It´s nighttime in Svalbard. Since just a few days, the midnight sun is no longer with us so there´s a sort of twilight now. The outside temperature reads 2,7 degrees C, visibility is down to 50 meters in the fog and the water is littered with ice. Barba is threading her way South with Jon at the helm. He´s steering around the biggest pieces of ice and plowing through the smaller ones. Down below, the rest of the crew is listening to the ice scraping against the hull and enjoying an evening meal of cooked beans with canned meat prepared by our master chef (with quickly diminishing supplies), Terry.
To most people, sailing to the world´s end and back for a total of four months sounds like one of the most pleasant ways to spend a prolonged summer. The Barba crew can demystify all illusions of our adventure being a comfortable cruise, however. It´s mostly hard work. And for the time being we are mostly wet, mostly cold and now, at the end of the Svalbard leg, more and more limited with our food rations.
Sailing up to 81 degrees North and venturing into the pack ice was the pinnacle of our journey. Starting in Southern Norway, we had worked our way up to the ice cover that continues north to the Pole itself. With a boat designed to sail in the Mediterranean, some might say that it´s a bit more risky then necessary. And when we were stuck in the ice for a while, pushing away the ice floes as Barba´s hull was moaning and groaning, I might have been inclined to agree. Although somewhat of risk to the boat, the conditions never put the crew itself in danger, however. In the worst case we would have spent a few hours on the ice, waiting for rescue. It would have been a defeat and major setback, but not much more.
Nevertheless, the boat and crew have been groomed for these conditions we knew we would be facing once we left mainland Norway. Part of the challenge of sailing here is that a large proportion of the waters are uncharted. This means that you don´t know how deep the water is. And running aground with a sailboat at full speed can have catastrophic consequences.
Prior to the journey, Barba was upgraded with the latest and greatest electronics designed to extend our range of operation. This includes radar, which has been most useful since we have been navigating in the fog. We have also had the chance to test the new forward-looking sonar. As opposed to traditional depth finders that tell you the depth under the boat, the sonar gives us the depth out to 60 meters in front of the boat. This has let us navigate through uncharted waters at far greater speeds and with greater confidence than an ordinary depth finder would have allowed. Utimately, it´s given us access to waters we normally would have had to sail right past.
Despite all of the electronics facilitating our sailing, our greatest opponent here is the drifting ice. The large pieces – from the size of a car up to the size of a football field – are of no particular threat. They can easily be seen from afar. The dangerous ones are the chunks of ice of about a cubic meter or so, which are barely visible in the water. With floating ice only about one-tenth of the full mass is visible above the surface. So with this treacherous ice always in mind on our two-hour watch rotations, we continuously sit outside scanning the water for potential showstoppers.
Since we left Ny-Ålesund, we have thrown out the anchor every time we have found our way to a natural harbor. Choosing the correct anchor location is somewhat of an art form. And, unfortunately, it´s one that we have not yet fully mastered. The concept itself is simple. Find a sheltered bay given the prevailing winds, use the laser range finder to gauge the distance to shore and, finally, drop anchor at a depth of 15 meters or less. Next, let out an anchor chain and rope length equivalent to 3 to 5 times the depth of the water and hope for the best. When we have limited faith in our anchorage we sacrifice a full night´s sleep with anchor watch. One person stays up listening to the howling winds and looking at the chart plotter and land to see if the boat manages to stay put. Quite often, it does not. And while we have always anchored in such a way that if the anchor looses grip, the boat drifts into a safe direction, it´s all hands on deck once it´s clear the anchor is no longer holding. Barba´s anchor is a manual one. And on one occasion it was simply not possible for any of us to lift the anchor as the boat was drifting in a gale and the full length of the rope was drifting, too, in 40 meters of water. With the anchor trailing behind it in the water column. In the end, we had to winch the anchor up using two halyards from the mast.
The newly developed procedure involves one person standing in the bow to attach the halyards to the anchor chain. Behind the cover of the spray hood you place two brave and sleepy Barba crewmembers, still in their wool underwear, to winch up the anchor. This allows for hoisting about 15 meters at a time before the chain is secured and a new cycle of winching follows. Finally, one person is in charge of steering Barba up against the wind to ease the process. The procedure involves a fair amount of swearing and shouting, followed by a cheerful crew once the anchor is back on deck. A rude but necessary awakening, you could say.
Upon our arrival at Svalbard, it was predicted that sailing around the archipelago – either through the Hinlopen Sound or around the northeastern island of Nordaustlandet – would not be possible this year due to ice conditions. In the end, we chose to try for the Hinlopen Sound, as it was recommended as the most interesting option. The major hurdle was the Heleysundet, which separates Spitzbergen and Barentsøya. The current through this channel runs at 11 knots, twice our boatspeed. We spent a few exciting hours at the entrance, watching icebergs the size of houses crash through as we waited for the current to turn in our favor. As it started to shift, Barba slipped through what is known to be the most dangerous passage in Svalbard without any major concerns.
As for information from the outside world, we are limited to our satellite phone, which allows us to send e-mails, upload low-resolution photos and, most importantly, download weather forecasts and ice-charts (showing where the constantly moving ice is present). The only information we get from the weather forecast is wind direction and speed, which is the most critical . As for whether the day will bring clouds, rain, fog or sunshine, we are mostly left with guessing and hoping.
With all the different aspects of this expedition – ranging from navigating, sailing, maneuvering through the ice and trying to predict how the weather will influence our next steps – it´s been a bit like a game of chess. We have to understand our opponents, and plan our next decisions accordingly. It´s an interesting game where we are gaining new knowledge and experience with every day that passes. And the challenges that come with it are part of the very reason we are here. We have all picked up a tremendous amount of knowledge about operating in these waters.
While none of us are complaining about our situation, we appreciate even more the little luxuries in life such as fresh baked bread with butter prepared by our master baker, Daniel. Or a bacon and eggs breakfast whipped up by Jon. We are most grateful to be in this remote part of the world, playing with the forces of nature. The rewards are impressive.
The past month has been like living in a live nature television program, with us in the director´s seat. We have seen chalk-white Beluga whales cruising along the edge of the 30-meter-high Austfonna glacier and a seal sleeping in the water with bubbles coming out of its nose as it rested, completely oblivious to our presence. The latest highlight was spotting a polar bear while paragliding next to a bird cliff. The great wanderer was sleeping, probably dreaming about an unfortunate chick about to fall from its nest and join him for lunch. I whistled at him just as I would to get the attention of my dog, Barba, back in the day. I could see him rise to his feet before he got out of sight as Daniel and I flew the last kilometer to the landing spot on the beach where we´d anchored.
Our Arctic adventure is coming to an end now. We feel content with our stay at the Svalbard Archipelago. For the next two to three days we will sail to the southern tip of Edgeøya and then point Barba toward Bear Island around August 28th , where we plan to spend a couple of days if the weather allows. The island has no ports, so we will back to practicing our anchoring skills. We expect to be back on mainland Norway around September 3rd.
Featured photo: Jon at the helm, carefully navigating through the ice. The red dots on the radar screen show the sea ice lurking in the fog. By Daniel Hug.