Throughout the winter, my fiancée Kathryn and I dreamed of a quick weekend escape to see the Northern Lights. Each idea was quickly dismissed: it was too expensive, too hard to get to, or simply too little time in case of uncooperative weather.
In late February, however, a happy confluence of events led us to make a last minute booking on the Hurtigruten, the coastal service that has been running along the Norwegian coast since 1893. Our dates were limited, but by sheer luck, the one date we could make was March 2nd—which happened to be the 50th anniversary sailing of the ms LOFOTEN! What followed was a remarkably scenic week sailing from Bergen to Kirkenes on a classic ship that was celebrated and adored by a enthusiast group of LOFOTEN devotees.
Our Norwegian adventure began not with the LOFOTEN, but with a train. Only a few weeks after booking our trip, we found ourselves whisking our way from Oslo to Bergen on a 7-hour train trip. Starting at the coast and climbing high into ski country, we were treated to stunning wintery scenes. Hearty Norwegians disembarked the train, and equipment in hand, began skiing directly from the train platform.
Pulling into a dark Bergen at 7pm, Kathryn and I walked the 20 minutes to the Hurtigruten terminal and caught our first view of the LOFOTEN. In 2011, she was afforded protection as a historical monument, and she appeared just the same as when I had last sailed on her in 2001. 12 and a half years later, with so many wonderful liners lost in-between, her classic lines looked even more welcome than they once had.
Save for the two of us, the dock was empty and there was little hubbub surrounding the soon-to-be-sailing ship. A birthday cake for the ship was half eaten in the dining room, and there was a lively performance in the lounge by members of the Greig Music Academy, but otherwise, it seemed like any other sailing in the ship’s long life.
Just before our 10:30pm departure, Kathryn and I went on deck to watch us sail off into the darkened Norwegian fjords. Sailing under the 63-meter high bridge just outside the city signified the start of our journey north. It was hard not to remember the first time I saw this bridge: It was 2004 and I was an officer on the QM2. We calculated only one meter of clearance between our funnel and the bridge, and the Chief Officer climbed the funnel with a pole to ensure we would fit. (LOFOTEN, by contrast, had no such concerns tonight.)
Throughout the night, ms LOFOTEN sailed north, calling in Floro at 4:30am for 15 minutes. Tired from jetlag, we slept through our first port but somehow managed to rouse ourselves from the pitch black inside cabin we occupied by 6:15am to witness our arrival in the port of Maloy.
With the slow moving high latitude sun inching towards the horizon, the early morning sky was a deep, calming blue.
After being onboard only for a few hours, I was already captivated by the brilliant lines of the ship. This would be the first of many such photos I would take over the week looking aft from LOFOTEN’s bridge wing.
Docking in Torvik at 10:15am, we quickly adopted the routine of many Hurtigruten passengers. Port calls are often very quick- 30 minutes or less- which means passengers fan out into the town. Their legs stretched, they turn around after 15 minutes and return to the ship. When the ship’s whistle blows five minutes before departures, strides are usually hastened but everyone climbs up the gangway a few minutes before it is lifted. For some, just staying on the ship and watching from the rail as stragglers rush back to the pier is also de rigueur.
On this sailing, however, the 100 or so passengers onboard seemed to be all ship lovers more interested in photographing the ship than exploring the towns! Here, during our morning call at the tiny community of Torvik, passengers dispersed as far as the best spot to photograph the ship from before returning. It soon became a well practiced and oddly satisfying routine.
Since most port calls were so short, a lot of time was spent on deck watching us dock or undock, or just watching distant mountains or nearby skerries slip past.
Passengers on Hurtigurten- both those on for the passages along the entire coast and those locals just hopping a ride between towns- have to make up their own activities. Here, a classic pose on a classic ship.
In early March, the sun set around 5pm, and another day came to a close onboard LOFOTEN as our little ship ventured north.
The next morning, LOFOTEN was docked in Trondheim astern of the 1996-built Nordkapp. Happily, Hurtigruten passengers can wander freely between ships when in port together. For Kathryn and me, it was also an opportunity to slip over to the new ship, connect to their free wi-fi, and download emails!
Looking aft from the NORDKAPP afforded a wonderful view of the traditional palletized cargo operations onboard LOFOTEN. It was a stark contrast to the roll-on roll-off ramps in use on the newer ship.
Onboard LOFOTEN were an enthusiastic group from Hurtigforum.de, who came explicitly because of the birthday celebrations. Decked in matching souwester hats, they congregated on the pier as NORDKAPP’s sailing time neared. Soon, NORDKAPP’s passengers arrived on the aft decks, equipped with waving Norwegian flags, while Madonna’s “Celebrate” blasted out over NORDKAPP’s speakers.
The celebration reached a climax with a rousing rendition of the NORDKAPP’s passengers and crew singing “Happy Birthday” to the LOFOTEN en masse as the newer ship began maneuvering out of the harbor. It was a festive and somewhat silly moment, and delighted all of us ship lovers onboard.
Sailing from Trondheim at noon, we were left to enjoy the passing scenery until 4:15pm, when we passed through the exceedingly narrow passage Stokksundet. With limited forward viewing, the bridge wings became crowded as many rushed to get a good view forward as the ship squeezed through the skerries.
Amidst all the adoration being shown for the ship, it was (almost) hard to remember that most people come on Hurtigruten for the beautiful scenery!
After a sharp turn to port, LOFOTEN was through the narrows and began sailing through a dramatic channel in the late afternoon low light.
Several special events were held onboard for this anniversary sailing. Here, Tor Arne Aasen an expert in all things Hurtigruten, gave a talk about the history of the LOFOTEN. Pretty much every passenger onboard, except for the many locals who were onboard to ride the ship between ports or for short hops, chose this sailing because of LOFOTEN’s anniversary, and the little lounge was at capacity.
Emerging from the lecture, it was almost dark and the Norwegian coastline continued to slip behind us in our wake.
That night, we had one of the lingering, slow sunsets that the high latitudes are justifiably famous for.
With LOFOTEN making over 30 port calls in a week, quick post dinner strolls were common. Tonight, we docked in Rorvik astern of FINNMARKEN, giving eager passengers a chance to compare old versus new before turning in for the evening.
The next morning dawned majestic in a classic Norwegian scene. Imposing snow-capped mountains dwarfed our cozy ship, and the further north we went the more we felt we were leaving behind the busy population centers of Europe.
During breakfast, the announcement came that we would be passing the southbound POLARYS, and everyone was requested to come out on deck. Norwegian flags were handed out, helping to ensure everyone, including my fiancée, was in a festive spirit.
Initially the two ships approached at full speed— a combined 30 knots, and the bridge wings and side railings were full of enthusiastic ship spotters eager to partake in the moment.
Both ships slowed noticeably as they approached, and with cheering crowds calling back to each other and a rousing whistle exchange, LOFOTEN was saluted by her newer running mate.
With a schedule to keep, however, neither ship lingered. Soon POLARYS was disappearing in our wake, bound for Nesna…
…while LOFOTEN continued north, bound for Ornes.
For a shiplover, one of the joys of the Hurtigruten is that the ships still serve as a vital lifeline along the coast, linking small communities and ensuring efficient and reliable service. Every day, the cargo carried on the bow changed; sometimes it was roofing material, other days a boat. Mostly, the cargo was the routine necessities of daily life, proving just how integrated Hurtigruten has become in the daily routine of these coastal towns.
Approaching Ornes, LOFOTEN was once again greeted by a small group on shore with Norwegian flags. With the ship running a few minutes behind, however, our time was short and no one could get off. No one really cares, however; simply arriving and departing from ports is an event and crowds are always on deck to watch. On few other ships are arrivals and departures so watched and such a part of the rhythm of onboard activity.
Despite our lack of being able to go ashore, the cargo operations of course continued uninterrupted. Along with watching the ship dock and undock, watching the cargo operation on LOFOTEN is the other popular pastime. The forward lounge overlooks the cargo hold and makes a well-placed perch to observe the hatch being opened, speculate on what is bound for which port, and observe the cargo loaded and discharged.
Today, March 5th, was LOFOTEN’s official birthday— it was 50 years ago she first sailed from Bergen. Balloons were hung in the lounges and a birthday sign was hung in the lobby outside the dining room. The decorations were fun, but they never overshadowed the working, determined nature of the ship that was, after all, following a strict timetable.
Neptune couldn’t have planned it better himself. On the big birthday, LOFOTEN crossed the Arctic Circle shortly after 7am. King Neptune was invited onboard to baptize those that had never crossed into the Arctic before.
Much to the delight- and shock- of those crossing for the first time, ice-cold water was generously poured down open backs as baptism. A warming shot of whiskey rewarded those who endured the icy welcome. The Tour Director, however, did not get off so easily- he was doused by friendly crew members with all of the left-over ice-cold water.
Tying up in Bodo for a few hours afforded plenty of time to for a walk ashore. It also was the best opportunity to get pictures of the ship on her birthday!
From the port quarter was an interesting comparison of the classic lines of the LOFOTEN to a modern ferry.
That afternoon, we crossed open water to reach the LOFOTEN Islands. Along the way, the small gift shop did good business as Tour Leader Asgeir Larsen stamped and cancelled postcards and letters to commemorate the LOFOTEN’s birthday.
By the time we arrived in Stamsund, the rain was stinging and cold from the wind. A quick walk into town allowed us to stretch our legs, but the glowing lights of the LOFOTEN were a warm welcome back.
On deck, a few passengers decided going ashore wasn’t worth it, and dutifully watched the stirrings on the pier from the comfort on the ship.
Only a few pallets of cargo were unloaded and left in the warehouse; otherwise, the warehouse attendant, who doubled as linesmen, waited for the order to let go the lines before the LOFOTEN slipped into the night. For 30 minutes, while in open water and a strong gale, the LOFOTEN rolled considerably, and chairs tethered to the deck with short chains slid back and forth across the floor.
We dined well onboard the LOFOTEN with food unsparingly Norwegian in its content and flavor. Tonight’s gala menu celebrated the ship’s birthday with a beef wellington and fresh seafood.
The night wouldn’t be over, however, until Happy Birthday was sung, once again, to the ship. This time, the ship’s Maitre’d and waiters lined up in the restaurant and were joined by one of Lofoten’s most faithful passengers, who led the singing and cheers.
Outside, however, LOFOTEN continued making her way north through the LOFOTEN Islands, calling at Svolvaer from 9:00 to 10:00 pm. Despite the rain and weather, cargo operations continued unabated.
Part of the joy of sailing of LOFOTEN is watching some exceptional seamanship and shiphandling. With only a single rudder and propeller and no bow thruster, the Captain had to rely on an unusual technique to turn around in the snug harbor. Here, the offshore head line has been brought around and lead back down the pier to help pull the bow around.
Here the bow is almost now dead on into the pier, and heaving on the mooring line continues to pull the bow around towards the open sea. Shortly hereafter, the line was let go and LOFOTEN backed up into the harbor before angling for the opening in the breakwater. After an estimated 75,000 dockings, these maneuvers were routine to the crew but were a spectacle to those more used to azipods and thrusters.
After what we were told was one of the warmest winters in 100 years in Norway, we were surprised to see so little snow on the southern part of our journey. This morning, we awoke to finally see an Arctic scene like we expected.
Our call in Finnsnes was typical of so many stops. We had 30 minutes to explore town. As soon as we docked, the gangway was down, and passengers rushed off to stroll town. However, for the ship lovers, this town was a special treat…
After stepping off the gangway, the obligatory shot of the bow was taken before walking into town…
…to find one of the best angles on the entire trip to take a photograph of the ship!
That afternoon LOFOTEN docked for an extended port call in Tromso, the ship’s port of registry. With plenty of time, we took a shore excursion and went off dog sledding into the hills!
That evening, another passing of the southbound Hurtigruten was announced in the middle of dinner. The restaurant emptied and we watched the 1997-built NORDNORGE cruise glide over the darkened seas. Short and sweet, these twice daily encounters of passing ships were great fun for everyone onboard and punctuated the sense of the regularity of the service the Hurtigruten provides.
That night, we also had our first Northern Lights sighting. The ship’s movement made photographs difficult, but perhaps the blurry ship captures the mystical quality of these pulsating and shifting shapes. It was spell binding and worth the long flight from New York.
With time dwindling onboard, Kathryn and I began a new effort to maximize every moment onboard. We decided to wake up at 5am to see Hammerfest, one of several such towns to claim the “Most Northerly in the World”. Not surprisingly, the streets were deserted at this hour of the day.
Even the LOFOTEN lacked the usual crowd lining the rails at 5:15am.
The only sign of life was the ceaseless movement of cargo on the bow and the watchman at the gangway.
Several hours later, however, in Honnisvag, the ship had woken up. Passengers walked up and down the gangway, were busy eating breakfast, and, again, the cargo continued. In some ports, cargo operations continued for the entire time, or delayed our departure from ports. In others, the hold was opened up only for one small delivery- perhaps a box of food- and that was it. No matter, on this historic sailing, there was always a group of eager Lofoten devotees photographing the operations.
With the surroundings now looking more like an expedition cruise, everyone enjoyed some bright sun and beautiful landscapes. The ship lovers delighted in the beautiful light, taking the same photograph that they had already taken several times beforehand on this trip, but with a different, more polar, backdrop.
Some simply enjoyed the sun and nooks well protected from any wind.
By 4:30pm, we were making our way into Kjollefjord when passengers were called to the aft deck. A small, but very fast, RIB came alongside…
And moments later, three very large, and very spiny, King Crabs were on deck for a show and tell. A few brave souls picked up the crabs and posed for photographs.
Sailing out of Berlevag, we passed our last southbound ship, the 1993-built KONG HARALD. As we approached, several flares were lit off onboard the Kong Harald, creating a glowing spectacle that lit up the sky and the narrow strip of water separating the two ships.
Lofoten had one last call that night—Batsford at 11:45pm- and being docked what looked to be well outside town on a cold Arctic night, we decided to stay onboard and be up early tomorrow morning for our last few hours onboard Lofoten.
Our arrival in Kirkenes marked the end of the northbound journey, but we were met with a spirited crowd- including an embarking group from Hurtigforum.de A small band also was on hand, stoically bracing against the cold.
Another birthday cake- just like we had enjoyed onboard for our arrival in Bergen- was put on the pier.
With the ship safely tied up, an appreciative crowd gathered around Captain Tor Amundsen (and the cake.)
The celebrations did not last long, however. The transfer to the airport was leaving and cabins needed to be cleaned in the few hours until the southbound passengers arrived. Wanting a bit more time to explore Kirkenes, we walked the icy roads into town and caught a local bus from the town center…
But not without one last look back the Lofoten. She looked perfectly placed, surrounded by the snow and mountains, and very much a natural part of the scenery. One could take great comfort knowing she would soon be sailing again over the route she knows so well. Long may she sail!
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland. Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.