Summers icy cruise

A summer cruise to the Norwegian high arctic from New York requires careful scheduling. It is advisable to leave Spitzbergen by the first week of August. Working backwards and assuming fair winds, this means leaving Iceland by mid-July, Newfoundland by the end of June, and starting off from New York by mid-June. Forward planning after leaving Spitzbergen – the intended apex of the transatlantic crossing – depends on whether or not one intends to return to New York before the late autumnal storms. I decided instead to cruise the Norwegian coast, Scotland, Ireland, and Portugal and then leave for the Caribbean as soon as the hurricane season was due to end in November. That meant I would not be back in New York until spring of the following year. Still, a winter in the Caribbean seemed a just reward for cruising up to the ice first.

I left Long Island aboard my Westsail 42 cutter, Fiona, on June 12 with a crew of two. We had an unexpectedly hard beat along the south coast to Block Island, followed by a transit of the Cape Cod canal and a day’s relaxation at Provincetown. The next port was Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Surely no two towns can be so dissimilar! Provincetown is the capital of the outrageous – the shops, the ads, and, of course, the residents out to shock. Lunenburg, by contrast, was a hard-scrabble fishing port par excellence on the Nova Scotia coast until the cod was fished out. The aura remains, despite the tourist gentrification. Our next port was St. John’s, Newfoundland. We arrived in the center of a protest by fisherman on the allocation of fishing ground between Newfoundland and Labrador. Dozens of trawlers milled about in the inner basin tooting horns and yelling over raucous PA systems. Eventually we found a quiet float to tie up to. It was here we bent on the storm mainsail and swapped the genoa for a yankee jib. We left after a few days in a dense fog with scarcely a boat’s length of visibility. This turned out to be an appropriate introduction to the Labrador current, which we had to cross on the way to Iceland. This cold current dropping past the Greenland coast brought heavy condensation on the sails, rigging, and even the cabins as we plowed through the fog. Winds were mostly from our quarters at speeds up to 24 knots but more frequently 15 knots or less. We settled into the boat routine of watches, sleeping, meals, reefing, etc., during the gloomy 11-day passage. Although the pilot charts indicate this as a region of fairly heavy iceberg density (remember Titanic) we were able to get good satellite-derived ice charts in St. John’s that showed a relatively clear passage on the great circle route to Iceland. In fact, we only encountered two icebergs in this vicinity.

Landfall at IcelandIceland is a most impressive country; it is amazing what a population of a little more than a quarter million has achieved. Heat and electricity come from geothermal sources. The capital Reykjavik is a modern bustling city with striking architecture and, at the same time, cozy coffee shops and restaurants. Perhaps the only drawback, especially after St. John’s, is the high cost of living. We refueled, topped off the water tanks and left for the Vestmann Islands on the south coast. Iceland lies in a major fault line in the earth’s crust, which explains the geothermal springs and high level of volcanic activity. In the 1960s an entirely new island, Surtsey, was added to the Vestmann group by the solidification of millions of tons of lava from a new eruption. We sailed right by it; landing is not permitted since the island forms a living laboratory of how species establish themselves. At the main island, Heimaey, a lava promontory protects the harbor. When the volcano overlooking the village, Eldfell, erupted in 1973, red hot lava threatened the village. The resourceful islanders, however, mobilized every diesel-driven water pump in Iceland and cooled the lava flow so the breakwater was formed. We rounded the southeast corner of Iceland and set a course for Jan Mayen Island. Shortly after Iceland sank astern, we crossed the Arctic Circle. The passage was characterized by fog alternating with sunshine and calms followed by heavy winds. Daylight extended to 24 hours.

A small problem soon emerged in the engine room, however: the freshwater circulation pump began to leak, and frequent additions had to be made to the header tank. It was a portent of more serious failures later in much higher latitudes. The first intimation of engine trouble came on the morning of the day we got to Jan Mayen Island; we were just above 70° north and under power. The engine room smoke detector started clanging away, and when I opened the door I was greeted by a cloud of steam and that characteristic smell of hot glycol. After things had cooled down I refilled the header tank, and I then noticed a fine spray of water coming from the vicinity of the freshwater circulation pump. It was clear the shaft seal was shot. From then on I checked the water level every hour or two of engine time. When we got to Spitzbergen I phoned a friend back home and arranged for a new pump to meet us in Scotland. I figured the pump would last until then – but I was mistaken.

Spitzbergen’s west coastJan Mayen is the site of various radio transmitters and a meteorological station. It has a transient population of 26 people, mostly men. When we had the island in sight, we gave a call on VHF and received permission to land at Walrus Bay, on the west side. Fortunately the weather was calm and settled. After anchoring and inflating the dinghy, we were met on the pebbly beach by half a dozen of the residents. We got a ride to the main base, about 10 miles, and once inside were urged to take a shower, followed by coffee and cake. The residents were clearly delighted to have some strangers to talk to and gave us tours of their technical facilities. They had a small museum that included parts off a Gemlan Kondor four-engine plane that crashed on Jan Mayen during the war. We dinghyed back to the boat at 0100 in bright daylight. The next day as we headed north we were treated to a spectacular view of the 9,000-foot-plus volcano, Beerenberg, on the north side of the island, which is usually shrouded in clouds.

The weather was variable as we headed toward the pack ice. There was lots of fog, and winds were usually light but sometimes rose to force 6 or 7, which necessitated putting a reef in the storm mainsail. The wind usually had a northerly component, and we often encountered snow or sleet. The water temperature was about 37° F. We had obtained a good chart of the pack ice from the meteorologist on Jan Mayen Island. Basically the last warm tendril of the Gulf Stream is deflected along the west coast of Spitzbergen, causing a bay to be formed in the ice cap, which is continuous all the way from Spitzbergen to the pole. Near midnight on July 28 our course intersected the western edge of this bay, and we found ourselves in floating ice covering about 10 percent of the sea. The horizon was a fantastic silhouette of jumbled shapes glistening in the low sunlight. Our latitude was 78° 37′ N. We had met the ice a little farther south than anticipated, but we figured the northerly winds of the last few days had brought down the floating ice. Later we found that the ice this year was farther south than usual, and even off the Spitzbergen coast the ice was quite thick at 80° N. After tacking to the east we threaded our way through the floes, and by 0600 we were clear of the ice and heading for Ny Alesund. At 79° N this spot claims to be the most northerly permanent habitation on earth. The village was founded in the 1920s to mine coal, and a small museum contains photographs and artifacts showing how difficult and hazardous this operation was. In 1962 a horrendous underground explosion resulted in the mines’ being closed forever, and now the site is used for arctic research by scientific teams from many countries.

In contrast to most countries I have visited, in which guns are absolutely frowned on, in Spitzbergen you are not allowed to land without one. The reason for this is polar bears. By summer they have usually moved north with the leading edge of the pack ice, but a few seem to stick around and cause trouble. When we landed at Longyearbyen a few days later we saw three polar bears near the dock that had been shot dead. We did not see any polar bears at Ny Alesund, but we did see an arctic fox raiding the nesting terns. The birds repeatedly swooped low and issued harsh cries, but eventually the fox found an egg and scampered off triumphantly.

Many polar expeditions left from Ny Alesund because of its close proximity to the North Pole. In fact, the tower built by Nobile to anchor his dirigible is still there. The 90-mile leg to Longyearbyen took Fiona through the spectacular Forelandsundet. Huge glaciers grind down to the sea from high mountains on both sides of the sound. Longyearbyen was also founded as a mining center – derricks and overhead conveyors dot the landscape. A few mines survive on the island, some operated by Russians. Their country has always claimed the island, although administration was awarded to the Norwegians by an international arbitration court. Actually, Spitzbergen was discovered in the 16th century by a Dutchman, Barents.Engine trouble and a jury rigWe left Longyearbyen late on Aug. 3 as the snow line in the mountains was perceptibly dropping toward the shore. There was no wind as we motored down the west coast of Spitzbergen, aiming for the Lofoten Islands more than 600 miles to the south. About 0930 on the 4th the engine smoke detector again startled us with its clamorous cry; not something you want to hear at 77° N. This time, when I entered the engine room, I choked on thick, greasy fumes. When these cleared I found the drive belt to the circulation pump had caught fire as the pump itself had seized up solid. After allowing the pump to cool down I removed it from the engine. The pulley was immovable, however. I undid the bolts that held the two halves of the pump together, and, as I pried it apart, broken ball bearings fell into my hand. It was clearly not repairable on board.

Fortunately, as I pondered the problem of how to get the engine running again, a light southeast wind developed and we were able to set sail. On Fiona’s Perkins diesel, the pump bolts onto a flat section on the forward side of the engine. A matching hole to one on the pump conducts pressurized water into the block. The solution was to cut a piece of half-inch-thick plywood to match the mating surface of the pump. A plastic plumbing nipple, tapped into the plywood, would enable water from an external pump to be fed to the engine via a hose. After some trial and error, I found that the best pump for the job turned out to be a 12-volt centrifugal pump, which was a spare for the forward bilge. It had no inlet fitting but simply drew water into the impeller through a small cage. Thus it had to sit in a bucket which also received return water from the intake of the original pump.

One remaining problem was that the same belt that drove the pump also drove the alternator; without the pump being in place there was no means to charge the battery. Fastened to the engine was a small 60-Hz generator used to run power tools, which was driven by a separate belt. Connected to the battery charger, this put out a few amps of charge even when the jury-rigged electric pump was running. However, we had to exercise rigorous electrical economy until things were shipshape again. I ran the engine as infrequently as possible as I was uncertain of the lifetime of the pump – it was pumping much hotter water than it was designed for.

We were able to sail all the way to the Lofoten Islands, but when we got there and were within about 80 miles of the Norwegian coast, the wind died. This is a region of severe, often turbulent, currents. In fact, not far from our position was the infamous Maelstrom, the subject of Edgar Allen Poe’s horrifying story and the object of many Norwegian sailors’ nightmares. The patched-up engine worked fine for half a day, however, and took us to Bodø, where we got a new engine pump within hours of our arrival on August 11th. We then left for a few days cruising in the south Lofotens.

On approaching from the seaward these islands present a forbidding aspect – sharp, jagged mountains with rock-bound harbors. It looks like a world fit for trolls. There are plenty of hazards, and good Norwegian charts are essential. We experienced stiff winds crossing Vestfiorden from Bodø, which we crossed at night – although, of course, it did not get very dark.

The wind backed and our chosen destination was a dead lee shore on our arrival. Looking at the tricky, rock-strewn entrance, I put prudence first, and we beat up about five miles to Skrova lying to windward. This had an easy entrance on the lee side. The interior of Stamsund Island stands in contrast to its forbidding coast. We took a bus to the interior to visit a rebuilt Viking site, passing along the way some pastoral fields and tidy farms, a veritable northern Shangri-la indeed.

Our last overnight port was Nusfiord, literally a narrow cleft in tall cliffs, but snug and with a charming pub. On our way south we crossed the Arctic Circle. Ahead lay the Shetlands and Orkneys, the Caledonian Canal and the delights of the Scottish and Irish coasts.

By Ocean Navigator