The vagaries of the wind

By |Published On: August 10, 2023|Categories: Europe, Svalbard|1199 words|0 Comments|


We awoke after a deep sleep, the previous 36 hours on the Barentsburg pontoon having left us exhausted. The sun was shining and a light wind blew in from the NW. All together a delightfully pleasant morning. After breakfast we spent an hour or two preparing the boat for our next hop down the coast. The windvane steering was reinstalled, covers were dried out, and a few minor repairs made to the lifelines and protectors damaged during the previous night’s slamming around. These jobs done, we dropped our lines and motored out across the Grønfjorden towards the open sea. SYs Snow Bear and Saraban’de would follow shortly afterwards, once they’d enjoyed all the delights that an underground coal mine had to offer.


We motored out into the wind until clear of Kapp Linné where we hoped to turn south and sail, nice and easily, downwind. Of course, this is exactly where the wind withered away and died.

No wind at Kapp Linné.

So, on we motored. It may well seem to the casual observer that we are a pair of whingers when it comes to the wind here in Svalbard (and Norway for that matter), and perhaps we are, but it is now a bit of a joke between us that the chance to sail only occurs with the wind in exactly the opposite direction to the one you need to go in, or in the middle of the night. At times it really seems like we should have bought a motor boat not a sailing boat.

Glass-out on the way towards Bellsund.

Anyway, we motored on south towards Bellsund, the second largest fjord complex on Spitsbergen’s west coast. We had gone straight on past Bellsund in thick fog on the way north. It was too foggy to see anything from the boat then and we didn’t have a gun that would have allowed us to go ashore, but now, given that we had a day or two up our sleeve before starting our crossing to Norway, we decided to have a quick seaborne look.

Fog did not block our views of the coastline this time around.


Arriving in Bellsund, we had missed the tide and so motored into a current and, wait for it, a steady headwind. Fantastic. Our crossing to Van Keulenhamna took twice as long as we’d hoped. You think we are whinging again? Just you wait.

Entry into Bellsund.

Just before midnight we dropped anchor in 9m of water in Van Keulenhamna. Four knots of wind whispered gently out of the NW, just as predicted. The sun was shining on the mountains and glaciers on the opposite side of the fjord and they shone in bright ochre colours and white against the darker skies to south. A couple of hundred metres to our starboard side the mountains sprang out of the sea and ran, through steep scree slopes and cliffs, to heights of hundreds of metres, while to the west skerries and a low peninsula formed the horizon. Altogether beautiful and dramatic, again.

As close to night as it is going to get.


Thirty minutes later those whispering 4kt NW winds were, in an instant, replaced with SW and southerly 20kt winds. Yuma heeled over and swung 180˚ on her anchor and in short order was heaving on quickly building 1 m waves that washed as breaking surf into the hamna. What had been an idyllic anchorage just minutes before was, in short order, a heaving mess.


With the winds quickly building to 30kt we weighed our options. They were two in number; leave for a more sheltered anchorage or stay put. Retrieving the anchor in these conditions was going to be a risky option – we didn’t have a great deal of leeway given the conditions, the strong winds and waves would make controlling the boat difficult while we retrieved the anchor, and there was a good chance that we wouldn’t get it back on board without it being tangled in weed and requiring work on the bow. In these conditions that could easily lead to damage to us or the boat from a swinging anchor and maybe loss of control of the boat. Not fun prospects. Staying put required that our anchor would hold, or at the very least reset quickly when it was pulled out by the opposite pull, and would also mean that the conditions onboard would be unpleasant. The risk was that if conditions deteriorated even further and the anchor dragged then we would be forced to either re-anchor very, very quickly or to make a run for it, i.e. back to option 1.

Conditions start to deteriorate. Soon breaking waves and 30-40kt winds would fill Van Keulenhamna. Not fun.

We monitored the anchor. Despite the 180˚ wind shift there was no hint that it was going to drag, we stayed level with our shore marks and the gps track showed us swinging through a narrow arc 50m from where we dropped. All seemed good, so we opted for option 2, sit it out. We let out all the rest of the chain that we had and waited. After an hour or two, with the winds blowing between 30 and 40kt and the boat rocking, rolling and bouncing on the waves, we set anchor alarms and crawled into our seaberths, fully dressed and ready to spring into action if the alarms went off. Happily, this only occurred once and then just because of GPS error. Despite this, one of us was awake every hour or so to check the shore marks, just to be certain.


We slept, albeit intermittently, until mid-morning. There was no let up in the conditions and the sun shine that had graced the distant mountains with such happy light the night before had been replaced with a sullen grey dullness. Shades of gloom to match our cold, dark feeling. What fun! And what to do?

The next morning, grey and cloudy, and still white caps on the water.

We checked in with the other sailing yachts around. SYs Snow Bear and Saraban’de, who had also both anchored in a SW facing bay well to the north of us, were in similarly windy and wavy conditions and had made the same decision to hold fast until conditions improved. They were as pleased as we were about it all. At least we were not alone in feeling miserable! SY Flying Fish, in a well protected anchorage about 10nm south, had a bit of uncomfortable swell coming beam-on but just light winds. Lucky, lucky, …

More grey-ness all around.

After a couple of hours trying, we succeeded in downloading a fresh weather forecast.  It appeared that there would be no let up in the conditions and we were all going to have to sit tight at least until the late evening. Sigh.  So we sat tight.


Gradually though, from 2100 on, the winds began to abate and by midnight we were able to go to sleep with just a light breeze and gentle waves for company. We slept like logs.

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One very sneaky arctic fox
An early August passage south across the Barents Sea