Category Archives: Iceland

Our own Iceland sagas: mechanics, not monsters

The history of Iceland is well known thanks to the Icelandic sagas that document the various battles and hardships undergone by the first Viking settlers of far-flung Thule. As we sailed towards Vopnafjordur on the East Coast of Icland we were reflecting a little upon the saga of the power struggle of the region between the clans of Hof and Krossavik, and also of the tales in the saga “Heimskringla”. According to legend, the first a sailor to arrived in the harbour found an enormous dragon guarding the bay and driving the sailors away with fire and his host of lizards and insects (the lizards must have been later eaten by the dragon since none exist here today). This tremendous beast has long been thought to be the guardian of northeast Iceland, and as wary seafarers we were looking to the skies for trouble in the form of fire-breathing leviathans. Alas, however, trouble again came from our increasingly temperamental engine rather than from any disgruntled dragons.

A few days ago the fantastic mechanics at Siglufjörđur finally managed to fix our previous engine woes. However, the rainy, windy and cold weather kept us for another couple of days in town, until finally a nicer weather window allowed us to pull in our lines and head east. And it felt great to be mobile again! The conditions were beautiful, the wind for once came from the right angle too (not from the bow as usual), and since we are really very far behind schedule, we decided to keep going through the night to cover as much ground as possible while the nice weather lasted.

After over 30 hours of straight sailing we finally approached Vopnafjörđur, which is the only sheltered harbour between the bleak headland of Langanes and the fjords of the southeast. However, similar to our first approach to Siglufjörđur, just as we were in sight of the town, our motor started to play up once again. This time, the engine simply would not go faster than idle anymore. It was not really a problem to get into the harbour and we arrived with just the occasional “clunk” to betray our sad state. Yet now our mechanical sorrows are again the first priority. Right now, Patrick is trying to figure out what might cause this particular problem, and if he can fix it himself, though his oil smeared face suggests just a little hint of desperation. Since one of our next stops is the Faroe Islands, where roaring tidal currents of up to 12 knots surge through narrow fjords, we better make sure our engine works properly before hitting the road again … fingers crossed that it won’t take too long!

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Steaming water: bubbling through volcanic vents and vanquished valves.

After the past months of nearly non-stop sailing we have had the unexpected pleasure of nearly a week in Siglufjördur on the North coast of Iceland. Unexpected I say, since once again we have been brought to a halt by problems of a mechanical nature.

Shortly after the last blog we unfurled the sails and spend a glorious day and a nights sailing around the rugged coastline of the North West. Sheer cliffs flank the coast in this part of Iceland and the first sunshine we had seen for some time illuminated the ochre coloured rocks before they gave way to a gentle dusting of white snow. Meanwhile the sky above was vivid blue and the sea presented a myriad of shades from deep green through to aquamarine. Days like this are a sailors dream and as luck would have it, a perfect day gently slipped into a perfect night. The sun painted the horizon with reds as it dipped below calm sea and soon a startling array of stars appeared in the heavens to guide us through the dark water. As if in answer to the lights above, phosphorescent algae trailed in our wake adding flashes of green to the cold white light of the stars. And still the light show was not over – as we leaned back and trained our eyes on the constellations faint bands of green began to play across the northern horizon. Soon we were sailing under the shimmering cascades of light belonging to the Aurora Borealis.

Sound perfect? Well we thought so until our intended destination appeared ahead of us at dawn and the wind died down …. time to switch on the motor and make our way into the harbour. Alas the first few coughs of the engine ended in a splutter and a bang and henceforth the whirring of the starter motor failed to illicit any sign of life. Thus after making an average of 6 – 7 knots over the past 24 hours we entered the harbour under sail making a mere half a knot in the flagging wind and watched the docks draw near at a maddeningly slow pace. Coming into a harbour under sail is always a little tricky but eventually we gently touched the jetty of Siglufjordur and went in search of repairs.

We won’t bore you with the trials and tribulations of repairing and engine (these include nearly sinking the boat when the wrong sea-cock was turned and the boat was left to slowly fill with seawater overnight) – suffice to say that valves on a pump were blocked with water and we are now awaiting the return of the offending part.

On the positive side, we have had a few glorious (though rather wet thanks to the persistent rain) days in the North of Iceland. We have toured through the volcanic terrain of Myvaten to see bubbling cauldrons of mud, steaming fumaroles and tranquil blue lakes disturbed by jets of boiling water erupting from the earth. The locals here have made us feel incredibly welcome and have offered hospitality and sympathetic advice along with a few of the creature comforts we have been missing of late – good coffee, a book and a long soak in a geothermally heated pool go a long way to alleviate the stress of being stranded.

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Anyway the wind blows …

As we sit in a café in Iceland and watch the cold breeze blow drifts of sleet across the empty street we have to consider the onward journey. According to our existing plan we are faced with a three week voyage across the north Atlantic to the rugged shores of Newfoundland. As we consider the prospect of a long cold slog into the autumn gales we have an even more alarming vision than the squalls of occasional snow outside – on the computer before us is a live weather forecast displaying a continuous series of low pressure systems marching across our intended route attended by a rather colourful array of barbed arrows indicating gale force winds and wicked weather.

Intrepid adventurers we may be, yet the prospect of weeks at sea being cast about like froth on the raging ocean is enough for us to consider alternatives. The past two months of Arctic adventure has seen us face all arrays of weather but winter is definitely nipping at our heels and even once we brave the long hard slog across the Atlantic we are faced with an even longer race down the east coast of America as we try and keep ahead of the coldest and most miserable weather marking the vanguard of the approaching winter.

The alternative? A short two day sail from the east coast of Iceland with the wind at our backs would take us to the craggy coast of the Faroe Islands. Taking this route we could visit the north coast of Scotland, subsequently sail towards the green hills of Ireland, the Cornish coast of England and then across the Bay of Biscay to Portugal. From here we can take the well-trodden path to the Caribbean first advocated by Columbus when he sailed into the unknown. While still racing against the winter, the major advantages of this change in route would be that the winds would be with us, the sea-legs would be shorter, and importantly for us, it would give us a little more time to explore the destinations on our way.

The final decision is still before us as we are presently locked into a nice sheltered harbour as a depression blows out its forty knot fury off the coast. However, tomorrow we will either turn south to make for Reykjavik with the intention of talking the long hard slog west; or we will turn to the east and make for the more sheltered solution. Both routes offer advantages and disadvantages and we are still torn … some serious consideration over a warm mug of mulled wine is in order I think!

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Iceland: greener than Greenland and no ice

The passage from Greenland to Iceland was a fast one since we had a thirty knot tail wind for most of the way on account of the storm system that was hot on our tail. Luckily we managed to duck into the sheltered harbour of Isafjordur on the northwest before the worst of it hit. The passage was a little grim due to the steel grey skies and as usual we were weary when we finally sighted land. However the welcome sight of cliffs on the horizon was accompanied by a pod of over one hundred white-beaked dolphins that gave us a fantastic escort into the harbour. Our welcoming squad proceeded to leap and flip on all sides of the boat and to ride beneath the prow of the yacht with one eye on Leonie as the laughed and waved at these friendly beasts.

On a serious note, we were again astonished by the lack of sea ice over the entire arctic leg of the voyage. We did have to duck and weave between some icebergs as we left Greenland behind us, but this time we encountered no sea ice at all on a leg that is notorious for being choked with ice. It is easy to form erroneous opinions when you just get a snap shot of the long term picture … you can hardly call a state of emergency just because one yacht sails through an eerily ice-free arctic ocean. But then again if you collate the long term satellite records it is clear that the arctic truly is in a rapid state of change. The National Snow and Ice Data Centre shows that this year is the lowest ice year on record and we are still not even at the annual ice minimum. Scary times indeed and while the effect here is undeniable, this change is something that will affect the entire world. Time to start thinking of the future of the planet each time we fill up Widdershins with diesel!

For now however, we are exploring a new land – here are rugged cliffs and high hills dusted by snow from the recent storm system. There is also green field in the low lands and even the first trees we have seen since leaving Norway! Such a nice change to sit under a tree (albeit a rather stunted specimen) watching people stroll down the street and not have to carry a rifle around as protection from bears!

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