Sailing in the Lofoten Islands, Norway
Rape and pillage
were probably the last things on the minds of
those crewing the square-sailed longboats racing
out of Grotoy on Norway's Arctic coast during
the endless days around the summer solstice. It
is, after all, some 1,200 years since the Anglo-Saxon
chronicles recorded the Viking plunder and slaughter
among the monastic community on Lindisfarne.
But, just as something
of the wolf remains in the domesticated dog, the
Norwegian love of the sea has a strong ancestral
lineage. A desire to hold on to traditions was
behind the revival of a race to the Lofoten Islands
once undertaken by commercial fishermen each year
to find the returning shoals of cod.
Today the race
is held mainly among modern yachts but there is
always a smattering of Viking-style longboats,
a design which persisted commercially up to and
beyond the turn of the century.
Pitting our ocean-going
racer against a longship was hardly fair but neither
was pillage in Lindisfarne. We had not planned
to join in. It just happened. Besides, it did
not seem right to be pottering along the coast
in a boat that had twice raced around the world.
Finding it was
easy enough. Its 85ft mast towered above the rest
at the moorings in Bodo harbour. The paintwork
was chipped in places and the mooring warps were
chafed but the sponsor's name was still there.
It is still called 3Com.
The yacht started
life as The Pride of Teesside for Sir Chay Blyth's
British Steel round the world challenge. It was
renamed for the last challenge race and will soon,
no doubt, be renamed again. As a new fleet is
built for the next race, the veteran craft are
now used almost exclusively for holidays or management
Most of those
who come on a Challenge Adventure Sailing Week
are seeking to sample the experience of traversing
the ocean. Crews range from complete novices to
those with yacht master certificates and thousands
of miles of sailing under their belts. Ours seemed
a typical mix.
All had come to
experience some hard sailing but the weather had
deserted us. It wasn't bad weather. Quite the
opposite - days of blue sky and continuous sunshine,
but there was little wind. The sea was flat enough
to sap the spirit from a spirit-level.
It was like driving
your Ferrari to the shops. It looks good, feels
good, but you don't find out how it really performs.
The vessel was making so little headway that we
had time to launch a dinghy and photograph the
lighter craft as they glided past like swan feathers
on a mill pond.
A gentle breeze
wafted us sedately into Henningsvaer, the finishing
port, a huddle of red- painted timber houses surrounding
quaysides which in winter are crammed with fishing
boats. This time they hosted the racing fleet.
Its crews celebrated their crossing long into
the night where the light never dimmed, bingeing
on whale meat and lager.
But no one had
been tested. What do you do when there is no wind?
Well, you can do what the Lofoten islanders do
- go fishing. Dangling a hand line over the side
for an hour at anchor brought three large cod.
There seems so
much cod around the Lofotens it is surprising
the islanders have never discovered fish and chips.
Cod is a mainstay of the islands' economy but
tourism is equally important to the Lofotens'
prosperity. One brings the other. Every village
has wooden frames where gutted fish are hung to
dry before being taken down for export in mid-June.
Most of the dried fish, called stockfish - from
the Dutch word stok , meaning pole - is exported
to Italy. Some goes to the UK, US, France, Germany
Tourism is growing,
so much so that almost every village has some
sort of heritage museum. One community, enigmatically
called "A", but pronounced "O",
has gone so far as to turn its village into a
museum with a working blacksmith's shop and boathouses
preserved as they were during their heyday.
These days the
fishing boats are mechanised but a century ago
the industry relied on open Nordland-type boats
that were no match for the fiercest storms. In
February 1849, some 500 fishermen were lost on
one day in hurricane-force winds.
Many of the Lofoten
families will have a fading photograph of at least
one male relative who has been lost at sea. The
seas around the islands inspired a generation
of authors. Jules Verne described the Maelstrom
- a strong tidal current between two islands -
known for its eddies and whirlpools, as the world's
most dangerous stretch of sea.
Verne would have
been familiar with the depictions of swirling
seas among 16th century cartographers. But reality
does not appear to live up to the descriptions.
Mark Sadler, 3Com's skipper, said: "We sailed
over the spot and never noticed anything. It was
There is so much
tranquillity about the Lofotens it seems difficult
to imagine their Viking ancestry, yet at Borg
on the island of Vestvagoy, archaeologists unearthed
the remains of the largest Viking-age building
to be found in Scandinavia.
in Trollfjord it takes far less imagination to
picture the return of some longboat from an epic
voyage. Sadly, my own imagination has been blurred
by Hollywood, invaded by images of Tony Curtis
and Kirk Douglas in The Vikings.
At least the Hollywood
Vikings were able to row their boats. We were
forced to motor. No wind, no sails, no horns on
our helmets, just sun. Where were the tooth-fronted,
tightly knit isobars of a good old roaring depression?
You can never rely on the weather.