Last June, on the longest day of the year, I sailed out of southern Norway aboard a 37ft-long fibreglass-hulled sailboat, bound for one of Europe’s last true wildernesses and the greatest adventure of my life.
An American, I was the only woman sailing with four men – two Norwegians, a German and a Russian. We immediately bonded over our mutual desire to see places few people do in a manner that few people dare.
The destination of our 112-day expedition was the Svalbard archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic, a glacier-covered wilderness home to more polar bears than people. Cruise ships visit Svalbard during the summer months, and you can fly here from mainland Norway year-round. But our journey was something different. We planned to cover more than 7,500km on the Barba, a no-frills sailboat that’s better suited for cruising the Mediterranean than penetrating the polar ice.
We spent the first three weeks of our journey cruising north along the Norwegian coast. Sharing a space the size of a college dorm room, this time gave the five of us a chance to get to know each other – not to mention learn how to sail the boat.
Only the Norwegians, who were first mate and captain, could be considered experienced sailors. And just as we learned that our different nationalities dictated different breakfast preferences, we soon saw that everyone also had a different way of teaching and learning, It took a few squabbles to figure out which crewmembers best worked together at certain on-board tasks, from the sailing itself to shopping for meals.
Living on a sailboat is bit like living on a far-flung island, something that became obvious once we left the Norwegian mainland and made the four-day crossing to Svalbard. We went from constant phone contact with friends and family to signal-less mobiles; the outside world became a distant concept. Instead, we focussed on one all-consuming task: to make it across a cold and sprawling stretch of the Norwegian Sea until we next saw land.
Each crewmember was responsible for sailing the boat and navigating for two hours while the others slept or relaxed. Kicking back during a fairly rough crossing is a relative concept, however. Much of that time was spent laying supine in our shared cabins, trying not to get sick.
It’s times like these when you see the best in people – and also catch them at their worst. When one person is turning green and gripping the rails, that’s when another will suddenly ride a surge of wellness to keep overall spirits afloat. One of us would offer to take extended watches, while another would cook up a mood-boosting snack – as long as you could stomach it, of course.
When we finally arrived in the remote wilderness of southern Svalbard, there were no humans to greet us. There were, however, polar bear tracks.
After so much time on the boat, it felt good to stretch our legs and make a campfire from the logs that float to tree-less Svalbard from Siberia. And without any other distractions, we talked, played music, stared into the fire or just listened to the sounds of nature: Arctic terns wheeled overhead, glaciers calved and ripples washed on rocky shores.
For the next six weeks, we became each other’s shadows on the archipelago. Going for a walk was no longer a way to get some alone time, as only the Norwegians were authorized to handle the rifles that are mandatory to carry in Svalbard for protection from polar bears. You were either a bodyguard or your body needed to be guarded.
There were other dangers, too. If we planned to venture out of sight of the boat, it was imperative to leave someone on board in case the Barba came loose from her anchorage and left us stranded.
But for all the new worries, there was endless room for fun and exploration. Every square inch of the Barba was packed with adventure gear. We took every good-weather window we got to launch paragliders in places we felt quite certain nobody had ever flown before. On one occasion, our captain flew right over a polar bear feeding on bird eggs high up on a cliff.
We scuba dived below the water to explore the surprisingly colourful world of sponges and anemones. And hiking was always full of surprises: you never knew if you’d happen upon whale bones on the beach or find yourself ambling along the edge of a glacier.
Since it never gets dark during the Arctic summer, day and night became fluid. With so much time on our hands, the five of us had many discussions and debates, including about whether a polar bear would ever actually try to board the boat.
Early one morning, we got our answer. “Polar bear! Swimming toward the boat!” Our captain yelled as the rest of us slept below deck. At first I thought it was a joke, but taking no chances, we all popped, up, bleary-eyed, to see a polar bear swimming straight for stern.
We had flare guns and heavier artillery at the ready, but all it took to keep the bear at bay was batting the water with our ice-pushing poles. He was a persistent juvenile, making at least 10 attempts to get on board, but he finally gave up, swimming dejectedly away.
Keeping the boat bear-free was a team effort, as was everything we did in the Arctic. This became particularly clear as we sailed the Barba due north, into the pack ice that surrounds the North Pole, taking her as far as we deemed it safe to go.
At 81 degrees north, we anchored to a floe to go scuba diving under the pack ice where polar bears hunt seals. Some of the crew stayed dry, guns at the ready on polar bear watch, while the lives of those diving were quite literally in their hands.
Afterwards, knowing this was as far north as our adventure would take us, we had an impromptu party with a few gourmet rations we’d stashed away – delicious dried ham from Italy’s south Tyrol and German schnapps.
One of our last stops was the walrus-filled beach at Kapp Lee, a headland on Svalbard’s eastern side. Now making a comeback, walruses on the archipelago were nearly hunted to extinction over a period of about 350 years.
It was late August, and autumn was quickly encroaching. After basking in the midnight sun for months, it was in the walruses’ presence that we witnessed our first sunset and noticed the first webs of frost spreading across the Barba’s deck.
Harsher conditions, both on land and at sea, were on their way. It was time to head south.
We sat for a few hours on the beach at Kapp Lee, surrounded by a chorus of walrus snorts, grunts and burps. We scanned the mountainsides for polar bears in a task that had become normal. There we were, still together after all these weeks, but lost in our own worlds. I let the enormity of where exactly we were – and just how we had made our way there – sink in.
Even now, months after our six-week journey back to civilisation, people ask me about the polar bears, the cold and the seasickness. More than anything, they want to know why I did it.
I did it for the human experience of living on an island, and to see what it was like to be part of a team as if my life depended on it. For those 112 days, it really did.
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