A Wild Crossing of the Barents Sea


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Oceans and Seas » Arctic » Barents Sea
September 30th 2009
Published: March 30th 2016
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Southward we went. The winds and the waves became fierce and rain set in, so the captain decided to skip our planned stop in Hornsund, at the southern end of Spitsbergen – The conditions were not good for a landing and there was a huge gale coming in. The ship was made ready for the open ocean and a crossing of the wild Barents Sea. We waived our farewells to Arctic expanses of Svalbard and to the land of the ice bear and we set our sights on the notorious ocean crossing that separated us from the Norwegian shore.



The Barents Sea was known as one of the earth’s stormiest seas and it didn’t disappoint. The ship bounced, and jarred, and rocked, and rolled its way southward for the next four days. For the first day I was fairly seasick, so I spent most of my time in the cabin. Occasionally I emerged on deck for some fresh air. The sea was still alive with bird life, but the wave action and the rain kept most of the other wildlife out of sight. On day two we managed to set several of the sails and we made good time without the engines. We were in a race to reach the fjords of Norway’s northern coast. The forecast was worsening by the day and it sounded like the gale would be huge. The coming storm prevented us from attempting a landing on Bjørnøya, a small, but storied island in the middle of the Barents Sea, and we sailed past it out of sight. In the evening the engines came back on to gain a bit more speed. Even so, the captain was not optimistic that we would reach the safety of the fjords before the gale was upon us. We were in for a bit of a rough ride!





On the morning of our third day we awoke to a fairly calm sea and blue skies. We knew it was the calm before the storm, but we took advantage of the beautiful weather and spent a lot of the day on deck. We spotted great black-backed gulls and gannets, as well as a few puffins and Brünnich’s Guillemots swimming in the sea, which was nice – The puffins were still a ways off, so I never got to see one up close. When we were eating breakfast the captain called us on deck to see a giant dead whale. It was a ways off, but our naturalists thought that it might have been a sperm whale. The fulmars were making a big feast of the cetacean, which made for an interesting sight. At noon the rugged coast of Norway was spotted on the horizon. A few hours later the storm rolled in and the conditions deteriorated quickly. The captain confined us to the inside of the ship and all of the hatches were made watertight. We spent the rest of the evening dodging flying debris in the lounge, which became a bit of a game. The ship was moving in violent motions that made even the simplest task, such as sitting, difficult. The waves were crashing against the hull with such force that the ship shuddered with each impact and the booming reverberations shot through the air like cannon blasts. We were at war with the Barents Sea!



The storm raged through the night. The ship moved violently in every direction and it was difficult to stay in bed. I awoke on two occasions as I was being thrown from the bed, which is a strange way to wake up. Eventually I wedged myself between the bathroom wall and the hull, at the foot of the bed, and held on for the rest of the night. When I staggered up to the lounge the next morning I found all of the portholes shut and everything in a state of disarray. Some of my storm weary companions were gathered below the skylight, looking up at the tattered remnants of one of our sails that had been ripped to shreds in the night. The storm was still raging outside and the rumors were that it had reached storm-force 10 on the Beaufort scale during the night, which would explain why I had been thrown from bed. We cleaned up the lounge and then sat down for a simple breakfast and shared stories from our wild night of adventure. During breakfast we learned that we had reached the shelter of the fjords, which was why the storm seemed to have calmed, but we were still fighting our way to a safe anchorage. A few hours later we heard the clatter of the anchor chain and we knew that we had reached safety.



We remained anchored for the rest of the day, occasionally having to reset the anchor. It was a trying day for me. I love storms and we weren’t allowed on deck during most of it, which made me a little grumpy. Toward evening the winds subsided and we got a nice misty view of the fjord we were in from deck. By dinnertime we were calmly sitting at anchor enjoying the still deck and our first real meal since the storm set in – It was a nice change. We all headed back to our cabins early to catch up on some much needed sleep.



We started the next day early. We weighed the anchor and motored a short distance to a quaint harbor town called Skjervøy, which was located on the island we had anchored beside. Along the way we got wonderfully misty views of the rugged landscape, as well as a big rainbow. I had slept well, so all of the grumpiness I had the day before was gone and I was looking forward to a day of exploring the fjords of Norway’s northern coast. We tied up to the quay in Skjervøy. The captain gave us two hours to explore the town and stretch our legs, so we all set off to see how people lived on such a remote coast. At first there was a fine, misty rain falling on the town, which really accented the charm of the remote fishing village. I spent my time wandering around in the hills above the bay, where I found some amazing traditional homes and some great views. I explored the beautiful church, with its tree-filled yard, and the main road with all of the shops, which looked very nice, despite the fact that the stores were all closed. In one of the stores I found a wolf pelt for sale, which made me sad, considering how endangered the wolves are in Scandinavia.



I made my way to the harbor area at about the same time the rain stopped. The sun came out and set the misty haze aglow. Skjervøy’s beauty really came alive with the coming of the sun. The hills and the trees radiated the bright oranges and yellows of the coming autumn. The colorful houses were all very cute and well proportioned, creating an idyllic image of a coastal town. The harbor was small, but adequate for the town and it was filled with countless fishing vessels of every shape and size. In the crystal clear water we could see jellyfish swimming amongst the boats and the sunken debris in the harbor. The shore was lined with buildings and small boatyards. Large crates of colorful fishing nets and floats added splashes of color to the industrial coldness of some of the buildings.



It was early Sunday morning, yet there were still a lot of people out and about. I had several nice conversations in a mix of Norwegian and English. It seemed that everyone was excited to have a tall ship in the harbor, so I shared our adventures with them. Some of them expressed amazement that we had been caught out in the storm – Apparently it had been as bad as it felt. When I finally made it back to the Antigua the whole quay was filled with idle spectators who had gathered to see the lovely ship that had sailed in – It was the same awe-inspired reaction that tall ships get in every port of call when they sail in. We had to wait for a few of the passengers who had lost track of time, but after about three hours in Skjervøy we said farewell and sailed out into the fjords.



We spent the rest of the day sailing through the rugged scenery of northern Norway. We sailed around Kågen Island and into Maursund, passing a lovely tunnel along the way. The landscape was stunning. The mountains rose to dizzying heights on either side of the sound. Occasionally we passed a remote cabin or farm, at other times we spotted domesticated reindeer or fish farms. We also spotted a lot of wildlife, including a white-tailed eagle, several flocks of eider ducks, shags, ravens and black guillemots. Eventually we turned south into Lyngenfjord. The rugged Lyngen Alps rose up to our right in a series of jagged peaks. We weren’t in the fjord long before darkness set in. We were searching for a safe anchorage for the night. We eventually went to the small town of Manndalen, deep in the fjord. We tied up to their small wharf well after dark. After dinner we were getting ready to go stretch our legs on shore when one of my friends came in and said, “ I don’t know what an aurora should look like, but I see something strange.” We all flooded out on deck and he pointed out the tiny smudge of gray-green in the dark, star-filled sky. I watched it for a second and then confirmed that it was the Aurora Borealis! Excitement flowed through the ship as everyone ran to get his or her camera. Since I was the only one on board with experience photographing auroras, I gave everyone a quick overview on how to do it and then we all set off to find a good place away from the lights of the wharf. Within a few minutes the small green smudge grew to be one of the best aurora shows I had ever seen. Giant ribbons of green and red danced across the night. At times the entire sky was green with dancing light and the ocean reflected it back up, creating a surreal scene. I spent four gleeful hours photographing the auroras, and just watching them dance. It had been four years since I had seen them dance across the Antarctic night and it had always been too cold to just sit and watch them there, so I was excited. On our last night of the voyage everyone’s dreams were answered with a slow dance with the Aurora Borealis – What an amazing treat! At about two in the morning I finally said goodnight to the fading green sky and went back to my cabin.



The following morning we ate breakfast and then went into town, which was a ten-minute walk along the wharf road. There we visited the Sami Handicraft Center, where we saw some amazing crafts from the area and learned a bit about the local culture. We were all back on board by nine when we said farewell to Manndalen and set a course for Tromsø. The scenery, which we had mostly missed the night before, was stunning. Jagged, snow-capped peaks rose up from the water’s edge forming a nearly complete wall. We found waterfalls, a few small farms and some remote cabins – It was the perfect place to get away to. The wind in the fjord was also very cooperative and we were able to set most of our sails and shut off the motors. I asked the captain for permission to go out on the bowsprit to get some pictures of the billowing sails. He didn’t let me out there, but, instead, he did something much better – We dropped the zodiac in the water and went for a voyage around the ship. Getting in and out of the zodiac while we were underway was not as difficult as I thought it would be, but it still took some precise timing and a few helpers. I went out on the first ride and we circled the Antigua two times giving everyone several excellent views of the ship’s wonderful sails. We hurried back on deck and helped the others into the zodiac for their voyage. After everyone had seen the ship under sail we quickly got to work getting the zodiac shipped before we turned west out of the fjord. When we made the turn we lost the wind and had to take in most of the sails, but it had been a great little photographic adventure!



We spent the rest of the day sailing toward Tromsø. The scenery was stunning and mountainous the whole way. As we approached Tromsø the remote feeling that had been with us for the whole voyage started to disappear. The areas along the fjords became built up. Shortly after sunset we sailed under the massive bridge and into Tromsø, which was a huge town known as the Paris of the north. It was shocking to see all of the people and the buildings along the water. The beautiful Tromsdalen Church, better known as the Arctic Cathedral, sat on the far shore and welcomed us to the end of our voyage. We tied up to a lovely little quay in the heart of town. We were given an hour and a half to walk around before our final dinner together. I took my computer and went in search of a place with an Internet connection. I found it in a bar called Scarpan. I called my family and my girlfriend Maria and filled everyone in on my adventures. I then went through my e-mails for a while and then headed back to the ship for our final dinner – The Captain’s Dinner!



I walked into a transformed deckhouse. It looked like a fancy restaurant and was very pleasant. We took our places at the tables at the appointed time and then the feast began. The first course was seasoned cream cheese with chili sauce and a few chips that made it look like a sailing ship, which was delicious. Next came a small piece of perfectly cooked lamb, which was heavenly. Then came the best mushroom soup I had ever tasted, accompanied by bread and olive oil. The main course was filet Mignon, cauliflower and potatoes, which was wonderful. For desert we had a white pudding with berries on top. To finish it off, we had coffee and a small piece of deep-fried Camembert cheese. The meals on the Antigua had been amazing all along, but the Captain’s Dinner was exceptional. Everything had been perfectly cooked and of a caliber that I would only expect from the finest restaurants – Wow!





After dinner we all went out to explore a bit of Tromsø in the dark. The city looked to be a nice place to spend some time. I walked for about an hour and then I did some more Internet stuff. Later, back at the Antigua, we were treated to another big aurora show, though the city lights made it difficult to photograph – It was a nice farewell to the Arctic night and to our voyage of exploration! The next morning most of my friends left for the airport. Stephan and I made plans to meet later at the Polar Museum, and then we went our own ways. My day in Tromsø was a wet one. The rain and mist came down in sheets and made exploring the Paris of the North a bit difficult. I walked as much as I could and then I took a seat in a coffee shop and did some writing. Later I met Stephan at the Tromsø Polar Museum where we explored the varied exhibits on the Arctic realm. The museum was quite nice with large sections on every expedition that we had seen remnants from, as well as the wildlife and whaling days – There were even some aircraft parts found from the seaplane that Amundsen was flying when he disappeared without a trace between Tromsø and Svalbard. After the museum we went back to the Antigua and said our farewells to the ship and crew, grabbed our bags and caught a taxi to the airport.



My voyage on the barkentine Antigua had been amazing, despite my occasionally bad attitude and the disappointments along the way regarding our route and not being allowed aloft. The Arctic landscape didn’t disappoint. Before my voyage, I had talked to several people who had only seen one, or two bears and a distant walrus on a similar voyage they had done in Svalbard, so compared to that our voyage was a veritable wonderland of wildlife encounters and Arctic weather. We had crossed the frozen tundra in the land of the ice bear and survived to tell the tale…



After an uneventful flight back to Oslo and a quick train ride I found myself in Drammen, my Norwegian home. I wasn’t able to make the phone at the train station work, so I walked across the bridge to the bus station on the main square and took it to the stop for Cato and Mona’s house. I walked up the hill to their home and they met me at the door. Their home had been my home base for the several weeks I was in Norway. I spent my last night in Norway with Cato and Mona, my Norwegian family and wonderful friends, talking of the Arctic and having a great time together. I will always cherish my time with them, but it was time to go home!


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1st April 2016

Wow!
What an absolutely terrifying and breathtaking experience (and spectacular photos too)! Thanks for sharing!
1st April 2016
One Last Zodiac Ride

Fabulous adventures
Beautiful sites and sights and gorgeous photos that do them justice. Like you, I've been rather grumpy when told I need to stay below during a storm, where you not only miss the fun, but also are more likely to get seasick. But how great that the captain let you all out on the zodiacs for great photo ops. Love the small towns, auroras and ice bears too. Here's to more adventure!

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