May / June 2019


A Norwegian pilot boat circumnavigates the Americas

Good holding ground in 10′ of water inside the reef at Raiatea, French Polynesia, gave the boat a safe anchorage, even though the mountains formed a wind tunnel that funneled 30 knots to the lagoon every evening.

In 2018, the 40' LADY FREE became the first Norwegian vessel to successfully complete a circumnavigation of the North and South American continents. The 32,000-nautical-mile odyssey, which took two-and-a-half years, is all the more remarkable for having been accomplished, for the most part, shorthanded in a 20-ton, double-ended wooden boat whose lines and traditional gaff topsail rig have remained essentially unchanged since they were conceived more than a century ago by Colin Archer, the great Norwegian designer of Scottish descent.

LADY FREE’s clockwise journey around the continents was meticulously planned for a decade and was accomplished largely under sail. Her 67-hp Perkins auxiliary diesel was used sparingly. Heavily built and strip-planked in Norway pine at Ålesund in 1983, LADY FREE is based on Archer’s lodsbaad (pilot boat) No. 104, designed at Larvik for Josef Wilhelmsen in 1905. Her young crew, some of whom were novice sailors, handled the rig without the aid of winches, hydraulics, or modern mechanical contrivances of any kind. To sway the topsail aloft or set the jibs on her 21'-long jibboom, for example, they used traditional block-and-tackle gear and belaying pins.

Full credit for the success of this extraordinary voyage goes to LADY FREE’s owner and skipper, Dr. Jan Martin Nordbotten. A 37-year-old professor of mathematics at the University of Bergen, he is a lifelong sailor with a profound love of traditional wooden boats and the sea. His earlier passage west across the Norwegian Sea from Bergen to the mountainous grandeur of Greenland left a deep and abiding impression on Nord­botten. It also inspired him to embark on an arduous voyage that was to have encompassed both the Antarctic continent and the high Arctic.

Once underway, however, he realized that such an ambitious undertaking was bound to be fraught with potentially serious consequences when it came to sailing through Russia’s Arctic territorial waters. In Argentina, a frustrating encounter with heavy-handed bureaucrats convinced him not to risk a repeat performance by provoking the xenophobic Russians. Instead, he settled upon Antarctica as his major goal. “Although my original idea of making a polar circumnavigation really appealed to me, the bureaucracy I encountered in South America scared me off the idea of tempting the Russians. I didn’t want the voyage to end in tears.”

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