Svalbard reflections (guest contributor Lizzie)

Sun 24 Jun 2018 21:41

On request from chief blogger (Mum), I am writing my first blog post, from sunny England. I’m supposed to reflect on my ten days on Sea Fever’s Arctic voyage, which is quite daunting. I think the trip can only really be described in clichés, so that’s probably what I’ll do. 

My biggest concern about joining the trip was the length of the passage from Tromso to Svalbard – not for the challenges of being out in the vast, cold ocean, far from civilization (which, in hindsight, it probably should have been) but because I thought I’d go stir-crazy and get bored. Four days without walking further than 40 feet – or, more realistically, about 15 feet plus four steps up and down. To be prepared, I brought books and downloaded podcasts. But boredom was definitely not an issue (the books were moved more by the boat heeling than me reading them.) Fortunately, the preparations of the real Sea Fever team were a little more thorough and appropriate than mine.

Probably the easiest way to describe the trip is extreme, on both (all?) ends of the spectrum – at least by my standards. Extreme beauty and extreme remoteness. Extreme weather – from force 30 winds on the crossing to 0 after arrival; from five layers and frozen toes to stripping on mountaintops (the latter just Mum). Extremely big waves, described by the experienced sailors as “poor sea state,” which seemed like a very British understatement to me. Extreme – or perhaps I should say significant – boat malfunctions. Significant human malfunctions through injury (Dad) and illness (plenty of puking in the heads, fortunately not too much elsewhere). Very long and very short days. Very large amounts of tea, cake and chocolate. Extremely well organized and delicious meals provided by our galley chief and occasional helpers – which somehow continued through the gas and water issues.

Throughout the trip, there seemed to be a running competition between nature and the boat for creating the most adrenalin. Nature provided 13-knot wave surfing, 45-degree heeling, wildlife watching, sheer cliffs and snow-covered ridges. Sea Fever provided engine failure, gas failure, and water failure. I think nature won. Although perhaps I should give credit for the surfing, heeling (and not capsizing) to Sea Fever.

Out of all that, the most bizarre feeling was walking on land after 96 hours at sea. I had been imagining the excitement of being on solid ground for a few hours (days?) but when it came to it, the land didn’t feel very secure at all. It took another few hours for my brain to readjust and my body to stop wobbling. Combined with the tiredness, I felt drunk and hungover at the same time. Not quite the feeling I had imagined.

As Mum said already, sailing – especially in remote places, on a relatively small boat – makes you appreciate the luxuries of daily life. My first luxury on land was a hot shower – which actually turned into a very cold shower when the power cut out, but still felt pretty great. Then a full night’s sleep (8am to 4pm), and eventually pizza, beer and wifi in a warm restaurant (yes, we sat at the dinner table with our devices – although I would like to point out that the 23-year old used hers much less than the 50-something parents). I’m hoping that the experience will make me complain a little less.

Unexpectedly losing power, gas, and water made me appreciate the even more basic luxuries of life, as well as the enormous amount of preparation that went into the trip (that I was not involved in). I might have felt differently about those issues if we hadn’t had paper charts and experienced sailors, a satellite phone, VHF, EPIRB etc. and people who know how to use them (not me), a well-stocked first aid kit (again, with other people who know how to use it), a month’s supply of food, an emergency camping stove and plenty of spare water bottles.

Then again, the trip itself was pretty luxurious in terms of what we were able to see and do. Who cares about being a little smelly and cold when you can surf alongside dolphins and follow reindeer tracks in the snow?

Getting on a plane from Longyearbyen to Oslo was very underwhelming after the outward journey. Dull, grey, and claustrophobic – despite being a lot bigger than the boat. And far too many people. The women sitting next to me were comparing their cruise trips and I couldn’t help feeling a little smug that my cruise had been a little more adventurous, remote, and extreme!  

I’ve never been glad to be injured before, but I’ve also never had such an incredible opportunity placed neatly in front of me just a few days after finding out that I can’t run for 6 weeks. Despite a few moments (or hours) that were much further out of my comfort zone than I have ever been (and really ever wanted to be) I think next time I might choose sailing to Svalbard over running in circles without an injury!