Svalbard – Greenland – Iceland

Join Lars to Greenland’s isolated outpost

Svalbard – Greenland – Iceland; 1250 nautical miles of Arctic magic

Written by Lars Bugge Aarset, participant on the Svalbard-Greenland-Iceland trip in 2022. An enthusiastic outdoorsman from Trøndelag, with hobbies such as photography, skiing, hunting, paddling, climbing, and sailing. He is also an experienced parachutist, has been a co-owner of several sailboats, and has experience in both regatta and expedition sailing.

Isfjorden in Svalbard is vast, but it doesn’t take many hours from Longyearbyen before we have passed Grumant and Isfjord Radio, and we catch sight of Prins Karls Forland in the north as we head out into open waters. Slowly but surely, Svalbard disappears on the horizon behind us as we set course for East Greenland and one of the world’s most inaccessible areas.

The journey starts in the midnight sun from the harbor in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

And we spend nearly five days crossing the northernmost part of the Atlantic Ocean. The boat is the 70-foot Valiente, a steel boat designed for Arctic conditions. It has six cabins, five bathrooms, and 16 berths. We are an international crew of 14 participants from England, Chile, USA, Latvia, Denmark, Germany, and Norway. In addition, Captain John Macken is from Ireland. The wind is variable and, as often happens during sailing trips, alternates between light winds and headwinds, resulting in quite a bit of motor assistance in addition to sailing. During the passage from Svalbard, there is more than enough sea, especially for the least sea-worthy part of the crew. Even for experienced sailors, sleeping in a weightless state, alternating with the risk of being thrown out of the berth, is challenging.

Sea Ice from the North Pole

The sea ice extends a fair distance south along Greenland’s east coast even in summer, but it can move quickly. Although the boat can handle some ice, we set course south of the ice edge to save time. The plan is to explore the east coast with the area from Tversundet and the fjords in Scoresby Sund, and we aim to spend as much time as possible in Greenland.

There’s plenty of whale sightings during the crossing, including minke whales, fin whales, blue whales, and beluga whales. The first whales were spotted on the way out of Isfjorden. The belugas were the ones we encountered most closely, and they could play around the boat’s bow for a long time at high speed.

Enormously large and remote

Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) is the world’s largest island, and only a few of the crew members have been here before. Geographically, it belongs to North America, but politically to Europe. Its area is 50 times larger than its motherland, Denmark. 85% is covered by ice, and the ice sheet contains almost 10% of all freshwater on Earth. Only the ice caps in Antarctica are larger than the Greenland ice sheet. Greenland was a Danish colony until 1953 when the island gained the status of a Danish county. Greenland gained self-rule in 1979, and in 2009, this autonomy was extended to cover most areas except for foreign and security policy. The majority of the population are Inuits, who are also the indigenous people of Greenland.

Grønlands flagg symboliserer en oppstående sol over isen, der det hvite står for lyset og det røde for varmens tilstedeværelse ved midtsommer. Her heises gjesteflagget i første naturhavn i Neil Bugt.
The flag of Greenland symbolizes a rising sun over the ice, where the white stands for light and the red for the warmth present during midsummer. Here, the guest flag is raised in the first natural harbor in Neil Bugt.

Norwegian Occupation

A special part of Greenland’s history is that Norway occupied parts of East Greenland in the period 1931-1933. Helge Ingstad was officially installed as governor, and the area was named Eirik Raudes Land. The occupation lasted until 1933 when Denmark brought the case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Norway lost the case. Denmark gained the right to the whole of Greenland, and Norway withdrew. For Helge Ingstad, the stay in Greenland resulted in the book “Øst for den store bre” (East of the Great Glacier), which was published in 1935.

A humorous note during the sailing trip was that our real intention was to reoccupy Greenland. We didn’t quite succeed with the occupation this time either.

East Greenland and Ittoqqortoormiit

The majority of Greenland’s population resides on the west coast. In East Greenland, which we visited, there are only a few settlements. Up to 10 months a year, the sea ice blocks the way from the east. In the west lies Greenland’s vast ice cap, and East Greenland is one of the world’s most inaccessible areas, both untouched and sparsely visited.

Greenland’s isolated outpost

The only inhabited place we visited was Ittoqqortoormiit. This is the northernmost settlement on the 2,700-kilometer-long east coast. Ittoqqortoormiit is over 800 nautical miles from the southern tip and over 500 nautical miles north of Tasiilaq, which is the largest settlement on the east coast. The place was settled in 1925, and with around 500 inhabitants, Ittoqqortoormiit is one of Greenland’s most isolated settlements. The place can only be reached by helicopter or boat for a short period during the summer when the sea is ice-free. The municipality’s area alone is about 5.5 times larger than Denmark. Hunting and trapping of whales, seals, polar bears, and musk oxen have been and are still important livelihoods for the population. This is also easy to perceive. In Ittoqqortoormiit, hides of both polar bears and musk oxen hang outside houses, and the only shop in the area sells both groceries and weapons.

Colorful houses down by the water in Ittoqqortoormiit.
Colorful houses down by the water in Ittoqqortoormiit.


One of our goals for the trip was to explore the areas in and around Scoresbysound in East Greenland. The mouth is 30 kilometres wide, and the main fjord branches about 110 kilometres inland into a network of fjord arms and straits that lead another 200 kilometres toward the inland ice. This is the world’s largest fjord system, 350 kilometres long and with depths down to 1,500 meters. The waters are divided by several islands, with the uninhabited Milne Land being the largest at 3,800 square kilometres. In the largest of the fjord arms, icebergs run aground, some reaching depths of over 400 meters.

Isbreene forsyner hele tiden fjorden med ny is.
The glaciers continually supply the fjord with new ice.

Navigation and Poor Charts

Similar to Svalbard, the sea charts for Greenland are highly inaccurate, and significant areas also lack depth measurements. The paper maps for Greenland were originally produced in the 1960s, before the era of GPS. The maps are based on source material with significant limitations regarding geometric accuracy. We navigated safely, but according to the chart plotter, several times we were far inland, even quite high up in the mountains. Due to inadequate map data, it’s necessary to keep a distance from the land, reduce speed, and, most importantly, keep a close eye on the depth sounder within the fjords. Despite being a sailboat, Valiente has a good view from the wheelhouse. Nevertheless, having an extra lookout at the bow is helpful in areas with lots of ice. Even though we started the trip with the midnight sun from Svalbard, it quickly gets darker at night. This changes rapidly from day to day in northern waters. Additionally, we are sailing continuously southward from 78°N in Svalbard to Ísafjörður, which is located at 66°N in Iceland. As the light diminishes, the radar becomes a useful tool for navigation, both in fog and darkness, especially in areas with ice.

Navigation isn't straightforward when the map foundation isn't entirely reliable. According to the chart plotter, the ship is now well inland between mountains over 1,800 meters high.
Navigation isn’t straightforward when the chart isn’t entirely reliable. According to the chart plotter, the ship is now well inland between mountains over 1,800 meters high.

Denmark’s Highest Mountain

Norwegians often joke that Denmark has no mountains. In the real world, Gunnbjørns Fjeld, at 3,693 meters, is Greenland’s and thus also Denmark’s highest mountain. The peak is eighty kilometers from the coast in a difficult-to-reach area south of Scoresbysund. The few who have climbed the mountain have mostly used helicopters or small planes from Iceland. The mountain is over eighty kilometers from the coast, and this time, we did not make the trip to Gunnbjørns Fjeld.


Boat, Crew and Organization

The trip was organized by SeilNorge, which arranges sailing courses, sailing trips, and expeditions to Svalbard, Shetland, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Jan Mayen. SeilNorge has access to several sailboats ranging from 35 to 70 feet, and the expedition boat Valiente is the largest. It’s a 70-foot steel boat designed to withstand tough Arctic conditions. The boat has ample space in the salon and wheelhouse, and a well-equipped galley. It has 6 cabins, most with their own bathroom and shower.

It’s possible to participate in SeilNorge trips even without sailing experience, and on the Greenland trip, the participants were a mix of beginners and experienced sailors. Along the way, during both sailing and motor operation, everyone participates in sailing, cooking, anchor watches, and onboard work. We were divided into watch teams with four hours on and eight hours off. With a crew of 14, there’s enough rest even during the passages when we sailed around the clock.

Valiente is a 70-foot steel boat designed to withstand tough Arctic conditions.
Valiente is a 70-foot steel boat designed to withstand tough Arctic conditions.

13 Days

The entire trip took 13 days, starting in Longyearbyen and ending in Ísafjörður on the northwest coast of Iceland. For several participants, the trip was also their first visit to both Svalbard and Iceland, two places definitely worth spending some time in when you’re there.

This article was first published in

Båtens pullerter ble lite brukt på turen. Det er omtrent ingen steder å fortøye på Øst-Grønland.
The boat’s bollards were used very little on the trip. There are almost no places to moor in East Greenland.

Gallery from the Trip

Icebergs in Vikingebukt.
Icebergs in Vikingebukt.

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