Marina Guedes sails into the Arctic Circle and discovers the timeless beauty of Norway's west coast and Lofoten Islands
Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful places to sail in the world, it is hard to say exactly when I first heard of the Lofoten Islands.
I’ll never forget, however, the strong impression photographs of that stunning place in the north-west of Norway had on me.
Looking at the images of steep rocky mountains plunging into the dark blue sea planted the initial seeds for my desire to visit the archipelago once occupied by skilled Viking sailors.
To my delightful surprise, Yves Baulac – not one of those ancient Scandinavians, but a non-stopping French adventurer who I met a few years ago while cruising in the South Pacific – told me he was soon heading to Northern Europe.
I could not miss that unique opportunity, I thought, especially aboard his 39.5 ft. aluminium Ovni monohull.
So, I quickly told my friend that if they needed an extra hand (two, actually!), it would be a pleasure to come along.
Although I originally come from South America and have lived in Italy for the last three years, a cold climate is my favourite.
Thus, swapping an upcoming 40°C (104°F) ‘melting’ summer to a spot where the temperature doesn’t go above 20°C (68°F), seemed like a perfect deal to me.
Our coastal adventure started in Ålesund, a touristic municipality with interesting Art Nouveau architecture.
Logistics-wise, it was very convenient due to its nearby airport that connects flights from the capital, Oslo, where the crew – myself and Philippe Cottereau – had flown into the day before.
Orionde, my beautiful floating home for the next three weeks, was already docked downtown.
Yves had left France more than a month before. He sailed with a different crew, slowly making his way to latitude 62°N, where the three of us caught up.
Philippe is an experienced sailor who has known our skipper for many years. They’ve been on various voyages together, and even co-own another yacht in their home country.
One of my biggest concerns was my grasp of French, which I imagined would be required on board.
Fortunately, Philippe also speaks very good English, so communication among us was not a problem. I also took the opportunity to improve not only my speaking skills but French cuisine too: voilà!
Preparing to cruise north Norway
The trip began on a rainy June afternoon. Before setting sail, we visited a popular local attraction: the Aksla hill.
The relatively easy task of climbing 418 stone-built steps allowed for a nice reward: the panoramic view of the peninsula, with Ålesund in the foreground.
While in town, we encountered many other foreigners who’d all arrived by cruise ship.
Wearing a typical waterproof coat, with the name of their vessel printed on it, they meant one thing to us: it was time to leave.
Off we went, northbound.
Nearly 30 miles later, motor-sailing under light downwind, we found ourselves at Ona Island.
No one was around; it looked like a ghost town. The souvenir and coffee shop were not open, either.
We woke the following morning to fog. You could even joke that our route had been diverted, taking us to the UK instead.
It was not possible to see clearly the ferry approaching and dropping off people from the mainland, although we were quite impressed by the manoeuvrability of local skippers on speed boats, always quick and precise.
As with most of the pontoons in Norway, there was no-one official to deal with ashore.
Information regarding prices and instructions on how to make use of the facilities were displayed on the walls. There was usually an honesty box so you could pay.
Nearly everyone in Norway speaks fluent English but if you come across a sign that has not yet been translated, remember to carry your mobile or any device that supports Google Translator, and you’ll be absolutely fine.
Internet reception is good in most of the region.
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With so many beautiful places to choose from, it was quite a challenge to decide where to go next.
Our course was normally set during one of the pleasant daily rituals: pre-dinner drinks. The only certainty among us was to arrive in Lofoten by the first week of July, covering a distance of, approximately, 500 miles, which translated, on average into one stop a day.
We anchored only twice. Quite often, Orionde was tied to a dock, as in the welcoming harbour of Sør-Gjæslingan.
Once known as Little Lofoten due to its past importance as a cod fishery, it has become an open-air museum.
Its history and great shelter in fair weather make it worthy of a visit.
During the warm season, those islets receive visitors for a day or the weekend. Everything is organised by the mainland museum, Kysmuseet Rorvik.
Friendly volunteers from the Gjæslingans Venner institution help maintain this pretty village.
Our goal was to be as far away as possible from busy destinations, so finding remote alternatives became a priority.
Coloured wooden houses added a touch of fairy tale to the scenery. Approaching Nordfjorden, a highlight was the sight of the first Arctic Circle monument.
There were few birds around and the sky was overcast, but it made for a special occasion.
Lunch was served in the cockpit as we calmly drifted, surrounded by waterfalls from the snow melt.
We dropped anchor not far away at another hidden place, which was full of surprises.
There was a good dinghy landing, and ashore, we found a barbecue grill and even a decent frying pan.
On the nearby rocks, fresh mussels were waiting to be picked, cleaned, cooked and enjoyed. Could it have been any better than this? I doubt it!
The weather was definitely in our favour for most of the time, and we took full advantage to complete what was our toughest hike: to summit Lovund Island’s highest mountain, Lovundfjellet.
Philippe chose to remain on board, as Yves and I left around noon to climb the 623m above sea level.
Passionate about photography, I enjoy going at a slow pace. Ahead of me, my companion kept up his typical ‘coming from the Alps’ walking pace, showing no signs of getting tired, even when we had to use a rope to climb the sloping terrain.
I regretted underestimating the strength of the sun; there were moments when all I wished for was an ordinary hat, not to mention, litres of extra water.
Nearly 4km later, amazed by the fantastic view from the top, I discovered that Yves’ strategy had been to keep ahead of me.
In doing so he hoped to avoid hearing an eventual give-up call from me. It did work, I must admit.
Another memorable trek took place on the island of Rødøya. Not as challenging as the previous one, but it was still very impressive for its unique 400m-high summit, although the flies, which showed up whenever the wind died down, were annoying.
It took a while to adjust to the (almost) endless daylight, typical of the higher latitudes above the Arctic Circle in the summer.
I strongly recommend packing a sleep mask or improvising curtains aboard to guarantee a good sleep.
If you like night passages, sailing during the high latitude summer is not for you. You’d be better off waiting for the winter with its darker, yet rougher conditions.
The last mainland stop before the grand finale in Lofoten was the city of Bodø.
Coming alongside the marina pontoon was not easy. The wind suddenly increased, blowing us away from the dock.
But once we were safely berthed, we decided to go for a typical meal ashore, delicious fish and chips.
Beware of the very high prices of drinks when eating out, which are three times more expensive than you’d find in the UK.
It’s best, instead, to use local supermarkets to provision before sailing away from the mainland.
Lofoten, at last!
Orionde was now ready for the 50-mile crossing to Reine, a southern harbour in the so-expected archipelago of Lofoten.
It was a smooth nine-hour sail and, as we arrived, the midnight sun danced spectacularly over the bow. Nusfjord – which resembles a movie set, with its narrow entrance that leads to the former fishing village – and Henningsvær were the next ports of call on the way to Lofoten’s main harbour, Svolvær.
Known as the Venice of Norway, Henningsvær is a big village and has cosy shops and places to eat.
The football field on the edge of the village has earned a global reputation for its spectacular setting. There was no match that day, just curious people trying to snap the perfect photo.
Being the biggest harbour of the archipelago, Svolvær was vibrating with life when we arrived.
The summer is tourist peak season, and visitors were aplenty, particularly in its main square.
With a poor forecast for the next few days, it was less painful to disembark Orionde and say goodbye to her crew.
Less than a year later, I’d be sailing in the exact opposite latitude, at 68°S, in Antarctica, fulfilling another life dream, but that’s another story!
How to cruise Norway
Norwegian-born Hans Jakob Valderhaug has been cruising Norway for five decades and writes the regularly updated Norwegian Cruising Guide.
He is also the Honorary Local Representative (HLR) of The Cruising Association in Oslo.
Valderhaug kindly gave some suggestions, which you can find below, during a quick stop on board their Koopmans, 39, Anna.
Norway has a fantastic coastline. Make sure you don’t rush and miss the country’s middle section, with great places to visit.
A lot of people sail to the Lofoten Islands, the North Cape or Spitzbergen, but miss seeing some great parts of Norway.
The best anchorages between Ålesund and Lofoten are: Hjartøya, near Sandnessjøen; Hagabukta, Træna; Myken, Nordfjordvågen – Nordfjorden; Hansøya/Renga; Straumshamn, Hamarøy; Hegstadosen, Svinøy.
School holidays mean July is the busiest period of the year, with the peak time in the second week of the month. June and August are calmer and still offer very nice weather conditions. It’s usually possible to sail five to six months per year. Always check the weather forecast.
Because of the influence of the warm Gulf Stream that originates further south in the Atlantic, Norway’s coast doesn’t have very cold waters, and the sea rarely freezes along the west and north coasts.
There are fjords that will freeze up during the winter. Watch for the numerous bridges along the coast and make sure your air draught is suitable to go through.
Details can be found in the cruising guides listed.
Very few people sail in northern Norway or into the Arctic Circle in the winter because of the absence of sunlight and harsh weather.
It’s more common to cruise over colder days in the Southern fjords. Windy and the Norwegian Met Office are recommended.
- Boreal-Yachting.com based in Tromsø
- Seilnorge.no are skippered charters, based in Ylvingen on the Helgeland coast
- Seilsenja.no does mostly skippered charters and courses, in Senja, south of Tromsø
- Seilcharter.com and sailon.no are companies largely based on the south-east coast
- Seilere på Facebook is Norway’s biggest group for sailors on Facebook
Tides and currents
In the south-east the tide heights vary no more than 0.5m. It’s common to tie up to the rocks.
Most of the anchorages are fairly deep, at least 5m. Local cruisers in Norway generally don’t worry too much about currents.
Marina and harbour procedures
Most marinas are not staffed. It’s advisable to download the app ‘GoMarina’ and pay for mooring via the app as you move around.
Many harbours use mobile pay via the app, Vipps – but it is not available to non-nationals.
It is therefore suggested you have cash at hand and ask a local to pay your harbour fees via the app, making sure they highlight your boat name as they do it.
It is still possible, in some harbours, to pay by cash using Norwegian Krone.
Be ready with the correct amount of cash which you can place in an envelope in the honesty box.
Food and drink
Alcohol is very expensive in Norway. It is best to buy from supermarkets rather than at restaurants and bars.
Fish lovers should not miss out on sampling the delicious smoked salmon, found all over Norway. The best prices are at the local supermarkets.
Delicious pre-cooked prawns can be bought right at the marina in Bodø.
Pilot books and cruising guides
Norway by Judy Lomax, 4th edition (Imray, £65) imray.com
Norwegian Cruising Guide by Phyllis L Nickel, John H Harries and Hans Jakob Valderhaug, 8th edition, (Attainable Adventure Cruising Ltd, from £25 depending on which volume you buy) norwegiancruisingguide.com
Harbour Guide/Havneguiden by Hanne Engevik and Jørn Engevik (Laeremiddelforlaget, £79.95) in Norwegian only
Extra reading: Norway – Lonely Planet Guide (£15.99) for general information about the country Informative hiking guides can be found at tourism offices in main cities and towns, such as Oslo, Ålesund, Bodø and Svolvær
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