The idea to sail around Svalbard had been brewing for years. Every now and then it surfaced from the unconscious, only to quickly disappear back to the mysterious realms of the mind. Gradually it developed into a dream, and, finally, matured into a decision.
It was the call of adventure, a desire to experience something rare, endangered, vanishing and demanding, something I could tell my grandchildren about, that forced me to embark on this trip. Another driver was the growing concern for the irreversible changes that climate change is causing to the arctic nature. Besides adventure, that was my motivation for the trip. I wanted to meet the polar bears before I would have to say goodbye to them.
Ready to go
It was Midsummer night in 2013, when we were finally ready to cast off from Helsinki. According to Polar View’s sea ice charts, there was still fast ice all the way from the North Pole to Svalbard. The success of our circumnavigation depended on how the ice situation would develop. Historically it has seldom been possible.
The boat was the same 24-year old Bavaria 300 that had already logged more than 30.000 miles on the Atlantic, the North Sea and all over the Baltic Sea. One could say that running in had been sufficient. I had complete trust in the boat. Of course, the prudent thing to do would have been to make a trip like this on a steel boat. But since I didn’t have one, fiberglass and extra care would have to do. There would be no business getting caught in the pack ice. The departure had been preceded by four months of thorough preparations, and “Ruffe” was up to the challenge.
New sails from WB-Sails, new mattresses from Unikulma (what a difference both made compared to their old and road-worn predecessors!), a new heater (a reliable Ebersprächer) and a huge pile of new electronics (even though the quarter-century-old stuff still more or less worked) had been carried on board and installed during the winter and spring months. The engine had been updated earlier. Everything on the boat had been checked, and small but vital fixes had been done to e.g. the rudder and rigging. As anyone who has ever done any boatwork can guess, things weren’t ready until the last minute.
Esa and Mika, a familiar crew
For the first leg from Helsinki to Tromsø I was joined by Mika, who had sailed with me on my first Atlantic crossing. Esa, who also was a familiar site on board from previous trips, sailed with us to Visby. From there he returned to work and would join the crew again in Tromsø.
The more demanding the trip, the more important the crew becomes. The truth is that you can’t afford to screw up with crew choice. I had sailed a lot with both of these guys, covering long distances. In a small boat you get to know each other, so I knew I could trust them. And, I was glad that they agreed to come. Apparently, the trust was mutual. The boat and the crew were one hundred per cent sorted, now all we needed was a little luck.
Test driving the autopilot
We sailed from Helsinki to Visby in nice weather with the autopilot keeping us busy. The new guy, “Raymond”, wouldn’t stay on course no matter what we tried. Finally, we thought of moving the compass unit to another location. As soon as we did that, “Raymond” got his act together. With hindsight it must be said that the manual did say that the compass should be placed away from other equipment.
We arrived in Visby at dawn and spent the only really warm day of the entire trip there. After that, our shorts didn’t come out until back home.
We drove Esa to the airport with the guest harbour’s car, worked a little on the boat, bought some groceries, went for dinner, and headed for the fuel dock only to find out that it was closed. To get fuel we had to call the number on the door and pay a hefty extra charge to get the attendant to come over.
Settling into our routines
Finally, we were able to set sail and start our watches. From here on, we would continue with just the two of us. We decided on a system of three-hour watches, which seemed to work well for us, and we held on to it for the rest of the trip. Three hours is long enough for the off-watch to get some sleep, but short enough for the lonely watch keeper to be able to pass the time and stay awake during the long hours of the night.
We glided along nicely in pleasant conditions. Life on board settled into the three-hour rhythm. Most of the time one of us slept while the other sailed. The autopilot made life easier, especially when we had to motor in calm weather.
For some reason I have always enjoyed being at sea, and never feel lonely or bored. On land, I’m social, talk a lot and find it easy to get to know people, but on a boat, I have no problem being alone. A boat at sea takes you to a completely different world, and I enjoy being there. Sometimes it’s funny to think that I remain the same but the world around me changes into a different one.
One thing that we have always held on to is a proper meal, regardless of weather or sea state. This trip was no exception. As often happens, meals become the high-point of the day in an otherwise monotonic daily routine. We took turns in preparing the meals, and now, at a more mature age, a glass or two of red wine always accompanied our culinary exploits. And, since it was the chef’s privilege to enjoy an extra glass of wine while preparing the meal, galley duty never felt like a burden.
A detour to Bornholm
The plan was to cover long distances instead of collecting harbours or hanging around in them. This way we would have more time in places that were new to us, like the long coast of Norway and Svalbard.
From Visby we aimed to sail straight to Copenhagen, but close to Bornholm we found ourselves pushing against a gale straight from the nose. Sailing was hard work and really slow against the big waves. When the rudder started making a funny noise as we were dodging ships in the middle of a busy channel, we decided to turn around and run with the wind to Bornholm for a good night’s sleep and to check the rudder that was worrying us. The forecast for the next day was much better, so in practice we wouldn’t even lose very many hours. No reason to push on and risk losing the rudder.
The forecast was right, and we set sail from Rønne in Bornholm the next afternoon in nice and sunny conditions towards the sunset and the city of Copenhagen behind it. We didn’t find anything wrong with the rudder, so we figured that the noise was just the new bearings that hadn’t yet settled in.
In the morning light we got sight of the Øresund bridge and other Copenhagen landmarks. We sailed to the Svanemølle harbour, situated next to the Tuborg brewery, under an uninterrupted flow of landing airplanes and surrounded by busy shipping traffic.
We made our way to the harbour and headed for a floating unmanned fuel dock to top up our diesel tank, which we almost managed to do before the machine gobbled up the rest of our money and refused to continue any cooperation with us. Again, we had to lick our wounds. We tried to call the phone number we found on the dock, but to no avail.
So, our visit to Copenhagen didn’t start well. We managed to find a decent spot in the marina close to the harbour office, and decided it was time for a well-deserved shower – except that first we had to figure out that we needed to purchase a prepaid shower card from a vending machine outside the service building. When even the rainy weather seemed to be against us, we decided that our visit to Copenhagen would be over the next evening. We headed towards the Danish straits and Kattegat.
In the Danish straits
The plan was to sail through the straits and continue across the Kattegat and Skagerrak to the Norwegian coast, and make landfall somewhere around Stavanger or Bergen. The weather gods, however, decided to interfere with our plans once again. We made it through the narrow strait between Helsingborg and Helsingør, dodging ships in the dark, but once we came to the Kattegat, the wind started to pick up. It didn’t take long until we were again fighting our way against a 35-knot gale blowing straight from our nose.
The waves were steep, and the going was wet and uncomfortable. Our speed over ground was about two knots. Adding insult to injury was the smell of diesel inside the boat that certainly didn’t make us want to sleep or cook in those conditions. Apparently, there was a leak somewhere in the fuel system. Inside the boat, I even started to ask myself what am I doing here voluntarily. Over the years this has only happened a couple of times before.
We tried to take turns napping in the cockpit, but with little success. We were tired and hungry, and our cookie supplies wouldn’t last forever. It was decision time again.
We could either continue pushing against the wind, without knowing how long the gale would last. Or we could turn back, and get a fast run to Helsingør, where we would arrive in about five hours. We had just spent the entire night and half of the day covering that distance, staring at the Kullen lighthouse next to us for hours on end.
It didn’t take us long to make the decision: to Helsingør, and – if available – plenty of Italian food in the evening.
But first we had to thoroughly clean the smelly bilges and dry the boat that had been soaked by the waves working their way in through the air vents on deck. After we had cleaned up, we took a quick nap and headed to town to look for an Italian Restaurant. Helsingør turned out to be a nice little town, and we even found a very nice little Italian restaurant.
The cab driver’s recommendation
Our second attempt at Kattegat was successful. Apart from a few squalls, the weather was nice. A cab driver in Copenhagen had highly recommended that we visit Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark. We decided to check the place out before moving on to the country of the fjords.
Skagen, with its many restaurants and a crowded harbour, could be described as touristy. The harbour was packed, and we were assigned a place on a raft as the fourth boat from the dock. On our outside there was one more boat from Germany. We mentioned to them that we would be leaving in the morning around eight o’clock. No problem, said the cheerful Germans.
We didn’t take the departure time that literally and were just starting to prepare breakfast when I happened to look out the window. The Germans were standing on deck, holding their lines and ready to let us go at exactly the agreed time. We had no other choice than to postpone our breakfast until we were at sea. We slipped our lines and let our neighbours get back to their bunks.