Europe’s largest wooden schooner is offering sustainable mini expedition cruises in Svalbard. Sarah Marshall sets sail on S/V Linden.
Whistling, red heads and bananas are all considered bad luck at sea. A new addition to that list of maritime superstitions is soil.
“I had to sneak these on-board,” whispers expedition leader Mette Eliseussen, as she furtively shuffles plastic sacks of compost below deck on sailing ship S/V Linden. Registering my confusion, she nods her head knowingly and adds: “It’s because Dracula had to sleep in his own soil.”
As far as I can tell, there are no bloodsuckers on board, so her cryptic explanation leaves me none the wiser.
Swishing around with foreign soil on land, however, is of justifiable concern; a fragile eco-system functioning far above the Arctic Circle, the Svalbard archipelago is at daily risk from invasive species.
In reality, very little grows in this hostile landscape of spiky mountains, monstrous glaciers and frozen deserts. At sea, however, it’s a different story.
Cultivating microgreens and vegetables in a floating garden is part of the S/V Linden team’s bigger plan to operate sustainably in the Arctic. Chartered by Svalbard-based tour operator Basecamp Explorer, the classic wooden schooner is running environmentally-conscious mini cruises along the fjords and coastline of largest island Spitsbergen; ranging from long weekends to five-day expeditions, the itineraries offer a responsible and (relatively) affordable taster of Arctic adventures, on land and at sea.
“They thought I was mad when I suggested the idea, but if we want to be self-sufficient we need to grow our own food,” insists crew member Dennis Lyngs0, as he clips several sprigs of parsley to be used as a garnish at lunch.
Swiss chard, horseradish, sorrel, mung beans and oyster hat mushrooms all sprout from window box containers in the deck level dining cabin; downstairs, tomatoes trail from trellises below skylights mimicking a greenhouse, and mini cucumbers dangle like emerald drops on a chandelier.
Built in the Aland Islands in 1993, three-masted Linden is a replica of a 1920s vessel originally purposed for training sailors in navigation. Computer radar systems have since been installed, although it’s still possible to steer manually with a compass – one of the few antiques salvaged from the original ship.
Measuring 49.5metres, it’s the largest wooden schooner in Europe, with an ice-strengthened hull to tackle Svalbard’s Slush Puppie waters.
Owner Rasmus Jacobsen, a Danish environmentalist and commercial ship owner who first visited Svalbard 12 years ago, has invited me on a weekend voyage, departing from Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen’s only urban metropolis, travelling along the Isfjord and into the Greenland Sea.
Swaddled in a sheepskin jacket and buried beneath a tweed flat cap with a woollen beanie perched on top, he grapples with a heavy wooden wheel, which we’re all encouraged to steer.
“I don’t have the fuel power to go far north, but I do offer something different,” he says, nose lifted to the wind. “I’m a practical person and I like to see how ideas can work together.”
The keystone of his game plan is sustainability in the Arctic, sailing wherever possible and carbon offsetting any necessary fuel usage. Confident we have enough natural power to forge forward, he orders the deckhands – and passengers – to unfurl all 11 sails.
Tugging at a heavy rope, I help hoist Linden’s snow-white wings, which flutter like angels until, taut, they glide like a flock of albatross elegantly skimming the sea.
Having hurriedly secured ropes around wooden pins, we tidily wind any surplus into snakey coils on deck, while experienced sailors communicate through a language of intricate loops and knots.
Lungs fully inflated, Linden slices through gentle waves and eventually settles into a dreamy, slumbering breeze.
“When sailing, you start to feel the pace,” explains Rasmus, as we drift past a concertina of snowy ridges streaked by the mid-May sun. “At first, you are fast with excitement and then you slow down; you move at the pace of the environment around you.”
Appreciating the calm before any storm, I seize an opportunity to climb the rigging to the crow’s nest. I’m fully harnessed with a metal carabiner, although not once do I feel the need to clip it on. Instead, I hang from the tip of the mast surveying the deep blue around me, elated by the wind in my own sails.
Only news of lunch can lure me back down to deck: Delicate slices of rye bread decorated with edible flowers, served alongside beer bread made with Longyearbyen-brewed stout.
A gardener, fashion designer and taekwondo black belt, enigmatic Dane Dennis is also a wildly creative chef. Tomorrow, he promises us, we’ll be dining on a seaweed stew if we can gather enough juicy bladderwrack when going ashore.
In tune with Rasmus, he intends to serve a sustainable menu, foraging where possible, and trading with local trapper families stationed in Svalbard. Even his shiny sealskin coat is eco-friendly, he argues; once belonging to his grandfather, a naval officer, it’s tatty tears evidence years of good use.
Carrying just 12 guests, Linden doesn’t need to book landing sites, meaning itineraries can be flexible and encounters are always intimate. During our visit to a walrus colony at Poolepynten peninsula on Prins Karls Forland island, for example, not a single ship passes by.
Hulking mounds of blubber create a chaos of flippers as the animals grunt and lock tusks, jostling for a comfortable position in a huddle onshore. Exhausted, the flabby pinnipeds roll lazily into the surf, where a transformation occurs; in a fluid world, these beasts become beauties, moving like mermaids and whistling more hypnotically than the Sirens of ancient Greece.
The Arctic soundtrack is equally alive in Trygghamna, a sheltered bay at the tip of Isfjord, where we snowshoe up to a ridge.
Pausing our foot-shuffling, we savour the melodic melting of ice, the pealing laughter of little auks and ghostly screeches from Arctic foxes, who are nowhere to be a seen.
Dwarfed by our own clumsy, racket-shaped hollows, paw prints are the only evidence these tundra natives were ever here.
But as days grow longer and the sun becomes ever more reluctant to sink, any proof of our presence will disappear.
Because that’s the aim of responsible travel in the Arctic: Leave no trace – on land, sea, or even borrowed soil.
How to get there
Basecamp Explorer (basecampexplorer.com) offer a 3-day Sail Into The Wild expedition on S/V Linden from 12,900 NOK (£1,172) per person, departing June 7, 2019.
Norwegian (norwegian.com) flies from London Gatwick to Longyearbyen in Svalbard, via Oslo, from £109 one way.
For more information on the destination, go to visitsvalbard.com.