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Noorderlicht Review
Spitsbergen / Svalbard


The boat under sail 
We (youngest son and I, he was 19 at the time) were on the Noorderlicht for a circumnavigation of Spitsbergen from the 28th of July to the 12th of August 2011.

We joined the boat in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen (Latitude 78° 13'N Longitude 15° 37'E) arriving by air from London via Oslo and leaving by the same route.

Cruising around the island in a clockwise direction, it wasn't guaranteed that we would make the circumnavigation, as it depends on ice conditions, especially off the east coast. As it happened we were able to make it, trips earlier in the season are often turned back by the sea-ice which is thicker at that time.

The Noorderlicht is very small as cruise vessels go, having just 20 guests. We chose it so as to have a different experience to a larger ship, anticipating somewhat vaguely that the pay-off to be a greater sense of adventure and to be able to do things that we couldn't do on a larger ship.

With the boat offering a sailing boat experience with small number of guests, it is quite different to the experience offered by almost any other boat in arctic waters.

Cabin
Small - smaller than I anticipated. The lower bunk had about 45cm of headroom, the upper bunk was better. The width of the floor space of our cabin was less than the length of the bunks (it was a sort of an L shape with the foot area of the bunks down the foot of the L). We found it impossible for two of us to be in the cabin and both be doing things. If one of us was washing or brushing our teeth the other could lie down on a bunk, sit on the small wooden seat or stand and wait, likewise getting dressed, packing a bag for an excursion etc. we had to take it in turns. There was a small skylight (about 25cm x 25cm) opening through our ceiling onto the deck for light and ventilation but no window or porthole.

The bunks were comfortable enough, but the lack of space was a serious issue. Perhaps if you are used to yachts and smaller boats it is what you expect, either way it is cramped.
 

Boat Specification

  • Staff & Crew - 5

  • Guests - 20

  • Single zodiac (small inflatable outboard powered boat) for shore transfers

  • 10 cabins each with two bunks and a washbasin. 4 shared shower / toilets.

  • One two-level internal public space used for meals, meetings and as a lounge, contains the bar.

  • Length - 46 meters

  • Breadth - 6.5 meters

  • Draft - 3.2 meters

  • Propulsion - 2 masted schooner sailboat + diesel engine - 360 horsepower

  • Cruising Speed - 7 knots in open water (not so fast which has an effect on how much time you spend getting places)

  • Lifeboats and vests

 

Polar bear just waking up from a nap

Daily routine

Breakfast was at 8.30 a.m. announced with a bell. Towards the end of breakfast there would be a briefing from the guide as to the days activities, usually these started with a landing ashore leaving around 9.30-10 a.m.

There was one walk when ashore led by the guide lasting from 2-3 hours at a pace that the whole group could cope with. On return there would be hot drinks and cake or cookies unless we were very close to mealtime. This would then be repeated in the afternoon. We had a couple of evening walks too.

There weren't any zodiac cruises as only a third of the guests could fit into the one zodiac at a time. We were told that instead the Noorderlicht with her shallow draft could get in close to places where other ships could not go and so were could cruise more comfortably than we could in a zodiac. In reality the 3.2m draft of the Noorderlicht is significantly more than the approx. 0.5m draft of a zodiac and so we sometimes had to view things (like polar bears on shore) from a greater distance than we would have liked. We cruised several glacier fronts and a sea-bird cliff at Alkefjellet.

If animals of any kind turned up and were spotted, the bell in the bar would be rung - cue a rush to grab cameras, binoculars and clothing and get up on deck a.s.a.p. The 12.50 a.m. ringing one day was a bit of a shock to the system but worth getting out of bed for as there was a polar bear swimming in the sea near to the boat.

Otherwise time on the boat was spent in the public areas, cabins or on deck. With the boat being so small, there was no-where that was fully out of the wind, so going out on deck to watch the world go by or looking out for wildlife meant wrapping up fully in cold weather gear.

On many days there was a lecture of some kind by the guide or a DVD about the region.

Meals
The cook did a sterling job providing three meals a day plus frequent freshly made cakes and cookies for 25 people on board in the small kitchen. There was always a choice of delicious freshly made breads available which Anna the cook kneaded daily on a table (no space for a machine), she told me it was her meditation, I am pleased she meditated fully!

Breakfast was continental style, lunch 2 courses with a soup starter and dinner 3 courses. There was a set choice for each meal, though side-dishes, bread, cheeses, cold meats, more than one course etc. meant there was always variety even if you weren't keen on the set meal (though you'd have to be quite fussy not to be). Two passengers one of whom who didn't eat red meat and another who didn't eat fish were given alternatives on the days when the rest of us had those things. Even with hearty appetites gained from the cold weather, fresh air and exercise there was always plenty of food! Due to the crewing levels we had to clear the tables at the end of each meal.

A bowl of fresh fruit was kept well stocked at all times.

Overall
An enjoyable trip, the first time I had been to Spitsbergen, lots of wildlife, 16 polar bears in all, two fin whales and even one blue whale! Not to mention the reindeer, walruses and countless thousands of birds of all kinds including the bird-watcher's special rarity favorites, Sabine's Gull and Ivory Gulls. Quite a lot of the wildlife was seen a a distance including all the big things, so binoculars and long cameras lenses are a must.

Not a lot of sun however which it seems is typical for Spitsbergen in the summer.

We chose the boat knowing that levels of comfort and convenience would not match those offered by larger vessels but expecting a pay-off, though I have to admit I wasn't sure in the manner this pay-off would come. It seems that it came in having less people on the boat. We didn't go anywhere that larger ships didn't go other than one unremarkable channel of a few km that we sailed through where bigger ships have to go round.

I felt that I would have preferred a larger ship as I found the numerous small inconveniences and discomforts had no real positive flip-side. The Noorderlicht is however priced to the lower end of Arctic cruises. The boat is certainly good looking from the outside, and appears adventurous and romantic as evidenced by the number of passengers on other ships we passed who took pictures of us, especially when the sails were up. I suspect I was lured by this image and for me at least the boat was better to look at from a distance than to be on.

There was one fellow passenger however who had been on the exact same cruise two years previously and had returned to do it again but this time with his partner and another passenger who had been on the boat a year previously on a cruise around the Lofoten islands. It may therefore be the kind of experience you are looking for too.

Map with Spitsbergen used by permission of TUBS and Wikimedia Commons under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

The boat in sea-ice, the bridge is fully exposed 
 

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