The Christmas Story – In Svalbard, where you sail among the bears/3


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Bee_porzio3Giovanni Porzio is one of Italy’s greatest reporters and a passionate sailor. In his book “The Sea is Never the Same” he has recreated the essence of reportage, that is, “reporting” from a voyage news, but also stories, feelings and images. Here is the second installment of his trip to the Svalbard Islands in the Great North! (Here is the first part; here is the secondpart )

Heading north, the light becomes more vivid, the blue of the sky paler and chillier, the visibility crystal clear: coastlines can be seen 50 miles away. Toward Ny-Ålesund we cross the 79th parallel: we sail carefully between icebergs that break off from the fronts of two huge glaciers and float in the fjord current. We moor English-style in a small dock; there are no other boats: only the dinghies of the Polar Institute and the science stations that occupy the tenements of the old mining company.

We are greeted by Sebastian, a Swiss who ended up here by chance four years ago (“I got a job at the Oceanographic Institute and stopped by“), who helps out in the harbor in his spare time. There is water, fuel, hot showers and a list of available supplies: we order tea, apples, smoked salmon. No alcohol. But Sebastian, when he brings us our groceries, has a surprise in store: 12 cans of beer from his personal stash! “Winter” says “is not so terrible. You get used to it. And when the moon comes out they are great nights“. Our arrival is a small event at Ny-Ålesund, “the northernmost permanently inhabited human settlement on the planet.” In his little wooden office (one enters by taking off one’s shoes) Dag, the harbor master, a two-meter-tall big man, says Ecland is the first Italian boat to call there since he took over in 2007. Shortly thereafter, the four researchers from the CNR Arctic base come to visit. Fabio Giardi, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Florence, is the only Italian of the 30 or so scientists wintering at Ny-Ålesund: “Next,” he says “Will be the second winter. We study air pollution, rocks, ice.“.

Prins Karls island
Prins Karls island


The little village is surreal: the little houses painted red-yellow-blue, the commissary, the disused mine train, the post office (of course: “the northernmost in the world”), the stone bust of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the zip line leading to the geodesic telescope on Mount Zeppelin, the sign urging to “unload your weapons here” and the one enjoining “do not continue unarmed beyond this point” planted where the houses end and the bear tundra begins. In one field there is still the anchor flagpole of the airship Norge with which Amundsen and Umberto Nobile, in 1926, made the first flight to the North Pole; from the same flagpole, two years later, Nobile’s Italia detached, which after reaching the pole crashed on its way back: and Amundsen lost his life in an attempt to rescue his friend.

Past adventures I brood over as we face the long route back: heading south, 30 hours of sailing to Bear Island, then another 270 miles to the northern shores of Norway. Ecland advances slowly among the ice blocks that clash and creep along the waterline: from the large icebergs, radiating greenish-blue and turquoise glows, we keep a safe distance. The sea is calm, dense, oily. Then the wind strengthens from the northwest, 28-30 knots with gusts to 35: we spin at 8 knots with full mainsail and reduced yankee. A group of whales, always signaled by a flurry of seabirds, passes half a mile to starboard: the sprays, high and regular, stand out against the blue sky like fountains of snow. We stop at Bear Island, remote, lonely, desolate, always shrouded in fog and low, rain-laden clouds. We bottom out in a deserted roadstead surrounded by reefs with millions of birds; rest a few hours, then resume our course in the Barents Sea.

Towards Bear Island
Towards Bear Island


As we descend south, the air softens: by now I can stand in the cockpit without gloves. And at midnight the sun begins to lower through the clouds that turn pink and orange: it’s almost a sunset! We’re fast, at the big slack and with the waves pushing us, with dolphins playing with the keel and fulmars escorting us aft. In twelve hours, we ground nearly 100 miles. And everywhere, upwind and downwind, you can see the whales’ splashing, colossal leaps and their tails beating the sea, raising cascades of froth. Then we sight land: the Torsvaag Fjord, 40 miles ahead, west of the North Cape. The wind drops, the sky turns gray. Ecland motor sails through narrow green fjords. Here are the houses, the ferries, the fish farms, the roads with cars: the world of men. And in the fog the dim lights of Tromsø Harbor.


Discover all of Giovanni Porzio’s reports in his book “The Sea is Never the Same!”



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