Old town ended as I ran high above a public bath, far below the road at sea-level, a popular place for locals to swim and sunbathe. The road continued up and into the suburbs of Funchal. I passed two men smoking cigarettes outside their home on a narrow side-street, and 30 minutes later on my return they were still there, still smoking. A Sunday morning ritual.
In this way, the Atlantic islands exist in two parallel universes. That of those who earned these islands, and the one of those who didn’t. The sights look the same. All the colors are there, bright. The flowers smell delicious in both of these universes and the fish tastes great. But in the universe of those of us who make landfall in these places, we who earned it, there’s a feeling in the air that’s reserved just for us. If you’re reading this having made a landfall of your own like this, you’ll know exactly the feeling I mean. If not...well, you gotta go and earn it.
We’ve sailed almost 1,000 miles south from Svalbard and yet the temperature and the weather remains much the same. Grey, overcast skies, light drizzle, patchy fog and cold. Feels like we’ve gone sideways. I said to Mia earlier that when you leave the Chesapeake in November to sail south, you get a distinct change in climate along the way. By the end of it, you’re in shorts. Not so on this trip. We’re 14 degrees of latitude south from our northernmost point - but we’re still in the Arctic. It’s almost August, but still feels like winter here. As I type, I’m in my long underwear, jacket and hat. The hatch is open, so I guess the temperature has gone up a few degrees. But the climate feels the same.
There has been more wind than the GRIBs have indicated, and for longer. Just a few days ago we started thinking about conserving fuel. Motoring at 1500 RPM instead of 1800 to squeeze our every last hour, thinking it’d be mostly a motorboat ride to Iceland. Right now, at 0700 on a Thursday morning, it’s blowing 15-18 from the NW and Isbjorn is beam-reaching through the mist at 8 knots, urged south by the favorable East Greenland current. We can’t see where we’re going, but we’re getting there fast!
When we have wind, we’re making the miles. It’s 1100 on Wednesday July 18 as I write. Mia’s on watch. James just woke up and is in his bunk on the port (high) side, editing photos on his laptop. Jordan just woke up. Isbjorn is enveloped in thick fog. I’m at the nav station with one eye on the radar. We’re under full sail, the big genoa pulling in a ten-knot southeasterly and utterly flat calm sea.
We got ashore around 7pm and tied up the dinghy to a giant whalebone on the stony beach, keeping her offshore with a stern anchor and starting up the steep slope to the hill just west of Isbjorn’s anchorage. Large polar bear tracks led west in the snow across the little saddle towards the archipelago on the other side. We made the ridge in a few minutes and walked further south for a view over the alpine lake which feeds the little waterfall that plunges down towards the anchorage. The lake, on July 1, was frozen solid and covered in snow.
We’re back in Holmiabukta, my favorite anchorage in Spitsbergen so far, in the island’s NW Corner as it’s know in the local parlance. Mia is trying to figure out the labeling on the water tanks - we all showered yesterday and didn’t run the watermaker in the silty water, so all but one of the tanks (plus the bladder tank) is empty…
Four hours later, we moved the boat out of Hornbaekpollen and into the beautiful half-moon bay at Texas Bar. Turns out, the place is just a hut, and a tiny one at that, with a huge TEXAS BAR written on the front of it in wooden drift wood nailed to the walls. An old ship’s hatch sits out front with a couple of makeshift driftwood benches. The hut blends right into the grey scenery - it’s a very basic four-walled structured covered in tar paper to keep it watertight and with a stainless steel chimney sticking out the top.
0200. James just went on watch to relieve Brady. We’re ten miles out of Texas Bar, on the way back towards Longyearbyen after exploring as far north and east as we’ll get on this little adventure. The west wind is being kind to us so far - Isbjorn is sailing 7 knots on a close reach, getting lifted out of the fjord. Which means we’ll be headed once offshore, but the forecast is saying 10-12 knots…
“Man we’ve seen EVERYTHING today! Walrus, polar bears, the Virgohamna site. All we need now is a whale.”
Not 30 seconds after Brady said that in the cockpit as he drove Isbjorn north along the coast and towards our current anchorage at Holmiabukta, we spotted a spout off to starboard. Then another. And another.
“I thought it was ice on the water at first,” Brady said. “Then I saw the spouts and saw it was swimming, and just shouted BELUGA!”
They found it not much later in the form of an old whale carcass. It was mostly skeleton by that point. A few rib bones lay scattered in the shallows while the majority of the spine was on the beach, seagulls picking at the sinewy bits connecting the spinal bones. But adjacent to it was a large patch of blubber that must have survived the winter under the snowpack. Mama bear found it and directed her cub towards it, and they feasted while we watched from the RIB. To say it was an emotional experience would be an understatement. Just look at the photos. To be that close to nature, to the symbol of the Arctic itself...there’s no words.
The harbor is named after the ship ‘Virgo,’ which anchored off the desolate stony beach in the late 1800’s with supplies for the Swedish explorer Andree’s planned ballon expedition to the North Pole. We dropped anchor surely closer to shore than ‘Virgo’ did back then, anchoring in about 30-feet of water a few hundred feet off the beach. The scenery here is different than the west coast - small, but tall, islands, littered with black volcanic scree on they’re steep slopes. It’s rugged terrain, mostly black, yet surprisingly green in places where moss and lichen cling to the rocks and thrive on the moist environment. There was a low layer of clouds concealing the tops of the islands, fog at sea level that came and went and a light, almost nonexistent breeze from the northwest, which caused Isbjorn to lay stern-to the stony beach.
Isbjörn is anchored at Virgohamna in low clouds and patchy fog. The cockpit is dry for the moment, but the forecast looks damp. There is graffiti on the cliffs above Virgohamna - white letters spelling ‘METEOR’ in all caps, and what looks like ‘CRASHED’ underneath it. Then another name to the left of that which I can’t make out. The remains of the balloon expeditions are scattered around ashore, which we’ll go explore on this afternoon’s mission.
There was ice towards the head of the fjord, lots of brilliant blue chunks broken off the twin glaciers at the eastern terminus of the water. They were bigger bergs than we’d seen thus far, bigger even than some of the ones we played with down in Hornsund, and bluer. The ice lent a big of color to an otherwise greyscale day. Of course, despite the hour, we opted to head deeper into the fjord to play with the ice rather than head to anchor and sleep.
We anchored briefly at Poolepynten where the first walrus colony was said to be. It was. On the beach, a dozen or so walrus (walri? walruses?) were lounging in a group, one lone fat dude lounging just down the slope, and another 3 or 4 frolicking in the shallow water just off the beach. We landed the dinghy on the south side of the point and slowly made our way towards the group, filming all the while. Unfortunately we left with a sour taste in our mouths when we were basically run off by a small cruise ship that disembarked two groups of 50 tourists on the same beach, with guides and radios and enough freaking rifles to start a small militia. That put a damper on things for me. I went back to the boat and the rest of the gang chilled with the driftwood and waited an hour or so for the ship to bug off.
A Birthday Party & Roald Amundsen Goes Blimping
To get straight to the point, because everyone is wondering this, a few thoughts on sailing with the Delos crew: the Delos gang is exactly what we expected they’d be like after meeting and hanging a bit with Brian & Karin in Stockholm a little while back (in a very good way); filming with them has so far been an AWESOME and educational experience - it’s fun to watch other creatives work and learn from them; they Delos crew works WAY harder than you’d think; they are genuinely nice to each other and to us; furthermore, Mia, James & I have been made to feel FULLY part of the group; they are so damn enthusiastic about experiencing new places it’s infectious; and finally, no, they aren’t filming 24/7. Onwards.
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.
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.
We motored slowly up towards the glacier, having dropped the mainsail in the dying breeze 30 minutes beforehand. My curiosity and sense of awe overwhelmed any prior stress I had been feeling and for the first of what would happen on many occasions in the following 36 hours, I as a skipper new to the challenges of the north and the ice, had an ‘aha’ moment. On a millpond still bay, chunks of ice that had broken off the glacier floated harmlessly around the boat. We approached the largest of the bergs, a few hundred years from the glacier terminus itself, and only a boat-length from this mass of ice the most brilliant blue you can imagine, killed the engine. Isbjorn bobbed in the water with the iceberg. All else was quiet, save for the crew launching the inflatable for the first recce inshore in Spitsbergen.
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!).