|Venture to Iceland – part two of a series|
After arrival in Reykjavik, we rented a small 4-wheel drive Suzuki and over the next few days drove a total of 1850 km (1,156 miles) exploring the surrounding country. There is no space in this article to list chapter and verse of every place we visited but we saw a number of the sights for which Iceland is famous including many beautiful and impressive waterfalls. Before my visit I had imagined much of the country to be austere and barren mountains and I was surprised to see how much of the land was lush farmland. The most prevalent crop appears to be grass which, at this time of year, with modern hay-making in full swing, manifested itself as fields filled with big white plastic-wrapped bales looking like giant marshmallows. The right size, you might think, for a troll to pop into his mouth.
I don't think I have ever been to any place where I have seen so many horses in one region. The Icelandic horse is a unique breed descended from stock brought over by the first settlers in the 9th century. No horses have been imported for 800 years so the stock has remained pure. Any horse which leaves the country is not permitted to return. These horses also have five gaits, rather than usual four – the extra being a fast smooth trot. They tend to be in attractive colours with generous manes and forelocks and can be seen, often in large herds, grazing in fields yellow with buttercups.
We passed through areas which had been seriously affected by the Eyjafjallajokull volcano (don't try to pronounce it) and we could see areas which had been flooded with debris or covered with ash. Naturally we would have liked to see the volcano itself but it kept its summit stubbornly hidden in the clouds. We made two serious attempts to get close but on one occasion we were forced to turn back when wind-blown ash reduced the visibility on the unmade track to just a few feet and the fine, gritty material got into everything including our precious cameras. On another excursion, we had forded several small streams and were confronted by a large river of questionable depth when the sudden onset of a torrential rain storm raised concerns about flash floods raising the level in the rivers and cutting off our retreat.
We stopped at a café for some refreshment and the waitress told us that she had been in the area during the eruption. She said that the sky in the direction of the volcano had glowed red while, to the west, the Northern Lights flickered across the heavens. We refueled in Reykjavic where a tanker truck came down to the jetty and ran a long hose over the barge to where we were moored. We took on 4,230 litres of fuel. Our fuel consumption remains steady at just under 5 litres per nautical mile including running the generator. After ten days it was time to move on up the West coast and at 0630 on a bright sunny day with very little wind we left behind the striking Viking sculpture along the waterfront in Reykjavik harbour. As soon as we were outside the protection of the bay the wind increased to 20 knots from the northeast which whipped up a vicious head sea. Ahead we could see the Snaefells Jokull (glacier) when still 50 miles distant. Our first stop on our way north was the harbour of Olafsvik where the friendly harbourmaster directed us to tie up against a dock protected with rubber tires. The problem with these is that they tend to trap the fenders as the boat rises and falls with the tide and fender boards do not really solve the problem. However there was no charge for our stay.
The next day, July 4th, we crossed the Breidafjordur to the Bardastrond peninsula and past the bird cliffs at Latrabjarg. This is the most westerly point in Iceland and therefore in Europe. It was also the most westerly point on our trip. 24 degrees 36.68 west. A British trawler was wrecked here during the winter of 1947 and local farmers rescued all 12 crew members by lowering themselves down on ropes and hauling the men 650 feet up the cliff face to safety.
We rounded the headland and found ourselves having to deal with steep head seas very similar to those we had experienced during our passage from the Faroes. But it was only for a couple of hours and conditions began to ease once we made the turn into Talknafjordur. The inner part of the fjord is almost completely closed off by a spit of land and beyond it the water was flat calm. At first this seemed an ideal anchorage but the anchor simply would not hold and after repeated attempts would always break free and come up loaded with weed.
We were wondering what to do next when a young boy came by in his red inflatable. We asked him if he knew whether we could tie up alongside a big blue fishing boat we could see moored alongside the harbour wall. He had an English father whom he visited every year in Grimsby in England. He told us a lot about life in this small village which, like so many similar places in Iceland, depended on fishing – and more recently tourism – for its survival. We were now at latitude 65 degrees, 37 minutes – farther north than Fairbanks, Yellowknife and Archangel.
The following morning we headed back out into the Denmark Strait. Initially the sea was calm but the wind continued to increase all day until it reached as high as 24 knots. Once again we were faced with steep, breaking, head seas which dropped us into holes and hurled sheets of spray against the windshield. There were plenty of small fishing boats being tossed around in the rough conditions and seabirds reveled in the strong wind as they skimmed the tumultuous waves. The scenery was dramatic with soaring cliffs and huge mountains bearing increasing amounts of snow
We turned into Isafjardardjup and the wind and waves began to decrease. Just off the town of Isafjordur the wind dropped to 2 knots and the sea became glassy calm. We passed the outer harbour and the airstrip, running parallel to the shore, before turning into the inner harbour. The only mooring spot we could see was a long dock covered with tyres from which a sail boat was just leaving. An American flagged boat, Snow Dragon – with Juneau as the hailing port - lay at anchor. We were circling waiting for the dock to clear when we were called on the radio by the harbourmaster. He directed us to a floating pontoon we had not noticed just around the corner. He was waiting on the dock to take our lines as we backed in using the cockpit controls. It was rare luxury to be able to walk ashore and not have to worry about tides.
Chris and I had brought Venture north from Reykjavik but we were joined here in Isafjordur by David Miles. David had been the captain on the original Venture in Alaska and now represents Fleming Yachts in Europe. Seriously bad weather was forecast for the next few days and I was concerned whether David would be able to fly into the Isafjordur airstrip. Like virtually every town in the north, the town is located at the head of a relatively narrow fjord. Landing here meant flying the downwind leg close to the mountains on one side of the fjord, turning base leg – across the wind - close to the mountains at its head and then final approach, into the wind, at the base of the mountains on the other side. However, Icelandic pilots are used to this kind of flying, including in poor visibility, so there turned out to be no problem. However, we had to wait out the storm for a couple of days. We were told that this was the lowest depression recorded for ten years and the rings of isobars on the Met Office weather chart were packed closely together. We were lucky to be securely moored in a snug and convenient berth although wind gusts in excess of 30 knots created quite a chop even in the protected inner harbour.
We learned from the harbour master that about 40 sailboats a year stopped here in transit to East Greenland waiting for the ice to melt. Virtually all of these were sail boats from all over Europe including the UK. He himself had worked in many countries all over the world introducing modern fishing methods to third world countries and also took a 33ft Cleopatra fishing boat single-handed all around the coasts of Europe as a demonstrator. We met the owner of a nearby sailboat who gave us invaluable local knowledge about the remote fjords north of here which we planned to visit.
After two days the weather calmed down sufficiently for us to be able to leave Isafjordur and continue with our adventures. This whole region of Iceland is known as the West Fjords which stick out like a multifingered hand into the Denmark Strait. No matter which direction the wind came from it had a bite to it. To the west lay Greenland, now only 150 miles away, and to the north there was nothing between us and the North Pole. We were now at latitude 66 degrees 20 minutes north only a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.
We went back out into the main fjord of Isafjardardjup to the north of which is Hornstrandir—a vast peninsula where there are no roads and the only access is by boat. We rounded a precipitous headland into the Jokulfirdir fjord and ahead of us we could see the vast Drangjokull icecap shimmering in the sun. All around us the surrounding peaks were still well endowed with snow. While sitting out the storm, a local yachtsmen had told us that the best fjord to visit was Lonafjordur. He assured us that, even though it was uncharted, there were no navigation hazards provided we kept to the eastern side of the fjord on the way in. Once inside he said that the water was 30 m deep right up to the head of the fjord. We kept a close eye on the depth finder and found this information to be accurate. We anchored without any problem at the head of the fjord where a large waterfall, fed by the melting snow, filled the air with the soothing sounds from its tumbling torrent.
The weather was perfect and we used the opportunity to launch the tender and take photographs and video. Unfortunately there was no place to go ashore with our fancy rib and, once again, we regretted not having a lightweight, flat-bottomed dinghy with a small engine suitable for occasions such as this. The only drawback we could discern in this idyllic spot was the large number of sinister but beautiful mauve jelly fish which slowly pulsed their way through the clear waters around the boat trailing filament-like tendrils in their wake.
We celebrated by having a roast pork dinner with roast potatoes and red wine followed by Jura, single malt whisky as we watched the evening shadows steal across the still waters – although, of course, it never got dark.
The following morning we moved on and I followed Venture II in the tender for several miles until we reached the main fjord. It was an exhilarating experience and I took photos and video of her underway. This is what she was designed for and she looked completely at home in these magnificent surroundings.
We had planned on spending the night in Hornvik Bay which is right at the tip of Northwest Iceland. En route we reached our farthest point from home and from here on we will be slowly reducing the distance back to Southampton. A significant amount of driftwood littered the shores of Hornvik Bay. There are almost no trees on Iceland and this wood has drifted all the way from Siberia, via the polar ice, and for many years it has been a valuable source of timber in Iceland. Hornvik Bay is open to the northwest and we found there was quite a swell which suggested we could be in for a roly night so we reluctantly decided to keep going overnight to Akureyri much further to the east. We rounded the Horn (Northern version) and passed the amazing bird cliffs of Hornbjarg. These are home to tens of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars and the highest point along the cliffs, Kalfatindur peak, drops 1,760 ft sheer into the sea.
Taking advantage of the calm weather, we headed straight across the open ocean, referred to in some sources as the Greenland Sea, to the entrance of the Enjafjordur which leads to Akureyri – the second largest city in Iceland and the capital of the North. I stayed up all night because I wanted to see for myself how sunset metamorphosed into dawn at these latitudes. I can now report that at latitude 66 degrees 20 minutes north on July 10th the sun disappeared below the horizon twenty minutes past midnight and reappeared exactly two hours later. A glow on the horizon revealed the position of the sun all the while it was hidden from view. A long lingering sunset became an equally lingering sunrise giving the illusion of a reverse motion replay of the sunset. As the sun rose out of the sea to port, it cast a rosy glow over the snowy mountains to starboard. We turned into the fjord at 0300 and made our way down the 30 miles to Akureyri at slow speed so as not to arrive too early on this Sunday morning July 11th. Even this late in the summer, the town was backed by snow-capped peaks. We tied up alongside a tire-clad wharf but the tidal range here was only about 18" so this was not a problem. Moored on the other side of the wharf was Polar Bear - a 72' ex-BT Global Challenge boat. This tough yacht has sailed around the world three times and on this trip is heading first for Jan Mayen Island 300 miles north of here to take a group of experienced climbers to climb the volcano. She will then be heading for Scoresby Sound in East Greenland to allow the same climbers to scale some sheer – and hitherto unclimbed – granite peaks accessible only by boat. She had arrived here from Newcastle in the UK. Some folk are truly adventurous! The harbor master in Akureyri was especially helpful and even had a custom adapter made up for us to connect to shorepower. When we came to leave we found we had only been charged $11 per night including water and power. We have another crew change here and plan to do some more sight-seeing by road before heading farther north above the Arctic Circle.