This is a copy of the story of my trip to Spitsbergen in 2006.
EQUINOX Trip to Spitsbergen and 80 degN
22nd June to 24th August 2006
Skipper and owner - Gordon Campion
The initial proposal was to sail to Spitsbergen and just above 80 deg N by the ice-free west coast of Spitsbergen, beginning with the North Sea Race from Banff to Stavanger.But the plan changed dramatically in Longyearbyen to a much more dangerous route. The circumnavigation of Spitsbergen through unchartered, normally fully icebound, waters of the east coast.We later learned that only one other yacht had attempted this in 2006. We had to take account of the risk of meeting polar bears.These 400kg animals have no fear of man and can also run at 30 mph so a gun must be carried all the time. We met three bears and cubs while walking!
I had just come out of the Governor of Svalbard's office in Longyearbyen after he had approved my Spitsbergen circumnavigation proposal.What had I done? I was very nervous and worried because we would not see civilisation at any point of the journey for at least two weeks and I had not planned for this.What seemed like a good wheeze was now becoming reality.
Anyone visiting Svalbard must get permission from the Governor who then sets a Search and Rescue (SAR) bond amount. This is money that is set aside in case rescue is required and is returned if not used. Very heavy fines are imposed if this is not arranged.See website http://www.sysselmannen.svalbard.no/eng/Svalbard
Spitsbergen is the largest island of the archipelago known as Svalbard and extends to above 80O N. It has a population of about 3000 people consisting of Norwegian, Russian and Polish in 4 settlements. Svalbard is not owned by any country but by international agreement is governed by Norway.
Water at 5 litres per person per day. Diesel at 2.05 litres per hour at 2000/1900 rpm (about 5 knots). Diesel at 1.0 litre per hour for the heater.
The original aim was to sail to Spitsbergen and to just above 80 deg N up the ice-free west coast of Spitsbergen.We started by taking part in the North Sea Race from Banff (in the Moray Firth) to Stavanger, then worked our way up Norway to Tromso.The sail from Tromso to Spitsbergen via Bear Island was a thrilling roller coaster ride with SW winds peaking at 44.6 knots and our average boat speed was 8 to 10 knots. This was scary in EQUINOX, a Moody 38, but she coped well. We had white water everywhere going down the huge waves, achieving a maximum speed of 14.1 knots, and were frequently engulfed with breaking waves.Great fun.
We finally sighted Spitsbergen which looked spectral in the 'eternal sun' and spotted another yacht, Vagabond, who we later learned had just been released from the ice on the SE coast of Spitsbergen after wintering there for 9 months. We visited Hornbreen Glacier which is about 40 metres high via an ice field and had to dodge icebergs of all sizes. According to our chart, dated 1962, we were about three quarters of a mile inside the glacier. The glacier had retreated so far.
We next visited the Polish research station and then on to Akseloya Island in Bellsund Fjord.Here we met Lois 'Hiawatha' Nielson a trapper who has lived there for over 20 years, originally coming from the Faeroes. It turns out that 'Hiawatha' does not trap but collects eider down from the nests of eider ducks and sells the down. He also protects the ducks from the arctic fox and polar bears. 'Hiawatha' had a few scary polar bear stories to tell, so like us carried a gun at all times.
On our way to Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, we met the tall ship Oosterschelde.Little did we know at the time that Oosterscheldewould play such a key role in averting disaster for EQUINOX in 10 days time.
Ice reports showed that the east coast of Spitsbergen was ice-free which is very unusual and it was suggested, "Since we were here why don't we circumnavigate Spitsbergen?"I had not planned for this but the opportunity was irresistible.Food was not a problem but water and diesel was. I had four 20-litre jerry cans of diesel, one of 2-stroke and 60 litres of water on deck. We could not return to Longyearbyen since crew had flights to get from Tromso in northern Norway.Calculations showed that we had enough water for the 16 days. But we must sail over 400 nm assuming we do not use the heater, so I concluded it was do-able.I had to get permission from the Governor to change my plan and he could ask for an increase in my SAR bond!His office would not open till Monday so on Friday night we hit the town and went to a traditional restaurant/bar called 'Huset' and had whale, sorry eco-warriors! Only minke. Got back after 04.00am - still sunny.
On Saturday we left Longyearbyen for Pyramiden, about a six-hour sail further up the fjord. Pyramiden was a Russian coal-mining town of about 1000 people and was abandoned very suddenly in 2001.A couple of years earlier there had been a big fire in the mine and this may have contributed to the closure. The 'town' is about 1 x 1/2 a mile in area with flats, houses, library, post office, swimming pool, bar, sports hall and workshops all intact. It is as if they were given 2 hours notice to quit. We went inside the sports hall. It contained a complete library, a cinema with over two hundred 35mm Russian films in their cases, a basket ball/5 aside court complete with balls hockey sticks and pucks, a music room with piano, drums and music still on the stands and a drama and dance room with a full wardrobe of costumes. There were photographs on the walls of special events, prizegivings, drama shows, singing shows and daily life. This had been a very active community. The mine machinery was also still intact but in a poor state of repair. There are workshops for the mine machinery, for the buses and trucks, for the electricals and machine shops, all intact. It also had its own power station. Time stopped in 2001* for Pyramiden. The whole place is now preserved for posterity. The experience was overwhelming and made me feel very small.It also gave a good insight into what life was like in a remote Russian mining community.
During our sail to Bear Island the drive coupling on our generator failed. While looking around the 'town' I found a part that may fit. It did and lasted all the way back to UK.
On the Monday I went to see the Governor of Svalbard who listened to my new plan and asked various questions, this is serious stuff. Only in recent years has the ice retreated and really only this year has it retreated enough to do a circumnavigation in a boat like EQUINOX. I was later to learn that only one other sailing yacht attempted this circumnavigation in 2006.
We left Longyearbyen on Tuesday 25th July 2006 and arrived at Ny Alesund, 78 deg 53', after sailing all 'night'. Since crossing the arctic circle two weeks earlier it had been daylight 24/7. This had initially played havoc with our body time clock but enabled us to be on the move 24 hours a day.Only by sticking rigidly to the watch system could everyone keep a normal routine.Ny Alesund, or New Alesund, was a small coal-mining town which closed in 1962. Now it is full of polar research stations from Korea, China, Germany, Norway and France who use the old mine buildings, some dating from the turn of the century. We had a walk around the bleak settlement and returned to the boat. This was our very last opportunity to get diesel so topped up. While sitting in the boat 'Hiawatha', the trapper we met at Axeloya, arrived so we invited him onboard for a coffee. He was up collecting eider down from known nests around Ny Alesund. He told us that just as we left him last Thursday a polar bear appeared.He tried to radio us to return but without success. The bear stayed for a few days.
The recent ice reports we were getting on Navtex indicated that the ice was moving south. Two weeks ago the ice was at about 82.5 deg N but now it was at about 81.4 deg N, a shift of over 60 miles. We have to go to 80.15 deg N to get round Spitsbergen. Would we make it?
Watch system on EQUINOX:
I have tried out different watch systems over the years and have found the best to be 0800 to 1400; 1400 to 2000; 2000 to 2400; 2400 to 0400; 0400 to 0800. This means you alternate watches each day. Lunch is at 1345 and prepared by off watch, similarly with dinner which is at 1945. This is just before watch changeover so new off watch washes the dishes. Breakfast is a help yourself arrangement, normally muesli. We stuck to this throughout the trip.
We motored north, since there was no wind whatsoever, to Virgohamna a protected bay which 17th century Dutch whalers used to use as a base.It is also the site that Salomon August Andrée, a Swede, used as a base in 1896 for his attempt to cross the North Pole in a balloon. Alas he failed and his balloon and remains were not found until 1930. Walter Wellman, an American journalist, was also based here and he also attempted to cross the North Pole but in a steerable airship. He had three failed attempts 1906, 1907 and 1909. The remains of his hangar and hydrogen tanks can still be seen.
We left Virgohamna for Vulcanhamna a volcanic area with reputed hot springs. As we anchored, Oosterschelde the Dutch tall ship we met 10 days earlier, anchored alongside us. We radioed and asked if we could take on some diesel. They agreed and in the morning we took 35 litres of diesel and 60 litres of fresh water all for a bottle of 10-year-old Macallum malt whisky. This has given us an extra 90nm range. Little did we know that the diesel we took from Oosterscheld that morning would be crucial to the success of the circumnavigation. Never has the 'water of life' had more meaning.
Later on we motored further up the fjord in search of the hot springs a hike of about 4-5 km. We took our towels, soap, GPS, radio, binoculars, map, compass, thunder flashes and gun. "The lengths you have to go to to get a bath round here". We hiked over the rocks and across streams and found a slightly less cold muddy pool with lots of sludgy plant life. Not what we were expecting. We stripped off anyway and took a dip and a very well needed wash.
We motored to another fjord, with a lagoon, called Mushamna, about a 3-hour motor north. We all paddled over to walk to a trapper's hut we had seen when coming in. It was about a mile or so over the ridge. On the shore side, near the boat, was a rough wooden cross with the words "Man's Head".When walking down the hill we saw a white rock beside a pool and looked through long camera lenses (we had forgotten the binoculars).We decided it was a rock and continued. I looked through my video camera lens again and the rock moved. Polar bear!When looking again I could also see a cub. We eventually got back to the boat.It seemed like an eternity. Motoring round the point we could see a mother and two cubs clearly. We anchored and a few minutes later the trapper appeared, he was walking towards the bears with a water container on his back. The bears got up and ran away from him. He went down to a pool to collect water and returned to his hut. We filmed and photographed the bears and afterwards moved further up the coast and saw another mother and two cubs not 400m the other side of the trapper's hut. Again we stopped. We had seen no polar bears after days of searching and six bears are seen within minutes.
At 1604 GMT on Sunday 30th July we crossed 80deg N i.e. less than 600 nm from the North Pole. It was damp, cold (5degC) and foggy with about 100m visibility. This was one of the main aims of the whole trip. We were on our way north to Moffen Island and just a short time later spotted a lone walrus near the boat. Very impressive tusks. We anchored 300m off Moffen Island, had dinner and celebrated with champagne. Looking out we saw more walruses.
We passed the most northerly tip of Spitsbergen (80 deg 08' N 16 deg 24'E) for a lagoon on the north west tip of Nordaustlandet, the next large island to NE of Spitsbergen. The charts show no details at all, just white with no depths marked. The land map shows the coast outline in more detail. The electronic C-Map charts stop at 80O N and are just blank as if we are off the end of the world. We had to use all sensors: depth sounder, forward looking sonar, radar and the Mk 1 eyeball to navigate these waters.Do not even think about it without the above!
On our way south, following the east coast of Spitsbergen, we saw some very large glacier icebergs about the size of houses and small hotels. The temperature reached a new low of 2.8 deg C i.e. a wind chill temperature of -11 deg C. It was very foggy, cold and damp with everything above and below deck very damp. Our below deck temperature was 9.4 deg C since to save diesel we could not use the heater. I was wearing 2 pairs of socks, thermals, fleece mid layer, lined trousers, salopettes, thermal vest, mid fleece, fleece shirt, fleece jacket, oilies jacket, ski gloves, and fleece beanie to top it off.Even in my sleeping bag I wore two layers. The cold just seeped right through the body. It was the most miserable time for all of us.
For a week we had not seen another boat of any sort, nor other human being, nor any other indication of civilisation at all, even though we had been close to land all the time. Actually that is not true we did unfortunately see flotsam washed up on the shores. Mostly plastics from all over the world in all sorts of forms, bottles (a Russian tomato ketchup bottle for example), plastic sheeting and bits of odd plastic. We also found an aerosol can of 'Ellenette' hairspray, from the UK sadly, which still worked. But mostly the flotsam washed up are logs, not naturally fallen logs but logging logs from Siberia. We had seen five floating past and had to steer to avoid two of them. If they had hit the boat we would have been holed!
We left Svalbard from Halvmanoya, a small island South of Edgeoya Island (77 deg N 023 deg E), on Friday 4th August to good SSW/S/SSE winds, 4 occasionally 5. Since we were short of diesel we had to sail so started with a starboard tack. The passage was generally uneventful and tacked once on Saturday, once on Sunday, once on Monday and once on Tuesday. The Norwegians refer to this area of sea as 'The Devil's Dance Floor'. It certainly lived up to its reputation when we were sailing north but now on our return the sea was less excited. Which was just as well since we were beating as close as possible. Expecting the wind to back we ended up much further east than planned, but since we were 12 hours ahead of schedule, we decided to drop in at Hammerfest. We showered at the Hammerfest Quality Hotel, our first for over two weeks!! (shower not hotel) (Our bath in the volcano pool probably made us dirtier, but we felt better, so does not count.)
We arrived at Tromso on 9th August and filled up with diesel and found we had only had 37 litres left. If we had not taken diesel from Oosterschelde we would only have been left with 2 litres, which is probably cutting it a bit fine.
*The date Piramiden was abandoned varies from 1998 to 2001 depending on whom you talk to.
About the author:
Gordon Campion is a 55 year old recently retired Technical Director of a naval engineering company.He has been sailing since 14 years old and has owned a yacht since 2000. He regularly races EQUINOX a Moody 38 at club races. He is a member of Port Edgar Yacht Club near Edinburgh.
Recent trips he skippered are:
2001 sailed to West coast of Scotland (Jeanneau 32.2)
2002 Denmark(Jeanneau 32.2)
2003 Bergen and Stavanger ('EQUINOX' Moody 38).
2004 Netherlands ('EQUINOX' Moody 38).
2006 Spitsbergen ('EQUINOX' Moody 38).
He would like to do the ARC in 'EQUINOX' in a few years time.