High above the Arctic Circle, waves crash aggressively onto Europe’s largest three-mast wooden schooner.
Wind howls violently against the ship as it crosses notoriously stormy waters – tearing its sails in the process. But for the crew on board, as they cross the Barents Sea, this is the adventure of a lifetime.
Aboard the Linden, 10 men battle sea sickness and work relentless shifts for 40 days in a determined effort to get the replica of a 1920s vessel from Denmark to the icy Norwegian island of Svalbard.
In Svalbard, home to 3,000 inhabitants – polar bears outnumber people. Here, the landscape is rugged, remote, fragile and rich in untouched arctic wilderness. The seasons are relentless – with long sunlit summer evenings and endless winter nights.
It’s the Linden’s maiden voyage after being revitalized, but for many on board this is more than just a journey. This is a mission to provide sustainable, eco-friendly expeditions in the high Arctic.
Not only that though, the voyage also aims to bring perspective to the lives of some of the Linden’s young crew – some of whom come from troubled backgrounds and have had run-ins with the law.
The sea has always been a huge part Linden captain Rasmus Jacobsen’s life. For 30 years the Dane has worked on various sailing vessels and has dedicated his life to sustainability and environmentalism.
“I was in the Caribbean when I saw these huge cruise liners coming into an island,” he told CNN.
“They’d drop thousands of people at an island and they’d walk around and then they would leave the island and the footprint they would leave was a strange one because they were like ants and then they would disappear again.”
From what Jacobsen saw, the island wasn’t benefiting from the presence of tourists – neither economically or environmentally.
Concerned about how this could be increasing the island’s vulnerability, he started talking with tourism boards to understand how holidays could be less destructive on the environment, more beneficial to the people of the host country and enrich the lives of tourists.
With this idea in mind, Jacobsen purchased the Linden. It had spent the past few years as a floating restaurant in Finland and had fallen into a state of disrepair. He put it into dry dock for a major refurbishment and got in touch with Basecamp Explorer – a tourism company that offers sustainable Arctic adventures in Svalbard.
From then, after months of work, the Linden set sail from Svendborg to Svalbard in late March to join the company to offer eco-friendly expeditions.
Along the way, the Linden visited many towns – including that of Bergen, Bodø, Tromsø, and Bjørnøya before finally reaching Longyearbyen in Svalbard.
As crew members worked six hour shifts, twice a day, they watched the northern lights dance in the sky and were captivated by sights like the Norwegian fjords along their route.
“The scenery is one of the greatest things on board,” 22-year-old crew member, Mads Hansen, told CNN.
“With sailing there’s freedom in it and the thought of you being carried away by wind and nature – all for free – that’s what I enjoy, that nature helps you get around the world.”
Hansen, along with Tobias Soerensen and Johannes Elslo, works tirelessly around the clock maintaining the vessel – from painting, rigging the ship and adjusting sails and ropes to fixing wood.
“Yesterday the masts were slightly bent and my job together with Tobias was to make them exactly straight,” Elslo said. “That was so fulfilling by the end of the day being able to see these three 20 meter tall masts just looking slightly better – we could see that but nobody else could, so it is rewarding in a very strange way.”
“I think it’s beautiful how we’re just rebuilding the Linden on our way up (to Svalbard) – it’s very drastic,” 22-year-old Soerensen said. “You start to really get this relationship to the ship as you’re working with it a lot.”
Unlike Soerensen and Hansen, who have both completed traineeships in sailing, Elslo came on board with no experience – instead he’s a literature student. For him, this trip is a great chance to reflect on his life back home in Copenhagen. He found out about the trip through his father, who is a sailor.
“This is a very emotional trip for me – it is so different and the ship is so beautiful and everywhere we sail is beautiful,” Elslo said.
“It’s difficult to be away and not knowing when I’ll be coming back. So I have lots of moments every day where I don’t really regret it, but I miss a lot of things back home while cleaning toilets and freezing in the night steering the ship, then a moment later I’m filled with joy that I haven’t felt before.”
As well as offering jobs to people who are simply interested in an adventure, Jacobsen also makes a point of employing some crew members that come from troubled backgrounds or have had run ins with the law.
“Young people might benefit from leaving the environment they are in – this could be various places in Denmark where life is a little bit rough and tough.
“A city might call me and say ‘we have this young man or woman that might benefit from being away from home for a period of 6-12 months just to get another perspective of life.’
“I wish I could help more but every now and again if there is a match, if it seems like they really want to then I’ll have a talk with them.”
The Linden's voyage to Svalbard
Jacobsen believes a ship is the perfect place for someone to straighten their life out.
“It’s a very honest environment to be in because you can’t really hide who you are,” he explains.
“Being together 24/7 month after month you’ll get to learn each other very well and in the end you don’t want to waste time trying to be something you’re not and you start to build another character … by connecting with me, with the cook, the engineer.
“There’s no guarantee when they come back if they’ll go back to what they were, but they still learn something – they learn about how to interact with other people (from different backgrounds).”
Mette Eliseussen, expedition leader at Basecamp Explorer told CNN the aim in Svalbard is to “discover how to run tourism without making a negative impact on wildlife, the ocean or the land around us.”
“Tourism is becoming an economic force in the world, making it even more important to test and demonstrate if and how this industry can bend towards sustainability,” she said.
“Over the last half year we have researched to find ways we can be more environmentally friendly on the Linden.”
Jacobsen and his crew use the sails as much as possible, and have also learned how to become more self-sufficient by growing things on board and harvesting local wild plants and fauna.
“We are exploring possibilities to harvest not only fish and crustaceans from the ocean, but also seaweed and plankton (and) we turn our food waste into nutritious soil and use this to fertilize our own garden on board,” Eliseussen added.
The crew have had to come up with creative ways to fight the challenges of the bitter arctic climate. A greenhouse has been made inside the ship, using skylights and the heat produced by the generator to give various plants and vegetables what they need to grow.
“That also gives us another challenge,” Linden chef, Dennis Lyngsø told CNN. “There’s going to be a midday and midnight sun for a couple of months.
“Plants do need their respiration also, so we have to cover that up to simulate the darkness of the night because these plants aren’t supposed to grow in the arctic.”
Lyngsø spends most of his time hustling in the galley and preparing meals for crew members and guests on board using the fish they’ve caught.
On deck he’s maintaining a garden where a variety of onions grow, and inside he experiments, fermenting vegetables and growing mushrooms and microgreens which are packed with nutrients.
He’s also made it his mission to educate members on board about respectful relationships with meat.
“Everything nowadays is vacuum packed in plastic and so they don’t have a relationship towards the meat they eat – that it’s had a life before – so I wanted to show the guys on board that if you catch a fish you kill it yourself,” he said.
“They prepare it so they get involved with their hands, just make them have a more respectful relationship towards nature and how it entitles you to harvest it. You have to know how much you eat and where it comes from.”
This is a first for Lyngsø, not just sailing – but also cooking in this capacity. He walked past the Linden while it was docked in Denmark one day and his friend told him about the ship’s sustainable ambitions. “We walked past it and I told him to stop and that we had to go back, I just had a feeling I had to do it,” Lyngsø said.
“It’s the first time for me sailing in big waves and harsh weather like this. You get used to it but it’s difficult to cook soup,” he laughed. “One of the crew members said if you’re able to cook on the ship then you can cook anywhere so I’m adding that to my resume.”
The Linden has now begun welcoming guests on board for its expeditions in Svalbard and will remain there for the summer before heading south.
Guests will experience sailing through icy waters and enjoy Svalbard’s polar landscape. They’ll learn from crew members what it takes to sail a wooden vessel and will study the wildlife that calls Svalbard home – from polar bears, to walruses, reindeer and even blue whales. They will also witnessing how 400 years of human presence on the island has affected their environment.
“I think we’ve found something that appeals to the modern tourist that still wants to be able to see some of the old land and old culture in 100 years from now,” Jacobsen said.
“The Linden is a nice way to travel. It moves slowly, yes that’s true, but on the other hand I also think it’s important to be present where you are.
“It’s important that we are present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing and one of the ways to do that is to slow down every now and again and to just enjoy it with the people we are together with.”
Photographs and videos taken by freelance photojournalist Eliah Lillis