Exploring Europe’s Arctic margins by windsurfer is an extraordinary challenge for Jono Dunnett. Tom Cunliffe introduces this stunning book extract
Most of my deepwater sailing I’ve done in conventional yachts or classics. Board sailing and windsurfers, although I tried my hand years back and enjoyed it, are a world of mystery, so when Jono Dunnett’s book landed on the doormat I was intrigued. Within the pages of In the Balance, Jono tells of his voyage around Europe without backup, from the arctic border of Russia and Norway to the Black Sea, leaving the continent to port all the way.
But this is more than a tale of physical endurance, skill and mental toughness on a par with the great explorers of the early 20th century, the prose is so good that reading it is not far off an epic poem. His self-sufficiency on a vessel that promises so little but which, in his visionary hands, delivers so much, is an inspiration.
This is a thoroughly modern man who embraces what technology is available to so basic a craft, yet who remains in uniquely tactile contact with the nature that surrounds him.
Travelling Europe by windsurfer
Welcome aboard for a tour of my ship. Up front we have a spray deck, sewn from orange PVC, with a transparent top pocket for a solar charger. Beneath this is a waterproof backpack stuffed with lighter, bulkier items including sleeping gear. Stuffed up front are also 20 freeze-dried expedition meals, two reserve gas canisters, and a pair of Crocs.
The spray deck has a shallow angle at the front so that it is not torn away by oncoming waves, and elastics pull it tight at the back.
On the back of the board is my barrel, which has previously accompanied me round Britain. It is strapped to a support over the rear footstraps, then strapped again to the footstrap fixings themselves. The barrel is filled with food including three weeks’ supply of expedition porridge, cooking gear, clothes, repair gear, tracker and sundry essentials. The support itself also holds a thermos flask, fishing line, and a system for balancing the sail when in paddling mode.
On my back is a smaller backpack that would be nice to keep light, but ends up feeling heavy. Inside are a VHF radio, gloves, hat, snacks of nuts and chocolate, water in a bladder with a tube for drinking while sailing, spare rope, a knife, sun cream and the like.
Both backpacks seal as roll top drybags. In contrast to the barrel, these are not 100% waterproof when submerged, so additional drybag layers are essential for water tightness. Inside my smaller pack, wrapped within two extra drybags, I also carry a small laptop computer.
When sailing, under my drysuit I wear a woollen thermal base layer, and synthetic layering on top. A fleece-lined waterproof hat paired with ski goggles keep my head and face warm. Open-palm mitts are the best solution I have found to combat cold hands. Regardless, cold hands are a daily challenge. In my pockets are more snacks, my phone in a waterproof case, a waterproof camera, and a Personal Locator Beacon.
The sail itself is a 9.2m2 Severne Turbo GT, but custom built with stronger laminate films. It is set up to be fully adjustable while sailing. The board, unloaded and without the rig, weighs about 18kg. Loaded weight probably exceeds 40kg. A single-bladed stand up paddle board paddle is stowed with the blade under the spray deck and the shaft strapped to the deck.
The additional weight makes launching and landing difficult. However, once afloat the board feels the same as a normal windsurfer in most situations. The negatives of the extra gear are mostly felt at low speeds – instability; and at high speed when the shape of the spray deck can force the board deeper underwater when it nosedives.
The upside of carrying gear is autonomy. Provided there is fresh water – which might be snow – then in theory and practice it is easy to go days at a time without finding civilisation. Shelter for the night – although there is no night up here at this time of year – is provided by the sail, which is propped up by the paddle.
Provided the orientation is correct, the wind pins the sail in place and beneath it there is escape from wind, rain and snow. If the wind is from a reliable direction it makes for a cosy home. Swirly winds are more problematic and can cause the roof to flip. It is often necessary to reorientate in the early hours.
At this latitude, all time under the sail is spent inside my sleeping bag. The bag has a generous fill of down and is protected by a waterproof and breathable outer shell. An inflatable mattress smooths out the stones and insulates from the cold ground. I have an additional set of wool thermals for use on land, a pair of trousers, woollen socks and mitts, a down jacket, and a synthetic jacket.
Fully clothed in the sleeping bag, with all the drawstrings pulled tight, means that I am snug even when temperatures are below zero.
I start, end, and punctuate the day with coffee. Proper filter coffee. That’s important.
I round the headland off Hamningberg, which is as far as the summer-only road from Vardø reaches. Beyond here, it is truly wild.
The board tracks parallel to the shore. Satellite imagery had suggested I may find some beaches. But reality brings dustbin-sized boulders that would only encourage a landing on a day of complete calm. Snow is held in frozen waves that curl from the cliff top, and elsewhere spills through gullies to the rocks below. Snow falls gently into the sea now. I regularly give each arm 30 shakes to move warming blood to the fingers. A snug-fitting hat makes it a silent experience, gliding through this wonderland.
A few hundred metres ahead a fin surfaces. The initial sighting appears to be an upright fin, suggestive of an orca. As I draw nearer, the sightings are of a more curved fin, more indicative of a minke whale. The tiredness I had been feeling evaporates, replaced by a hint of trepidation as I gently sail into the fishing ground. I spend perhaps an hour floating above where presumably is a rich stock of fish. I lose the animal for minutes at a time, and wonder if it has moved on; but then each time am rewarded by an extravagant exhale as it surfaces nearby.
Other times I am genuinely centred over the action, revealed by a jacuzzi of bubbles rising from the depths.
The animal comes up a few metres away, and through the clear water is visible an intense pink colouration. At the time I wonder if I am seeing into the whale’s mouth. Now, I understand that the pink is caused by blood flow diverted to the throat folds, so that overheating does not occur during the exertions of feeding.
Eventually, the animal becomes curious of the object in its vicinity. It passes by just a few feet away, rolled over on its side for an unobstructed view. Behind that eye is an intelligence. The animal moves with precision and grace, suggestive of an utmost mindfulness. The interaction triggers calm rather than fear.
I pull myself away, perhaps thinking I’ll see more whales in coming days. In fact, I do not.
It is late now, and I am tired. Perhaps it would have been wiser to head into Sandfjorden which – if the name is to be believed – promises an easy landing. Instead, I opted to continue. The breeze is now dying and the next good landings are many hours away.
I spy a nook in the rocks on the east side of Sandfjorden – another of my so-called ‘beaches’ – and decide to head there to camp before reaching more exposed coast.
Despite the calm sea, the rocks make it difficult to get the gear out of the water. I am aware it might be a tricky launch tomorrow, but am too tired to care.
By morning a weather front is passing over. The wind direction is steady, and the pinned sail flexes in the gusts, as if breathing.
Small flecks of snow become more substantial flakes that build on the sail, until its panels sag under the weight, and require a double-legged sleeping-bag kick to clear. Conditions have decided that these are hours to rest up.
Peacefully, from within my feather-lined cocoon,
I observe the softly falling snow. Calories are lazily replenished through expedition porridge, coffee, chocolate and nuts. A while after returning to gentle observation, there is a visit from a small white bird – a snow bunting. The sail that shelters me is shelter for the bird too. The bird has curiosity that is so evident. Whereas I found the whale, it is this little bird that has found me. If I had to choose a favourite experience of my journey, it is perhaps this face-to-face encounter with a snow bunting.
The board is 3.8m long. My feet are jammed hard into the footstraps of its rearmost metre. The sea is white-horse streaked and the board races through it. I seek a line that limits the tendency of the nose to spear the waves. Even so, spearing is inevitable and frequent. The ride is extremely wet. Occasionally, lumps of water rear up to exact a thumping body blow.
A few minutes in, to assess progress, I snatch a glimpse back. A line of wake flies out from underneath the board, remaining narrow until lost in the distance. Svaerholt already appears small. That safety is lost.
I am controlling the sailing. The sail – well tensioned to exhaust the excess power – is coping well. But my course line is too high. It is safer to sail high, there is less danger of a crash, but there is no landing on the other side where mature sea meets the hard rock of Nordkapp. I must force myself to sail deeper. Much deeper, toward the protected water of the strait between Magerøya and the mainland.
The wave height is now in excess of 2m. This is sailing with the accelerator jammed down. When a route opens up to go deep, I follow, switching lanes like a manic joyrider. And when a lump rears-up in front, and there is no way round – or over – I go through. The water in that moment is hard and unforgiving. There’s an explosion of spray. Sinews strain to hold board and sail in alignment.
It is only a matter of time before the nose submarines irretrievably. Deceleration from 20-something knots to nothing in a few tenths of a second. Instinctive reactions transform what would otherwise be an ugly mast-breaking catapult fall into a less impactful crumple, but I cannot avoid being flipped and rolled in the process, and am now under the sail, itself underwater. Though I am concerned for the board, in case it has broken free of the rig, in which case it would already be being carried away downwind, I know better than to rush. There is a peace underwater to be used wisely: ensure that none of the control lines or equipment tethers are going to impede exit, then feel a route out to the surface. Once there, I grab a lungful of air, and – reassuringly – the footstraps of the board, which has also flipped upside-down, and now resists the downward pull of the submerged rig.
Once back on deck, the fall is an opportunity to catch my breath, take a mouthful of nuts and chocolate, and assess progress. Eating and navigational checks are impossible while sailing so totally on the limit. My position is still too high, too north, but for the moment this tack is getting me closest to land from where it will be easier to navigate by sight. I further depower the sail – haul on the downhaul until there is not a millimetre left to be hauled – and return to the objective of going deep downwind. There are several more falls, but the effort expended means the cold is not problematic. Even my extremities are warm.
Nearer to land the effort of having gone deep is rewarded. I am sufficiently far south to receive partial shelter from Magerøya’s easternmost peninsula. The sea flattens off. It remains very windy a kilometre off, but compared to mid-fjord it feels safe. The adrenaline ebbs away and tiredness sets in as I zigzag downwind along the flank of Big Island.
I hook round the corner and there is Honningsvåg. Flat water now. And a moderate, gusty breeze.
A different world…
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