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Part 3: Venture II Ventures North

It’s easy to imagine dedicating a month or more to exploring the Faroe Islands, both by land and sea. It seems there is a spectacular vista waiting around every turn in the narrow winding roads, a picturesque and colorful village in every port, or phenomenal birdlife on every cliff face. One would think that in spite of the near constant daylight in this latitude (the sun sets near midnight and rises at about 2:30 a.m. this time of year, yielding the region’s longest days, total darkness never falls), that it wouldn’t take long to see it all.

However, the weather is often unsettled with regular periods of rain and fog, making sightseeing a hit or miss deal that’s impossible to schedule. Although June is one of the “driest” months of the year in this remote North Atlantic chain of islands, it is the North Atlantic and on average it’s “wet” 16 out of 30 days with 3 inches of precipitation on average for the month (compared to December, which has a soggy 26 wet days and 6.5 inches respectively). Or, for each sunny day in June you can count on one that is gray, overcast, foggy, rainy, or all of the above. While I was certain there was much more to see and as much as the entire crew enjoyed the Faroe Islands and wanted to extend our stay, it was time to move on toward Iceland where continuing adventures and magnificent sights awaited us.

Shoving off from the quay side in Torshavn late on a Friday morning one constant remained, a small knot of Faroese had gathered to see the boat stood by, waved, and wished us well. Venture II generated a considerable amount of interest in the short time we were in the Faroes; she became a dockside attraction for young and old, literally 24 hours a day (remember, it never gets dark). While a small number of sailing yachts visit the Faroes each summer, we shared our moorage with a few from various European ports, vessels the likes of Venture II are all but an unknown in this mostly commercial harbor populated with fishing boats and ocean-going ferries.

Venture II made her way north and west between the narrow channel separating the steep peaks of Streymoy and Vogar Islands. Under bright sunshine and thin, translucent clouds, now familiar brightly colored villages and seabird-studded cliffs fell astern. Clear weather of this sort is a rarity and I felt fortunate indeed to have it as we made our way through a glorious land and seascape, a fitting departure to this magnificent location. Although I’d dreamt of visiting these islands for many years, I never imagined they’d have such a strong effect on me, I was truly sad to be leaving them and their inhabitants after an all too brief stay.

The conditions during Venture II’s 42-hour passage between the Faroes and our first landfall in Iceland, the Westman Island group located off Iceland’s southwest shore, which is also very close to the now infamous Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, ran the gamut from glassy calm to extremely rough. The ship’s log “sea conditions” column includes words like very calm, gentle swells, lumpy, rough, and very rough. The second night of the passage turned out to be a wild Saturday indeed, but not the kind most folks enjoy. Seas were on the bow, steep, and 8-plus feet. The windscreen was continuously doused in spray, the pantograph wipers doing their best to keep the view clear as Venture II pounded her way through these ugly black mounds of water. It’s a truism that cruisers who ply rough seas tend to exaggerate, albeit unintentionally, the severity of an especially tumultuous passage. I can say, however, without any embellishment whatsoever, that during my watch I found myself literally hanging on to the arms of the helmsman’s chair to prevent too large a gap from forming between it and my body. On more than a few occasions the troughs felt truly bottomless and as I lay in my bunk during one particularly nasty period I clearly recall having enough time to think “when will we land?” as our fall was broken by a hard, watery trough, which resulted in a deafening crash that seemed to shake every stick of joiner work, every bottle, bolt, and strand of fiberglass throughout the vessel. I also remember making a mental note to myself: ask Tony how the hull to deck joint is made aboard Flemings. I did the next day and was pleased with the response; you can read more about it in my upcoming full review of the Fleming 65.

Mercifully, that night ended and we steamed into Vestmannaeyjar harbor on the only inhabited island of the Westman group, Heimaey. In spite of its diminutive size, Heimaey is Iceland’s most important fishing port and unfortunately, when the wind is from the east your nose will confirm this fact. The history of this island chain’s people and geology is truly remarkable, ranging from a 17th century Algerian pirate raid to volcanic eruptions; it’s a remarkable location to be sure. Another type of unannounced catastrophe befell Heimaey one evening in January 1973 when a volcanic fissure opened its maw on the east side of the island roughly half a mile from the town center. What would eventually become the Eldfell (“mountain of fire” in Icelandic) crater led to the complete evacuation of the island’s residents as it nearly cleaved the small island in two, spewing lava, pumice, and ash, while devouring one-fifth of the town’s structures. The islanders, however, fought back, calling upon an ally they knew well, the sea. Using large pumps Heimaey islanders poured millions of gallons of sea water onto the advancing lava, ultimately halting it and saving the remaining section of town and the harbor, their vital lifeline to the mainland and refuge for the fishing fleet.

In walking about the town the twin craters of Eldfell and Helgafell, the latter erupted 5,000 years ago, however, it looks the stereotypical volcanic cone, dominate the landscape. One does not have to look hard to see the effects of the eruption, the lava flow at the edge of town, called Pompeii of the north by residents, and where it stopped just short of a timber church near the harbor mouth stand in mute testimony to the devastation that was wrought on this island and its people nearly four decades ago. Portions of destroyed homes and other buildings protrude from the lava flow as an eerie reminder to its seeming inexorable advance. In one location, lava spills onto steps that adjoin a small shop, now frozen in time, witness to just how close many buildings came to being consumed by the glowing mass.

As I walked through the village streets a more recent reminder of the geologically unsettled nature of this land was evident everywhere, ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano had accumulated in fishing gear, on window sills, and against street curbs. I didn’t realize it at the time, however, I would have the opportunity to see, feel, breath, and taste a great deal of this ash in the days to come.

The next chapter in the Venture II Ventures North saga, Reykjavik and the Icelandic mainland.