Emily Caruso is blown away by the beauty of Norway’s Lofoten Islands, which have been described as the world’s most beautiful place
I could already feel the wind pick up while I was sitting at the navstation of the Bowman 57 Oriole as she dug in and started to heel assertively. A reef was needed and first mate Holly Vint peered below decks expectantly.
An arctic gale had been forecast nearby – though not for our specific area – and I was about to experience another learning curve moment on the effects of topography and localised anomalies in this unique corner of the world. Sailing inside the Arctic Circle, I should have been in full offshore clothing, but the balmy conditions of previous weeks leading up to our recent crew change in Tromsø had made me complacent.
Reefing Oriole requires work at the mast where the majority of control lines are led, a position that left me vulnerable to every freezing wave that crossed her deck. I wound up drenched, freezing cold and should have been better prepared.
Gabriella Giuffre, an engineer design manager from the UK, managed the helm while the rest of our expedition crew looked on from the safety of the cockpit, appreciating the warmth of the Fladen suits we’d been issued with. Comfort zones were being challenged and my own preconceptions of what arctic sailing conditions might involve had been well and truly met.
Oriole was content with her new sail plan and our eclectic crew of expedition sailors pushed on through to our destination port of Nergardsvik, which provided us with perfect shelter from the strong south-westerly winds, which consistently blew more than 30 knots.
The gale made it easy to forget the almost faultless sailing conditions we’d encountered on the open stretch of water that brought us south from our previous anchorage on the south of the island of Senja; a stunning and relatively shallow location that allowed plenty of reaction time should the wind shift or increase overnight… which it did.
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As we approached Nergardsvik harbour, we could see there were few places to come alongside. The new marina to the east was too shallow and so we had only the option of one pontoon end, which was conveniently made available by a departing motorboat. Perfect timing!
The cold, rough weather we experienced just three days and less than 60 miles into our overall expedition was a significant exception to the rule as the Lofoten Islands represent a really interesting climate anomaly. Despite their latitude on the 68th and 69th parallels, the Gulf Stream delivers a relatively temperate climate, making the area the most northerly on the globe to experience average temperatures above freezing.
Add to this the fact that from early May to mid-July the sun doesn’t drop below the horizon and here is a truly unique cruising ground which exceeded any expectations I could have imagined.
The first few days without darkness were novel but after that it became evident that our human behaviours are intrinsically related to the cycle of the sun. Sleeping became difficult and time awareness and normal daily patterns were hard to control.
Seeing the midnight sun for the first time and then constantly every day makes you very aware of the high latitude, despite the balmy temperatures. I couldn’t imagine living here between early December and January when there is no rising sun: it’s easy to see why many of the residents are seasonal, living out the winter back on the mainland and significantly further south.
The Lofoten Islands are famous for their great cod fisheries as the fish also migrate south during winter from the Barents Sea, and cod racks of dried fish heads are a common sight on the islands.
On many occasions throughout our arctic adventure we’d anchor and expectantly throw a fishing line over the side. The catch was always abundant and we’d often settle down to a dinner of freshly caught cod to supplement the variety of ingredients we had provisioned on board. There’s something idyllic about fishing for your dinner against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, surrounded by the splendour of the Norwegian Fjords.
Our Bowman 57 has a large saloon, which provides a fantastic social setting to share meals and exchange stories. As we dined on cod at anchor in the Sigerfjord many tales were told and toasts given while Oriole held fast in the lee of the surrounding landscape on her trusty 40kg Rocna anchor and plentiful chain.
Maximising the potential for cruising in this part of the world requires a boat equipped to deal with remote and deep anchorages and that can sustain itself for extended periods without relying on the facilities of a fully equipped marina. Our trickiest task was to find fresh water to top up the 1,000lt tank capacity and we carried a lengthy water hose, which proved one of our most valuable assets.
Resources such as fuel and water are available along the way but having to rely on regular refilling could easily mean missing out on some of the most spectacular remote anchorages between harbours.
As we finally reached the Lofoten Island chain the crew became excited as we neared the world famous Trollfjord, the spectacular and much-anticipated high point in the voyage. The wind was as fickle as ever among the soaring rock faces that surrounded us and so we motor-sailed as we ate lunch, spotting sea eagles along the way and admiring every inlet and cove as we made our way south.
Above us the cloud formations danced around the mountain peaks while periodically revealing a blue sky and perfect sunshine, and aboard Oriole crew member Emma produced a stunning lemon drizzle cake that she’d baked as we passed through this remarkable landscape.
It was amazing yet reassuring that a place of such incredible natural beauty was so remarkably quiet. Cruise ships regularly navigate this route, incredibly turning 180° within the confines of the fjord walls with a clearance of just a few metres either side. Just a few boat lengths of deep emerald green water separate the snow-capped cliffs, with waterfalls on either side and wooden Norwegian summer houses at the water’s edge.
Oriole was respectfully quiet as every one of us absorbed the landscape and the contrast of vibrant green flora alongside the harsh rock faces. The abundance of bird life that occupied the crevices and ledges provided us with endless entertainment and it felt very special to share this environment with its natural inhabitants.
After being completely overwhelmed with the beauty of the Trollfjord, we started to head further south to explore some of the less visited areas of the Lofoten Islands, investigating a variety of anchorages along the way.
Our eventual need to top up the water tanks brought us to the picturesque fishing harbour of Skrova. The visitor’s pontoon was out of space, so we came alongside on a private pontoon belonging to one of the local residents.
It was refreshing to experience a culture that embraces the arrival of visitors. Rather than turning us away, local man Per was happy for us to spend a few nights on his berth and even provided us with the use of a fresh water hose to fill our tanks.
And just a short walk along the adjoining road led to a most unlikely and remarkable artistic display of photographs of the islands, situated in a rocky tunnel (with protective hard hats provided for visitors).
During our stay, the crew found a beach on the north side of the island that could be compared to any tropical paradise, and which provided spectacular views of an anchorage to the north east. We identified the location as Lille Molle and decided to make passage there the following day to anchor and explore.
The tender was inflated and the shore party, led by first mate Holly, set off ashore for a brief evening jaunt to see the rare sight of sea eagles nesting with their young. Next stop, Reine is certainly the most tourist-driven destination that we visited through our voyage and yet it seemed so quiet given the time of year and the exquisite experience that it has to offer.
This little corner of paradise is situated on the island of Moskenesøya towards the southern end of the Lofoten chain. Regular ferries from Bodø bring summer visitors to this beautiful fishing port and daily boat trips run to different locations within the nearby fjords for ramblers and hikers of all levels of experience.
The small visitors’ marina was too shallow for our draught but there was just enough pontoon space next to the fishing quay. So we spent a full day in Reine to allow the crew the chance to explore, walking through stunning scenery to picturesque beaches. A few of us even braved the icy waters for a very rapid dip that proved both invigorating and bracing.
From our berth it was a fairly long trek to the nearest supermarket for final victuals but that was no hardship given the scenery and weather. Despite the generally high cost of provisioning in Norway we were able to buy fresh seafood at reasonable prices and came back with an abundance of prawns for our final dinner ahead of our last open water sail back to Bodø.
Our penultimate night was to be spent at an amazing anchorage at the island of Landegode, Sandvik, just 10 miles from our final destination, and we had a spectacular 65-mile reach back towards the mainland with a flat sea and clear skies as Oriole revelled in the near perfect conditions.
I’d chosen the anchorage based on the forecast and had expected to rest in the lee of the rock faces that sat to the north, but instead the breeze accelerated and veered around the cliffs as we made our first approach.
We made a few attempts before I was finally happy to turn off the engine. Thankful for another secure night at anchor we awoke to brilliant sunshine and impressive temperatures as, once again, arctic Norway continued to surprise us.
The neighbouring beach was too attractive to resist and we set off ashore in the RIB for a final swim. There were squeals of surprise as the more adventurous crew submersed themselves in the cold water, tactically dodging the odd jellyfish that floated past.
Our crew had a mixed level of experience and background representing a variety of ages and occupations – everything from high ranking police officer to a building developer and teacher – all of whom were looking to take part in an expedition holiday to push their comfort zones and explore some of the less easily accessible parts of our planet.
Regardless of what expectations or preconceptions each crewmember brought, this part of the world could not fail to deliver a remarkable and unique experience for all.
Norway is expensive for foreign visitors; your average pint of beer costs around £10 and dining ashore is a rare treat for the majority. The Lofoten Islands are no exception to this. The flip-side is an unbelievable example of Mother Nature at her finest (which the Norwegians manage to sustain whilst still producing 4G phone coverage and impressive accessibility, despite the islands’ remoteness!).
The flora and fauna are abundant and every day brought another entirely unspoilt vista. The Lofoten Islands simply have to be one of the most beautiful cruising areas in the world, and are certainly a place best explored from the water.
When to sail in the Lofoten Islands
The weeks from mid-May and throughout June will deliver the quietest cruising experiences, with school holidays in Norway bringing more visitors from mid-July to mid-August.
The midnight sun will be visible through this period too and is a phenomenon that should be witnessed by every sailor in their lifetime, as should the wonderful landscapes and seascapes that the Lofoten Islands have to offer.
Be prepared to be self-sustaining to maximise the potential of your visit, given both the price of provisioning locally and the availability of resources in remote locations.
Make the effort, however, and the Lofotens experience will far surpass any preconceptions you may have. This place really is something very special.
First published in the August 2018 edition of Yachting World.