Cod and Christianity

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Thu 8 Jul 2010 23:08
60:49.621N 45:46.901W Thursday Tea Time

It's been a day of excitement on Saxon Blue, mostly caused by fish.

The others (Jamie, Kali and Richard) were dirty stop-outs last night and didn't get back until about 0330. Jamie couldn't wait to tell me all about it. They had met some sailors in a local bar and been invited back onto their Danish navy patrol vessel which is moored up next to Saxon Blue. Turns out, the reason they were moored up was that they had anchored in the bay and then their anchor had fallen off! It's still down there, apparently. They were keen to show our guys around their immaculate vessel and the picture of Kali at the helm of their 40 knot jet-boat shows that she was just as keen for a look around. They all had a great time and Jamie even managed to grab some freshly baked cakes from the galley.

They were keen for us to comply with their reporting regulations and an Officer even brought over a print-out of the rules this morning. It doesn't actually apply to us as we're too small but I think we'll let the Greenland Coastguard know roughly what we're up to anyway.

We left Qaqortoq at around 0900 to head up the fjord to the ruined church at Hvalsey. It was a beautiful still day as we motored up the fjord, just sunning ourselves and admiring the scenery. It looks exactly like Scotland but with the addition of random large icebergs. It only took an hour and a half to get to the beach by the church where we anchored up about 150 meters off in about 20 meters of water. As it was nearly lunchtime, we decided to spend half and hour on the boat before lunch, then a run ashore. Andrea got her fishing gear out, accompanied by Richard who'd bought a telescopic rod in Qaqortoq. With one frozen limpet each as bait, they set to work.

This is the honest truth, no lie. Honest. Richard had caught a fish before his bait even touched the bottom. He reeled in a lovely little cod, about a foot long. Then he got another. As this one came up through the crystal-clear water, I could see it on the hook accompanied by another two who'd just come up to keep it company. Kali was busy on the stern gutting the first one and finding its stomach chock full of small shrimps. Then Andrea caught one and Jamie. Jamie's one was on the hook and another one following it trying to eat the weight. We could have had them both in the landing net. I even got involved and caught a couple although I put them back in again (ever the gentleman and we had too many by now anyway). By the time lunch was served, we had a box full of cod fillets, a stern covered in blood and Jamie an expert in gutting and filletting fish having learned it all from Kali.

I read in one of the books that there are loads of small cod in the fjords but that the water outside is too cold for them to grow very big so they don't really have a commercial cod fishery up here. Still, it bodes well for us keeping ourselves supplied with fresh protein for the next little while.

So, then it was time for a run ashore. Kali took Jamie in on the tender first as he wanted to climb the mountain behind the ruins, then she came back for us. We landed at a very well-made pier that must be here for the cruise ships to use and then went to explore. The ruins here are from a church and important farm that was founded by a friend of Eric the Red in 985. They were last recorded as being used in the middle 1400s, the last recorded habitation of the Norse settlers. The major church was built in 1300, along with the largest of the domestic buildings. From the descriptions in the guide books, this is the most well-preserved Norse ruin in Greenland and I was expecting to see some fallen masonry and mossy rocks. This is so much more impressive.

The main church building is made entirely without mortar but the quality of the stonework is immaculate. The main window behind the altar has a rounded top and is bevelled from the inside. It doesn't have a lintel but the whole top is supported by a drystone arch held there by its own weight. The side windows have stone lintels and the main door has a double-height lintel supporting the gable-end above. There are side doors and even niches in the walls. It's comparable to the downland churches near us in Sussex, I suppose. Something like Up Marden. It's so much larger and better made than I was expecting. Not at all like a viking building, much more European and medieval. When it was roofed and plastered, it would have been magnificent.

Around it, the other buildings included a Great Hall with side benches and a series of barns and biers where the farmers tried to keep their cattle alive through the Arctic winters. The name "Hvalsey" means (I think) "Whale Island" so perhaps that gives some clue to another source of wealth. Either way, these people weren't just scratching a living. There aren't any comparable buildings in Iceland from this period so these guys were truly isolated from the next nearest similar culture. It seems strange that they had no sea-going craft and so were completely abandoned when the trading boats from Norway stopped coming.

Quite what happened in the end is mysterious. I've heard that they died of conservatism, unable to adapt to using the rich natural resources here of fish and seal and insisting on eating beef. I'm sure they did prefer beef but enough to starve to death for it? I'm not so sure about that. The climate did deteriorate so they gradually found it harder to keep the cattle and sheep alive so I'm sure the standard of living gradually declined but nobody really knows what finally killed them off. I think what surprised me is how European and modern they must have been. Like the monks in the great monasteries. Learned and rich and sophisticated and yet, despite that, they couldn't survive. Andrea and I spent a good long time just chatting and thinking about it all.

Back on Saxon Blue, we were waiting for Jamie to reappear when Andrea noticed two figures waving to us from the jetty near the ruins. She waved back and they waved even harder. Soon, they were holding up a hand-written sign saying "Help". We thought they probably wanted a lift back to Qaqortoq and decided that we could do that so Kali went in and fetched them onboard. They're a couple of guys from Austria who've been hiking around the moutains and just run out of steam. We've just had dinner with them (freshly baked bread, Icelandic potatoes, vegetables and Arctic Char from the market yesterday) and they assure us it's the best food they've eaten in Greenland. Or are likely to, I'd say.

We've just dropped out two hitch-hikers off in Qaqortoq and we're off now to do a 500-odd mile passage North. We'll be going for 3 nights and 2 days, we think but the forecast is good so we should have light winds and calm seas (hopefully). I'm off watch now so I'm off to get a shower and some sleep. Hopefully, I'll be able to keep the blog up to date as we go along.



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