Now that we’re peacefully moored up in port back on the mainland in Hammerfest – the promised land of shore power, floating docks, fresh fruit and veg and the almighty internet! – I’m ready to write about the whole crossing. Now that the whole getting here part is part of the past….
The crossing wasn’t a whole lot of fun, but I don’t think any of us really expected it to be. And despite some uncomfortable sailing, there were definitely some highlights.
The rare sun-splashed and mellow anchorage, we lucked out at Kapp Lee. By Daniel Hug
Things went pretty smoothly when we first upped anchor from our last Svalbard port of call in southern Edgeøya. We made the decision to leave 12 hours earlier than previously planned because we saw that the winds were shifting over the next few days and wanted to minimize our time in the headwinds that were coming our way. We knew the ocean was going to throw some challenges our way at some point on the transit to Bjørnøya, the southernmost island in Svalbard, and leaving earlier would have us spending less time in the thick of things. I enjoyed a nice first watch on engine power, waiting for the wind to pick up and watching the ever-present Northern fulmars carve circles around us and the occasional puffin flutter awkwardly by. We’d seen and done so much, but Svalbard left plenty for us to return for someday, too. It’s good to leave a place feeling satisfied but also wanting more.
Terry working on the hand-steering in 25 knot winds on the crossing to Hammerfest. By Ivan Kutasov.
When I woke up for my second watch, Ivan had reefed the sails and we were sailing along at a good clip, about 7 to 8 knots. Things still felt pretty fine. And we were making great progress! But eight hours later, by my third watch, the winds had shifted and Barba was acting like a real Viking seahorse in strong side winds that had us sailing about 30 degrees into the waves on a close tack. It was like being on a bucking bronco as she hurled herself forward just to bang down into the waves thrashing against us.
Hard times at sea in the sideways Barba salon. By Daniel Hug
Lying below deck in my cabin is my preferred position when there’s too much motion in the ocean. I found myself zooming out on the boat in my mind, drone-like, seeing how tiny we are in that big ocean with waves every which way. Even in the cabin I was getting pretty tossed around. You have to keep your core engaged constantly to fight from slamming into the side of the boat or the wooden separator board between you and your roomie. And poor Andreas, on the crossings he sleeps in the salon trying not to fall off the couch since his v-berth in the bow is way too bumpy. Imagine a giant lifting you onto his lap and bouncing you on his knee a few times then suddenly deciding to throw you on the floor. Over and over again. That was pretty much the ride we got for a good 20 hours on the way to Bjørnøya.
At one particularly low point during my second-to-last two-hour watch (the longest two hours of my life, I might add), I devised a new coping mechanism. I mentally zoomed even farther out from Barba in my head so I didn’t see her anymore and I really wasn’t there, transported instead to all the comfort zones of my land life. A particular couch at my sister’s place in Florida. My cozy cave-like bedroom in France. Luxury hotels I’ve stayed at with sheets so fine I could almost feel them. A hot tub. Anywhere. I was trying to teleport because between the cold (it was actually snowing, however lightly, at some point) and the rolling waves, I was pretty miserable. And the rest of the crew were in a similar boat.
Jon, the captain’s first mate and right arm – always reliable and a crucial contributor to the Barba progress – was worst off. He’s been sick for a few weeks now, and the cold conditions don’t help. He and I just exchanged a look of mutual pity when we crossed paths in the salon at some point. He said something about how it should be better from Bjørnøya to the mainland before I had to rush to Barba’s multi-purpose kitchen sink and dry heave my brains out (there was nothing left but I didn’t have time to run up on deck). Norwegians call throwing up “calling the moose,” because the word elg for moose, has a particular ring to it. There were a lot of moose being called all across Barba during this crossing.
Andreas enjoying a nice moment on deck to reef the main during the not-so-fun crossing to Bjørnøya.By Daniel Hug
Dani was managing to film Andreas on the deck as he prepared to reef the mainsail more as he took over Jon’s watch. Jon was ordered to stay below, against his wishes, as Andreas deemed him too sick to be up on deck. Ivan was just mumbling “Terrible.” Spirits were not high but we all hung in there.
In the morning we finally caught sight of land as the bird cliffs of Bjørnøya’s northern coast appeared on the horizon. Ivan was keen to continue straight on to Hammerfest just to get the crossing over with, but the rest of us preferred to anchor up at a beach near the meteorological station to catch our breath before moving on. When the anchor was finally down we were still rising and falling with the swell, but at least we weren’t thrashing about anymore. We cooked up bacon and eggs to make up for all the calories we’d sacrificed to Neptune and made a plan to head ashore and meet the people at the weather station.
Andreas got on the VHF to ask the person manning the onshore station if we should be concerned about polar bears. Bjørnøya means Bear Island, and was given its name by Willem Barentz, the Dutchman who discovered the island in 1586 when the first thing he saw was a bear swimming in the waters (it was soonafter killed by his crew, the first of many polar bears that would be hunted on Bear Island). Bears are seen here occasionally still during the winter months, when and if the pack ice makes its way to the island. But they are increasingly rare here, and even more so in summer. We were told no tracks or bears had been spotted yet this summer, but that we should come ashore armed just to be on the safe side.
The sandy beach where we first set foot on Bjørnøya felt like bliss after the rough 36-hour crossing. By Daniel Hug
We dinghied ashore, leaving Jon behind on Barba to catch up on some sick-sleep and relax with a prolonged anchor watch (he volunteered and that’s when I knew his condition was really not improving because Jon is always the first wanting to go on land).
It was bliss to set foot on Bjørnøya, which seemed quite lush compared to Svalbard and was covered with cute little rock-hugging succulent plants (Rhodiola rosea) that were already turning red for autumn (yes, summer disappeared in these parts very quickly). We beelined it over the rocks, around a few headlands and across a river to reach the meteorological station.
The meteorological station at Bjørnøya is home to 9 rotating Norwegians who spend six months at a time here sending up weather balloons and enjoying the wild nature on their off days. By Daniel Hug
Andreas and Jon had sailed to the remote Norwegian outpost of Jan Mayen a few years ago and received a hero’s welcome there complete with beers, the offer of showers and an impromptu party, so happy were the people living on the island’s small military base just to see some fresh faces. I know the captain at least was hoping we’d have a similar welcome on Bjørnøya. The last people we’d seen were the French crew of the expedition cruise ship several weeks back, so we were ready for some new conversations.
Our first time in a proper building for over a month! Sitting down for something warm to drink in the cozy living room at the meteorological station on Bjørnøya. By Daniel Hug
And while we were welcomed warmly enough at Bjørnøya it was clear that the nine people stationed here had met their share of boat people over the summer and the evening wasn’t going to turn into more than a quiet coffee before bed. You could say that we were more excited to see them than vice versa, but it was nice to sit in their cozy living room looking out at the ocean, enjoying a coffee and raiding the candy bowl. It felt so good to be in the comfort of a heated building with chairs you could sink into and a fireplace. They also gave us a tour of their facilities, which are quite nice and include a gym and rock climbing wall and an outdoor sauna next to a small pond. It looked to me like you can live pretty well here during the six-month stints required. Some people worked three days on and three off, and there were several huts to escape to and lakes full of Arctic char all over the island that only the weather station residents can make use of. A sad fact for such a pristine and remote place, however, is that one of the lakes, Lake Ellasjøen, is so polluted with PCB’s from bird droppings that the fish in it are poisoned.
Back on the boat we had a look at the weather charts provided by the folks at the station and determined we’d have to spend one more night on Bjørnøya before continuing south to the mainland. The winds were too strong from the south and it would have been miserable, but two days later they would be coming from the north to help us get south.
Airplane wreckage from WWII on Bjørnøya. Elsewhere on the island at other wreck sites, even crash-landing tracks are preserved due to the sensitive Arctic environment. By Daniel Hug
The next day some of us hiked to see ruins of German planes that crashed here during WWII while others got their naked bathing diploma – an actual thing where two of the meteorologist center staff have to witness and sign off on the fact that you fully submerged in the ocean completely naked. I smelled that a mile away as the voyeuristic scam it was and declined, opting to warm some seawater on the boat’s gas burners and have a bucket shower on Barba instead.
We were at the tail end of our trip and fresh water wasn’t the only thing we risked running low of on Barba. Jon and Andreas had been clocking the engine hours for an idea of how much diesel we’d used while motoring, but there was some uncertainty as to how much we’d used for the diesel Webasto heating. We had nevertheless planned on having to sail most of the great distance back from Svalbard to the mainland. Sailing most of the way to Bjørnøya had already upped our confidence that we’d be fine with diesel, but we knew we’d have to sail as much as possible on the next leg, too, some 260 nautical miles to Hammerfest. Luckily the winds looked like they’d cooperate soon enough. So we stayed for two days at anchor on Bjørnøya, waiting for the southern gale to pass.
Food – or at least good food – was also running quite low onboard at this point. Despite the Arctic char bonanza and cod still flapping in the breeze to dry on Barba’s rails, we hadn’t caught quite as much fish as Jon and I had planned for with the provisioning. It had been weeks since we finished the last of the apples, we’d gone well over a month without carrots or tomatoes, and some sad lettuce that weathered the first few weeks had also been eaten up. The only remaining meat (except for bacon, thank goodness) was the canned variety, called Bog Skinke, which is as unappetizing as its name would imply. The last chocolate bars, rice and cheese block were also down to stubs and nubs. Still, there was plenty still to eat onboard of course, mostly in the way of dried beans, pretzel sticks, tuna and the like. I’ll know how to provision better for next time, learning by trying is always Barba’s method.
We were ready to set sail to Hammerfest, one of the world’s northernmost towns that had really started to feel like the land of milk and honey (both of which had also run out many weeks earlier). On our last evening at anchor in Bjørnøya, we listened to the weather forecast over the VHF from the weather station. We had left Svalbard just in time. A storm with snow and gale force winds was presently hitting the east side of the archipelago and would arrive in Bjørnøya in about 18 hours. We pulled up the anchor six hours later, ready to leave the quickly approaching winter weather in our wake. And not a minute too soon, it seemed.
Hammerfest appeared tantalizingly close on the digital maps. But we calculated it would take about 42 to 44 hours to get there. It ended up taking 49 hours. We had following winds, but the waves were quite sizable (up to four meters). And wind almost directly off the stern kept Barba’s backside jostling to and fro as the waves swelled behind us in a way I found a bit menacing. Of course they all passed under the stern without breaking, but they liked to flex their muscles with the occasional crumbling peak just to keep us on guard. The crossing wasn’t nearly as miserable as the one to Bjørnøya but it felt long, for sure. I was wearing one of those Scopderm ear patches this time and didn’t feel seasick at all but had this weird blasé attitude I blame on the meds. They also make you very thirsty and leave a weird taste in your throat, but it’s well worth it not to be seasick.
Big following seas and blasting winds moved Barba along on the way to Hammerfest.
At one point, the apparent wind speed was pushing 30 knots and it looked like we were going to have to hand-steer for a long time since the autopilot couldn’t keep the right angle to the waves. That would have been a fun challenge in the waves for about five minutes and then not so much in the cold and drizzle of the darkening night. Andreas decided to took the main sail down entirely from its triple reef. Together with a reefed headsail, that added some stability to the stern and made the sailing more comfortable. He also improvised a little rope drogue to drag off the stern that also seemed to stabilize us a bit. We even sat there and enjoyed some rather relaxed sailing for a while with only the occasional body-slamming lurch to hurl you against some surface you didn’t plan to hit.
Andreas dipped below deck at one point and I was just about to come down, too, when I spotted something that took my breath away about 10 meters off portside. It looked like an enormous rusting pipe floating on the surface that we had only narrowly dodged. But then air rushed from the top of it and a fin appeared and I realized I was looking at an absolutely enormous whale right next to us in the waves. I called to Andreas and he popped up in time to see it surface off the stern before we lost it in the waves. He thought it was a sperm whale but I have no clue. All I know is its skin was a rusty brown color, like a walrus, and it was absolutely gargantuan. It was there one second and gone the next. What a thrill.
By Wednesday morning we were approaching Hammerfest, the green mountainsides of Norway cradling us inshore as we motored into the fjord. It was a very fine feeling. Land! Civilization! Tomatoes! Trees! We had missed them all. We headed straight to the supermarket and splurged on all kinds of breakfast treats to enjoy on Barba where she was happily moored up on floating bridge that barely bobbed up and down at all.
Barba happily moored up in Hammerfest, one of the northernmost towns in the world but a great deal south from where we´ve been. By Andreas B. Heide
We had made it back down to 70 degrees North from just above 81. We’d come a long, long way, and there we were, still perched on one of the northernmost edges of the planet. Hammerfest, pop. 10,000, feels like the center of the world now, I can attest, with every service you could desire.
We immediately busted out the dehumidifier to start getting some of the moisture out of the boat – every surface seemed to be covered with condensation the last few weeks. Then we went about getting online, finding out where to do laundry and trying to locate a sauna where we can heat blast away over two months’ worth of boat living. It had been five weeks since we’d been on the internet or touched money to pay for anything. And walking off the boat straight onto land – with no dinghy required and no rifle at the ready – was a high all its own.
Somebody told me that it takes a while after a trip like this to process it all. And I do believe it. Right now we’re all firmly in back-to-civilization mode, maximizing the creature comforts and cleaning up ourselves and the boat. More thoughts and photos from the grand Svalbard adventure will be posting soon once we have a little r&r in town and let it all sink in. And then, of course, we’ll be heading back out. The entire Norwegian coast south still waits!
Barba and her new gennaker sail in front of the Austfonna glacier, gushing with waterfalls and one of the three largest ice caps in the world. Located on the south side of Nordaustlandet. By Daniel Hug
Andreas and Terry reading a newspaper from 1965 that we found inside a trapper´s hut on the southern side of Edgeøya. By Daniel Hug
Blast from the past. 1965 news. “The USA wants to have Filipino soldiers in South Vietnam.” By Daniel Hug
Terry sizing up the very large spot where a polar recently had a snooze at Andreetangen on Edgeøya. Claw marks still visible. By Daniel Hug
Polar bear tracks on Edgeøya. By Daniel Hug
Siberian huskies on polar bear watch on Bjørnøya, where they are still occasionally seen, particularly in the winter months. By Daniel Hug
Norther fulmars, the fighter pilots of birds, are a crew favorite and omnipresent. By Daniel Hug
Andreas hanging out in the radio station at the meteorological center on Bjørnøya. By Daniel Hug