The North Sea is infamous for its savagery. The high risk ships have of becoming wrecked here has a lot to do with the insane weather conditions between Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, and Western Norway. And yet, for millennia, people have made the perilous crossing in order to take advantage of the bounties of fish and natural resources on offer to those brave enough - or crazy enough - to make the journey.
Our crew falls into both those categories. Hugh Francis Anderson is a writer and adventurer who’s most happy traversing the globe reporting on natural wonders and incredible examples of human perseverance. Most recently he teamed up with marine biologists to follow Hvaldimir, an inexplicably domesticated beluga whale that calls in at various fjord towns along the west coast of Norway to make contact with humans. As a result of his time on the water, unlike us, Hugh has at least got the beginnings of sea legs to prepare him for this trip.
Standing at the docks in Lerwick, the Momentum Life team were little apprehensive about the crossing ahead of us. Even Matthew hasn’t spent much time on the open ocean - and he’s been everywhere. We watch Barba sail into port, helmed by our captain for the next week, Andreas B. Heide. The ease with which he handles his beloved vessel tells of the decades he’s spent out on boats. “I was sailing before I could walk,” he tells us, almost seriously.
Growing up on a fjord, sailing is what children do. They don’t have bikes. They have a dingy with an outboard on the back, which they often take out to one of the fjord islands and camp overnight. It sounds like an idyllic childhood, although it’s hard to imagine parents back home being so carefree about the water. In reality, it’s really no different from us taking our children out hiking or biking. It’s just what we’re comfortable with and what brings us the most pleasure.
Andreas has never left that joy of being on the water behind. In the role of marine biologist, he’s explored into the depths of the Arctic Circle to study the effects of pollution and the changing climate on marine life in its waters. As a contributor to the Ocean Data Foundation, his work informs decision making on how to conserve and better use our ocean’s resources. You might also have seen Barba on Sir David Attenborough’s 2019 documentary Whale Wisdom, which gave Andreas the opportunity to meet the man who inspired his career path.
Most recently, Andreas has teamed up with Musto as part of the outdoor brand’s ongoing objective to highlight the importance of preserving our natural environment. They also provided all the gear for this trip, which was reassuring - they are, after all, masters at equipping people to withstand even the most untamable weather.
Andreas’ role in the crew for this journey was two-fold: to navigate us safely across to Norway and to spot any marine life along the way. As he helped us onboard with our equipment, the constant chop of the waves as they hit the concrete sea wall did nothing to ease the apprehension. But we couldn’t turn back now. What would Andreas and Hugh think?
Twenty minutes after leaving the beautiful Shetland Islands behind us, our bravery paid off. Andreas spotted two fins coming through the water towards the boat. They belonged to a pair of huge basking sharks, seemingly as big as Barba. Because the North Sea is not only one of the most dangerous in the world but also the coldest (it has an average temperature of 17°C in summer and 6°C in winter) the crew worked as fast as they could to get into dry suits and join the sharks in the water. This was an experience we couldn’t pass up.
Basking sharks are living dinosaurs, with a genetic makeup that’s so perfectly adapted for purpose that it’s not changed for millions of years. Reaching an intimidating 12 metres, they’re the biggest fish found in UK waters. Thankfully they’re also harmless to humans. Still, the water was pretty murky and visibility was less than five feet. So not being able to spot the sharks until they swam right past still caused a momentary panic before the awe at being so close to these incredible creatures set in.
Once back in the boat, the next feeling to set in - and stay for the next 36 hours - was sea sickness. The North Sea hasn’t earned its reputation for nothing. But despite feeling physically empty as a result, the further we sailed into the unknown the more mentally refreshed our crew became. With no noise, no phones, no buzzing, we found ourselves looking at each other and smiling with enormous grins for no reason other than because we felt at peace. Despite living almost on top of each other, we quickly developed a synchronicity that was entirely unspoken. Each existing in our own tranquil bubble. Emerging to share food, a story or help Andreas, then disappearing back into our own thoughts.
We were roused from a queasy sleep on the first night by Andreas’ shouts from the deck. Pulling on as much gear as we could with eyes only half open (trying not to bump into each other in the process), we all stumbled up to see what we could do to help. “Look out the back of the boat,” was all Andreas told us. Peering over the stern into the pitch, no sound apart from Barba making her way through the water, we realised that the sea behind the boat was glowing.
Within the disturbance, bioluminescent plankton was turning the water a magical blue. With no light pollution, the glow felt incredibly bright. Like something out of a dream. Then we looked up and saw millions of stars shining above us. It was a moment in time that yanked us out of how dreadful we felt and filled us all with wonder. It was one of the most profound experiences any of us have had in nature. The thing about these moments is that you can’t plan for them. Nature provides them or she doesn’t. It’s pure luck. And we had an abundance of it.
We sailed into the tiny island of Kvitsoy, off the coast of Western Norway, the day after with surprisingly mixed feelings. The rough conditions had been nothing short of draining. There’s no question that the Momentum Life crew needs to work on its collective sea legs. But the North Sea had done something else to us. Unlike the majestic, silent beauty of the mountains, our favourite playground, the sea feels intimidatingly alive. We felt constantly at its mercy. And by surrendering to that power, we found ourselves absolutely at peace with ourselves.