Dag Pike hitches a ride on a 65ft Dutch steel cruiser to explore the glaciers and wildlife of the remote Svalbard archipelago
For most people cruising stops at about 60° north. Head further north and you are trespassing into unfamiliar territory. The temperature drops, the sun never sets, and at certain times of year eerie green lights appear in the sky. Nothing seems normal. The High Arctic seems to operate by a different set of rules. But hereI am cruising close to 80° north, just 1,000 miles from the North Pole.
You know things are different when you step off the plane. It is still broad daylight at midnight and there are people strolling around the arrivals hall with rifles on their shoulders. Once you head outside the towns you are in polar bear country and carrying a rifle is mandatory. The only place you leave your gun outside is at the bank or the supermarket!
There is only one place in the world where you can cruise this far north without having to battle with ice. Svalbard is some 500 miles north of Norway and level with the top of Greenland but is blessed with warm currents from the tail end of the Gulf Stream.
This keeps the archipelago largely ice-free during the summer months, opening up a magical cruising ground. Man has hardly touched this vast area so you are seeing nature in the raw – an awe-inspiring place of mountains, glaciers and fjords that penetrate deep into the heart of the country. The scale of the landscape is huge with even the shoreside mountains rising to over 2,000ft.
Land of the polar bear
There are just three human settlements in this vast land, all on the west side and originally set up to exploit the large coal deposits that encouraged man to settle in this harsh environment. Today that industrial heritage has largely disappeared with the coal only used in the local power station.
Tourism has taken its place but is a summer-only occupation, and during the long winter Svalbard literally shuts down as ice invades the fjords. For three months there is total darkness when the sun never appears above the horizon and temperatures drop down to -20°C. It doesn’t sound like much of a cruising ground but believe me, from someone who has been cruising the world over, Svalbard is a very special place.
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So is the ship I am cruising on. San Gottardo is a converted Dutch fishing boat, just 65ft long but carefully outfitted to ensure reliability and survivability in this unforgiving region. When you leave the main town of Longyearbyen you are on your own.
Just getting here can be a challenge; Svalbard is a three-day journey from the north of Norway across the Barents Sea, and the weather is unpredictable to say the least. Cruising in this virgin territory requires a sound, seaworthy boat and San Gottardo fits the bill perfectly.
Its purpose in life is to take parties of students around the archipelago to see the effects of global warming first hand. It is also used to study the effects of pollution, landing students on remote beaches to collect and monitor the plastic waste.
I went on one of these expeditions and it took us just an hour to fill a large sack with plastic waste from a tiny area. Most of it was fishing debris, nets, ropes and plastic crates. There was also a huge amount of wood, which given that not a single tree grows on Svalbard, must have floated in from elsewhere.
This almost total lack of vegetation takes some getting used to. During the summer the slopes turn a pale imitation of green as plant life tries to establish a presence during the short season but this is soon swept away when winter snows return. The sea freezes over and all boating comes to a halt.
It takes a tough sort of resident to exist through these harsh winters but the wildlife seems to cope. There are more polar bears on Svalbard than people, about 3,000 bears to 2,500 people.
The bears are dangerous and it is mandatory for any landing parties to be accompanied by a trained person with a rifle. If any bears are spotted, you beat a hasty retreat, after all the bears were there first. Walruses are a different matter.
When we anchored for our first night under the lee of Prins Karls Forland, a long uninhabited island that extends down the West Coast, we had no sooner dropped anchor when walruses came alongside to investigate. Maybe they were hopeful of some easy pickings of food but in Svalbard you don’t throw anything over the side.
It did feel strange to land on an uninhabited island and it was our rifle-equipped lookout that spotted the polar bear. It was some distance away but we wasted no time getting back on board.
Time to head off back into Isfjorden, the main fjord that extends over 100 miles inland and provides a magnificent cruising ground that could keep you occupied for a week. We picked a spot in the side fjord of Ymerbukta where a glacier meets the sea.
A constant flow of ice drifted past. In the next fjord, called Trygghamna, a vertical wall of rock soars up to a 2,000ft peak, home to a vast population of guillemots. There was also an old whaling station, a relic from the days when whaling was a big industry here. Today all fishing is banned in the waters around Svalbard.
The final frontier
After a night at anchor we took the tender ashore to get up close and personal with the glacier. This wall of ice, perhaps 100ft high, had taken thousands of years to reach the sea on its long journey from the mountains inland. Explosive bangs heralded the breaking off of sections of ice as it plunged into the sea with an enormous splash.
After the cold of the glacier we headed across Isfjorden to the smaller of the two main coal-mining towns, Barentsburg. It was established by a Russian company and was shelled by the German warship Tirpitz during the Second World War.
Now it is slowly making the transformation from coal mining to a tourist centre with the Norwegian Government investing huge sums of money into a new sports hall and hotel whilst the Russians still try to keep a toe-hold on a place they also lay claim to.
There is even a bust of Lenin in the town square and a Russian pub with a model of a red polar bear and a bar adorned with messages from visiting yachties who have made the long journey north and climbed the 250 steps from the quay to the pub!
After this we returned to Longyearbyen for the night. Longyearbyen was established by American businessman John Munroe Longyear, when he opened a coal mine over 100 years ago. Longyearbyen still has the feel of a frontier town.
All the buildings are made of wood and built on stilts to cope with the permafrost underground. The Norwegian royal yacht was also in the harbour as well as tourist boats running day trips and longer cruises round the archipelago.
On my last day we took a trip up to Templefjord, named after the amazing sand-coloured cliffs that have been weathered into shapes resembling Indian temples. We came up this fjord with a purpose to collect more plastic waste. After the customary polar bear search, it took us just an hour to collect a big bag full which was left for collection by helicopter.
Into the wild
It is difficult to explain the sheer scale of this amazing landscape. We only scratched the surface of Svalbard and apart from the small townships it is wild country with no signs of man ever having been here. In the winter it is all ice and snow but when summer comes this is a fantastic cruising ground.
You need a sound boat and a strong crew because you have to be totally self-sufficient and just getting here involves cruising across 500 miles of open ocean. There are lights on some of the important headlands but they are so remote that there is no guarantee they will be operational.
Even at the entrance to Longyearbyen there are just two buoys marking a dangerous shoal patch. GPS has transformed the navigation around Svalbard and the electronic charts are generally accurate and reliable. The tide has a rise and fall of about 4ft but there can be quite strong currents in some of the narrow channels.
The harbour authorities are helpful and there is limited alongside berthing for visiting craft but anchorages are also available at both of the main ports.
Svalbard may be a challenge for the cruising yacht but it would be well within the capabilities of something like a Nordhavn or other tough displacement trawler yacht. From observations made during my visit it seems that it is mainly sailboats that make this long journey north at present but there is plenty of scope for a long distance motor yacht to visit this enchanting place near the end of the world.
Once here there are day trips in RIBs and other small boats but much better to head off on your own and find some of the remote anchorages that make this archipelago one of the most fascinating cruising grounds in the world.
First published in the January 2020 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.