In 1194 the Icelandic sagas state “Svalbardi funning,” which translates to Svalbard found. And so we did. (published June 2015)
Svalbard means cold (sval) coasts (bardi) but when we set off from mainland Norway in our IP 380 Touché it was the hottest summer in many years. It quickly got colder as we crossed the Barents Sea towards Svalbard accompanied by Arctic fulmars, white-nosed dolphins and blasts from whales, way off in the distance. We reached tiny, isolated Bear Island in heavy fog and had a quiet night in a well sheltered but rolly anchorage.
We woke up to beautiful sunshine and got underway, but the fog quickly thickened and didn’t lift until we caught a glimpse of Soerkap, the southern tip of Spitsbergen. What a feeling. We had found Svalbard. In heavy fog we sneaked into Hornsund and anchored in Isbjornhamna (Polar Bear harbor, though we didn’t see any) amidst small growlers from the numerous glaciers and were well sheltered from the swell. We didn’t have a rifle yet and the only other boat, Canadian Milvina, gave us a lift to visit the Polish Research Station.
Up here, way above the Arctic Circle at nearly 77 degrees north, the sun is up 24 hours a day and way above the horizon even at midnight. You can’t sleep and you never have to worry about anchoring in the dark.
About 2,200 people live on Spitsbergen along with about 3,000 polar bears on all of Svalbard. Due to thick fog, but a nice following wind, we decided to roll through the night to Longyearbyen; named after John Munro Longyear, who established the Arctic Coal Company and started mining in 1906.
As we neared the Ice fjord (Isfjorden), the sun pushed through the clouds and we finally saw the breathtaking scenery that prompted the Dutchman Willem Barentsz to name the Archipelago Spitsbergen (pointy mountains), when he (re)discovered it in 1596. The weather changes quickly here and we had fog, misty rain and beautiful sunshine all within a short time. The temperature in the summer is an average of 6 degrees Celsius (42 F) and summer is short and intense.
The settlement looks like the Klondike from the Wild West, except that horses are exchanged for snowmobiles. Originally a mining town, there is now only one active mine, and research and tourism have taken over.
We checked in with the authorities and rented an old Mauser rifle. One is not allowed outside city limits without protection against polar bears, which you are only allowed to scare away. If you have to shoot one, the killing will be investigated as if you had killed a person.
The next morning we took a quick walk and then set sail while the sun was getting brighter. We enjoyed dinner underway as we passed a tent camp and finally reached the magnificent Nordenskjöld Glacier that lured us with its bluish-white hues. Sailing salsa between the small bergy bits, we got close to the front, caught an ice bit for our nightcap (at 3 am) and looked for polar bears. We anchored across the fjord by the Russian settlement of Pyramiden. Any country that has signed the Svalbard Treaty is allowed to settle in Svalbard as long as they are self-sufficient.
We moored our dinghy at a rundown pier and went ashore to explore this dilapidated place. Abandoned in a hurry in 1998, everything stands as when the miners cleared out. A Russian guard welcomed us in perfect English and there was no bureaucracy or inefficient officialdom, only extreme friendliness. He even showed us where to find the world’s northernmost statue of Lenin.
Soon the fog rolled in and we sailed on to Skanse Bay where we dropped anchor after midnight in full sunshine. We viewed the million years old geological formations, an old trappers’ hut, plus an old wooden boat on the beach. All of the wooden leftovers are perfectly preserved, as this is an arctic desert with very dry air.
On our way back to Longyearbyen we tried fishing, but caught only a piece of coral and the wind increased right on the nose, bringing small steep waves with it. In Longyearbyen we repaired the dinghy, did laundry and were treated to about 12 beluga whales swimming quite close to the pier.
We then sailed through the Forland Sound where we stopped at Poole Point, as there’s usually walrus there. A small cruise ship had launched two dinghies while the walrus were showing off in the water. When the sun broke through the clouds the Sound was like a mirror with the backdrop of snow-covered peaks and glaciers reaching to the water. It was one magical view after another.
We stopped by the Buchanan Ice and sailed through the narrow, 13-feet deep opening in the reef and inside the King’s Fjord where we met smaller bergy bits and drifting ice. After arriving in Ny Ålesund in time for a late dinner, I couldn’t sleep and decided to go for a walk within town limits where, even though it was after midnight, I still met a few others in the beautiful midnight sun.
In the winter there are about 30 researchers here, but in the summer that number swells to 150 to 180 from all the countries who have signed the Svalbard Treaty.
Terns with young in their nests and barnacle geese were everywhere. We visited the world’s northernmost post office and walked to the end of town where a sign advised: “No further without a rifle.” Apparently polar bears cannot read, as the next morning one was shooed away right in front of the harbor office, a mere 50 yards from Touché.
Sailing slalom towards King’s Glacier and the majestic 14th of July Glacier, we had lunch while drifting and listening to the sounds escaping from the 10,000 year old ice. We found the perfect moment for a dinghy trip to take the ultimate photo of the boat before waltzing on into Lilliehöek Fjord. With another magical bluish-white glacier gleaming towards us, we anchored up in a small, perfectly sheltered cove with a six-foot bar that kept the largest icebergs outside.
The following morning, the fjord had filled with ice from the glacier, resulting in a very slow search for a path wide enough to squeeze through unscathed. We weren’t worried about our boat, it is solidly built, but we did wonder if we’d have to stay put until the fjord cleared some more.
We found a way through, but instead of forging ahead against an increasing wind from the northwest, we went back to Ny Aalesund to sleep, read and eat pancakes while waiting out a small snow gale. While we were there a rather large bergy bit threatened to enter the tiny harbor, but fortunately for us, ended up beached.
The next day we sailed on toward the magnificent Magdalene Fjord. While a cruise ship was getting the last tourists back on board we cruised towards the glacier before anchoring behind the Grave Cape where hundreds of Dutch and English whalers were buried in the 17th and 18th century. We saw remnants of the blubber ovens from the whaling period, as well as a polar fox, which looked at us curiously. And finally, we saw our first polar bear feeding on a reindeer cadaver across the fjord. Magnificent indeed!
Our next stop, Virgohamna, was a dark, desolate place full of huge boulders and all the remnants of André and Wellman’s futile attempts to reach the North Pole around 1900 in hot air balloons. All the leftovers, from iron shavings used to make hydrogen and fallen wooden posts from the hangars, to pots and rusted drums were strewn all over the place. Every piece of scrap is protected and not to be touched. Later, we sailed by the Smeerenburg Point where a bunch of walrus rested (very loudly) on the beach in front of the blubber ovens and the omnipresent Dutch whalers’ graves.
We started early on a day with perfect weather for rounding tiny Moffen Island, thus crossing 80 degrees north. A lovely 15 to 18 knot westerly brought us quickly across 3 degrees longitude (they’re close up here) and we rounded less than 600 miles from the North Pole! We heard over the VHF from a cruise ship that the pack ice was quite a bit further north, while last week the pack ice had been below 80 north.
We sailed into Wood Fjord aiming for Mushamna, which is a famous trappers’ station. However, a polar bear wandered close to the cabin, so we decided not to land. Instead, we anchored in a sheltered lagoon with only a narrow entrance and celebrated with champagne.
The next day we caught a cod and saw a whale right by a huge bergy bit as we sailed between floes, smaller bergy bits and growlers. The Monaco Glacier is gorgeous, backed by ragged mountains and close by is “Texas Bar,” another trappers’ cabin. We went ashore and kept a constant lookout over our shoulders for polar bears. When we peered inside the tiny cabin where two trappers would live for nine months in polar darkness there was only a table, a woodstove, two beds and room for very little else.
Later as we sailed by the Bird Islands, we came upon two polar bears searching for eggs and young chicks. We managed to get very close, as they had decided it was time for a nap and chose to ignore us.
Headed south, Magdalene Fjord was foggy, but the water flat, so the two women on board decided to take the arctic plunge. We pushed small growlers aside to accomplish the feat, but it actually wasn’t as bad as we’d thought.
On my birthday I was gifted with the most fabulous weather and we enjoyed breakfast in the cockpit before seeing reindeer at a distance from the dinghy. A perfect 5 to15 knot wind from the northwest brought us through the sound on a magical sail. We tacked around Poole Point where we were greeted by walrus and later saw a large pod of beluga whales. Back in Longyearbyen we were the only sailboat, as we were getting closer to August 18th and the end of the summer cruising season when the period of the midnight sun comes to a close. Out in the bay a large motor yacht with a helicopter and large rib was anchored, but to be honest, we wouldn’t switch. We spent the day at the Airship Museum and provisioned for our crossing back to the mainland.
Alternating between sailing and motoring, we passed several large bergy bits as we neared Hornsund, which was full of ice, so we bid the poles goodbye and continued south. The wind freshened from the northeast and as we cleared the cape we encountered rather large waves of 19 to 23 feet that had built up after days of gale force winds. These collided with the north running Gulf Stream and two of us got seasick. Later, we were told this area is appropriately nicknamed “The devils dance floor.”
On the lee side of Bear Island, we decided to rest and wait out a small gale before sailing south to mainland Norway. The Coast Guard spotted our boat, contacted us to ask if we were OK and offered a technician to see if they could fix our heater, which had quit. He was able to get it to heat up some and they even brought a doctor aboard to make sure the seasick crewmembers were alright. The next day was more manageable and we had a fine sail back, enjoying the play of the Arctic fulmars and our first sunset/rise in two months.
In total, we ended up sailing 1,760 miles from Tromsø, Norway to Svalbard and back and were only met by 11 other sailboats.
Looking specifically for a full keel cruising boat, Judith and her husband first chartered an Island Packet in the Caribbean. Then after visiting the factory they purchased Touché, their IP 380 in the UK. They currently reside in Denmark and are looking forward to a trans-Atlantic crossing.