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.