Author: Steve D'Antonio
The fog thins as Nikita approaches the craggy rows of skjaergaard, Norway’s “rock rampart”, the chain of over 150,000 islands, islets and skerries which guard this coast; they are the first land we encounter since our departure from Denmark. The geographic contrast, in spite of the comparatively short span that separates these two Scandinavian countries, could not be more apparent. Much of Denmark’s northern Jutland peninsula is low and dune-like. The skjaergaard and the mainland beyond them, are ragged, vertiginous and foreboding. They are a mariner’s worst nightmare in poor visibility or tumultuous weather and yet alluring and enchanting under benign conditions.
My passage aboard Nikita, built in 2004, hull number 12 of Fleming’s 75 series, begins in Lemvig, on Denmark’s northwest coast. I embark here, where I meet her owner, Michael, as well as Magnus, her master, and Ida, who wears two hats, first mate and steward. Magnus expertly backs Nikita up to the bulkhead while Ida relays hand signals into the aft-facing camera, ‘three meters, two, one…’, I hurriedly hand Michael my trio of hopelessly overweight bags, which contain among other things my laptop and 45 lbs of camera gear (we established a bond of trust right then and there), and we are underway. With the seaport of Thyborøn as our first destination, we make a short run through Limfjorden, a shallow sound that links the North Sea to the Kattegat. This water, and the land surrounding it, is known for its distinguished Danish poets, as well as delectable mussels and oysters. After a brief overnight stay, Nikita leaves Jutland and Denmark in her wake on a journey which will culminate, at least for my time aboard, roughly 700 nautical miles and three weeks later in Aalesund, on Norway’s southern fjord-rich coast.
I’ve made a number of passages through the North Sea and in every case they’ve been memorable, and not in a good way. I struggle with sea sickness, and this body of water seems especially well suited to inducing this malady in me. This passage, and perhaps this vessel, proves to be the exception to the rule. Not only do I not suffer during the ten hour run, I’m able to work at my computer while seated in the saloon for much of the time.
Our first port of call in Norway, Farsund, is, like so many of this country’s coastal villages, small and worthy of a storybook, with immaculately-kept and brightly-painted wooden cottages and boat houses, narrow lanes and charming residents; there’s an abundance of small boats. The town of just over 3,000 was a strategic element of Germany’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ during WWII, with over 400 bunkers having been built within the municipality, many of which still exist, and some are visible to us as we enter the harbor.
The following morning dawns gray and misty; it’s a regular phenomenon along this coast, overcast mornings which often give way to sunny afternoons when the Solgangbris, or afternoon sea breeze, kicks in. In spite of this I take the opportunity to stretch my legs with a walk into the village and up to the hilltop cemetery; one of my shipmates points out a sign at the entrance noting the presence of “Commonwealth War Graves”. When I return to Nikita, a little research turns up a startling discovery, one that’s guaranteed to run a chill up the spine of any naval history enthusiast. The graveyard contains nine burials from the First World War, only four of whom are identified by name, all sailors or marines who died in the Battle of Jutland, which took place not far from here and our departure port of Thyborøn, in 1916. Virtually every Norwegian village and city I visit during this passage has a memorial to those lost, mostly resistance fighters, many of whom were seamen, during WWII. I even encounter one memorializing those Norwegians, it was then part of Denmark and allied with France, lost in the Napoleonic wars.
From here Nikita hopscotches her way northward in and amongst skjaergaard, affording us shelter from the ocean swell, making mostly modest runs of between four and eight hours each day. Our destination is the bustling, and pricey, oil town of Stavanger, where Beth, Michael’s wife, will join us. Our berth places us minutes from the historic stone cathedral, which dates from the city’s founding in 1125, and the old town’s 18th and 19th century timber houses. We share the inner harbor with several historic vessels, including the coastal steamer MS Rogeland, built in 1929 in Norway, a ship that is both unlucky and lucky, she ran aground, sank and was blown up (by a nearby munition ship that exploded during the war), once each, and each time she was refitted. Today she gleams like a restored vintage automobile. Another, a 1913 vintage timber fishing vessel, the MS Rapp, motors up to the bulkhead. The sound of her single cylinder diesel is a Siren call I’m unable to resist. I walk over and chat with the mate and within a few minutes he and I are in the engine room, where I marvel at the 1955 engine, it’s turning over at a stately 200 rpm while emitting a distinctive kachug, kachug, while filling the air with an aroma of hot oil.
While attractive as far as cities go, I’m glad to be underway after two days in Stavanger, headed back out to explore Norway’s rugged coastline. In an attempt to avoid the droves disgorged by the many cruise ships that visit Stavanger and using intelligence we pick up from a friendly charter captain, we make our way up Lysefjord, where we are told no cruise ships or their tours will go. As we make our way into the fjord, whose surroundings are uncannily reminiscent of Maine’s coast, the sun’s rays continue to burn off the morning haze. Isolated farms and homesteads, each with their own patch of verdant grass and grazing animals, many on their own islands, as well as fish farms and small villages are visible along the forested shoreline. As we push further into the fjord vestiges of snow are visible on the surrounding peaks. We encounter the hydro-electric power plant at the hamlet of Flørli. Norway is well-known for its hydroelectric power plants and this one is especially well-known as it boasts both the second highest “fall”, the distance from its reservoir dam to the turbine, of 740 meters (2,427 ft.), and the greatest number of steps in the world, 4,444 between the turbine station and the reservoir, which is paralleled by the original funicular. A climb to the top and back requires the better part of a day, so Michael, Beth, Magnus and I agree we’ll go to the 1,000 step mark and no further. In fact we don’t make it that far, yet the view is spectacular and only a portent of things to come. From a technical perspective I marvel at how well-maintained the steps and the funicular are, both of which are primarily timber.
Of the nearly 20 port calls and anchorages Nikita makes during my time aboard her, perhaps the most memorable are Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, and Geirangerfjorden. Preikestolen is one of Norway’s best-known landmarks. Requiring a three hour round trip hike to reach its 2,000 foot elevation, the panoramic views even on an overcast day are jaw-dropping. Having been told about the crowds that can gather, which often come to a Slinky-like stop along the narrow, circuitous, trail we endeavor to get an early start, departing the boat at 0730.
Having passed no more than half a dozen fellow hikers along the way, by 9AM we make the summit, tired but ecstatic to have reached this high point, literally and figuratively, in our journey. The flat, monolithic stone plateau is blissfully devoid of all but a few people, we have it nearly to ourselves. The panoramic vistas are truly the sort that takes one’s breath away and the lack of guard rails or any man-made structures reinforces this sensation. Here safety is one's own responsibility. I kneel at the edge and look over the precipice, the scale is grand and nearly overwhelming; Lysefjord, 2,000 feet below, which we traversed aboard Nikita a few days ago, is visible in all its majestic glory.
(Seen below: Nikita near a waterfall on her voyage. The Fleming 75 became the Fleming 78 in 2010 and incorporates a longer waterline to improve running efficiency at cruising speeds.)
Geirangerfjorden, and the village of Geiringer located at its head, penetrates nearly 30 miles into the region’s heartland; it is acknowledged as one of Norway’s most picturesque and once again we find ourselves plotting to avoid the inevitable cruise ships and associated hordes of tourists. Upon our arrival we find the fjord virtually deserted, passing other vessels only occasionally as it’s an “off day” for cruise ships. Water cascades down its near-vertical, verdant walls. Here too there are small farmsteads, however, instead of being located on the shoreline or islands, they are perched at impossible heights high above the fjord’s deep, stygian, waters.
Upon reaching Ålesund my time aboard Nikita draws to a close and I bid farewell to Michael, Beth, Magnus and Ida. Nikita and they travel on to northern Norway’s Lofoten Island chain where they will continue to explore and enjoy the region.
While Nikita is nearly 14 years old, when her current owner purchased her from Fleming’s dealer in Marstrand, on Sweden’s west coast, two years ago she had less than 1,000 hours on her Caterpillar engines. While she’d clearly been lightly used and was in excellent condition, she was in need of modernization and upgrades. These included a 1000 gpd Spectra watermaker; a Technicomar ECOmar waste treatment system; Thetford gray water pumps; a Fleming factory-produced flybridge hardtop; a complete Raymarine navigation and radar electronics suite, a Maretron vessel monitoring system; an Iridium satphone; a 2,000 Ah (doubling previous capacity) lithium ion battery bank and a 16 kW power sharing Victron inverter/charger system, to name just a few of the many projects undertaken. Essentially the entire vessel can, with some load management, operate from the inverters, including air conditioning while underway).
The latter item proved of great interest to me; while this technology, at least for yachts, remains young, it offers many advantages over existing lead acid battery designs. For example, after 19 hours of quiet ship time, with no shore power or generator operation, Nikita’s battery bank had reached just 50%. Unlike conventional batteries, Lithium Ion batteries can be safely depleted to 20%, leaving a significant reserve. Using her twin 400 amp alternators, the batteries are recharged from this level, while underway, in just three hours. The system was designed, supplied and installed by a Dutch contractor who thoroughly understands Lithium Ion batteries. Among others, this is, in my opinion, one of the most important caveats of Lithium battery installations, a single manufacturer of the gear and one installer, who take full responsibility for all aspects of the design and installation.
Michael, the current owner, has a passion for cruising and spending time aboard Nikita. In the two years since he took ownership they have cruised the Baltic countries, including Russia and St Petersburg (he is fluent in Russian) and Sweden. After completion of the Norwegian cruise Nikita will make her way to Portugal, the Canaries and then late in the year head across the Atlantic on her own bottom to the Caribbean. The following season’s cruise plan includes the US East Coast, after which the program becomes less defined, perhaps the Panama Canal, Mexico, British Columbia and Alaska, all waters for which Nikita is well-suited.
Enjoy some additional photos from the voyage: