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Saturday, 9 January 2016
Swimming around Iceland
Swimming around Iceland.
A few decades ago the Icelandic Government decreed that all children must learn to swim. It's not clear what became of those that couldn't or wouldn't learn but the legacy of that decision remains to this day. Every tiny harbour town was provided with a a wonderful bathing pool and a collection of hot tubs all heated by the geothermal energy that is abundant in the strange, volcanic land. Many are out of doors and surrounded by spectacular scenery and all offer a chance to chat with locals and visitors alike as the warm water soothes stiff joints.
We spent our summer cruising the remote and frigid coasts of Iceland and came to love the warmth of our shoreside swims as a welcome respite from the biting northerly wind that powered us all the way from Lochinver in the north west of Scotland to Iceland via the Faroe's. Fog had shrouded the eastern approaches to our landfall port of Seydisfjordur after a fast 270 mile passage from cliff strewn north coast of Esturoy. The wind died and the mist covering the snowy mountains melted away as we motored down the 9 mile fjord to the fishing and ferry port on Iceland's east coast. Customs came aboard even before the dock lines were secure so we were soon free to wander into town with the swimming costumes and sample the first of Iceland's hot water delights. The new Imray Arctic Pilot lists each harbour's pool alongside other, more mundane and utilitarian, facilities such as fuel, laundry and supermarkets. Seydisfjordur's was an inside pool but there was lots of glass to frame the mountain landscape and the sun streamed in. We gave it four stars!
It was here we discovered why some boats, ours included, are equipped with two steering wheels! As we cast off the dock I realised that the wheel could not be moved in either direction. Narrowly missing the stern of a fine Dutch aluminium high latitude yacht moored in front of of us we set off in a straight line across the fjord with no steerage whatsoever. A frantic rummage in the lazarrete followed to try and find out if an errant fender had fowled the steering gear. Nothing. Then a run around the deck looking for a line over the side that might have jammed the rudder. Again nothing. Neither wheel could be budged so there was nothing for it but to use the bow thruster to nose our way back into the dock we had just left. With lines safely ashore and the heart rate returned to normal we set about a more methodical investigation and quickly found that one of the Lewmar steerers had seized solid in the day or two we had spent swimming and walking ashore. A phone call to Lewmar's HQ revealed that the factory was about to begin its 2 week summer shut down so we were going to have to manage the next 500 miles without. Half an hour later we had uncoupled the useless wheel and were back on our way using the starboard one with the mental note made that all fenders would be made ready for starboard side berthing for the rest f the summer. At we didn't have to agonise over, "port or starboard to?" for the rest of our harbour approaches. Thank goodness we had a spare wheel!
The mountains of north east Iceland were still carrying a lot of snow and were staggeringly beautiful in the afternoon sun as we cruised north ticking off each emergency shelter for shipwrecked survivors we passed along this rugged coast. At Vopnafjordur the Harbour Master turned out at midnight to take our lines. Why we thought? Well it seems yachts are a rarity in this remote part of the North Atlantic. It was now late July and we were only the fifth yacht to visit Vopnasfjordur that year. That might have been because the swimming pool was 3 miles out of town so this was the one bathing experience we missed out on.
On the chart the long Langenes Peninsula looks featureless but, when lit from the north by the setting sun, this tongue of ochre coloured lava, rimmed by cliffs, gives a taste of the curious and enticing landscapes that we would find throughout Iceland.
We tweaked the the arctic circle under a the full moon which, we later found out, was also blue and then eased the sheets for a wild ride down to Husavik where the outdoor pool was a few hundred metres from the dock. Cold winds and warm water. This is the whale watching capital of the north coast where a fleet of ships and RIBs hurry to and fro ferrying 40,000 paying whale watchers a year out into the plankton rich water in the hope of sighting a humpback or a minke. We had come from the Faroe's where the, the day before we left, 150 pilot whales had been driven ashore, dispatched and then butchered on the shore of the fjord. This had been part of the traditional Grind which had supplied, in the form of dried whale meat and salted blubber, winter sustenance to these very remote islanders for centuries. Strange to contrast the hugely important cash harvest from whale watchers here in Iceland with the primal hunt we had so nearly witnessed a few days earlier and just few hundred miles south and east.
We did not see whales near Husavik but there was plenty of other wildlife. Puffins, Eider and Fulmars were everywhere and later we would see whales, dolphins, and one of the largest colonies of Arctic Terns in Iceland.
The fog came upon us thick and cold obliterating, in a moment, the shimmering peaks and snowfields along the north coast but, fortunately, once again, it melted away as we ran down the fjord to tie up in Siglafjordur. It was festival time and the small village was swamped by tents, campers and even the odd caravan. No other yachts was here so our arrival became part of the entertainment and, even before we were tied up, the Union Jack has been run up the town's flag pole welcoming us to the heart of these festivities. Bands, feasts, bathing and a bright summer's evening.
Back to sea and the fog was quickly with us until we rounded the north west point of Iceland and ducked under the cliffs to enter a glorious fjord and a welcome rest from northerly swells. We had to anchor a long way off but the holding was good and a choppy dinghy ride got us ashore in an arctic paradise. Stunning wild flowers bedecked the hillsides and everywhere water was gushing in spectacular streams, rivers and waterfalls. Hesteyri was once a remote community sustained by fishing and whaling but now is abandoned during the long winter. The old doctor's house is now occupied only in the summer and the family that stay there sell tea, coffee and pancakes to walkers and anyone who washes up on this remote shore.
The pool at Isafjordur was closed for maintenance so we took the bus to Surureyri famed for the splendour of its bathing facilities. It didn't disappoint. We lingered there chatting with locals and a lovely retired American guy spending the summer there at a language school learning Icelandic for reasons that weren't quite clear. The harbour master at Isafjordur was most accommodating and managed to conjure a marine electrician to sort our our ailing alternator problem. This is where yachts wait out for the right conditions to swoop on Greenland's icy East Coast. Scoresby Sound is just 200 miles from here but we are not aware of any small boats that made it there this year as the ice did not clear until mid August.
Our plans were for Greenland next year so we drifted south to the tiny fishing hamlet of Talknasfjordur where we gave the outdoor pool and hot tubs a 5 star rating. The bird life here was quite stunning.
The wind piped up the next day and so did the swells so we rolled down wind with 30 knots of true wind behind us spending much of the day in cold mist until we rounded the Snaesfjel Peninsula with its weird rock formations basking in the bright afternoon sunshine. Cloud was cascading down the lee side of the mountains but the glacier was clear and we managed to anchor with some shelter from the cliffs of this curious volcanic coast. Strong catabatic gusts came hurtling towards us but our oversized Manson anchor was dug firmly in for the night.
Our summer cruise was now drawing to a close and so, again with the wind behind, we were wafted the last 60 miles to Reykjavik where we docked in front of the opera house with the golden northern sunset reflected by its glazed walls. A full sized outdoor olympic pool awaited us here and this gave us a pleasant diversion from the long list of boat duties required for winter hibernation here in this windy, cold and humid environment. With the boat very securely docked in the city's Maritime Museum we are looking forward to some interesting low season visits courtesy of budget airlines before we head north again in the Spring to ski in the western fjords and the, with luck, sail on to East Greenland next summer. We are not expecting the swimming to be quite so good there!
Simon & Sally Currin
S/V SHIMSHAL II.