After some very enjoyable and scenic voyaging in Scotland aboard my J-46 Cielita in the summer of 2006, I decided my next step was to head further north and west. I had planned to cruise on the coast of Norway for the summer of 2007, but with the urging of a couple of my intended crew, I decided to push all the way north and sail to the remote Arctic island, Spitsbergen.
Although most yachts go to and from Spitsbergen out of the northern Norwegian city of Tromso, I decided to go straight there from northern Scotland, and then cruise the Norwegian coast on the way back south. Many months were spent at home in preparation. Several packages of charts, books, and other gear had to be mailed over to Scotland, where the boat was wintering on the hard. Crew logistics had to be organized for an extended cruise of more than two months that was to include not only Svalbard, but the entire west coast of Norway.
Spitsbergen is the largest island in the archipelago known as Svalbard. It lies between 76° 34’ N and 80° 46’ N and between 10° 18’ E and 29° 41’ E. The archipelago as a whole is about the size of Ireland. Due to the influence of the Gulf Stream, it is the northernmost landmass to which one can sail in an ordinary yacht, being less than 600 miles from the North Pole at its northern extremity. For those of us willing to take on a real adventure in a small boat, this is pretty exciting stuff. Much of the eastern portions of Svalbard are poorly charted and usually ice-bound, even in the summer months. But the west coast of Spitsbergen itself is generally ice-free during July and August and offers some of the most exciting cruising imaginable.
The Norwegian Hydrographic Office publishes excellent charts of Spitsbergen, but care must be taken when plotting GPS positions, since they have not as yet been brought up to date to the WGS84 datum. In addition to a fine collection of these charts that we managed to borrow from a friend, we made extensive use of C-Map vector charts in our Furuno plotter. We also made use of Passport vector charts on our laptop computer using Nobeltec’s Visual Navigation Suite. However, these latter charts covered only a portion of the west coast of Spitsbergen.
Starting in Scotland
Our journey in the summer of 2007 started in Ardfern, near Oban, on the west coast of Scotland in early July. After transiting the Caledonian Canal, we sailed north from Inverness to Shetland, picking up a couple of additional crew along the way. The four of us, all experienced offshore sailors, departed Shetland on July 11 and started north on a 1,200-mile rhumb line for northern Spitsbergen.
Unfortunately, we encountered headwinds right from the beginning and had to take long tacks to weather in rough seas. Although we had intended to sail straight for Spitsbergen, we realized after a couple of days of sailing way off the rhumb line that we might need to motor more than we had anticipated. So we decided to head for the Lofoten Islands about three-fourths of the way up the Norwegian coast in order to take on additional diesel fuel. Although this added at least an additional 100 miles and an extra day to the journey, it proved to be well worth it. Not only were we able to replenish our diesel, but we had the opportunity to visit one of the most spectacular cruising grounds in all of Norway.
After putting in at the delightful town of Reine on the island of Moskenesoy in the southwestern Lofotens for an evening, we threaded our way through the islands and headed back out to sea and on to the north. After five more days as sea, we arrived off the west coast of southern Spitsbergen and put in to an anchorage under a huge glacier in Bellsund, one of the giant fjords along that coast. At 77° and 30 minutes north latitude in July, we were experiencing direct sunlight around the clock, so the time of day was essentially irrelevant.
From Bellsund we headed on north through the long passage up Prins Karls Forland, where we could coast within a few yards of a large colony of walruses lying on the beach. And then it was on to the spectacular Magdalenefjord, where we watched a mother polar bear and her two cubs feed on a reindeer carcass near the shore, nestled up under another huge glacier for a photo shoot, and glided by mammoth bearded seals lying on bits of iceberg. Adventure cruising doesn’t get much better than that.
A last dash to the ice edge
Although we were running out of time before having to turn around and head south again, we couldn’t resist the temptation to sail north of 80 degrees in order to say we had entered the Arctic Ocean and sailed less than 600 miles from the North Pole. So we did. We would have liked to sail up to the edge of the Arctic sea ice, but it had receded to north of 82 degrees at that longitude, and we needed to get back south for a planned crew change in Longyearbyen, the capital and principle community of Svalbard.
Although one sees evidence here and there of abandoned whaling stations and coal mines, the only other towns that are inhabited today are Barentsberg, an appallingly unattractive Russian coal town on the side of one of the smaller fjords near Longyearbyen, and Ny Alesund, a research station in northwestern Spitsbergen with only about 25 year-round inhabitants, but included on the tour for the big cruise ships because it boasts the northernmost post office in the world. There is a small airport in Ny Alesund, but Longyearbyen boasts an international airport with regular, scheduled flights from Tromso and Oslo at least twice a day during the summer.
Diesel can be obtained in both Longyearbyen and Ny Alesund. Provisions, including liquor, can only be bought in the former, although we were able to purchase a loaf of bread and a liter of milk from the research station in Ny Alesund. Propane is available in Longyearbyen only for those with the right fittings and willing to exchange tanks. Showers and laundry facilities are available at the harbormaster’s offices in Longyearbyen, and we were able to talk our way into a shower at the research station in Ny Alesund as well.
It goes without saying that warm clothes and good foul weather gear are a must for cruising in these northern waters. About two-thirds of Svalbard is covered by permanent ice, and the wind coming off the glaciers and the water is cold. It also helps to have a cabin heater.
Attention should also be paid to one’s safety gear. A man overboard in these waters would be a life-threatening event in very short order, even if the sea conditions were benign. Although there is daylight around the clock in the summer months, we wore our self-inflating lifejacket harnesses and hooked in whenever there was any sea running, and we had on hand readily deployable retrieval devices of several sorts.
For the hardy sailor with a spirit of adventure and a sound vessel, a cruise to Spitsbergen is well worth the effort. The cruising season is short, the risks are real, and the distances are substantial; but the scenery is magnificent, and the chance to see polar bears and walruses in the wild is hard to pass up. Compared with cruising in Greenland, we were surprised to see at least a dozen other yachts along the coast of Spitsbergen, and the presence of large cruise ships seemed a bit anachronistic. Nonetheless, one feels one is in a very remote part of the world most of the time. And part of the fun is being able to say you have sailed as far north as you can anywhere on Earth — at least for the time being.