Venture Cruises To Iceland - Part Six

Westmann Islands and Reykjavik

 

The entrance into Heimaey harbour in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago is dramatic with tall cliffs on one side and black lava slopes on the other. We passed a huge cave and bizarre rock formations with sea birds nesting in the crevices. The land to port was created during the 1973 eruption that engulfed part of the town and threatened to block the harbour. We went into the yacht basin, Nausthamarsbyrggja, and tied up at the self service fuel dock which was the only vacant spot. Shortly after we arrived, the weekend harbour master came down to welcome us, saying we could stay where we were and giving us three copies of a booklet about the town.

Shortly thereafter a very pleasant and informal Customs official came on board and welcomed us to Iceland with the minimum of formalities. With the paperwork completed we were now free to go ashore and explore the town.

As usual, Venture II dwarfed all the smaller local boats around her and attracted much attention. A local man who had just returned from a Sunday afternoon outing on his boat with his son for "a bit of fun" asked whether we would like any fish as a present. Naturally I said 'yes' and he returned a few minutes later with four huge cod. I asked him whether he had caught many that afternoon. "No", he said. "Only about 19!" Frankly, not being any kind of a fisherman, I was a bit stumped as to how to deal with them but George stepped up to the plate - pretty much literally - and soon had them filleted and ready for the oven with plenty left over for storage in our 8 cu ft freezer.

The following day, Monday, we were visited by the fulltime harbour master who was very welcoming and who told us much about the town. The business of Heimaey is fish and fishing. There are several fish processing plants and some large, businesslike trawlers. With just 2% of Iceland's population, this island is responsible for 12% of the country's exports and it's all fish or fish products. He said that the large trawlers were after mackerel or herring and that mackerel were now being caught only 40 miles south of the islands, which had previously been unheard of. Presumably this is another symptom of global warming. At the same time the number of puffins breeding on the island had dropped drastically to the extent that, for the first time in the human history of the island, the catching of puffins had been outlawed. Previously, puffins returning to their cliff top burrows were caught in large numbers by men wielding nets at the end of long poles and were a staple of the local diet.

Having noticed what looked like drifts of recent ash in a few areas, I asked whether the islands had been affected by the recent eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull (don't even attempt to pronounce it) volcano. He told me that they had been unable to go outdoors for two days and inches of ash had covered everything. But the main volcanic story about these islands centers around the eruption when, shortly after midnight on January 23rd 1973, a fissure about one-mile long opened up 500 yards from the nearest houses. There had been absolutely no warning and for the first 36 hours, 40 - 50 lava fountains around 300 ft high formed a fiery wall along the entire length of the fissure. Within five hours of the start of the eruption, 5,000 of the islands inhabitants had been evacuated, mostly by the town's fishing fleet, which fortunately happened to be in port because of a storm the previous day.

The lava flow then changed direction and threatened to over-run the town and close off the harbour. In what skeptics considered to be a futile attempt to thwart nature, two commercial dredgers equipped with water canons daily pumped 11- million gallons of water onto the advancing 500-ft high wall of lava. This prodigious effort was successful. The size of the island increased by 15% and the extra land created by the eruption made the harbour better protected than before. A new peak, now named mount Eldfell, dominates the town, one third of which was buried or destroyed. There is a project called North Pompei, still in its early stages, to excavate some of the buried homes.

In an interesting phenomenon we were later to see repeated in other parts of Iceland, vast numbers of prolific blue and white Alaska lupins were thriving on the newly formed volcanic land as part of nature's process in converting it into fertile soil.

That evening Chris took Venture II in and out of the harbour a few times while us keen photographers took pictures of her looking splendidly elegant against the backdrop of the looming, volcanic landscape.

During our short stay a change of wind brought with it a most obnoxious odour from the nearby fish processing plant. To the local people this must represent the smell of money but to us more fragile creatures with more delicate sniffers, it was just a plain old-fashioned stink that permeated every corner of the boat. Even days later, vestiges would waft like evil spectres from the lazarette or other enclosed spaces.

The day following the Summer Solstice (June 21st), we headed back out to sea but, before continuing on our way to Reykjavik, we detoured south through the Westmann Archipelago to Surtsey, an island which first announced its birth in November 1963 when fisherman noticed smoke arising from the sea. The new island continued to erupt until June 1967 when it ceased growing. It has since been reduced in size by 50% due to erosion. It is off limits to all but a few scientists and is treated as a natural laboratory for the way in which life came to Iceland itself 20 million years ago. It was fascinating to behold a substantial piece of land that did not even exist just 47 years ago.

The sea was rough and the scene other worldly as we picked our way through the sixteen islands and 30 smaller islets and sea stacks which make up the archipelago. Only Heimaey has a human population but most of the others are home to countless numbers of seabirds which swooped and wheeled around VENTURE II.

We arrived in the capital of Reykjavik at six pm and were first allocated space on a floating pontoon at the RVK Yacht Club. This was not quite as nice as it sounds because it was next to the construction site for the new Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre, and it was a long walk around the site into the city. The following day, at the harbour master's suggestion, we moved to a nearby steel barge which, although not very scenic, was a much shorter walk into town. We were made very welcome by everyone associated with the harbour and not charged anything for our new berth. We were visited by the marketing director of Reykjavik harbour who told us we were the first luxury boat of the year to pay them a visit. We spent the first day becoming acquainted with the city and photographing VENTURE against the backdrop of the harbour entrance.

We rented a small 4-wheel drive Suzuki and over the next few days we drove a total of 1850 km (1156 miles) exploring the sights to be seen on daily excursions from Reykjavik. Steve had brought his Garmin GPS route finder which worked well in Iceland. This blog is not the place to list chapter and verse of every place we visited but we saw a number of the sights for which Iceland is famous including many beautiful and impressive waterfalls. Before my visit I had imagined much of the country to be austere and barren mountains and I was surprised to see how much of the land along the south coast was lush farmland. The most prevalent crop appears to be hay which, at this time of year, with modern hay-making in full swing, manifested itself as fields filled with big white plastic-wrapped bales looking like giant marshmallows. The right size, you might think, for a troll to pop into his mouth.

I don't think I have ever been to any place where I have seen so many horses in one region. The Icelandic horse is a unique breed descended from stock brought over by the first settlers in the 9th century. No horses have been imported for 800 years so the stock has remained pure. These horses also have five gaits, rather than usual four - the extra being a fast smooth trot. They tend to have attractive colours with generous manes and forelocks and can be seen, often in large herds, grazing in fields yellow with buttercups.

We passed through areas which had been seriously affected by the volcano with the unpronounceable name, and we could see places which had been flooded out or covered with ash. Naturally we would have liked to see the volcano itself but it kept its summit stubbornly hidden in the clouds. We made two serious attempts to get close but on one occasion we were forced to turn back when wind-blown ash reduced the visibility on the unmade track to just a few feet and the fine, gritty material got into everything including our precious cameras. On the other excursion, we had forded several small streams and were confronted by a large river of questionable depth when the sudden onset of a torrential rainstorm raised concerns about flash floods raising the level in the rivers and cutting off our retreat.

We stopped at a cafè for some refreshment and the waitress told us that she had been in the area during the eruption. She said that the sky in the direction of the volcano had glowed red while, to the west, the Northern Lights flickered across the heavens.

A large whale-watching boat moored close to us every night. The owner was greatly interested in Venture and we showed him around. In return, he generously invited us to take a trip on his boat as his guest, which we were very pleased to do when my daughter Nicky and her daughters arrived in Reykjavik for a visit. The whale-watching tour included a stop at one of two islands where puffins breed in large numbers. Although puffins are by far the commonest bird in Iceland, many Icelanders have never seen one because they are a bird that breeds in remote spots in the short summer months and spends the rest of the year at sea. These cute birds nest in underground burrows and fly around 50 mph with 300-400 wing beats per minute when in the air so they are not easy to photograph from the water. Actually they 'fly' better under water than in the air and have been recorded as diving as deep as 200 ft and - although 5 to 20 is a more usual number - of carrying as many as 62 fish in their colourful and distinctive beaks at one time!

We saw a couple of minke whales and a pod of white-beaked dolphin on our excursion. Not a lot but still the most we have seen on the more than 2,300 miles since leaving Southampton.

During our transit from the Faroes we had an engine alert advising us of dropping water pressure in the starboard engine cooling system. I contacted RDI from whom we had purchased the engines in Seattle and, within two hours of sending my e-mail, received a response suggesting a diagnosis and advising who to contact in Reykjavik. Following a pressure check by a qualified MAN mechanic, the problem was traced to a faulty filler cap and a replacement was obtained from Germany within two days.

We refueled again here and a tanker truck came down to the jetty and ran a long hose over the barge to where we were moored. We took on 4,230 litres of fuel. Our fuel consumption remains steady at around 1.3 USG per nautical mile including running the generator.

We have decided not to start our homeward journey from Reykjavik but to circumnavigate the country of Iceland. Consequently we will be travelling up the West Coast to the Vestfirdir district in the northwest of the country where there are magnificent fjords. From there we will travel east along the north coast following a route which will take us just north of the Arctic Circle and to within 160 miles of Greenland. That journey will be the subject of my next blog.