‘The captain is always right’: navigating Svalbard’s skippers

She began with an ice-breaker: “The first rule is, I’m the captain and you listen to what I say.”

It was 30 seconds into a full-day fun holiday experience, and already I was in trouble.

“Hi, I’m your guide Veronika. What you’re wearing is not good enough. Go back to your room and get changed.”

The plan was to head across the fjord on an open RIB boat excursion to get up close and personal with some ice bergs. And just quietly, I was increasingly looking forward to their relative warmth.

Veronika would be captain and was used to dealing with uselessly ill-equipped tourists.

My first transgression? A puffy vest in lieu of a woollen jumper. Aside from making me look like a German business man at a winter trade fair, the puffy vests are not ideal to wear under a dry suit because they lose their warming properties.

She was a former teacher, and the skills learned dealing with unruly students were perfect for ensuring her tours operated as a well-run ship.

Such was obvious from our pre-trip briefing, held in a storeroom on the second-floor of a warehouse-office by the water.

She began with an ice-breaker: “The first rule is, I’m the captain and you listen to what I say.”

I was getting the feeling there wouldn’t be any additional rules.

“Do any of you have medical problems?” We were sitting all in a row facing her, and didn’t dare make eye contact with each other, or, god forbid, Veronika.

“You don’t have to tell me in front of everybody, but if something goes wrong, I want to know what I’m dealing with.”

“Is anyone pregnant? I’m not going to make you show me a urine test, but the boat can be hard on the stomach.”

The boat rule and medical check out of the way, time to dole out the dry suits and gum boots. We would spend the next 4 hours sitting in small boat looking at life at the glacier edge, which involved an hour each way of crossing the arctic water.

“If your feet are size 40, and there are no boots in 40, choose 41. Choose the bigger sizes of dry suits and boots. In the arctic the fashion is baggy. We’re not in Italy.”

Alas, my clumsy efforts to step into my life jacket had drawn Veronika’s attention. “Take it off and start again.”

I picked up the dry bag to stow my camera. “Do you know how to use that?” she asked. A dry bag is essentially a sack, with a single opening, that you fold three times to close.

“You roll it three times to close,” I answered. She flashed a broad smile. “I’m not as dumb as I look,” I dared respond, not having seen myself in my new ‘baggy’ arctic attire in a mirror.

She’ll be the judge of that.

Yet beneath the brusque exterior, Veronika was someone with a fairly common story among the guides and other locals living in Svalbard.

“I came here for a wedding. Then I found the nature. Tell me that’s not beautiful,” she said, pointing towards a blue-green berg, at least 10 metres tall, and probably several times that below, bobbing in front of our boat.

And, to be fair, captaining a boat in the artic is not without significant responsibilities. The sea ice is constantly moving, and can encircle a boat if the skipper is not always vigilant.

“Sometimes I think students are easier to control than tourists. There’s always someone who thinks they know better.”

As long as you weren’t in the firing line, this did make for some memorable comments.

Such as explaining how to make cold water at lunch time: “In this thermos there’s hot water. If you want cold water, take the hot water and wait for it to cool,” she helpfully advised.

Then, I dared to ask how shallow the boat could go.

“The boat is not the problem. The boat could drive on the ice if it wanted to. The motor is the problem.”

Mental note to self: be more precise with my questions. Or better, don’t ask any.

Now a large, brownish grey bird flew past us. We’d seen several already. Perhaps pre-empting another stupid question, Veronika was quick to offer some information: “See that bird? It’s not a seagull. Don’t call it that, it will get offended. It’s a fulmar.

Frankly we were too amazed by the water to be looking in the sky. Even two days earlier, this passage had been empty of ice.

Floats the size of small cars had separated from the shore, rendering the shoreline entirely different. We circled around the large berg to appreciate it fully, hearing it pop and hiss. Then it was time to go home.

Dismounting the boat after 7 hours – the seats were like horse saddles, all facing forward – there was just enough time for Veronika to ask one more of her famous questions.

“Were any of you guys cold?”

A few of the more naïve ones nodded.

“Thought so. I can always tell the ones who’ll get cold. They’re not wearing the right socks.”

If there’s one thing I’ll remember from today, apart from not to call a fulmar a gull, it’s that at least I was wearing the right socks.

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