James Stewart joins the crew of expedition yacht Hummingbird for an exploration of the wilder parts of Iceland
Killer whales all around
We abandoned the course to sail among the killer whales for half an hour: four large males with 6ft dorsal fins and many more females, with shorter hooked fins, some with calves. How many of Iceland’s 300-strong population was here? At least 20. Perhaps 30.
Later a humpback whale would cruise beside us; the sycthe-like blade of its black dorsal appeared, there was a humungous swirl and a hole in the water, then a dark shape half Hummingbird’s length swept past. It was astonishing. Yet to sail among so many orcas felt the greater privilege.
Raufarhöfn was delighted to see us. Two villagers watched us moor up in the inner harbour even though it was gone 0100. Hummingbird was the first yacht to visit in years, it seems, and people trickled to the wharf the next day to take photographs.
Iceland’s former herring capital has fallen on hard times. It survives through frozen fish and eider ducks, harvesting their feathers from nests to sell for duvets at £500 per kilo.
We took a walk up to the Arctic Henge above the village, scattering Icelandic ponies descended from Viking stock. A stage-set only lacking Spinal Tap, the stone circle was being built to woo tourists. It would be an astral calendar, a sign explained. Each sector would correspond to a dwarf. “People here can connect to their personal dwarf,” said the sign, which sounds bonkers until you learn that 20 per cent of Icelanders believe in elves. Another 60 per cent are agnostic.
You’d think Raufarhöfn, Iceland’s most northerly settlement, would peddle itself instead on proximity to the Arctic Circle. This bisects the country at Grimsey – reason enough for us to make that bitterly cold passage to windward.
Notwithstanding the obligatory photo at the 66°33’N signpost, you come to Grimsey for birdlife. Thousands of fulmars fill the harbour beneath the only settlement, 20 or so weather-bitten bungalows and a church built of driftwood. Countless puffins, guillemots and razorbills honk and trill on the northern cliffs. Their eggs, collected by daredevils on ropes, have been a food source since the Vikings arrived in the 11th Century.
It was quite a racket after being at sea. Don’t the birds drive you crazy? I asked in the island’s bar/café. Its owner looked incredulous. “No, they keep you sane,” he said. In winter, when Grimsey dwindled to its 70 permanent residents, he had to work in Akureyri, on the mainland. “In summer, I open the windows, hear the birds and relax.”
A wild ride
If it’s wildlife they want, most visitors head to Húsavík. Under No 3 yankee and reefed main, we ran there before a northerly Force 7-8 which tore rags of foam from the slate-grey seas. Hummingbird took the 4-5m waves in her stride, but it would have been a wild ride in a small yacht. When a fetch builds from the Arctic, Iceland is not for the nervous.
Húsavík was snug beyond its breakwater; a strip of clapperboard houses with a cuckoo-clock church, all wrapped up within mountains. A sizeable harbour, it is Iceland’s whale-watching destination. It speaks volumes about the trade’s value that Húsavík led protests when Iceland resumed whaling in 2006.
Iceland still sees whales as a bonanza. You’re said to have a ‘whale wreck’ (hvalreki) when you hit the jackpot, a legacy of when a beached whale was a gift from the gods. Minke whale kebab is served in some restaurants.
We went inland. Compared with the coast, inland Iceland is a geological building site, a place so new they haven’t laid the turf yet or grown trees. (What do you do if you’re lost in a forest? runs an Icelandic joke. Stand up.)
Hire a car to tour the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park and you can watch Europe’s largest waterfall, Dettifoss, thunder over a cliff like a Nordic Niagara, and take dirt-tracks across stone deserts where Neil Armstrong practised his moon walk in 1967. Creation isn’t over yet at Myvatn, a volcanic hotspot where the earth pants. If you’re prepared to stump up ISK3,700 (£18), you can wallow in the geothermic Myvatn Nature Baths, an alternative to the famous Blue Lagoon.
Our tour felt less a daytrip than a fast-forward through a billion years of history.
Still, I was thrilled to slip lines on Hummingbird and head out to sea again. Having discussed options and consulted the pilotbook, we opted to sail just 20 miles to Flatey Island.
Tied to an old wharf, we fired the barbecue to cook fish bought off a boat in Húsavík. (We’d had to cajole the fisherman into accepting money.) The island’s only inhabitants came to investigate; a young family on summer holidays.
Her grandparents had been among the fishing community that had toughed it out on Flatey for centuries, the mother said. Herring stocks had collapsed and the islanders left everything – crockery, furniture, livelihoods – behind in 1964. Now it was just holidaymakers and descendants like them who came to Flatey’s 13 houses, and only in summer.
“There’s nothing here,” she shrugged. “No gas. Heat is from oil. There’s almost no mobile reception. And there are no cars, only footpaths. It’s great for the kids.”
It didn’t sound too shabby for the adults either.
I went for a walk after dinner; ambling through meadows dusted by buttercups, peering into darkened houses with roofs in bright Toy Town colours.
The sky at 2300 was too bright for stars. To seaward, where the sea stretched empty to northern Greenland, the horizon glittered like ice in the low light. To the south rose mountains planed into crazy angles. The air was so still you could hear the wings of birds.
Was this what I had expected? Not really. It was more enjoyable for a start. Yet being in Flatey was pure serendipity; the sort of spontaneity you don’t expect of a hosted cruise. This is the sort of discovery that creates an adventure, whatever Amundsen might say.
Anyway, if it’s challenge you’re after Hummingbird is bound deep into the Arctic Circle above Spitsbergen, Norway in 2016.
Into the ice – now that’s adventure.
Tips for Icelandic cruising
- Buy yachting supplies before you arrive: with only two large towns and only one decent marina, chandlery supplies and charts are extremely difficult to source. Hummingbird skipper Rachael Sprot recommends the Royal Cruising Club’s Arctic and Northern Waters pilotbook and Navionics’ iPhone software.
- Exercise caution when using charts, Rachael warns. “The scale of most is 1:100,000, so take care around the 20m line; even if the chart looks clear there may be isolated rocks. Short cuts around headlands are out,” she says. Similarly, large areas of the Westfjords remain unsurveyed.
- There are a few yacht pontoons at Reykjavík, Vestmannaeyjar and Akureyi, otherwise it’s working harbours festooned with tractor tyres all the way. Bring long mooring lines, good fenders (at least one oversized is a godsend) and fender boards.
- Skipper Rachael Sprot says she wishes she had fitted a rope-cutter on the shaft; “There are a lot of fishing boats and very few divers up here,” she says. She adds that a GoPro taped to a boathook offers a good solution to inspect the hull since it allows you to review footage.
- Condensation is a problem with solid laminate hulls. Even on sandwich hulls, insulation, though not essential, definitely makes life more comfortable. Dehumidifiers are recommended if shorepower allows.
- The Icelandic Coastguard expects visiting yachts to provide a position report every three hours. “Doing that by VHF is a bit of a pain,” Rachael says, “so it’s well worth installing an AIS transmitter. It’s a good idea anyway given the high frequency of fog.” Ideally, fit radar too.
- Don’t rely on shorepower in fishing harbours. Even if available it’s not always convenient to access. Bring a long lead, an inverter and 16amp and 32amp plugs.
For more details on the company’s charters see www.rubicon3.co.uk, or Tel +44 203 086 7245.