Reaching Jan Mayen

The closer we got to Jan Mayen, the less visibility there was. The southeast wind brought warm air over the cold Greenland current, which then condensed into a ubiquitous fog. We had to rely on the depth readings to confirm how close we were. Since leaving Husavik, Will had been navigating the traditional way, using a sextant for daily sun-sights, a mechanical log that was towed behind Integrity to measure the distance travelled, and the ship’s compass to estimate direction. In a generous sea, with few other vessels, there is room for dead reckoning or roughly estimating one’s position. This is how sailors in the past reached their destinations with varying degrees of success. However, the fog was a complicating factor as we had expected to see the island and 2,227m volcano from some distance away. In such dense sea-fog it was possible that we might even miss the island altogether and sail right past it, or worse still, bump into it as the renowned English mountaineer, explorer and sailor, Bill Tilman, did in his boat Mischief in 1968.

On the morning of our estimated arrival (based on Will’s laborious sun sight calculations, and his sailor’s instinct for not bumping into things) we all strained to see through the fog for a sign of land. Then it appeared, a jet-black column of basalt.  This may have been a volcanic plug in a previous life, but at that moment it was a signpost that told us that we were on the Eastern side of the island in clear water. Phew! We sailed further northeast along the vaporous shoreline to find Båtvika (Boat Bay), which is a rather over optimistic description for what is no more than a dent in the basalt cliffs. Despite its exposed nature, we aimed to anchor there as it was virtually under the nose of the Norwegian base and weather station, known as Olonkinbyen.

We called the station commander by radio to let him know that we were close by. He naturally assumed that we would approach the other of the island, which was less prone to fog and had a better anchorage. After confirming that we were about the drop anchor in Båtvika, he immediately came down to the small black beach to greet us. The thought of stepping onto dry land was one that had sustained me for the past thirty-six hours. I generally don’t suffer from seasickness; however, the last part of the voyage had been a trial for me. I recently read a scientific news item espousing a theory that motion sickness is caused by the brain thinking it has been poisoned. In my case, it felt like alcohol poisoning. The sort of persistent hangover you get when you’ve been to a black tie dinner that starts with champagne, followed by white and red wine with the meal. Port or Madeira during the speeches, more champagne at the cash bar afterwards then off to a club with a group of friends for a couple of Cognacs and a good cigar washed down with a whisky before bed. It felt like a hangover of Churchillian proportions and I hadn’t touched a drop.   

I was therefore felt very subdued and tired as the station commander Lt-Col John Anders Bestum gave us a tour of the island in his military 4×4. Despite my condition, it was impossible not to marvel at the stark, even desolate beauty of the island. It was all I had imagined it to be, yet nothing that I had ever experienced before. There was an unforgiving rawness about the island that made absolutely no allowances for humans, as evidenced by the various memorials to those who had perished in the winters, or drowned in the icy cold sea and lagoons. The only flora and fauna that could survive in such an inhospitable place had evolved over thousands of years to do so, mostly birds.  And they were there is great numbers living on this pristine island sanctuary.  

On return to the base station, we discussed the best routes to climb the Beerenberg. As it happened the weather forecast was favourable for the next 36 hours so the decision was made to go for it. We would sleep on board Integrity that evening and the climbing team would set off around midday to attempt to summit the volcano in the early hours of the following day. The only problem was, I still felt dreadful so I asked the station commander if I might speak to his nurse. He willingly obliged and the delightful Heidi came down to beach with her medical bag to see me. No sooner had I explained the problem I was taken to an empty barrack block so that she could do some more tests out of the wind and cold.

With more equipment than patients, Heidi gave me every test she could think of. The prognosis wasn’t obvious until she ran an ECG on my heart. Then something unexpected showed up. I was told to rest while she consulted with a doctor on mainland Norway. An hour or so later the verdict was delivered; there would be no climb for me. The message was relayed to the others on Integrity who hastily reallocated equipment so that Arthur could be the substitute climber. I wish I could say that I was disappointed, but a strenuous 24 hours on the mountain was the last thing on my mind right then. I was invited to stay on the base that night for observation. So in a Scandi-chic room, I collapsed into a clean, non-rolling bed with the Heidi’s words ringing in my ears, “I’m in the room right opposite you so knock if you need me for anything important”. Maybe I imagined the added emphasis on the last word, but I still couldn’t help thinking that age and experience has a beauty all of its own that eclipses youth these days. Moments later I passed out.

Justin Holt, Esq

2 thoughts on “Reaching Jan Mayen

  1. Yes, all very well and I was up and about the next day collecting snow samples. I’ve subsequently discovered that I have a ‘Right Bundle Branch Block’ of the heart. It should only prevent me from becoming an Olympic oarsman.

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