Barry Stone sets off on the Rembrandt van Rijn to explore Northern Norway.
To anyone ashore watching us sail by we must have been a ghostly sight, a latter-day Mary Celeste. Our three-masted 70-year-old schooner, sails furled, was covered in a shroud of snow and ice, its outer decks empty of life save for a crewmen occasionally doing something nautical that couldn’t be put off, oh and a snowman that a passenger dashed outside to hurriedly form then set on the portside rail where it stayed, frozen and upright, for days.
Well, it wasn’t as though it was going to melt or anything. Not in these temperatures.
Our ropes were so laden with snow and ice you could barely tell where the one ended and the other began. Our two inflatable zodiacs were covered in it, our timber decks a trip hazard of monumental proportions so treacherous that to go outside meant you might want to put crampons on your boots. Slide overboard unnoticed in these waters and in thirty minutes your body ceases to function.
This is Norway. But not the warm, summery Norway with its ice-free lakes and fjords and green meadows and fruit trees ripening in the sun-drenched Hardanger. This was northern Norway, in the tail-end of winter, its days shorter but not too short, its meadows still hidden under a metre of snow, its lakes icy but thawing.
It was the Norway I’d always wanted to see, where the white wasn’t content to fall on summits and upper slopes but was under your feet the moment you stepped ashore. It smothered every valley and was over every roof and backyard and municipal park, over every unploughed road and unshovelled path. It covered cars and boats and anything else left motionless for more than a week and formed icicles as long as your arm that hung precipitously off gutters and eaves, glistening daggers of death. Only the water’s edge brought its undoing.
My son and I saw it all, this white world of birch and spruce (and the occasional teasing flicker of northern lights) from the comfort of our ship, our beloved sanctuary, the Rembrandt van Rijn. Built as a herring lugger in 1947 it was refitted and given its three soaring masts in The Netherlands in 1994. A further refurbishment followed and now it carries 33 passengers in 16 cabins – all with private showers – and 12 crew. Sure its rooms are small, tiny even. But up here small means cosy, and cosy means warm. And that’s all that matters.
A modest 49 metres long, its dining room is filled with comfy diner-like booths with padded seating. There’s a separate reading area and bar, and its interior brass accents and weathered timbers give it character and charm which reflects a nautical pedigree that more contemporary, ‘shinier’ vessels can only hope to one day possess, while outside there are some lovely private nooks you can take refuge in, set amongst ropes, halyards, braces, shrouds and stays. It’s gone through four engines and six name changes, and its two Cummins engines give it an average speed of 6.5 knots when sails are furled, a pace that reflects one of Oceanwide Expeditions’ long-held, unashamed philosophies: “We’re not in a hurry”.
And while its buffet meals are hearty and always much-anticipated after a morning or afternoon spent hiking, it’s the stories you’ll likely hear from Oceanwide’s top-shelf polar guides that linger most in the memory.
Like in 2019 at a Chilean research station in Antarctica. With the temperature hovering around a blistering minus 44 degrees Celsius a newly arrived pilot thought he’d run the 250 metres or so from his accommodation to the gymnasium – without his gloves on. When he got there and put his hand on the door handle to enter the gym, three of his fingers snapped off. And don’t even ask me to tell you the story of the guide and the American tourist whose mind snapped when they encountered a blizzard and total white-out on the Greenland ice-shelf.
Suffice to say the van Rijn’s meals weren’t the only things that needed digesting.
We left the port city of Tromso, Norway’s “Gateway to the Arctic” famous for its Northern Lights and centuries-old wooden houses for a 7-night “Hike & Sail” expedition north along a crenellated coastline that is host to a myriad of bays, channels, inlets and islands. We docked at a new village each morning, villages so small they barely rate a postcode and seemed to me to be as much stoic outposts as functioning communities, their timber-clad, mostly summer houses almost all empty, their owners still down south in Bergen, Oslo and Trondheim, waiting for things up here to thaw.
Our first port was Hansnes on the island of Ringvassoya, Norway’s sixth-largest island with around 1,300 inhabitants. Popular with anglers in the summer, Halibut up to 170kg have been caught here. Slipping on our snowshoes we trekked single file for two hours in the hills above Hansnes through forests of spruce and Arctic downy birch. The snow was deep, up to our hips. Without snowshoes it would have been an impossible slog. It was a slog anyway.
We arrived at Akkarvik on the island of Arnoya the next day. On the way the captain gave the engines a rest and put his guests to work – guests from seven nations and wine from almost as many regions combining to unfurl and hoist the van Rijn’s heavy canvas sails in a fair wind beneath a deep blue sky. Connected by ferry to the mainland, Akkarvik’s modest timber houses are scattered along the shoreline of the aptly named Lang (long) fjord that extends, finger-like, deep into the island’s interior.
Burfjord was our first and only ‘mainland’ port, close to the E6 with an indigenous Sami population who have a proud history of reindeer herding, and some Kvens, descendants of Finnish peasants and fishermen who came here in the 18th and 19th centuries. The island of Vorteroya in the middle of Lyngen fjord officially only has ten residents, a fact that was hard to reconcile after I’d counted 23 houses only to be told the figure doesn’t take into account the island’s ‘transient’ summer dwellers. Nord-Lenangen provided mirror-like views of its abundant mountains, while a fabulous museum in a former two-storey timber merchants house in Finnkroken on the island of Reinoya contained several artworks by the world-renowned local artist Einar Berger (1890-1961), the first Norwegian to have his work exhibited in The Louvre.
We arrived back in Tromso on March 18, 2020 in the midst of rising concerns over the covid-19 virus that was spreading quickly through Oslo and the south of the country. At the time Norway had one of Europe’s highest per capita infection rates and what remained of the Rembrandt van Rijn’s winter sailing season was abruptly cancelled as passengers scrambled to reschedule flights. The talk was that regional airports were about to close (they didn’t), so we cut our trip short by five days, and came home.
My son and I were going to spend those five days cod fishing in the Lofoten Islands with local fishermen. The Lofoten peninsula stretches in a graceful arc far into the Norwegian Sea, a vertical wall of gneiss rock that forms a natural barrier for the cod that come here from the Barents Sea in the far north each year to spawn. People have fished for cod in these waters for centuries, and it’s one of my great regrets that my son and I don’t now share those memories.
We’ve decided to return there in March 2023, stay longer, fish more, hike more, and eat a lot of yummy cod tongues.
Take that, virus.
More information: oceanwide-expeditions.com
Replicate this journey: “North Norway Aurora Borealis Hike & Sail”, 7 nights, English speaking voyage, from USD$2,450 shared triple cabin.
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