Those who live near the North Sea and sail often hold an affinity for the vikings of history. Jon Amtrup goes sailing the the wake of the vikings


There was no past. No future. Only right now. A moon spread its silver over the sea and the waves chased us along. We were on our way back to Bergen from the Shetland Islands. The Viking festival ‘Up Helly Aa’ was behind us and we couldn’t wait to return

For generations, Norwegian sailors have crossed over to the Shetland Islands. As Vikings, resistance fighters during the war, businessmen with an eye for fishing and oil profits, and adventurous sailors, we have set sail toward a new coast. Now we no longer do it to save our lives or for income, but for the joy of sailing across an ocean to a friendly land.

The islands in the west have their own attraction for me. It’s not just the people, the sheep, the harsh nature, a new coast in the distance, or the whiff of deep-fried food that tugs at my moorings. Nor that Shetland was once a part of Norway. It is the feeling of coming home for a sailor who sees land rising from the grey-blue North Sea horizon in the form of Shetland.

Fourteen times I have sailed from Norway and back in the summer – and experienced everything from glassy to raging seas. It has given me offshore sailing knowledge and a desire for more. I have dreamed of sailing across the North Sea at the beginning of the year, when the days are at their shortest, the low pressure at its densest, and maybe even to see Shetland dressed in snow. Last year I finally got my wish. The experience was – as it always is crossing the North Sea – far more than expected.

We had 10 days. The crew on Isbjørn, a Swan 48 from 1972 in the fleet, had received a clear message: it is not certain that we will get to Shetland, and it is also not certain that we will get home any way other than by plane.

As a skipper, I was prepared to wait out a possible weather window for days and weeks beyond the allotted 10 days. Winter sailing often boils down to the art of finding joy in being weather-bound ashore. Read, sleep, talk, go for walks, cook good food, and repeat until the weather says, ‘Come on! Today I will be fair with you.’

Isbjørn tied up in Lerwick. Photo: Jon Amtrup

Thunderous lows

For the previous two weeks, I had been following the new year low pressures that thunder in over the North Sea in an endless queue. But on 24 January there were some signs of relief on the Beaufort scale. The boat was prepared, purchases completed and the new crew received a boat and safety briefing in an efficient manner. Then it was time to cast off from the solid pier in Bergen on the west coast of Norway. We went out to sea through Rongasundet on Sotra to get a slightly better angle of the northwesterly wind.

The weather forecast promised us a quick crossing – only 26 hours from coast to coast. The northwesterly would soon turn to the north and give us around 20 knots all the way. But it was important that we hold the speed and schedule. The next low pressure offered up to 40 knots of wind on the nose and was due to come rushing in over Shetland shortly after the 26 hours had passed. In other words, the weather window was narrow.

So we cast off under a sun that wasn’t supposed to last. It is never ideal to start a sea voyage, especially in January with 14 hours of darkness, late in the afternoon. Those who tend to get seasick have even fewer points of reference in the dark, when an apathetic feeling can creep in more quickly. Therefore it was not unexpected that the first dinner returned only hours after we had left the coast and darkness had descended. Soon, one more followed. But both crab feeders took their watches with strained smiles.

A happy crew well wrapped up against the North Sea. Photo: Jon Amtrup

With six sailors on board, we went for a two-hours on and four-hours off rotation. Although it was not bitterly cold above deck, it was still around zero degrees in real temperature due to the northerly wind. Below deck, the heater was on full blast so that the temperature was pleasantly warm.

Warmth is not only for comfort but also for safety. Warmth makes the crew feel safer – you don’t get so tired and you sleep a little better. Sleep will, however, never be good when there are 2-3-metre waves and the wind maxes out at 30 knots during the night. But we’re only talking a little over a day at sea, and that gives each team four watches before arriving. What is a day in a lifetime? In any case, the offshore experience is far superior to ordinary life.

Land on the horizon

A day after we started, Bressay appeared on the horizon. Bressay is outside Lerwick and the island is the reason there is a harbour here as it provides protection. Right after darkness had enveloped us once more, we motored into the harbour. The wind had turned to the west and died down as it now came over the land. The usual floating pontoons for visiting boats had been removed for the winter. We clung to the huge tractor tyres. All of the mooring ropes stretched upwards. The next day, over 40 knots of wind was reported. The dram in harbour tasted very good, and soon all of us were sound asleep. We had made it.

Drawing closer to Shetland. Photo: Jon Amtrup

The next day we were tourists and coffee guests at a local sailor’s home. He had seen us sail into Lerwick and was quick to invite us over. A fender board turned up from another local sailor, tickets to the Up Helly Aa party, as well as good advice about which concerts to go to also came in a steady flow. We were given keys to the Lerwick Boating Club so that we could shower and have a home outside Isbjørn since we were going to be here for about a week. The kindness of the Shetlanders knows no bounds, and we tried our best to give back.

Between the low pressures, we had the opportunity for a rare and nice sunshine sail in moderate winds up and back along the coast. Lunch at anchor and a visiting seal from the island colony added extra spice to the trip. But more local cruising was not possible as the wind kept us in port.

Viking festival

Up Helly Aa is a festival that takes place in a number of different locations around Shetland. The one in Lerwick is, of course, the largest. Dawn on Tuesday 31 January sees bagpipe music, Viking processions, and a large, ornate replica Viking ship being towed along the street.

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In 1824, a visiting missionary from the Methodist church wrote that ‘the whole town was in an uproar from 12 o’clock last night until late the following evening with horns blowing, drums beating, kettles being struck against each other, shots fired, screaming, fiddling, drinking and fighting.’

In 1870, this anarchy was tamed into a more respectable and more organised version by a young group of intellectuals. Seven years later, some Viking elements were also included, but it wasn’t until the late 1880s that Viking longships appeared in the streets. After the First World War, it was organised into its current form with a squadron of Vikings and ‘Guizer Jarl’ in charge. Guizer comes from the word disguise. Today there is great local prestige in being a Jarl. The Shetlanders put in a lot of work throughout the year to take the celebration to new heights.

Vikings started the day at dawn and lasted through the night. Photo: Jon Amtrup

To view the procession, you must stand on the upper side of the road by the town hall. They turn off the street lights before lighting the torches. It was very windy on the day so we were prepared for a lot of sparks to fly. It’s probably not a good idea to put on your nicest jacket. After the procession has passed, you run around the block to get a good place to watch the burning of the longship – without getting the smoke and sparks in your face, says Leslie.

The local sailor had taken the trip, one of many, down to us to give us the best tips ahead of the night’s big event. This is how the Shetlanders are: always on the giving side and interested in showcasing the best of the islands they love.

Rain of sparks

A rowdy but happy crowd of Vikings pass the longship. It’s raining lightly and blowing hard. Nothing can put a damper on the day and night that lies ahead. Axes are swung and red banners waved at the front of the procession through the streets of Lerwick. A trip to the local shopping centre ensures that some of the warmth returns to the Vikings.

A pocket lark flask with heat is also sent around in the morning. Along the route, tourists run with big cameras and phones live-streaming home to family and friends worldwide. Fast forward to when darkness has descended and the street lights have been turned off. An emergency flare is fired and almost 500 local squad members who have lined up in the streets light the two-metre-high torches.

Pennants hanging in Lerwick Boating Club. Photo: Jon Amtrup

A whiff of petroleum covers us and through the fog and smoke the sparks spray above us. The wind has picked up. The effect of fire, sparks, singing men – we only saw two women in the procession – bagpipes, and constantly louder roars make those of us who have huddled together along the route smile even more. At the same time as we constantly have to brush our own and our neighbours’ clothes for sparks. There are many things that are much more fun without health and safety regulations.

The Norwegian national anthem – not entirely identifiable – is sung when the Vikings, and all the others who have dressed up, have gathered in the square around the Viking ship below the town hall. The beautiful red-painted Viking ship has reached the end of its short life. At a signal, the hundreds of squad members begin to throw their torches on board the boat. It crackles, the mast wobbles and the fire grows higher and higher. The sparks fly all over the city. Then it’s over.

Conditions were favourable but cold as they headed for Lerwick. Photo: Jon Amtrup

Now the real party can begin. In 11 halls around the city, the stage is set for a giant knees-up. Food and drink are served here, but you can also bring your own drink. The 47 different squads, who have dressed up, are bussed between the different halls until the following morning. Here they perform, get points, food, and drink, and are sent on to the next venue with constant cheers and applause from those of us who have sat down. Those who like can stay on till dawn. There is a clear message for us as we depart a few hours after midnight: train harder for next year so that you can party until the sun comes up.

The morning after

Now we have an ocean to cross. When I wake up in the morning, there are usually two things: coffee and then the weather report. The plan is to start the return leg on Thursday morning, but the last weather update suggests something else. The weather systems have changed slightly in direction and speed. Our weather window is now this afternoon.

We discuss the weather and the upcoming crossing over a good breakfast. Tasks are handed out, such as the last bit of shopping and returning the keys to Lerwick Boating Club. We take the opportunity to stretch our legs a bit before we head back to the North Sea.

It looks like there will be gentle winds in excess of 20 knots until the morning. This means six hours of calm and then the wind will slowly build up to a near gale as we enter between Marstein and Tekslo south of Bergen in the dark the next day.

The route

And that’s exactly how it turns out, plus sleet, as we get inside the fjord leading up to Bergen. The wind peaks at 28 knots on the way in towards the harbour at Hjellestad. There is a lot of commercial vessel traffic, so the crew have the opportunity to practise navigation in the dark with other boats close by. When we finally moor at Hjellestad Marina, there are tired smiles under snow-soaked hats that take a few careful steps on the super-smooth floating jetty. The anchor dram is once again well-deserved and much enjoyed.

On the last stretch to Bergen the next day, we get a welcome taste of spring. The sun shines on the snow covered peaks and we sail slowly towards the end of our journey: Bryggen in Bergen.

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