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Svalbard, the postscript

As Terry beautifully described it in the previous post, the joy is not always in the journey. Looking back, leaving the Norwegian mainland back on July 16th seems very distant now with all we have seen and experienced since we watched the mainland disappear on the horizon. We had already been sailing from Stavanger for a month at that point, but leaving the mainland in Tromsø marked the true beginning. This is what we had worked for after half a year of meticulous planning and preparations.

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Jon at the helm, with the first but not last ice we were to see during our Svalbard journey. By Andreas B. Heide

I remember the first day. Dead calm seas and the crew in t-shirts. We passed Bear Island around the half-way point to Svalbard, shrouded in mist. Two days out the weather shifted. Sailing on a close tack against the wind, the temperature had dropped 15 degrees and we were outfitted again in wool and the offshore sailing suits. Our summer had just started. We spotted the first ice half a day south of Svalbard, and then finally saw the southern cape come into view a few nautical miles away. Our first stop was Hornsund, the southernmost fjord on Svalbard. We anchored in the bay that according to our onboard literature was the best in the fjord. Half an hour later we were drifting towards land with no anchor hold.

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The first day in Horsund. By Daniel Hug

We ventured deeper into the fjord and found a new anchorage based on reading the maps and checking the weather forecast. It was one of many lessons learned, that it´s better to trust your own intuition rather than well-meaning guidebooks. The days that followed it was dead calm, and the sun kept us company night and day. Terry, Jon and Ivan went hiking and spotted the first polar bear tracks on land. And Daniel and I had our first paraglider flight, with a 41 caliber revolver in the backpack and flash bangs in our pockets should we be unfortunate enough to land next to a polar bear. Barba had her first careful ice encounters in the sheltered fjord, valuable training for later more intense moments in the sea ice to follow.

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Terry with the first gentle ice encounter in Hornsund. By Daniel Hug

We sailed on to Longyearbyen, where we provisioned and partied like it was 1999. Most importantly we talked with sailors, film producers, scientists and local authorities as well as explorers to get as much information as possible for the next leg. We sailed on toward Ny-Ålesund, encountering the first walrus colony on the way. We had all dreamed about seeing these far-from-good looking creatures. On land, these clumsy adorable fellows weighing up to 1500 kgs look rather harmless. When you see them in the water, however, you understand their tremendous force. Numerous whalers have parted with their lives hunting walruses. In modern times the animals have been known to attack dinghies and divers, and polar bears have been found dead on the shore with puncture wounds from walrus tusks.

In Ny-Ålesund we partied once more, this time with scientists from all over the world, most noteworthy a friendly bunch from Goa, India. As we sailed out again, we knew that for the next five weeks we would be without supplies and the possibility to moor Barba in a port.

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White, about 400 kgs and looking hungry. By Daniel Hug

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Barba team scrambling following polar bear encounter. By Daniel Hug

The first polar bear came wandering as Jon, Terry and Ivan were sleeping in an abandoned hunters cabin. He appeared out of nowhere on the shore, and Daniel and I spotted him just as were about to call it a night. After a hastily-organized dinghy operation in our thermal underwear, we alerted the shore crew what was coming their way and got to see the bear stalking a colony of harbor seals. Before the trip was over, we saw six polar bears in total, some a bit too close for comfort.

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A desert on land, but quite the contrary under water. By Andreas B. Heide

I had my first dive at Bjørnehamna. Svalbard is somewhat of an Arctic desert. Rocks, snow, glaciers and seemingly no life on land apart from some moss, grass polar foxes and reindeer. Under water, however, it´s teeming with life. The seafloor was covered with colorful filter-feeding organisms in all shapes and forms. Despite the 3 degree C temperature in the water, it was hard for me to resurface. I did not want to leave this magical underwater marvel. Once ashore, we enjoyed scallops, clams and sea slugs on a bonfire with no longing for civilization.

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Arctic char,a Barba culinary highlightBy Daniel Hug

Another highlight, and a dream fulfilled for me, was to fish for Arctic char in a river so full of them that we could have filled up the boat and then some. We stopped fishing once we had enough to keep us satisfied with dinner for the next couple of days, a welcome change from the cod we had been feasting on up until that point.

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Jon negotiating with a hungry-looking polar bear in Brennevinsfjorden. By Daniel Hug

In Brennevinsfjorden, next to the Oxford cabin built a century earlier, we had the too-close-for-comfort polar bear encounter. I always dreamt of seeing a polar bear from Barba, but not so close that I´d have to chase him away with a wooden stick. It´s a most pleasant memory for all of us now that we are back on the mainland.

As we set sail from the northernmost island of Svalbard, Sjuøyane – freshly showered after stopping by the French vessel Polaris – the highlight of the journey was just behind the horizon. In the fog, there was not much to be seen. The radar was finely tuned to the point that we could see birds streaking across the screen. We knew that the sea ice was out there somewhere. After about 12 hours, a dense belt of it appeared on the radar. Shortly thereafter, we sailed into a dense mosaic of sea ice. We had reached our final destination and goal, to sail as far North as the ocean would let us. We enjoyed a few hours in the ice, wandering around on a floe the size of a football field. Despite a promising weather forecast, surprisingly strong currents soon had us caught up in the ice. After a couple of hours of pushing sea ice we made it to the outer rim of the ice belt. Terry and I dived in under the sea-ice in the dark blue water, suspended 200 meters above the seafloor.

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Sailing south, with a diminishing midnight sun in our wake. By Daniel Hug

I was greatly relieved when we sailed south again. The pack ice had been a surreal encounter, but it was never a safe haven. If the winds would have picked up, the moving ice could have shredded the hull, as has been the demise of many a vessel in the ice before us.

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View from the Barba office, with Jon pushing ice. By Daniel Hug

Since arriving in Svalbard, we had constantly kept a close eye on the ice-charts. Every time we had access to one over the satellite phone, the Barba crew gathered around the computer to study it with great interest. Initially, it looked as though we would have to sail back down the ice-free west coast that we´d just sailed up to get back to the mainland. The last days of the trip, however, the ice opened sufficiently up, allowing us to dart through the Hinlopen Strait and finally slip through the Heley Sound after waiting for the 11-knot current to turn in our favour.

Following two days of alternating strong winds and fog, the sky cleared and Svalbard offered us a beautiful farewell. We came across two walrus colonies and got to appreciate them up close, watching the animals enjoy life on the beach without a care in the world. They have replaced penguins as my new favorite animal. They gather up in a big pile, sleeping, snorting and emitting other loud body sounds, occasionally wiggling to scratch their backs. In the water they are curious, approaching the boat in large numbers and looking at us as we look back at them, with great curiosity and excitement.

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One of many beluga whale encounters. By Daniel Hug

By the end of August, nature was telling us that it was time to sail south. The sun slipped below the horizon, and the temperature dropped below freezing. The forecast for sailing south to Bear Island was less than ideal, but with no improvements in sight we headed offshore.

The crossing

The ocean crossing back to mainland Norway. By Daniel Hug

After a rather wet and windy crossing, we were held hostage for two days at Bear Island, waiting for the winds to allow us to sail south again. After two more days at sea, utterly exhausted, we sailed into Hammerfest early in the morning.

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Our floating and at times fragile home at 81 degrees north. By Jon Grantangen.  

Svalbard had been an interesting challenge. We´d spent 5 weeks at sea or at anchor, constantly moving, and constantly worrying whether the anchor would hold and whether sea ice might hit us. Svalbard´s weather is not what we will remember it for, although that was most certainly a part of it. With Barba´s poorly insulated hull and a limited supply of diesel for heating, the boat had been riddled with moisture. There was mold in some of the cabinets and all our belongings were constantly moist. As interesting as it was we are relived to be back on the Norwegian coastline. Up North it was a fragile paradise. We were constantly on the alert for drift ice, polar bears, fog and changing weather. Following a couple of days in port now however, with shore-power and showers, all that has been chased away.

Although the joy is not always in the journey, what we will remember is the fairyland up North – scattered with ice and inhabited by polar bears, walruses, whales, reindeers and endless numbers of birds. Despite our having battled the ice, polar bears, mist and wind in Svalbard, the archipelago hardly revealed all her secrets. We never got to see the blue whales, dive with walruses or see a polar bear hunt seals on the pack ice. That´s just fine though, as it gives us an excuse to sail back one day.

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Terry and Andreas on a Barba friday, with Northern lights in the sky.By Daniel Hug

We are now sailing back south along the Norwegian coast, no longer held hostage by the sea, accurate weather forecasts and safe ports with. The midnight- sun has been replaced by dark nights, and northern lights.

Andreas

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Ivan and Andreas out for a hike in the mist at the west coast of Svalbard. By Daniel Hug

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Ivan, the proud dinghy captain. In Samarinvaagen, Hornsund. By Daniel Hug

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Barba hanging out with a tug boat in the Russian settlement Barentsburg, while the crew was enjoying a sauna onshore. By Daniel Hug

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Chilling out at the beach in Bjørnehavna in Northwest Svalbard. By Daniel Hug

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Ivan tempting faith, barely escaping dry from an iceberg climb. By Daniel Hug

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The Oxford cabin in Brennevinsfjorden.By Daniel Hug.  

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The century-old Oxford cabin seen from inside. One of may isolated huts we got to visit on the archipelago. By Daniel Hug

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Terry diving at 81 degrees North. By Andreas B. Heide

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Bread lottery! By Daniel Hug

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Jon, Andreas and Terry filling up the fridge with glacier ice. By Daniel Hug

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Our relentless and excellent photographer Daniel Hug in action. By Daniel Hug

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A minke whale feasting in the Hinlopen strait. By Daniel Hug

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A curious and tasty looking reindeer in Brennevinsfjorden. By Daniel Hug

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A sleeping seal a couple of meters from Barba. By Daniel Hug

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Admiring the view of yet another polar bear. By Daniel Hug

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Terry snorkeling next to a bird cliff in the Hinlopen strait. By Daniel Hug

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Andreas paragliding with a polar Bear. By Daniel Hug

Barba at the Østfonna glacier

Barba posing in front of the Austfonna glacier. By Daniel Hug

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Hikinging in the midnight sun, with Barba resting at anchor in the bay below. By Daniel Hug

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Paragliding in Hornsund. By Daniel Hug

12 Responses

  1. Terry et al,
    Thank you for sharing. Your photos and commentary allowed me to share your adventure. You will have memories that will last a lifetime. You sailed in my Viking ancestor’s wake. I hope this will not be your last adventure to share. As a friend of your father I will only add “stay safe’.
    Roger Tadsen, Minnesota, USA

    • Hi Roger! Thank you for following our trip. I have fond memories of our lake vacation in MN as a kid and your boys` excellent waterskiing there. Your ancestors´ wake on this side of the Atlantic was certainly magical! I also hope it won´t be our last trip together in the northern waters. Thanks again for your support!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful adventure! It is good to know you are all safe and ready for a new chapter!

    • Hi Mary, still a long way back to Stavanger, and numerous more chapters to follow 🙂 Best regards Andreas

  3. These photos are spectacular! I’m not ready for your trip to be over, it’s been so fun to follow. I’ve only ever been to Svalbard for a week with Hurtigruten, but it was one of the best trips of my life!

    • Fortunately our trip is not over yet, and also Barba and the ocean will still be there after our final port call in Stavanger October 10th 🙂 Stay tuned!

    • Hi Anni! Glad to hear you have been following our journey, and yes, more video footage to follow 🙂

  4. I envy you your many first-hand memories and cherish my own vicarious enjoyment of your adventures. So glad you all achieved your ambitious goals…and that you all returned safely to Norway’s beautiful mainland. An experience to be remembered fondly well into your still-distant “rocking chair days.”

    • Dear Bud, thank you for your congratulations! We have plans for even greater adventures before the “rocking chair days” catches up with us. Thank you so much for supporting our journey. Best regards from the Barba crew!

  5. I too shall miss the enthralling reports of a world I’ve only experienced through your eyes! Well done to you all. I shall eagerly await the next instalment of life aboard Barba and your next adventure. In the meantime enjoy dry land, a cold beer or a nice cup of tea! Much may change in the future, we need your pictures and stories to show us what we, our children and grandchildren will miss unless we can cause our politicians, industrialists and society in general to live more for the future than the next 24hour news cycle!

    Best wishes to you all
    Tony

    • Tony, we shall miss writing the reports! Fortunately still some weeks at sea left, and also it´s not the last time we sail North! We hope our story will make a contribution to the preservation of the great wilderness. Andreas

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