First voyage of the Phantôme

This adventure unfolds above 68th North, between the sky and the sea.  Literally.

It was late evening when the aptly named MS Lofoten arrived in Svolvær, under the pouring rain. Having flown to Bødo, I’d spend the previous day getting supplies (gas, maps and food) before boarding the famous Hurtigruten ferry that makes its way along the beautiful Norwegian coast. Struggling to descend from the boat with all my gear was a challenge. I had nowhere to stay and there was no running public transport to get me out of town. I had the choice of spending the night curled up in the harbour or to try and set my tent up somewhere. Easier said than done: I was carrying over 60 kg. I slung on my large pack, lifted my duffle bag and slowly, very slowly, walked towards the main road. I didn’t have high expectations of hitchhiking in the dark, but after sticking out my thumb I soon got a ride. It was enough to get out of town and arrive at a small beach. I set up my tent and nibbled a biscuit in peace, finally free of social regulations. Falling asleep under the sound of raindrops, I wondered what the next day would bring…

 A sunny morning was good news. Huge cliffs clawed up at the sky and hundreds of little islands dotted the sea, sending up white spray from the waves. The tide was halfway down, so it was time to set up my kayak on the white sand. I unzipped the bag and pulled out my folding vessel. Pulling and pushing, the thing came gradually to life.  The hardest part was fitting all my bags into the fore and aft compartments. As I finished packing, a group of kayakers went past. They would be the first and last I would see during the entire trip. Sweating slightly, I finally slid into the cockpit, my legs pressed between the bags and pushed off. The sea was cold, but the sun was shining. After days of worrying about every logistical detail, it felt great to give my first strokes. My last task was to fill up on drinking water, so I paddled back towards Svolvær harbour. There I managed to find a man washing his boat. Once he had kindly filled up my water bag, I was on my way, leaving the hustle of civilisation behind.

Because the weather forecast was not great and I had to get used to the handling of my vessel, I had decided to head up into one of the fjords before setting myself a more ambitious course. Curling round the rocks that jut out from Svolvær airport, the wind started to pick up and I had my first taste of steering a rudderless kayak. Needless to say it was quite hard, as I hadn’t had any practice. With the weather starting to turn, I headed into a protected lagoon and found a good place to camp. It had a small stone beach and some grass where I was able to pitch my tent. I spent the afternoon trying to start a fire. Having  managed to get  the wet wood to burn I decided it was rather a Pyrrhic victory, being  way more effort than it was worth. Even so I wassatisfied to have tried and succeeded. I then tried to sort out my fishing rod. Walking through the small forest behind the beach, the ground was covered in moss, hundreds of coloured berries and mushrooms. Getting back to my tent I had supper, and made sure that my kayak was far from the water. As I settled down it started to pour with rain. I was to wake up in the night hearing the crashing of waves not too far away. Although I had checked the tide and placed my tent well above the water mark, the wind was driving the waves perilously close to my tent. As the tide rose it was less than half a metre away from my door. With the ground sodden from the abundant rain, the prospect of moving was not very appetising. Checking it was high tide and I still wasn’t underwater was a relief, and as the sea receded I was able to relax and go back to sleep. The next day it poured down, and I spent my time reading up on kayaking, navigation, fishing and checking the weather. The prevision for the outer part of the coast made me thankful I had found a good camp.

After a day of being tent bound it was time to get moving. One of the things I had not been able to foresee was how much clothing to wear. Because the water temperature was around 11-12 ºC degrees and after reading that survival times in 10ºC water was 1-2 hours I decided to wear a wetsuit, just in case. As I didn’t have any specific kayaking gear, a warm pull-over and rain-proof jacket did the job. I also had some neoprene gloves for when the waves picked up. This set-up worked pretty well the whole trip, completed with my woolly hat. Warming up as I left the lagoon, I went past Svolvær one last time and started making my way along the broken coast. Little, picturesque houses dot the shore, which is mostly rocky and vertical. Entering the bay of Orvågen I started to think about possible campsites. My maps didn’t give me many clues and I soon found that most viable spots were already taken up by the local inhabitants. Paddling up a creek where the water was dark red I found a relatively uninhabited spot. But to my disgust I soon found all the flat spots to be completely flooded and marshy. Getting back into my boat I set off again, finding the next creek not too far off. It was a sandy beach, protected from the waves. A field, dry this time, was the perfect spot, and I soon had my tent up. I was in great spirits, and went for a bare foot run along the mossy paths that criss-crossed the peninsula, taking me out to a rock that jutted into the sea. A huge moon was starting to rise over the waves, and the tide crashed over some half submerged shoals. I sat, sipping some whisky and taking the beautiful scene in. I was starting to get my bearings and it felt good to have a dry camp.

But I was not to stay dry for too long. Although the next morning’s kayaking session started off well, the weather soon started to change. As I rounded a rocky headland, the wind picked up. Sandie had sent me the weather forecast the previous evening and correctly predicted the wind would in fact help me on my way. This was the case, but seeing the waves sending up spray not too far off meant I had to be careful as I made my way around the headland. From my vantage point I watched two alpinists slowly climbing up a weather torn crag. Although it was not too high, I could imagine that the moss covered rocks must be quite a challenge. My map showed me I was coming up to a small beach, called Rørvika. Although I had not been going for long I wanted to check it out, and though it would be a good spot to have early lunch. As I paddled towards the white sands I could make out some spray flecking up in front of me. From the sea-side it is not easy to judge the size of the surf, so I inched my way in. As I got nearer I could see the waves better, which were between half and a one metre high. Carefully checking their rhythm, I waited for the precise moment before paddling in as fast as I could. I thought I had made it, but alas! Just as I was almost there I looked back and saw a small hump following me. It quickly lifted the stern of my kayak, twisting me sideways as the wave broke. I rolled over into the freezing water. Luckily it pushed me onto the beach, and I managed to push down and roll myself back into a vertical position. I was soaked by no water had got in under the spray skirt. I quickly got out and dragged Phantôme up the beach. I immediately decided to find somewhere to camp and dry myself off. This I did, after finding the perfect spot amongst the rocks. I spent the afternoon fishing (first catch!) and walking around on the sand while I enjoyed a magnificent sunset that lit up the sky.

Wednesday 14th September 8:50 pm “Another tent bound day, as weather forecast was announced dire. In the camp I set up yesterday, on a beach called Rørvika”

After another slow day, my immediate morning worry was to try and get back out through the surf. This turned out to be easier than expected, as the waves had decreased in size, so I pushed the kayak out until waist height before climbing in. Thus started an epic day! The weather wheel had swung again, and I paddled out from the shadows cast by the steep cliffs into the bright sun. Stopping off on a beautiful sandy beach with crystalline waters it did not feel like I was hundreds of km’s above the arctic circle. I then undertook the crossing between the islands of Austvågøya and Vestvågøya. After having been forewarned about the strong currents that can form in these channels it went smoothly enough, and I hardly felt anything. I continued along the coast, skipping from one small island to another. I had decided to go all the way to Stamsund, where there was reputedly a great hostel. This meant I didn’t have to worry about looking for a camp, so I made good time. Arriving in the early afternoon I paddled into the harbour and moored on the jetty in front of the hostel. I unpacked and ran up the gangway onto the pier. Roar, the hostel keeper soon arrived and showed me my bed, above the lovely, rustic kitchen. I didn’t want to waste a minute, and having heard that there was a path leading up to the cliffs behind the town I didn’t waste a minute. Setting off with nothing but my camera, the mountains were beckoning! I made my way up a steep slippery path, onto a crest. As I climbed higher the view opened up behind me, across the sea and cliffs. After days of not using my legs I felt like going as fast as possible, only stopping to take in the incredible view. The sun was quite low, and gave a magical glow to the grass covering the steep slopes, while the sea eagles circled above the waves, far beneath me. I’d heard that it was possible to cross the complete line of peaks, but with no headlamp I had to content myself with reaching the “heighest” point (Steinetinden 509m). Getting back down just before dark I bought some food and made supper. I was just in time to go back out and watch the northern lights lit up the bay I had paddled across during the morning. Perfect!

I was so content in Stamsund I decided to stay an extra day. With two French girls I had met the previous evening offering me a ride to Lekness I decided to check it out. I really wasn’t worth it, as the town is quite un-interesting. But I finished getting some groceries before we went back to Stamsund, where I spend the early afternoon fishing. I caught several pollock, which I turned into an impromptu snack with some garlic mayonnaise and rye bread. I still had the mountain traverse in my head, so decided to give it a try. I hiked up the small ski station with Mathilde, one of the French girls. As she turned back I took the little path that follows the ridge. It is a lovely itinerary, with steep drops on either side. It was slightly longer that I had originally thought, and I almost lost my way as it got dark in the steep grass. Although it is technically quite easy (there are one or two chains placed in the steeper bits) I think it would be a completely different story in wet weather. Finding myself back on the same path as the previous day, I raced down in the dark. Suddenly I saw the moon, glowing pale orange, glowing behind the peaks on mainland Norway.

During the next couple of days I made my way to Ballstad, but once again the weather deteriorated. The only lodgings being the traditional rorbu huts that stick out above the water, I spend several days living in style with a place to myself. I kept myself busy fishing, reading and walking in the rain. The main problem was the wind, and with it blowing at 30 knots I had to stay put. Getting up two days running and finding it to be the same was quite frustrating.

My objective was to get to Bunesfjord beach before catching the ferry back to Bødo and I was starting to run out of time. So finally waking up after two and a half days of bad weather, I was very thankful when I went outside and it felt calmer. I set off from Ballstad harbour, out into the sea again. It was still a bit rough, but the visibility was good and I could see across the channel to the next islands: Flakstadøya and Moskenesøya. As I distanced myself from the headland it got quite choppy. But I was feeling exultant, riding over waves up and down! Sometimes water would roll over the front of the kayak, but I stayed nice and dry inside. Once again the dire warnings of strong currents did not amount to anything, and I crossed with no further problems. The next part of the coast is almost uninhabited, and I paddled in peace towards Kunna Island. I stopped there for some food and to stretch out, before continuing in the afternoon. I was not too far from Reine when I saw a small fishing boat, with the anglers casting their rods. Until this point I had tried trolling a line on several days, but perhaps because the line wasn’t long enough or the lure too close to the surface meant I hadn’t caught anything. I decided to give myself half an hour to try my luck before moving on. I’d made myself a small wooden handle to jig from, and I slowly unwound the line into the blue depths. I hadn’t even finished when I felt a sharp pull on the line. As quickly as I could I pulled it up. Suddenly, I saw a flash of silver, and saw the elongated shape of a fish twist and turn far below. Mackerel! I pulled it up, as close to me as possible. But just when I was drawing it out of the water the knot snapped and the fish disappeared back in to the depths. I cast once again, but the fish weren’t biting any more. I had to wait for a full 5 min before another mackerel bit on the lure. And again I lost my prize just as I pulled it out of the sea. Unreeling, my third bite did not wait for me to finish letting the line out. Pulling in as carefully as possible I grabbed the fish before lifting it out of the water (not easy in a kayak on the waves). I had supper! All that was left was to find and set up my camp. Unfortunately as I entered Reine the view was breath-taking. The sharp mountain faces dropped straight down into the fjord. Protected from the wind, the sea had turned into a mirror, reflecting the sinking sun. This of course slowed me down, as I stopped to look around. But with it getting dark I paddled fast to the end of the fjord. I had to fight my way up a small but powerful current and ground up onto a huge muddy beach, revealed by the falling tide. I had to make several journeys to and fro with my stuff, and just managed to get everything done before it was pitch black.

After a huge mackerel supper I was just settling down when I stuck my head out of the tent. The bright green glow in the sky had me up in an instant! I sprinted up and over the small col to Bunes beach to watch the best lights display I’ve ever seen…

Next day I made my way do Moskenes harbour through sun and rain. There it was time to fold Phantôme back up into her bag and do my best to dry everything out. My efforst were only marginally successful. Boarding the ferry back to Bødo, I watched the receding coastline behind me. With the last rays of the sun I tried to distinguish the currents in the sea. Could I just make out the Maelstrom, churning up the northern sea?

Kayaking through the Lofoten Islands was an unforgettable experience. It is a place where the elements meet: rocks jutting out of the ocean into the sky, defying the storms and the wind. Snow often covers their flanks, retracting into icy slopes at the end of the season. And at night, the sky is lit up with a rolling, pulsating green fire. All this makes for a concentrated beauty, opposing sea and mountains. The white beaches complete the almost impossible picture. What you can’t see but rather feel is the cold. In my case, it was the second half of September, and the weather was definitely not great. This influenced my experience of the islands, limiting the time I was able to spend out on the water. With more practice and warmer clothes I could have pushed the limits a lot farther, although some days even the best prepared would find it hard to go out. An easy solution is of course to go there in the summer months, when permanent daylight and warmer temperatures make navigation simpler. But one thing that will not change is the possibility of finding a campsite. If anything, warm weather will limit the available options. This is because although Norwegian law is very liberal when it comes to setting up your tent, there are not many places where the sharp coastline actually makes it possible. And if there is a natural harbour, in most cases there is already a small house or fishing hut making the most of it. Because of this, hunting for a good spot to stop is time consuming and not always very productive. This was especially true for the east side of the islands that I followed. The west side is wilder, and therefore more worthwhile, but is more exposed to the Atlantic weather, including rolling surf. Lack of experience and paddling solo kept me from adventuring there. This just means I now have a reason to go back… In the meantime, so Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!

With several days of waiting in my tent under the incessant rain and wind, it was an opportunity to get some reading done. With an e-reader you can take an almost unlimited amount of books with you on an expedition, so why not sink into your sleeping bag and listen to the rain pounding on the flysheet. My booklist included:

Sea Kayaking: A manual for long distance touring. John Dowd. Extremely interesting, I learned a great amount about touring and kayak expeditions in general, as well as the basics of the sport. It gives tips on a whole range of topics, and definitely helped me in multiple situations. I would re-read parts of it on most days, especially after difficult passages.

Fishing for Dummies. Peter Kaminsky. With non-existent fishing skills before leaving, I was able to get the basics sorted out before trying my luck in Norwegian waters. Combined with some luck and the abundant and ravenous mackerels I was to become a master angler!

50 Ways to Improve your Navigation. Dag Pike. Although the focus is mainly on navigation for yachts or other large marine vessels, there are some good tips and techniques for simple navigation.

20.000 Leagues Under the Sea. Jules Verne. Classic Verne, having grown up with the 1954 film starring Kirk Douglas, I had never actually read the book. Finding out that the resting place of the Nautilus is in fact the huge Maelstrom, just off Lofoten, was reason enough to go through the adventures of Captain Nemo once again.

The Saga of the Volsungs. Jesse L. Byock. The tale of Sigurd is a Scandinavian classic, including tales of vengeance, love and mythic deeds. It definitely fits in with the stark, legendary landscape of the north of Norway.

Physics of the Impossible. Michio Kaku An interesting discussion about the physical limits of many of mankind’s ultimate ambitions, analysing the possibility of these inventions actually being built. It is an optimistic outlook on the long-term future of our species creative powers.

Especially during the really wet days I delved into some light reading, going back to one of my favourite authors Bernard Cornwell. Easy to read and always exciting, I visited the Bahamas in Crackdown and medieval France in 1356.

 Useful information and notes:

  • You cannot rent kayaks without a guide in Lofoten unless you have a “permit”, known as a wet-card (you can take a short course). Take this into account when planning.
  • I found a lot of usefull info reading several blogs, especially this one which in itself gives lots of good links.
  • For the weather I used a combination of the Norwegian weather service Yr , which I would check against MeteoblueAs always Windyty gives excellent graphs of the wind and really helped me visualise incoming storms.
  • You can buy gas (screwtype) and maps in Bødo sports shops. The maps come in treking and waterproof version. The second type are much better value as they are double sided!
  • The hostel in Stamsund is epic, go there! You can also rent “cheap” cars by contacting  the locals rather than rental companies.
  • There are few ATM’s (none in (Stamsund), so check out your possibilities before runnngout of cash.
  • Try and find decent campsites in advance, this will save time when on the water. The norwegian satellite imagery can help to try and identify good spots, although it is not failproof.
  • For tips on trying to see the northern lights check out the end of my Lapland post.

I don’t normally review gear but I found that there was an important lack of info out there on this particular type of vessel. It’s a pretty innovative concept and I think a great solution for many situations. Here is my take on the folding kayak:

The Nortik Fold 4.2 is a folding kaya made out of white plastic, with specific fold lines that let it go from a zipped bag to the water. It also has a rigid rim to which you can fasten the spray-skirt, elastic cords on the deck and neoprene covers at both ends. Rigidity is given by four ribs or braces. The whole structure is closed by zipping up the structure along the bow and stern using a piece of plastic that inserts along the necessary guides. The main reason why I bought this model was of course due to the flexibility that packing it up gives you. To start, it is impossible to fly with a sea kayak, as most airlines accept a maximum package size of 2-3 metres. Therefore the only other option is to rent on-site or some sort of inflatable/folding device. Having looked into both I found that the first option was expensive (in my case Norway!) and unfeasible due to the necessity to have a permit. Inflatable kayaks are an option, but have a bad reputation due to tracking problems, e.g. staying in a straight line. I also imagine they suffer more from strong wind. The final reason is storage space. Once you get back it’s great to simply put it away in the garage (even if it’s a fight for space with my flatmates).

So, how did it fare? After trying it out briefly on a lake near home, its real baptism of fire was this expedition to Lofoten. Even before getting on the plane there was the question of packing and weight distribution. Although the nominal weight of the kayak is announced as 15 kg, the real weight with seat and backpack is 21 kg-something. This is a problem if your flight allowance is 20 kg. I therefore had to move the rigid plaque into my other luggage to get under the limit. Once this was done I was able to get it through check in. Thanks to the reduced volume, I put it through as normal luggage instead of sports equipment. I was pretty worried about the handling, but it survived both ways (four flights). On the way back I did insert some cardboard beneath, to protect it against being dragged around. To carry the kayak, the bag comes with back-pack type straps that can be tucked away when not used. The clips are quite fragile, and I broke one of them the first day, but this is rapidly remedied with a small loop or cord. It is of course not very comfortable; there is no waist support and the bulky shape hits the back of your legs. But it definitely gets the job done and I was able to move around town with it.

Arriving on site, the next step is setting up the kayak for navigation. I would definitely recommend doing this several times before-hand. It gets much simpler after multiple tries, maybe due to folding the correct way after storage and practice. The instructions leaflet is absolutely pathetic, and almost more trouble than help. Read it once then bin it. Because all the parts are flexible and move around, it can be quite frustrating to get everything in place. You have to coax one part, then another, going around the boat until everything fits. My set of rules would be:

  1. Unfold the boat completely and make sure all the main folds are in the right position (concave) and fold the ends inwards to give it a triangular shape.
  2. Close the kayak roughly using elastic ties.
  3. Insert the floor panel and ribs (taller ones go in the bow).
  4. Place the seat in and pass the straps under the forward rib and above the back one. Place flotation bags in the fore and aft compartments is you have them
  5. Use the clips to tighten the whole kayak together, making sure the metal pins go into the sockets.
  6. Start slowly pushing the guides on. Swear a bit when they get suck. Pull back, forward, and slowly get them to go all the way. Calm down.
  7. Roll up the end fabric and fasten it with the velcro Put on the neoprene ends on and tighten the seat ties.

You’re good to go. Oh, not quite! You still haven’t packed your gear in. As you will have to do this every day, it’s best to spend some time working out how optimise. The nominal charge is 150 kg, but of course it is the volume that will be the limitation. In my case the compartments between the smaller ribs and the kayak ends were taken up by the flotation bags. Even without this they would be pretty impractical to store stuff in, but you could maybe gain some extra space. The good news is that I was able to get all my camping gear plus accessories and food for at least two weeks. I had two large waterproof bags I would stuff into either compartment. The more streamlined the bag the better. In my case I still had the rolled up kayak transport bag, which took a lot of volume, so try and get someone to keep it for you while you are away or hide it somewhere. Even with a large bag in the cockpit I was able to slide my legs down the side quite comfortably.

Once I was in the water, things were much easier. The kayak feels quite light, and pretty stable. Once everything is closed, it becomes more rigid and I felt quite safe, even when I was several km’s out to sea. It tracks straight and doesn’t have any problems with waves. Because it doesn’t have a rudder, it is quite sensitive to windcocking (turning with the wind). Unless the wind is coming straight from the bow or stern, it has a tendency to turn into the wind. This can of course be countered by paddling harder with one arm, which can be quite tiring until you get used to it. On calm waters you can go relatively fast. The seat can be inflated and is comfortable, even after 8 hours or so. The backrest was a bit more of a mystery; in function of how I had packed my bags behind it could either be really comfortable or torture. This being said, I found it better to have a soft bag behind the backrest rather than nothing. You can fasten maps, pumps and paddle float to the cables on the deck with no problem. Upon return I tried it out empty and without all bags I think footrests become mandatory for comfortable paddling (I will try and make some and will post an update). Getting to a beach I was quite cautious about rocks, although the hull can be dragged up the shore, I don’t think it would stand much of a battering. Once empty, I could easily carry it into camp on my shoulder. I also went through quite rough sea with no problem. Even though the bow would be covered by the surf I had negligible water coming in. The only annoying thing is that is hard to get it completely dry due to the floor panel. I haven’t tried rolling the kayak, full or empty, I will update once I have!

As the kayak comes without any accessories, I had to get the other bits of gear. I chose a four piece paddle, which means it can go into the same bag. A hand bilge-pump and a paddle float for security can be kept to hand. As mentioned above, I added flotation bags to the front and aft, just in case. I found the ones that adapted the best to be 17 L in volume, and heart-shaped (like this). By blowing them up in place they remain fixed by the small ribs. I got a neoprene skirt that fits the cockpit perfectly. For travelling I also recommend having a large piece of waterproof plastic. You can use this to unpack onto, cover the cockpit during the night, or simply use as an extra ground sheet for the tent.

One of my biggest concerns about this kayak is durability. While I was setting it up the first time it does feel that everything will just fall to pieces. After two weeks in the water, I must say I’m reassured. When the boat is set up, it feels solid and nothing seems to move too much. The only damage so far is some stitching in the neoprene and the glue that holds the unessential velcro straps on the bridge. Taking into account the price I think it’s annoying but not critical, especially as I have 2 years warranty. My final conclusion, having re-used it since getting back, is that it is perfect for one-day trips out on lakes or the sea near home. In calm waters you can go relatively fast and enjoy being out on the water. For expeditions, as I was able to demonstrate, it does the job! I’d say it is near the limit of its capabilities, principally due to storage space, but if you cut down on that you could probably go most places.

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