From Summit to Sea Level
When it comes to my passions, I’d be hard-pressed to choose between sailing and skiing. So when a friend suggested sailing to the Arctic in search of new places to ski, I felt I’d finally been given my cake and told to eat it, too. That’s how I found myself standing on the snow-covered runway of Troms airport, the northernmost city in the world, ski gear in one bag, sailing gear in the other.This may not come as a surprise, but it was awfully difficult to find a boat to charter at those latitudes. There were a few fully crewed Norwegian fishing boats, but we wanted a bareboat from which we could sail and ski at our own whim. I was thrilled to discover Katarina, a lovely Bavaria 44, on the small Arctic island of Skjervoy at 70 degrees north. To reach her, my shipmates Nate, Penney, Rosie, Paolo and I had to fly a tiny plane from Troms into the heart of the Arctic. As I peered through the window, staring out over Norway’s northern coast with its intricate fjords and towering white-capped mountains, I felt I had arrived at the edge of the world.
We met Roger, Katarina’s owner, at the airport and he joined us on the 15-mile sail to Skjervoy, which gave me time to get used to the boat and him time to get used to me driving her. The wind was blowing a sustained 30 knots, and we stayed heavily reefed all day. As we made our way into the picturesque fishing village, we had to pull out axes to chip away at the ice-covered deck cleats to tie up. Standing in the cockpit with an ice pick in one hand and a sailboat beneath me, I knew sailing in the Arctic would be different from anything else I had ever experienced. I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it.
Walking around Skjervoy, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a well-stocked supermarket where we provisioned for the next 10 days. When the sun finally set, it was around 2300 and the little village looked idyllic. I wondered what it would be like to live in this forgotten white wilderness amongst these hardy Arctic fishermen.
As is often the case when I travel, most of our luggage got lost, although the airline agreed to try to get it to us within a couple of days. Meanwhile,we were without skis, so we decided to sail north in search of ksfjordjkulen Glacier. As we sailed up the fjord I couldn’t stop looking at the GPS…70 degrees north! Were we really less than 20 degrees from the North Pole? It was an exciting sail with strong winds and choppy seas. Unfortunately, the visibility was poor when we arrived, so we could barely see the allegedly spectacular glacier.
It was getting colder now, and as the wind nipped at our heels, we realized our limited wardrobes would not keep us warm until our luggage arrived. The wind was also steadily increasing, and we heard on the radio that many of the fishing boats were coming in to find shelter. Nate, Paolo and I studied the charts and decided to head for a place called Kvnangen, which looked suitably protected. Docking a yacht in the fjords is quite a challenge. The docks are all built for large Arctic fishing vessels and are not really suitable for a small sailboat. To add to the fun, the tidal range is over 10 feet, so we had to use very long spring lines. Finally, however, we managed to secure our boat.
Kvnangen was stunningly beautiful—another magical fishing village with snow-covered beaches and docks. That evening we celebrated a late Christmas as Nate, Penney and Paolo came on board with sacks of warm clothes they found in a local hardware store, the sole retail establishment in Kvnangen. We bundled up in Norwegian woollen socks and thermals, furry boots and Gore-tex gloves, and had a good laugh at ourselves. None of our outfits matched, but at least we were warm.
As we sailed up Burfjord the following day, the wind picked up to 35 knots and the temperature dropped to 14 degrees. The seas were high and our deck was quickly covered in ice. To add to the excitement, our mainsail furler jammed. I’m not a fan of furling mainsails at the best of times, but in these extreme conditions, it was even more frustrating to have to cope with one. Still, as we sat huddled in the cockpit, sipping our hot soup, I couldn’t remember ever feeling so content, so alive. Our luggage was still nowhere to be found, so we decided to sail on and continue exploring the desolate white wilderness.
The following day, after a beautiful night in Srkjosen Harbor, we awoke to a dead calm. It was a clear blue day, and the once choppy sea had an oily, shiny surface. Then came the exciting news: our luggage had arrived! We were to meet it about 25 miles east of our current anchorage. With no wind, the fjords were still and silent as we quietly motored through the silky water.
It felt surreal to pull up to that small jetty in the middle of nowhere and find a pile of familiar-looking luggage piled on the dock, as if delivered by elves. We were delighted to be reunited with our bags, our warm clothes and, especially, our skis.
That evening, which we spent in the village of Havnnes, was the best of the entire trip. Wandering around this little chocolate-box village, I felt like I was on a movie set. We also took on fresh water and could have taken on fuel had we needed it. There was a little store that sold basic provisions and a pretty little post office where we were able to buy and send postcards.
Earlier in the trip, before our skis arrived, we had spotted a mountain that we wanted to ski, so we left Havnnes at dawn and sailed a short way up the Lyngen Fjord. As pink light spilled across the rocks around us, I sipped my coffee realized how I live for moments like this.
Putting on ski boots and walking up the jetty with skis over our shoulders felt almost surreal. Naturally, there are no ski lifts in this part of the world, but there are literally thousands of mountains to inspire a passionate skier. We always choose mountains that are easy to climb and safe to ski, and this policy seemed especially prudent now that we were in the middle of nowhere. Every mountain we skied during our adventure offered a very straightforward ascent. Some days, the climbs were more challenging because of strong winds, but most days we enjoyed an easy-going three- to four-hour walk to the summit. As exciting as it was to sail through the fjords, looking down on them from above provided an equal rush. The views were—without a doubt—the most beautiful I have ever seen.
As it happened, we hit some supreme snow conditions, but the skiing in this part of the world is amazing no matter what snow falls. We were, after all, skiing in the Arctic Circle. We didn’t see another soul, the views were incredible and we were skiing down to our boat rather than a resort. At 15 degrees south of the North Pole, standing on the summit of the Lyngen Alps and looking down at Katarina at anchor below, I was quite literally on top of the world.