Paddy Barry takes his traditional Galway Hooker to the far north on a seafaring and mountaineering adventure to Jan Mayen
I first met Paddy Barry in the late 80s at a Breton traditional boat festival. I was on a raft of unrestored pilot cutters. Paddy’s and his friends’ Galway Hookers from the wild west of Ireland were lying alongside one.
To describe Paddy’s hooker Saint Patrick as ethnic would be an understatement. She was the epitome of a traditional working vessel and the music that came floating out of her soon had our hearts racing. We became friends, then went our ways, as sailors do.
We of the pilot cutters did our bits of seafaring, but Paddy and Saint Patrick outstripped us all. I’d be stuck for space if I had to list his voyages, but he has been to New York, Greenland, the Arctic pack, South Georgia, run the North West Passage and fought his way clear through the North East Passage for good measure.
His book So Far, So Good is pure Irish magic. It tells not only of his seafaring and the attendant mountaineering, it is also frank about family life and how he contrives to finance his adventures. Beautifully produced, the book is required reading for anyone who dreams of cutting loose.
This extract finds Paddy and his shipmates arriving in Jan Mayen, 400 miles northeast of the Horn of Iceland. After leaving Dublin on 1 June 1990 they are bound, via Spitsbergen, towards Murmansk for the first-ever Arctic Regatta, whence back home to work on 1 September. The description of the run ashore sums up his attitude to life, while the achievement of making these passages in such a vessel will command the respect of all who go to sea.
From So Far So Good
About five miles off the island of Jan Mayen the fog and cloud lifted and Beerenberg, 8,000ft, showed in all its majesty. The splendid magnificence of that mountain made the privation of the passage from Iceland worthwhile – almost.
Jan Mayen Radio spoke to us – a woman! The bad news was that the wind was forecast to go easterly. The weather closed in and by dead reckoning only we felt our way round to Walrus Bay, where we found flat water and laid out one anchor, then another; satisfied and tired.
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On the shore, near a hut, was a Land Rover and two people. We prepared our inflatable dinghy and Mick and I went ashore. It was about midnight – broad daylight of course. Dressed in army fatigues, a man and a woman introduced themselves as Eden and Thorarnfin from the Norwegian station. They would collect us next morning at seven.
They were glad to see us, visitors being rare. There were 25 people on the island manning the weather station, the Loran Navigation station and Jan Mayen Radio. The monthly airdrop had been missed for the last two times running. The plane had come all right, but in the fog couldn’t find the runway to drop the cargo. And today was St John’s Day, the day the Norwegians celebrate midsummer.
There would be a barbecue that evening. Of course we would come. There are 20 men and 5 women. There’s a nurse, four in the kitchen, four on the Met, eight on the Loran/Radio. The others run the machinery, the generators and the workshops of this well-regulated world out here on the edge.
During the afternoon we marvelled at the trappers’ huts, still intact in the cold, where men had endured in search of the skin of the fox and the polar bear. The Norwegians carry a gun at all times while outdoors. Bears had not been seen since last May, but any still about would be getting aggressively hungry by now. During that afternoon, word came by radio that the supply plane was coming.
Bulldozers, lorries and Jeeps converged on the landing strip. A speck appeared in the sky to the east. It grew, circled the landing strip making three circuits to drop bundles from 30ft, then it turned and flew back eastwards. Half an hour later the post had been distributed. There wasn’t a soul in sight. All had retired to their rooms with the long awaited post from home.
As if the day wasn’t already sufficiently full, word came that two fishing boats would be coming in to allow crew, a month out from Norway, to take a break for St John’s Day. The camp dory was launched by bulldozer. I went out in it, like the others clad in a survival suit. We brought the outgoing post and brought in 20 men, a wild but competent-looking bunch, and thirsty, as we soon saw.
There was no scarcity of bonfire material. The shore was covered with driftwood logs, swept down, they said, from Siberian rivers in the spring thaw, finding their way to the shores of Novaya Zemlya, Svalbard and Jan Mayen. This driftwood has provided an unending supply of building material and firing over the centuries.
That evening the mountains looked down on almost double the usual population, gathered around the outdoor fire on that rare fine evening. Mick played fiddle, I played the guitar. Later in the bar I listened to men who spent months at a time at sea fishing. They enquired about the rate of pay on our ship, shaking their heads with incredulity that we should be doing this for ‘fun’.
I spoke to a man, aged hardly over 35, who had been six years on the west Greenland whale fishery, three years in Antarctica and four years in Spitsbergen – and we amateurs think we know the sea. These men are bred to hardship, the direct descendants of those who travelled to the Poles with Nansen and Amundsen.
For three further days we lay alone in Walrus Bay with a solitary cross commemorating seven Dutchmen left to winter here in 1633. None survived. The wind rose, whipping spume off the sea. Our hands suffered as we adjusted twisted anchor chain and rope moving into better shelter.
Within the boat a warm fire burned, but it heated only the immediate area. The radio said that it was blowing a mean 50 knots at the airstrip. We kept full sea-watches with a third anchor out, sometimes running the engine to relieve tension on the ground tackle.
The wind eased and, glory be, went round to the north-west. We were off. With the wind on our beam we drove hard, sometimes reefed, sometimes headsails only, but consistently making more than 25 miles a watch.
On the fourth day, the white peaks of Spitsbergen appeared ahead. Eastward up Isfjorden we raced, the high glaciered mountains of its south side close to starboard, while off to the north the sun caught the whiteness of that vast mountainous land, here and there lighting a sparkling river of glacier ice.
We rounded into Adventfjord, on which is the settlement capital of Longyearbyen. The 600 miles we did in four days out of Jan Mayen compensated for a lot. Our climbers, David Walsh and Donal Ó Murchú, had been camped by the airport and were glad to settle in to the warmer, if somewhat mankier, cabin of Saint Patrick.
The ice reports showed that a circumnavigation of Spitsbergen would not be possible. In many ways this was good, because instead of rushing around trying to knock off mileage and steal a few mountains on the way, we would be able to take our time, select our mountains and dally if we chose.
Passing out of Isfjorden, we turned north up Prins Karlandsundet and a couple of days later made into the settlement of Ny Ålesund. This is the most northerly village in the world, now a scientific research station of about 20 people.
We set off to climb, and were defeated. Slogging up the arête in fog, on rock with the consistency of loose sugar, we could have gone on but, as David said: “When in doubt, count your children.” We retreated. Roped together, downward, pitch by pitch, we went and then had the long walk back to the village across icy moraine.
Overnight the whaler Globe came in, now converted for tourists. Her master, Captain Einar Abramson, had been aboard since 1946. Between the Arctic and Antarctic oceans she had killed over 6,000 whales, of which he had fired the harpoon on 4,000. In this situation you pass no remarks, whatever you might think. Whaling was a living for these people when there was little else for them.
We untied our lines and pointed our bowsprit to the north, our steering compass now increasingly lazy. All day we sailed about two miles off the shore until that evening we laid our hook in a corner of Magdalena Fjord, formerly favoured by whalers of all nationalities. A graveyard is the sole reminder of those who never made it home.
There we climbed, very satisfyingly, on good snow and in good visibility. Coming down, we spied tents – an Austrian climbing party who had been dropped off and would be collected two weeks hence. We envied their skis, great for getting down mountains quickly. They envied our boat, and our mobility.
The next day it was off to the north. We passed outside of Amsterdam Oya and Dansk Oya and onwards, in thickening fog. The satnav might not be as picturesque as the sextant, but it does a great job without all the hassle. We counted down the seconds of latitude and cheered as 80°N flashed on the screen.
For a few miles we kept going. The pack ice had to be soon. The sky showed ice blink ahead, a white upward reflection in the sky. The fog, at a temperature of 4°C, felt clammy. Our heaviest clothing, hats and gloves, was now being worn. Shortly we met a solid field of ice, the polar pack. We turned to the south-east.
Majesty in isolation
That night our anchor lay in Raudfjorden on the north coast of Spitsbergen. True isolation and majesty surrounded us. David and myself, in the dinghy, spent a couple of hours doing a reconnoitre of the various climbing prospects. He selected an inland peak being more likely than a coastal one not to have been climbed, the price being a daunting walk in.
At 1100 we started and 13 hours later we finished, all in, but happy. Lead climbers David and Donal, Gary, Johnny and myself had climbed a mountain where no foot had ever stood before. The peak, reached after eight hours of cold struggle, over crevassed glaciers, unstable snow slopes, gaunt rock ridges and finally 100m of corniced terror, was sweet indeed. No cairn adorned it. We were first up. Roped, cramponed, ice-axes in heavily gloved hands, our downward five hours compared with Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome. Time pressed now. We had to get south.
A freshening wind with fog from the southeast brought us a thoroughly miserable 20 hours or so as the tidal stream, which had delivered such good time from Jan Mayen, was now against us. The wind direction forced us out from the land, one problem less, but we were reluctant to stray far off the rhumb line course as we only had a week to sail the 700 odd miles into Soviet waters in time for the first ever Arctic Regatta in Murmansk.
Sorkap was left astern. The wind backed to the east, which allowed us to sail our course, which was just as well. The engine, which had been backfiring, now ceased to work at all. Unperturbed, we sailed on. We had fixed various engine problems before, mostly to do with fuel supply, but this one we failed to remedy. We bled the system, changed the filters, the fuel pump, the fuel lines, even the fuel tank, all to no avail. We were now truly a sailing vessel, a long way from anywhere.
Close hauled still, we pressed on into the Barents Sea. Sometimes we could lay our course for Murmansk, but too often we were being set south. We kept at it, hoping that a windshift would favour us. If we had to tack back to the north, our chances of being in time would be slim indeed. Johnny sailed like a man with a mission. There was no way we were going to miss this regatta, even if we had to swim and tow the old Hooker.
First published in the April 2019 edition of Yachting World.