Venture Cruises To Iceland - Part Seven

VENTURE II Heads North from Reykjavik to Akureyri

 

It was 0630 on a bright sunny day with very little wind when we left behind the striking Viking sculpture along the waterfront in Reykjavik harbour. As soon as we were outside the protection of the bay the wind increased to 20 knots from the northeast which whipped up a vicious head sea. Ahead we could see the Snaefells Jokull (glacier) when still 50 miles distant. Strangely, though, it turned out to be more impressive when seen from afar than closer up. Our first stop on our way north was the harbour of Olafsvik where the friendly harbourmaster directed us to tie up against a dock protected with rubber tyres. The problem with these is that they tend to trap the fenders as the boat rises and falls with the tide and fender boards do not really solve the problem. However there was no charge for our stay.

The next day was the 4th of July but there were no marching bands or fireworks. We got underway at 0830 and crossed the Breidafjordur to the Bardastrond peninsula and past the bird cliffs at Latrabjarg. This is the most westerly point in Iceland and therefore in Europe. It was also the most westerly point on our trip. The cliffs run for 9 miles, rise to a height of 1,465 ft and are home to countless numbers of birds. A British trawler was wrecked here during the winter of 1947 and local farmers rescued all 12 crew members by lowering themselves down on ropes and hauling the men 650 feet up the cliff face to safety.

We rounded the headland and found ourselves having to deal with steep head seas very similar to those we had experienced during our passage from the Faroes. But it was only for a couple of hours and conditions began to ease once we made the turn into Talknafjordur. The inner part of the fjord is almost completely closed off by a spit of land and beyond it the water was flat calm. At first this seemed an ideal anchorage but the anchor simply would not hold and after repeated attempts would always break free and come up loaded with weed.

We were wondering what to do next when a young boy came by in his red inflatable. We asked him if he knew whether we could tie up alongside a big blue fishing boat we could see moored alongside the harbour wall. He said that the boat would not be moving and he had seen a German sailboat tied up there last week. So, on the strength of his information we went in and there he was on the boat waiting to take our lines. He was 15 years old and it turned out he was working on the boat. He had a English father whom he visited every year in Grimsy in England. He told us a lot about life in this small village which, like so many similar places in Iceland, depended on fishing - and more recently tourism - for its survival. He said they had a lot of snow every year and five years earlier it had been as high as the roofs of the houses. He said there was a restaurant run by his best friend's grandparents so we paid them a visit and enjoyed a good meal. There were a number of chalets in the village which were rented out one week at a time to visitors mostly from Germany. Included in the price of the rental was a car and a small boat. We are now at latitude 65 degrees, 37 minutes - farther north than Fairbanks, Yellowknife and Archangel.

The following morning we were ready to leave at 0830 and there was Thomas kitted out in paint-splattered overalls ready for work. He released our lines from the high-sided fishing boat and we headed back out into the Denmark Strait. Initially the sea was calm but the wind continued to increase all day long until it reached as high as 24 knots. Once again we were faced with steep, breaking, head seas which dropped us into holes and hurled sheets of spray against the windshield. There were plenty of small fishing boats being tossed around in the rough conditions and seabirds reveled in the strong wind as they skimmed the tumultuous waves. The scenery was dramatic with soaring cliffs and huge mountains bearing increasing amounts of snow.

We turned into Isafjardardjup and the wind and waves began to decrease. Just off the town of Isafjordur the wind dropped to 2 knots and the sea became glassy calm. We passed the outer harbour and the airstrip, running parallel to the shore, before turning into the inner harbour. The only mooring spot we could see was a long dock covered with tyres from which a sail boat was just leaving. An American flagged boat, Snow Dragon - with Juneau as the hailing port - lay at anchor. We were circling waiting for the dock to clear when we were called on the radio by the harbourmaster. He directed us to a floating pontoon we had not noticed just around the corner. He was waiting on the dock to take our lines as we backed in using the cockpit controls. It was rare luxury to be able to walk ashore and not have to worry about tides.

Later we walked into town looking for somewhere to eat. We asked a young woman who was cleaning the windows of a restaurant and she said they only served pizza. Chris asked about other places and she stopped her work and walked around the corner to point out a low building with red wall, a black roof and the reputation for serving the best seafood in Iceland.

The restaurant was packed with people sitting on benches and sharing long tables. We managed to find a couple of seats at a table which we shared with another couple. The service was pleasant but quite disorganized and it took ages to get served but the food was delicious. We had catfish and potatoes served in the frying pan in which it had been cooked.

Just Chris and I had brought Venture II up from Reykjavik but we were being joined here in Isafjordur by David Miles. David had been the captain on the original Venture in Alaska and now represents Fleming Yachts in Europe. While awaiting his arrival by air from England we visited with the owner and crew on Snow Dragon II. There is no room here to go into details but the aluminium shell of this unique boat had been built in Holland and the interior fitted out and equipped in San Francisco by Frances, the owner of the boat. She had been sailed here via many remote places including Svalbard, and they were headed from here to East Greenland. More details can be found on her website: www.snowdragon2.blogspot.com.

Seriously bad weather was forecast for the next few days and I was concerned whether David would be able to fly into the Isafjordur airstrip. Like virtually every town in the north, the town is located at the head of a relatively narrow fjord. Landing here meant flying the downwind leg close to the mountains on one side of the fjord, turning baseleg - across the wind - close to the mountains at its head and then final approach, into the wind, at the base of the mountains on the other side. However, Icelandic pilots are used to this kind of flying, including in poor visibility, so it turned out to be no problem. However, we had to wait out the storm for a couple of days. We were told that this was the lowest depression recorded for ten years and the rings of isobars on the Met Office weather chart were packed closely together. We were lucky to be securely moored in a snug and convenient berth although wind gusts in excess of 30 knots created quite a chop even in the protected inner harbour.

We learned from the harbourmaster that about 40 sailboats a year stopped here in transit to East Greenland waiting for the ice to melt. Virtually all of these were sail boats from all over Europe including the UK. He himself had worked in many countries all over the world introducing modern fishing methods to third world countries and also took a 33' Cleopatra fishing boat single handed all around the coasts of Europe as a demonstrator. We met the owner of a nearby sailboat who gave us invaluable local knowledge about the remote fjords north of here, which we planned to visit.

After two days the weather calmed down sufficiently for us to be able to leave Isafjordur and continue with our adventures. This whole region of Iceland is known as the West Fjords, which stick out like a multi-fingered hand into the Denmark Strait. No matter which direction the wind came from it had a bite to it. To the west lay Greenland, now only 150 miles away, and to the north there was nothing between us and the North Pole. We were now at latitude 66 degrees 20 minutes north only a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.

We went back out into the main fjord of Isafjardardjup to the north of which is Hornstrandir - a vast peninsula where there are no roads and the only access is by boat. We rounded a precipitous headland into the Jokulfirdir fjord and ahead of us we could see the vast Drangjokull icecap shimmering in the sun. All around us the surrounding peaks were still well endowed with snow. From here we turned into the uncharted Lonafordur fjord. We had been instructed to keep to the Eastern shore when entering and thereafter the water would be 30 meters (around 100') deep right up to the head of the fjord. We kept a close eye on the depth finder and found this information to be accurate. We anchored without any problem at the head of the fjord where a large waterfall, fed by the melting snow, filled the air with the soothing sounds from its tumbling torrent.

The weather was perfect and we used the opportunity to launch the tender and take photographs and video. Unfortunately there was no place to go ashore with our fancy rib and, once again, we regretted not having a lightweight, flat-bottomed dinghy with a small engine suitable for occasions such as this. The only drawback we could discern in this idyllic spot was the large number of sinister but beautiful mauve jelly fish which slowly pulsed their way through the clear waters around the boat trailing filament-like tendrils in their wake.

We celebrated by having a roast pork dinner with roast potatoes and red wine followed by Jura, single malt whisky as we watched the evening shadows steal across the still waters - although, of course, it never got dark.

The following morning we moved on and I followed Venture II in the tender for several miles until we reached the main fjord. It was an exhilarating experience and I took photos and video of her underway. This is what she was designed for and she looked completely at home in these magnificent surroundings. We turned into the adjacent fjord of Hesteyrarfjordur which was connected by a small ferry to Isafjordur. We saw numerous hikers and campers ashore and there is reputed to be a pancake house among the small cluster of houses. There are also the remains of whaling station with its tall chimney rising from a litter of rusting boilers at its base.

It was still early in the day so we decided to continue on to spend the night in Hornvik Bay, which is right at the tip of Northwest Iceland. En route we reached our farthest point from home and from here on we will be slowly reducing the distance back to Southampton. Hornvik Bay is open to the northwest and, when we entered it, we found there was quite a swell, which suggested we could be in for a roly night. So we reluctantly decided to keep going overnight to Akureyri, much further to the east. A significant amount of driftwood littered the shores of this bay. There are almost no trees on Iceland and this wood has drifted all the way from Siberia via the polar ice. It was in fact this phenomenon which prompted the Norwegian explorer Nansen to build his famous ship the Fram in 1892 and have her frozen into the ice in Siberia in the hope that she would drift with the polar ice via the North Pole and be released off the coast of Greenland. The actual ship is on display in The Fram Museum in Oslo and his book, Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen - detailing his amazing journey, is available from Amazon.

But, to continue our own, less perilous, journey, we exited Hornvik bay and rounded the Horn (Northern version) and passed the amazing bird cliffs of Hornbjarg. These are home to tens of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars and the highest point along the cliffs, Kalfatindur peak, drops 1,760 ft sheer into the sea.

Taking advantage of the calm weather, we headed straight across the open ocean, referred to in some sources as the Greenland Sea, to the entrance of the Enjafjordur leading to Akureyri - the second largest city in Iceland and the capital of the North.

I stayed up all night because I was afraid of missing something and I wanted to see for myself how sunset metamorphosed into dawn at these latitudes. I can now report that at latitude 66 degrees 20 minutes north on July 10th the sun disappeared below the horizon twenty minutes past midnight and reappeared exactly two hours later. A glow on the horizon revealed the position of the sun all the while it was hidden from view. A long lingering sunset became an equally lingering sunrise giving the illusion of a reverse motion replay of the sunset. As the sun rose out of the sea to port, it cast a rosy glow over the snow capped peaks to starboard. We turned into the fjord at 0300 and made our way down the 30 miles to Akureyri at slow speed so as not to arrive too early on this Sunday morning July 11th. This immensely long fjord is lined with dramatic snow-capped peaks.

I had by now decided that, having come so far - and with there being so much of interest to see in Iceland - we should extend our time here. We still needed to be in Jura to celebrate my birthday on August 19th and to have Venture II back in Southampton in time to display her in the International Boatshow on September 9th. So I made the decision to circumnavigate Iceland - rather than simply call at Reykjavik - and go directly to Western Scotland rather than make the detour to Orkney and Shetland and transit the Caledonian Canal.

With this revised itinerary in mind, my next blog will describe some of the fascinating sights in the Akureyri area and will document our onward journey to the North East coast of Iceland where we will be crossing the Arctic Circle.