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.
As I type, it’s 0015 on June 25. Ny Ålesund is 40 miles in our wake, and we’re bound towards Magdalenafjord, often considered the most scenic in Svalbard (though you can hardly rank the scenery up here, it’s all absurdly beautiful). Ny Ålesund is the northernmost settlement in the world, at 78º 55’ North, and was a fitting mid-point to our adventures in the Arctic thus far with the crew of SV Delos.
Both Mia & Alex had birthday’s on June 24, a Sunday. Fittingly, Saturday night when we arrived into the small wharf and rafted up to the science boat per the Harbormaster’s instructions, the bar was open. 122 resident scientists call Ny Ålesund home for the summer this year, and once a week they open the pub. It’s part of the ‘Welfare’ program that the government runs for the residents of this lonely, isolated town in the high Arctic. And ‘welfare’ in this sense, is more literally about the residents being ‘well’ than about the typical American definition of the word. ‘Welfare’ provides cabins and boats, skis and the sled dogs for the residents recreational use year round. And they provide the bar on Saturday’s, with drinks costing only 10-15 NOK, which is under $2 USD.
The whole village showed up, plus all the boat crews from the harbor. This particular Saturday was supposedly a special occasion to celebrate the summer solstice, or ‘Midsummer’ as most of Scandinavia calls it. There was even a very crude midsummer pole setup in the yard behind one of the houses. The party lasted long into the northern summer night and into Mia & Alex’s birthdays. We celebrated with hugs, rum, and a bonfire as the sun hung very high in the sky. At 0300, we were still sitting in Isbjorn’s cabin reflecting on the evening (and eating noodles).
The small settlement (you can’t call it a town) gave us the opportunity to shower, top up diesel (we’ve covered 230 miles since Longyearbyen, only 40 of which have been under sail - it’s been THAT calm), top up water and let off some steam with some of the sailing friends we met at the small floating dock. August was there, the Norwegian sailor who loaned us the rifle for this adventure, onboard an Ovni 45 called ‘Aleiga’ that he’s skippering for Boreal Yachting. And Nick, the big guy on the big schooner ‘Skydancer’ whom we first met on the dock in Longyearbyen, who offered us beers in the cockpit before we made our way to the little bar just up the gravel path from the docks. Nick’s been coming to Svalbard for 15 years in ‘Skydancer’, and the boat is even registered in Longyearbyen. He and his wife run ski & sail charters in May & June, and adventure charters in the summer. I’d love to hear his story - they turned up at the dock an hour or so after us in short-sleeves and straw hats. Nick has long hair and a scruffy beard and wears lots of jewelry and smokes cigarettes. At 6’7” his intimidatingly tall, but friendly once you break the ice.
There’s no Internet in town, and we couldn’t even use the sat phone, the place is on a signal blackout - no wifi or Bluetooth, no drones - given the sensitive nature of the science that goes on there. Apparently, all the houses have TV and Internet provided over a plug-in cable. Wild reindeer grazed in the tundra off the gravel paths, and a large outdoor pen houses the huskies that the locals use in the winter to get around the surrounding landscape. There’s a sign on the path leading to the old dirigible tower that Amundsen used in his trip across the North Pole in the blimp ‘Norge’ that reminds you to load your rifle before leaving the confines of the town. In case of polar bears. Mia & I did our best to copy Amundsen’s very serious pose on the large bronze bust of him in the center of town. I mostly laughed.
Speaking of which, the most stunning part of Svalbard is it’s explorer history. The whalers were here first of course, in the mid-to-late 1600’s, but the explorers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s are the most fascinating. We’re on our way to Danskøya soon, where at Virgohamna the Swedish exploration team led by Andree set off in a hot-air balloon in an ill-fated attempt at the North Pole in the late 1800’s. They took along Russian, Swedish & American currency, not knowing where they’d wind up, plus bottles of champagne, picnic tables and chairs, and white gloves to go with their fine clothing to celebrate their arrival and success. Unfortunately, not enough prep went into the balloon itself, and it crashed shortly after takeoff, stranding the group on the ice. They made their way to Kvitøya in far NE Svalbard, where they apparently survived for a time, before suddenly perishing for reasons researchers still aren’t sure of.
Amundsen, of course, is the king of the North, the hero of Norway’s explorer history. There’s a statue of him in nearly all the settlements in Arctic Norway from bustling Tromsø to Ny Ålesund. In 1926, Amundsen and his team set off in the airship ‘Norge’ in their attempt to fly over the North Pole. I had heard this story before - there is a huge exhibit on Amundsen at the Polar Museum we visited in Tromsø - but hadn’t realized they actually landed at Ny Ålesund en route, hence the tower that still stands just to the east of the village. Photos show the event, with the airship as it descended on the town just dwarfing the residents and their homes, all who came out to greet Amundsen and help with the project. As they prepared to take off again, the entire town, person by person, held the airship down with ropes while Amundsen and his men boarded the gondola. They flew over the pole successfully, dropping the Norwegian, Italian & American flags down to the ice as they did, and continued all the way across the top of the world to Alaska where the safely landed and dismantled the ship.
Two years later, Amundsen died trying to rescue an Italian attempt at the pole when his flying boat crashed shortly after takeoff from Tromsø. I should say crash-landed - there was evidence in one of the fuel tanks that the crew, or at least some of them, had survived the crash and had attempted to re-fly the plane, but of course no one will actually know.
There’s been so much action since leaving our previous crew behind in Longyearbyen that I haven’t had time to write down a word here for the blog or for myself. It’s been nonstop, full-on fun. The Delos gang - which includes Brian (USA) & Karin (SWE), Brady (Brian’s younger brother) & Alex (aka ‘Blue’, USA) and ‘Killa’ Kiril (from South Africa by way of Vietnam), who helps with the video editing remotely and occasionally sails with them - they joined Isbjörn on June 18, the same afternoon that our previous crew from the passage up from Tromsø departed. We had a whirlwind day of re-provisioning, doing laundry and cleaning the boat. The Delos gang had rented an Airbnb just down the waterfront where Mia & I camped out that day to do laundry and catch up on Internet before heading out again. We filmed some stuff on the beach in the snow, pre-interviews of all the crew before the trip started in earnest. Until they got all their gear down to the boat (it’s a LOT of stuff, between cold-weather clothing and gear plus all their camera gear, a second rifle, boots, beer & rum), it was late into the evening. We’re 8 people on Isbjörn for the first time too (when not racing), and for the longest trip we’ve yet done at 2-1/2 weeks.
It didn’t take long to get on the wrong time schedule. We didn’t leave the dock in Longyearbyen until 1800 on a very bright, very sunny day. I’ve adapted the ‘never waste a fair wind’ adage in the Arctic to ‘never waste fair weather.’ Despite the hour, we set off.
The aim was to head further into Isfjorden at first and make for Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining settlement that had upwards of 1,000 people in it as recently as 1998. To make a long story short, we made it there, and even managed to anchor. But we never got ashore. The wind was east, coming from the direction of the big glacier on the opposite side of the fjord, and the ‘harbor’ wasn’t protected at all. It was blowing 15 knots at first, then 20, then 25, and eventually as we ate lunch and warmed up below, the gusts were topping 36 knots and the sea had kicked up a gnarly chop. And then ice started drifting down from the calving glacier. That was enough of that. We weighed anchor and blasted back out the way we came in under half the genoa, touching 9.5 knots boatspeed in wind gusts that were getting darn close to 50 knots (we saw 43 on the apparent wind indicator, and were sailing 9.5 - do the math).
That’s the thing about these fjords up here though. We had 40 knots sustained one minute, and the next 4. We ended up MOTORING later that day. As soon as we got out of the influence of the glacier and the incredible ‘fallvind’ it creates, the day was mellow. We re-anchored at Skansbukta where we’d started the day, and regrouped.
So we made our way back out of Isfjorden and northbound again. We had a glorious 40-mile day sail from the end of Billefjorden out towards Ymerbukta, a small N-S fjord at the western end of Isfjorden with a glacier at the head of it. Isbjörn tacked upwind in 10-15 knots of cold westerly wind, with not a cloud in the sky. As we passed by Longyearbyen again, some fog rolled in, but it quickly cleared and Mia & I had the chance to show off Isbjörn‘s upwind prowess as we made 90º tacking angles at 6.5 knots.
And this started our backwards time schedule in earnest. We didn’t set the anchor in Ymerbukta until close to midnight. The sun was still shining, so we made a mission. ‘Never waste fair weather.’ Brian, James, Brady, Alex & Kiril launched the dinghy and setup camp on the beach just in front of the glacier face, rifle in hand in case of bears, while Mia, Karin & I motored Isbjörn slowly further into the fjord and towards the glacier proper. James and the Delos crew ashore launched the drones and started filming. We got as close as we dared, and in the gorgeously clear light of the midnight sun, got the first of what was to become many EPIC shots of the boat amongst the ice. The perspective from the drone is amazing - we felt like we were as close as we dared to the calving glacier face, and it felt CLOSE. From the drone though, it’s obvious we were nearly a full KILOMETER from it’s face, which from the sky, was more than double the height of Isbjörn‘s rig. It’s awesome to see.
Until next time, HOLD FAST!