Peter Knego’s short voyage aboard the 1956-built former Hurtigruten liner NORDSTJERNEN concludes with two days of sailing through Spitsbergen’s majestic fjords and a visit to the world’s northernmost town of Ny Alesund.
All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2015 unless otherwise noted.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015.
After breakfast, we gathered in the forward Salon for a briefing about the day’s Polarcirkle landings. Similar to zodiacs but with a center grab bar and more comfy seating, these speedy craft would be our transport to hidden coves under the tutelage of armed guides (hello, polar bears!) and naturalists.
NORDSTJERNEN was in the panoramic Liefdefjorden at the top of Spitsbergen, heading towards Monaco Glacier. Moderate winds whipped the seas off our first landing spot into too much of a frenzy, so we sought out shelter off Texas Bar, where an old hunter’s hut sits to this day.
The hut was built by the Norwegian hunter H. Nøis in 1927 and looks much as it always did.
Although it was not that cold by Svalbard standards, the wind chill quickly rendered frosty fingers and bleary eyes.
We headed upwards, from the slushy snowbanks into mossy, rocky terrain.
The bird watchers in our group were thrilled when two fearless skuas descended into camera range for a quick frolic before flying off together.
I was, of course, distracted by the sight of our gorgeous ship circling in the spectacular surrounds.
Tiny blossoms and rust-colored lichen added unexpectedly vibrant color to the Arctic scenery.
Our English-speaking group was among the last to land and thus we watched as prior groups headed back down to re-board the Polarcirkels.
I lingered to get a few last shots of our dashing mother ship before racing down with the rest of the group.
NORDSTJERNEN motored deep into the neighboring Bockfjorden for our next landing but the winds were relentless.
After scenic cruising in the relative shelter of the vast Woodenfjorden, we headed on a northerly course.
The conditions permitted us to cross the 80 degree mark, so all gathered on the fantail for a celebratory toast.
Thanks to its relatively warm currents, the Svalbard region is the only place in the world where there is navigable sea above 80 degrees.
Directly ahead of us, the tiny, flat islet of Moffen beckoned with its population of walruses. NORDSTJERNEN hove-to as fellow guests flocked to the bridge wings and open fo’c’sle for photos of the lethargic sea elephants.
When we turned along the western shores of Spitsbergen, we found the Greenland Sea in a bit of a tempest. I dangled the camera out of the porthole and then sealed it all up for the bumpy southbound ride.
Thursday, July 2, 2015.
I awoke in a panic. I set my alarm incorrectly and the inability to hear to hear any announcements from my cabin allowed me a generous but unwanted “sleep-in”. The clanking of footsteps outside my porthole meant that the gangway was down and a landing was already in progress. I threw on all the necessary layers, grabbed the cameras and careened out, making it just in time to board the last tender. I was with a group of Norwegians, so had no idea what was being said but the scenery spoke for itself in the majesty of Kongsfjorden’s Lilliehookbreen Glacier
I was able to detour our return with a quick circle around our wonderful little liner.
After lunch, we were doing some scenic cruising, pausing at the base of the Jurassic Park-ish splendor of the Cadiopynten bird cliffs.
At Reception, I met Chief Engineer Jurij Dubravin, who was kind enough to grant my request to see the machinery spaces.
NORDSTJERNEN’s original engines were replaced with a more powerful MaK diesel in 1983, which is probably why she is still running.
As with the rest of the ship, the machinery is in spotless, impeccable condition, thanks to NORDSTJERNEN’s doting, largely Lithuanian crew.
Our next landing was made at Sargfjellet, which is also in the Kongsfjorden (on the west coast of Spitsbergen). This time, I accompanied the English-speaking photo group and their arsenal of cameras with mile-long lenses.
Ever fashion-conscious, I kept my cumbersome life jacket on for the hike up to a knoll overlooking the fjord.
En route, we were joined by some rather indifferent, if not fearless, reindeer.
Back down on the beach, I was treated to the optimal photo-op of the rarest of all species, the vintage NORDSTJERNEN framed in ice.
After dinner, there was one more stop before NORDSTJERNEN sailed onwards to Longyearbyen. The tiny outpost of Ny Alesund is the world’s northernmost civilian settlement and has a year-round population of 35 that balloons to 120 over the summer.
Ny Alesund, despite its modest population and surrounds, is home to no less than fifteen research stations representing some ten nations. Its location is optimum for testing the atmosphere for pollutants, the marine ecosystem, climate change and more.
Ny Alesund was once a coal town but after an explosion that killed 17 workers in 1962, mining was permanently halted the following year.
There was nothing subtle about Ny Alesund’s polar bear warnings. Anyone stepping out of the town’s immediate perimeter is urged to not only “carry” but “load”. Upon returning, tubes in the ground are provided for “emptying” unused ammo.
The pub in Ny Alesund opens once per week. After paying it a short visit and shopping for souvenirs, I walked around the quaint little town before returning to the ship.
Friday, July 3, 2015.
After NORDSTJERNEN berthed in Longyearbyen, we were transferred back to the Spitsbergen Hotel. It would be several hours before the room was ready, so I wandered around town with the geese.
At 5:00 PM, I watched as the NORDSTJERNEN departed with a new group of revelers. She will return next year, as well, marking her 60th anniversary. What a remarkable career this gem of a ship continues to enjoy — and long may she sail!
On my way back to the hotel, I had my first polar bear encounter.
Saturday, July 4, 2015.
At 2:00 AM, with Longyearbyen bathing in a brilliant sun, I was boarding the airport coach to begin the endless commute home.
End Of The Most Northerly NORDSTJERNEN
Special thanks: Mindy Bianca, Lauren Frye, Elliot Gillies
Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea. With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications. Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India. He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."