Hurry Up and Wait, Ep. 207

Our new best friend in Norway, Terje, had that distinctive ‘I regret to inform you…’ look on his face. He had stopped by our boat at the guest pontoon in Ballstad to inform us he did not have the proper parts to inspect and re-certify our life=raft. Terje works for Ballstad Slip, the big shipyard operation that dominates this small fishing harbor on the south coast of the Lofoten peninsula. He runs the life=raft and safety inspection business, which, if it had to rely on pleasure boats like us for revenue, would have never opened their doors. But thankfully there are many more fishing boats here than sailboats, and they all have stringent requirements for life-rafts, safety flares, fire extinguishers and the like. We were super happy to find Terje, as our life-raft, requiring inflation and re-certification every three years, had hit its due date. We carefully planned our arrival at Ballstad so that we could leave the life-raft with him for the day, and then continue our progress southwest out to the dramatic tip of the Lofoten and onward down the mainland coast of Norway. We had just three weeks to make it down the long Norwegian coastline to Kristiansund before crossing over to the Shetlands.

Re-certifying a life-raft was not an optional activity for us. The upcoming ARC+ Rally required it, and even more, we required it for our own safety and comfort. Re-certifying can cost half the value of the life-raft, and with ours at 18 years old, Terje kindly warned me that even if he had the two missing parts he needed, it might be much more than the customary cost. We resolved to buy a new one, and leave ours with a local marine safety school for their student programs. The only problem was that only one of our kind of life-raft, made by Viking, existed in Norway and it was in Oslo. Terje told us he ‘hoped’ it would arrive in a week, despite the long land route it would take from the country’s capital. There we had it. We had a week to kill in the Lofoten.

After Terje kindly lent us his car to do a big grocery shopping run (and we added a half tank of diesel to his car at a shocking price of $86…isn’t this the country of copious amounts of oil and gas?), we pointed Sea Rose’s bow southwest to the old fishing village of Nusfjord, promising the quaintness that Ballstad couldn’t muster. As we approached, the harbor looked even more narrow than in the cruising guide, and the one guest pontoon with room for one boat was already occupied by a work barge. A large group of onlookers were gathering at the harbor’s edge, which only added to the tension, but Karen deftly backed us in so we could take a better look at our options. The work barge had left a mire half a boat’s length of space behind it on the dock – we rolled the dice and tied up Sea Rose with her derriere hanging out off the end of the dock, being careful that the bow didn’t slide forward to meet the rough metal of the barge. We wouldn’t normally take this kind of chance, but the winds were supposed to be light overnight and no other dock space was available.

Half-assed docking in Nusfjord

It was worth the annoyance. Nusfjord ticked all the boxes for charm, even for perennially charming Norway. The gawkers ashore actually had in fact no interest in us whatsoever. Instead, they had their own challenges and cause for celebration. We had landed at an interim stop for the second race of the Arctic Triple. To call it an ultramarathon does not do it justice. The Røde Kors support team explained to us that 86 runners were taking on a 100-mile-long course over 36 hours that comprises 7000 meters of elevation gain. And I thought the Boston Marathon was a struggle! The terrain here is dominated by endless peaks that push 500 meters or more from sea level, a locale uniquely qualified for superman-sized running statistics. In their honor, we ordered a second round of bread to go with our evening of dining out!

Nusfjord’s Mountainous Surroundings

In an ideal scenario, we would have plodded along down the Lofoten coast, checking out the sites until we reached the tip and the dramatic offshore island of Værøy. But the weather had different plans. The week promised strong southerlies which would have made our itinerary full of motoring into headwinds. Instead, we made a big push south first, directly to Værøy, leaving us with the wind at our back the rest of the week as we turned around to head north.

Værøy, as far as my research led, was the crown jewel of the Lofoten. Stunning images of high mountain ridges curving around sandy beaches below had enticed me during many a winter night of YouTube searches. Usually you leave the dessert to the end, but we decided to grab the largest spoon possible and scoop out the chocolate mousse now. Live like there’s no tomorrow, right?!

Under steel-grey skies, we turned into the harbor, surprised to see a large settlement with many industrial buildings, tank farms, and modern-looking warehouses. Somehow, those savvy YouTube videographers had cropped that portion of the island out. Fishing, and all of the industry that came with it, were definitely king here. As a pleasure boater, we were an unusual sight, and the options for dockage were similarly scant. A kind fisherman came out in his skiff to point us towards a guest dock at the head of the harbor. With mostly small powerboats and no sailboats, we entered cautiously, knowing that these appearances usually indicate a harbor with very little depth. Alas, we settled Sea Rose alongside the stout floating concrete pontoon, and got busy exploring this island of dichotomies.

One of the things we love about Norway, particularly this area of northern Norway, is that while tourism is growing in popularity, the economy here is without question strongly grounded in the business of fishing. Værøy, like Nusfjord and many other coastal islands and villages, have a long history of fishing, in some cases going back what is thought to have been 1000 years or more. And, here in the main harbor of Værøy were fields of high wooden racks built to dry the fish they had caught over the winter, following the technique of fish preservation used by the earliest inhabitants. Back home in the U.S., fisherman would unload their freshly caught catch and away it would go to restaurants and grocery stores and fish-stick makers in the area. But not here. Cod – and that is the dominant fish in these waters – is gutted and hung to dry in the remarkably arid winter weather. Our throats had been dry since we had arrived in Tromsø, causing us to wake up to that distinctive cotton-mouth feeling in the morning. While annoying to us, these conditions make for perfect fish drying. The air dried cod is what Norwegians call ‘stockfish’ and, once carefully rehydrated over several days, is considered a special treat at restaurants throughout Norway and beyond. Fish operations here also market ‘lutefish’, which starts with a base of the stockfish that is then cured – oddly – with lye. Finally, there is klippfisk, which is salt-dried cod. But salt is a newcomer in the long history of cod fishing. Air drying had traditionally been the best option, and it is fascinating to see it still used on such a grand scale today. And, a small scale. Occasionally you’ll find a homeowner wanting to get in on the action as well!

Cod drying on racks, the traditional way
…and it happens on a large scale, here in Værøy
… as well as a small scale
Dried cod being processed for shipment

But, cod is everywhere. What is really distinctive to this island is the amazing hiking and grand vistas of Værøy. We were a bit discouraged at first by rain and low cloud cover, but the weather can change on a dime here. As we reached the high plateau of Håheia, the sun broke through and revealed delightful dividends in all 360 degrees. Like so many things, it is much better in real life.

Gray skies and big hopes as we hike Håkeia
Yep, that’s right, one misstep to the left and you roll over the cliff!
Looking back over the harbor at Værøy
And the not-so-shabby view in the other direction (Notice the tiny speck in the water off the beach? That is a sailboat about our size!)

The on-and-off cloud cover foreshadowed a changing weather pattern – the start of strong southerly winds for the next 2-3 days. We settled down in the cabin of Sea Rose as the winds increased in the evening to 20 knots. We were not in a great orientation on the dock, located as we were on the upwind side, but the rest of the guest pontoon had been occupied by local boats. With the wind nearly perpendicular to our hull, it meant that our fenders were taking the brunt of the high winds. We pulled out all the fenders we had, even those at the bottom of the locker, the equivalent of a jack-in-the-box from the Island Of Misfit Toys. This was a time for everyone to do their part. Whipped up waves from across the harbor were driving themselves into the side of our hull and heeling us over, causing a commotion of noise that was enough to block out sleep and introduce stress on the many parts of the boat that could soon get damaged. Sea Rose does pretty well when the wind is blowing down our boat, as it does when we are underway sailing. But when the winds hit 37 knots, the side pressure on the bimini, which also carries our onboard power plant of solar panels, had it shaking like a dog fresh from a swim in the lake. By 4am, after no sleep, we both got up and started re-securing cushions in the cockpit, moved fenders to amidships were the most pressure was, and laid lines across the top of the bimini to try to hold the panels in place. There was no way, with so much sideways wind, that we could safely get off the dock. Yet, the concrete dock could easily do damage to our hull as our fenders were squeezed as flat as pancakes. Finally, we noticed a brief lull, with the wind dropping to 15 knots, then 8 knots. Quickly, it rose back up to 25 knots as a new rain cell careened across the harbor. We chatted and agreed that on the next lull, we were going to attempt an exit. We dressed in our foul weather gear, turned the navigation equipment on, and sat ready. When it came again, we were faster than a French runway model changing outfits back stage. I shoved the bow off the dock, Karen slammed it in gear, and our trusty 57hp engine drove us to freedom…how elated we were to be out of harm’s way!

Our MacGyver’ed solution to keep the solar panels from blowing away

Free of the harbor entrance, we turned downwind for a rambunctious sail with just the jib unfurled. The winds out here were a more-manageable 18-20 knots, as the cause of the earlier high winds became painfully clear. The tall mountains dotting the perimeter of the harbor were causing a funneling and acceleration effect on the wind. In contrast, it was positively delightful out in the open Norwegian Sea.

Off the main tip of Lofoten, at a spot called the Moskenstraumen Strait, there were rumors of a very strong current – some said one of the strongest in the world. As we sailed past, in our new state of blissfulness, the current peaked at 4 knots perpendicular to us. With our downwind speed of 6 knots, that meant we needed to turn the boat at nearly a 45 degree angle into the current in order to hold our intended course. But, like I said, bliss is bliss. It is hard to shake.

The cruising guide sprinkled words of hyperbole all over the pages when they described the coastal harbors along this stretch of the Lofoten. We chose the town of Sørvågen, with the promise of a harbor full of red-painted fishing shacks, called ‘rorbuer’, that were actually used for fishing instead of as high-priced rental cottages. Arriving at the dock with barely a ripple on the water and a benign overnight forecast felt like Christmas in June. A full night’s rest was in the offing. But first, we sought out, in the daily rhythm of travel in the Lofoten, an afternoon hike in the wilderness. A 12km trail around the lake Ågvatnet promised a very doable, almost ashamedly timid, elevation gain of just 90 meters. But first, the walk out of Sørvågen required us to pass through the little village of Å, whimsically named so – being the last letter in the Norwegian alphabet – as a shout out to the end of the driving road here on the peninsula. Å bills itself as one of the best preserved fishing villages in Norway. Maybe it was at some point, but now fleets of tour buses park at the lot at the end of the E10, disembarking tourists that are offered at every turn down an alley, another museum that requires a ‘billet’ for entry. Staged wooden fishing skiffs and properly arranged and colorful fishing floats setup at the right photographic angle made for a Disney-esque feel. No thanks. We’ll take our own authentic fishing settlement back at Sørvågen.

Sørvågen harbor – Sea Rose on the dock in the center-left of the photo

The nearly flat hike around Ågvatnet turned out to be a muddy mess of wet bogs and stream hopping from the many waterfalls disgorging their contents from the high mountain lakes encircling us. At first, we took precautions to keep our boots dry and our wool socks even more dry, but several hours into our 5 hour hike, it took too much energy to assess the best dry landing spot for your next step. Like care-less teenagers with no regard for the consequences of laundry, we immersed ourselves in the experience.

Lake Ågvatnet
A well placed warming hut
Using chains to scramble down rock walls

Just 5 nautical miles up the coast is the slightly larger village of Reine. We were told to prepare for lots of tourists, and plenty of unfriendly ‘privat’ signs along the shore when we sought out a place to tie up Sea Rose. But our experience was quite the opposite. The guest pontoon was easy to negotiate. The town had a few shops, and yes various trinkets of touristic appeal, but we got lost in the clothing section of one store, with many practical and attractive pieces of hiking and cold weather gear. There was a small boutique National Geographic cruise ship in port, but the passengers and crew we met were all very friendly and unobtrusive. Quiet voices could be heard behind shrubbery on the decks of what were likely AirBnB cottages, but it didn’t distract from the beauty of the experience. In a similar vein, I’m sure some travel writers will stand in front of the La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and choose to warn visitors of the nascent pick-pocketers instead of warning them of the disarming grandeur. Reine was without a doubt on our short list of recommended Lofoten sites because, in addition to the unobtrusive character, it teased the traveler with another 500 meter mountain ascent. This time, it was up 1974 stone steps, placed on the path of the original summit trail to Reinebringen, a trail that had been so treacherously steep, the dirt and rock would give way, leading to several deaths. Sherpas from Napal, who helped build many steep ascents in Norway, finished the stone step project in 2021. Together with several friendly trail hosts from the Tourist Office in town, we had all the help we needed – well except for getting ourselves up to the top! We had been warned, but at the summit the winds were so strong, we had to crouch down low to not be blown off the path, but the views looking down the Lofoten peninsula were worth the pain and suffering.

The Reinebringen is the peak on the left
Just us and the National Geographic-ers negotiating the 1974 steps
Postcard views over the Reine harbor

Our week of adventure play in Lofoten was coming to an end. It was time to head back to Ballstad to find out if Terje’s ‘hope’ for the life-raft arrival at the end of the week would hold up. Pulling into Ballstad for the second time, like anything that is repeated, was so much easier. We knew right were to go, where the shallow areas of the harbor were, and, most importantly, the precise location of the chocolate milk in the one grocery store! Terje had given us a window of two days for possible delivery. It didn’t arrive on the first day, but I was pysched to see my phone ring with a +47 country code on the morning of the second day. Our brand new life-raft, exactly the same dimensions of our old one and therefore a slide-in replacement in the locker, had arrived! We stowed the rest of our gear and set the autopilot on a southward course, leaving the sweeping views of the Lofoten to our stern. It wasn’t exactly how we had architected it, but that was all part of the adventure.

Ballstad Slip shipyard
The precious goods, our new Viking life-raft!

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