Under the cover of darkness on January 2, Barba made her escape from the homeport of Stavanger. We sailed out in a gale, heading north and with Northern Norway and one of the ocean world´s greatest spectacles as our final destination.
The 800 nautical-mile slog up the Norwegian coast in wintertime is perceived, by most, as an unnecessary punishment of both boat and crew. It is attempted only by the very few. Up north at this time of year, the polar night prevails. It´s blistering cold and storms are frequent. Our eventual goal was to reach the island of Senja, well above the Arctic Circle and facing the open North Atlantic. It is here in the Senja region that the entire Norwegian Orca population is found in January and February, joined by humpbacks and fin whales in large numbers, too. The orcas come to feed on the overwintering spring spawning herring, herding the fish up to the surface and into the shallows in such numbers that the water appears to boil with breaching whales and frightened herring. It is one of the greatest shows nature has to offer, and there is no better way to take part in it than with the flexibility of a sailboat, an adventurous spirit and, of course, a wetsuit for an upclose look at the action.
With only a three-month buffer since we arrived back in the homeport after our previous journey to Svalbard, it has been hectic in the Barba HQ. Over the past few months we´ve undertaken various repairs, installation of new parts, insulation of the hull and, of course, sorting out all the diverse gear we need for this expedition, including tailor made wetsuits from Italy. Barba, a fiberglass Jeanneau, is not really built for these conditions. But the best boat is always the boat you have. And waiting for the perfect occasion and perfect boat often means you don´t get to go out and do want you want to do on the ocean. So I prefer not to wait.
Also essential for any expedition is a competent and trustworthy crew. For our first leg to Tromsø, the capital of Northern Norway, Barba welcomed three new sailors on board. Rasmus Tornqvist from Denmark – a sea dog and a boat builder, engineer and offshore competition sailor – was first to volunteer for the journey. Next to join was Jaap van Rijckevorsel, a former pro sailor from the Netherlands who needed a lift back to Tromsø to continue his doctorate studies. Finally, we had Malin Waage, a landlubber with no previous sailing experience, who jumped at the occasion to catch a ride north to Tromsø, too. The boat was skippered by myself, Andreas B. Heide, from Norway, with adventure, nature and the ocean in particular as my greatest life passions.
The sail up the coast was mostly a pleasant one. Our first concern was the notorious headland at Stadt. Known for bad weather, the peninsula would, back in the day, cause the Vikings to haul their vessels over ground around it, avoiding the seas here altogether. We cruised past Stadt in flat seas and offshore winds with the Gennaker flying high on my birthday, celebrating the good conditions with a ration of rum and cake. From a sailor´s point of view, the beauty of the Norwegian coast is that most of it can be covered inshore. Just Stadt and a few other landmarks force you offshore, where are you fully exposed to often brute force of the North Atlantic.
As we pushed north, the green hills of the south were soon replaced by snow-covered mountains. We adapted a 3-hour watch system and the time flew by as we navigated through narrow fjords and channels, with the weather ranging from snow and gales to calms with clear skies, stars and the gift of the Northern Lights dancing on the horizon. The diesel heater was running continuously below deck and morale was as warm as the temperature, even as outside the mercury plunged to -20 degrees Celsius. On watch it was somewhat cold and, at times, very exciting navigating in more or less continuous darkness through a minefield of underwater rocks.
After 10 days, with two overnight stops along the way, we reached Tromsø early in the morning on January 12. Jaap and Malin signed off while Rasmus and I provisioned and got Barba fine-tuned for the next crew.
Terry Ward, a dear Barba friend and freelance travel writer from the U.S. and a previous crew member on numerous Barba adventures, flew in from Florida. Later in the evening, we picked up Tony Wu, who arrived from Tokyo. Tony Wu is a nature enthusiast and photo naturalist, and ranks among the top underwater photographers in the world. Whales are his current area of expertise. This was to be his first whale interaction in winter time in the Arctic.
Having sorted Arctic clothes for our new adventurers, we sailed out of Tromsø harbor on Friday night (I tend to prefer sailing out at night to make the most of the daytime). The sun had not been seen for the previous five days, and when we left it was still lurking below a snowy horizon. As we passed by the rugged coastline of Senja early in the morning, we were greeted by a humpback whale. Soon after we moored up in one of finest harbors in Northern Norway, Hamn i Senja. Here, there is a nice hotel with a cozy restaurant and bar, an excellent marina, a sauna and a hot tub in an old wooden boat, all surrounded by spectacular views – but little more. Just the way we like it. We are now three days into the adventure with two weeks to go. Yesterday, Tony and I had the pleasure of swimming with around 15 orcas and humpbacks for over an hour in a cove where they were corralling herring into the thousands. The water was shallow, but we couldn´t even see the seafloor due to the density of the schooling herring. And the show that ensued was nothing short of incredible. Out of nowhere, the masses of fish would explode as the ocean´s apex, the orca, came barreling through the school to stun the fish with a tail slap and feed on them, one by one. The orcas came within touching range at times, but some boundaries should not be crossed. The adventure for the Barba crew here in Senja has just begun. It´s a cold, challenging and, at times, dangerous environment. But that is, of course, part of the reason why we are here. To be continued…