A bitter Arctic northerly is whirring and howling through the rigging. It is not often, when you are in your bunk, that you want the wind to blow harder and the whirring to go up an octave.
We need a gale with grunt to reshuffle the ice, crack it up and get it moving to create passable leads north so we can get to and through skinny Bellot Strait that separates Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island in the Arctic’s Northwest Passage. We are sheltering in an unnamed bay south of Gloster Point in the James Ross Strait on the Bootha Peninsula.
We have been forced to retreat. Nothing is quite as demoralising as losing ‘ground’ to a nautical destination: all those hard-earned miles needing to be ‘renavigated’ on yet another day.
Just after the sea temperature dropped from nine to four degrees, we were in ice. There began Abel Tasman’s nudging, wriggling, squirming, reversing and throttling through 3/10ths ice; the limit of ice percentages, despite her robust ten millimetre steel hull, she is able to tackle.
After eleven nautical mile of writhing and fuel-guzzling we progressed a trifling 3nm off Cape Frances that day in late August. Our track on the plotter is like the contorted footprint of a dismembered worm.
In ice, it is quite a workout on the helm, spinning that 1100mm diameter wheel to port and starboard trying to steer Abel Tasman’s 23m hull into cracks and gaps that may lead us out of icy puzzlement. Hot times in the cockpit followed by chilling stints on the bow pointing to possible leads, signing thumbs-up or thumbs-down back to the cockpit to relay progress through a pack.
All this ice hypnosis sends your mind into a biosphere of rumination until a polar bear stealthily leaps onto an iceberg, water deluging from its buttery pelt, black nose targeted aloft while nimbly rotating to find stability on a listing berg barely able to support its heftiness. We saw two more bears on that ice-bashing day and a couple of seal pups wearily taking quick breaths between fractures in the ice.
The idea, in this clogged-up predicament, in a relatively small yacht in light airs, is to hug the barren brown coast and find an open lane along the shore. Abel Tasman’s draught is 2.8m so we were not as close to the shore as we wanted to be. In the temptation to find open water, we lightly scraped the undulating bottom urging us to steer further offshore.
The problem with ice and the mirages it produces, is that they give the impression that open water is just beyond the radius of your private entrapment. Tantalisingly, just over there, or so it would seem, is the freedom to be on course unobstructed.
In the James Ross Strait we were hoping for a nor-easterly gale to push the ice pack south west and off the eastern shore to create a northern runaway of deliverance. This did not happen.
Ice bashing is a daylight, light-air pursuit so, as soon as the last bit of light dissolved, we hove to in the pack and kept watch on three essentials: our distance from shore, an increase in wind strength and boarding polar bears.
Most boats carry a gun to scare off polar bears. Instead of a gun we had a bear banger: a handheld spring-loaded device that shoots a flare. The cartridge detonates just past your hand and the ‘not very directional’ projectile arcs through the air to 'poof' into a flare.
I imagined the cartridge blowing my hand off, the bear not registering the bang and disinterestedly tracing the flare through the air, shrugging its shoulders and returning to the business of landing me for lunch minus one hand.
At 0315hrs the wind started to blow and that moving feast of rotating, flexing, cracking ice got on the go. As soon as a gap opened to our south, from where we had come, it was time to retreat 32nm before its agitation beset us and did more damage to Abel Tasman’s already twisted propeller blades.
So, here we sit in an unnamed bay, willing more wind while we each find our ‘project’ space. Hours, then days slip by in our hushed library-like hull. It is getting late in the season and our window for getting through the Northwest Passage is shrinking.
Back to telling you about our stay in Cambridge Bay/Iqualuktuuttiaq, where I left off in my last story, with the hundreds of dead snow geese floating belly-up on our approach. Two theories: a recent oil spill off the coast or, perhaps, the chemical used on Cambridge Bay (CB) roads to dampen the dust. People were surprised to hear about the deaths: “it’s not unheard of but it is uncommon”.
CB was a mixed 1,800 community of Inuits, scientists and public servants at all levels of government. Over the past 5,000 years this site has been chosen as a place to live for its location and resources. 'Iqualuktuuttiaq' means, roughly, a place of many fish.
I will remember CB, not for its dusty roads and busy populace, but being witness to “what’s possible” with tenacity and passion. I am talking about the 'Maud returns home' project that conceived and implemented the raising of Roald Amundsen’s Maud by a Norwegian artist, taxi driver, general tradesman and boat yard owner.
These self-effacing friends have achieved a feat as much about art and bringing an innate relic to life, as it is about history and the expression of cunning amateur engineering devoid of repressive intervention by bureaucrats and regulators. A group with a vision to refloat Maud from its 80 year submersion, strap it to a barge and tow it home to Norway from where it started its polar exploration 100 years ago.
Like Amundsen, the team is one of dreams and action. The terrestrial age of discovery may be over but a project like this gives hope that occasionally, with spirit, it is possible to transcend our regulatory western world that thwarts, disheartens and erects hurdles in the path of inspired (and inspiring) notions.
All the model making, the complex what-if and how-to tête-à-têtes, the resolve to solve compounding problems, the countless year-round freezing dives on the wreck to figure out Maud’s ascent and collect an abundance of relics buried in knee deep mud. Always with a mind to the aesthetic, it is a project so ambitious that the naysayers and poo-pooers would have been out in force at the idea’s conception but now, with Norway just over the horizon, comes a new set of popularity challenges.
Resurrected, Maud is now exposed and perched on a rusting ex-oilrig barge ready to be towed through the Northwest Passage to Greenland to ready her for the celebrated 2018 homecoming. Three Norwegian brothers, who have harmoniously been in business since their youth, are the sole and vital funders of the project. Without any ado and notoriety they purchased the Tanberg Polar tug, barge and have covered the costs to get Maud home.
Back to the beginning
With the prospect of ice ahead and lots of it, we said our goodbyes and good luck to the Maud crew and departed CB in mirror calm conditions to cross Queen Maud Gulf and Simpson Strait where muskox grazed on flat tundra through a labyrinth of shoals, currents and deceptive horizon mirages born from the extreme flatness of the land.
Immersed in Amundsen, we detoured and anchored overnight in Amundsen’s Gjøa spot at Gjøa Haven in a natural harbour on King William Island where he wintered for two seasons and named the harbour after his first expedition boat, Gjøa.
The great thing about Amundsen, in my mind, was his desire to learn the art of polar survival from the local Netsilik Eskimos. He was, sensibly unusual among polar explorers in grasping that the Eskimos were not savages but highly adapted to their surroundings, with much to teach him.
After Gjøa Haven we headed further north into the ice and so, if you are still with me, back to the beginning of this story.
Back in the Unnamed Bay, near Gloster Point, after making no headway through the ice, we were contemplating the uncontemplatable as, over Rog’s shoulder, we studied disheartening ice charts and Plan B: the unrelished prospect of Abel Tasman wintering in Cambridge Bay or getting to Norway via the Panama Canal; a 12,000nm detour back to the Pacific Ocean.
Irene, a USA fiberglass Herreshoff ketch, with owners, Peter and Ginger on board, was sheltering in Oscar Bay faced with the same dilemma. After four days of sitting and thinking, Rog came up with the idea of crossing to the western side of James Ross Strait and rendezvousing with the Tanberg Polar towing Maud off Cape Felix on the northern tip of King William Island. Maybe, in Maud’s wake, we could get through the ice.
Peter and Ginger were ‘all ears’ and, with the Tanberg Polar’s approval, we laid an intercepting course.
Hearing of our ice woes up the eastern side of Larsen Sound, the Tanberg Polar’s captain chose to take a punt and head up the western side of Larsen Sound from Cape Felix. With Norwegian 'methodicalness' the Tanberg Polar picked its way along the ice edge popping into northern leads as they materialised.
Despite what the ice charts reported when we reached Cape Swinborne on the southern end of Prince of Wales Island our eclectic flotilla made excellent progress along the island’s eastern shore. If puttering in Maud’s wake was not blessing enough we were summoned, one light air afternoon, alongside and presented with a bag of char, trout and a bucket of ice cream to celebrate the sighting of an open lead straight across Larsen Sound to our longed-for destination: the 17nm long and 3/4nm wide Bellot Strait, separating Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island that marks the meeting of Atlantic and Pacific tides.
“Yah, the ice parted for Maud,” chuckled the Tanberg’s laconic captain.
By dawn we were off the entrance of Bellot Strait with Chinese icebreaker, Xiu Long; the same ship, coincidently, that I had been involved with at Casey station in Antarctica in 2016. Later, absurdly, a cruise ship with tourists lining the stanchions passed by; flash bulbs capturing our ranked convoy of the Tanberg Polar, Maud, Abel Tasman and Irene. Talk about a boat ‘photo bomb’ as Maud was the true star in the line-up.
After weeks of flat Artic tundra, Bellot Strait, with its mist shrouded stony hills seemed majestic in its topography. Zenith Point in Bellot Strait is the highest latitude of the Americas 72°00’N 94°39’W. From this point you can, if so inclined, walk without getting your feet wet to the lowest latitude in the Americas at Cape Froward in the Magellan Strait.
From Zenith Point we made a beeline to Fort Ross, looking mystical in a snow flurry, to rest and celebrate getting through the ice with Abel Tasman: eggnogs and Irene rum cake.
Miraculously, there was hardly any ice in Prince Regent Inlet where we laid a course to our furthest northern latitude of 73° 55’N at Cape York on the snow-dusted Brodeur Peninsula, to head east along Lancaster Sound before turning south into snow-capped mountain-lined Navy Board Inlet where we came upon Yvan Bourgnon sailing his off-the-beach 21’ catamaran, Ma Louloutte (French for 'little chicken'), through the Northwest Passage (www.ledefibimedia.com)! Maud and now Ma Louloutte were reminders to me of what is possible in life, just as I was dispairing that my scones were not rising in the oven.
Over the VHF radio we discussed the 50+knot blow that was due and where Yvan was intending to shelter. His weather router, back in France, had suggested a land-locked bay near Cape Hatt on the northern end of Baffin Island. This bay was unsounded but, according to Yuan’s man, there was enough depth for Abel Tasman.
After crossing Eclipse Bay dodging more bergy bits we cautiously inched our way into the unnamed Australian-shaped (sort of) bay in the middle of the night, anchored and left a fender on a floating line for Yuan to tie up to when he arrived at dawn.
The Tanberg Polar and Maud arrived the next evening to share the mountain-encased 1nm wide bay that became our refuge from the wildest Arctic weather we encountered in the Northwest Passage. The words 'Arctic vortex' were labelling what was to come; I will keep 'vortex' in inverted commas because I am not convinced this term really exists but it sounds pretty dramatic.
So, we had a French couch-surfing visitor savouring Abel Tasman’s hot meals and dry dunny. Yvan was a short-handed ocean racing trimaran sailor so it was fun reminiscing about the trimarans we had raced and our shared friends. Yvan still holds the record for the fastest day’s run singlehanded, 610nm, but he admitted that what he was now attempting as the first person to sail an engineless boat from the Pacific Arctic Circle to the Atlantic Artic Circle via the Northwest Passage, was harder than anything he had ever attempted!
Yvan was kicking himself for buying the wrong-sized sea boots that could not accommodate all the pairs of socks he needed to wear to keep his toes warm. With no wriggle room in his boots he was wearing a pair of Jesus sandals! An incredulous sight in the Arctic on an open wet boat.
In the middle of one howling night, in that immense Arctic remoteness, with mad chook Ma Louloutte leashed and pecking at our stern, we woke to a shocking grinding noise of metal-upon-metal and a disturbing ‘pinned-down’ sensation of a great weight upon us. In a tangle of wet weather gear and stamping feet into sea boots, we raced into the cockpit to find Maud’s 400ton planked silhouette looming above us.
Yuan was saying, over and over, the easiest English word he could remember I guess: "shiiiit, shiiit!" Because Abel Tasman was pinned beam-on to the wind bullets firing down from the mountains, his flighty Ma Louloutte, no longer laying head-to-wind, was rearing up and threatening to capsize.
We did not know it at the time but the Tanberg Polar had engine control problems and had drifted across the bay while the crew desperately rigged-up the manual back-up system. By the time I had got a conscious grip on what our predicament was the Tanberg Polar’s engine roared into life above the shrieking wind. In the moonlight, black exhaust fumes swirled amongst driving white snow as Maud’s bulk and crushing contact was released from Abel Tasman. We were horizontal and head-to-wind again and Yuan had stopped saying “shiiiit”!
This commotion came before the 'vortex' and, in preparation of what was still to come, we lengthened Ma Louloutte’s bridle and Rog bucketed water into her hulls to quash her flightiness. As much as you prepare for eventualities, problems compound and something new comes out of left field. Bsides our fresh water freezing in the bilge pipes.
A forest of undisturbed seaweed smothered the bottom of the bay. Anchoring securely in this entanglement of roots was tricky: the anchor grabs then, with successive gusts, repositions itself. After a couple of days grabbing and regrabbing we were getting closer to the shore and the 'vortex' was due.
Time to reset the anchor but there was a snag, we had wrangled from the seabed a mob of green hairy seaweed now resembling muskoxen straddling the anchor chain and weighing an absolute ton. For the next two hours, at the peak of the 'vortex', Meg and I took it in turns to machete the pudgy bulk of oxen-sized seaweed from the anchor chain while everyone else was occupied with tasks to keep Abel Tasman on station and fend off prancing Ma Louloutte. With Abel Tasman straining at a 15° heel in the strongest ice-blasting gusts of 55+ knots, we made two attempts at resetting the anchor until settling safely in the middle of the bay.
In the morning, Yuan’s weather router, from the comfort of his Paris office, said “jump” and he was off in his sandals and socks to make a dash for the Arctic Circle in the Davis Strait and then onto Nuuk in Greenland, which ticked all the boxes for completing the Northwest Passage officially.
But passage making in these waters is never that simple and we later received news that the Tanberg Polar, Maud and Ma Louloutte had experienced 70 knots near Pond Inlet and Yvan’s sleeping bag had been blown off his outrigger perch: double shiiiit! But this was a mere hiccup in his scenario of discomfort, as a polar bear climbed onto Ma Louloutte off the Baffin Island coast.
“In the middle of the night I felt the leeward hull descend with a heavy weight. Straight away I knew it was a polar bear, so I grabbed my pistol and fired a shot past its head. That did not stop him and he continued to climb on board. I started crying (he meant French for screaming, but why wouldn’t you be crying) and waving my arms, but he continued coming closer. I cried more and fired another shot closer to its head and he got off my boat. I thought I was a goner,” said Yvan.
The next morning, our passage to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island was much more sedate, good call not to leave the night before.
This was the last Canadian Inuit community we visited. Its exposed tundra location, facing north into the forces of the Arctic, made me wonder, with great respect, how adaptive and resilient the people, plants, animals and birds of this land are.
The mournful howling of the Greenland huskies, chained to their perches along the waterfront, added farther forlornness to the mood of this outpost. Lamentably, with advances in hunting technology, there is also a sense of loss and lack-there-of, of wildlife.
From Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik) out into Baffin Bay which later merges into Davis Strait, we had a Sydney to Hobart length passage across to Disko Bay, Greenland where we sailed past gigantic glistening Jakobshavn glacier icebergs being taken for a ride offshore by the north bound current. About 3,000 icebergs calve off the glacier each year.
After a couple of months of flat Arctic tundra, making a landfall on Greenland takes your breath away as layer-upon-layer of mountain peaks from 300m to over 1500m overlap into the distant ice cap. Our destination in Disko Bay was Ilulissat, our first Danish Greenlandic Inuit experience.
We made our approach to Ilulissat after dark, picking our way through a flashlight-illuminated minefield of icebergs that littered the bay to finally anchor outside the narrow entrance of Ilulissat Harbour. My anchor watch took me to dawn where a seascape of icebergs engulfed us and a landscape of colourful Scandinavian cottages, perched on a rocky hillside, looked down upon us.
Ilulissat Harbour was the most congested port I have ever entered. Abel Tasman’s 23m hull seemed to consume the last remaining water and turning circle amongst rafted-up harpooned fishing boats, runabouts and charter boats.
About one kilometre beyond Ilulissat is the significant productive Jakobshavn glacier, so I hit the snow-covered duck boards elevating me above amber autumn bog plants to the awesome sight and sound of an illuminated skyline of ice crunching, calving and exploding in a panorama before me.
Our passage out of Ilulissat deposited us amongst this astonishing scene as we squeezed through narrow gaps between towering icebergs looming 30m above us on both sides.
By nightfall, we were in Qasigiannguit (Christianshab) where local missionaries, Daniel and Solveig, invited us to dinner. An evening of smoked halibut, lamb soup and local history ended with being waved into the community hall to join an Inuit wedding dance.
To complete our crescent-shaped passage around Disko Bay we overnighted in Aasiaat where we tied up alongside the Tanberg Polar and Maud and caught up with the Irene crew to exchange weather stories and relish in the warmth and hot showers of one of Greenland’s many Seafarer Missions along the coast.
The Tanberg Polar and Maud will winter in Aasiaat and prepare Maud for her centennial arrival home next summer to settle in Vollen, Norway.
Just 340nm to Nuuk (Godthab) and cruising abreast of a pod of fin whales, we zig-zagged between a trail of islands before heading out to sea where we received a satellite phonecall from Yvan. Ma Louloutte was becalmed, he had successfully dipped the Davis Strait Arctic Circle and he was over it. Fair enough I say! “My toes are frozen. I need a tow,” he declared. Obligingly, we laid an intercepting course with Ma Louloutte 180nm ahead of us.
End in sight
With Ma Louloutte in haphazard tow as Yvan nodded off to moments of sleep, Nuuk and the end to our successful completion of the Northwest Passage, was in sight.
In true French bravura, after a chance to doze and recover, as soon as the wind picked up Yvan was on the radio asking to be cast off and inviting us to race to our common destination and accomplishment!
On our last night out at sea steering a course for Nuuk, nature gifted us a most magnificent Aurora Borealis. At times the light appeared frozen in the sky like smoke supporting an emerging genie. At other times the light was as fluid as a gymnast’s ribbon seamlessly unraveling and recoiling.
My words are superficial in attempting to describe the immensity of this phenomenon mutating beyond our pendulum arcing mast.
Reflecting on this passage through remoteness, it was always nature’s revelations: fogbows, pastel Arctic skies, consoling sunrises, stars to steer by, clean air that you crave to draw deep into your lungs, driven snow flakes, luminous icebergs, quizzical clouds, smoke seeping from the earth beneath our sea boots, a beach of multi-hued pebbles - that nourished yet reminded me of my insignificance amid its immensity.