In the middle of the October Susi and I finally went on an eagerly awaited diving trip to northern Norway, in the city of Narvik. It’s one of the best wreck diving locations in the world, since during the World War II it was a strategically very important location, being the only efficient port for shipping out iron ore from the Swedish mines in Kiruna. Consequently there were several battles over the city and its harbour, which littered the closeby waters with the wrecks of cargo and war ships.
19 HOURS TO NARVIK
The trip itself was pretty merciless: 19 hours straight in a minibus. Our plan was to leave at nine in the evening on Wednesday and return in the morning hours of the following Monday. I took the whole Wednesday off and had a well meaning plan to have a good night’s sleep before the trip. I didn’t count in the fact that I’ve been slightly off my game lately, getting kind of stir crazy and frustrated over certain things. Consequently I stayed up ’till far too late (or early), so most of the day went in an insomniac haze and in the evening I was dog tired.
In our group there were fourteen people travelling in a minibus, a van that also carried most of our gear, and one Land Rover. Susi and I were stationed on the minibus, where we holed into the back seats and tried to get some sleep.
Nine tenths of the trip went by in a haze for me. The seats were hard, narrow and not adjustable, so I spent most of the night in a semi delirious dream state, trying to get myself comfortable and being neither properly asleep or awake. When I finally came to enough to understand something about my surroundings, we had crossed over to Sweden and were just passing over the Arctic Circle. The world played to that beautifully: there was snow outside, reindeer were blocking the traffic on the roads and there was a wintery morning fog that gleamed incredibly brightly in the morning sun.
After that I was slightly more awake after that and stayed up to admire the scenery. When we reached Kiruna and the surrounding mountainy areas, I wished we could have had a couple of stops just to take photos and explore the industrial buildings and equipment around us. The area between Kiruna and Narvik kind of define the word “desolate” at this time of the year. There were mountains that were covered with sharply defined lines of white snow and dark brown, almost black ground. There were no leaves in the trees, the ground was brown or dirty yellowish gray; occasionally there were massive rusting industrial buildings and beaten up trains loaded with gas containers or large, open and thoroughly rust covered ore carriages. I could spend days just photographing all that stuff.
THE ARRIVAL & THE BOAT
We arrived in Narvik in the evening and had to wait for a moment for our ship, M/S Galten, to arrive. It turned out to be a really comfortable and nice diving boat: there were several private cabins, a sauna, a nice – although a bit cramped – kitchen and or course a large indoor diving deck with racks for the suits, a lot of benches for the divers, heating, music and so on. The only little complaint was that there was no toilet in the lower deck, so if you had to take a leak in the morning hours, you had to clamber all the way up to the open deck to the only toilet in the ship – but otherwise, a brilliant boat!
As so often in these restless insomniac bouts, I got more alert in the evening. People settled down in a common space in the lower deck of the boat to chat and destroy some beer, wine and Bowmore that was left over from our Åland trip. Fun was had, and I even had the common sense to hit the bunk in a reasonable hour.
THE FIRST DAY’S DIVES
In the first day our dive locations was M/S Stråssa, a 121 meter long freight ship that got hit with a torpedo in 1940. There were several surprises waiting for us, the first one being the proximity of the wreck: like several others, it was within a viewing distance from the dock where the ship is moored at nights. The second one is that this wreck, and most of the others were in rather shallow waters, well within OWD certification. The third one was the amount of marine life visible.
Diving in the Baltic sea you get used to seeing a sea bottom that’s like partially terraformed Mars. You get some algae and vegetation in shallow waters, but anywhere below 10 meters it starts turning into clam covered gravel. I hadn’t put much thought into the matter, so that’s what I was expecting from the North Atlantic also.
When we followed the buoy rope down I didn’t at first realise that we were coming down to a wreck – I thought it was fastened on the sea bottom. This was because the area where we touched down was covered with large leafed vegetation and there were arm long pollocks swimming around the divers. Compared to the Baltic Sea the water was really clear, the visibility being 10-15 meters. It took me a moment to realise that we had touched down on the aft deck of a wide ship – and then I was facing a new surprise in the form of sea anemones, coral like structures, hermit crabs and all kinds of marine life.
The wreck itself was an interesting dive also. The first dive was a bit cumbersome, since there was just enough current to make things feel a bit difficult. Initially it made both Susi and I wonder if our diving skills had really gone completely rusty, since maintaining proper buoyancy felt hard and swimming was cumbersome. When I realised that it was the current, not just me fucking up, things started going better. Susi was a bit underweighed, which made it doubly difficult for her.
After we had fixed up the situation, the second dive was a real blast. There was a heavy surface current, which felt like jumping into the ship’s steering engine stream, so we had to pull ourselves to the buoy by a rope. According to the ship captain the current was really nothing, so I’m really wondering what kind of a torrent they usually have. In the bottom the torrent was completely gone and we had a really good time. There was some light wreck petting in the form of diving through the covered walkways on the sides of the ship. There were also more opportunities to inspect the marine life. Susi spotted a palm sized crab, but me and the third guy in our group didn’t notice her frantic signals, being engrossed in our own investigations.
Oh, there would have been a second wreck 20 meters away from this one, but since we had only single tanks with us, we decided to skip it. Especially so when on the second dive we had the third guy with us. He was diving with air, not Nitrox, plus we didn’t really know how experienced he was. But no matter, there was more than enough to see in Stråssa. Also, getting back to the boat was fun. When we got up, the only thing we had to do was to let the surface current take us to the boat – and try and remember to grab the ropes hanging from the ship as we went past them.
This evening we left the chatting and drinking a bit short, and not only because the four Englishmen who were on the boat with us came to ask us to shut the fuck up and not keep them awake ’till silly hours like yesterday. I actually got in several hours of quality sleep.
THREE DESTROYERS IN ONE DIVE
On the next day we went to a site with three destroyers side by side. Really. Ok, they hadn’t all sunk like that, since at least one of them was towed there, but still – in most diving locations there’s one wreck here and another there, but Narvik harbour had two mostly intact destroyers lying within viewing distance of each other. The main attraction was the destroyer Wilhelm Heidkamp, which was standing upright in the bottom. You could see the fastening points to the torpedo launchers, the barrels of some 5cm guns the ship had and you could also take a peek through a hole in the side and see the washrooms of the ship.
We thought we’d take a look at the other destroyer in our second dive, but unfortunately we didn’t get the chance, since we switched locations – but not for the worse. The target was a freight ship called Neuenfels, which is over 140 meters long. It was torpedoed in the harbour and according to the briefing you could go into the sea bottom, find the torpedo hole, enter the wreck and go straight up and through one of the massive open cargo holds. Susi and I had again the third guy with us, since his dive buddy had another unfortunate problem with his equipment. We decided to go and see the torpedo hole and enter the wreck for a swim through if it looked safe.
It was already dark when we got down and the water was a bit murkier than we got used to. We went to see the rudder, with bolts half the size of a human head, and went around the corner to check out the torpedo hole. The water in front of it was silted, so apparently plenty of other divers had had the same idea. Darkness, silted water, a gaping hole with sharp looking edges and inpenetrable darkness behind that… Yeah, we decided to skip it this time around.
What can I say about the wreck apart that it was massive, well worth seeing.
My mask had been a little bit inconvenient throughout the dive, pressing my eyes in a weird way that made it hard to focus. In the end I tried to fix it, but managed to get it to leak in a way that refused to stop. There was just ten minutes of dive time left, so instead of asking Susi to check it out or trying to do any big fixes myself, I just let it be and beared with the occasional slosh of seawater against my eyeballs.
On the next day our plan was to wake up at seven in the morning, jump into the car, visit our last dive location of the trip and then head off for home. I skipped all the offers for an evening beer or wine and headed off for bed.
Trying to sleep that night made me sympathize a bit with the Brits, although their cabins were on the far side of the corridor, as far away from the common room as possible. Ours was right next to it and apparently the wall had the sound proofing qualities of a soggy tissue. I never got awake enough to ask people to tone it down a bit, which is a shame, since in the end I got something like three hours of solid sleep.
DIVING IN AN AIRPLANE
In the next morning I tried to wake up a bit cranky after the badly slept night, but the trip had been so much fun that I really couldn’t do it, so I just had a morning coffee and bounced around like a moron going “tralala”. We got our stuff in the cars pretty quickly, but of course getting 14 heavily equipped people to get their shit together took some sitting around.
Our last diving location wasn’t in the sea, it was actually in the mountains. Moreover, it was an airplane. Some 40km out of Narvik there’s a mountain lake called Hartvigvattnet, which the Nazis used for an airstrip. One of the Junkers 52 planes fell through the ice in 1940 and makes for a very interesting dive location. A bonus dose of interesting was provided by the fact that apparently there’s a really cranky landowner involved, who’s really jealous about the road that goes to the lake. The story tells it that you can placate him with beer, so we grabbed a six pack from a gas stop and headed out.
We got quite close to the lake when it got apparent that our van and minibus couldn’t handle the road ahead. Calling it a road is a bit generous, since most of the way it was just two tire tracks in a field, but the last stretch it was basically a road shaped strip of mud. We were debating about aborting the dive, when someone pointed out that there was a nice, brisk river going down to the lake and our Land Rover would have no problem with the mud. So, let’s everybody get kitted, jump into the river and the Land Rover can pick us up in the other end and bring us back.
It was really fucking fun. The river wasn’t deep, a bit over a meter in most places, but the current was brisk, the water crystal clear and the bottom was like in an aquarium. Susi and I didn’t see any underwater life, but a few others spotted salmon or trout hiding next to the shore while they zoomed past. The river carried us right into the lake nestled in between mountains and almost right on top of the sunken plane.
The plane itself, well – I’ll let the photos and the video do the talking. What’s not shown there is a pilot’s boot, apparently authentic, one of us found in the wreck.
HEADING BACK HOME
The only thing left was the gruelling 19 hour drive back home. We were supposed to switch drivers every couple of hundred of kilometres, but two people from our group kept hogging the steering wheel, for which I think everybody was grateful. I didn’t have work on Monday, which I also had taken as a day off, so I volunteered to take the graveyard shift behind the wheel. Early in the trip it had turned out that the minibus was a… well, a bit of a piece of shit. The back lights and the brake lights had been flashing on the way to Narvik and the car kept blowing out the fuses. There was also a drive assist system, which had mainly hampered driving until it had burned out.
On the way back the back light fuse actually melted and the guys had to McGuyver around a bit to get us halfway legal to be on the roads. In practice they tore out the innards of the back lights from casings and replaced them with a dive light and a cheapo Clas Ohlson flashlight.
My driving shift becan at four in the morning. Since the shitty seats sabotaged all the plans for sleeping, I was already in a state of sleep deprivation where I wasn’t actually tired, I just felt 12-pack drunk. Unfortunately the first thing I faced was the road from Jyväskylä to Heinola, which is a narrow and winding and has a lot of truck traffic. Additional fun was provided by the steering, which had something like 30 degrees of slack before it started actually turning the wheels, the tendency of the car to drift sideways and a rain that was alternatively snow, sleet and water. As I kept joking, mortal terror keeps one awake pretty well. When we got to the motorway, things got far easier. Right before Helsinki I handed over the controls to one of us who actually knew where we were heading and who didn’t keep seeing cars and moose that on the second glance weren’t really there…
A GREAT, GREAT HOLIDAY
If you are interested in wreck diving and you have a chance to go to Norway, go and visit Narvik. DiveNarvik is a great operator, M/S Galten is a comfortable ship and the selection of wrecks they have is bloody amazing. The great thing is that you don’t have to be a tech diver to get to see all the cool stuff, since for example all the wrecks we went to were in OWD depths. Officially they do require AOWD and 40 logged dives, but I think you can talk yourself in with just OWD too. As far as I saw it, if you know how to dive from boats and you don’t panic if you hit a bit of a current, you’ll do fine.
On a personal level this was a really goddamn great autumn holiday. A nice yank out of the grind, a lots to do, good food to eat, sights to see, great people to chat with and yeah – if a holiday takes me two work days to recuperate from, I know I did something right.