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27th June, 2013



The two sea days north towards Spitsbergen would provide an interesting mix of weather. The sea was relatively calm and favourable current was predominant to aid our journey, even if under a leaden sky. Crossing over the Arctic Circle on the first morning ensured daylight assisted our Watchkeepers in the advent of encountering any stray ice as the waters cooled. The patchy fog however didn’t! It is rare to see ice south of Spitsbergen itself but running along the coast “growlers” (ice pieces the size of the average family car that sit low in the water with often smooth tops), are not uncommon and sit stealthily in the water evading radar detection.

We picked the pilot up at the mouth of Isafjord at around 6 am, before proceeding further along the coastline towards Magdalene Bay. It is the first year that pilotage in Spitsbergen has been made compulsory and from my perspective is just an added aggravation (and probably an added expense too). The environmentally sensitive area is becoming increasingly restrictive to visit with a number of fjords as well as coast within 12nm of land off limits to vessels carrying heavy fuel oil (most ships). In fact in two years Magdalenefjord as well as Ny Alesund will also be off limits to the majority of ships, so next year will be the last opportunity to visit these parts of Spitsbergen for us (hint, hint, book early to avoid disappointment).


Northwest Spitsbergen on the day we made landfall was experiencing gale force winds, it was touch and go whether or not we could even get into the bay. The wind was however from the south so once in the lea of the land was looking like it would be reasonable. Lining up for the entrance early and easing down the ships speed I managed to prove to the pilot that Saga Sapphire didn’t drift as much as more modern and shallower drafted cruise ships so we entered the bay, albeit with a large set to compensate for the weather.

Once inside the bay the set could be taken off with the wind easing locally. This enabled us to circumnavigate the bay at a sedate pace to enable passengers to photograph the Wagonswaybreen Glacier before returning to an area where we could anchor.

On anchoring, as we had done in the past, we sent a party ashore to set up to receive passengers. This involved building our own dock, a floating pontoon made of purpose built buoyant blocks linked together like something made from Lego. The construction was anchored and tested in the prevailing conditions, the wind was now gusting the length of the fjord being funnelled through the mountains and over the glacier itself. It couldn’t cope in the conditions however so was reset in a new location. Again it failed with the wind pushing the tender’s side with too much weight for the light pontoon to be able to resist, with a risk of beaching to the tender itself. By now it was apparent that this was unlikely to work, so I suggested waiting for an hour to see if the wind would die down again and give it another try (after all, we’d come this far and didn’t have to worry about it getting dark!). I certainly didn’t envy those who’d been assigned to wear the chest waders and enter the arctic water on the shore party to assemble the construction. I remember before my promotion to Captain doing just that, so I had every sympathy for them. Just when the wind was starting to look more favourable the anemometer started to register 35 knot gusts with increasing frequency, so the decision was made to abort the landing and defrost the Staff Captain and crew.

Meanwhile on the bridge I was using the bow thruster to reduce the ships yawing motion in the wind and prevent us from dragging anchor. The small anchorage area was fairly deep and the bottom, sand, not good holding ground, and our close proximity to shore prevented me from putting out any more chain. Once we’d recovered our shore party we picked up anchor and made for open water once again a little disappointed not to have been able to achieve what we planned but grateful to have been able to get into the bay to see it in the first place.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.