Our Furthest North 2002

We last wrote from the west coast of Spitsbergen. From there we continued north visiting several anchorages, the most interesting being Virgohamna from where André left on his fatal attempt to reach the North Pole in a balloon. The dry Svalbard climate has preserved the remains of this expedition, and the slightly later Wellman attempt, so that it looks as if they left ten years ago, rather than a hundred.

After three days exploring Virgohamna and the close by Smeerenburg (Blubber town), which had been a Dutch whaling station in the 1600s, a fair west wind gave us the best sail of the cruise under main and poled out jib boiling along toward the east with the barren snow-streaked north coast of Spitsbergen to starboard and nothing but the ice pack and a low sand bank called Moffen Island between us and the North Pole to port.

Moffen is usually where most boats turn back toward the south, having reached 80°N latitude, but the goal of our cruise was to transit Hinlopen Strait between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet (Northeast Land). This Strait’s evil reputation for ice, unpredictable weather, and lack of anchorages means that few yachts venture there. However, in recent years much of the strait has been charted to modern standards, making things easier than they were when Bill Tillman made the first yacht transit in the 1970s.

That evening, running before a near gale, we reached Murchison Fjord on Nordaustlandet at the north entrance to Hinlopen where the bleak surroundings, seen through scudding fog and rain as we anchored, brought home our isolation.

We spent the next week exploring Hinlopen—including finding several uncharted anchorages—south to Barentsøya where we transited Heleysundet with its fearsome reputation for strong currents approaching 10 knots that have sucked sailing ships to their doom, crushed in the ice that crashes back and forth through the channel for most of the year.

Our transit of Heleysundet was benign since there was little ice around and, through pure luck (there are no tidal current tables), our arrival coincided with the few minutes of slack water at tide change.

By now it was still only early August so instead of returning to Norway from south Hinlopen as originally intended, we decided to retrace our steps through Hinlopen and see how far north and east along the coast of Nordaustlandet the ice would let us go. In the end it transpired that we reached our furthest north of this cruise, or probably any other for that matter, at 80°35′ North, just south of Parryøya, named after a British explorer who was there on one of the early attempts to reach the North Pole.

We had hoped to circumnavigate the Sjuøyane group, of which Parryøya is a part, as it is one of the northernmost pieces of land in the world—only a bit of northern Greenland, some of Ellesmere and a few Russian Islands are closer to the Pole—but we found the pack ice six miles south of Parry. Since the ice was fairly loose, we threaded through it twisting and turning to take a few photographs of Parryøya’s cliffs looming out of the fog and then beat a hasty retreat, since even open pack in a flat calm sea is no place to tarry.

We found the pack an eerie place to be, particularly in the light fog we had; quiet except for the cracking of the ice and the grinding when two floes moved together. But it was not a dead place; on the contrary, it teemed with life: Every few hundred yards there was a seal hauled out on the ice, but our most special encounter was with a huge bull walrus asleep on a floe. As we approached he sleepily lifted his head, scratched and posed for a photograph. In the 15 minutes we spent with him, sometimes as close as 30 feet, he would occasionally open one eye to see what we were doing, but aside from that seemed totally unconcerned. And why should he be? After the terrible slaughter of the last few hundred years walrus are now protected and have no predators, since they are powerful enough to see off a polar bear.

The time we spent in Hinlopen and at Nordaustlandet after leaving the ‘frequented’ areas of Spitsbergen was some of the best we have experienced in 10 years of coming to the north: We found and explored new anchorages that are not mentioned in the sailing directions; walked ashore in a landscape that at first appeared as barren as the moon, but, once we looked carefully, amazed us with its subtle beauty; held Morgan’s Cloud close under towering cliffs and watched as young guillemots left the teeming rookery where they were born. The young birds stand in crowded rows on every ledge, facing in toward the cliff as if afraid to look out over the drop. Every so often one commits itself to its stubby wings for the first time and half flies, half falls, with much fluttering and squawking, landing in the water with an undignified splash. However, once in the water they seem immediately at home and are soon swimming and diving with the same confidence as their parents.

In mid-August we returned to Longyearbyen to refuel and pick up a friend from Tromsø, before heading south across the Barents Sea to North Norway. The crossing was uneventful, although made uncomfortable by almost constant head winds. But the morning of the third day at sea dawned sunny with a fair wind that gave us a lovely reach as the mountains of Norway emerged over the horizon looking impossibly green after our summer in the arctic desert of Svalbard.

We have decided to winter once again at our ‘northern home’ of Tromsø. Plans for next summer are still tentative but, since we must be back in Bermuda in the fall of 2003 when the renters of our house leave, we are thinking of returning to North America via Shetland, Faeroe, North Iceland and Greenland. The first three will be new destinations for us, completing the symmetry of our four year cruise of the north.

The Norwegian Cruising Guide is a mine of information on sailing in Norway and Svalbard.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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