Secrets from Sailing High Above the Arctic Circle

By: Sailing Story, women on the water

Captain Stacey Brooks is a longtime American Sailing Instructor who can be found in destinations around the world teaching and sharing her passion for sailing. Her curiosity for the natural world and the many cultures that sailing has taken her to make for the perfect recipe for a sailing instructor that can double as a travel guide.  Captain Brooks is sharing stories from her travels and giving American Sailing readers a taste of what it’s like to expand your sailing resume in foreign waters. 


SEADOG Sailing Ventures North 

That famous catchphrase from Monty Python, “And now for something completely different” ran through my head again when I finally, very nervously, sailed away from the safety of the dock in Tromso, Norway. High above the Arctic Circle, Tromso is 350 kilometers north with a latitude of 70 degrees. Even in summer, the nights are frigid, and the days are mostly gray, chilly, and wet. The darkness doesn’t come, and the midnight sun will have you wandering around aimlessly late into the evening. 

It is challenging getting to Tromso, Norway. No matter how you tackle getting there, it will involve a few days and a hefty mixture of planes, trains, and automobiles. Oh, and don’t forget the bus. So why would I leave the warmth of the sun-kissed Mediterranean only to don foul-weather gear, wellies, and a wool hat for three weeks in the middle of the summer? Hmmmmm. I asked myself that again as the wheels touched the cold Tromso tarmac. 

Grabbing my backpack, I walked out into a blast of cold, crisp Nordic air. Norway was telling me to buck up and beware. There’s more where that came from! The Tromso airport is minuscule and out of a scary, grainy black-and-white film from the seventies. The one bearded and hardy baggage handler played his part well and unloaded the numerous backpacks, dry bags, and gearboxes from afar. As I walked through the exit door, a reindeer (yes, a real one) met me with a sideways look that clearly said, “Uh oh, lady, you are really in for it now.” Of course, it could have been the jet lag, but I am sure he meant that. 

A reindeer greets me.

Jumping in a taxi was easy, and I arrived at my hotel in central Tromso in less than fifteen minutes. Catching a glimpse of the well-bundled people in Tromso along the way, I could sense something reserved and stark as well. The harbor, however, grabbed my attention almost immediately. 

Most harbors have that effect on me for all the obvious reasons. The seagulls, the salty smell, the colorful fishing nets, and the creaking of the wood on the docks are too much for me to ignore. I always find myself lingering there even when I don’t need to be. There are, of course, all my apparent reasons for loving harbors, but on that day, I am drawn to the edge of the dock for fascinating historical reasons. 

You can feel the history in this harbor.

What a lot of people either don’t know or have forgotten is how critical Norway was in WWII and, in particular, Tromso, Norway. One of the great dramas of WWII was carried out right in Tromso harbor, where I was standing. The enormous German battleship Tirpitz called Tromso Harbor home for almost three years. This gigantic battleship was 823 feet long, weighed 50,000 tons fully loaded, and could miraculously hold a top speed of 30 knots. Were 2,600 Germans assigned to this ship, with another 100 Nazi officers on board? You will ask yourself why the Third Reich would send such a formidable weapon so far above the Arctic Circle. The answer is just as problematic as the weapon. The Allied Arctic Convoys were the centerpiece for moving tanks, weapons, ammunition, and more in the Norwegian Sea. These ships, mostly fishing ships, would hide and transport the above supplies for the Americans and the British. The Germans wanted to destroy this transportation route and ensure the Allied forces would stay occupied with their presence, thus avoiding an attack on Nazi-occupied Northern Norway. Winston Churchill believed the ship remained a threat for the years she moored in Tromso. Finally, late in 1944, the British managed to bomb Tirpitz and sink her. The death toll was significant and estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,200 men. Unbelievably, local Norwegians in Tromso were said to have attempted to save any German survivors from the burning waters around the ship. 

The Adventure Begins

As I stood there in awe of the sea, with her deadly secrets and omnipotence, I realized I was about to embark on another grand adventure. That word is so overused I recognize it, but sometimes it fits. I had been scouring charts, highlighting cruising guides, and triple-checking weather and tides for months. Even though I had been prepared, I felt my stomach somersault with a bit of fear. I was alone in Tromso for three days before prepping the boat for customers. My time alone (indeed, never lonely) was a mixture of anxiety and pure excitement. There is something special about dining alone. 

Alone, but never lonely.

Whenever I travel to my sailing destinations, I make it a point to spend a few days alone. I seek out, research, and walk by the restaurants I am interested in. While I thought I would most assuredly eat fresh fish in Norway, I can assure you I never believed I would find such gourmet dining experiences. That’s right – not just meals – experiences. Such unique and gorgeous cuisine had never been on my radar. But then that’s the magical part of traveling, discovering the nuances of your destination and unveiling her hidden gems. If you ever find yourself in Tromso, you must dine at Emma’s Drommekjokken. The quick translation is Emma’s Dream Kitchen, and trust me, it’s all dreamy. Emma’s restaurant offers four, seven, or nine-course experiences. I jumped at the nine with wine pairings. Three hours later, as I sat warmly buzzed in the glimmering candlelight, I reveled in every sip of my fine wine. Here I was in Norway, all alone and happy. 

The next day, with a slight but well-deserved headache, I headed to the Boreal yachting dock to meet the office folks and check out my 47 Delphia monohull. We had been in contact for almost 18 months, so to put faces to names was a lot of fun. My intensive charting and research were so much fun but continued to leave me puzzled and apprehensive. In all my years of sailing the Caribbean and certainly the Mediterranean, I was programmed to plan slip/mooring reservations days before arrival. All indications and data in Norway told me there are no reservations most of the time. Just showing up and tying off to a floating dock, a pier, or a fish processing plant was commonplace and expected. 

As my customers arrived and made their small cabins a comfortable home for the coming week, I was excited yet nervous. Months of planning were coming to fruition, and it was about to unfold. 

Setting Sail

The following morning, we cast off the dock lines and sailed away with the brisk wind in our faces. Here we go! We were finally off into a new frontier of deep fjords, a white-capped sea, and fresh experiences. The emerald-green mountains plunge into the ocean as an icy mist from waterfalls fills the air. The only other vessels at sea are trawlers, fishing boats, and private motorboats boats. Not a single cruise ship eyesore is anywhere to be found. We are the only sailboat located north of Tromso for three days. We are a mere 400 miles from Russia. We are alone in a pristine wilderness of quiet reflection and magical surroundings. 

The Arctic crew.

The end of our first day finds us tying off to a pier with only one other fishing vessel. The colorful fishing nets and musty smells tell us people must be on board, yet we see no one. The bright yellow, persimmon, and sky blue cottages sprinkle the bay, yet we see no one walking on the beach. A few small cars line up on cobblestone roads, but none move. We search for lights and tilt our ears toward the small village, not a dog bark nor a cat meow. Once settled, we reach for a hot cup of tea and biscuits. As the warmth pours into our cold bodies, we gaze at the striking, silent beauty encircling us. We could easily be in Narnia, in awe of our stunning surroundings. 

We have traveled 60 nm to Nor Lenangen, the gateway to the Lyngen Fjords. These jagged peaks are 6013 feet above sea level with an underwater depth of up to 4,500 feet. The word “fjord” is of Norwegian origin and means literally “travel across.” As we look across the deep water to the horizon, we feel humbled by the beauty of the approaching sunset. Our first cold day at sea has ended at one of the most breathtaking places on earth. 

All quiet on the dock.

The Journey

As our week unfolds, we find ourselves further into the dark green creases of the Lyngen fjords. Each tack of our monohull reveals yet another jaw-dropping view. We need more adjectives to describe our time in the far north of Norway. We find refuge and a well-needed sail break when we grab the only mooring ball outside the world’s most northern distillery, Aurora Spirit. Inspired by Vikings, this distillery is aging its Bivrost whiskey in an extreme Arctic climate. The whiskey is made from Nordic barley, fermented with glacial meltwater, and then all matured in underground storage vaults that were previously part of a network of tunnels in a Cold War NATO base. Tiny huts with ceiling-high glass windows sprinkle the shoreline outside the distillery. These magical dwellings are where one can see the northern lights with perhaps the best view on the planet. This whiskey will fend off the cold by keeping you toasty, warm, and happy. 

The view was captivating with every tack.

As we journeyed further down the fjords to the small town of Lygenseidet, we were anxious to meet the pub owner preparing our delicious salmon dinner. One of the few, if not only, people who answered my request for a dinner reservation and a few drinks was Erik from the Sorheim Brygge. The word “Brygge” in Norwegian means quay, pier or dock. It also seems connected to “pub” or “brew.” In any case, Erik had a dock slip waiting for me just outside his warm, welcoming pub. The scent of grilled fish and salty sea air wafted toward us as we tied our boat to his floating dock. The gin and tonics went down nicely as we chatted with this friendly pub owner. After indulging in perhaps the best fish I had ever eaten, we learned we were his only guests for the low-season summer months. His high season means boatloads of brave sailors seeking extreme adventure by skinning to the top of glaciers and skiing down to the sea. 

And here I thought I was the daring one! 

Fishing is a way of life.

Sailing north again through the fjords, we arrived at the tiny town of Hammnes. We tied along an extremely high fishing dock. Arranging bow, stern, and spring lines was a constant affair due to the significant tide fluctuations of sometimes 9 feet. A welcoming man smelling of dried stock saltfish assured us we would be safe at the pier overnight. He spoke little English, but just like anywhere on earth, a friendly smile, head nods, and finger-pointing goes a long way. Members of the local reindeer herd strolled by as he helped me get fuel and water. Another lavender and orange sunset signaled the close of yet another glorious day at sea. We bundled up and strolled the tiny village. We found out from the local shop owner that Hammnes was one of the only villages not torched by the Nazis in WWII. The owner of the pier and fish plant was a Nazi, original white and red homes, schoolhouses, and fish plants stood as they did over eighty years ago. 

Why We Sail

One of the most appealing and addictive parts of sailing is that no matter how much I scheme, research, or plan, I am always surprised by what I discover on all my trips. Each journey teaches me more about myself, the beauty of sailing, and the delicate glory of this planet. The rewards and treats along the way are endlessly seductive. The problems that arise and the challenges that appear are constant reminders that Mother Ocean will always be in charge. Never think you can have it all figured out because one dark gray sky and a rolling high sea will quickly remind you who is really at the helm. As our Norway sailing journey came to a foggy cold close and we nestled back into our dock in Tromso, I felt strangely sad. I felt as though I had barely touched the surface of this pristine, mysterious place. This remote land and sea has secrets yet to be revealed. We barely touched the surface of this hidden sailing gem. I selfishly wanted more of this magical place. Maybe next time I will be one of those brave sailors skiing down to the sea? 

The famous Norwegian fog.

SEADOG Sailing, Inc. is an American Sailing School that has operated for 23 years. Captain Stacey Brooks is the owner of the school and the primary instructor. She holds a 100-ton USCG license. She is assisted by first mates Allison Beauvais and Dawn Hussey. She has traveled to over 63 countries and has sailed the entire Caribbean chain, most of the Mediterranean including Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, Italy/Sicily, Malta, France, Monte Carlo, Spain and the Balearics, Sardinia, Corsica, as well as the South Pacific including New Zealand, Tahiti, New Caledonia, and Thailand. When she is not sailing, she enjoys time with her husband and doggies in her beautiful hometown of Salida, Colorado. To find out more about Stacey and SEADOG Sailing Inc., visit her website www.seadogsailing.com

AD: SUNSAIL