Isbjorn Inland // Relaxing Exploration in Arctic Norway’s Inner Fjords

Motorboatin' in the inner sounds gave us a chance to play with the camera exposure. Photo by James Austrums.

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 knew we had deep water there, so I gunned the throttle, expecting that once she had a little way on, and with the help of the wind keeping her bow down, Isbjorn would come around. She did, and we backed all the way to the windward side of the harbor where I just held station, stern to the wind, while the crew stowed the dock lines and fenders in the lazarette aft. A quick motor through the channel and we were back offshore. 

Late afternoon sunbeams in the Vestfjord after leaving Reine.

The day got brighter and brighter, and by dinnertime, the rain had gone and the sun was out, painting wonderful colors on the clouds and the mountains in the distance, brilliant yellows and pinks on top of the deep purple of the hills and the ocean. Isbjorn’s crew had a lot of gybing practice - the wind was funneling right into the Vestfjord, dead behind us, and I was too tired to set the pole. Nevermind, we sailed the entire way, rounding the little headland at Lødingen, where we’d arranged to meet up with Mats Grimsæth, just before midnight. The tide was high, so we took advantage and manuevered into the little small-boat harbor to get diesel next to the pilot boats. No luck - the credit card machine didn’t work (we later learned it only took Norwegian cards), so we came back out again and rafted onto the Bavaria 50 called ‘Humla’ that Mats was delivering from Tromsø to Bodø for Seil Norge. I went straight to bed. The sail from Reine to Lødingen was long, 80+ miles in the open waters of the Vestfjord. But not long in a bad way. It just took all day.

Vanilla sky in the late evening Arctic light sailing downwind in the Vestfjord.

Mats came knocking next morning around 0900. After trading emails and connecting on social media for more than a year, it was great to finally meet him. He’s a fellow sailor & adventurer, and also a big time ambassador for Helly Hansen here in Norway, so we’ve got a lot of mutual acquaintances. Last year, at age 24, Mats became the youngest person to ever circumnavigate Spitsbergen. His successful 800+ mile passage around the biggest island of the Svalbard archipelago, and in a Bavaria no less, was what initially motivated me to email Delos and see about making an expedition out of it this year on Isbjorn. 

Mats Grimsaeth signing Isbjorn's guest book when we met in Lodingen.

It was a quick meeting, as Mats was hurrying south while we were hurrying north. He pointed out some spots on Svalbard we should look at, and we shared some notes on offshore sailing. Mats’ next ambitious plan is to sail around the America’s via the Northwest Passage on an as-yet-to-be-determined boat. He’s selling his Bavaria 34 that he’s lived on for 3+ years and is currently in the process of making that dream a reality. Stay tuned on that front - Mats and I will record a podcast in the fall about his life, career and future plans, and 59 North Sailing may well be involved on some level in helping Mats with his America’s expedition.

The Inside Route North

Lødingen is the gateway to the inner lead, winding east of the big mountainous island of Senja, and continuing up the Norwegian coast towards Tromsø. It’s the route we’d elected after 800+ miles of challenging offshore sailing. We left shortly after Mats, timing the tide again to get diesel at the small boat harbor, this time successfully, leaving just before dinnertime around 1800. The beauty of sailing in the north in the summertime is that the sun never goes down - you can plan your passages at any time of day, whatever best suits the weather and the tides. It’s just hard to get sleep sometimes.

Motorsailing through the Tjeldsundet, with snow-capped mountains providing the scenery.

A light northerly was funneling down the ‘Tjeldsundet’ sound leading north from Lødingen. Just around the corner about ten miles distant the sound squeezed through the first of several narrows where timing the tide would be helpful if not required to get through happily. We set sail and short-tacked from shore to shore, swapping roles in the crew between trimmers, tailers and grinders. Isbjorn came alive despite the light breeze with her big genoa pulling hard, making 6-7 knots in the smooth water, snow-capped mountains framing each tack, the occasional cargo ship passing us. 

Isbjorn crew Laura Gale chilling on the foredeck while ship's photographer James Austrums plays with long exposures while we motored.

We lost both the wind and the current once round the corner - what wind there was continued to funnel through the deep valley of the sound and right on Isbjorn’s bow, despite the fact that the channel had turned almost 90º to the right. Our tacking angles disintegrated against the tide that we’d somehow missed, and we gave up and started the engine. For the next two hours we made a measly 3 knots over the ground as the tide swept south and against us, and eventually we pulled over behind a small island and next to a beautiful church to drop anchor for the night and wait for the tide to switch. A huge eagle was perched on the rock behind the boat. James waited for him to move with the long lens mounted on his camera while sipping on a dram of whisky.

Seaweed in the anchorage! James is multi-talented - as a lifelong climber, he was well-suited to this task!

Motorboatin’ to Tromsø

As it turned out, that was nearly the last of the sailing, save for a very brief period on the morning we arrived into Tromsø. Nevermind. The beautiful sunny weather coupled with the changing scenery as we moved ever more inland made up for it. And it was a chance for Mia & I to recharge our mental batteries ahead of what’s about to be the biggest undertaking we’ve ever attempted. I relished the calm evenings spent on anchor, the cold morning swims in the 48º water and the late sleep-ins and mellow breakfasts. As stressful as that night in Reine was, the inland passage to Tromsø was the opposite, and was precisely what we needed.

Tromsø! Happy crew (and the Isbjorn mascot) celebrate our arrival in the gateway to the Arctic.

So here we are, one week away from departure towards Svalbard. Tromsø is a very modern city dripping with Arctic history. We spent the afternoon in the Polar Museum just down the wharf from Isbjorn’s center city berth reading about Nansen and Amundsen and their exploits in the high arctic. Then, a short walk down the main street brings one to fancy cafes and an H&M store. It could be the center of Oslo, just everything has an ‘arctic’ attached to it.

Isborn’s crew depart tomorrow, which gives James, Mia & I just one full day to get the boat turned around ahead of the next crew’s arrival on June 5. Just before I sat down to write this I spent 90 minutes in the Clarion Hotel just on the dock in front of the boat - for 150 Norwegian kronor, I was able to use the gym for a bit, then sit in the sauna and have a very long shower. I was the only person there, so it was a chance to unwind and meditate a bit on what’s to come.

Until next time, Hold Fast!

// Andy