Captain Rasmus Jacobsen is a master of many things at sea, but inspirational speeches are not among them. As the passengers, scientists and guides aboard the SV Linden struggled into ketchup-red immersion suits and prepared to throw themselves into breath-snatching fjord water for a safety drill, the captain spoke: “Cross your fingers, if they aren’t too cold, and remember — you don’t need to be able to swim, just float. And hope for the best.”
The Dane was speaking a few hours after his ship had left the rudimentary port in Longyearbyen in the Norwegian Arctic territory of Svalbard, carrying the first ever Ocean Warrior expedition. The project will spend four months each year for the next decade sailing in northern seas, carrying out measurements of the ocean and Arctic climate, gathering year-on-year data in regions already undergoing frightening warming.
Like voyages from the golden age of polar exploration, it will mix science with adventure, experts with novices, expedition leaders with sponsors. Members of the public will join the sailing crew, alongside naturalists and climate scientists.
These days, polar cruise ships at both ends of the earth include “citizen science” programmes as standard, but the idea with Ocean Warrior is to lead with climatology, rather than have it as an on-board hobby designed to make people feel better about their carbon-heavy holidays. Participants will be expected to join in with the oceanographic work, and as much of the sailing as they choose.
All of which is very noble and worthwhile, but before we got to scientific endeavour, we needed to jump overboard. In the water we formed a chain, just as we’d do in a real emergency, hoping to be spotted by would-be rescuers as a long, drifting entrail.
From the cold surface of the Arctic water, the Linden appeared no less beautiful than she had when I’d first seen her in port a few hours earlier. The largest wooden three-masted schooner in Europe, her white hull and three huge masts stretched up into the frigid air, the crow’s nest occasionally inspected by belligerent Arctic terns.
Built in Finland in the early 1990s, the Linden was designed as a copy of a cargo ship of the 1920s. Almost 50 metres long and capable of carrying 12 passengers and up to eight crew, it was ambitiously built without an engine — but, of course, that couldn’t last. One was retrofitted in the mid-90s, and while the Ocean Warrior project wants to travel under sail as much as possible, the motor must still be used frequently. “I wouldn’t be without the sails, but I wouldn’t be without the engine either,” said Captain Rasmus. “Simply getting out of port without it can be extremely difficult.”
We sailed around Svalbard at the beginning of September, the time of year when days begin to contract dramatically — during our nine-day trip we lost three hours, daylight sloughing off like old snow from a garage roof.
All but one of Rasmus’s crew were Danish and with an average age of just 20. Despite most of the Ocean Warrior guests being old enough to be their parents and grandparents, we gladly ceded control to the trained youngsters, frantically following their instructions when it came time to act.
The Linden carries around 1.2km of rope, a complicated vascular system threaded throughout the vessel. Pulling it under the direction of the young crew was always hot, graceless work, even when the air temperature hovered around freezing. It was enormously satisfying to hear the sincere cry of “Hoist the mainsail!” but there were no shanties and no banter. There was just hard work, aching hands, and eventually a sense of relief. If there was joy, it was only that the pulling had ended.
And yet each time the sails were up, it felt as if we had achieved something. The language of the ship itself changed at those moments, too. No longer could we hear the gurgling of the engine, but instead the flapping of sails and the straining of masts. Something was always creaking. There was also the stuttering bite of rope on wood, twine and timber gnawing at each other as they have for aeons. As I stood by the bowsprit trying to spot whales, this arthritic noise felt as much a sound of the sea as a crying gull or a shushing wave.
Ocean Warrior founder Jim McNeill has spent almost four decades as an educator and adventurer in the polar regions. His idea is to sail the same route over the next decade, gathering data along the way. Participants are likely to be a mix of climate-conscious individuals and groups, some of whom will seek sponsorship from companies looking to support environmental science. I wondered if McNeill was worried about greenwashing.
“It’s a concern, of course, but I am a pragmatist,” he said. “We want people who want to really do something positive about climate change, to contribute and support such an endeavour . . . but unless we get the movers and shakers, people who unfortunately look at the world in terms of how much money they’re going to earn, then we aren’t going to achieve all our aims.”
On this maiden voyage, the scientific element was inarguably lacking, with just one device on board to measure ocean conductivity, depth and temperature. This was no surprise to lead scientist Professor Icarus Allen, but he hoped future expeditions would be able to perform a greater range of measurements and experiments. “The potential of the ship is enormous,” said Allen. “We’ll get a lot more instrumentation on board. Ideally, we’d be able to measure partial pressure of carbon dioxide, possibly pH. Perhaps also a met station on board . . . What would be really interesting would be to have sensors with the ability to measure radiance and reflectance of the ocean and the atmosphere.”
The shopping list went on, not lacking in ambition. When I pointed out that it all sounded expensive, he put the estimated cost of the equipment at around £400,000, not including training the crew in its use and maintenance. With many ocean measurements now taken autonomously or remotely, I couldn’t help querying the value of going out in an old ship and doing this stuff in person.
“I think there’s a great value in ongoing direct measurements in the field, firstly to validate the models, secondly to better train algorithms,” replied the professor, who is also chief executive of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. “A lot of the elements of study that were hugely time-consuming can be replaced, but being out in the field won’t go away. I actually think we should be looking at this stuff on vessels of all kinds.”
That was for the future. On this first sailing, the aim was more to learn about the ship and the environment. In lieu of a heavy scientific schedule, Svalbard stepped in to demand our attention — most days we landed for hikes across the tundra, often led by Jim McNeill. There was always some kind of wildlife in the vicinity. Some of the participants were moved to tears by their first sighting of a whale, a curious humpback whose exhalations bloomed against a dark shore. Earlier that same morning, we’d seen fjords so still that they mirrored the mountains above.
On another afternoon, the rain fell with tedious insistence, dropping from low-lying clouds on to our heads as we trekked towards a glacier. High on the opposite side of the valley, we spotted a huge polar bear. “Whatever his [hunting] strategy has been this season, it’s certainly worked,” said first mate and rifle-handler Sixten Hüllert, 24.
That night we were chased out of the fjord by freezing winds, making seven knots under only half sail. We passed a walrus and what might have been a minke whale, but then the wind died and we bobbed around uselessly at not quite walking speed. We felt the engine turn back on through the soles of our stockinged feet (outdoor boots are discouraged inside the ship) and it wasn’t long before we’d turned into open water, where the Linden began seesawing in increasingly unreasonable waves.
As we bounced around in the mad sea, Captain Rasmus instructed us to take the sails down again. This wasn’t as strenuous as the hoist, but I still had a particular paranoia that I might let go of a vital rope and a boom would come crashing down.
The ocean seemed to take our lowering the sails as an insult, and began returning plenty of its own, cranking our bow up and down and sending big right hooks shuddering through the ship’s wooden rib cage. The violence lasted all night.
When we awoke the next morning, all was calm — and curiously familiar. The night watch reported with some relief that we were at anchor back in the same fjord we’d attempted to leave 12 hours earlier. Sometimes you need to go backwards to move forwards, I suppose, but I was relieved at least to have avoided the helm during those fraught hours. “At one point our bowsprit was in the water — all the foresails were under,” said Titianna Linde La Boube, 21, helping herself to a ginger nut biscuit. “I was at the helm at 2am and was told to just aim for a mountain, then the snow came, and the mountain disappeared.”
The whole episode had been remarkable to polar novices, but the crew took it in their stride. During that stormy night, Hannah Udklit Kristensen had been the last one out on deck, tying up sails while perilously balanced on a freezing boom. This was the sort of the thing the young crew were often doing, while we older bystanders watched on in fear and awe.
Hannah had turned 18 in the middle of the trip, an event that she celebrated by jumping in the sea — without an immersion suit — at 80 degrees north. Just before we sought shelter inside, I asked if she wished she was spending the last days of summer somewhere warmer, doing something easier. “No!” The teenager shouted over a snarling Arctic wind. “I love this!”
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