Escaping Spitsbergen // Svalbard-Iceland Part 1

June 18, 2018

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.

I slept through the night, not waking up until 1000 this morning. The wind filled in after dinner and it’s been some of the smoothest sailing we’ve ever had through the night. And fast, pushing 7-8 knots over the ground with the favorable East Greenland current helping us along. The crew is fully into this 1,000-mile passage now, rested and relaxed, sailing the boat efficiently when there is wind and making the best of it when there’s not and we’re motoring. I’ve missed a long passage. This is our longest of 2018 so far, and it feels very good to be back at sea and in the moment.

Flat-calm Greenland Sea.

Escaping Svalbard

I wasn’t sure we’d ever get a good window to leave Spitsbergen. The crew arrived the day after Delos departed. Mia, James & I hardly had a minute to exhale when we had to be ‘on’ again. We knew it was coming, we’d planned it that way to take advantage of every minute of our time in the Arctic. 

Our last day with Delos was a magnificent sail down Forlandsundet in a solid northerly, even flying the spinnaker for a long part of it so we could get some drone shots of the boat in the high Arctic under her big white chute. The final day we spent in Barentsburg in full sun and no wind, a classic Arctic high pressure system we took full advantage of.

The last sail with the s/v Delos gang. Spinnaker blasting at 0200 in the midnight sun!

That was the last of the good weather. Back in Longyearbyen it rained a lot and started blowing from the southwest offshore, exactly the direction we wanted to go. No matter, I thought. We had a bunch of small boat projects to attend to, so I was in no hurry to leave the dock. The crew serviced all 4 winches in the cockpit, I went aloft, we washed and stowed the dinghy, changed down to the small jib and on.

We left the dock to go explore Isfjorden and wait for the SW’ly to blow itself out or change directions. We’d got wind of a polar bear just around the corner gnawing on an old whale carcass, so went there first to investigate. Sure enough, we found him lounging on the hillside above the beach, sleeping.

“You might see something white and fluffy,” said one of the guides on the tallship nearby when Mia called looking for wildlife info.

So on our first day with the new crew, we got their first, and our 4th, polar bear! At the same time, Drake Paragon came by on his Westsail 43. Mia, James, Jordan & I rowed over in the dinghy after anchoring Isbjorn off the beach to watch the bear. Drake and I have circled round each other for years now, and while I’d have loved to record a podcast with him, my captain’s stress at leaving Isbjorn unattended overwhelmed any desire to stick around too long. We rowed back.

Our 4th polar bear sighting in Svalbard!

Turned out that SW’ly just wasn’t going to let up. After anchoring in Skansbukta, where we’d stayed with Delos, we beat our way out Isfjorden, expecting to find another place to shelter and instead winding up back in Longyearbyen. The forecast was terrible - lots of wind and lots of rain - so we figured waiting it out at the dock in civilization was preferred to holing up inside the boat for three days on anchor.


Eventually we had enough and just went, despite the SW’ly. With the small jib set, we tacked our way out towards the mouth of Isfjorden, hoping to get offshore and just keep going. Initially the sail was great - 10-15 knots of wind and a slight sea, a great chance to get everyone comfortable with upwind sailing yet not too crazy. That didn’t last. Before long it was blowing 32 with ten foot seas crashing over the bow. Down below it was impossible to do anything except lay in your bunk. We bailed out to Trygghamna - literally ‘Safe Harbor’ in Norwegian - on the north side, right at the mouth of Isfjorden to let the wind blow itself out. Dave & Taag steered remarkably well upwind to thread us between a small skerry and the lee shore point of the one peninsula, saving us from tacking back out into the fjord proper. We slept soundly on anchor at the foot of the glacier.

Scooting into Trygghamna when the wind kicked up, to wait out our last night in the far north.

We FINALLY got offshore next morning. The wind was still SW’ly but a more reasonable 10-15 knots after the passage of the cold front, and we managed to get into a routine on the boat.


Ironically, since leaving, we’ve battled calms more than storms. The GRIB forecast was changing daily, and in the right direction - trending down. I had initially feared this passage more than any other in our Arctic summer - it’s by far the longest, and with nowhere to bail out. East Greenland is frozen in the ice and in any case true wilderness; Iceland was 1,000 miles distant. And going back to Spitsbergen wouldn’t really help much would it? We’re not there yet, but I needn’t have worried.

The passage has been a test of patience thus far. We’ve been able to make a beeline for the westfjords of Iceland. When the wind dies, we motor at a slow 1500 RPM to save on fuel, and anytime the slightest breeze blows up, we sail. We had a magnificent spinnaker run a few days ago, setting the chute when the first sign of the NE’ly set in, beam reaching on a flat sea with the sail pulling us along at 4.5 knots in the same amount of apparent wind. As the afternoon progressed, the wind built to a solid 10-12 knots and we blasted along, making 7-8 knots through the night, carrying the breeze for several hours longer than the GRIB’s indicated. James launched the drone in the evening and got some of my favorite shots ever of Isbjorn cranking along under the big white sail, from directly above. Christmas card material.

Andy on celestial on a calm day in the Greenland Sea. It'd be the only sun we saw on the entire 7-day passage.

We’ve only seen the sun once, yesterday, and made the most of it, getting the sextant out for an impromptu celestial talk while Mia baked bread and made bean burgers for dinner, herself taking advantage of the flat calm to make a meal otherwise reserved for time on anchor or at the dock. 

And we swam! At noon, when the sea was at it’s calmest, silvery & oily under a grey overcast sky, we stopped the boat and had perhaps our last Arctic swim. Linda was the instigator, saying back in Svalbard that one of her goals was to swim in the Arctic. James happily jumped into his dry suit to get some split shots of all of us swimming in the 8,000-foot water. The ocean was gin clear, as clear as I’ve ever seen it, and with the surface of the water dead smooth, without a single ripple, the photos could have been taken in a swimming pool. They’re some of the coolest images of the summer so far.

Andy dives into the Greenland Sea.

Andy & Mia into the Greenland Sea!

We also changed back up to the big genoa, confident in the longer-term forecast that we wouldn’t have any more upwind slogs until Iceland. The wind finally filled in after dinner and we’ve been close-reaching at 6-7 knots all night in 10-12 knots apparent. I love this boat!

James serving up hurricane eggs for Taag and Dave on watch.

Home Stretch

We’re 300 miles out from the Westfjords now, and starting to feel like it’s the home stretch. The wind is forecast to die again any minute now, so we’ll fire up the iron genny again. I think we have enough fuel now to get us in even if we have to motor the whole way. We’ve got 10” in the big tank, and a ‘full bag’ as the fighter pilots say, in the small tank. Looks like we might get some more northerlies tonight, so potentially will have another good spinnaker run ahead of us.