As I write this we are anchored in a small harbour formed by an old moraine, on the west coast of Spitsbergen, about a mile from the snout of a glacier. It is very different than Greenland in that the glaciers are much less active (smaller ice cap) and so we can get a lot closer to them. There is a bit of ice sloshing about with the tide, but generally small pieces, so not too much of a worry.
There are two beluga whales feeding toward the glacier face and several seals, some with pups, basking in the sun on top of the growlers—magic. The amount of wild life and its fearlessness is the most dramatic difference from Greenland. Even the birds are pretty relaxed and come very close. A few days ago we were going ashore in the dinghy when an immature fulmar fell in love with our outboard: as long as it was running he stayed close, but as soon as I stopped it he swam away.
So far the Svalbard cruise has been great. A good sail, though cold, mainly broad reaching, from Norway, with a stop at Bjørnøya (Bear Island); messing about in the two southernmost fjord systems on Spitsbergen since. Lots of walking and photographing, and not a little socializing. There are a lot more yachts than we are used to in the high latitudes, and Friday we visited a trapper’s cabin after he called us on VHF. He’s an interesting guy who makes his living collecting eiderdown from nests. Friday night he and two of his friends came for dinner, arriving at 11:00 pm and leaving at 2:00 am. This kind of thing is typical since the sun just goes round the horizon with no change at all in intensity to indicate night so things just seem to happen with little reference to the clock. We learned from the trapper that the bear threat is very real here, and in fact they had to shoot one just a few days ago. Basically the rule is that you don’t go outside without a loaded gun, ever. So our shore expeditions look like the marines assaulting a Pacific beach. Ted first out of the dinghy with the rented Mauser, then me with the shotgun and slug loads, and finally Phyllis with a flare pistol and thunder flash loads. We feel a bit silly, but everyone assures us that we must be constantly vigilant.
Talking of Ted, he joined us in Norway for the Svalbard cruise and has been a good crew and great company. We originally met him in Greenland, where he was hiking solo, during our last cruise there.
Since our last voyage account, sent shortly after leaving our winter quarters at Tromsø, we cruised north and east along the Norway coast finally reaching, but not crossing, the Russian border in mid-June, before retracing our course as far as Honningsvåg, near North Cape, our departure point for Svalbard. An interesting geographical fact is that when we were at Vardø, Norway’s easternmost city, we were further east than Alexandria in Egypt!
Many people had warned us against the North Norway coast, particularly east of Nordkapp, saying that it was flat, barren, storm lashed and boring. However, as has so often happened in the past when people have warned us off a place, we enjoyed it very much. This coast has a rugged beauty, particularly seeing it in the spring and early summer as the snow melted and tiny wild flowers started peeking out from between the frost blasted rock. As so often happens in little-cruised places—only two or three yachts a year cruise the coast east of Nordkapp—the people were incredibly friendly and welcoming.
The influence of WWII is still strongly evident in the huge concrete fortifications built all along the coast by the occupying German forces and the relatively new feel of all the towns: During their retreat from the Russian advance in 1944 the occupiers burnt almost every structure to the ground. After the war the returning residents were faced with starting from scratch and the stories of that time—of living in hastily constructed barracks, of building a town from scratch, of surviving the brutal winters—are still ingrained in the culture.
Our plans for the future are to continue north up the west coast of Spitsbergen—the largest and west most island of the Svalbard group—and then if the ice and weather are good to us, try to get through Hinlopen Strait to complete a circumnavigation of Spitsbergen before returning to North Norway, hopefully in late August.
The Norwegian Cruising Guide is a mine of information on sailing in Norway and Svalbard.
For photographs of Norway, visit our Picture gallery.