The Chief Officer's eyes flicked up at me, an expression of puzzlement etched onto what little of his face I could make out through the gloom. "Oh, those winds? That was nothing. Totally normal for January."
I was on the bridge of the aged Hurtigruten vessel MS Vesterålen. Aside from the illumination provided by a few switches and the radar screens, it was pitch black. So much so that when I walked past the First Officer again a few days later, I didn't even realize it was him until he greeted me.
Darkness would be a theme of my entire journey on Hurtigruten's Norwegian coastal voyage, even though I was here to hunt the northern lights.
Despite extensive international marketing as a cruise, Norway's Hurtigruten coastal voyage is far from a traditional cruise line. It's really a large local ferry for passengers and cargo that serves 34 ports on the Norwegian coast from Bergen all the way to the Russian border. They also sell 12-day round-trip packages that include excellent food and optional excursions, but little else. The scenery, they say, is all the entertainment you need.
So rather than book in the summer when you can enjoy the scenery 24 hours a day, I joined around 100 hardy souls taking the full round-trip at the darkest time of the year, when scenery would be at a premium.
Things didn't get off to the best of starts. Immediately after dinner on day two we rounded Stad, a notorious peninsula in western Norway that has won out against many ships over the years. As we approached Stad, the wind increased to more than 40 knots and the boat began to rock.
If, like me, you've never spent more than a few hours on the water, nothing can prepare you for the motion on a stormy sea. As someone who regularly feels queasy as a passenger on a long car journey, this was the aspect of the trip I was least confident about.
For years I've seen pictures from summer voyages of people enjoying a waffle out on deck bathed in the midnight sun. But I wanted to experience the Hurtigruten voyage in the winter, partly to hunt the northern lights, and partly to understand who takes this trip at this time of year.
As the boat began to resemble a rollercoaster, I remembered some advice I had read before the voyage. Gazing out of the lounge window, I caught sight of the inky horizon and the spray from the waves. Just moments later my brain understood the motion and any sense of nausea disappeared.
The journalist in me quickly removed myself from the situation and began to watch everyone else. The efficient Germans—who made up 70% of the round-trip guests—had long since returned to their cabins, leaving Brits, Americans and Norwegians behind.
As beer and wine glasses shattered on the floor, an announcement came over the ship's PA: "You may have noticed we are experiencing some mild movement on the ship," said a bored-sounding Norwegian. "We recommend you stay in your cabins and do not move around the ship for the next few hours".
I was quite happy to stay in the lounge as despite the darkness, I had a great view of the storm. But I'd been lumbered with an elderly British lady who reminded me far too much of my mother to ignore her pleas for assistance. "I have to get back to my cabin!", she screamed.
"We should stay here, it's too dangerous to go down to the stairs", I offered in as calm a voice as possible.
"But I'm going to be sick! I need to lie down. No one told me it would be like this!"
Surely, I thought, you can't expect a 12-day sea journey into the Arctic Circle in January to be calm? But of course, she was one of the people that booked this trip after seeing a full-page magazine advertisement of warm, happy people watching the northern lights from the comfort of a lounge.
So up I got. We passed the local Norwegian passengers in the café, smirking at the silly Brits who were on walkabout after having been expressly told to stay put. To this day I still can't work out exactly how he managed it, but we passed one Norwegian tucking into a bowl of creamy fish soup which he balanced on one hand to keep level, using his outstretched leg to keep his coffee cup from smashing on to the floor.
Every few steps through the ship's corridors, one side of my body was thrown against the wall, while the other provided a cushion for the elderly lady. Despite this double onslaught, we made it back to her cabin. On my return, I met a panic-stricken American lady bouncing down the corridor, eyes-wide, seeking a sick bag.
Earlier in the day these were placed all around the café in what I assumed was some kind of Norwegian humor. Little did I know there would be a genuine need for them. But now, they had all disappeared. "There's one in your cabin, behind the excursions book", I suggested, trying to be as helpful as possible. The glare I received in response told me everything I needed to know. "I used that one hours ago!"
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