After sailing his classic-style cutter to the arctic island of Jan Mayen, Will Stirling and his crew set off to climb its volcano
“Please could you come up on deck,” accompanied the gentle nudge that breached the cocoon of deep, warm sleep. Into this warmth flooded the unwelcome feelings that accompany sailing in cold fog with a compass that is under an element of suspicion.
It was a remarkably polite request given the circumstances aloft; as I made my way up on deck, the gracious tone prompted some sense of suspense as to what decision might lie in wait. The welds had sheared at the point where the gaff connects to the mast. The spar was flailing about on top of the sail, which to date had not ripped but was likely to do so in the near future.
As to a solution, no doubt something would come to mind; in the interim the sail needed to be on deck. This involved clambering around on the ratlines and hauling down the mast hoops in order to tame the 1,200ft2 of cold and wet flapping canvas before throwing on sail ties and lashing the gaff’s forward end to the mast.
The rig problem did not seem fundamental; while motive power was compromised we were in no danger and there was no pressure for immediate action. It was thinking time and soon an idea for repair came to the surface.
Jan Mayen is an island which lies in the Arctic Ocean at approximately 71°N and 8°30’W, and is 30 miles long. As a small island with no safe anchorages and an active volcano with glaciated slopes in classic cone form, it seemed an irresistible challenge.
Following various voyages in small and old boats, Integrity was designed and built with expedition sailing in mind. She’s a replica of a Victorian cutter of circa 1880, built of the best quality materials and to Stirling & Son’s exacting standards of traditional boatbuilding workmanship.
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High adventure in Iceland on board an expedition yacht
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She was launched in 2012 at which time my life was dominated by shipyard work. For six years she was sailed in the West Country in both winter and summer months. With unrushed deliberation, thoughtful refinement of rig, deck layout and interior was kept in hand. Final preparation was a full copper sheathing of the underwater hull.
These extended sea trials resulted in familiarity and confidence in the vessel; it pays to remember that most problems stem from the human element or what you might term operator error.
In 2018 Integrity had sailed from Plymouth to Northern Iceland. These adventures via the Isles of Scilly, up the West Coast of Ireland, through the Hebrides and Faeroes and along the East Coast of Iceland have since distilled into memories of humour among comrades surrounded by natural beauty.
Integrity had overwintered in the ice-free harbour of Husavik, North Iceland in preparation for a circuit of the East Greenland Sea in 2019. The first of these voyages was to Jan Mayen.
A crew of trusted men had been assembled. These were shipwright and sailor Arthur Hamel, delivery skipper Chris Miller, mountain leader Major Paul Mattin RM (Rtd) and Colonel Justin Holt MBE RM (Rtd). Following a winter training expedition together to Norway, I would think there was a general understanding among us that, ‘Cometh what may,’ on the face of it we were unlikely to panic.
When we left North East Iceland in mid-May it was snowing. When we returned to North East Iceland in late May it was snowing. In the interim on our voyage to Jan Mayen we enjoyed a generally southerly airflow which, if not warm, was not significantly cold.
Despite being early in the season (we were to be the first vessel to arrive at Jan Mayen this year) there was no consideration of ice. This was in contrast to HW Tilman with the cutter Mischief and Lord Dufferin in the pretty schooner Foam who both encountered ice to varying degrees on their voyages to Jan Mayen in the mid-summers of 1856 and 1968 respectively.
Having been sailing in fog of varying density for 48 hours, it was with some trepidation that we approached the island. Jan Mayen, or at least the ankles of Jan Mayen, appeared below a skirt of fog and general excitement pervaded the crew. Major Mattin lay on the staysail in sniper position armed with a pair of binoculars, out of which one oculus promptly dislocated, making them into a telescope.
Batvika on the south-east side of Jan Mayen is a tiny bay fringed by rock into which sets an interminable swell. Our forecast may have been out of date, nonetheless it seemed sensible to be on the south-east of the island as stronger north-west winds were expected.
Our two former Royal Marines, in this case our diplomatic core, donned their green berets and produced an RM Plaque to be presented to the base commander. The landing party aimed for the shore, penetrated the surf and scampered up the beach without getting too wet.
The Norwegian base commander awaited us in uniform at the top of the black beach. He cut a most professional and efficient figure; his subsequent conduct during our brief visit to the island only served to reinforce this initial and favourable impression.
Harald the Welder took the gaff jaws in hand without a moment’s delay. As suspected, the repair had caused an alteration of pressure, a further lug had sheared off and the remaining weld had cracked.
Once the work was complete Harald declared the repair, ‘A fun job’ – a summary that I couldn’t believe although I was grateful for his kind comments to an uninvited guest who came bearing work in place of gifts.
Jan Mayen is dominated by Beerenberg. The name apparently translates as Bear Mountain, so named by the Dutch whalers and presumably in response to their numerous troubles with polar bears.
The bears have long since either departed or been shot, as all other mammal wildlife on the island in the continuing theme of humanity which destroys more than it creates.
The stark scenery, or those parts that could be seen, reminded me that, ‘this is not a place for boys’, as an offshore fisherman had told me in broken English when, many years ago I’d asked advice about sailing to Faeroe.
Nonetheless the sense of wonder was satisfying enough to stop one thinking about a meal between lunch and tea. Having spent a winter considering the landmarks of Jan Mayen by the comfort of my fireside, here in cold reality was Fuglartarnet (Lighthouse Rock which we could later see from half way up Beerenberg), Lobsbaten (Pilotboat Rock which looked like a pilot boat under sail), Eggøya (which continued to emit steam and had been an island when William Scoresby of whaling fame visited the island in 1822), and Soyla (the core of an ancient volcano that had rivalled Beerenberg in size and was diagnosed as such by JM Wordie, who had spent a winter on Elephant Island as the geologist of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and was later the first man to summit Beerenberg in 1922).
After a rambunctious night at anchor in Batvika we awoke (or rather ceased lying down and pretending to sleep) to the prospect of Beerenberg.
A Norwegian crew had been selected by ballot in the weather station to join Chris in order to take Integrity from Batvika around the south end of Jan Mayen and then up the north-west facing coast to reach Kvalrossbukta, which appeared as a millpond in comparison to the lively Batvika.
The weather forecast seemed moderate and Batvika was fast becoming untenable.
We set and triced the main sail before ferrying the Norwegians in three trips back to Integrity. This involved getting quite wet on the beach. In order to avoid a misreporting of events, here is Paul’s description of our attempt to summit Beerenberg:
The climb involves a hefty approach trek at sea-level followed by an ascent of 2,277m. The climbing expedition was exposed in that we would be beyond any search and rescue reach even from the base, so we carried sizeable mountain rucksacks and were armed for cooking, a rest stop, medical emergencies and a roped climb of the glacier and ridge traverse.
The Norwegian laws governing visitors to Jan Mayen dictate that no camping is allowed outside Batvika or Kvalrossbukta. We decided to climb to around 1,000m which put us well within the snow line where, at approximately midnight and in broad daylight, we stopped for a meal and a rest before tackling the real climbing in the coolest hours of the morning.
The weather and visibility remained on our side throughout and we had perfect views of the mountain as we approached. While we ate and brewed up tea Beerenberg’s southern side looked close enough to touch. Some 1,300m of altitude and several kilometres of pristine snow separated us from its lofty summit.
From the shade of the mountain we could see the whole of the volcano’s shadow projected onto the cloud covering South Jan Mayen below us with the incredible spectacle of a faint and fully circular rainbow sitting atop the cone.
Due to our early hour, and it being the coolest time of the day, the snow was crisp and at its firmest. Our crampons and axes bit in well, and progress up the flank was deliberate and swift. As we neared the crater rim itself we could see the sun’s glow on the other side of the caldera and hear the whistle of the north-east wind beyond. We broke the ridgeline and were met by both in full force.
The crater was pristine with ancient ice and almost knife-edge in places. The summit section came quickly but its steep, ice-fluted flank required a belay to protect against a fall. We took our time here, and then at 0700 Will led us the short distance to the tight summit top. We got down safely, ate and stepped into a long walk to sea level, and our eventual link-up with Integrity and the remainder of the team.
Two days were spent recuperating in Kvalrossbukta and in the meantime Chris and Justin completed the scientific work by setting the last of the air traps, which needed a 24-hour exposure. At a little over 2°C the seawater was quite cold, as Arthur confirmed with a 30-stroke swim. Fortunately, we had a bathing ladder on board.
Kvalrossbukta has a low area of dunes extending 400m beyond the tideline. The dunes are backed by a 300m-high escarpment. Under initial inspection the dunes appeared to be littered with logs, the debris reaching back towards the escarpment foot.
Two things came to mind: the first being presumably this is a small percentage of the timber that is afloat in the sea which does mean that there is an element of Arctic Roulette about the voyage; and, secondly, the weather must be truly terrible at times in order to propel those baulks that distance.
On closer inspection the logs were interspersed with bleached whalebones. Given what is visible now, 380 years after the whalers moved offshore and given that the period of onshore whaling lasted perhaps 25 years, the beach must have been an abattoir on the grandest of scales.
All literature on Jan Mayen uniformly mentions fog and bad weather – the island is on average only clear of cloud cover for three days per year and hurricanes are reported to have descended on the island in mid-summer – it seemed prudent to make our exit while we could.
With a favourable forecast the main was set and triced, jib set and hauled aweather, anchor weighed, bobstay set up, mainsail tack hardened down, jib let draw, the staysail set and Integrity sailed out of the bay. Part of the pleasure of using a boat is operating her well; of course there is always room for improvement.
We attempted to circumnavigate the island by sailing north-east as further tourist destinations such as the Weyprecht Breen ice foot floating on the sea and new volcanic land from the 1985 eruption beckoned. The wind was too strong for comfort and so we soon wore ship 180°and high tailed off downwind trolling a fishing line from which we had to release three fulmars.
The passage south was dominated by light winds in which the topmast was sent aloft, yard topsail and the square sail set. The topsail is a wonderful lever for steadying the ship.
Only a water sail and the jib topsail remained in the wardrobe. Having previously broken a topmast I am of the mind that one doesn’t want a lumberjack on board unless within hailing distance of a boatyard. Messing around with sails and feeling content was punctuated with stoking the wood burner, meals of varying imagination, irregular whale sightings and a greater focus on navigation.
There was also the confidence boosting fact that Iceland is significantly larger than Jan Mayen and has numerous safe harbours to boot. Therefore any landfall, presuming the landmass was as expected, might be called a success. Raudinupur headland on northeast Iceland grew out of the sea on the end of the bowsprit and, although we were suspicious for a while, eventually it could not be disputed.
Within sight of the headland and with some fishing success we caught four cod on three hooks. One large, greedy cod had eaten his mate while on the hook and seemed to his ruin unable or unwilling to let go of his lunch. As a result he became our lunch. We sailed through the narrow chicane into the sheltered bay of Leirhofn, reportedly an ancient Viking anchorage.
Only when the anchor is down in a well-protected anchorage does the bottle come out. Some King’s Ginger was taken with no accompanying toasting or speeches before a proportion of the crew tumbled ashore for a snooze in the heather. As on a previous expedition, the rural Leirhofn provided an excellent decompression before returning to the bright lights.
First published in the November 2019 edition of Yachting World.