Arctic sailing: Archangelsk, White Sea - Kirkenes, Barents Sea

As a last-minute decision, in the end of June 2018 I grabbed a one-way ticket to Russia and crewed on a Swiss-flagged Hanse 385 for the arctic leg of its North Europe circumnavigation. The starting point for it has been Stockholm, and as the boat made its way towards St Petersburg, Belomorsk and Solovki, the Swiss skipper had both single-handed and had some mixed crew on board. The next leg was from Archangelsk to Kirkenes, where I would be coming along another three crew, all of them Russian. The route would go straight North from Archangelsk, past Kanin peninsula and then Eastwards past Murmansk towards Norway.

Coast of Archangelsk, situated in the mouth of Dvina river. View from the center of the city.
Clearing out from Russia is apparently a several day procedure, where the authorities required a written application 24 hours in advance, exciting! As we made it to the office to get all the papers straight, it turned out that the crew member who was filling in the arrival/departure papers did it wrong. The guy did not know any English, and had little sailing experience, but insisted on doing the paperwork because he claimed to be an attorney. Luckily, we could redo the applications while we were at the office, so there was no trouble at the end. The authorities explained which pontoon we could moor to for the clearing out and customs procedure, and wished us good luck. We would sail off early morning.

Last night before the sailing. Full moon. Left: my home to be for the next week. Right: a local yacht
In the said morning, an elderly gentleman stepped on board and sat down in the cockpit. He was the local celebrity and seemed to be eager to help sailors. Apparently, upon arrival to Arkhangelsk he volunteered to guide the boat in to the yacht club in the middle of the night (despite them having full charts, GPS etc). Now he was surprisingly telling us that we have to file more applications for clearing out, make phone calls, send in papers, and that we were not allowed to leave. The skipper was just making a security round, showing the crew emergency gear, and asked this gentleman to step out from the boat so we could leave right away. He did not seem to trust we’d make it. We lifted the anchor and left, to exclamations from the quay about how to steer. The gentleman stayed on air via VHF and mobile, checking up on us as we were making our way out, as long as the coverage allowed.

We made it to the clearing appointment on time, and soon had two FSB guys in the cockpit. A female FSB officer was keeping a lookout on the dockside. They did have some technical trouble with their portable gear for checking passports, and from their comments I gathered that it was a minor technical glitch, but the biggest problem was that they had to check boxes for whom they had reported the glitch to, and their immediate boss was not on the list. They made some phone calls and in the end were able to figure out what to do and whom to tick.

The customs arrived when the FSB were still on board. They brought a dog (some kind of spaniel?) that was to go through the boat looking for illegal stuff. The officer excused himself several times for the dog’s nervous behavior, explaining that the animal is young and also not very used to such small boats. They were mostly interested in medkits and prescription medicines. Polite and nice, but a classical Russian approach with absolutely zero humor.

Finally, all was settled. All personnel took some pictures of the boat, some inside and some portraits and selfies in front of it. They also agreed to take a photo of us. Then we cast off and headed off the river Dvina, into the White Sea and beyond. There would be no more stopping until Norway.

Now, the watch schedule had to be done. It required a bit of sketching, since it had many prerequisites to meet. For one, the night watches were to be a maximum of 3 hours, but the day watches could be 4 or 5, even some 6. Except for one of the crew, who did not like to be awake in daytime, and wanted long watches during the night instead. Another requirement was that all watches should be done by 2 crew at the same time, but the crew change should overlap so everyone will get two subsequent watch partners one after another. Also, the schedule should not repeat itself, so everyone gets to share a watch with everyone during the trip. And, of course, four hours of sleep at least between watches.

The result - schedule for 3 days. A new paper followed with 4 days more... just in case

Already in the evening, we were sailing hard into the wind. The waves were not too bad, but many of the crew got a bit knocked out and lay in the cockpit wrapped in blankets. Someone was feeling unwell, I’m not very sure of the details as I was sleeping away down below, getting ready for the night shift. We would be hot bunking, but it took some time before everyone was ready to use the berths down below. The night was at least a bit calmer and we made way with Code Zero, great for light winds.

Misha, a.k.a "TCK" - Tobacco, Coffee, Kefir. Taking a short rest from all three right now.

The next day came with good wind - but we were going against the waves and the current. The boat was rushing forwards, but we were only making between 3 and 5 knots speed over ground. This was not enough! We needed to go faster to be able to leave the White Sea before the wind would turn to northerly and get very strong, which would basically mean that we would not manage to come out at all. There were gale warnings, and 4-5 meters of waves to come further South of us so there was no lee room. We started to motorsail. All crew were much better now, except for not being very eager to go down below yet. It was getting chiller; the tide was coming in from the Arctic. Water temperature dropped from 20 to 7,5. The skipper made a pie with almonds and fresh apricots, and the morale improved. Very impressed by the great cooking, and there was more to come!

Apricot and almond pie. Made on the starboard tack, so the surface is beautifully tilted

Dramatic things always happen only when you do not expect them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be dramatic, would they? We had quite good going, wind weaker and stronger at times. Then the wind picks up, and as we try to take down the Code 0, the leech gets stuck in the radar reflector unit attached to the front of the mast - and as it is pulled, it rips away. The leech sits there dead, now attached to the sail only at peak and clew, and as we lower the halyard we cannot take down the sail completely, it stays mid-air and grabs the wind. Skipper Chris stays on the rudder, I try to pull down and collect the large sail on the bow, while it is being pulled at by 20+ knots of wind. At time it overpowers me and almost lifts me off the bow. After a short double check with Chris I start cutting away the leech, this is the first time I got a use for the S-shaped sailing knife integrated to the life vest. I also get another crew, Denis, up on deck to help me – very happy for that, that lowered the potential risks involved. We pack the sail and raise the jib, do a debrief and get back to business.

Every screw-up at sea is the consequence of at least three mistakes. We use the debrief to analyse them, and also talk about how we feel about the situation. A competent debrief is a great way to keep the team motivated to develop and learn, and ensure positive and frank communication at all times. Creds to the skipper.

Happy crew enjoying the Arctic sunshine.
As we had passed the Arctic circle by now, the nights are fully bright. Sun shines as if it were morning hours. We pass Goryanov Island, Pyalka, Sosnovy Island with the village of Sosnovka where the Murmansk military-only ferry goes to – but no mobile net coverage is to be found. We do have an older-generation Iridium satellite phone, that one of the crew rented for this passage, but it’s impossible to set up an Internet connection for receiving GRIB files, no matter how we try. Problem seems to be wrong drivers, we try with 3 operative systems with the same result. The renting  company only replies “it should be working”. So we hug the coast hoping for coverage, as far as the currents and the winds allow us – staying about 8 nM from land for safety reasons. But with no luck.

Ever wondered why they call it the White Sea? Here's why. At  this time without waves. A curious seal is following us.
The currents change quite a bit, sometimes giving us a faster ride, but mostly slowing us up some 2-3 knots. We still are in a hurry to get out, but cannot do more than to motorsail in the slight head wind that had started to turn. We contact a cargo ship by VHF to get some weather reports, and they talk of 4 m waves. I’m sure they have the reports for Southern White sea, while the crew that VHF'ed them are sure they meant Kola peninsula coast, where we are going. I try to text home with Iridium and get fresh weather reports by text. However, it’s all really in vain – we will be going there anyway, and sailing whatever weather we will get, so it’s all just for curiosity.

Rain clouds and dark skies. Not so very calm and white anymore
Along the coast, there are several traffic separation zones, all of them with radio check-in points. When we do not report by ourselves, we are called by the control stations. They do not seem to have AIS receivers, or communication with each other – all of them ask us to spell out the boat name, enquire about the boat’s flag and number of foreign citizens on board, and ask about our course and next port – on every check-in. I do not know whether they use radar to spot the boats or try to do it with ocular observation, but it does seem to be a bit of a resource waste given that AIS receivers are not complicated nor very expensive.

I drink tea and eat Russian sukhariki, a traditional Russian “fika” of sorts. Cold does not affect me much, by now I am happy with my arctic sailing gear. Watches come and go – and finally, near Gremikha, the City of Flying Dogs that I tell about here, we get some mobile connection! We download the weather reports and I manage to upload an update and a message home, morale improves wonderfully when I get a synchronous reply back. The sun comes out, so it’s happy sailing – however the GRIB says that we will soon go against 2,5-3 meter waves soon. At least it’s not 4.

Svyatoy Nos, Gremikha military base.

We keep our course towards the “Point C”, or “Tochka C” (in Russian Точка Ц ), which is the point where Russian border may be crossed upon this passage. There is little information on the internet about it, so here are the coordinates of Russian Point C: N68°29, E39°12. The rules are that all boats that are cleared to leave Russian territorial waters towards the West need to do it at Point C. Also, there is a mandatory requirement to report to Border Control 24 hours before the crossing, as well as 4 hours before, and upon actual crossing. Of course, the exact times for us did not really match because it’s not possible to know how the winds and currents would affect our speed, but we did not get any complaints (we did not get any ACK either though). I do not know how it’s supposed to be done if there is no satellite phone on board. Border Control spoke of faxing a paper in, not quite the solution I’d expect 2018. On the other hand, I do not know what the consequences of not reporting would be - and I don’t want to know, either. What I do know, is that if the Russian border would be accidentally crossed after leaving Point C, for example if a boat is keeping 12+ nM off the coast but is missing a tiny island which extends the border, then they will be charged for two acts of illegal border crossing, and that’s a serious offence.

From late on the 29/6, we start beating into the wind and into the waves. Sometimes we are down to 1-2 knots despite motorsailing. The boat is heeling and rolling. With these speeds we seem to be going on for another week. It’s tough on the crew, everyone seems to be conserving energy, faces are tired and a bit swollen. At least the Hanse self-tacking rig is a blessing in the situation, as the crew really has different levels of experience and the constant tacking would be a bit more challenging to carry through. Rain clouds come and bring a humid chill. The milk is almost finished.

Chilly night rain.
Almost on every watch something happens. Lazyjacks are ripped. The hand-held VHF disappears overboard. One night, I wake up from the crew frantically shouting for Chris, our skipper. “Chris! Chris! We have to get him!” I gather we have a Man Over Board situation and run up to the cockpit. Nobody is pointing at the MOB, so I ask for a report. They say something about smoke and a fire. I fail to understand how that relates to Chris being overboard, however as he shows up in the gangway I see that I misunderstood the point of the screaming. There is smoke coming from the aft of the boat, from the same side that I had slept in, using the aft cabin. There’s a short inspection and it turns out that the heater, that the crew had asked Chris to start using, has started to let out smoke. Turning it off solved the problem. I am used to be sailing in colder environments without a heater, so I had no objections. However, I had second thoughts about sleeping in the same cabin again, not wanting to get a smoke poisoning. But as there was no more visible smoke, and no other bunks available, finally the tiredness took over and I fell asleep.

Skipper Chris, not at all overboard.
On 1 st of July we were passing Teriberka. A look on the AIS showed that a lot of fishing boats were hanging out in the nearby waters, and I was looking for the one I’d gone to sea with last year. Did not see them, however the AIS showed Klavdiya Elanskaya, the military ferry serving Gremikha and the small outposts past Svyatoy Nos.

Here, the wind finally started shifting. First from NW to W, which meant that we could keep a straight course, and then to a more southerly, which meant less waves, warmer air, and nicer going. Can’t believe that we would be passing Murmansk now! The past few days have smudged together to a fog of chilly watches and trying to sleep on a rolling berth while the boat is slamming onto the waves. The skipper made an apple pie, and life was improving by the minute! 

Apple pie! Nothing is impossible while at sea!

Constant sun was creating quirky conversation topics. 

“What’s the time?”
“One in the day or one in the night?”
“Who cares?”
“I do. If it’s the night then I have the longer watch...”

Midnight sun in the White Sea
It took us longer to sail this whole leg because of the currents and head winds, so by this time we were saving both the drinking water and the diesel. Dish washing could be done in salt water or by paper towels. Low revs if motorsailing. Charging batteries carefully, so autopilot and chart plotter will not run out of battery, but no excess.

Kirkenes (report from my last trip to Kirkenes here) met us with a quiet sunny fjord, beautiful cliffs, and KNM Glimt passing right in front of us in a cloud of haze. The calm waters made it possible to hoist Denis up the mast, to fix the lazyjacks. 

Denis at the mast, arctic skies as the backdrop.
Entering the fjord, I managed to get in touch with the authorities by sat phone and later by mobile, hoping for an easier procedure than in Russia. How naïve of me.

The customs were the only authority who were effective and practical. We figured out everything by phone and did not have to go there at all. The port authorities were a bit more tricky, promising a berth with water and electricity – and forgetting that there was none there. Oops sorry. The worst was the immigration. They told us that they close already at 12, as we were arriving around 13, and did not offer to make a reservation for the same day (of though they could have). 

We were told to come early next morning, so we had to stay at the floating pontoon and could not go anywhere for the rest of the day, not even for groceries or shower. In the morning, it turned out the next drop-in opening time is not this morning, it’s in 2 days. It was however possible to make a reservation for the same day, at 10:30. We did it, and turned up on time - but needed to wait anyway.

Opening times for the police station immigration office. Thursdays are obviously booked exclusively for other activities, such as crime fighting. So if ever considering committing crime in Kirkenes, please keep it to Thursdays
Then the two ladies taking care of the immigration paperwork could not find the right visas for the Russian crew. We had to stay in the stifled hot waiting room as they required assistance from the border, who promised to drive there but never came despite waiting. Finally, I asked them what was wrong, and they apparently looked at a wrong page in the passport. They told me that there usually is only one sailing boat requiring clearing procedure per summer, so they do not have the routine really.

Local speciality - King Crab, Kamtchatka Crab, Stalin Crab... Many names!
Finally, as we all were cleared, some shore action could follow. We found a place to do the laundry, a few shops including Biltema to do the necessary shopping, and filled up with SIM cards. A king crab safari driver shared a bit of his catch with us, so we could enjoy the delicacy in its natural Barents habitat. For dinner, the skipper honored his Swiss descent by cooking up a classical festive cheese fondue. Then – to the best part of it. Scandic Kirkenes has a sauna and swimming pool open for non-guests, 95 NOK/person. After a week of rough living on board in the Arctic, that was what I was longing for, with non-hurried conversation and frequent dips in the pool. Then, a pint of cold local beer to finish it all off. This was a good 630 nM sailing leg. And yes, I’d do it again – but also recommend the other direction if you want help from current and winds.

Safe at harbor, for the time being.