still and a bit south, a pyramid-shaped mountain marked a point dividing Burgerbukta into two N-S fjords arranged in a steep V-shape, like someone giving the peace sign.
We motored slowly up towards the glacier, having dropped the mainsail in the dying breeze 30 minutes beforehand. My curiosity and sense of awe overwhelmed any prior stress I had been feeling and for the first of what would happen on many occasions in the following 36 hours, I as a skipper new to the challenges of the north and the ice, had an ‘aha’ moment. On a millpond still bay, chunks of ice that had broken off the glacier floated harmlessly around the boat. We approached the largest of the bergs, a few hundred years from the glacier terminus itself, and only a boat-length from this mass of ice the most brilliant blue you can imagine, killed the engine. Isbjorn bobbed in the water with the iceberg. All else was quiet, save for the crew launching the inflatable for the first recce inshore in Spitsbergen.
The passage I’d feared the most, turned into one of the best. With a good omen in Finnkroken in the group of eagle feathers Mia found on the beach, we departed in the midnight sun in the middle of the night, racing the developing low off Greenland to the north. In the end, we beat it, and had incredible wind angles, if not perfect weather (relatively speaking - it snowed a lot of the time, was overcast for much of it, but we had no real ‘storms’ and great angles, and to me, that’s about as ‘perfect’ as I can hope for up here!).
I’ve been terrified of this trip. Genuinely scared. It’s the unknown up here, it’s cold wet and foggy, and the Arctic’s reputation as being a gnarly place is obviously well-established. Crossing the Barents Sea represented the single biggest challenge Mia & I have ever set for ourselves. I’m not superstitious generally. I’m not a religious person in the slightest, and I tend towards rational, logical thought and try not to read too much meaning into situations.
Isbjörn JUST crossed the 200-mile mark since leaving our snug anchorage at Finnkroken, and in another three miles - by the time I finish typing - we’ll be across 73º north latitude. The weather is gorgeous outside. A low, dispersed ceiling of silver-blue clouds allows the sun to shine through now and then, blanketing the boat with warm (relatively) and dry air. Jordan and Patty have nearly fully recovered from their bout of mal-de-mer that beset them to their bunks fairly quickly once we got offshore proper and outside the protection of the fjords. The captain (yours truly) has slept nearly 24 of the 36 hours we’ve been at sea...
Like I’ve said on the podcast, this is it - the studying time has run out, and now it’s time to get some rest and take the test. This passage is the most challenging thing Mia & I have ever set out to accomplish. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous (terrified in a way), but we feel ready, as ready as we can be. I’m confident in the boat, confident in our skills, confident in the crew. I’ve already briefed the gang that we’ve got to be on high alert at all times - if the uncertain weather forecasts weren’t enough, we’ve got ice, tree trunks from Siberia and fog to content with.
From here on out, we’ll be off the grid for a while, with no idea when we’ll get Internet back. The tracker will be on and pinging every few hours, but if you’re following at home, don’t panic if it misses a ping or two or fails entirely - don’t ready anything into it.
After our stressful night in Reine, the wind had eased off enough to let us get off the dock around 0900 the next morning. I had only gotten about 4 very fitful hours of sleep, but knew I could relax and nap once in open water. The gusts in the valleys were still touching 35 knots, but the lulls between them were longer and came more often. We removed all the extra dock lines we’d added prior, then made our escape. For a few seconds it was touch and go, as Isbjorn’s stern pulled to port and towards the fixed pier ahead of Rubicon3’s Oriole.
I’ll say I’m pretty relaxed being at sea again after the other night, which was a reminder that we are indeed in the Arctic and that shit can - and will - happen. There’s a saying that goes something like ‘the Arctic kills the unprepared,’ and last night was a freaking wake-up call for me on that front.
In the 18 hours in Bodø, we met Ola, a fan of the podcast and fellow Swede who popped by the boat to say hi. Ola used to work as a boatbuilder in Sweden for Linjett. He and his wife built their own Linjett during his tenure there, then sailed it across the Caribbean and back, including stops in Iceland and Greenland. They wound up settling in Bodø by a series of coincidences, and set up a woodworking and boatbuilding shop there over the last couple of years. Ola offered to do some work for Isbjorn if we needed anything - I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, as we were preparing to leave the dock again that afternoon, but asked about some ice poles for Svalbard, and where we might get them. “I’ll make them for you!” Ola said proudly. Nevermind we were leaving in two hours - he’d do it.
Note from Andy & Mia: Sophie sailed with us on Isbjorn from Sweden to Scotland in May 2018, our first passage of the Arctic season. She's a 30-something from France who lives in Stockholm with her partner Ryan, another 30-something from Iowa. They recently bought a Beneteau & are about to start a cruise from Stockholm to the Med, their first. Sophie came with us, like many do, to get some experience before setting out on their own. Here, in her own words, is what she learned.
We used as much diesel on this passage as we have on any passage really, running on fumes off our big tank as we motored the last few miles into the harbor. The trade-off was the spectacularly calm ocean. The silvery light from an overcast sky made the sea one giant oil painting as far as you could see in the west, and providing the foreground for the snow-capped mountains to the east, off our starboard beam. Nobody cared that we weren’t actually sailing.
At 0459 this morning, Isbjorn and her crew crossed 66º 33’ north latitude, and entered the Arctic. I’d have preferred to do it under sail of course, but motor-sailing on an oily calm sea, the mountains of northern Norway in the background standing watch in the silvery morning light…well, it ain’t that bad!
We’re at sea now two and half days, having departed Lerwick, Shetland on Sunday May 20 after a 15-hour respite from what looked like some gnarly southerly winds off the tip of Norway. In hindsight we should have continued nonstop from Fair Isle. But Mia had a bad gut feeling that morning we woke up in North Haven to get ready to go offshore, and we’ve done well to follow her gut feelings. So after a 40-mile, sun-filled downwind sail into Lerwick and a dinner ashore, we had one last night’s rest before setting out for the Arctic.
I'm far less anxious than I was before the last trip. I think we just needed to get over the hump and get the sailing season started in earnest, get the boat out on the high seas and put some miles under her keel. Before we get ahead of ourselves, make sure to check out this GREAT video that Sophie Darsy put together from our first leg across the North Sea. Our friends from Stockholm, Ryan & Sophie, have an AWESOME YouTube channel! Sophie sailed with us across the North Sea to get a taste of ocean sailing before she and Ryan set out in May 2018 from Sweden on their own boat, Polar Seal, and Sophie put together a very cool video of our trip together!
Instead of sailing, we’ve explored Orkney ashore. Susan, not unlike a lot of our crew who come for the ocean sailing specifically, opted to change flights and bugged out a few days before the official ‘end’ of the trip. Brian too. Rob, Sophie and Ben stuck around. We always leave ourselves a little window for unforeseen delays, weather, etc, and this time around we were actually ahead of schedule.
I was more anxious than usual at the beginning of this passage, probably due to a combination of first-passage-of-the-season nerves and the reality of the enormity of the summer we’ve set up for ourselves towards and in the Arctic. So anxious in fact that there is a whole other story here which I’ll save for another time. Suffice it to say, the best cure for anxiety is action, and three days into our first stint at sea in 2018 has done the trick.
Note from Andy: "This post was written by our friend and Isbjorn's racing skipper Paul Exner, of moderngeographic.com. Paul writes from Chiapas, Mexico, where he's onboard his Cape George Cutter 'Solstice,' that he built himself. He's en route to Hawaii, relocating his family after Hurricane Irma destroyed their home and way of life on Tortola in the BVI. Family & heavy weather is on Paul's mind as he readies 'Solstice' to cross the Pacific...
On Sunday Mia & I made the pilgrimage to the west coast of Sweden to check in on Isbjörn for the first time since September. That was the last time we had seen the boat. Back then, she was still afloat, her rig standing, but stripped bare of sails and gear, on deck and down below. We’d emptied nearly everything off the boat in anticipation of the big winter refit. Sometime in late September, after we’d gone back to the USA for boat show in Annapolis, the gang at Vindö Marin pulled the rig and hauled her out, transferring her into the main heated workshop underneath the Vindö Marin offices.