There is a short window of opportunity each year when the arctic waters of Scoresbysund in eastern Greenland are sufficiently ice-free to allow cautious passage of a sailing vessel. In 2010 the schooner ‘Hildur’, based normally in Husavik, northern Iceland, pioneered an exploratory visit to these waters. The ground-breaking voyage of discovery was a success and, in 2011, a few berths were offered to guests wishing to repeat the experience. Quite understandably, considering my less-than-perfect record of water/sailing-related odysseys over the years, Anne was not immediately enthused; but, encouraged by Mathew and Ben, both of whom had led big-wall climbing expeditions to Greenland in the past, and reassured by the knowledge that we would be crewed by fellows experienced in arctic forays, she acquiesced and we were off. By means of a complicated series of flights via Reykjavik in Iceland, we joined ship at Constable Point airstrip, a bleak and desolate place, far, very far, from the nearest – and only – village of Ittoqqortoormiit, an ice-and -wind blasted settlement of 469 souls whose forefathers had been forcefully settled there in 1925 by the Danish government.
‘Hildur’ was moored offshore flanked by immense, slowly drifting icebergs. She is a graceful ship, a schooner built of sturdy oak in Akureyri 1974, and is blessed with remarkable sea-going properties which, later in the voyage when we were storm-tossed, were much appreciated. The sun hung low on the horizon as we lifted anchor and motored into huge, magnificent, awe-inspiring Scoresbysund, the largest fjord system in the world, piercing 350 kilometres inland. Calving glaciers shed massive icebergs into our path, and a 24-hour watch was maintained.
Below deck was warm and snug. The berths were, er, ‘cosy’. Some had a coffin-like dimension; Anne and I were fortunate to be allocated the ‘captain’s cabin’. Described as a ‘double’, it necessitated us sleeping head-to-toe, with a mutually agreed sequence of careful manipulations when changing position. We could hear the rush and slap of water through the oaken planks by our heads, and the scraping graunch of the occasional sheet-ice splintered by the prow. Food was plentiful and rather good on the whole. We were greeted on board with a feast of dried salt-cod and a fiery aquavit. Blessedly this was the one and only time it made an appearance.
Good bread was baked every evening and we dined on musk ox, arctic char and gravadlax, seated around the large cabin table. Good banter, a polyglot of languages, and tales to tell at every meal. Sometimes we enjoyed a barbecue on deck, moored in a peaceful but spectacular bay. We walked, always accompanied by a rifle bearer or two (polar bears are a common occurrence) high into remote and lonely hills, creeping up downwind of peacefully grazing musk oxen, great shaggy beasts enjoying the brief few weeks when the ground was not quite frozen. White arctic hares let us approach almost to within touching distance. We assumed they had never seen humans before.