By Charlie O'Bryan (L6, BH)
We descended into the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø to begin our adventure to Svalbard, and soon we were exiting the fjords of northern Norway, heading into the grey sea that seemed to stretch on for eternity. We saw spurts of water on the horizon, and within an hour a pod of whales had come close enough for us to see their tails, before diving back into the depths. Twelve hours later we spotted a pod of dolphins, hundreds of them, about half a kilometre behind the boat. Later that night, which was still light due to the 24-hour sunlight in the arctic, they came right alongside the boat where they swam with us and our entourage of arctic terns and seagulls for much of the journey.
After five days afloat we saw our first glimpse of land, first the peaks of mountains above the curvature of the earth, and then the glaciers rolling down the land mass and onto the sea, although it was another full day before we reached land and were able to really marvel at the scale, landscape and beauty of the fjord - the size of Devon - that we were in. Snow peaked mountains surrounded us, and down fifteen minutes’ worth of track was the capital city of just 2,000 occupants; Longyearbyen. It had a real rugged last outpost feel about it, and despite the luxuries and small university there, you could not escape the feeling that all of this was perched on the fringes of where man could go.
We also explored Ny-Alesund, the northernmost settlement in the world, we saw where Amundsen started his doomed attempt to try to cross the north pole in a zeppelin, and, among other things, visited “the northernmost” everything in the world! We encountered enormous icebergs, larger than houses, drifting as close as we dared to get to a huge glacier, and we reached our northernmost point of the trip; 79 degrees north, and from there on started to head south.
After a day of sailing south in sunny weather, I was woken to a pitching boat being thrown around in rolling waves, wind and rain slashing into the sails and rigging. After we had reached a speed of 15 knots, plunging down the back of a 40-foot wave, the decision was taken that we should bring in the sails and ‘lye a-hull’, which I was told meant bringing everything in, turning side to the waves and waiting it out. By this time, however, the gale had reached a storm force twelve hurricane status with winds of 60-70 knots and 30 to 50-foot waves, bigger than buildings!
Nobody had predicted this storm and so contacting the outside world to work out when it may pass over was vital. I realised the seriousness of the situation we were in when I overheard the captain tell his wife our coordinates and how he wasn't sure if the boat would make it. We stowed everything away for fear of capsizing and lay in bed, as this was the only thing we could do, not eating for 36 hours. The worst part of this was that even though we were exhausted and in bed, there was no chance of sleep due to the shuddering rolling boat, the noise of the waves and wind, and constant fear. Had we sunk, the life craft would not have survived the waves and we would all have died of hypothermia within four minutes.
However, after two days the storm began to subside, and we once again began to sail with the winds south to the northernmost coast of Norway. Whilst it was a relief to finally be on dry land, part of me wished I was still in Svalbard, as the trip flew by and it was truly a once in a lifetime experience. While the storm was utterly terrifying, it was all part of the journey and was unlike anything I had ever, and probably will ever, do in my lifetime.