Freediver Andreas B Heide has spent a decade whale watching in the far north from his 37ft production yacht
It’s below freezing, the wind is blowing 25 knots and we’re in a 2m swell. Barba is dancing over the waves, the pot of soup we made first thing in the morning is clinging bravely to the gas stove. I tumble around down below as I get into the business attire of the day: a 7mm wetsuit, the only thing I’ve ever had tailor-made. Then I strap an AIS emergency beacon around my arm, for the worst-case scenario of getting lost in the icy waters.
Going on deck I survey our arena. Steep, snow-covered mountains flank the dark blue sea. It is February and the sun has just returned following three months of absence during the polar night. We are in open waters outside the Island of Senja in northern Norway. The radar shows incoming snow clouds as I move to the stern together with my French dive buddy, Fabrice.
We have a small window of opportunity, the atmosphere is tense, and we’re all focussed on the tasks at hand. My trusted friend Emil is at the helm, he tells us to get ready; the countdown has started. Starboard, 200m; starboard, 100m; and then go. We plunge into water that is cold and refreshing, until we are suspended in 800m depths over the continental shelf break.
Out of the blue, a god-like silhouette emerges. A 15m sperm whale glides past us effortlessly, within touching range. We are there to capture the moment on film for a local museum. I can hear the distinct clicks of the whale as I watch it disappear into deeper, darker waters, where it will spend the next hour feeding on squid.
Of all the whales, the sperm whale is the one that triggers my curiosity the most thanks to its ability to dive down to 3km, staying submerged for up to two hours.
I am quickly woken from my reverie, Barba has made a U-turn and is coming to get us back aboard to safety. During the dive operation we have two spotters keeping an eye on us at all times. It’s easy to get lost under these conditions, something which we are all acutely aware of.
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As we get back aboard we cheer out of relief and excitement. It’s mission accomplished. To me it’s one of many favourite moments at sea, and it’s an achievement made possible each time by the combined efforts of the crew, aided by a finely tuned boat and a great deal of experience. It’s part of the excitement that drives us to keep sailing and keep exploring, fuelled by curiosity.
That curiosity was developed in my childhood home of Stavanger, Norway, where I was fortunate to grow up with the ocean as a playground. It was one that I quickly learnt to respect. Dead calm at times, at others a dark beast that once crushed our boathouse. I would stare at the ocean, wondering what was hiding in the deep and beyond the horizon.
I had a typical Norwegian upbringing. My friends and I left pretty much to ourselves playing outdoors, learning the hard and sometimes wet ways to interact with nature. We built rafts from driftwood, and I had access to a small 4hp boat at the age of 10.
About the same time I got a wetsuit and started freediving, which eventually led to a career as a combat diver and parachutist in the Norwegian Navy from the age of 19, working with submarines along the Norwegian coast. Military service was followed by a Masters degree in marine biology, and my ocean exploring background has been of great use for my later work.
I was only introduced to sailing at the age of 29. Together with a friend, we bought a used charter boat in the UK, which we sailed home and brought back to life. The following year we sailed to Greenland, meeting icebergs and whales. There was no turning back.
It’s now ten years since we first sailed to the east coast of Greenland, with limited knowledge and gear, relying on USB GPS antenna for navigation and a rather inexperienced crew. Since then I have sailed to the Arctic Island of Jan Mayen, up to the pack ice surrounding the North Pole, as well as spending four winters in Arctic Norway tracking whales.
The first expeditions were for the sake of the adventure alone. Today, the boat serves as a platform supporting scientists, film crews and journalists in the field, with storytelling in the greater context of nature conservation as an ultimate goal.
Over time, the boat set-up and our approach to sailing have evolved dramatically. Based on hard learned experience, and thanks to additional funding and support from sponsors, Barba is now teeming with equipment. The USB antenna has been replaced by a comprehensive marine navigation system, and radar now allows us to see what hides in the dark, even in a blizzard at night in the far north.
The latest upgrade is a hydrophone built into the hull, which allows us to better understand whales. Thermal binoculars also allow us to follow them and understand their night time behaviour.
Even though the equipment has changed, the boat remains the same. Barba is a Jeanneau Sun Fast 37, designed for comfortable cruising in the Mediterranean. My mantra is that the best boat is always the boat you have. With unlimited funding, I’d undoubtedly be sailing an insulated aluminium expedition vessel of some sort. But my modest Barba has numerous advantages. The low price made it possible for me to escape the confinements of an office at a relatively young age.
The small size is also an advantage as you can better access sheltered harbours, and loads are more manageable. The large cockpit has proven useful when operating with dive teams and film crews, and the open stern allows for easy access to the water for deploying divers and the dinghy as well as landing a cod for dinner, or any crew that took an involuntary bath.
But one of the biggest drawbacks of Barba has been the lack of insulation. Every summer after a winter in the cold, the boat’s thermal insulation has been progressively improved. An early cheap solution was to glue sleeping mats to the hull, which made a massive difference.
Pricier, but perhaps our best investment to date, has been to cover the floor with cork. It insulates exceptionally well, provides added grip and gives camera gear, wine bottles and crew a second chance thanks to its cushioning properties.
When finances and budget will allow I intend to cover the deck with cork as well. For heating, I used a 4,000W Webasto diesel heater, which has been sufficient so far. I have also installed a heat exchanger on the cooling system of the engine.
Ideally I’d have wanted a watertight bulkhead in the bow as well, as colliding with icebergs, driftwood or whales is one of those things that can be difficult to defend yourself against.
Although it can be comforting to protect yourself from all kinds of unthinkable incidents with ever better gear and safety equipment, from experience the greatest threat is always mistakes made by me or the crew.
Countless errors have been made over the years, fortunately without serious injury to crew or boat so far. It’s fair to say we have pushed the limit at times, with our fibreglass eggshell. But it’s always been a goal to do this in a way so the crew is not put at unnecessary risk.
When you spend enough time sailing, no matter how safe you play it, you will end up getting in trouble of some sort. Having experience of getting out of trouble is therefore an important skillset to have.
A collective effort
As for the crew, they are primarily selected by the same criteria that defined our family dog, Barba, who looked after me as a child: loyal, respectful and with a great appetite for the outdoors and the simple things in life. Add some determination into the mix, and you have the hallmarks of an ideal Barba crew member.
We are often a little short on sailing experience, as devoted scientists and photographers typically lack sailing skills, but we always try to have a minimum of two competent sailors.
I wouldn’t want to sail alone, as sharing the memories with others is far more rewarding. One story that comes to mind is when lifting the anchor in Svalbard, (which was done by hand in the early days). I looked over my shoulder to see a Golden Retriever-like creature approaching the boat. It took only a split second to sound the polar bear alarm.
The crew scrambled on deck, armed to the teeth as the hungry looking bear approached us. Fortunately a wooden stick was sufficient to keep him at bay, together with combined shouting in Norwegian, Russian, German and American.
I’m also thankful of being able to share the memory with my friends of the time I was curled up into a ball, trying to make myself a small target having been caught between a humpback and its bait ball of herring. So far all adventures have ended well – a statistic we work hard on keeping.
Even though I enjoy the cold outskirts of the North Atlantic, the Norwegian coast is where I spend the most time sailing. The coastline is blessed with sheltered inland waterways, and the entire coast can be traversed with only shorter stretches of exposed coastline. As such you can move around in all but the worst storms. There is always an island or a fjord where you can take shelter, and there are endless anchorages.
I use the coastal pilot books mainly for practicalities, such as knowing where to find diesel and water. For anchoring, I use the naval charts, as well as Google Earth to get an idea of the anchor hold and the surroundings. I avoid guidebooks, as they typically take you where you are more likely to encounter other boats. It’s part of the luxury to get away from society at times.
A latest useful update has been installing 2x60W LED lights on the lower spreaders, which gives you ample light when anchoring at night, or when looking for one of the 21,000 navigational markers spread along the 103,000km coastline. Spreader lights in the bow should be avoided in my opinion, as you’ll get blinded by the reflection of rain, and especially so against snow.
Sailing in the winter is not always pleasant. The cold and dark makes it all the more challenging. Halyards freeze, your jacket turns into an ice shell at times, and the early darkness and deep snow prevent you from doing the typical hikes we do in the summer.
Our main motivation for sailing in the winter is the influx of Norwegian orcas in the thousands, as well as dozens of humpback whales. When you add the excitement of blizzards, polar low pressures and the beauty of frequent Northern Lights into the mix, it’s always worthwhile.
Complaining about things does not help, so complaining is prohibited on the boat. I always remind myself that, for centuries, men would sail and row up the Norwegian coast in open boats to harvest the wealth of nature. There would be handles on the keel, so you had something to hang on to when the vessels were flipped over, which they frequently were.
A sailboat provides the perfect platform for interacting with the ocean and nature in a non-intrusive way. With whales as ocean ambassadors, we push to the outskirts of the North Atlantic. When I was a child I never thought it was possible to see blue whales, polar bears and other fabled animals of the far north.
As men and women of the sea I think we all have a special obligation to make sure that these creatures will be around for generations to come. As for me, I still look at the sea, wondering what is beyond the horizon, and what secrets are left to discover under the surface.
Andreas’s cold weather kit tips
- Wool as inner insulation: I favour wool thermal layers as they are warm even when wet, fireproof, and environmentally friendly.
- Primaloft mid-layers and Musto HPX Gore-Tex Pro waterproof smocks and trousers for warmth.
- Large fishing gloves with removable wool inner gloves; cheap but efficient and easy to dry.
- Rope cutter on propeller, and forward-looking lights, a boat saver for fishing gear entanglement.
- Takacat open catamaran dinghy: very low drag and does not fill with water – useful when towing and when landing on a choppy beach.
- Forward looking sonar for uncharted waters. We also have a B&G radar fitted on a self-levelling mount from Scanstrut which provides a good image even when the boat is heeled over.
- Cork as teak and a synthetic deck cover replacement, interior and exterior. Superior insulation, good grip, comfortable and environmentally friendly.
- A Webasto 4,000W diesel heater has kept us comfortable as temperatures drop to -20°C outside.
- Pulsar thermal binoculars for night navigation and wildlife tracking.
About the author
Andreas B Heide is an ex-Norwegian Navy diver and parachutist and is skipper of the Barba project. He is planning an Arctic expedition in 2021, and is currently looking for crew and partners.
First published in the July 2020 edition of Yachting World.