We are at anchor in a lovely protected bay. White sand beaches are backed bysnowcapped mountains, and there are waterfalls everywhere we look. The watertemperature, now above 56°F, belies the fact that we are just above the ArcticCircle. It is early in the cruising season, mid-May, and there is not another yachtto be found. We have this beautiful bay—and hundreds more—to ourselves.
Welcome to Norway’s Lofoten Islands.
If you wonder about the perfect cruising destination for a motoryacht, this is it. Thousands of miles of protected waterways are dotted with villages and anchorages. The inhabitants are friendly, have been working the sea for several millennia, and have an appreciation for all things nautical. The scenery can only be described as breathtaking. The early summer climate is relatively dry and warm, a gift from the Gulf Stream.
Sandbanken, where we are at anchor as we write this, is typical. There are a few homes ashore, and a small fishing village around the corner. We have cell phone and broadband Internet coverage through Telenor, as is true throughout Norway. Five miles across the fjord is the town of Svolvær, the chief port of the Lofoten island group; here you’ll find supermarkets, cafés, a mall, and high-speed wi-fi at the dock. The air is pristine, cleaner than we have found in most cruising destinations, with drinking water to match.
You can navigate from one end of Norway to the other almost totally protected from the open ocean. These routes have been in use for more than a thousand years and, although at times intricate, are well surveyed and have an extensive array of lighthouses, markers, and buoys to guide you. We’ve been using Nobeltec charting software with C-Map vector charts and have found the data quite accurate. In early May, even southern Norway has daylight almost around the clock. At the latitude of the Lofoten Islands, 67 degrees north, eye shades and extra hatch coverings are required for sleeping at “night.”
TOURISM: THE NEW TRADE
Reine, at the southern end of the Lofoten Islands, is a former fishing village. From prehistoric times until 20 years ago, fishing was the town’s mainstay. Reine still has a winter fishery for cod, but it is smaller and farther offshore than in the past, and the town has reoriented itself—as has much of coastal Norway—to tourism.
As recently as 50 years ago, fishing took place mainly in open boats. The crews lived in small cabins ashore called rorbuas. In Reine, as elsewhere, these sod-roofed cabins have been refurnished and upgraded for the tourist trade. The town has two small floating docks for visiting yachts, with diesel, water, and electricity available, and the most dramatic scenery of any “marina” we’ve visited in more than 300,000 miles of cruising.
In the late 17th century, a shipwrecked Italian sailor spent the winter here. He took home a sample of the dried cod for which the Lofotens are famous, and thus began the “stock fish” trade with Italy, which continues to this day. Wherever you go in the Lofotens, in early summer you’ll see enormous racks of drying cod.
The Norwegians make a conscious effort to maintain their dispersed population, providing services and subsidies to offset the inefficiencies of a semirural economy. At the same time, this country of 4 million has wonderful urban centers. Our favorite in central Norway has to be Ålesund. Like much of Norway, it suffered grievously during World War II and was rebuilt at the conclusion of hostilities in its prewar Art Deco style. Visiting yachts dock in a tiny basin within the heart of the city. Museums, a shopping mall, and art galleries are a short walk away. Floating docks are fronted by traditional stone buildings, beautiful flower beds, park benches, and sculptures.
No matter how lovely the countryside, it is the people that make cruising special. Everywhere we have been in Norway, local residents have gone out of their way to be helpful and show us around, and they are as interested in our lives as we are in theirs. The Norwegians we’ve met are easygoing and relaxed in a way that is rare in the 21st century. We’re not sure why—perhaps it’s the low population density, their orientation toward the outdoors, or the result of an economic system that aims to reduce stress on the population.
LIVES INTERTWINED WITH THE SEA
Join us now at the restored fishing village of Skipness, on the west coast of Senja Island, in the Vesterålen island group (just north of the Lofotens). On our way to anchor, we notice an interesting micro-harbor with traditional fish-processing facilities, along with what appears to be a small restaurant. We decide to visit by dinghy. An hour later we are talking to Astrid Rortveit, proprietress of the Skipness Resort, and she fills us in on the local history.
Founded by Astrid’s grandfather at the turn of the last century, Skipness was a traditional fishing village until the 1960s. They dried and salted fish, made cod liver oil, and provided supplies and shelter to fishermen. Fishing was a tough and dangerous life. The nine-man crews rowed or sailed to the offshore winter fishing grounds and returned through a narrow, steeply shelved channel, often with breaking waves. Astrid showed us the lookout point from which the women would watch for the return of their men across the breaking bar. Astrid’s uncle was the only surviving male on his side of the family. Her grandmother lost all of the men in her family to the sea: father, brothers, husband, and sons.
Today, Skipness is a resort, with weekend entertainment and healthy food. They grow their own herbs and serve fresh local fish and desserts made from scratch with local berries and rhubarb. The Skipness rorbuas are fitted out in traditional style, similar to those used 50 years ago by fishermen.
Norwegians have used efficient, double-ended boats since the start of the Viking era in the eighth century. These traditional open fishing boats, and the slightly larger Nordland boats with their enclosed aft ends and large sailing rigs, remained essentially unchanged until the advent of power in the early 20th century.
The invention of the internal combustion engine allowed heavier construction and more seaworthy designs. The light oar- and sail-powered fishing boats evolved into the double-ended design that’s in use today. Norwegians are still building fishing vessels with timber hulls topped by an aluminum superstructure, typically powered by slow-turning diesels and controllable-pitch props. The narrow, fine-ended hulls are ideally suited to efficient powering and working in steep seas.
In recent years, as the fishery has moved farther from shore, more powerful engines and fiberglass construction have led to wider designs with transom sterns. These boats are faster and carry more payload but are not nearly as nice to look at, nor are they as fuel efficient. When we asked local fishermen which they prefer at sea, the universal answer was the traditional double-ender.
One feature common to both traditional and modern trawlers in Norway is the riding sail. Even brand-new fiberglass boats have them.
PLACES TO GO, PEOPLE TO MEET
Norway has the highest standard of living in the developed world, a result of North Sea oil and an industrious, well-educated populace. It also has a reputation as an expensive place to live, but for the cruising yacht, this is not the case. Fees for docking are minimal. On average, we paid around $20 per night—and Wind Horse is 83 feet long. More importantly, at $4 a gallon, diesel prices are the lowest in Europe.
Another advantage of cruising Norway is the extensive phone and broadband coverage. We’ve used Telenor for both voice and data communications, and even in the most remote anchorages the excellent coverage has allowed us to send and receive drawings and photos of our boatbuilding projects in New Zealand. We’ve found Skype, the Internet voice service, to be particularly efficient for communicating.
Nothing captures the spirit of Norway quite like the national day of celebration, May 17. Constitution Day is commemorated with parades in even the smallest hamlets. We were on hand in Saetervikavas, a village of perhaps 50 inhabitants, for the festivities. At 9:30 a.m. the marchers lined up, led by a marching band that had arrived by ferry and would be making two other stops. Girls from grade school to high school came next, wearing white skirts, cowboy hats, and cowboy boots and carrying flags and banners. They were followed by women in traditional dresses and men in suits. This assemblage, representing nearly the entire population of the hamlet, marched from the “marina” where we were tied up, around the bay, and on to the schoolhouse for an afternoon of speeches, music, and food.
Just past the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands lies Tromsø, known as the Paris of the North. It is also a jumping-off point for yachts bound for the Svalbard Islands, near the Arctic ice pack, and a terminus for those heading back south. Tromsø has a university, a large teaching hospital, and a variety of interesting museums. It is a lively, sophisticated city, a place where you could easily spend two or three weeks—or the entire winter, as several of our cruising friends have.
Tromsø is also a great place to meet the locals, as you are moored in the center of town. In areas with a seafaring tradition, new boats always attract interest. Folks will gaze politely, and sometimes venture a question: “Where are you from?” “What is your cruising speed?” “How does she handle at sea?”
When we see someone looking at Wind Horse, we go out on deck and start to chat. This often leads to an invitation to see the boat, which results in a return invitation to visit onshore. Over the years we have met fascinating people and made good friends around the world with this approach. Tromsø is no different.
Take Ronni, a dog-team racer and camping guide, and his lead dog, Skared (“hard ice” in Norwegian). Ronni has trekked all over the Arctic, including Svalbard, and has an obvious love affair with his lead dog. Skared has a gentle demeanor about him, and a softness with his master that is at odds with our mental image of the tough lead dogs of Jack London’s stories. Ronni’s father was a hunter and trapper on Svalbard for many years and his mother is one of the Sami people, among the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Europe, a semi-nomadic race known for herding reindeer between Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
Jon is a Norwegian coast guard captain, and during his time off he volunteers with the Norwegian Life Boat Service. He is a rugged-looking individual with a voice that could earn him a small fortune in radio, if he could give up the sea. If you need anything having to do with boats in Tromsø, Jon is the man to ask. His father was a commercial fisherman and pioneered the shrimp fishery within the Arctic ice pack.
Torbjorn flies for a local commuter airline and did his flight training in Tucson, Arizona (our hometown). Local airports are small in Norway; runways average just a half mile in length and have terrain-obstructed approaches. Pilots often operate under visual flight rule minimums. The Bombardier Dash 8 STOL turboprop that Torbjorn flies is a pilot’s joy. You actually fly the plane, as opposed to watching the computers and autopilots. We were fortunate to meet Torbjorn’s family and to spend time touring Tromsø with them.
Then there’s Eiric, a local fire captain. One afternoon he brought his entire crew aboard Wind Horse for a visit. Eiric and his team fight fires, deal with automobile wrecks, have their own fireboat, and do underwater recovery. We had a fascinating hour discussing how to reduce the risk of fire on a yacht.
A COUNTRY THAT HAS IT ALL
If you enjoy occasional periods of solitude, you need only move a few miles from Norway’s cities and villages to find a pleasant anchorage. Big anchors, chain rodes, and robust gear are the best insurance for staying put. Most anchorages we’ve found average 40–80 feet in depth and have a rocky bottom, so an anchor that works well in these conditions is essential. We recommend a Rocna (which we carry) or a Bruce-style anchor for cruising in Norway.
We were surprised by how often we encountered floating docks to tie alongside, as opposed to the commercial pilings we had expected. Fuel, water, and power are usually available, and even the smallest towns have one or two well-stocked grocery stores. Norway has a highly developed system of ferries—high-speed catamarans that run at 34 knots, as well as larger, more traditional ships cruising at 15 knots. Between the ferries, buses, and local flights that are available, it is relatively easy to have guests meet you wherever you are cruising. Customs and immigration procedures are very informal; in fact, it can be difficult to find someone to check you in or out.
Norway has it all: friendly people, beautiful scenery, protected waterways, a well-developed infrastructure, and, despite its proximity to the Arctic, weather that Alaskans and Canadians would envy. After two months of cruising here, we are finding it hard to leave.