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!).
Once it became clear that we’d be able to stay ahead of the low and in the easterlies that would develop to it’s north, we decided to make a slight diversion towards Bjornoya for a fly-by. We wouldn’t stop - never waste a fair wind, after all - but we’d sail in close by the island’s west coast and have a look around.
After a rough start - there was a big confused sea leftover from the northerly that had been blowing offshore the week prior - a light breeze filled in from the east, the seas laid down and Isbjorn took flight. Close-reaching in barely a zephyr, we rode a favorable current, making 7-8 knots effortlessly. Our second day out, as we approached Bjornoya, I don’t think we touched a sheet the whole day, and Isbjorn had her full sails flying. The sun came out and the Arctic light that played on the ocean and the clouds gave us one hell of a show. Whales spouted all around us, and two HUGE finbacks broke the surface only a few meters off Isbjorn’s starboard beam, larger than the boat itself. Seabirds circled the mast, trying in vain to land on the masthead and thwarted by the windex and the VHF antenna. They did manage to poop all over the mainsail.
At Bjornoya the wind died in the lee of the island, so we motorsailed close in to shore, admiring the sheer cliffs of it’s southern shore, and the ice still piled up on the beaches to the north. We pondered the fact that there are so few people who have ever seen that view from the deck of a little sailboat on it’s way north.
Once we cleared the island, the wind began filling in, the clouds with it. The barometer had held steady - as we went north, the low continued developing and sliding SE, so we stayed in an area of consistent pressure for the most part, even as the weather deteriorated. By the third morning at sea, we’d dropped down to the second reef in the mainsail but continued carrying the full 135% genoa. Isbjorn put on the afterburners, surfing to 11.2 knots down the building swell from the ESE. With the calm from the day before, the new sea that started to develop was comfortably regular, and even as the ride became ever wilder in the cockpit, the motion belowdecks was benign. The crew - and the captain - slept soundly on the off watch.
As we approached Spitsbergen, the visibility we’d enjoyed disappeared. The odd fishing boat appeared out of the murk, but the mountains at Sorkapp, supposedly visible from 75 miles off on a clear day, remained elusive in the snow showers and overcast.
We rolled in the genoa to the second ‘reef’ point as the breeze kept on building. At it’s height though, the wind only ever got up to 25-30 at most. The angle was just aft of the beam, so Isbjorn was just flying. Water flew around on deck, but the cockpit remained mostly dry (from saltwater anyway) though with the increasing snow showers and pervasive damp, it got pretty cold on watch in the cockpit. We never had to shorten the watches - we continued our standard 4-on/8-off routine - but the heater was on more and more often belowdecks so the crew could thaw out and dry out after a cold stint at the helm. Surprisingly, nobody was really ‘cold’ - temperatures hovered right around freezing, but the crew as a whole packed well and had the right gear, so were comfortable for the most part, albeit happy to come below after 4 hours!
Finally, at 2000 last night and only 12 miles off the coast, Mia spotted Spitsbergen.
There off to starboard in the grey murk, the black & white spikey ridge of the mountains around Sorkapp resolved into view. We’d made our landfall after just under three days at sea. The crew gathered in the cockpit to take it in.
The wind was still blowing hard, and Isbjorn raced up the coast at 9 knots. The plan was to sail into Hornsund and find an anchorage in the southernmost fjord on Spitsbergen. We were well ahead of schedule - the crew doesn’t leave until the 19th - so we’d have time to explore the coast before making our way into Longyearbyen in Isfjorden, two fjords north and about 100 miles still distance.
At Hornsund though, the wind wouldn’t let us in. The pilot book had warned of gale to storm force winds blowing down the glaciers and out the fjord in easterly winds, which is precisely what happened. Just as we cleared the off-lying shoals and hardened up to head in the fjord, the first of the icy blasts hit Isbjorn and sent us scurrying for a plan B. We eased the sheets and blasted off on the strong breeze, aiming to get across the fjord and look for shelter further north, hopefully out of the gusts pummeling out of the fjord.
With the wind came the growlers - brilliant blue bits of glacial ice appeared floating on the horizon, and within 30 minutes Isbjorn was surrounded by ice. I cannot overstate how excited this made the captain and crew! I’d been waiting my whole career to sail amongst ice. I knew we’d encounter it in Spitsbergen of course, but I never guessed it’d be on day 1.
As we continued north, we tucked in a couple reefs in the mainsail to get a bit more control of the boat amongst the increasing concentration of bergy bits and growlers, then began seeking it out. A few fly-by’s and we realized how beautiful the ice sounds. Compressed air bubbles from centuries locked in the glaciers make their way to the surface as the ice melts, and a wonderful crackling sound emits from all around as we sailed within a few feet of some of the smaller bits and pieces.
Mia managed to locate a good-looking & easily accessible anchorage just a few miles north of the Hornsund entrance amongst some small off-laying islands at the terminus of two massive glaciers. The wind was forecast to die off and swing north overnight, which would give us the opportunity to explore into Hornsund today (in fact we’re heading in that direction as soon as I finish writing here).
At 0115 last night, on June 11, 2018, and three days, 17 minutes after we weighed anchor in Finnkroken at the top of Norway, Isbjorn made fast to the bottom in Spitsbergen. At the bow after securing the anchor rode, I called for the engine to be shut down, and with that, raised my arms in triumphant glory for having gotten here. The crew high-fived, Mia & I hugged (I hugged James and Patty too!), we had a dram of whisky and we relaxed for the first time in 3 days (or 3 years, depending on how you’re counting for me).
So we’re over the hump - the hard part, of course, will be getting through the next four weeks here in Svalbard unscathed, and getting safely to Iceland and beyond. I won’t truly relax until we leave the boat in Portugal at the end of the season of course, but a huge weight is off my shoulders and I’ve had a huge boost of confidence as a sailor and a leader. Getting to Spitsbergen is a major accomplishment, something I’d always dreamed of, but never fully expected to complete. We can’t let our guard down - in fact we started anchor watches the minute we dropped the hook, and they’ll continue round the clock so long as we remain in the Arctic.
We made it.