Straight west to the Western Islands
S/Y Romar departed Oslo May 1st2017 heading west in the wake of the Vikings. The journey went along the coast and passed Norway’s southernmost point, Lindesnes. Further west and north to Tananger, Haugesund and Bergen. All three central cities in Norway’s contact with the islands in the west. King Harald Hårfagre united Norway into one kingdom in the battle of Hafrsfjord, just next to Tananger. Harald Hårfagre (Harald Fairhair) lived in Haugesund and the national monument “Haraldshaugen” is located just outside Haugesund’s center. Haraldshaugen is the official cemetery, but this is disputed. Bergen, the Norwegian Hansa city, is and has been a center for trade and transport in the North Sea area. S/Y Romar has now arrived Shetland.
We easily forget that the travel time between western coast of Norway and Scotland and England by boat was much shorter than to Oslo and Eastern Norway before the railway between Oslo and Bergen was built around 1900. Sea transport was in older days also the only real alternative for large and heavy loads over long distances. Inhabitants along the Norwegian coast have therefore sailed the North Sea in immemorial times.
May 14th at 05:30 we left the harbor of Fedje and headed west. As soon as we were out of in open sea the sails were set and the engine stopped. Now, the wind should take us across the North Sea to the island of Unst in Shetland. Moderate to fresh breeze from north gave excellent sailing conditions for the one with still limited sailing skills. The distance from Fedje to Unst is about 180 nautical miles and the ambition was to cross the North Sea in less than 40 hours. Nobody can say that the North Sea today is the open waters as it once was. We soon learned that the North Sea is inhabited. The oil platforms are many and distance between them short, and we were regularly reminded of the VHF radio that our presence was undesirable.
I planned to let the boat drift freely while I was sleeping. I soon learned that this was very uncomfortable. Without progress, Romar rolled in all directions and it was impossible to sleep. The solution was to reduce speed to about 2 nots. At this speed, the autopilot was able to keep a steady course. I could then safely sleep for one hour before waking up to watch and inspect. Then back to the berth for another hour. I used this procedure on all open sea crossings. It was quite efficient and after 35 hours we could moor in the harbor of Baltasound, just south of Haroldswick. Haroldswich was where the Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre (Fairhair) landed with his fleet in the year 875.
During the late 800s, the Vikings changed their focus from looting to colonization. After Harald Hårfagre had gathered Norway into one kingdom, many of his opponents escaped and settled in Hjaltland (Shetland) and Orkney Islands. From there they conducted plunder expeditions, also to Norway. Harald Hårfagre went to Haroldswich on the island of Unst on Shetland. From there he took control of Shetland and Orkney Islands. Haroldswich is a relatively sheltered bay with long sandy beach. Haroldswick was therefore suitable location for drawing the Viking’s longship up on the shore. The Shetland coast is otherwise characterized by many cliffs and rocks with relatively few natural harbors. One of the best kept long house remains in Shetland we find at Hamar, some 100 meters from the Baltasound center. With the support of the EU, a replica of a longhouse and a Viking ship has been set up in Haroldswick.
Romar sailed into Haroldswick in a moderate breeze and rainy weather. There is no harbor facility in Haroldswick, so we went to the nearest port in Baltasound. The small boat marina has not dept enough for sailing boats. The main pier has relatively poor protection for westerly winds. We got mooring at the end of the pier and got a restless night. Helpful Shetlanders made sure that we got help to repair some minor injuries and also made a new hatch to the cockpit. The original fell overboard at Fedje. Generosity, smile and helpfulness were allotted to us on all islands in the west.
Romar left Baltasound on the morning of May 16 with a course for the island of Mainland. Skip-dog Mira had still not learned. She immediately jumped the Lerwick pontoon was within reach without remembering the railing wire. It resulted in a new seawater swim. I had barely rescued Mira on board and moored before we were boarded by a delegation from other Norwegian yachts. For some it had become a tradition to sail over to Lerwick for May 17thcelebration, the Norwegian constitution day. I was told that it was «mandatory» attend at the 17th May parade and the memorial ceremony for «The Shetland Bus» in Scalloway. The Shetland buses were the name of small Norwegian fishing vessels that illegally trafficked the North Sea during World War II, from the German occupied Norway and over to Shetland. Small fishing boats with no communication equipment and compass as the only navigation equipment emerged from the Norwegian coast in dark and bad weather and sailed over to Shetland on behalf of the Norwegian resistance movement and the Norwegian Government in exile in London. The museum in Scalloway has a great deal of attention to this traffic and in the center of Scalloway stands a great memorial to brave and highly skilled Norwegian seamen.
Near the southern tip of the island Mainland lies the archaeological site Jarlshof. The site includes remains of a Bronze Age smelter, Iron Age houses, remains from the Picts, Viking-era houses and a medieval farmhouse. Jarlshof is unique and a must for history interested visitors on Shetland tour.
I continued along the east coast of Mainland, past the southern tip and lighthouse at Sumburgh Head and set course towards Fair isle (Fridarøy), the small island between Shetland and the Orkney Islands. We had nice sailing weather and moderate breeze and headed south. The wind increased in strength as we approached the island and the skies cloudy. The northern harbor has relatively good protection, but when the sea is rough outside, the suction in the harbor is felt quite well. It became a troubled night with a lot of movement. The island is small, you walk from north to south in less than an hour. Here, 60-70 people and far, far more fulmars and sheep lives. Like small western island societies in Norway, the island has a shop, church and prayer house. The church is call
ed «kirk» and indicates Nordic roots. The skipper on the shuttle boat «Good Shepard» speaks fluent Norwegian with a “harding” dialect and told that her daughter to work at the Hardanger Maritime Museum. He himself build wooden boats and had lived in Hardanger. In the past, fishing was an important living on the island. Larger, motorized, fishing boats combined with bad harbor conditions have made the island unfit for commercial fishing. The local boat «Good Shepard» is being landed when it blows up.
The rain poured down. Down is maybe the wrong word? It came, as often in Western Norway, horizontally. The weather forecast promised easier weather and less wind, so we dropped off and headed for Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands. Another name with Norse roots. Kirkwall meant in old Norwegian “The bay with the church”. A
fter a brief stop for supply and filling the water tanks, the course was set towards the Faroe Islands, a distance of 230 nautical miles. We had good sailing wind, and the cruise up to the Faroe Islands went smoothly. The skip-dog Mira had really learned the life as a ship-dog. She had found that the ladder up on deck had to be taken in two fast jumps without a stop. She also accepted using the deck as toilet. When the sea became rough, the pillow in skipper´s berth was chosen, and when food was served, she demonstrated that also dogs can put sea legs.
We received a lesson! On the Norwegian coast, I rarely consider ocean currents. Sure, you can lose or win a few knots here and there, but you will come ahead. You cannot expect that with a slow sailboat on the Faroe Islands. Across Sandøy, it was full stop for maximum speed on the engine! Some little lateral movements here and there, but four hours later we were just as far from Tórshavn. Head wind and waves over Skopunarfjørður delayed us further. Well over midnight we arrived at the guest boats marina in Vestaravág, in the city center of Tórshavn. Fortunately for us, the police were on duty. Again, we were greeted with helpfulness and smile. They took the ropes and helped with mooring before dog passports and ship records were checked. The guest harbor gave us a fast connection to electricity and heat. Only Mira, was a little bit unhappy. Foreign dogs are not allowed on shore on the Faroe Islands, not even on the pontoons.
Icelandic tongues claim that the Faroese are derived from seasick Norwegians who did not manage the travel over to Iceland. They had to be dropped off halfway. The first inhabitants of the Faroe Islands were hermitic Irish monks in the year 625. The first Norwegian settlers came about 850 AC. The Faroe Islands was Norwegian until 1814 when the Norwegian-Danish union was ceased. Treaty of Kiel granted Denmark control over the islands, Today the Faroe Islands have a high degree of self-governance, and the islands are not, as Denmark, member of the EU.
The weather cleared up and we had some great days in Tórshavn while waiting for my son Marius. The days were used for maintenance work and including stopping water leakages in the heating system. The latter should turn out to be an unpleasant and recurrent problem. Marius was to join the sailing up to Reykjavik. He had done the homework carefully and googled sights on the Faroe Islands. We sailed north Skopunarfjørður and southwest of the island of Vágar and up to Tindhólmur and Drangarnir. Here the drone DJI Mavic Pro was tried for the first time. It was easy to get it in the air, it was far more difficult to land on a small sailboat in motion. Fortunately, it was just nearly a catastrophically landing and scratches on the skipper’s fingers from the propellers on the drone, but the pictures became good.
Again, we experienced the unpredictable sea currents of the Faroe Islands. A wall of current waves met us right outside the Mykines. It lasted half an hour, then, within minutes, the ocean was flat as a floor.
The course was set to Höfn on the east coast of Iceland. Great conditions at sea – maybe slightly too great for sailing. At times it was almost calm. We enjoyed companies of numerous fulmars and northern gannets and were continuously impressed by their aerobatics. In particular, the bird-dog Mira followed the fulmars with her gaze and a deep hope that they should land on the deck. One also came on deck. It had shown a too much interest for the fishing line we had hanging behind Romar and by accident wringing the wing into the line. Mira was locked under the deck, Marius held the beak in the lock while I made it free from the line. The fulmar showed little gratitude for the help provided, and Mira was frustrated since she did not get the chance to shake the life out of the fulmar.
The east coast of Iceland appeared, and the wind increased in strength and the rain poured. It was hard to stand at the helm, really cold on our fingers. The “waterproof “gloves were not waterproof in this weather, nor the waterproof coverall. The port of Höfn has the bad reputation as the third worst harbor in Iceland to access. First, you have to enter a cramped sound with crashing waves on both sides. Then follow a few nautical miles of shallow waters without clear landmarks and a relatively narrow channel leading into the port. The fairway is well marked with leading beacons, but they are not visible in cloudy weather and when fog hangs down in the masthead. Fortunately, a good chartplotter and depthfinder is good to have. We moored at the guest marina and called custom. They arrived a few hours later. In Iceland, they don´t distinguish between large ships and small sailboats – the thick pile of paper must be filled out of everyone. Yes, the ship-dog was an issue. Two alternatives were given, either stay on board every minute on Iceland or free transport to the crematorium. Shotgun and rifle were far easier. They were sealed, and I had to promise not to bring them on land on Iceland. In the afternoon, the wind calmed, and we sailed out to Stokksnes, a famous surfing beach.
During the night and the next morning, it really blew up and the gale pushed us up against the pontoon. We did not manage to push the boat out of the pontoon to get more fenders between. Luckily, we got help and also offered to borrow a couple of big blows. It definitely saved us from damage on the hull.
We sailed westwards towards the Vestmannaeyjar. Good weather and good sailing conditions. The ports of the Vestmannaeyjar have the reputation to be the second worst to enter in Iceland, only Grindavik was told to be worse. Unlike Höfn, the narrow channel is surrounded by steep cliffs. I was afraid that the sheep as grazing on the plateau should fall down on the deck. Heroic efforts from the Vestmannaeyjar fire department prevented lava from the Eldfell outbreak to close the inlet to the port. In fact, Vestmannaeyjar is one of the largest fishing villages in Iceland and there are no alternative harbors. Closure of the harbor had closed down the whole community. Still, more than 40 years after the volcanic eruption in 1973, Eldfell is largely a rock desert, and where there is vegetation the lupins dominate.
About 5 nautical miles north-west of Vestmannaeyjar, we passed the lighthouse Þrídrangar(three pillars), built on a rock in the sea. It has been an amazing achievement to build this lighthouse in 1939. Without a helicopter it is almost impossible to get to the lighthouse even today. The sailing towards Reykjavik entered the usual pattern of good sailing conditions in open sea and difficult when land comes in sight. We had good weather until we rounded the Garður lighthouse and got the fresh breeze straight ahead. It was fighting the waves by engine for hours before we could moor in Reykjavik, right below the great concert hall Harpan. Marius had to depart here in Reykjavik and we stayed here for a few days to wait for his flight. The time was used for sightseeing to Islands famous tourist attractions such as Þingvellir, Gullfoss, Geysir, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss. We also took the opportunity for a bath and bathed in hot springs for the removal of old skin and sweat.
Iceland is a young island, both geological and in population. It is said that Irish monks should have lived before Norwegians settlers came during the 800´s. First, the islands were observed when the Vikings got lost on crossing to Shetland and the Orkney Islands. According to Landnåmaboka, the first permanent settlement was created by Ingolf Arnarsson at Reykjavík in 874. There are indications that the last chief of Borg was Olav Tvennunbrunni. The last chieftain of Borg in Lofoten, traveled with all his family to Iceland in the 900’s. A young country and a young nation, but the world’s oldest parliament. The Althing was founded in 930 at Þingvellir, situated approximately 45 kilometres east of the country’s capital Reykjavik
Þingvellir . The name Þingvellir is derived from the old Norse Þingvǫllr meaning assembly fields. Islands parliament, the Althing was founded in 930 at Þingvellir, approx. 45 km east of capital Reykjavik, and it is one of the oldest parliaments in the world.