A Seafaring History

From weighted ropes to GPS, navigation techniques have come on leaps and bounds since our maiden journey.


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The year is 1893. On board DS Vesteraalen, Captain Richard With pulls out his pocket watch and checks a compass. They’ve been sailing due northeast for a while now, and the notorious tides he’s seen plenty of times before are about to turn. He shifts course to head true north.

He knows the consequence of veering off course. A particularly nasty sounding berg looming below the water’s surface is described in his trusty pocket guide, a handwritten notebook of sea information. He straightens to the precise degree and carries on, firing off instructions to whoever is nearest. It’s dark, save for the hundred or so lighthouses that dot Norway’s jagged coastline, for which he is thankful. There are even tougher challenges ahead, like taking on Lofoten’s tricky islands in even trickier weather tomorrow.

On board DS Vesteraalen, the first ship to take on Norway's tricky coast.

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Northern Norway in 1893, the year of Hurtigruten's first voyage.

A map showing Norway in 1845.

A map of Norway in 1661.

So it was when Hurtigruten began cruising up and down the Norwegian coast towards the end of the 19th Century. DS Vesteraalen’s journey from Trondheim to Hammerfest in 1893 was our maiden journey. We’ve been doing it ever since and while the dramatic fjords and soaring cliffs haven’t changed, fortunately, navigation techniques have improved beyond recognition. The captains of our modern vessels, still as skilled and precise as those hardy seafaring folk of yesteryear, are no longer solely reliant on their own sea knowledge, pocket guide and rudimentary equipment for the safe transfer of passengers from port to port. You won’t, for example, see them throwing a weighted rope off the edge to check the water’s depth.

While the dramatic fjords and soaring cliffs haven’t changed, fortunately, navigation techniques have improved beyond recognition.

MS Nordkapp in the Hjørundfjord, Norway.

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Today GPS, sonar technology and electronic charts give the captains every bit of detail they need above and below the water to ensure a safe journey. Over the years, sailors, fishermen and government authorities have worked together to create a reliable map of the ocean floor, which is now integrated into ships’ internal systems.

A key player in this ongoing mapping process is Kartverket, the Norwegian Mapping Authority, which has been surveying Norway since long before even our maiden journey. Their work mapping Norway’s complex coastline is critical in ensuring the safe passage of our ships.

Today GPS, sonar technology and electronic charts play an essential role in navigation.

A Hurtigruten Captain talking through the tools at their disposal today.

“When Hurtigruten started it was very poorly charted in those areas where they were travelling,” says Kartverket’s Siri Reimers, who has been mapping Norway’s coast for more than 30 years. “They had to use what was available but also doing their own calculations of depths, compass, directions and timing turns by using the clock to travel along the coastline without good maps. “These sailors knew the coast so well. They were pioneers, actually. The more I think about it, it seems pretty risky, but also amazing how they were able to navigate our coastline like they did because it is such a complicated area.” Complicated is an understatement. When you take into account each of its 239,000 islands, the total length of Norway’s coastline becomes the second longest in the world, behind only Canada. Norway’s first lighthouse started guiding ships along that epic coast in 1656, with more than 200 joining it over the centuries. And though all bar that first one are now automatic and unstaffed (or defunct), lighthouses still play a critical role in lighting up Norway’s shorelines. They’re a steadfast symbol of continuity in a region where so much can change so quickly.

Today, a range of tools are available for navigation purposes. This man is using a sextant, used to measure the angle between the horizon and a celestial body such as the sun, or moon.

A more recent map. Accuracy and depth information are the biggest changes in Norway's maps from 100 years ago.

Norway has one of the most complex coastlines in the world.

“Accuracy of the maps and depth information is the biggest change from the maps used a hundred years ago,” says Reimers. “Back then, it was depths that they didn’t know very much about especially. “That’s where it becomes very important what we do, because the seafarers need the information to make a good planning of their sailing route. And you can make a very good plan, and then something happens – maybe you need to go and help someone – and you need to recalculate your plans.” The charts are updated every two weeks. They have to be. The Norwegian coast is always changing. In 1922, for example, a channel (Risøyrenna) was dredged, mainly to allow Hurtigruten access to deeper waters and an easier passage. In 2011, a major recalculation of the coastline was done to include fjords and islands.

The mile-long Stad Ship Tunnel will help vessels navigate the Stadhavet Sea. So treacherous, Vikings used to pull their ships across the land here to avoid sailing around it in bad weather.

Stadhavet Sea, where the world's first tunnel for ships is being built.

Looking ahead, Reimers and her team have more work on their hands with the impending $450 million AUD construction of the world's first ship tunnel. When it opens in 2025 or 2026, the mile-long Stad Ship Tunnel will help vessels navigate the Stadhavet Sea. So treacherous is this stretch around the Stad that the Vikings used to drag their ships across the land here to avoid sailing around it in bad weather. “[The tunnel] will obviously affect the sea charts greatly so there is a lot of work going on here,” says Reimers. “It’s dangerous waters around Stadhavet, very dangerous with the weather and traitorous waves. There is a lot of shipwrecks lying on the seabed from past times. “The fun part is that the Vikings used to drag their vikingships over the land to avoid Stadlandet Sea. And now with this tunnel the modern seafarers will be able to do the same.”

Taking into account all islands, Norway has the second longest coastline in the world.

The Classic Roundtrip Voyage.

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