Departure & Into the High Arctic

  Isbjorn on anchor as we readied for departure towards Svalbard.

Isbjorn on anchor as we readied for departure towards Svalbard.

The weather for the past week is the coldest it’s been - by far - since we crossed the Arctic Circle. High’s in Tromsø during our short stopover never got above 5ºC (41ºF), and only for a short period in the afternoon. The fact that the sun hasn’t set since May 26 gives the environment a warmer ‘feeling’, at least mentally, but it’s cold. It snowed in town, on and off for the past few days, and above about 200 meters in the surrounding mountains, a fresh coat of white snow covered the mountain ranges in every direction.

We bid goodbye to Rick, Tom & Laura on June 3, our crew who had joined us for the passage from Scotland into the Arctic. Before they left, we reflected on the fact that we’d been chilling with puffins less than three weeks before, which seemed to us just then like a lifetime ago. That gave James, Mia & I only one full day without crew onboard to sort out the few boat projects we had to do, re-provision, do laundry and relax enough to feel energized for the next crew who joined us on June 5. Isbjorn was berthed right downtown in Tromsø. A beautiful Clarion Hotel stood on the harbor front steps from our cockpit. We utilized it’s top-floor sauna & shower on several occasions, to the tune of 150 NOK each time. It was worth every last kronor.


Deep Breath!

Svalbard of course is our next stop, and it started feeling real when I picked up our rifle. August Sandberg, a fellow professional skipper here in Arctic Norway and fan of the podcast, got wind that we wanted to procure a rifle in Tromsø for the trip north, in case we wanted to stop in Hornsund or somewhere near Sørkapp, before Longyearbyen in any case and before we’d be able to rent one in town there. So he reached out and offered to loan us his. There was some paperwork to do in order to make it legal that he loan us the weapon - James, Mia & I first had to get the weapons permit from the Sysselman in Svalbard, which required police background checks from our home countries. Then August and I each filled out the required weapon lending forms, all which went through without a hitch.

With the paperwork in hand, and as we were sailing through Lofoten and on our way north into Tromsø, I got this email from August:

Hi Andy,
The rifle is underway! It will arrive with the Hurtigruten cruise ship “Nordkapp” on Saturday 2 June. You will get a text on your Swedish number when it’s ready for pickup.
I packed two types of ammo. The black plastic clips holds 14 powerful lead-point bearkillers for protection when you go ashore. The two cardboard boxes holds a whole bunch of full metal jacket for practice shooting.
Don’t be to careful with it. It’s a very sturdy gun that can take a lot of punishment. It requires decisive, strong hands to operate, and if you are too careful it might not load properly.
The gun is also quite the historical piece. It was made in Nazi Germany in 1939 and saw some action during the invasion of Norway. It was captured by Norwegian forces when Germany surrendered. You can still make out the eagle and swastika symbol on the port side of the receiver.
Take care! Hope you won’t need it!
August
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Sure enough, on Monday I walked by the Hurtigruten cruise terminal, and there in the warehouse was August’s rifle wrapped up in cellophane on a pallet just like he said it’d be. I had a roll of $500 cash in my pocket to change into NOK at the bank, and decided it’d be best to return the gun to the boat before running that particular errand ;)

August had also hooked us up with the local shoemaker in Tromsø, an old-school place where I was able to get an old brass belt buckle that I inherited from my mom turned into a proper belt that would fit me. The buckle was shaped like a dolphin, and I thought it’d be good luck to have it in the Arctic. I’d kept it since she dies in 2012, and deliberately put it on the boat for the Arctic passages, thinking I’d be able to get it re-made someplace cool along the way. August’s shoemaker friends were the perfect place, a bit of serendipity (or something more?) that proved to be our first good omen. The shoemaker guys also took three jackets from James, Mia & I and sewed on our “Isbjorn Arctic” patches for us. Once again, as in our meeting with Ola in Bodø, the kindness of strangers has helped us out on our way north. The gun now lives locked up in it’s case, literally in my bunk. The next time we step ashore, it’ll be strapped on my back. Like August said, let’s hope we never need it.


Final Prep on Anchor

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The new crew arrived as planned on June 5. They’re almost old friends - Steve sailed with us just last year in the Baltic (and in fact is signed up for our Havana passage in 2019); David sailed from Lunenburg to St. John’s, Newfoundland in 2016, and is back, this time along with his wife Patty, whom we met at a boat show prior; and Jordan rounds out the crew. Jordan & us have never met, but we’ve worked together online - he’s responsible for coding the interactive maps we’re now using to plan our calendars on the website.

  Isbjorn snug at anchor in Finnkroken, preparing for departure.

Isbjorn snug at anchor in Finnkroken, preparing for departure.

As I write this, we’re anchored out amongst three small islands about 15 miles north of Tromsø. We departed Tromsø in squally weather yesterday after filling up with diesel, propane and the last of the groceries. The squalls coming down the fjords weren’t rain - they were snow! There was a fork in the road about 5 miles north of the city - we opted to go right, as the wind direction allowed us to have a marvelous reaching sail all the way to the beautiful little spot amongst our islands, and dwarfed by the biggest mountains we’ve seen yet in Norway.

We’ve been anchored now for 24 hours, and will remain here at least part way through tonight. Anchoring out for a good stint before a big passage is always the way we prefer to prepare - we’ve already taken our departure and are underway towards Svalbard. Sitting here on anchor allows us to get acclimated to the boat, rig her for heavy weather and get everything properly stowed away without feeling the pressure of the city breathing down our neck. We’re alone here in our own wilderness, safe in the confines of the fjords and snug, knowing that it’s only going to get more challenging from here on out.

  Steve leads the shore party in the dinghy.

Steve leads the shore party in the dinghy.

Mia, James and some of the crew went on a dinghy ‘recce’ this morning while David, Patty & I stayed back to start on the few projects we had left. We spliced lines onto the new orange fenders we picked up at the fishing supply store the other day. We cut and whipped the two new docklines too. Once the shore party returned, we rigged the forestaysail and the running backstays, I went aloft for another rig check, we pre-rigged the preventers and lashed down everything on deck. While the forecast looks good for now, we don’t have more than a day or two of certainty, and we anticipate it taking us 4-5 days to get to Spitsbergen, so we’ve go to be prepared for the worst - and hope for the best.


There Be Dragons

Like I’ve said on the podcast, this is it - the studying time has run out, and now it’s time to get some rest and take the test. This passage is the most challenging thing Mia & I have ever set out to accomplish. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous (terrified in a way), but we feel ready, as ready as we can be. I’m confident in the boat, confident in our skills, confident in the crew. I’ve already briefed the gang that we’ve got to be on high alert at all times - if the uncertain weather forecasts weren’t enough, we’ve got ice, tree trunks from Siberia and fog to content with. 

  Checklists abound as we prep the boat for the High Arctic.

Checklists abound as we prep the boat for the High Arctic.

From here on out, we’ll be off the grid for a while, with no idea when we’ll get Internet back. The tracker will be on and pinging every few hours, but if you’re following at home, don’t panic if it misses a ping or two or fails entirely - don’t ready anything into it. 

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We’ve got our sights set on Hornsund, the first of the fjords once past Spitsbergen’s southern tip, Sørkapp, to make our first Svalbard landfall. 

Fittingly, the name of the harbor I’ve got picked out to anchor in is called ‘Isbjørnhamna.’

Until next time, HOLD FAST!

// Andy