Arctic sailing gets tourists up close with nature and melting glaciers between Norway and the North Pole
Welcome to no-man’s-land. The world’s northernmost township with a permanent population, Longyearbyen in the Svalbard archipelago, is gaining in popularity as a gateway to the icy north for sailing tours
The tiny, iced-over pier at Longyearbyen, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, is so slippery when I get out of the taxi that I can barely stand, let alone walk to the gangplank with my two heavy rucksacks. The packing list for a week-long sailing trip in the Arctic is, unsurprisingly, long.
A mining outpost at latitude 78 degrees north, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town with a permanent population – just over 2,000 inhabitants.
Long considered a no-man’s land, any nationality can live and work visa-free here (Thais are the second largest ethnic group after Swedes, for example). Taxes are low, as is social support. You can neither be born nor buried here – the permafrost pushes everything back up, out of the earth.
The all-Dutch, five-person crew aboard the Noorderlicht, a 20-person traditional sailing ship, is busy preparing for a late afternoon departure as the guests begin to appear. Though dwarfed by a couple of larger ships in the harbour, the former lighthouse vessel, built in 1910, stands out red against the overcast sky and stark landscape – the snowy mountains on the other side of the fjord are hidden under a blanket of fog.
Spirits are high as we sail towards our first stop, the bay of Borebukta in northwestern Isfjorden, as are the temperatures by Arctic standards – a balmy minus 4 degrees Celsius (25 Fahrenheit). It’s spring, and the first birds are arriving in the archipelago.
Expedition leader for World Expeditions Sarah Gerats tells us a freakishly warm February has caused fjord ice to melt, so our itinerary – exploring the North Spitsbergen archipelago – will be decided daily.
That evening, the captain and owner of the Noorderlicht, Floris De Waard, steers the ship while we enjoy a hot dinner in the comfort of the two communal dining cabins, the red of his face matching his beard, which gathers icicles as the temperature drops.
First mate Robert Wolting gives us a lighthearted but stern safety briefing and talks us through “man overboard” protocol. You get about one minute of survival time in cold water, per degree of the water, he says. So here, where the average water temperature is below zero, you are technically already dead before you hit the surface.
It snows overnight, and we wake to a white fog that reveals little of the landscape. I’ve slept remarkably well in a tiny, shared cabin, to the gentle rocking of the boat, anchored in the calm waters of Borebukta.
We sail to Boremorenene for a morning landing. Gerats, armed with a half-loaded rifle and a flare gun, instructs us to stick together in case we run into a polar bear. About 3,000 polar bears live in Svalbard (only 2,600 people) and outside Longyearbyen people are required by law to carry a rifle.
Moments into our walk, we come across a set of large paw prints. It looks like the bear was headed towards the water, so we proceed, following its tracks, curious to see where they originate. Soon, however, we come to an area where the tracks are fresh enough that the shape of his claws can be clearly seen. We realise that the bear had in fact come out of the water and was, like us, heading inland.
We hike up to a point high enough for Gerats to survey the land with binoculars. From the top of the hill, we see from the bear’s tracks he has slid down playfully on his behind, then wandered off, out of sight.
“We often find the bears are watching us and appear just as we leave, out of curiosity,” she says.
Before heading back, we take in the expanse of the white, snow-covered terrain around us. A charcoal sky and sea frame the bay of Adventfjorden. There are no trees, no houses, no hum of traffic – as the silence expands across the open, monochrome landscape we can almost hear the breeze stroke our cheeks.
On board, a hearty lunch awaits us, courtesy of the ship’s chef, Gabriella Reussien, who throughout the week miraculously produces gourmet meals from the confines of a tiny lower deck kitchen.
We anchor up and head for Trygghamna, meaning “safe harbour”, for a second landing. The sea is uncannily calm, and a single walrus reclines lazily on a sheet of floating ice.
We’re hoping for a second snowy hike but the air gets whiter, the snowflakes fatter, until it’s impossible to distinguish between the moraines – formed from glaciers pushing against the shore – and the glacier. The snow is at times unpredictably deep, causing us to stumble and fall.
Turning back towards the shore, giant cracks mark the sea ice under our feet, and it groans and creaks as it moves beneath us.
While Europe experienced an extreme cold snap this winter, Arctic temperatures were 20 degrees Celsius above average in some areas. “The sea ice is moving, shrinking,” says Gerats. “Within my lifetime, we will be able to sail all the way to the North Pole.”
That the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet is having a detrimental effect on the wildlife, especially ice-dependent species such as polar bears, narwhals, bonehead whales and belugas, says Nils Harley Boisen, Arctic adviser for the global conservation body WWF in Norway.
“We’re all ice-dependent species,” says Boisen. “Everything is linked. And it’s not just global warming: the extremity – and unpredictability – of weather patterns is going to increase.”
Animation: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Centre Scientific Visualisation Studio. The Blue Marble data is courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC).
During landings we are asked to leave nothing behind, and to take nothing – except perhaps a chunk of glacier ice for a whisky from the captain’s mini bar. We keep a respectful distance from any wildlife we come across, whether it's the wild reindeer we find grazing on the moss under the ice or the elusive arctic fox.
Tourism was practically non-existent before 1990 in Spitsbergen, as the Svalbard archipelago, which has a history of coal mining and hunting, was originally named. This year, some 70,000 visitors are expected in Longyearbyen, according to Visit Svalbard. The cruise ships are getting larger, too, and this year a 4,500-capacity vessel will be making three calls at the port.
“The sector is expected to grow in the years to come,” says the executive director of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, Frigg Jørgensen. “Asia, and China in particular, is becoming an increasingly important outbound market for polar expedition cruising.”
Large cruises attract those looking for a more luxurious on-board experience, while smaller expedition vessels tend to favour hiking, and getting people closer to nature, Jørgensen says, because they allow access to more remote locations.
Over the week, our small group – mostly Europeans in their 40s to 60s – get to know each other and the crew well. We are encouraged to give a hand with the sailing, and on one occasion the captain leaves me at the wheel for a while, instructing me to keep the compass needle pointed to 88N.
The weather clears over the week as the temperature drops, revealing a pristine sky. Less pack ice means we can make several landings as we explore the archipelago’s most beautiful shores. Our hikes take us up close to ice blue, sculpted glaciers such as Gaffelbreen and Esmarkbreen.
On “fresh” Arctic mornings (minus 9C) the snow glitters like a gaudy Christmas card. With no shadows, the white is blinding.
Each stop reveals something different, from Barentsburg – a Russian mining town frozen in time – to the majestic Alkhornet mountain, aptly named after an elk’s horn, where clouds of kittiwake birds fly towards us off the water then swirl around the jutting cliff face.
We become accustomed to life at sea, experts at bundling ourselves in multiple layers at a moment’s notice, and hopping over ice plates to board a slippery Zodiac inflatable boat.
We come across ice as we’ve never seen it before. Sailing out of St Jonsfjorden, melting “pancake ice” transforms the sea surface into a scaly snakeskin. At Eidembukta, the water, wind and ice interact, creating claw-like formations that drip over the shores, and giant, clear blue ice sculptures drip further inland.
The only time we feel seasick is at the end of the week, as we head deeper into the archipelago’s eastern fjords, and get a taste of rough Arctic seas. Glasses rattle and a bench falls over. We clutch our lunch plates and watch the horizon lurch in the windows from the upstairs cabin as the winds blow us at high speed back towards Longyearbyen.
By the end of the week, the midnight sun has arrived; the next sunset won’t be until late August. Returning to the pier, we disembark somewhat reluctantly, having enjoyed being off land, and offline. The white bear never did make an appearance – perhaps he was watching us from afar after all.
Longyearbyen is a three-hour flight from Oslo, which can be reached from Hong Kong via Stockholm (12 to 13 hours). The writer was a guest of World Expeditions (worldexpeditions.com), which offers small-group expedition cruises in the Arctic.