Spitsbergen 2013

An online log of Atlantis' travels and adventures to Svalbard

Blowin' old boots

Posted by admin on June 26, 2013

A salty old seadog would merely have muttered '...bit blustery last night...' and nothing more; but, for the sake of translation we'll explain that we really had a most uncomfortable overnight passage. Lady Magdalene was still watching over us and the day dawned (if that's what you call it when the sun never sets) bright and still. After a quick swim, again for one, to do what we could to check the errant fitting on our propellor shaft, we said our farewells to the Sysselman's Field Inspectors who are going to miss the polar bears that patrol consistently when Atlantis is in the fjord, and weighed anchor. The forecast was for a breezy 20 knots which we knew from the outset was likely to be on the nose; thus requiring us to tack to windward and cover considerably more than the straight line distance between two points. Even so, we only had 48 miles to cover to Ny Alesund - a mere skip.

Soon after leaving the fjord at midday we began to realise that St Magdalene might really be a siren - once mariners have been ensnared by her charms she makes it very difficult to escape. The weather closed in and the breeze started to rise. The same thing had happened when we tried to slip her clutches northwards to Virgohamna. This time, less than half an hour out, the engine's impeller failed which put the engine out of action for the rest of the trip. Sails up anyway,we headed on. As the wind strength rose, we changed down through the sail range, took reefs in the main and tried to steer as close to the wind as possible without losing speed. As the confused swell grew too, the autopilot became less able to cope and we reverted to hand-steering for the rest of the night. With each long tack out to sea, or back in towards the shore, the wind's direction oscillated to our disadvantage. As the wind strength's forecast 20 knots maximum came...and went, our tacking angle became ever less efficient. At some stage, a concurrent gust and drop off a steep wave put sufficient stress on the headsail to simultaneously fracture three of the hanks that attach it to the forestay. A wet foredeck sail change ensued and we ended up under storm jib and fully reefed mainsail. With Lady Magdalene's henchmen continually heaving freezing (2.8 C actually) water over the decks and cockpit, damp seeped [gushed] into every seam of clothing. Long forgotten drips returned as steady rivulets in the cabin below. A larger than normal wave from behind engulfed the heater exhaust again and it shut down in pique for the night.

By 0400 the reality was that on each tack we were losing any ground made by its predecessors. No volume of cocoa can mitigate the sense of futility this can catalyse in tired minds. If it hadn't been for a minor shift in the wind direction we might still be there now. At long last, a final tack in towards the shore showed some prospect of making the mouth of the Kongsfjord and spirits lifted. The wind died, sea flattened and all became less unpleasant. With the calmer waters it was possible to effect a rapid replacement for the engine's impeller, a few minutes later the heater exhaust had been drained and in a cloud of steam it roared into action. We closed the final five miles to Ny Alesund 27 hours after leaving Magdalene Fjord as if it had all been just a rather bad dream.

So, to sum up - 'twas a bit blustery last night.

Postscript - many trips suffer from the fact that the photographic records of the journey illustrate only the perfect moments. We have been determined to ensure that we would depict the rough with the smooth; the bad with the good. In the cold, fatigue, wet and general discomfort....we forgot. Sorry.

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Magdalene II

Posted by admin on June 26, 2013

At our most northerly point both of us called home on the Inmarsat satellite phone (still working at 79º 44N but only at sea when unblanketed by mountains)!  Each got only the answerphone!  

We are now beginning to retrace our route south, so first stop had to be to one of our favourites.  We don't know what it is about Magdalene Fjord but once again, as we entered the fjord, the bleak weather of the past few days lifted, the sun came out and tranquility descended upon us.  It is a most sublime spot.  After a few chores, most notably to inspect underwater a loose bronze fitting on the propshaft (guess who got to do that one) we headed ashore for a meal very generously cooked for us by the two Sysselman's (Svalbard Governor's) Field Inspectors who spend the summer living in their isolated hut, policing and monitoring vessels of all types who enter the fjord. Halfway through the meal we were treated by the visit of a second polar bear to the beach where we had observed a different bear only four days before.  This one was in far better shape.  Plump, un-numbered and in fine fettle, it kept itself to itself and wandered off  south along the beach to who knows where.  Our grateful thanks to Audun and Oddmagne (the inspectors) for their generous hospitality, local advice and sharing of knowledge.  For their part, they now describe the 'Atlantis effect'.  Each visit of ours bringing a new bear to their doorstep.  

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Posted by admin on June 25, 2013

The history of Virgohamna is intriguing and it enjoys special protected status.  We have been granted specific permission from the Svalbard Governor's office to visit.  In truth it is a bleak and somewhat dismal spot at the northern end of Spitsbergen and for a while we wondered whether it was worth unloading the dinghy to land.  Having motor sailed north through narrow rock-strewn channels from the majesty of Magdalene Fjord, and the fantastic sights we'd been privileged to enjoy there, our arrival coincided with the weather taking a turn for the worse.  Low visibility, with snow blowing on the wind which had also increased to an uncharitable Force 7 probably soured our first impressions; as did a more prolonged anchoring procedure than normal, marred by an brisk onshore wind and a self-inflicted rope around the prop! 

By the time we had Atlantis secure and ship-shape once again, it was late in the day so we settled in for the remainder of the cold and blustery afternoon and night.  By morning, wet snow covered the decks, the visibility was a limited as ever and the shoreline gave no hint of welcome. Self-discipline prevailed however, and off we set.   On land, the sense of failed endeavour is palpable.  For this was the spot at the heart of the race for the North Pole.  In its day, it had the status that, perhaps, Cape Canaveral enjoyed during the space race.  Tourists and journalists would visit. From here characters such as driven Swede Saloman August Andrée (1896-7) and American self-publicist Walter Wellman (1905-10) launched manned balloon and airship expeditions for the great unclaimed prize of being the first to reach the North Pole.  The Dutch were here first though, throughout the 17th Century with whaling in mind centred on nearby Smeerenberg.  Evidence of all of these activities litter the foreshore. overlaid on each other with careless abandon.

It is a fascinating mix.  Least remarkable visually are the raised bases that used to seat the great boiling vessels the Dutch whalers used to render the whale oil from their catch.  Four shallow indentations overlaid with stones are the only markings of the graves of  Dutch whalers who never left.  

At one end of the beach is the detritus of Wellman's base with the wreckage of what must have once been a huge airship hangar set back from the other remnants  Elsewhere, broken pottery vessels which once contained sulphuric acid and drums of iron filings are strewn round haphazardly. Together, these would have been mixed to generate the hydrogen gas used to fill the airship.  Small fragments of the airship frame and gondola itself also remain.

At the other end of the beach, less than 300 metres away, are the relics of Andrée's final, and ultimately fatal, balloon polar expedition.  Anchor bolts mark out the site from where his basket would have risen on a fateful day in 1897; now marked by a more recent memorial to him and his team. 

Last (albeit not chronologically) on the list of odd characters who have populated Virgohamna at one time or another is Briton Lord Alfred Pike who built a house in 1888 (hut is probably better description) on the beach from which to 'survey the seasons'.  One can only speculate about his motives.

Other notable visitors include Nansen and Amundsen.  The former, at least, agreed with our prognosis: '....a desolate dismal place...an isolated disagreeable bay...' Nansen wrote in 1920. Plus ça change.  With the weather still dreary, snow in the air, our cheer was warmed by the antics of a young Arctic fox cheekily foraging along the beach within metres of us, and a squadron of 10-15 harbour seals who accompanied us inquisitively in close formation as we returned to the yacht in the dinghy.

Virgohamna is somehing of a paradox for us.  It a testament to past failed expeditions but for us it marks the achievement of a significant milestone in what we set out to do  - to sail double-handed from UK to northern Spitsbergen and explore as much as possible of Svalbard as time allows.  Ice conditions are notable this year; local veterans speak of the worst conditions for over 10 years.  Closely packed sea ice blown on the wind blocks further transit of the north coast or return along the east coast via the Hinlopen Strait.   Our journey is far from over though - and let's not forget more mountaineering accidents happen on the way down from the summit than on the way up.  There is much we have yet to explore but, at 79º 44'N and for the first time since our departure from Plymouth on May 13th, Atlantis is turning south.

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Magdalene Fjorden

Posted by admin on June 22, 2013

We'll keep it brief as we have had to put to sea for comms at this latitude.  St Magdalene was the patron saint of whalers but it seems she may be keeping a watchful eye on Atlantis too.  Stunning scenery, and wildlife aplenty including, the creme de la creme:

Wow!  All photos taken from the deck of Atlantis or our own dinghy and all wildlife observed at distances of less than 100 metres from our anchorage in the most sublime surroundings one can imagine.  Oh, and there were walrus, glaciers, mountains swimming (for one) and other stuff too..........!!

Future plans: heading north once again into Smeerenburg Fjord at the northern tip of Svalbard.  We'll be land-locked for a while so no updates for a day or two.  But the last few days will be hard to beat.

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Whales, Glaciers and the 5*(+) hotel

Posted by admin on June 20, 2013

As the wind died after a somewhat uncomfortable night at anchor at the head of a moody Mollerfjord the dinghy was unshipped and we set off ashore. First stop The Lloyd Hotel - Svalbard's only 5*(+) establishment. Rupert checked in first:

Every room (ie the only one) has mementos of previous visitors and everything a guest could require:

Having signed the guest book and left a token of our own brief stay (a Harrods boxed set of a miniature London Bus and Taxi!) we set off further to find evidence of an earlier visitor mentioned in an previous blog.  Still clear on a prominent rock is the great adventuror Bill Tilman's calling card: 

Back on the yacht, as we weighed anchor the clouds lifted and left us with the most stunning of days.  The pictures tell the story more effectively than words:

Just when we thought it could get no better:

And finally, in the land of the midnight sun we are reminded that today is the summer solstice.  Taken at midnight on the northern hemisphere's longest day, en route north again towards Svalbard's northernmost coast:

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