Each July, 15 to 20 yachts make the 500-nautical-mile trip from northern Norway to the Svalbard Islands. Most are constructed of metal, and other than Wind Horse, all are sail. Permission to visit must be obtained well in advance. You apply to the Sysselmenn (governor) stating your experience, equipment, and desired itinerary. If approved, you then post a bond to pay for search-and-rescue costs, if you ask for help within SAR range.
Seeing a polar bear is one of our goals, and also a major risk of cruising these waters. Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, and typically eat seals, but are known to chow down on the occasional human, if hungry. As a result, a Norwegian requirement for going ashore is to be armed. Most cruisers rent .308 caliber World War II German Mauser rifles (ours is dated 1940). These are bolt action, fire one shot at a time; reliable, but slow. If you kill a bear you must prove you were at risk, the shooting must be done at close range, and you had better know what you are doing. Two shots, at most, is all you get once the bear starts to move toward you.
We normally cruise on our own, but because of the bear risks, and to help stand anchor watch for ice, we are joined aboard by our good friend Joe Kutschka. Joe is an experienced hunter, and a veteran of South Pacific as well as Alaskan cruises. Joe carries the Mauser ashore and the two of us carry bear spray, as well as flare pistols, the latter hopefully to discourage inquisitive behavior.
Without benefit of the Gulf Stream, the east coast of Svalbard is much cooler than the west. As a result, the sea ice that forms over winter is thicker, and takes longer to break up. When it does start to move, prevailing winds will often push the sea ice around the south end of Spitsbergen Island and into the southern fjords. Sea-ice incursion has been known to trap unwary yachts.
Fully protected anchorages don’t exist in this part of the world. Wind and current can bring the ice pack to visit if you are in the northern islands, or glacier and sea ice anywhere else. On two occasions, ice will chase us out of anchorages. Cruising here is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards make it worth the effort. Visiting Svalbard is a visual treat beyond almost anything else on the planet. Sixty percent of the islands are covered with ice and there are tidewater glaciers everywhere we look. There is a breathtaking contrast between the stark white of the ice, bare rock, blue sky, and dark water. Less than 14 inches of precipitation fall in an average year, making this a virtual desert. Between the glaciers, rock, and climate, just 10 percent of the land mass has any ground cover during the short summer.
And there is abundant wildlife. Millions of sea birds, whales, walrus, seals, fox, reindeer, and polar bear share their habitat with us.
European exploration of Svalbard began in the latter part of the 16th century with William Barents doing a bit of coastal cruising during 1596. Initially driven by the quest for a shorter route to the Indies, whaling and then fishing quickly became the draw. Seventeenth- through 19th-century explorers and whalers worked their way through the ice pack as far as 82 degrees north, under sail, without benefit of global warming or internal combustion engines. The 20th century brought coal mining to the islands. More recently, tourism has become the main economic thrust.
There is also a history of Arctic exploration, in particular the race to the North Pole. Names like Amundsen and Nansen are etched in the history of Svalbard. The dry Arctic climate is especially good at preserving remains and the islands abound with artifacts.
Now, a deck of low clouds hangs over us. There is ice pack to the west and northeast but it looks clear directly to the north. After 20 minutes—and a hearty meal of burritos, salad, and fruit—the fog has lifted enough to tempt us farther north.
The entire Polar ice pack is in constant motion, drifting with ocean currents and wind. The same is true of the open leads in the ice around the perimeter of the pack, which can change position with disconcerting swiftness.