The bleakly remote Faroe Islands were the stuff of sailing fairy tales for Kila Zamana and they did not disappoint on her cruise around the misty isles
“Stop filling the boat with cheese!” I exclaimed to Paul, as he stowed a massive food shop in Ponta Delgada ahead of what would be a nearly 2,000-mile passage to the Faroe Islands. Tons of cheese, marinated Azorean peppers and pasta were tucked into every corner around the boat. It felt far more than needed.
“Don’t scoff at me, you won’t like the groceries in the Faroes. Plus, the cheese will be useful,” he points out.
The Faroe Islands are a subarctic archipelago of 18 islands rising dramatically out of the North Atlantic, three to four days sailing between Scotland, Iceland or Norway. Culturally they are a split between Gaelic and Old Norse, and, just like the Azoreans, the Faroese aim to be a self governing nation.
For cruisers the islands are usually a short stopover on the way to Greenland or Svalbard, yet the islands have always had a particular allure of being somewhat ‘terra incognito’.
The first three days of our passage from the Azores to the Faroes were spent blue sky beam reach sailing, followed by 15 dark days of slow progress, almost all sailing into easterly winds through an eternity of fog interrupted by dead calms.
It felt like we were crossing over from our sun and light-filled world into an alternative universe, where the Norse mythological beasts Sköll and Hati devoured the sun and chased after the moon. All celestial light was gone, and the ocean was completely lifeless.
It was day 18 when a pack of pilot whales greeted us and we finally caught sight of land. The autopilot began beeping insanely, alarming us that it had lost course. The southern Faroe islands, Suduroy and Sandoy, are known for aggressive tidal currents; we made just 30 miles in a day as we zigzagged to our destination in Tórshavn.
Days in the mist
Anyone who cannot be happy without sun every day has no business being in the north. Our sun-yellow 50ft steel-hulled expedition yacht Malaika was the only thing that shone, bringing a little warmth during white-out days in Tórshavn marina.
Tórshavn is a city just like any other, and a busy one. All I wanted to see was the drama of the wild Faroes terrain, but the mist made it impossible, keeping the islands shrouded in mystery and whispering to me ‘discover slowly, don’t rush’.
I had a couple of hours to settle into the Faroese climate before our crew’s arrival to explore these islands by land and sea. I had intentionally invited Luke, a true explorer in spirit, who has been sailing with us for three years. He brought his team of three girls, ready to hike through rugged trails. First, we needed fresh food.
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When I went out to the market to get supplies I was astonished by how few masks were worn. “Oh, we simply trust you’re not bringing the virus,” the fish lady said, selling me freshly caught haddock from a bucket in the rain.
Harsh Covid restrictions didn’t exist in the Faroes. The ability to smile at others was positively empowering. Here, every day was filled with small concerts and events: from singing in a cave in Nolsoy island to sailing regattas inside the fjords accompanied with buffet suppers and fireworks.
While lockdown has been a shock to many countries, the Faroese have generations of experience living as an isolated community. In these small communities the culture is stronger when people work together rather than work against each other.
The crew arrived on a wet, drizzly and foggy day, so I baked fresh haddock in citrus herbs to warm their souls and our galley.
Planning our weeks in Faroe Islands, I initially didn’t quite know where to start. My partner, Paul, had spent seven years sailing in Antarctica, and wasn’t happy to be in the north again. This trip was my heart’s calling, and I felt responsible for the idea.
I had well prepared notes and maps after months of research, but I didn’t want to start my journey counting ‘places to visit’ from the guide books. I believe the best way to experience a place is through local communities and events that unveil paths completely outside mass tourism. The most intimate connections form very slowly, so I shouldn’t expect too much from the first time. As a visitor you have to earn their trust.
Luke had brought a book written by a well respected author who lives in Faroes, Kinga Eysturland. On a whim, I decided to write to the author, and invite her for a cosy dinner on board. Why not? “We have come a long way from the Azores and would like to learn about Faroes. Tonight I’m serving marinated pepper pasta with shredded Azorean cheese from São Jorge. Are you up for it?” I messaged.
Kinga accepted, and that one connection led us to connect with more people with knowledge, and inspired our Faroes exploration plan. Paul’s stocks of Azorean food had served us well.
I sketched an anti-clockwise route around the islands. Our first stop was to visit Kinga’s house in Klaksvik – in exchange for dinner she invited us for Heimablídni. It’s translated directly as ‘home hospitality’ and is part of the regional culture across the islands.
It’s a chance to experience authentic home-dining, eating Faroese food made from products that are often inaccessible in markets, such as ram’s head, but also a chance to hear interesting stories from villagers. Apart from in Tórshavn, restaurants and bars are nearly nonexistent.
The distances between islands are not great, usually ranging from eight to 35 miles. But the tricky element is contending with strong tidal currents and hardly any wind. Trying to escape from the grip of a racing current, while surrounded by rocks, can be more than a skipper’s patience can stand. We found an application called Rák very helpful here; a user-friendly real-time local tidal current chart for smartphones. It works very well, though for better accuracy we learned to leave an hour earlier, before the tidal tide arrow turns from odd to good.
Sailing to Klaksvik was one of our most enjoyable passages, and we were followed by an insane swirl of arctic petrels. Klaksvik is a photogenic town, a sunny spot nestled between jade green fjords. Following polite tradition, we called the harbour master on VHF to inform him of our arrival. He told us to sail to the starboard side of a large jetty full of big fishing cutters, then met us there to take our mooring lines. After explaining how to hook up for electricity and water, and giving us his phone numbers in case of any problems, he told us that all harbours there are for free (except for Torshavn as the islands’ only fully equipped marina). Did we hear correctly? All free?
“Oh, and don’t mind people stopping by your boat. For villagers to see a foreign yacht, it’s a huge attraction,” he added. His prediction turned out to be true, the number of people that stopped to look or came over to say hello was surprising, and somewhat heartwarming.
Kinga welcomed us in her classic Faroese house, serving us a feast of regional food. We tasted meat from fermented lamb leg – pungent, but so delicious – and we snacked on whale blubber and wind dried cod flakes while sipping Akvavit spirit with a distinctive flavour of island spices and herbs.
I’d been intrigued to see the dramatic northernmost isles, but with their rugged, rocky and steep shored anchorages we were advised to avoid them. Instead, we explored west, navigating through interior canals.
Eidi is a small village with one of the most beautifully located football stadiums in the world, perched on the very edge of the Atlantic (all of the Faroes are obsessed with football!). From there is the starting point of a hike to Slættaratindur (882m), the highest peak in Faroes.
We had no wind for sailing at all, so motored all the way, but if you get the tidal gates correct the current can give you an amazing 7 knots of speed over the ground alone. We used very little engine in a pushing tide, until the iconic Rising and Kellingin sea stacks rose out from the horizon.
A legend says how an Icelandic giant and witch were so jealous of the Faroes they decided to steal the archipelago and attach it to their land, by pulling the islands back towards Iceland. The giant and witch were busy all night trying to tie the islands together, they did not notice the sun rising. As dawn broke, the dark magic witch and giant were turned into stone stacks for all eternity, looking back wistfully at their home.
Just like these mischievous giants, we were trapped in the spell of a whirlwind current. Instead of our planned comfortable evening in Eidi, we were going to be making landfall at night. I was nervous, since the navigation of many of these ports is learned by word of mouth from locals. In the end Eidi proved easy to navigate and I was impressed how sheltered the harbour was, despite its modest appearance.
Across the Faroes, most of the time we were the only cruising foreigners, even in high season. When dawn broke we too had an unusual visitor: a priest came, made prayers and blessed our boat for the future, in exchange for being devoted to Jesus. Somewhat perplexed, we nodded and headed for the mountains.
The next morning we peeled our aching muscles out of our bunks, having covered ourselves in blankets to shed the bone-chilling cold. In the Faroes life was dictated by the schedule of the currents, forcing me and the rest of the crew to get up. We headed to Vestmanna to moor overnight to wait out the foul currents and warnings of a swell coming from the north, then make a long-awaited passage to the westernmost island of Mykines.
“Wind, there’s wind at beam reach! Quickly, hoist the sails!” Sailing wind had been so rare, that turning off the engine we felt a lightness at slipping through the water’s surface under sail power and tide. We worked to catch every opportunity of katabatic winds coming off the hills and fjords, and this one was blowing from the Saksun valley. Neptune was with us, hooray!
Mykines is famous for its fearless puffins, and I’d imagined thousands flying over our boat, just as the arctic petrels had. Indeed, there were hundreds of them, but they kept a shy distance from the boat and from humans in general. We sailed with a plan to berth in Soervagur, then to take a ferry to Mykines.
After passing the famous Gasholmur waterfall (it looks attractive, but it’s strongly advised to not sail close by), landfall in Sorvagur was confusing. There’s a marina next to the bay, but only 1.5m depth, plus a giant wall for ships. But there are large tides, reaching 2m. Luckily, several of our crew were mountain runners who made easy work of climbing up onto huge truck tires to grab the ropes.
Next morning a southerly swell rose up outside the bay and our ferry was cancelled. For the following days Mykines were unavailable. Despite cheap helicopter flights on the island, they have a reputation for frequent cancellations. Unwilling to risk being unable to return to Malaika, we missed our visit to the puffins of Mykines nesting on shore, and had to contend ourselves with glimpses of them at sea.
There was a strange atmosphere as we readied to leave Soervagur. We needed to make our longest passage yet back to Torshavn, but there was a problem. The area between Streymoy and Sandoy had the most rapid tidal currents, and according to our tidal calculations, there was no way we’d make it. A wiser idea would be to stop halfway on the tiny Hestur island to wait for a tidal change.
At 3:45am, about eight hours of motoring after leaving Soervagur, we heard word that the grindadrap was taking place. The grindadrap is a controversial whale slaughter for meat kept and shared among the Faroese community. It is based on hundreds of years of whaling tradition and historical isolation for the Faroese, who once had to rely on whale hunting for survival. Among everyone we spoke with, the younger generation living in the Faroes believe it isn’t needed anymore.
The bigger problem lies in social media. I received comments asking how I dare visit the Faroes as someone who is passionate about wildlife. I was mentally prepared to encounter the slaughter somewhere on the way, but instead we saw freely roaming pilot whales, fearlessly sailing next to our boat. The whole country was intimately connected with their natural environment, and highly respectful of it.
We berthed in Hestur island as the sun rose, the rays unveiling oddly pigmented green mountains reaching up to the cloud base. With few houses around, we felt as if we were waking alone on a private island. In calm weather you can take the dinghy to Klæmintsgjógv, one of the world’s most impressive sea caves, but we celebrated our final Faores days by walking on top of the mountain and bathing in a hidden lake.
The Faroes is one of most visually beautiful places in European waters, fiercely powerful and markedly different from anywhere else we have sailed. Compared to the rest of the Atlantic Islands it’s not somewhere I’d return to regularly because its a relatively small cruising area and requires a lot of motoring.
However, it’s a fairytale experience to do once – especially if you can stop at the lesser known ports and connect with the local people. The highlight for us was the sense of community and welcome. Faroese are experts at living in sheer isolation and they’re specially curious about sailors. We immersed ourselves in the inspiration of the ancient Faroese legends. It was the voyage of a lifetime to be sailing among eternally sleeping titans.
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