Norway: Under sail in the frozen north

By Rob Fenwick

In a freezing wilderness of breathtaking beauty, Rob Fenwick encounters a dangerous predator.

Climbing to the top of the mast of the Pelagic Australis is not for the faint-hearted but is one of the best ways to navigate through the Arctic's ice floes. Photo / Barrie Everard
Climbing to the top of the mast of the Pelagic Australis is not for the faint-hearted but is one of the best ways to navigate through the Arctic's ice floes. Photo / Barrie Everard

We are nearly at 80 degrees north, well inside the Arctic Circle, when we spot a polar bear.

We edge the yacht closer to the solitary granite rock where, under the soft glow of the midnight sun and framed by purple peaks, wide blue glaciers and a cold black sea, we gaze at this fearless creature tearing at a seal. Occasionally it turns its great head and gives us an icy stare.

No amount of National Geographic Channel will prepare you for your first encounter with a polar bear in the wild. Your first response is likely to be a pump of adrenalin, followed by a loosening of the bowel.

This is entirely normal when sighting one of the planet's most dangerous predators with a well-documented appetite for human flesh.

In Svalbard, off the coast of which we are sailing, polar bears and how not to get eaten by them is taken seriously. Attacks are infrequent but nearly always fatal and you are required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when venturing outdoors.

The second and less-expected response to sighting a bear, and one which may well last for the rest of your days, is the sense of marvel at the extraordinary natural environment which this lonely creature has chosen to live in.

A freezing, tree-less wilderness of breathtaking beauty, silence and dramatic contrasts.

At the time of the sighting we were preparing to anchor in Worsley Harbour, on the northern coastline of Svalbard's largest island, Spitzbergen, which lies about 750km north of Norway and less than 1000km from the North Pole.

The fiord is named after Frank Worsley, the New Zealand sailor best known for navigating Ernest Shackleton's lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia in one of the world's greatest maritime rescues.

Later, Worsley led a little publicised British expedition to explore the islands of the Arctic Sea in a square rigged barque, Island.

Inspired by Worsley's cheerful and blokey journal Under Sail in the Frozen North, some mates and I decided to charter a yacht owned by old friend and veteran offshore yachtsman Skip Novak to follow in Worsley's wake, in search of polar bears, among other things.

In fact our sighting at Worsley Harbour was not our first bear encounter. In Longyearbyen, the township on Spitzbergen, four hours' flying time north of Oslo, next to the store where you rent your rifle, is a shop where tourists can buy polar bear skins for 30,000 krona (NZ$6000), all approved by the Norwegian authorities.

Up the road outside the cosy brasserie, reindeer browse on lichen while inside diners savour the catch-of-the-day, Minke whale steaks.

Twelve hours is quite enough in this bizarre town. We are eager to catch up with Novak and get aboard Pelagic Australis, his near new 23m aluminium sloop.

Aucklanders may remember Novak kindly for his several round-the-world yachting visits, most famously in 1988 when he agreed to helm an inexperienced and impoverished Soviet crew on Fazisi to celebrate Perestroika. Aucklanders fund-raised Fazisi to the finish line.

These days, 51-year-old Novak offers charters on his yachts, Pelagic and Pelagic Australis, two superbly appointed and equipped, purpose-built vessels for cruising the polar regions.

Three of us, Barrie Everard, Rick Keeling and I, chartered the smaller Pelagic for an unforgettable tour around Cape Horn and the Beagle Channel 12 years ago. Now on this Arctic adventure we are joined by friends Mark Hauser, Colin Crisp and Stu Galloway.

Novak, who spreads his time between his young family, sailing, and running the charter business, employs a crew of three on Pelagic Australis.

The skipper, Richard Haworth, is a laconic Yorkshireman who fell in love with the sea after his first sailing experience when the 12m yacht he was crewing from Nelson nearly sank in a storm off the coast of Taranaki.

Our two young crew, Alec and Dion, will, over the next two weeks, energetically scale the mast to find leads through the broken pack ice, launch the Zodiac for daily explorations ashore, and create a procession of sensational meals from a well-stocked galley. All three seem remarkably unphased by clients experiencing mid-life crises.

Once on board, Novak explains that we will try a circumnavigation of Spitzbergen if the broken pack ice on the east coast of the island allows, and then a crossing of the Barents Sea to Tromso, a northern fiord city of Norway.

On the way we will pass Bear Island, one of the world's most spectacular bird breeding areas. In a freshening breeze under a reefed main sail and yankee jib we reach up the coast of Spitzbergen at nearly 10 knots.

More than 60 per cent of Svalbard's landmass is covered by glaciers, huge frozen rivers of ice tracing valleys between peaks and razorbacks and which finally drop dramatically into the sea.

Sailing round this vast, empty, icy coast we call at Ny-Alysund, where the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen launched his airship for the first crossing of the North Pole in 1927, then anchor in a breathlessly calm fiord under the face of a huge, blue glacier.

During the sun-filled night the glacier growls its way toward the sea. In the morning we watch, astonished, as a 40m pillar of ice topples, as if in slow motion, off the face of the glacier and crashes into the sea with a stupendous roar, sending fountains of spray and splintering ice into the air and a tidal wave across the bay.

Sailing north the wildlife intensifies. We spot bearded seals nonchalantly sunning themselves on icebergs that chink and chime across fiords, a pure white beluga whale surfaces beside us, and huge flocks of seabirds such as the beautiful eider duck, whose down you may be sleeping under tonight, little auks by the thousand flitting like clouds of black canaries low across the ocean, and exquisite Arctic terns fattening themselves with protein for their incomprehensible 10,000km annual migration to Antarctica a few weeks hence.

At the island of Norskeoya we inspect the ruins of a 17th-century Dutch whaling station and, after scaling a peak to scan the horizon for whales and ships, stumble on the graves of ancient mariners.

Ice heave has lifted their crude coffins from the stony ground and Hauser, celebrating his 40th birthday that day, has a sobering moment contemplating the exposed mossy cranium of a 400-year-old skeleton. And sobering moments were scarce on Hauser's birthday.

Warm ocean currents keep the northwestern coast of Svalbard relatively ice free in late summer and only just over the horizon is the pack ice that stretches to the North Pole. But down the desolate eastern coastline temperatures plunge, icebergs become a permanent feature on the black sea and squalls of ice crystals and snow regularly sweep the deck.

Bergs crash together around us, threatening to block our path south and we contemplate the prospect of retracing our long passage back to Longyearbyen.

Despite the advent of radar, the most reliable method of finding a lead through the pack is no different now from Worsley's day.

"Send a man aloft!" smiles Novak and, after winching young Dion to the masthead, we are finally able to twist and turn our way through the floe and into open water.

With a steady cold northerly behind us we hoist main and two headsails and take a course across the Barents Sea for Bear Island.

Offshore islands, like our own sub-Antarctics, are wondrous capsules of biodiversity, and Bear Island is no exception. It seems every seabird in the Barents, Greenland and Norwegian Seas comes to procreate on Bear Island's precipitous southern cliffs.

We watch flocks of clown-faced young puffins practising their ludicrous "legs akimbo" flight and tens of thousands of screeching gulls hanging effortlessly in the up-draughts of the green, guano-drenched walls of rock.

An unexpected gale springs up from the east for the 30-hour crossing to the mainland and the shelter of Norway's northern fiords is no less welcoming for us as they were for Worsley.

After 2000km of sailing, our journey ends in the beautiful town of Tromso with much back-slapping and declarations that we shouldn't wait for 12 years before the next adventure.

So, if you feel a bit of a mid-life crisis coming on an adventure on Skip Novak's yacht could change your life.

- NZ Herald

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