Stranded on Svalbard

Feb 28, 2011

To the editor: We cast off from Tromsø in Norway at noon on the first Saturday in August and set our course north for the Svalbard Islands above the Arctic Circle. I had three experienced sailors, climbers and mountain rescuers with me on board Explore North, an Ovni 435 sloop: Espen Nilsen, Bengt Flygel Nilsfors, and Tor Andre Skjelbakken. A few days later, we had ice watch the bow as we slid into Hornsund, the first fjord on the southwest coast of Spitsbergen, the largest of the Svalbard Islands. The wind was from the north and the bay at Isbjørnhamna, outside the Polish research station, gave the best hold for the anchor.

Only 50 meters away was a boat from St. John’s in the Caribbean. They were waiting for the right weather window to get south, and had an ice watch to keep the growlers and icebergs away from their gel coat. With our aluminum hull we worried less about that, but when it was time for a hike in the hills only two of us went ashore. The other two were back in the boat to fend off the biggest lumps of ice so that our anchor wasn’t broken loose.

The next day, we went to the Bellsund and the Van Keulenfjorden. In Fleur de Lys Bay we found shelter, good anchor holding and a perfect view of the glacier at the end of the fjord. A trip on shore under the midnight sun, which shines from April 20 to August 23, was mandatory. On the beach there were three old whaleboats with the bottom up that were in surprisingly good condition, and an RIB that was not quite in such good condition. A polar bear had left claw marks on the rubber and deflated the boat.

There are an estimated 3,000 polar bears in the Svalbard area, and most of them are in the northeast part of Spitsbergen. Bears that venture as far south as Bellsund in the summertime have a hard time finding enough food.

We finished the day with a nightcap and went to bed. We didn’t get many hours of sleep. Espen woke up at 4:30 at the sound of the stern hitting the beach. Before we managed to get dressed we where sideways on the strand. We were knee deep in ice water in a useless effort to push the boat off. There was no way we could budge the 12.5 tons of boat against wind and small choppy waves. The 4-hp dinghy was just as useless for getting us into deeper water.

The only thing we could do was to get on board, get some heat in our legs and wait for the tide to run out. Never had we all needed a drink more than at 5:30 that morning. We downed the rum accompanied to the sound of waves smashing into the hull.

We slept well, except for Bengt, he remained awake on polar bear watch. He didn’t want our dinghy to suffer the same fate as the ripped RIB on the beach.

At noon we checked the tide table and my nausea rose faster. The next high tide was 10 centimeters lower than the previous one. In fact, for the next three weeks it would only be a lower and lower high tide. A glance into the fjord almost made me lose my breakfast. The ice from the Nathorst glacier was being blown towards us at an alarming pace. There wasn’t much going our way today.

One of the reasons we had for sailing to Svalbard was to get a sense of remoteness and the adventure of being totally self-sufficient. But the feeling of remoteness and not being able to cope on our own was overwhelming, until a two-masted French sailing yacht came into the bay. I immediately called him on the VHF.

“Sailboat on your way in to Fleur de Lys, this is Explore North on the beach.”

The boat was named Albarquel and was sailing with tourists and had only planned to stop an hour in Fleur de Lys, but after hearing about our predicament the skipper decided to wait for high tide and assist us. My stomach settled a little.

An hour before high tide the French skipper came on the VHF: “Explore the North this is Albarquel. A polar bear is on the way towards you. Expect him in the next hour.”

Just what we needed, we thought, as we were still high and dry.

Our polar bear guard on deck was further intensified. We dug out the gravel in front of the boat, rowed the towing line to Albarquel, pulled out the anchor and did everything we could to prepare for maximum high tide. The whole time we had a constant polar bear guard with a rifle on the deck.

This bear found himself a reindeer carcass in the bay just south of us, but he was obviously finished with that. Now he was heading for us at an easy pace. At full speed a polar bear can cover 40 meters in one second. We didn’t want him too close as we where a sitting duck.

Fifty meters from the boat, Bengt shot a flare just to the right of him. He jumped curiously towards it, but pulled back when he smelled phosphorus. I shot right in front of him so that he was sprayed with stones. The polar bear thought for a few seconds and then walked away. It turned a few times to look at us, but soon disappeared over the hill.

We emptied the water tanks and put 100 liters of diesel and 100 liters of water in the extra tanks on board the dinghy — which is secured between the boat and water to keep it from a possible returning polar bear.

The guests aboard Albarquel really get their money’s worth as they watched from a safe distance: A towing operation and a close encounter with a polar bear.

The tow broke after we had moved about 50 centimeters. We fixed that and slowly Explore North started to turn on all the small round rocks, got into the water then increased speed. Soon we were floating. None of the knots we used would come open. All had to be cut.

The feeling of relief was overwhelming. Smiles all the way around. We have managed to get out of a difficult situation that we really shouldn’t have been in. But I guess that is called learning.

We gave the skipper of Albarquel one of our ropes as thanks for his help and as compensation for his rope that broke. He very reluctantly took it. He was a sailor of the old school and does what he can to help other sailors in trouble. He knows next time it could be him.

The consequences of all your decisions when in Svalbard or other polar regions are infinitely greater than when cruising along the mainland. The worst-case scenario for us was that the boat had to be left on the beach for weeks. Consider the worst-case scenario for all situations, and prepare accordingly.

Jon Amtrup is a writer, the Oceans Editor of Explorersweb.com, author of The Harbour Guide Bergen-Kirkenes and runs the adventure company Explore North in Norway. He can be reached at jon@explorenorth.no

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