As we sat down to a hearty dinner aboard Grace, the 48.35-metre retro-classic motor yacht, snug in the island’s sheltered fishing harbour, there was a degree of apprehension among the guests. We planned to cruise north along the heavily indented coastline for some 200 nautical miles as the seagull flies, to the town of Bodø, 25 miles inside the Arctic Circle, and while much of our route was sheltered by off-lying islands there were still one or two short stretches open to the North Atlantic weather. Not a great prospect this early in April if it remained stormy, but happily the forecast indicated things might improve, so we went to bed feeling optimistic.
Next day, it was as if we had been transported to a different world. Strong winds and low grey cloud were replaced by clear blue skies and a brilliant sun that lit up the clean new blanket of snow, while the storm had abated to cool zephyr. Best of all, the seas were calm and the air so incredibly clear one could see mountain peaks 100 miles away. By 9am Grace was steaming north, bound for Brønnøysund, in Helgeland province, 50 miles north east along the coast.
Basking in the sun on the bridge deck in steamer chairs, albeit with a blanket covering our knees, is not something you associate with north Norway in spring, but it was real sunbathing weather as we took in the incredible mountain scenery, picked out sea eagles circling high above us, and watched the colourful little fishing boats. We had anticipated a big Atlantic swell when crossing a stretch of open water on the final approach to Brønnøysund, but were surprised to find it had subsided to about a metre. Although Grace has no stabilisers, the bilge keels fitted to her well-designed hull coped admirably and we steamed into the pretty little harbour and tied up to a perfect quay at 1pm, exactly on schedule.
Timing was important because a couple of visits were arranged for us that afternoon. The first was to a fisheries research station a short ride over the high bridge that links Brønnøysund with the island of Ytter-Torget. Mainly a tourist destination in summer, the station still carries out important research into new techniques for fish farming – one of Norway’s biggest export industries.
Our second visit was to an isolated island-farm. Here, years ago, subsistence farmers earned extra income from lighthouse-keeping, but following the automation of the little lighthouse, there is very little here at all, except for a small herd of silky-fleeced, brown and white steinalder sheep (a name that translates literally as ‘stone age’). The farmhouse, from which the little lighthouse sprouted, marking the northern approach to Brønnøysund, is, however, completely intact and in the same condition as when the last family moved to the mainland in the 1960s. Today it is a museum, open on request.
To our surprise and delight, the following day was again sunny and bright – made especially so by a 10 centimetre fall of snow overnight. We tracked northwards through beautiful vistas of rugged mountains and low skerries (small rocky islands), with visibility stretching out to 50 miles and more. For lunch we diverted to Vistenfjord, where the sun was hot and the water like a mirror, and anchored in a small inlet where ice was forming on the surface.
On our way north to Sandnessjøen that afternoon, the weather closed in for the first time, as a series of heavy snow showers swept through, reducing visibility to the extent of Grace’s bowsprit. Visibility was good, however, when we entered the harbour and snugly berthed on the town quay.
Grace left Sandnessjøen under overcast skies, but soon the sun broke through for increasing periods until clear skies dominated once again. While the air temperature still hovered at just below zero, the sun made all the difference to the majestic mountainous scenery. As we slipped out into the open water beyond the island of Dønna we could already see our next stopping point: the small rocky island of Lovund, towering out of the sea beyond a scattering of low skerries, whose bare rock surfaces had been ground smooth by aeons of ice.
Grace caused quite a sensation on arrival in Rødøy, as it was the first time the newly built quay at the Klokkergården Restaurant had been used by a large yacht. Located in the island’s old boarding school, this pretty seafood restaurant is owned by Malin Arntsen. Later, as we dined on her signature dish – fish casserole au gratin – she mentioned that the local fishermen had told her about a pair of sea eagles that were nesting on the hillside overlooking the local fish farm on Rangsundøya island. We should throw them a freshly caught cod and try to see them.
It sounded a great plan, so first thing next morning we asked the crew to catch a few cod for the eagles. For a while nothing happened, but just as we threw in a second fish, the action started. One minute an eagle was circling at 300 metres above us, the next it was diving towards the floating cod. It was a thrilling spectacle, made even more exciting because this was only 10 metres from the tender.
That night we anchored in beautiful surroundings near Jetvik, before pressing on north towards the last rendezvous of our cruise for a snowmobile safari. Calling in at a snowmobile shop near the Swedish border to pick up some warm protective clothing, we drove on up to the crossing. Having been allocated our machines and explained the controls, we set off, shepherded by Geir and Kjell-Eric, both experienced riders. Gingerly, we left the road and all civilisation behind us, as we followed well marked ‘snow motorways’ across the gentle rolling hills. As our confidence increased, so did our speed, and soon we were tearing across the landscape at up to 60mph. So vast was the terrain we encountered few other riders as we sped through the idyllic wintry landscape, sometimes negotiating narrow and rutted paths, sometimes on wide open expanses of virgin snow.
Hungry from the exercise and fresh air, we stopped some 20 miles from the road for a picnic lunch under a wide blue sky. With the thermometer at minus 10 degrees it felt cold away from the heated handlebars of our machines. We were grateful to our guides for bringing wood for a very welcome fire as we tucked into reindeer sausage and Norwegian cheeses, with great hunks of fresh-baked bread. Tired and happy, we headed back to our starting point.
The day had been a great finale to a winter cruise that had blended amazing scenery with interesting activities and fresh, tasty local seafood. At the outset, the weather had verged on the disastrous, but despite regular falls of snow we enjoyed warm sunshine each day. The only disappointment in such a highly unusual experience was the non-appearance of the heavenly northern lights. But that left something to wish for on our next winter cruise.
This is an abbreviated version of a story that appears in the January 2013 edition of Boat International