Cruising beyond the Arctic Circle, Janneke Kuysters and Wietze van der Laan enjoy a surprising summer in cruising in Norway


We’re not ones to wish a passage away, but we cannot wait to get into Haugesund. After a rough three day crossing of the North Sea in a stiff north-westerly breeze, dodging a true obstacle course of shipping, oil rigs and wind parks, we’re both tired, wet and cold.

The final 20 miles are windless, foggy and difficult: we know there are steep rock faces on either side of the narrow channel, but we can’t see them because of the thick fog. The large cargo ships zipping around the channel are making us nervous. Do they really see us?

“Look there, it seems as if two eddies collide,” I point forward. Wietze peers into the fog and sees the small band of foam, leaves and plastic floating ahead. Just as Anna Caroline reaches it, he takes the engine out of gear and we slide through – you never know what lies beneath.

When we are well clear, he engages the engine again. Two seconds later we hear a loud bang under the boat. We’ve picked something up, forward motion is zero, it’s too deep to anchor and we’re still in thick fog five miles from Haugesund. I grab my phone and start making some frantic phone calls.

Bjørn Terje and Anita, our Norwegian cruising friends, were already waiting for us at the quay in Haugesund. They spring into action and get the rescue service Redningsselskapet to come out to help us, while Coastal Radio South transmits a warning message to other vessels every five minutes.

Soon after, the big red boat rumbles towards us with a bunch of cheerful Vikings on board. We accept the towline and begin our ‘tow of shame’ to Haugesund where a diver clears our prop of fishing line and floats. We exhale and hug our friends; “Welcome to Norway!”

A blustery day near Krisatiansund.

Inside or outside?

“You simply can’t do it all in one season,” Bjørn Terje explains when we later lay out all the charts on the table in our cockpit. He’s right: Norway’s coastline is vast.

“The first big choice you need to make is: inside or outside,” his wife Anita adds. The inside track runs between the coast and the thousands of islands dotting the coastline. “That’s sheltered and with lots of interesting places to go to,” Anita advises. “But if you pick the right weather, you can go outside and make quick progress north or south and sail to the best cruising grounds.”

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Bjørn offers an alternative: “You can make quick progress on the inside track too: everything is well marked and lit, so you can sail through the night, even with a short-handed crew.” We opt to go for a mix of both, because the summer is relatively short and we’d like to sail all the way to the North Cape and back.

The next day is Norway Day. Almost all the women are dressed in the impressive ‘bunad’: a charming traditional dress. Young and old: they all wear it with pride. We’re off to Bergen; to our delight we can find a spot in the busy historic harbour.

Bergen is one of Norway’s largest cities, but is also an impressive old Hanseatic town. The historic warehouses lining the quayside tell the tale of trade and connections around Europe. We love wandering the sunny streets, though Bergen is nicknamed ‘the rainiest city of Norway’ so we count our blessings and head north before the weather sets back in.

A sunny and warm T-shirt day at Sørfugløya – but the water is still Arctic cold.

The lighthouse on notorious Cape Stadtlandet winks its message to us when we motorsail past it on a calm night, heading to Ålesund. In the early hours of the morning, the wind picks up again and in the gentle breeze we sail, surrounded by puffins. The island of Runde is home to thousands of our favourite birds.

Inside the Arctic

Ålesund is just as beautiful as Bergen and we get lots of time to admire it: for eight days, there are very strong northerly winds and torrential rain. When we finally untie our lines, we’re eager to get north and there is still a long way to go to the North Cape.

The prevailing winds are from the north, but for two weeks we are lucky to have southerlies. It is still very early in the season so most facilities are closed or just starting up. So we sail in a steady rhythm: an early start at about 0700, admiring the rising sun and enjoying the awesome scenery. Some days we need the gennaker to make any progress, other days we have to put three reefs in the main to keep things under control. The capes and narrow passages present interesting and sudden changes in wind direction and hand steering is the order of the day.

We sail each day until mid-afternoon, then look for a safe place for the night. The Norwegians we meet complain that it is too cold for the time of year, but as long as it doesn’t rain, we don’t mind the chilly days. With the heater on, the nights are cosy. In larger towns, like Rørvik, we often find small fishing boats with a sign ‘Reker’. Locals line up to buy a bag of fresh shrimp and we’re quick to adapt to that habit too.

Janneke Kuysters, Wietze van der Laan and Anna Caroline

Just after we gybe to clear a headland Wietze points ahead to a small island with a steel globe perched on a concrete block: the Arctic Circle! It’s such a milestone to have made it so far north. Later that day, we sail into Bodø, the self-proclaimed ‘gateway to Lofoten’. We hug hot mugs of tea in the cockpit, marvelling that we’re sitting outside in glorious sunshine 50 miles inside the Arctic Circle.

So far, sailing in Norway has been beautiful with snow-capped mountains all around us and crystal clear – if icy – water. But Lofoten trumps everything in terms of pure spectacle with its steep, black cliffs rising straight from the sea, dotted with snow.

We see cod drying on huge racks at the shoreline, fishing boats chugging in and out of tiny harbours and villages tucked in small coves. A pod of orca swims past at high speed, though we cross our fingers that they haven’t spoken to their Iberian relatives lately. Most harbours offer good shelter from the brisk breeze, and spectacular hiking trails, so our sea legs get a good workout.

One of our favourites is tiny Nusfjord: we can’t even turn in the harbour, so backing in is the way to go. “Are you sure that you want to go here?” Wietze nervously asks. Reversing our long keeled yacht which doesn’t have a bow thruster is always an adventure, but thankfully we reach the jetty without a scratch.

The port town of Ålesund is near the entrance to Geirangerfjord. Photo: GmbH/Alamy

The true north

The sun keeps shining so we keep looking north. The North Cape feels within reach, so we decide to go for it. Our next big stop is Tromsø, a city that truly feels like an Arctic city. The main shopping street even has under-pavement heating so the ice melts away.

In the city harbour, a small group of cruising yachts has gathered, waiting for a weather window to sail to Svalbard. We’re drawn in by their eager anticipation and give our plans another long consideration. We have all the permits and charts to go there, but it will take a lot of time and we won’t be able to do all the things that we skipped on the way north on our return south. Wietze holds up his phone: “I found the solution.” I burst out laughing when I see what’s on the screen: a flight from Tromsø to Longyearbyen on Svalbard. After all, nothing beats the upwind capabilities of a jet!

Our luck with the weather holds and we enjoy a blissful week on Svalbard, exploring glaciers and observing wildlife. The beluga whale and the smelly walruses are our favourite, although we don’t see the elusive polar bear.

Lighthouses are often old and cleverly designed.

Once back on Anna Caroline there are no longer many sailing yachts nearby, just fishing boats of all sizes. Large eagles circle overhead, pilot whales chase their prey and the glaciers are glistening on the mountain ranges around us. We comment daily on how incredibly beautiful it all is.

The glorious sunshine has only one downside: the winds are very light. We use our gennaker when we can, but there is a catch: the wind funnels between the steep island sides, with sudden and drastic increases in speed. It’s a matter of patience and ‘reading the water’ to check what’s ahead of us. Both of us enjoy the quick sail changes and sudden bursts of brisk sailing.

We see the Lyngen Alps and another unexpected treasure: Bivrost, the northernmost whisky distillery in the world, a place where Viking heritage meets Scottish distilling expertise. We taste the delicious result – made with arctic barley and glacier water, according to our guide. We believe every word.

Sunny days and light winds often added up to glorious days on the water

In a few day sails, we reach Hammerfest where the sun doesn’t set, so a day sail can in fact be 24 hours. It’s confusing, to say the least. After a ‘day’ of active sailing, we often wonder why we’re so tired, only to realise that it’s 2am and we’ve been steering and trimming sails for 20 hours on end.

Two days later, finally, we reach the North Cape, the northernmost tip of mainland Europe. Normally, visitors struggle in strong winds and driving rain just to visit the point. Not us – we wander around in just a sweater, looking out over flat, calm seas.

Filling in gaps

It has taken us a little over two months to reach the Cape, and we’ve the same amount of time to get back, but we have a long list of places we skipped on the way north. After poring over the charts, we make plans for the 1,500 miles back to the south of Norway.

Typically beautiful haven at SØrvågen

First we sail to Lundesnes on the island Grytøya. These are harsh lands, where traditional life depended on catching the migrating herring and cod that would then be cured and traded. There are two types: klippfisk is heavily salted and dried fish while tørrfisk is naturally dried fish without salt. The drying can only be done on the Lofoten islands and Vesterålen archipelago due to their slightly warmer temperatures with no significant frost in the winter to destroy the quality of dried fish.

The far north of Norway is still sparsely populated and people need to be self-sufficient here. Some places where we anchor or tie up feel truly remote and we’re keenly aware of the level of preparation you need to sail here. If anything breaks, you need to be able to fix it.

The small communities do everything to keep going – we even found unmanned shops, where everything is paid for honestly with a credit card. When the weather is nice, Norwegian villagers usually walk up to Anna Caroline for a chat, or pass us in their fishing boat and toss a fish onto the deck as a way to welcome us.

Motoring on glassy Vestfjorden south of Lofoten with a pod of orca nearby

Further south, we slowly sail into the Helgeland archipelago. The weather is beautiful, with cloudless days and relaxed sailing in light winds. “This is the best kept secret,” says Norwegian cruiser Steinar, “Helgeland is better than Lofoten, but we don’t mind that everybody goes to Lofoten.”

The islands bask in the sunlight and the crystal clear water gives us a glimpse of what lies beneath our keel. Norwegian yachtsmen are very helpful and offer lots of advice about the best anchorages. Most of the old houses on the islands are now holiday homes, so there’s a laid-back atmosphere. On Sørfugløya, we walk along the water’s edge in T-shirts and shorts, watching people enjoying a beautiful day on the beach. I dip a toe into the sea and swiftly realise why nobody is swimming – it’s easy to forget we’re still north of the Arctic circle.

Another highlight is the Svartisen glacier. In flat, calm conditions we motor up a narrow fjord and tie the boat to a small jetty. Two hours later we’ve climbed up to the glacier face and touched the blue-tinged ice. The sun warms the glacier and meltwater rushes down the rock face further below. I lean in to listen to the glacier; it has a low, murmuring noise with occasional deep bangs when a chunk of ice breaks off: an incredibly beautiful sound. Later, when the sun sets, we watch from the cockpit as the glacier turns from blue to pink and purple.

Anchorage in front of the Svartisen Glacier

The next day, there’s a dense fog and still no wind. We motor out of the fjord and turn south again. Slowly, the sun melts the fog away and we see a rare fogbow – like a magical black and white rainbow.

As we get further south over the following weeks, we notice the Norwegians are wrapping their summer up although it’s only early August. Facilities are closing and we have ample space in harbours where we want to tie up. Our favourites are the old trading posts, most hundreds of years old and after careful restoration are now either museums or a lovely restaurant and hotel. The prevailing northerly winds pick up again and we enjoy some brisk sailing through the channels between the islands.

The best for last

Once we’ve passed our starting point Haugesund, a whole new cruising area opens up: the fjords just north of Stavanger. Once again we’re lucky: apart from occasional rainy and gusty days, we enjoy beautiful sailing days with bright sunshine and calm winds, which gives us the opportunity to visit smaller ports with less shelter.

There are some deep fjords, in which you can sail all the way to the end. One of the jewels in the crown is the Lysefjord, with the Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock) towering 650m above sea level.

With the last weather window of the season, we leave Norway to head south, home to the Netherlands after almost five months of blissful cruising in an amazing and hospitable country. Norway, we’ll be back.

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