Isbjorn Sailing & Dancing with the Ice in Spitsbergen

Isbjorn dances with the icebergs in Hornsund, Spitsbergen.

The weather held as we ambled back to the dinghy and made our way back to the boat. Knowing how quickly it can change here, we hauled up the anchor and continued deeper into Hornsund, to see what we could see, while we could still see. The sun shined on every corner of the land, shadows casted by friendly cumulus lent some depth to the otherwise white, blue and black icy landscape. There was enough breeze from the north, 10-12 knots or so, that we quickly hoisted sailed and aimed the bow east, looking to get beyond Treskelodden, a long, low peninsula that nearly cuts off the far eastern end of the fjord, and explore the enormous ice faces of the glaciers in that lower, less mountainous part of the bay.

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. 

Mia & Jordan on ice lookout as we tacked further into Burgerbukta, in Hornsund.

These were lousy with icebergs. Drifting out of the adjacent fjords on the same northerly breeze that we were sailing came brilliant blue chunks of ice, some the size of basketballs, some larger than my house. The original plan was simply to pass by these two fjords - they were very deep right up to where the mountains fell into the sea, and thus provided no sheltered anchorage - and head further in past Treskelodden. But I couldn’t resist...

We hardened the sheets and went in to dance with the ice. What is supposed to be scary, or at the least stress-inducing, was instead magic. It felt as if all those summers I had spent sailing the schooner Woodwind in close quarters around the moored boats in Annapolis, or on Arcturus in the Stockholm archipelago in the narrow channels between rocks and skerries had prepared me for this very moment. I was in my element.

The captain, focused, as we sailed amongst the ice in Burgerbukta.

For the next few hours, we sailed deeper into Burgerbukta and deeper into the ice. Mia stood watch at the bow, using hand signals to guide isbjorn past the smallest bits of ice I couldn’t see from the helm, while I often deliberately aimed for the larger bergs to get a closer look. We’d pinch up to slow Isbjorn’s way just enough to dodge the heaviest ice, then foot off on a close reach when the leads got wider, sailing over 7 knots at times and yet in full control. Patty kept one eye on the chart, although we knew the ridges that shot to 2,000-feet on the edges of the fjords did the same underwater. Steve handled the mainsheet and Dave tacked the genoa back and forth while Jordan stayed on the foredeck guiding the big sail through the small slot created by the rigged forestaysail. James launched the drone to capture this beautiful dance between boat and ice in a way I am forever grateful to have recorded. 

  Yaaaargh!

Yaaaargh!

I admit that I tend towards hyperbole, but without reservation I can say it was the absolute pinnacle of my career as a sailor, the best pure day of sailing I have ever experienced and in the most beautiful of ways. I’ve never felt so connected to the boat and her surroundings than I did then, never felt so focused and yet have never felt so at ease. It was simultaneously the most challenging yet effortless sailing I’ve ever done.

We cleared the last of the ice and gybed in front of the big blue face of Korberbreen glacier to head around Treskelodden and deeper into Hornsund as originally planned before our little ice dance diversion. The big chunk of glacial ice was still sitting on the transom, and I had an idea. James got his ice axe out while I dug out the bottle of Ironworks Rum leftover from the little Lunenburg distillery we always visit when in that part of the world, and on a broad reach surrounded by nature, we toasted the day’s glacier hike and iceberg sailing with beautiful rum and 10,000-year-old ice.