"Polar Bear! POLAR Bear! POLAR BEAR!"

  Polar bear tracks, a few days old. The bear we spotted on the hill to the left most certainly laid these tracks when seal hunting.

Polar bear tracks, a few days old. The bear we spotted on the hill to the left most certainly laid these tracks when seal hunting.

Once around Treskelodden, the seas flattened out completely and the scenery changed from steep dramatic peaks to a flatter, more open area separated from the main fjord by the long low peninsula of Treskelodden. It was perfectly protected. The aim was Selbukta - we hardened the sheets again and were able to shoot up the channel and towards the foot of another glacier where we’d anchor for the night. One tack onto starboard after rolling the genoa, and we glided Isbjorn onto the hook under mainsail alone, anchoring in 30-feet of water a mile or so from the glacier terminus. I had one eye out on the big slab of pack ice that for the moment appeared stuck fast to the shore ahead of us.

Mia had started cooking chili after our little ice dance, and by the time we’d dropped anchor, the galley had a wonderful aroma of spices steaming out the companionway and a hungry crew after the day’s excitement. I popped below to turn on the heat, Mia set the table, and the crew started peeling off the layers and cozying in for dinner. I’d briefed them for the anchor watches that we’d need to be on the lookout for glacial ice drifting down on the light north wind, and in particular that big slab of pack ice - if that broke off, it’d squeeze us in towards the shoreline only a few hundred feet to port and we’d need to make a hasty retreat. Then I went back on deck for one last look around before dinner.

“Polar bear. POLAR bear. POLAR BEAR!”

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. 

  The photo we had hoped for most happened on our 2nd day in Spitsbergen! A real-live 'isbjorn' (SWE for 'polar bear!') with our own 'Isbjorn', our Swan 48, in the same shot!

The photo we had hoped for most happened on our 2nd day in Spitsbergen! A real-live 'isbjorn' (SWE for 'polar bear!') with our own 'Isbjorn', our Swan 48, in the same shot!

The urgency in my voice told the crew belowdecks that I wasn’t joking, and they rushed on deck with cameras and binoculars. James readied the big Inspire drone for a bear-photography flight. I could barely contain myself, same with Mia. Recall that this happened on the SAME DAY as our glacier hike and ice-dance sailing Isbjorn, so we were already riding about as high as we’d ever been on excitement. I could hardly believe my eyes. Somewhere in the back of my head, I never got my hopes up about seeing a polar bear, and I just thought it was a foregone conclusion that we wouldn’t, certainly not this far south in Spitsbergen where we’re told they are much rarer than on the less-visited and icier northern and eastern shores. And there we go, only 36 hours into our Spitsbergen experience, and we’d found our own isbjorn.


The drama continued. 

James launched the drone as quickly as I’d ever seen him do it, and it was the first time we’d launched this much bigger drone from the boat. It immediately got blown to leeward in the northerly breeze and in a matter of a few seconds, was several hundred yards behind the boat and downwind. It hadn’t locked on to GPS yet, so therefore wouldn’t hold a stable hover. James still had control, but it was much touchier than normal. I immediately ordered the rest of the crew to launch the dinghy, thinking we’d need to send a shore party in to rescue it if James had to crash land in the snow. Meanwhile I got the rifle ready - recall there’s a bear right up the hill - and in less than five minutes Steve and I were in the dinghy heading into the snow-covered beach. James had regained control by then, and GPS signal, and had managed to get some footage of the bear (some with the boat in it, YESSS!). Over the handheld VHF, I guided the drone down and was in position to catch it as James landed it basically on top of my head. The bear wasn’t bothered by any of this, and continued lounging on the hill a few hundred yards up the hill from us. Steve and I made our retreat to the boat, drone safely in hand, having only been on the beach for less than five minutes.

The drama continued.

With so many things happening at once, and with most of us fixated on observing our first polar bear, nobody noticed that the pack ice up the fjord had let go of the land and was drifting down on our anchorage. Mia had noticed, and had made a mention on the VHF while Steve and I were ashore, asking politely if we were coming back soon? I had a look back towards the boat and noticed the pack was definitely closer, and Steve & I returned with some urgency. Passing the drone off the James, I leapt back aboard the boat and with Jordan’s help began scrambling to get the anchor up. The whole thing happened in almost comical slow motion - the foot-by-foot cranking in on the anchor chain on our manual windlass, and the subtle but steady drift of the pack. Mia took the helm. Patty was on nav again. Dave grabbed one of the ice poles to fend off a few smaller chunks of flat pack ice that preceded the big flow, deflecting one piece about the size of the boat itself down the port side towards Steve, who was still in the dinghy getting the outboard secured to the transom! With just a single boat length to spare, and with loads of mud flying off the chain as we hauled it in with no time to rinse it off, the anchor broke the surface and we could relax. Isbjorn, free of the bottom, gently drifted harmlessly with the pack south and out of Selbukta. The chili was still on the stove, the polar bear still chillin’ on the hill.

  Watching our bear from the ridge behind our anchorage after we moved the boat. This shot was taken at 0030 in the middle of the night!

Watching our bear from the ridge behind our anchorage after we moved the boat. This shot was taken at 0030 in the middle of the night!

Throughout the day, my excitement and curiosity on every occasion overwhelmed any stress I might otherwise have felt. When we needed action, we jumped into action without hesitation and did what needed to be done. I hope it doesn’t sound too dramatic in how I’ve written it, because in the moment, I felt nothing but pure joy. Joy at the newness of this kind of sailing and of the challenges that come with it. Maybe it was a beginners mistake to anchor there in the first place (scratch that - it DEFINITELY was a mistake), with the pack right there and a north wind blowing, but we remained vigilant, even while distracted by the polar bear, and got the boat out in time and found an ice-free anchorage just around the corner in Treskelbukta. We even went back ashore after dinner - which finally got served at 10:30pm - for one last recce on the bear, finding him hanging in the snow right where we’d left him a few hours earlier, apparently sleeping. Once in a while he’d lift his head, sniff the breeze, roll on his back, paw at the snow, then lay down again on his side and fall back asleep. Mia, James, Jordan and I watched from a safe distance - at least a mile away - on the ridge behind the new anchorage and just admired him for a while before returning to the boat and collapsing in our bunks at 0100. Except for the anchor watches, which continued through the night again, the crew didn’t wake up until after 1100 the next day.