Rhythm and Blues, Ep. 205

Every seat on the plane was full. When we landed, the airport was bustling with fellow passengers disembarking, while throngs of people from all age groups waited for their plane departures. It confounded me that there would be a city this far north in Norway with a not-so-insignificant population of 65,000 people. What were they all doing up here in Tromsø? Yes, it is the administrative center for Troms county, and, yes, it does have The Arctic University of Norway (the world’s most northerly university). The fisheries industry is thriving here, with many large ocean-going fishing craft docked next to large, boxy steel warehouses on the shore to process their catch. And, we can’t forget Mack brewery, the most northerly brewery in the world. There’s also a charming, yet micro-sized Polar Museum with detailed accounts of Arctic explorers setting off from here to the polar bear haven of Svalbard and to the North Pole. And a disturbingly hefty collection of harpoons. Clearly the city’s citizens have laid down their harpoons years ago and practiced, with the assistance of the long dark winters, a considerable amount of ‘night moves’ to grow the population. Well done!

Skattøra Marina, Tromsø, Norway
Snow-capped mountains upon our arrival in Tromsø

For Karen and I, we had landed in Tromsø just after the start of polar day – 24 hours of sun. With a long list of boat projects to get Sea Rose ready to launch, there would be no foolishness on our part! It had been a long cold winter, by far the coldest for Sea Rose. We had pumped extra low freeze point antifreeze throughout the plumbing systems before we left last fall. But from our experience in cold New England winters, a mear spoonful of untreated water can be an opportunity for a leaky or burst hose, pump or compressor.

We start by going through all of the major systems onboard and test them out to make sure everything is working without a hitch. We then bring the gear that we checked on the plane, together with what we stored locally, and load it onto the boat. In and amongst these tasks, we always have a list of upgrades or replacement projects that demand attention as well. We had purchased new sails back home and they would need to be installed. I made changes to the seawater strainer, the device that filters seawater as it comes onboard for its myriad of uses including cooling the fridge and the making of fresh water. We also installed wheels on the dinghy for those long pulls up the beaches of Scotland, where the tides are a force to reckon with. These are all the tasks and projects we know about and prepare for throughout the preceding winter by sourcing the parts online and making items in our workshop and barn. But, when a boat sits for 6-8 months between sailing seasons, strange and unusual gremlins find their way into the mix with enough gumption to cause primal disruption to even the best of us task masters. When we flushed and pressurized the domestic water system, two faucets – one in the galley, one in the forward head – started flooding water out all around the fixtures. I’ve dealt with a leaky faucet or two in our home, but this was a voluminous affair. It was late on a Friday afternoon and time was of the essence. With no true marine chandleries in Tromsø, at least for the pleasure boater like us, we chased off in the rental car to a local Biltema store (think Lowes). These stores aren’t just for lumber and nails. You will often find such diverse items as bikes, auto parts, and kids toys. But in the vary back corner we found a cornucopia of faucets with the exact same hose fittings and counter dimensions as we had onboard Sea Rose. We were pleasantly surprised to find that households here apparently have identical sink fixtures as those our French boat builder Jeanneau used. Trying to find our modest sized faucet at a Lowes or a plumbing store back home would have been impossible. With the quick disconnect fittings so popular and standardized here in Europe, it was a snap to finish the job.

Cheap thrills, a working, non-leaking galley faucet!
Spacesuit man touches up some bottom paint!

In the evening, when we retired to our rental apartment, mentally and physically exhausted from the day’s work, the day had other plans. Since May 18th, with the sun up 24 hours a day, we were completely throw off our equilibrium, and jet lag didn’t help matters. It’s not like some kind of evening twilight experience. The sun is literally shining bright all night long. Karen took pictures out the kitchen window at midnight, in amazement that it was at nearly its lowest elevation in the sky, yet felt like the afternoon. It left a strong impression on me about how the rhythm of the sun works its way into our daily lives at a foundational level. I’d find myself, at 6pm in the boatyard, trying to rush to finish up a project because the sun was low in the sky and we’d only have a little more daylight to work with. Yeah, if we were home in New England, or most anywhere else on the planet. At 10pm, after cleaning up from dinner, and the sun is still beaming down and making short shadows! I’d find myself busying around, staying active, thinking ‘Better make use of the daylight’. I can hear my mother’s well-meaning voice call out, ‘Don’t waste the day, Tom!’ The 8-14 hours of daylight that most of us experience in our daily lives is filled with activities that depend on the sun – either directly in the sky, or indirectly, knowing that it is up behind the clouds. We thrive on this rhythm, this pattern. And we thrive on the pattern of nightfall and darkness. A wholly different set of activities make logical sense in the evening – dinners with friends, reading a book by the fire, even the mundane of catching up on email. Yet, with the sun up bright and powerful, I can almost hear it calling out to me, ‘get busy’, ‘take advantage of this special gift’. It feels similar to anticipating a day forecasted to be full of rain which turns out to be a cloudless, blue-sky day. No one wants to leave a gift like this for someone else’s taking.

The views from our rental apartment at midnight

The result of this new rhythm was a lack of quality sleep. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was wasting some part of the day. We eventually turned our backs to the pleasure of the sun by puling the curtains tight and closing the door to our bedroom. With the darkness, sound sleep–the kind that a medically-administered sleep test would certify as fine quality–came easily. Yet, the guilt of turning down a gift tempered the joy.

The flip side of this polar day phenomenon was the route the sun took across the sky during its 24 hour path of travel. It’s not like summer in most other geographies, where the sun rises to an apex over your head, and then plunges down to the horizon. Here, at ‘high noon’, the sun is only modestly above the horizon at about 40 degrees. It then swings down lower at the time when most places have their sunset, followed by a swing across the northern horizon line at a height you might associate with a typical late afternoon. In the morning, it starts its gradual rise to 40 degrees again. It was a wholly foreign concept, tracing the sky like an amped-up race car on an oval track, where I picture the Greek gods and goddess stood in the grandstands cheering on their latest toy creation.

We spend so much time planning our day and our lives yet here was a natural wonder laying claim to the message that much bigger forces were at work in our world.

The sun at 3am

If you ask most travelers what they value the most from the experience, besides the visual delights of new surroundings, it is the people that they meet along the way. Before we departed Tromsø on our summer trek, we had the joy of an evening’s company with our friend Elizabeth, whom we first met while trying to find someone in the area that could make a repair to one of our sail covers. She is a delightful young woman with a restless heart for discovery. Together with her boyfriend, who both live on their sailboat at the Skattøra Marina, they are avid spear-fisher-people. Last fall, she had caught a record 200kg tuna – which is remarkable on its own, if it was not also amazing she did it in the frigid Norwegian waters. She regularly free dives in the marina to do work on the bottoms of boats, with temperatures at a just above freezing point of 3°C. She is so skilled at spearfishing that she was dashing off the next day to represent Norway in an international competition in Turkey. Still, her ‘regular’ job is teaching safety at sea courses at the nearby mariner’s school. I was eager to learn from her how Tromsø residents deal with the other rhythm, the long dark winters. Her answer was almost dismissive. She skis. Most people come hear because they thrive in the outdoors. If you want to ski (and by this, she meant backcountry skiing) renowned destinations like the nearby Lyngen Alps, living in Tromsø is a strategic imperative.

Visiting with our friend Elizabeth

Our social hour continued the following evening as we visited with Tommy off the boat Harmony, homeported in the village of Alta in the remote lands north of here referred to as Finnmark. It’s so remote, he has to endure a 16 hour trip south from Alta in order to find a boatyard capable of hauling out his sailboat for spring maintenance. He regaled us with stories of mariners from tiny Alta sailing around the world, inspiring him to take his boat south someday. In the meantime, he was a wealth of knowledge and positivity as we exchanged recommendations on where to experience the best cruising in Norway. Every sailor has hopes and dreams of finding out what is across the next horizon, and Tommy was no different from the lot.

Enriched by the spirit of our new found friends, and a room dark enough to rival a film development studio, we rested up for our departure the next morning for the great blue yonder. Let the adventure begin!


6 Replies to “Rhythm and Blues, Ep. 205”

  1. Spear-fisher-people? 200 KG tuna? This does not compute! I struggled through Meredith weekend traffic to bring home my 8 oz. fresh tuna filet from Hannaford s in under 20 minutes, was about to declare success, then read this! So much for “fresh” tuna .! Your adventures are uplifting and we miss you dearly. Glad you have new friends to keep you and Karen company. Be well!

    1. Ha! With some liberty for tall tales of fish size, she told us she was as surprised as anyone that the tuna was that big…in murky water…granted this was a member of the Norwegian spearfishing team so who knows. I’m sure your 8oz filet allowed you to return home with no lose of digits from frostbite! Take care, love you both!

    1. Indeed, very nice to meet you as well! Thank you for all of your kind recommendations. You’ll see your name mentioned several times in our blog post coming out tomorrow! We hope you have some nice sailing in Finnmark this summer. Take care.

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