If binge-watching marginally entertaining Netflix and Prime originals is getting old, I’d recommend following along with the reallife saga about hardy sailors on a modest boat, pitted not only against the stormy Arctic, but also surrounded by killer whales at sea and stalked by polar bears ashore.
The sailboat is Barba, a used Jeanneau 37, and its captain is Norwegian adventurer Andreas B. Heide. Together, they and crew have pulled off some audacious voyages before—a few of which have been chronicled in these pages over the years. But this summer’s expedition, code named Arctic Sense, is shaping up to be the biggest and boldest of them all.
I first bumbled across Barba’s wake back in 2015 when a story written by Heide and another author arrived in my inbox. It began: “Not everyone has the opportunity to sail to Norway’s westernmost island, scale the northernmost active volcano on Earth and swing through the Shetland Islands over the course of a three-week sail. But a crew of friends who set out from Stavanger in southern Norway did just that.” The feature was accompanied by jaw-dropping photos of Jan Mayen’s icy peaks, barren anchorages, and shipmates armed with rifles against predators on the tundra.
“Wow, we’ll take it,” I immediately replied.
A voyage to Svalbard followed; then it was on to Iceland in 2019. On each passage, Barba sailed loaded down with paragliders, diving equipment, rock-climbing gear, and multiple cameras to take it all in. But as the miles piled up, the nature of the trips evolved from extended summer action-vacations with friends into high-latitude research missions with a network of scientific partners as crew. Between 2015 and 2020, Heide, a marine biologist and former Navy diver, and Barba added in four winter treks from their home base in Stavanger, in southern Norway, to the rugged and desolate coast of Troms og Finnmark, a territory in the far north, above the Arctic Circle.
After each Arctic visit, Heide returned with stunning photos and videos of him and his mates in the water, swimming and diving with orcas and humpbacks; of northern lights illuminating the sky; of walruses, bears, and other wildlife affected by climate change and pollution. And Heide’s mission gelled: “Generate tangible results that advance the protection of Arctic waters through storytelling and scientific exploration.”
I met Heide over a beer in 2019 when he came to the US to visit relatives and in search of backing for another big trek north. COVID-19, of course, put those plans on ice, so to speak, but by spring 2021, he was in full outfitting mode as he scrambled to get Barba packed with scientific gear and ready for an ambitious fourmonth undertaking, this time with some serious sponsors.
Leaving Stavanger in June, Team Barba made their way north along the Norwegian coast to Tromsø, stopping along the way for a number of whale encounters.
By early July, they’d made the open-water crossing to Svalbard. Their onboard scientific gear is extensive, including a Pamguard system that consists of an 80-meterlong tow cable with four hydrophones that detects even far-off whales while underway. There are blog posts, videos and photos about every aspect of the expedition online at barba .no, and they’re all fascinating.
The plan for the rest of the summer is to circumnavigate the Svalbard archipelago. From there, they’ll make their longest ocean passage west to Jan Mayen, a former whaling station, where the once-hunted mammals are now reportedly making a comeback. The mission will wind down with a passage to London, England, via the Faroe and Shetland islands, and then a crossing back to Stavanger.
For Heide, it’s a mission packed with adventure and challenges, and undertaken in order to tell a tale. He writes: “I choose to see the story of the whales as one of hope. Numerous of the species were hunted to the brink of extinction in the previous centuries. We are now starting to see many of them making a slow and careful comeback. The blue whale has once again been seen off the coast of Norway, and humpback whales are once again back in great numbers in the North Atlantic. To me, it’s a story showing us that if left alone, nature has an amazing ability to recover, and the whale is good protagonist in this narrative.”
And that, my friends, is a good reason to go sailing.
As the miles piled up, the nature of the trips evolved from extended summer action-vacations with friends into high-latitude research missions with a network of scientific partners as crew.