|Venture to Iceland|
On April 19th 2010 we fired up the engines, brought aboard the mooring lines and eased away from the dock at Shamrock Quay in Southampton, England. Destination Iceland – a country then very much in the news because of the disruption the Eyjafjallajokull volcano was having on international air travel.
Not many powerboats make this trip but we had designed the Fleming 65 for extended offshore cruising and Venture II was eminently suitable for a voyage of just this sort. Theoretically, if we took the direct route, we had the range to reach Reykjavik without refueling but we were not in any hurry and our itinerary took us along the south coast of England to the Scilly Isles, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Western Isles of Scotland and the Faroe Islands. We spent a total of six weeks cruising the Western Isles of Scotland - visiting the Inner and Outer Hebrides as well as the Scottish mainland and even the remote islands of St Kilda – inhabited for four thousand years before being abandoned in the 1930's. A highlight for me personally was to visit the croft on the island of Jura where my greatgrandfather had spent his early childhood 170 years ago. Somehow there was something rather satisfying about bringing a boat created by his great-grandson to this lonely, isolated place that had been his home before he left the island to become a Gaelic poet.
After six weeks in Scotland we headed into the North Atlantic to the Faroe Islands – our next stepping stone on our way to Iceland. Like most people I knew little about the Faroes until I actually went there. Historians believe their parliament dates from AD 800 making it the first in Europe and probably the first in the world. Interestingly, DNA tests reveal that 87% of men are of Scandinavian origin while 84% of women originate from Scotland and Ireland. Maybe the Vikings had something to do with that!
The Faroes archipelago consists of 18 islands, 17 of which are inhabited. The population is just under 50,000 – almost half of whom live in the capital, Torshavn. In recent years, most of the major islands – with the exception of Suderoy and Sandoy – have been connected by tunnels, causeways or, in one case, a bridge so that it is possible to drive extensively all over the country. English is widely spoken, the people are extremely friendly and hospitable and the scenery dramatic and universally magnificent. The islands are situated in the North Atlantic Ocean halfway between Iceland and Norway and are encircled by the Gulf Stream which tempers the climate.
An amazing road network links the majority of the islands and most of our touring was done by car through spectacular scenery almost entirely devoid of trees. The first morning we drove along a coast road past soaring mountains and through the first of the many tunnels we encountered during our stay in the islands. Shadows from the fast moving clouds created ever-changing patterns of light and shade flitting over the verdant landscape. The scenery was incredible and, being avid photographers, we kept stopping to take gazillions of photos.
For reasons that will become apparent, we decided to take the ferry to visit the remote island of Mykines. The weather was fair when we left Torshavn so we did not bother to take foul weather gear but by the time we reached the ferry terminal on Vagar Island – several miles and a couple of long tunnels away - it was not only raining and foggy but windy as well. The ferry turned out to be quite a small, 40-passenger, boat and there was initially some question as whether there would be room for us as space had been pre-booked for a large Rambler group from the UK who were all well equipped with full weather proof gear with hats, boots, gloves and telescopic walking sticks. However, they squeezed us all aboard and we set off for the turbulent crossing in low visibility with sheets of spray bucketing over the boat. After 50 minutes of not being quite sure where we were and wondering how much further we had to go, the appearance - almost within touching distance - of some jagged and most unfriendly rocks, signaled our arrival at the island. The helmsman spun the boat around in a tight 180 degree turn and skillfully brought us alongside a stone jetty where we surged up and down in the swell. Getting ashore was quite a challenge, requiring a welltimed leap onto the jetty when the boat was at the top of a wave.
There was a climb up many steps from the ferry landing followed by a scramble up a steep and slippery hillside through the mist and rain. The higher we climbed the more exposed we became to the elements so by the time we had staggered to the top, the cold grey drizzle was speeding over the summit ridge and our clothes were thoroughly soaked.
The hills dropped almost sheer to the ocean on the other side of the slope and the path ran along the edge of the cliffs to the lighthouse at the end of the island. We could just make out the track through the mist and could see that it was very steep with many steps. There was also a bridge over a chasm known as the Bridge over the Atlantic. With visibility being so limited - and with ourselves and our camera gear getting wetter by the minute - we decided against taking the path although the British Rambler group were made of sterner stuff and were soon lost to view in the mist. (According to my dictionary "rambling" is defined as "a leisurely stroll through the countryside")! Before surrendering to the weather, we made a short excursion along the cliff top where we took a few pictures of soggy puffins. We slithered back down to the village and, with several hours to wait before the ferry left the island, sought shelter in the church before we located a tiny guest house where we had a welcome meal and a hot drink.
Visibility and sea conditions deteriorated during the day and we had serious worries that the boat might not be able to make it back. The tiny harbour is very exposed to the turbulent seas and the island can be isolated for weeks at a time. But its welcome shape materialized out of the mist – right on time. The boat is a lifeline for the residents and brings the necessities of life to the island.
Away from Torshavn, the population still lives in small villages. Until the late19 th century, life was centred around each settlement as communication, by boat and along narrow footpaths, was difficult and often fraught with danger due to the terrain and the unpredictable weather.
After one week it was time for us to head for Iceland. The weather was clear but very windy, with gusts to 25 kts, as we got underway. We went through the Vestmannasund between the islands of Stremoy and Vagar under which we had passed through a tunnel on our excursions to Mykines. We passed the dramatic bird cliffs of Westmanna which, due to their height, took many hours to sink below the horizon and, for the second time on this trip, we sailed off the edge of our electronic charts. The Atlantic rollers were on the beam whipped up by a strong northerly wind. Our heading was 290 degrees for 1.4 days on the same course.
The wind and waves gradually increased during the second day so that the ride became progressively more uncomfortable. By lunchtime seas were up to about 2 m and the wind 17 kts. We ran into a fog bank and visibility came down to less than 1000 meters even though the wind continued to increase. By 1600 it was over 20 kts and reached as high as 31 kts during the evening. Some traffic began to appear on AIS but fortunately fog cleared away so at least we had visibility. Gales, fog and traffic are not a relaxing combination. The seas continued to build so our second night was very uncomfortable. Wind and waves from WSW were hitting us on the bow slightly to port. The waves were steep and short and often came in groups so the bow flew up in the air and then crashed down into a hole on the other side. On a couple of occasions, with the forward half of the boat virtually unsupported over a great void, we hit with a bone-jarring crash. Water was coming through the bow chocks and striking the windshield like a firehose. These were probably the worst conditions we have ever experienced during all our thousands of miles of cruising in Venture 1 and II.
We were now at 63 degrees north. The sun did not sink below the horizon until after midnight leaving behind an exquisite sunset which lingered for hours. It never became completely dark and when the sun rose out of the turbulent sea at 0430 we had Iceland in sight. The tall mountains back lit by the sun looked very dramatic especially under the wild conditions. We kept reducing speed to lessen the force of the impacts. Our speed dropped as low as 6.9 kts and for ages the "time to go" never seemed to drop below twelve hours. We began to see numerous fishing boats and had to alter course for one. We had seen birds during the entire passage but they greatly increased in number as we approached the coast.
Finally - and with great relief - we made our Icelandic landfall in Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands, at 0830 local time. These islands lie between 5 and 10 miles off the coast of Iceland and only one of them, Heimaey, is inhabited.
The entrance into Heimaey harbour is dramatic with tall cliffs on one side and black lava slopes on the other. We passed a huge cave and bizarre rock formations with sea birds nesting in every crevice. We went into the yacht basin, Nausthamarsbyrggja, and tied up at the self service fuel dock which was the only vacant spot, expecting to be asked to move. Shortly after we arrived, the weekend harbour master came down to welcome us, told us we could stay where we were and gave us three copies of a booklet about the town.
Shortly thereafter a very pleasant and informal Customs official came on board and welcomed us to Iceland with the minimum of formalities. With the paperwork completed we were now free to go ashore and explore the town.
As usual, Venture II dwarfed all the smaller local boats around her and attracted much attention. A local man who had just returned from a Sunday afternoon outing on his boat with his son for "a bit of fun" asked whether we would like any fish as a present. Naturally I said 'yes' and he returned a few minutes later with four huge cod. I asked him whether he had caught many that afternoon. "No", he said. "Only about 19"!
The following day, Monday, we were visited by the regular harbour-master who was very welcoming and who told us much about the town. The business of Heimaey is fish and fishing. With just 2% of Iceland's population, this island is responsible for 12% of the country's exports and it's all fish or fish products. He said that the large trawlers were after mackerel or herring and that mackerel were now being caught only 40 miles south of the islands which had previously been unheard of. Presumably this is a symptom of global warming. At the same time the number of puffins breeding on the island had dropped drastically to the extent that, for the first time in the human history of the island, the catching of puffins had been outlawed. This was due to a huge drop in the number of sand eels which are the puffins main diet.
The island has an interesting history. In 1627, despite its remote location in the stormy North Atlantic, it was attacked by pirates from what is now Algeria who carted off 300 of its inhabitants as slaves. More recently, the island had to be abandoned for six months when, without warning, at 3 o'clock on the morning of January 1973, a mile long fissure split open just 500 m from the nearest houses. Within five hours the 5,000 inhabitants had been evacuated by the town's fishing fleet which, by good fortune, happened to be in port because of a storm the previous day. Defying the skeptics, two commercial dredgers were brought in and pumped over 11 ½ million gallons of water per day to cool the lava with the end result that they stopped the flow of the lava and finished up with a harbour better protected than the original.
During our short stay a change of wind brought with it a most obnoxious odour from the nearby fish processing plant. To the local people this must represent the smell of money but to us more fragile creatures with more delicate sniffers, it was just a plain old-fashioned stink that permeated every corner of the boat. Even days later, vestiges would continue to waft like evil spectres from the lazarette or other enclosed spaces. The day following the Summer Solstice (June 21st), we headed back out to sea. The sea was rough and the scene other-worldly as we picked our way through the sixteen islands and 30 smaller islets and sea stacks which make up the archipelago. Only Heimaey has a human population but most of the others are home to countless numbers of seabirds which swooped and wheeled around Venture. The newest island is Surtsey which only appeared above the waves in 1963 when fishermen spotted smoke coming out of the sea. It is off limits to all but a handful of scientists and serves as a living laboratory for the progress at which life gains a foothold on a new island. It was fascinating to behold a substantial piece of land that did not even exist just 47 years ago.
About Tony Fleming
Tony Fleming, a Britishborn U.S. citizen, has been called a Renaissance man, having the skills of an engineer and the eye of an artist. In 1985, he took his idea of a new pilothouse design to Taiwan, selected the Tung Hwa factory, and started what has become the Fleming legacy. In January of 2005, Tony took delivery of hull number one of his newest design, the Fleming 65, which he named Venture. Since that time he has cruised more than 40,000 miles, using Venture as a test bed for new ideas and equipment. Equally important, he's finally getting the opportunity to enjoy cruising while finding even more ways to make Fleming "the ultimate cruising yacht."
Tony has written many articles and blogs of his travels which can be found at his personal page on the Fleming web site www.flemingyachts.com/venture.html
From here we continued on to Reykjavic which we had originally intended to be our ultimate destination and from where we had planned to explore Iceland by car. Now, having brought a well-found boat all the way here, it became obvious that it would be ridiculous to restrict ourselves to doing something we could have achieved a lot easier by simply flying in. I decided instead to circumnavigate the country of Iceland so, after a few days in Reykjavic, we will be travelling up the West Coast to the Vestfirdir district in the northwest of the country where there are magnificent fjords. From there we will travel east along the north coast following a route which will take us just north of the Arctic Circle and to within 160 miles of Greenland.