northern sailor extols the virtues of Europe’s most
spectacular cruising coast as he recounts the drama of a
summer voyage to Arctic Norway
The western coast of Norway is arguably the most intricate and alluring coastline in the northern hemisphere. More than a thousand miles from end to end, it is fringed with ten thousand islands and crisscrossed with countless thousands of miles of deep, mountainous fiords and winding inner passages. What’s more, nearly a third of this magnificent terrain lies above the Arctic circle, in a part of the world where the sun rises in May or early June and does not set again until July or (in the most northerly reaches) even early August.
Arctic Norway is a secret that European sailors have known about for decades. Increasingly in recent years, however, it is also a region that sailors from our side of the pond have started to discover for themselves. Unlike the Canadian Arctic or Greenland or northern Iceland, this is a place where a sailor may venture into the high latitudes in protected waters, wander among spectacular coastal scenery, and forget about the dangers of sea ice or icebergs—or about the frigid temperatures that so often accompany them. In fact, if you’re lucky, as my wife Kay and I were aboard our 50-foot FD-12 cutter Brendan’s Isle two summers ago, you may even encounter a spell of warm continental weather hundreds of miles north of the Arctic circle—weather that will have you and your crew stowing your woolen sweaters and longjohns for a time and stripping down to summer shorts and T-shirts.
For European sailors with a taste for adventure, a voyage to Arctic Norway can be accomplished in a single summer, as the northbound run from the eastern Baltic or southern England or the European mainland generally requires a cruising passage of only a few weeks. For boats from the American side of the Atlantic, however, the same journey almost always requires a longer time frame—often several years—as the sailing season in northern latitudes is short and the distances from home are far greater.
For Brendan’s Isle, the journey began a full year ahead of time, with a high latitude crossing of the North Atlantic in the summer of 2000, followed by a winter on the hard in southern Denmark. In this way, both the boat and I were poised the following spring for a dash northward through the Kattegat, around the southwestern capes of Norway, and up that country’s long western coast toward a rendezvous with the midnight sun. Here, if all went according to plan, I would meet Kay in the far northern city of Tromso, some two hundred fifty miles north of the Arctic circle. We would pause there for a few days of reprovisioning and a crew change before pointing Brendan’s bows south again for a more leisurely meander among the bays and thorofares of Vesteralen and the fabled Lofoten islands.
The passage north was wet and fast. The month of May is not yet summertime in western Norway, and in spite of the lengthening twilights each evening and the progressively earlier sunrises, the prevailing southerlies were often damp and chilly, with frequent rain squalls, sometimes mixing with hail or even a few brief flakes of snow. I and my northbound crew, a group of experienced sailing friends whom I came to think of as the "A team," spent most of our time on deck dressed in orange Mustang worksuits. Whenever we could, we also kept a fire burning in the diesel stove in Brendan’s main saloon.
An excerpt from the ship’s log one morning in late May captures something of the spirit of this northbound passage:
As we entered the Trondheimslaeia, Kell and Ben set the yankee on a pole to windward and Brendan took off on a wild ride. The land on either side appeared in grays and misty greens, presenting itself in vague silhouettes as the sailboat raced past. The rudder whined, and the water at the taffrail hissed like a waterfall. Dark rain showers stalked the sailboat from astern, each one accompanied by a squall of wind that cranked up to force seven or more. Between the squalls, the wind remained a steady six, and for the next several hours the GPS stayed pegged at better than nine knots over the bottom.
A week later, near a little island called Vikingen, Brendan sailed across the Arctic circle, heading for her rendezvous in Tromso. Here the landscape changed again, as it had so often during the journey northward. Only a few days earlier the mountainous terrain had had a lumpy, bulbous appearance. The valleys had been smoothed and the mountaintops blunted by countless tons of moving glacial ice during the last ice age, tens of thousands of years ago. But here, for reasons that are not fully understood, the ancient glacier had halted its forward movement and the mountains had been spared their ice age polishing. Here the ancient peaks remained steep and jagged, with black, snow-covered flanks and Wagnerian pinnacles (as my shipmate Kell so aptly described them) that jutted into the clouds like an illustrator’s fantasy.
To starboard, as Brendan proceeded north, appeared the mouth of a broad, mountainous estuary called the Holandsfiord, and looming above it, in apparent contradiction to the sawtooth terrain, lay the hulking form of the Svartisien glacier. The ice lay silent and shimmering for fifty miles along the eastern skyline, like a huge white blanket of cloud. I made a mental note to visit this fiord with Kay on our return passage in a few more weeks, to sail the twenty-five miles inland to little settlement of Engen at its head, and to hike up to the tongue of ice and glacial rubble in the valley above.
Meanwhile, however, Brendan and the "A team" were moving fast, with little time for sight-seeing. After a brief stop in the city of Bodo ("Gateway to the Arctic"), we continued pressing north. The weather remained damp and cool, but now we’d caught up with the summer light in earnest, and there was no more darkness to slow us down. Somewhere in the Lofoten district we crossed an invisible boundary where the sun simply ceased to set. Round and round it circled, rising to its apogee in the southern sky during the middle hours of the day, dipping toward its perigee at the northern horizon as midnight approached. One evening in the second week of June, only a few days prior to our arrival in Tromso, we anchored in a little bay, open to the north, near the island of Sandoya. Here we broke out a box of cigars and a bottle of akavit to celebrate, Norwegian style, the persistence of our planet’s star as it circled the northern sky. I watched, transfixed, as midnight came and passed and the blood-red orb never touched the rim of the sea. Brendan, I realized, was in the land of continual daylight now, and the sun would not set on her again for nearly five weeks.
Tromso represented an ending of sorts, and for that reason our arrival was bittersweet. But Tromso also represented a beginning, for it was here, in the third week of June, where Kay was able to join the boat at last, and here, too, where we were finally able to slow down and begin to savor this magnificent land.
One of the most remarkable dimensions of this place—especially for a sailor from eastern North America—is the miracle of its climate. I had sailed Brendan’s Isle in the high latitudes many times before—along the coasts of Greenland, Baffinland, and northern Labrador. In each of these places my shipmates and I had been forced to battle frigid temperatures, dodge icebergs, and detour around massive floes of sea ice, even in high summer. Here in northern Norway, however, there were no barriers of sea ice, no frigid temperatures. The traditional cod fishery in nearby Lofoten was, in fact, a winter fishery—conducted in the dark of the Arctic night, to be sure, but accomplished by means of a fleet of small, open boats with no concern for a sudden freezing-over of the sea.
The reason for this dramatic warming is not the Gulf Stream (which loses its identity once it passes the Grand Banks of Newfoundland) but a much larger and far more geographically diffuse area of warm surface water known as the North Atlantic drift. Here, heat is transferred from the ocean water to the atmosphere across tens of thousands of square miles, resulting in the addition of countless millions of BTUs to the air as it moves across the European land mass, raising the mean atmospheric temperature and warming the climate of all of western Europe. In Norway, the warming effect is felt not only in coastal regions but also across large areas of the Norway Sea and Arctic Ocean, all the way to the far northern outpost of Spitzbergen (Svaalbard Island), nine hundred miles north of the Arctic circle.
The day Brendan’s Isle arrived in Tromso, the weather was still cool. The diesel heater continued operating at full capacity in the sailboat’s main saloon, and I and my shipmates were still dressed in heavy clothing, caps and gloves. But change seemed imminent—for the barometer, which had been rising for several days, had suddenly soared to 30.4 inches (1040 millibars)—a harbinger of fine weather in almost anyone’s almanac.
Next morning, the twentieth of June, broke clear and oddly warm. The wind had drawn into the east and the air had become bone dry. By afternoon the temperature had soared to an astonishing 71 degrees Fahrenheit. People all over Tromso had turned to strolling in the streets in all stages of summer dress (and undress), and suddenly there was a festival atmosphere across the entire city.
The reason for the unusual weather, I learned later, was a large, anomalous area of high pressure that had become established over the Russian mainland several hundred miles to the east. Warm Chinook winds from this system flowed westward off the continent, drafting downward over the coastal mountains, warming even further and losing their moisture as they did so. The result, across all of northern Norway, was an Arctic heat wave, with cloudless skies and pleasant summertime temperatures that persisted for more than a week.
Kay, along with two old friends, John and Jan Lavicka, had the good fortune of arriving in Tromso with the fine weather. As Brendan’s next crew, these three had a difficult time at first believing my stories of cold and rain and southerly gales during our recent northbound transit of this coast. The day they sailed from Tromso, heading south, there was no wind at all, and the afternoon air temperature soared to an astonishing 74 degrees Fahrenheit. The next day, the twenty-third of June, was the date Norwegians have traditionally chosen to mark the summer solstice. That evening, anchored in a popular harbor on the little island of Kjotta, Brendan found herself surrounded by a ring of bonfires, each tended by a group of local residents who had arrived in small power cruisers and runabouts to celebrate the longest day of the year. At midnight, in bright daylight, a chorus of cheers arose nearly simultaneously from all about the harbor. I and my shipmates responded with a cannonade of several rounds of potatoes from Brendan’s spud-zooka, mounted for the occasion on the sailboat’s stern pulpit.
The next several weeks became a kind of sailing smorgasbord, as Brendan wandered among some of the most dramatic coastal scenery on the planet. The Lofoten Islands, formed along the backbone of a partially submerged mountain range, lie on a north-south axis nearly a hundred miles long, and, at their most westerly point, about fifty miles from the Norwegian mainland. The entire chain is filled with deep fiords and thorofares, winding channels, protected bays and harbors, quaint fishing villages, and dozens upon dozens of secluded coves and anchorages, many of them set in scenery so grand and awesome that it literally takes your breath away.
There is a good coastal pilot (in Norwegian) available for this section of the Norway coast, as well as at least one decent English language cruising guide (see the sidebar below), yet while exploring Lofoten we found neither one particularly necessary. The Norwegian charts are detailed and accurate, and the channels and approaches are generally bold and well marked. There are numerous not-to-be-missed places, to be sure, although in a cruise of just a few weeks, one would be hard pressed to visit them all. Better, we found, just to follow one’s nose, sail where wind takes you, and create your own collection of not-to-be-missed places.
For Brendan and her crew, these were almost too many to count: Sildpollen, a nearly circular bowl of rock soaring skyward a thousand feet and more on every side; Gullvika, a landlocked pool with ringbolts in the rock and a mountain stream filled with mussel beds; Henningsvaer, a traditional fishing village with racks of cod split and drying in the long summer twilight; Aesoy, a nearly perfect gunkhole nestled between deserted islands; Reine, a village lost under the loom of craggy, snow-covered peaks, overshadowed by its own spectacular scenery.
Finally, one morning in the second week of July, I realized it was time to leave these islands and begin moving south again. The summer was slipping past, and Kay and I still had fifteen hundred miles to sail on our return journey to southern Denmark. With a squally west wind on her quarter, Brendan set out across the Vestfiord, bound for the little archipelago of Helligvaer. That night, anchored under the lee of low islands, we lingered after supper in the cockpit, watching the sun skid along the horizon to the northwest, lighting the distant peaks of Lofoten in a blaze of red and gold. As midnight approached, the fiery circle sliced into the sea, still moving left to right, but dropping inexorably until all that remained was a tiny sliver of red. Next moment there was nothing. The sun had set, if only briefly, and Brendan lay in a dusky twilight, ready now to turn her bows southward in earnest.
Sidebar: Charts and Publications
For a skipper planning to sail to western Norway, both British Admiralty charts and United States DMA charts are adequate for route planning and offshore passage-making. It is essential, however, to carry Norwegian charts for all coastal areas that you plan to visit. As noted above, Norwegian charts are both detailed and accurate, and the scale of the coastal series is large and readable. Although place-names appear only in Norwegian, the navigational symbols and numbers are easily understood. In addition, the charts contain English translations of most important navigational notes and directions. Norwegian charts are available on special order at many north American chart dealers. Or you may purchase them using your telephone and Visa or MasterCard directly from Scandinavia’s premier chart dealer, Iver C. Weilbach in Copenhagen, Denmark (telephone: 001-45-33-13-59-27).
The best English language cruising guide for the Norwegian coast is John Armitage and Mark Brackenbury, Norwegian Cruising Guide, from the Swedish Sound to the Russian Border, published by Adelard Coles Nautical (Second Edition, 1996). Also useful are relevant volumes of the Norwegian government’s official coast pilot, Den Norske Los. Volumes 2, 3a, and 3b of this series cover southerly areas of the coast and are published with parallel texts in Norwegian and English. Volumes 4 through 7, covering the more northerly areas, are available only in Norwegian.
Sidebar: Telephone Service and Weather Information
One of the sagest pieces of advice Kay and I were given while we were planning our Norwegian adventures was to purchase a mobile telephone as soon as we could from Telenor, the Norwegian state telephone company. Telenor, we learned, almost always has a promotional deal going on, so the phone itself often only costs the equivalent of a few American dollars. The "calling minutes" are then purchased as you need them at any kiosk or convenience store and loaded electronically into the handset. All calls within Norway (no matter how distant) are considered local and are billed at a few cents a minute, making the entire service (handset and all) quite economical.
The usefulness of the mobile telephone quickly becomes apparent, for as a high frequency, short range radio system, it has all but replaced communication by VHF radio throughout coastal Norway. Telephone numbers for coastal safety organizations, local harbor authorities, marinas, police, and other useful local services are contained in the appropriate sections of the Norwegian coast pilot, Den Norske Los, as well as in Armitage and Brackenbury’s Norwegian Cruising Guide. Here you will also find telephone numbers for the Norwegian Meteorological Society’s regional offices in Tromso, Bergen, and Stavanger. A call to the appropriate office with a polite request for an English-language weather forecast will almost always be met with success. Normally, the caller will be transferred directly to the floor of the forecast center, where a working meteorologist, fluent in English, will often be willing to provide not only current weather information but also to discuss forecast "progs" for several days into the future.
As with all public infrastructure in Norway, the mobile telephone system is state-of-the-art, with nearly total coverage throughout the coastal archipelago (including even the longest fiords). There are also telephone towers situated on several offshore oil platforms, thus effectively extending mobile telephone service to large areas of Norway’s offshore waters.