THE FERRY TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD
Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab's Lofoten of 1932.
Each evening of the year a ship leaves Bergen in southwest Norway on an 11-day voyage which will take her up the coast far beyond the Arctic Circle and to within a stone’s throw of the Russian border at the iron ore mining town of Kirkenes. En route she will visit 35 different ports and cover a distance of close on 2,500 nautical miles, In summer she sails in almost continuous daylight; in midwinter much of the journey is realised in darkness or varying shades of twilight.
Hurtigruten – the Coastal Express – is still, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, very much part of the scene on Norway’s Riksvei Nº. 1 – the Hovedleia or inshore shipping channel. Road links along the coast are still interrupted by time-consuming fjord crossings, even though over the past few decades great new bridges and costly undersea tunnels have been built. Projects to extend the Trondheim to Bodø railway north to Narvik or even Tromsø have repeatedly been consigned to the back-burner. At the rate the world’s reserves of liquid hydrocarbon fuels are now being gobbled up, domestic airline routes will in a few decades form a relatively brief and concluded chapter of Norway’s transport history. Recent research suggests that diesel-powered ships are also a major source of global pollution as well . . .
The Hurtigrute of today still performs similar functions to those it did a century ago, carrying cargo and passengers (mail no longer, sadly) between one port and another, and between the south and the north of the country. In spite of wildly exaggerated claims in holiday magazines and the travel sections of newspapers, it is not a newly-discovered tourist attraction, although now as never before round-trip passengers are its life-blood. Visitors to Norway have been using it and its predecessor services ever since the 1830s. Then as now it offers the traveller from abroad a unique insight into everyday life on the Long Coast – an insight which the insular worlds of the touring coach or the cruise liner could never provide.
The operating statistics of the Hurtigrute are impressive. In the early 1980s each of the eleven ships operating the service nade between 29 and 32 round trips annually, sailing around 75,000 nautical miles, while the fleet as a whole covered a distance not far short of a million miles or the equivalent of 36 times round the Equator each year. The situation nowadays is a little different since several members of the fleet are at any given time cruising elsewhere in the world. Mechanical problems – sometimes rather more disruptive in their consequences on todays high-tech ships than on the steamers of a century ago - frequently have to be dealt with and resolved en route. So do matters such as routine maintenance and servicing. Groundings and collisions, even with the latest navigational aids on board, still occasionally occur. The changeable, unpredictable weather is always the number one enemy. Hurtigrute operating conditions are far from easy.
On board a coastal steamer somewhere in Lofoten, around the turn of the century.