Finally through the ice

On our port side was the inhospitable island of Nordaustlandet and on starboard were the huge ice fields of Ny Friesland. Ahead was the disreputable Hinloopen Strait. Terra Nova, our 40-foot, Jean Knocker-designed double-ender, had arrived at a crucial point of the journey: the northeast corner of Spitzbergen, about to head south along the east coast through an area that’s poorly charted. The risk of meeting closed ice fields and getting imprisoned by the ice was much greater than on the west side of the archipelago.

At the back of my mind was a voice telling me the easiest solution: Return the way you cameit’s a well-known track with little risk of ice. Without speaking I knew that Corri, my wife and sailing partner, had similar thoughts. We were saving our fuel in case we would be forced to return from halfway along the east coast. To further conserve fuel we didn’t burn the stove. For the last two weeks we kept the cabin at a reasonable temperature by burning the paraffin lamp.

In the beginning of June we had left Andenes on the mainland of Norway for a fast but rough 500-mile passage to the west coast of Spitzbergen. Terra Nova’s standard crew of two was strengthened by our friend Joop who joined us for this two-month journey into the Arctic. In a strong northeasterly wind we could just lay course for Prins Karls Foreland, the long island on the west coast.

Abeam of Sorkapp Point (see chart on page 60), but some 40 miles to the west, we spotted the first ice floes, and before long we came to an ice field that was too dense to go through. We followed the edge of the ice in a northwesterly direction. After a few hours we found open water ahead and could return to our initial course. What a blessing it was to sail in high latitudes where you have 24 hours of daylight!

Once we were free of the second ice field, the wind backed to the north and a cold mist made everything damp. It seemed as if the water drops that were falling on the helmsman from the rigging were about to start freezing. With an air temperature just above zero, the watches were shortened to one hour. In poor visibility at these high latitudes, it was difficult to keep a straight coursethe compass was sluggish. With only a small course change, the card often made a complete 360° turn! We used the wave patterns and now and again a weak image of the sun through the milky sky to keep a northeasterly course.

A breathtaking view

My suggestion to drop Ny Alesund as our initial port of call and look for an anchorage close by met with no opposition from the crew. Soon we were on a beam reach toward Bell Sund. As we got closer to the shore the sky cleared as if a curtain has been lifted, revealing a breathtaking view. Stripes of snow followed the indentations of the dark-gray mountainsides; but there were no signs of any human presence. Approaching more closely we saw some vegetation in the lower areas; different shades of green proved that mosses can survive this harsh climate.

Within four days after leaving Norway we dropped anchor in Josephbukta, a sheltered bay on the west side of the Recherche Fjord. Slowly motoring in reverse, we let the anchor dig itself into the sandy bottom. We powered full astern, and the anchor chain went bar taut. Silence followed, then bacon and eggs and coffee. We sat in the sun and looked around, assimilating our surroundings.

The passage through the Forlandsund, behind Prins Karls Foreland, was blocked by ice. We discovered this when we were halfway there. The 110 miles around Prins Karls Foreland to Ny Alesund were made under power on a flat calm sea. On this stretch of water our memories wandered back five years ago when we were beating here against a stormy northerly, in thick fog with closed ice fields behind us blocking an escape. What a difference on this trip: the visibility seemed endless as we steered in the direction of the midnight sun. Thousands of birds crossed our course toward their nests on the high cliffs of the long island. The little auks look like bumblebees, the guillemots are the penguins of the Arctic, and the curious, silent fulmars are colored more darkly than they are in our home waters.

The reason why the northernmost point of Prins Karls Foreland is called Fuglehuken (birds’ corner) was obvious: the cliffs are white from the assembled birds’ guano. This fertilizer is the base for the bright green scurvy grass, which in the whaling era was used as a remedy against the dreaded scurvy.

Our plan was to spend most of our time on the north coast of Spitzbergen and eventually, in August, if the ice situation would permit it, try to return south through the Hinlopen Strait. The small town of Ny Alesund was our last opportunity to fill up with fuel. This former mining settlement is now a base for the Norwegian Polar Research Institute. During the summer months many scientists from all over the world do their work from here. In the long, dark winter night the population of Ny Alesund diminishes to some 20 Norwegians doing maintenance and keeping the power station going.

Remains of the whaling era

In calm weather we entered Hamburger Bukta, a circular bay with a narrow and shallow entrance. According to the Norwegian pilot book there is little more than seven feet of water over the bar at the entrance. As we neared the shore we are startled by the swell running straight into the entrance. Although it was half tide, our nerves were working overtime as we slowly entered, Joop reading the echo sounder, Corri at the wheel, and I standing at the bow. Just like many places in Spitzbergen, scattered here are remains of the whaling era. In two graves, in the remnants of the wooden coffins, we find a skull and a few bones. Because of the arctic climate, which is cold and very dry, the wood of the coffins and the human bones can survive for ages.

When we arrived at the former Dutch whaling station on Amsterdamøya, it was bitterly cold. Anchored in the lee of a low sand spit we were well sheltered from the waves but not from the icy wind that blows straight from the edge of the polar ice cap, some 30 miles to the north. It was a special feeling to walk around the place where Smeerenburg (Blubbertown) was and to imagine that hundreds of men worked here, living a harsh life. Wandering around the remains of the try works, everywhere we saw the yellow bricks that the whalers carried with them from Holland.

Opposite Amsterdamøya lies Danskøya, where artifacts of more recent times can be found. About 100 years ago the race to reach the Pole was on, and some of the attempts started from here. It was also from here that the Swedish explorer Andree took off in his balloon Adler (Eagle) and disappeared. More than 30 years later the mystery surrounding the Adler was solved. The bodies of Andree and his two companions were found on an island northeast of Spitzbergen. The journey only lasted a few days: a diary and the undeveloped films told the story of a broken dream.

Also here an American journalist named Wellman built a huge hangar for his air ship. Alongside the ruins are heaps of scrap iron. When covered with sulfuric acid they made the hydrogen gas for the air ship. Of the several attempts Wellman made, the longest lasted for only 15 minutes.

Swimming polar bears

On a sunny day we dropped anchor under the island of Ytre Norskøya. Eating our lunch in the cockpit we saw a seal swimming behind us. Looking around we saw another one some 600 feet on our bow. This one looked different, however. “Could it be a bearded seal?” A glance through the binoculars revealed our first polar bear, swimming toward the island. Although we knew they often wander around the north coast, and we never went ashore without a gun, it was a great moment to see our first bear. It climbed ashore, shook out its fur, and slowly walked along the water’s edge in our direction. It stood still for a while, lifted its head to smell the air, and sometimes sat down to look around. Within 300 feet of our anchorage, a group of breeding eider ducks was scared from their nests when the bear passed. Looking at the polar bear from the safety of our boat, it was hard to imagine how dangerous these animals can be. We promised ourselves to be even more careful when ashore.

When later we sailed around the eastern point of the island we spotted the polar bear again, swimming toward the mainland. We felt quite safe aboard Terra Nova, and so we approached the bear as close as 50 or 60 feet. Its long white fur looked disorderly as it floated in the water. A polar bear can easily cover a swimming distance of 60 miles; however, their speed in the water is slow. Looking back at us, the bear seemed to be ill at ease, and he nervously started swimming back to Ytre Norskøya.

By now it was July 22 and there was little chance of going much farther to the east because of the ice. For the time being Hamiltonbukta in the Raudfjord seemed to be our farthest point east. It was rather tricky to reach the anchorage at Hamiltonbukta. There was no detailed chart of this area, and the pilot book wasn’t much help either. It was hard to see the difference between a low-lying, flat rock, covered with ice, and an ice floe. The easier of the two entrances was blocked by an ice field. Looking at the chart I discovered a tiny speck that, after close examination with a magnifying glass, turned into a real rock! All hands jumped to their posts: Corri was at the wheel, Joop at the echo sounder, and I kept one eye on the chart and one on the small islands and rocks around us. I was trying to track our position and keep clear of the submerged rocks. In between two islands we encountered a shallow patch of 10 feet, but after that we found deep water toward the corner of the bay where we anchored. It was a sunny evening, and although it became chilly, nobody went below.

Coffee on the glacier

We sat in the cockpit absorbing this natural wonderland. Hamiltonbukta is a beautiful anchorage, close to the impressive glacier. This glacier snout covers three quarters of the bay. It is different from most of the other glaciers that have a more or less perpendicular front. During a hike we drank our coffee atop an unnamed point that, after we built a stone cairn, we named “Point Terra Nova.”

Some days later, back at Ytre Norskøya, we walked to the hilltop, which, since the times of the Dutch whalers, is called Utkikken (Lookout). In the east we distinguished the flat land of Reinsdyrflua, and there was only a small amount of drift ice around this headland.

Before we could go farther to the east we spent three days with dense fog in Birgerbukta, close to the old trapper hut at Sallyhamn. This hut, originally built in the ’20s, accommodates a policeman and a biologist for some weeks. They are carrying out a reindeer count on the small islands along the coast. Visibility was still poor as we rounded Reinsdyrflua and enter the Woodfjord. The northernmost point of the low peninsula was appropriately called Velkomstpynten: the sky cleared and we saw Reinsdyrflua close by. From the north a series of fog banks was blown into the Woodfjord, unveiling only the mountaintops at the eastern side of the fjord. We anchored in Worsleyhamna, at a point where the Liefdefjord branches off to the west.

When checking the anchor in the middle of the night, I saw the sun high in a clear sky, with low clouds still hiding the other side of the fjord. To the south, the red peaks of the Roosfjella were pointing through the clouds and into the blue. The area was showing itself only bit by bit, as if it wanted to keep something for tomorrow. In my comfortable bunk, I found the warmth to heat up my cold feet.

Walking on Reinsdyrflua was a relief; it was a flat and easy-going terrain. It is said that more than 1,000 reindeer live on the Flua, but we didn’t see any of them. Instead we met two polar bears. One, very big and skinny, followed us when we returned to our dinghy along the beach. When we were safely afloat we saw it nosing around at the place where we had parked the dinghy.

We spent a couple of days in the Liefdefjord (Lovefjord), anchoring at different places. Hiking in the beautifully colored mountains we were reminded of the Landmannalauger area on Iceland; brown, yellow ochre, moss green, and white patches of snow everywhere. Returning to the Woodfjord, we sailed to Mushamna. This was the safest anchorage in the area, a bay, almost closed off by a low sand spit. The shallow, narrow entrance keeps out the larger lumps of ice. A few kilometers north of the bay was a hut where we met Karl and Svein, the biologist and policeman, again. This hut was built by a trapper some years ago, using driftwood logs of about a foot and a half in diameter. The wood that beaches on Spitzbergen’s shores comes from the rivers in Siberia.

Arctic lagoon

Some 10 miles north of the entrance to the Woodfjord lies the low island of Moffen. It consists of a low, pear-shaped sandbank completely surrounding a shallow lagoon. Ship’s logs from the whaling times show that ships could sail in through a gap and anchor in the lagoon. On the southern tip of Moffen a group of walruses can often be found. We smelled them before we saw them! About 20 of these animals were dozing in a heap, white tusks protruding everywhere. Sometimes a big bull would lift up his body from the group, look around and go back to sleep. Other walruses lingered in the water, close to the shore. Slowly sailing on eastwards we came close to a dead walrus, floating on its back. With a big swollen belly, its rear flippers moved from side to side with the swell. When the carcass drew abeam, we got a surprise. It woke up, looked us in the eyes, and dove. We don’t know who was more frightened.

The beginning of August was rather early in the season to go through Hinlopen Strait, but we decided to give it a try. We spent a few days in the Sorgfjord, at the northwest entrance of the strait, waiting for the strong south wind to abate. Daily radio contacts with the people from the Norwegian Polar Institute in Longyaerbyen (Spitzbergen’s main settlement) gave us some information about the ice situation farther south.

On August 5, with a light southerly blowing, we started on the most exciting part of the journey: Hinlopen Strait. This stretch of water was named by the whalers after a small city in Friesland, the northern part of Holland. There wasn’t much talking on board Terra Nova this morning. We had to sail through an area that was not well charted; most of the chart was blank with only a few sounded tracks of soundings.

The narrow part of the strait was almost free of ice. On both sides were enormous snowfields, reaching down to the water, ending in glaciers more than 10 miles wide. After sailing through some dense fog banks west of the Wahlenbergøya, we spotted ice fields at the horizon. Getting closer, we saw open channels, and from the mainmast spreaders I could see that farther to the south there was open water. To the east we had a spectacular view of the huge glacier fields of Nordausland.

It was exciting to sail these waters, so remote and so desolate. The weather was calm and the visibility good, so we decided to go on through the “night” till we reached the Freemansund, the narrow waters between Barentsøya and Edgeøya.

A winding channel

Approaching the Freemansund we saw that the entrance was blocked by ice. To go east of Edgeøya was not an option; there was heavy sea ice in that area. Using the motor, we followed a winding channel through the ice that we hoped would lead us to the Freemansund. After some hours we were forced to stop and return before a rising wind could close our escape route to open water. Maneuvering had to be done with great care, especially when reversing, since the smallest piece of ice could easily damage the propeller. Following the edge of the ice to the south we found an opening just north of the Zeiløyane. We kept a respectful distance from these low islands remembering the grounding of Tilman’s Baroque here in 1974. This British mountaineer and yachtsman made a voyage to Spitzbergen when he was in his 70s and wrote the book Triumph and Tribulation about this trip.

Tidal currents in the Freemansund were strong, and quite a lot of ice was drifting in and out of the sound. Being underway for more than 24 hours, we felt the need of a good sleep. An acceptable but not perfect anchorage was found at the southwest corner of Barendsøya. It was not possible to find a place that was completely out of the tidal ice flow, so a constant ice watch had to be kept. Every now and again we had to push off ice floes. After some rest we started preparing Terra Nova and ourselves for the crossing to the Norwegian mainland.

We had planned to visit some places on the west coast of Edgeøya, but the southerly wind had blown large quantities of ice toward this coast, which made it hard if not impossible to find a safe anchorage. Besides that, all three of us were tired of the stressful voyaging of the previous few days, and we looked forward to being able to travel free of the ice. Early in the morning Joop, who was on watch, shouted “all hands on deck.” There was a compact mass of ice drifting towards us. We had just enough time to lift the anchor and escape!

Using the light south wind it took us almost two days to sail out of the Storfjord. The engine was not used because we wanted to save the remaining fuel for an emergency. The next day the low north coast of Bjørnøya appeared on the hazy horizon. On August 13, almost six weeks after our departure, we returned to Andenes in Norway. We were pleased with our circumnavigation of Spitzbergen: a dream for many years had come true.

Corri and Willem Stein have voyaged the long Norwegian coast, including the Spitzbergen archipelago, and have sailed into the White Sea to Archangel and through Russian inland waters to Saint Petersburg. They have circumnavigated Iceland and voyaged to Greenland. Recently they crossed the Atlantic via Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador.

By Ocean Navigator