Sep 22 2014 – Everyone who’s been to Svalbard has, hopefully, noticed the actual proof of climate change. I remember when we went in to look at the glacier in Hornsund and when we had entered about 50m from the glaciers “wall” we supposedly should had been somewhat 1000m inside the glacier according to the charts from 1980…! They now suspect that that area, the south of Spitsbergen is avtually two islands as the glacierfront pulls back (melts) more and more…
It’s a responsibility we all must share, if you care the least you can do is to sign this petition from Avaaz: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/100_clean_final/?bmtzXab&signup=1&cl=5845344785&v=46077
I would normally not try to force my opinions onto others like this but it’s simply a small contribution to a better world – a world where polar bears still exists and amaze us with their magnificence!
Knock, knock, knock.
– Morning girls, it’s a quarter to two, time for your watch.
The deckhand Rickard wakes us up for the night watch. We go in shifts of six hours, between two and eight at night and in the afternoon. My body has become accustomed to sleeping through the seaway, rust-knocking and ice breaking against the hull. After two months on board it is harder to fall asleep when the vessel is moored and the engine is quiet than under way. Weeks and days melt together and sometimes one day feels almost like two. When we have crossed the Arctic Circle, it is sometimes difficult to understand if you wake up for lunch or for a midnight snack. The only thing that helps you to keep track of the weekdays is the traditional pea-soup on Thursdays.
In the end of March me and my classmate Klara Karin signed up on board M/S Stockholm in Gothenburg. We study to be captains at Klart Skepp in Stockholm. After two months, we have scrubbed the deck from rust, salt, black water, fish blood and finally ice and snow. In Gothenburg, the first thing we did was to degrease the anchor gear, then cleaning it from rust and then scrubbing the deck. In Denmark, it was time for the painting and every day the passengers could see on my bangs and arms which color we were painting at the moment (the bangs became, in time, a little shorter). As we went along the coast of Norway it was only saltwater that would be washed from the valves/windows, go on “grease-rounds” where we had been degreasing and polish the brass details. The boatswain Erik came to check up on us from time to time and we quickly learned his mantras: “Precision is a virtue!” “Here burns the lamp of diligence” and “Jajjemän” on dashing göteborsk dialect.
My path into sealife has been through sailing, especially as a deckhand/instructor onboard the two-masted schooner Ellen in Stockholm. So maintenance of a steel hull and machine rounds is new to me, I am once again a rookie. M/S Stockholm is an old workboat from 1953, with a size of 40x8m and with an intact 4-cylinder Nohab ML4 with 575hp. Since the early 90s, the skipper and owner Per Engwall have been arranging cruises and expeditions with her sister ship Origo, but since 10 years his company only operates Stockholm, with cruises in the North Sea and especially around Svalbard.
During my traineeship of 60 days we went from Gotenius shipyard in Gothenburg to Denmark with the captain’s acquaintances and friends. We have passed the sandy beaches of Anholt in both rain, wind and sunshine. Svendborg pubs with discount cards, 3 beers for a twennie, and happy hour where three dice would decide the price for a beer. Kristiansö that had not yet opened for the season but were it was still possible to buy a Tuborg to share in the sun along with some islanders. Aeron, where Stockholm got an article in the local press, and a visit at the legendary Marstaal maritime museum for the crew.
Both the weather and the beer became drier when we switched passengers in Gothenburg and began the journey along Norway’s coast up to Svalbard.
During 17 days we chugged along the Norwegian coast with the guides Adam and Diedre from PolarQuest and ten elders. We made landings in Kristiansand, Old Skudeneshamn, Bergen, Geiranger Fjord, Kierringöya, Nusfjord at Lofoten (and others) and finally Tromso before it was time to cross the Barents Sea.
At Kierringöya the passengers were hungry for fresh fish but the local fisherman had unfortunately just gone on vacation one day earlier, to Thailand. Then we simply had to fish ourselves! Luckily we have a mate who went to sea as a fisherman at the age of 15 … the passengers and the engineer Jonas stood with fishing lures and pulled along the rail. Martin (mate) was the only one fishing with a rod. He stared nervously into the sea when the engineer drew up his first cod. He maintained, however, his honor when he after a while pulled up 6-8 big cods in a row. The chef, Hanna, began to feel nervous about what she would do with all the fish … it was 13 cods, filleted directly on the deck. Martin taught me how the professionals do and I got to train at the saithe I had pulled up. “Now you make it look too easy!” He grinned, probably delighted with the adoring crowd who had been watching his work. It was probably the best cod I’ve ever eaten.
Hanna works hard to feed us. A three course meal every day and exciting desserts has given me a few extra pounds, without sails to hoist I don’t move as much on deck as I am used to, and the jeans are becoming difficult to zip. The deckhands Erik and Rickard are diligent with their training, after a number of seasons with just 40m to move you have to be well-skilled not to cheat with your workout; jump rope on the aft deck, bike in the hold, the dips in the machine ladder and nightly jogs in the midnight sun when we come in to the quay in Longyearbyen.
The youngest member of the crew is Malin who is mess man, but it is also she who keeps an eye on all of us and make sure we behave below deck. Some lectures we’ve had to take before you have learned how to clean the toilets properly or forgot to fill up the fridge with soda, she ensures that the vessel is “top notch”, an expression she introduces Per, “it can be used for everything, everything that’s perfect “.
We’ve had a ridiculously luck with the weather the whole trip. Even the Barents Sea was unusually quiet, it almost made me a little disappointed, now you can’t really boast of having passed the Barents without seasickness. The first landing was on Bjørnøya with amazing rock formations, caves and bird life (afterwards I read that Statoil plan to drill for oil just outside that island…).
Second day in Svalbard, at half past six in the morning, outside of Kikutodden (Svalbard’s southern tip) Martin suddenly says, “Go and wake Adam, we have bear” and continue to glare menacingly through the binoculars. The bear is just a yellow spot on the ice and it’s important not to lose sight of it while he has to steer the ship in the pack ice. The guides wake up all passengers and there will be an hour diligently photography and scouting. It was a “bingo bear”, labeled with the number 27 in the back, bingo dubble up since and it came really close and passed at 20 meters, munching on a small seal carcass. The mate and the guides can breathe out, now polar bear is ticked off from the list. It’s a bit of an internal competition among the crew, who can scout most teddy bears.
Some of the crew have been here for several seasons, some for years, and we hear many interesting stories as we go up the coast. Of the legendary “Hiawatha” that lived in symbiosis with eiders and picked them of down, about confrontations with polar bears, sysslomannen and walruses who tries to jump up in the zodiac.
It is difficult to realize that when I write this it’s now our last night watch. We have become spoiled by sunsets, starry skies, bare mountain peaks and icebergs floating by outside the porthole. It really is a special life on board, which you can easily get used to and almost start to take the fantastic nature for granted. Those with the most days on board barely peeks up on the bridge when the passengers are rushing up on bear reconnaissance, unless the bear is almost peering into the valves. These weeks onboard Stockholm has been a memory for life.
(And I will always think of the mate Magnus from Donsö every time I eat potatoes, for the rest of my life!)