It’s after 10 p.m., and the sunlight is just starting to fade. Twilight mixes with drizzle as we cruise into the harbor, hoping for a place to tie up that doesn’t involve a halfdozen lines and a spread of rocks at the base of a towering fjord. I peek from beneath the hood of my bright-yellow, Gorton’s Fisherman jacket. Clumps of people cavort onshore-windowshopping, bar-hopping, and walking off what were undoubtedly massive dinner plates of freshly caught salmon. The locals carry umbrellas the way the rest of us might wear a wristwatch, just part of the daily ensemble in a place where it rains, on average, 219 days each year.
Capt. Charles Houal maneuvers our Swan 62, Early Purple, past the bulbous bow of an oil tanker tied up near the ferry dock. It’s one of at least a half-dozen behemoths sharing the harbor with pleasure boats tonight, like a collective welcome mat announcing Norway’s status as Europe’s leading oil and natural gas producer. Mate Arnaud Tallemet and chef Aurore Brin scramble on deck, and soon we’re tucked in just like the big boys.
Our lines look like the thinnest pull of dental floss next to the commercial-grade monsters, but no matter. We’ll share the cleats for the night-that is, what little of night there will be. This is the city of Bergen, Norway’s second largest after the capital of Oslo. We’re about 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It is early August, so the sun will be back up in about four hours. It doesn’t so much set here as wink between fleeting moments of dusk and dawn.
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The heart of Norway’s fjord country, with Bergen as its base, is not your typical charter destination. I find myself here by sheer luck of timing and the yacht owner’s personal cruising schedule, which likely will be the parameters for you, too, if you want to charter in Scandinavia. The season is so short and the location so far from the popular Western Mediterranean that only a handful of international charter yachts visit each summer. In January, Peter Insull’s announced that the 158-foot motoryacht Grace had just become the first superyacht to position year-round for charter in Norway’s fjords, but in general, charters here remain catch-as-catch-can, as mine is. Early Purple’s owners are preparing for a 200-mile cruise up Norway’s west coast, where the yacht will sail through the fjords at Viking friendly latitudes north of the parallel that crosses Juneau, Alaska. They arrive in a week, which gives the crew time to squeeze in a quick charter with me.
It will be only the third charter that Early Purple has performed since the owners took possession of the 2002 build in 2006.
“Charter has not been the priority for this boat,” Houal tells me, rattling off the list of destinations the owners have sailed during the previous three years. There’s Houal’s own hometown of Brittany, France, followed by the Côte d’Azur, Corsica, Italy, the Caribbean, Cuba, and Scotland. “Beginning in winter 2009-10, we plan to pick up our charter schedule more than in the past. We will start in Saint Maarten and then move during the summer of 2010 to someplace new. Maybe South America. Maybe the South Pacific.”
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Traipsing the globe aboard the beautifully maintained Early Purple seems to be Houal’s natural calling. He came aboard with the new owners, whose first yachting experience was a charter he performed for them aboard another Swan 62 in the Caribbean. They stole him away to show them the world, as opposed to frequenting the harbors from Antigua to Antibes that become home bases for so many other charter yachts. The cruising style, as it affects charter, suits Early Purple’s design, which includes a spacious cockpit for outdoor dining as well as a large indoor seating area, plus a sizable master cabin aft that affords the primary charterer a great deal of privacy. On a boat this size, during a charter of a week or more in a place where civilization is minimal, it’s important to have such “changes of scenery” during mealtime, as well as a place to retreat on occasion.
The owners’ off-the-beaten-course cruising style and resulting charter locations also require an attitude and skill set that not all skippers possess. Early Purple’s crew arrived in Norway just a few days before I did, and Houal, still reading the charts and cruising guides himself, is ready to explore. I am thrilled to join him aboard this Swan 62, which offers a charter experience far different than larger motor or sailing yachts might. There is a quietness to the cruising, a feeling of connectedness to the nature-which is key in a location where natural surroundings are the main event. I’ve cruised into Portofino, Italy, aboard a nearly 200-foot, chartered Feadship. Cruising into Norway’s coves aboard Early Purple is entirely different and yet just as mesmerizing, making me feel almost like a bird setting down within the wilds that man has yet to discover.
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We gunkhole in Early Purple’s dinghy just south of Bergen. I see a glacier in the distance, but the ones that carved these waters are long gone. Now, the place looks almost lake-like, as if nature crossed the wilds of coastal Maine with the summer camps of New York’s Lake Placid. I see no bars, no restaurants, and little development beyond family homes. Each has a boathouse, most painted barn red, mustard yellow, or worn white. Kids leap from short bridges into the chilly water below, or cruise from home to home in runabouts that provide the same kind of freedom that T-Birds bring teenagers on Midwestern Main Streets. It’s a place that civilization has found, but mercifully not yet conquered.
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Later that evening, Houal pulls Early Purple into a tree-ringed cove about an hour’s cruise away, at Lysøen Island. He kills the engine, and the silence is mesmerizing. A tap of a button on our windlass and it sounds like a high-powered crane. The place isn’t just natural. It’s blissfully raw.
The same is, of course, true of Norway’s sky-scraping fjords, which bring some 300 cruise ships into Bergen each year precisely because of their unconquerable beauty. We don’t have time to sail into them aboard Early Purple, so I hop on a tour boat and take the half-day looksee under a heavy canopy of fog and a biting, cold rain.
We get as far north as Osterfjorden and the village of Vikanes, and it’s enough for me to sense what the cruising farther north will be like. The view on either side of the boat is not unlike Alaska, only with the blue-white-black palette replaced by olivebrown- gray. Hardy, green-leafed trees climb into the clouds while the water dives some 2,000 feet beneath our keel. An occasional waterfall trickles into view. Here and there I see nooks in the rocky base-it’s not a shoreline-and imagine them as a place to tie a line (or five, as is sometimes required).
How amazing it would be to explore this place aboard a wellappointed charter yacht like Early Purple, bringing comfort, solitude, and fine dining along for the journey. I envy Early Purple’s owners and wonder where we charter guests will get to follow them next.
Early Purple is part of the charter fleet at Nautor Swan. She takes two to five guests with three crew at a lowest weekly base rate of 14,000. +44 2380 454880, [email protected]_;_ www.swanyachts.co.uk_._