ON THE VIKING TRAIL
Taking on the Salty North Atlantic Jurgen Braam
Last year, we set out across the North Atlantic route to help No Limit Ships introduce the 1550 model to North America at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. The idea came to be about three years ago at Hiswa, the largest boat show in the Netherlands, where Edzard Braam, skipper and owner of Four Seasons (reviewed, “No Restrictions,” PassageMaker, November/ December 2016) joined forces with the crew of No Limit Ships. The No Limit 1550 is a steelhull 50-footer with inflatable sides, modeled after the rugged North Sea patrol and rescue boats that endure the harshest sea conditions.
After months of research and consultation, during which many routes were discussed, Braam and crew decided in the spring of 2016 to cross the Atlantic by taking the northern route via Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador. Following the trail of the Vikings. After thorough preparations, the three brothers Braam—Peter, Edzard, and Jurgen—depart Amsterdam on August 7. After a farewell press event, their families, friends, and guests saw Four Seasons off on her journey to the north and west, into open water.
The ocean awaits, but first the English Channel must be crossed and after that, the North Sea. A strong southwest wind is blowing at 6 to 7 Beaufort, with peaks of 8 to 9. These conditions are not a problem for Four Seasons, having two 575-horsepower Volvo Penta engines, a ¼-inch steel hull and aluminum superstructure. Her robust tubes all around soften the motion and give her all the stability she needs. Besides, during an earlier 2,500-mile trip from Amsterdam via the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, we had already gotten to know Four Seasons quite well. At sea, we experience once more how busy the Channel is.
The strong wind combined with lack of sleep cause some stomach and balance problems for Edzard and Bas, our sailing companion up to Iceland, and we decide to make a pitstop in Whitby, halfway up the east coast of England. It’s your typical old English seaside town, with fortifications at the harbor entrance and reputation for, among other things, sailing and folk music festivals. It’s also the birthplace of the famous English explorer, Captain James Cook, a name that we would later encounter a second time on our trip. The night on land has obviously done Edzard and Bas some good, so we continue our journey north to the Orkneys.
After the many drilling rigs in the southeastern part of the North Sea, little activity is to be seen in these parts. As we approach Aberdeen, the oil town of Scotland, the bright glow of the many oil refineries become visible on the nighttime horizon.
After a brief stop to grab provisions in Peterhead, Scotland—and a requisite visit to the local pub with a wi-fi connection—we arrive at noon the following day in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys. This group of 200 small islands, of which 70 are inhabited, near the coast of northern Scotland was colonized by the Vikings in the eighth or ninth century AD. The influence of these early medieval conquerors and explorers was so significant that the language Norn was still spoken well into the previous century, and many place names carry that heritage. Forming a natural border, the Orkney Islands played an important role in both World Wars, as a sheltered ground base for the English fleet, named Scapa Flow. However, in 1939, a German submarine managed to enter these waters and sank the British battleship, HMS Royal Oak. Remains are still visible at low tide near the Orkney coast.
During our one-day visit to Kirkwall, in anticipation of better weather and after our almost obligatory but oh-so-delicious fishand-chips, we were pleasantly surprised by a parade of classic 20th century steam engines showing up in the center of the town, promoting the next day’s festivities. Unfortunately, we could not attend as the allure of the ocean was calling us.
In the Faroes, the next archipelago we visited after a journey of over 28 hours, the Vikings have left significant traces of their visit to these beautiful islands. Most of the current inhabitants are descendants of the Norse Vikings. Since 1948, it has been an autonomous part of the kingdom of Denmark. A group of pilot whales, slowly but gracefully slicing through the water, their prominent round faces pointed ahead, accompany our passage to Tórshavn. As we approach the islands, the clouds open and the sun shines its light on the green hills, in perfect mixture with the cliffs rising from the sea. The odd cottage or white lighthouse here and there. How beautiful the earth can be.
Tórshavn, the Faroes’ capitol, with its picturesque and colorful harbor, has a somber but well-equipped marina. We
find ourselves a nice spot quay-side with its many sunny lounge spots and sufficient internet reception. Later that afternoon, we are warm-heartedly welcomed by the harbor master, who took a great interest in our boat, route, and destination. One of our neighbors is the skipper of the Norolysio (translated as Northern Light), an old sailing yacht, and provides us with the necessary information about the surroundings and the possible routes to Iceland. The weather is lovely and we decide to stay another day to enjoy everything around us.
The Faroes archipelago consists of 21 islands. The name, meaning sheep island, is a fair reflection of the landscape, where on many of the hills half-wild sheep conquer its majestic steepness. The islands are connected to each other through a network of bridges, tunnels, and ferries, though the vast majority of the human inhabitants live in Tórshavn. We use the next day to explore the town, stock up on fuel, and shoot footage for our video log. We meet two British gents who are attempting to cross from Greenland to Scotland in a two-seater kayak— altogether impressive. We wake the next morning, surrounded by fog. Following the advice of our neighbor skipper, we take the route around the southern tip of the Faroes toward Iceland. This choice soon proves correct as the fog clears around the hills and after an hour or so, reveals the most dazzling view of the fjords, with their mountain tops disappearing halfway into the clouds, sea gulls twirling around the boat, and sun rays like theatrical spotlights on seemingly deserted villages and cottages glued to steep mountain slopes.
In front of us lies the ocean with still over 276 miles to cover. The weather is wonderful and it’s about 57 degrees on deck. The 36-hour journey to Iceland is running peacefully, with diffused light during the night and morning and sea gulls entertaining us by playing tag with the boat. We saw only one other boat during this part of the journey: a cargo ship headed for Norway. The remaining time we are alone, forgotten by the world.
In the late afternoon on the second day, the mountains of Iceland rise into the sky, seemingly out of nowhere. An impressive sight. While we near the shore, a fishing trawler idly crosses our path toward Húnafjörður, the lagoon at Hofn, a fishermen’s village on the east coast of Iceland and also our destination for this leg of the journey. The blinding light of the setting sun is overwhelming, but three pairs of eyes while navigating make sure we arrive safely at the quay of the fishermen’s village, despite the strong tidal current.
It was not until the next morning that we could see the magnificent view of the Húnafjörður lagoon in broad daylight and, on the other side, the snowy and icy mountain tops of Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest uninterrupted glacier. Especially at low tide, when the salt marshes have dried, an enchanting
landscape unfolds like the set of a fantasy movie. Sitting on a splendid rock at the lagoon, the play of water and sand at your feet, combined with a remote view of blue and white mountains, you can truly feel a complete serenity, a magnificent start to our Icelandic visit.
Iceland was named by Floki Vilgeroarsen, a Norse Viking and early explorer. Reykjavík is the country’s capital, literally meaning “bay of smoke,” after the many smoke clouds encountered by the Norse Viking, Ingolfur Amarson, who settled there around 875 AD. We, however, still have to cover over 260 miles to get there, which clearly indicates the magnitude of this island-nation.
During our journey to Reykjavík, along the east coast of Iceland, we see no other ships until we arrive at the southwest tip. It’s a pretty monotonous trip, also because the mountaintops are hiding in the clouds and this area of Iceland is nearly uninhabited. On the radio, a live report on the Iceland summer festival happening that weekend in the capital, keeps us alert at night.
We near the cape of Reykjavík in the fog, but after we arrive, a cautious sun starts to shine. Some family members have arrived in Iceland for the next few days and wave at us from the quay of the marina, right behind the Harpa, a brand-new theater and music hall cubicle shaped out of blue glass.
We moor within walking distance of the old harbor area where we find numerous small shops, galleries, and restaurants. The old city center, surrounded by modern tower blocks and office buildings, can also be reached on foot. The first things that catch my eye are the façade coats and rooflines made from corrugated sheets. Blue, white, and grey, with the occasional red; the old buildings and even most modern apartments are covered with this material.
Reykjavík is built on the hillsides sloping toward the water, widely landscaped, where lack of space is unknown to its inhabitants. On the top of the central hill is a church, built from yellow and white stone. It is a beacon on a rock, clearly recognizable from great distances. The next few days are spent exploring Iceland. The first thing we do is “go whaling,” following in the footsteps of the many whale-watching tour boats leaving the surrounding harbors. We don’t need to sail far. After fewer than 30 minutes we have our first encounter with one of these friendly sea monsters.
We travel the Golden Circle route in a rental car, a 150-mile day tour. The drive takes us to old volcanic craters, waterfalls, geysers and many more waterfalls after that. The landscape is beautifully diverse. Sometimes we encounter what looks like a deserted moon landscape, with eroded mountain slopes of weathered lava rocks turned green by moss. A few kilometers away, looking down, we find lowlands with a sea view. Always surprising and, from time to time, breathtaking. Outside Reykjavík, the suburbs abruptly come to an end, and the land turns sparsely populated save for a peppering of livestock farms that draw their power mainly from geysers. Vapor clouds and clearly visible pipelines transport hot water everywhere. Agriculture is scarce as the climate does not support the venture. There are, however, plenty of greenhouses in which tomatoes and other crops grow, fed by the energy provided from the hot-water springs.
We are not the only ones taking this tour. At every sight we find tour buses unloading massive quantities of tourists, offloaded from cruise ships in Reykjavík. These are mostly world travelers, armed with smartphones, taking their obligatory selfies. Just as you sometimes see in museums or other historic places, these selfie-takers seem to have more interest in themselves than in
After taking a lovely spa day, we stop under the setting sun at one of the national parks, situated at a lake, surrounded by magnificent mountains. Not a tour bus to be seen around here: only hikers, kayakers, divers, and other nature lovers. Complete serenity and no time constraints.
Another tour starts the next morning. The tour is of “Little Iceland,” so named because it contains all the different landscapes of big Iceland. Breathtaking at times, the tour traverses the coast of the peninsula of Snæfellsjökull mountain, a stratovolcano with a glacier covering its summit.
In these few days, we weren’t able to cover more than 10 percent of the island. So much beauty, it deserves more time.
We return to Reykjavík to say our goodbyes to Bas who is flying back to the Netherlands in the company of his family. They wave at us as we leave the dock, with over 600 miles of sea in front of us. Now, only the three of us are left on board Four Seasons. This means we
rejigger our watch-keeping routine of three hours at the helm and six hours of rest. Not a big problem, but combined with the constant rolling, pitching, and yawing of the boat, several days and nights of sailing will take its toll on one’s energy level.
After three straight days and nights of sailing, the mountain tops of Greenland appear. White and blue, covered in glaciers and snow. Excited, we gaze through the monocular, trying to spot icebergs surrounding the cape heading south, before continuing their way northwest. Soon we find a few, despite the summer season, and many more would follow.
We enter Christiansund, an uninterrupted fjord between the mainland and the archipelago off the coast. We pass a deserted Danish weather station. Greenland is, just like the Faroes, an autonomous land of the kingdom of Denmark. Mainly inhabited by the indigenous Inuit people.
Sailing the Christiansund canal is overwhelming. The surface is full of ice floes, drift ice, small, irregularly yet gracefully shaped azure-blue mountaintops and the remains of glaciers disappearing into the water. Not a single life form or activity to be seen for miles. Only the ever-present seagulls continue to accompany us. At the end of the canal, at a point where several fjords come together, we approach Aupilatoq, a small, secluded Inuit settlement at the foot of the mountains, with a naturally formed harbor. We are welcomed by a couple of silent but friendly and helpful men. Communication is difficult. We learned they also speak Danish, but, we speak neither. Aupilatoq has no more than 180 inhabitants and consists of a collection of colorful, typically Greenlandic cottages, a small church, a community house, a fish-processing factory and, on the hilltop, a satellite radio system and helipad. The village can only be reached via water or sky. The harbor is crowded by many fishing boats, the primary source of the village’s income.
The next morning I take the opportunity to shoot pictures and footage, surrounded by the stunning fjords and mountains. Armed with a mobile mariphone, I direct Four Seasons along the prettiest route. It is amazing to see the No Limit, not a small boat itself, pale into insignificance at the overwhelming beauty and magnitude of this land. After filming, we depart for Nanortalik, the capitol of the southern part of Greenland. It promises to be a spectacular cruise.
Back at sea, a little off the coast, we encounter a so-called tabula, Latin for table or iceberg. A rectangular, colossal clump of ice, about the size of a cruise ship. We sail toward it and circle it. Impressive, whimsical, and threatening all at the same time. The exterior shows fracture lines, which, together with the melting sunlight, eventually caused the ice lump to collapse under its own weight. No less than a mile away, we witness its violent collapse, causing not insignificant tidal waves. We were lucky. This ended up being a good lesson in why not to get too close to icebergs or calving glaciers.
Arriving in Nanortalik we moor at a fish factory. This village is significantly bigger than Aupilatoq, although still of moderate size, with a total of 1,600 inhabitants, 350 of whom live in the near surroundings. It does have all the needed facilities, though, including two supermarkets, a clinic, a youth hostel, and several small shops. Last but not least, a well-equipped tourist information office where we can purchase a wi-fi code. Here, again, the only way to get to Nanortalik is by ocean or helicopter.
It is still light out until 9:30 in the evening , even though its already September. At night we each go for a walk on our own. I visit the old harbor with its little boats, beautifully colored wooden church, and brightly painted cottages. At the watch tower are a few old cast-iron cannons, the remains of a few centuries ago, when Nanortalik was an advanced military base for the Danish. From the watch tower I look out over the magnificent bay whose view is overwhelming. To me, Greenland is the highlight of our trip thus far, but we have to keep moving and leave tomorrow. We are on a tight schedule, so we untie the lines just before noon. The vastness of the ocean lies before us and we start a journey of more than 80 hours, the longest nonstop part of our voyage. I look back to the
mountains, with their tops hidden in fog and at their feet icebergs gliding in the sea. They provide a last look at this magnificent place: I know I’ll return to Greenland some day.
After 650 miles of sailing—the longest leg of our trip—we see the first signs of land emerge on the western horizon. Labrador breaks away from the sea. Behind us, on a blood orange horizon, the sun is losing a fight with heavy cloud cover and in front of us the land seems to be winning its fight. After over 80 hours of sailing in varying weather conditions, with waves as high as 15-feet, and heavy rolling, we are thrilled to see the mainland again. However, cruising through deep ocean water has the advantage of a longer and therefore quieter wave pattern, unlike the relatively shallow coastal waters with their short and feisty waters. This time we haven’t seen any ship for the entire journey. We did come upon a whale at a respectable distance blowing its breath into the air and we saw a group of dolphins, gliding smoothly through the water, ignoring us completely. Total tranquility, beautiful skies, and the omnipresent seagulls, even out in the middle of the ocean.
We are on our way to Mary’s Harbor, situated in one of the many bays, larded with small rock islands so typical for the coast of Labrador. The land is mainly covered with green reindeer lichens and the odd, low deciduous or coniferous shrubs. The climate is too cold here for trees to grow tall. After a short stop at St. Lewis Harbor, we reach Mary’s Harbor, where we can moor. A group of fishermen from the local shrimp processing factory take great interest in Four Seasons and her weary travelers. We are warmly welcomed and we get some help stocking up on fresh water. We get a ride in a 4x4 to the only local so-called department store in this small village of a few hundred inhabitants. Literally everything can be sold here, from food to glaze, tools to underwear, and magazines to liquor. A store like this is essential in these remote regions, especially in winter, when all is covered in snow.
The next day we move on, along the coast of Labrador toward Rocky Harbor, near the middle of Newfoundland, a route tipped to us by the kind harbor master at Mary’s Harbor. The coasts are whimsical with numerous coves and bays, bare, treeless slopes only covered by reindeer lichen, interspersed with cliffs rising straight from the water. A seemingly deserted settlement dotted the coastline, with not a living being to be seen except for our seagull friends or the odd little fishing boat. We are kings of our own private, desolate universe. Entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence—the strait that separates Labrador and Newfoundland, we spy a rock rising straight from the sea through our monocular, which is impossible to find on any map or radar. A mystery… Edzard and I discuss the phenomenon for a while until we conclude that it has to be an iceberg. As we approach, its blue and white glow, together with its irregular yet elegant shape, are unmistakable. We sail toward it and circle it for a while. It’s a beauty, shining in the dark water, under a dark blue sky and white
clouds, like a sculpture created by Neptune. Ahead of us are more icebergs, floating south with the tides, even in late summer.
We are nearing the bay of Rocky Harbor, but we decide to sail a little farther to Norris Point, lying somewhat more secluded between the slopes of what is actually considered a fjord. Situated at the Gros Morne National Park, these deep waters were formed eons ago by enormous glaciers during the last ice age. The slopes of the Fjord are green and wooded with coniferous trees. Clouds cover the mountain tops and sunlight peeks through, playing with the deep, cold waters that freeze over in winter. Norris Point is picturesque: a community with an eatery by the harbor, a jetty for the excursion boats, and an aquarium on the other side. We find a good spot to moor at the quay and admire the impressive view. Dozens of tourists who are going on a fjord tour are unloaded by the many charter buses. We attract their attention and they approach us, curious to learn about our journey and Four Seasons. We decide to let the idea slide to sail the 400 miles to Halifax the next day. The remnants of Florida Hurricane Hermine, now reduced to only a storm, are still creating heavy winds and 10- to 15-foot seas. The captain of a neighboring fishing trawler informed us that he’s not going to waste any fuel on the wild sea and is planning to leave the day after tomorrow.
We stay for a couple more days, which is far from punishment. Norris Point offers us piece and quiet, beautiful surroundings, and pleasant temperatures despite the winds. This also enables us to explore the area. On one of our walks, a magnificent panorama with a view of the fjord unfolds before us. At one of the viewpoints an information board tells us about the English sailor, cartographer, and explorer, James Cook, who, at the start of his impressive career, mapped this area in about 16 days. The Vikings probably also got as far as Newfoundland, although there is much debate on the exact location of their arrival at that time: The “Newfoundland Viking Trail,” a tourist route by car, wasn’t named after the Vikings without reason. Another great story is about how a century ago, it wasn’t unusual for “Newfies”—a nickname for Newfoundlanders—to drag their wooden houses over the water like a raft to simply place them on the other side of the fjord. A great example of guts and pioneering.
Once we left Newfoundland, we concluded our fantastic, strange, and foreign traverse of the upper Atlantic Ocean. Four Seasons was up to the task, and so, as it happens, were her crew.
The Braam Brothers, Peter, Edzard and Jurgen, aboard Four Seasons on the Atlantic.
Four Seasons takes on heavy weather in the North Sea for which it was designed.
Four Seasons sits quietly at the dock in Newfoundland before she began her quieter coastal cruising down the coast of North America.
Scenic Grundarfjörður Iceland