To the North! Crossing 73º North Latitude

0100 Departure from Mainland Norway towards SPITSBERGEN!

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...

We weighed anchor at just after midnight on Friday June 8. I justified a Friday departure by claiming we’d ACTUALLY departed from Tromsø on Wednesday the 6th, and that the anchorage was just a brief pause en route. You’ve got to take any excuse you can to avoid the superstitions. In any case, in these parts, you’ve also gotta take the weather windows the instant they arrive. No thinking twice.

There were two main weather features we were looking at closely to plan our escape from Norway and into the High Arctic proper. The first, a strong polar low that originated over Russia and the sea of Kura to the east, was churning to the NW towards Svalbard and creating a wide area of strong north-westerly winds right along our track. We needed this to blow itself out, AND we needed to get out before the next low formed in the same area. The second feature was a weak (1004mb) low that was forming just east of Greenland and forecast to track east and then SE, over our rhumb line. The winds in the system weren’t anything to be concerned with, but if we could time it such that we could get ahead of it’s center, we’d have easterly, reaching winds nearly the whole way, or so said the GRIB file. 

Andy completes the last chart briefing (with coffee!) at midnight before departure.

As we prepared Isbjörn for the far north that day on anchor, I made the call around 4pm that it would indeed be a midnight departure. Mia cooked an early dinner of sweet potato soup, and the crew turned in by 1800 for some rest. The downside of a midnight departure is the unavoidable sleep-deprivation you get right off the bat. But a delay until the morning and a full night’s rest would have meant that the low center would have beaten us, and we’d have less than ideal wind angles. Sleep be damned.

I had one last phone call with Maik Brotzmann at 2000 about the route. We hired Maik to be our ‘ice pilot’ for the round Spitsbergen attempt we’ll make with Delos. WRI is still doing our offshore weather, but Maik is both a professional weather router AND has himself been sailing in the Arctic and has advice earned from hard experience that I was willing to pay extra for. Maik is a personal friend too, so having him watch our backs gave me a nice feeling. Maik’s parting words after our brief discussion - in short, he also liked my decision to leave early and get ahead of the low - were:

“You’ve got the experience, I know this means a lot to you, you might have a few surprises, but get out there and sail! I know you can do it.” 

Those words of encouragement and Maik’s vote of confidence truly meant a lot to my own confidence as I laid down for that last few hours rest.

Patty & her husband Dave pilot Isbjorn in the midnight sun through the last of Norway's mainland fjords on the way offshore & NORTH. Dave sailed with us in 2016 to St. John's Newfoundland.

We had a beautiful sail out of the fjords. It was 40 miles from the anchorage to the open sea to the north. Isbjörn got underway just before 0100 and the full crew stayed awake for much of the passage offshore. The midnight sun lit up the snow-covered mountains on either side of us, and there was enough wind funneling down through the valleys that we sailed from the start and all the way into the ocean. As we passed the last of the mountains, the northerly swell that had built up from that big low way up north started making itself felt on Isbjörn (and some of her newly seasick crew).

Landfall on the southern end of Bjornoya, a tiny, very remote outpost midway between Norway & Svalbard. We didn't stop, but sailed by for a look around. No people here save for the handful that man the weather station year-round on the north side of the island.

This swell made for an uncomfortable if not fast start to the passage proper. The wind had swung into the west, so we were reaching fast, and quickly dropped down to the second reef and partially furled jib as the puffs got above 25 knots. But the leftover swell was from the NNW, 90º from our course, pitching Isbjörn up and down in the troughs and making hell for the few crew who were feeling it. Steve, Jordan & Patty all fed the fishes (within 24 hours they were back on their feet again). Overnight the wind shut down, as forecast. We motored to keep laying down the miles, and give everyone a chance to catch up on sleep. There is nothing like the white noise of the engine to knock out the crew in their bunks. 

The GRIBs showed a small transition zone of no wind before it would start to fill in from the east again as that Greenland low formed and moved east. At 0600 this morning, on Mia’s watch and after about 6 hours of motoring, that’s precisely what happened. Mia set the jib, killed the engine and we’ve been sailing ever since. The updated GRIB has confirmed we made the right call to leave when we did. At this rate, we’ll beat that low to the north, and should have a building ESE’ly breeze for the next two days. 

Thar she blows! Finback whale to starboard.

We had whales close by to boot, two big finback‘s, if we identified them correctly, only 50 yards off the starboard beam. That got everyone up and quickly. We watched as they spouted several times right next to the boat, dwarfing Isbjörn in size. Finbacks can grow up to 70-feet long (!)  and these guys appeared every bit that big. James flew the drone around the boat hoping they’d come back. They did, but only in the distance, so we had to settle for some epic footage of Isbjörn sailing in the far north!

Anything can happen in the Arctic with the weather, but we’ll take the good while we have it. We’ve now set a course for Bjørnøya, where we’ll make a little fly-by and see what we can see. We won’t stop - we can’t waste this beautiful forecast - but it’ll be neat to see what’s there.

Until next time, HOLD FAST!

// Andy