Abel Tasman is a 23 metre Bermuda schooner derived from the elegant lines of America 1, which was designed by George Steer. With her clipper bow and tumblehome sides, she was built in 1981 in Westerbroek, Netherlands and is skippered by Antarctic and Arctic expedition support vessel operator, Roger Wallis. Abel Tasman’s steel hull is ten millimetres below the waterline and 8mm above which makes her ideal for passage making in these high latitudes.
Balancing on the sides of Abel Tasman’s tender we clutched the necks of our wet weather jackets so freezing salt-water spray, coming in jets off the bow, detoured past our necks. Sheets of dollop-sized snowflakes streamed past us rapidly smothering everything in their united whiteness. We were cautiously motoring into Nuuk’s black evening looking for Abel Tasman in a snowstorm.
It was the first, but way too early, dump of ‘winter-like’ snow that Greenland had in Autumn 2017. Together with Yvan Bourgnon’s Ma Louloutte and Amundsen’s Maud, Abel Tasman was the last boat through the Northwest Passage in 2017. By late September it was palpable as the days grew shorter, the sea and air temperature became icier and the weather deteriorated more frequently, that we had to be on our way. It was late in the season to sail back across the Artic Circle to our final destination of northern Norway.
Maud’s Norwegian team passed on a landfall idea for us to clear into Norway at Bødo then slip Abel Tasman at Sund in the Lofoten Islands to fix her twisted ice-smashing propellers. Persuasively, they encouraged us to get underway: “don’t cross the Norwegian Sea any later than mid-October or go north of Iceland now”.
We had a 2,388nm passage ahead of us from Nuuk on Greenland’s west coast to Tromsø, Norway.
Strange encounters continue
Beneath a blanket of falling snow and the ‘scrunch, scrunch-scrunching’ of a snow covered deck underfoot, we motored away from obscured Nuuk into broad bays, past long peninsulas and rocky off-lying islands along a coast of jagged, snow covered mountains severed by branching fjords vanishing into inland ice caps. In some places we were able to pick our way through narrow inner routes winding between islands and the mainland.
We were on solo two hour watches helming through snow showers and running before a big following sea that occasionally pooped us. The work out on the helm saved us from shivering in situ but our stony fingers and iced toes stung.
Sailing south, the local wind bore little semblance to the overall pressure system. There was no prevailing wind direction as it tended to blow as much from one direction as it did from another, dictated by the challenging topography of sheltering bluffs, craggy mountains, divided fjords, sounds and connecting channels all under the influence of ice.
A cold arctic current off Greenland’s east coast flows south bringing freshwater pack ice from glaciers. When icebergs reach Greenland’s southern tip off its west coast they are deflected north by the Gulf Stream where they collide with larger ice masses calved from huge iceberg-producing glaciers.
Our iceberg dodging plan was to break the 700 nautical mile west coast passage into a couple of overnight landfalls at Qaqortoq (Julianehåb) and Nanortalik before entering Prins Christian Sund (Prince Christian Sound) a 60nm inland passage cutting off the bottom of Greenland and avoiding the foul weather and heavy seas of Kap Farvel (Cape Farewell).
After a couple of nights offshore, glued to the radar looking for icebergs and growlers under halo phenomena and an aurora we arrived alongside Qaqortoq’s wharf in darkness.
We threw our lines to a welcoming and enthusiastic upper class English voice that sounded like Queen Elizabeth II greeting us with praises of, “well done, a very well thrown line”.
We squinted quizzically at one another as we registered the sight of a mature woman adeptly securing our dock lines attired in a string of pearls, pretty frilled collared shirt, cardigan with a hanky protruding from its sleeve, make up and a silk scarf smartly knotted under her chin while simultaneously inviting us to a cup of tea on her boat!
We discovered that the cultured voice belonged to 70 something year old Jane Maufe who was the 4th grand niece of Artic explorer and former Governor of Tasmania, Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin.
Jane Maufe was the spritely crew of evenly-aged and equally spritely David Scott Cowper on a custom built 30 ton aluminum, self-righting, all weather motor vessel, Polar Bound, that boasted twelve times the required Lloyd’s specifications and was regarded as the strongest vessel of her size in the world. Which perhaps it was, with its lifeboat lines, four watertight bulkheads, double-hulled engine room, double bottomed forward section, a centre wheelhouse, coachroof and all painted yellow; along with a smug Gardner engine contentedly purring below deck.
David had achieved all manner of record-breaking passages as the first to do a whole bunch of things in polar regions and elsewhere. He had wowed Jane, a girlfriend from his youth, after her husband died. They made an endearing adventuring team over tea party chatter, curiously laced with knowledgeable discourse derived from being serious mariners with all the skills and experience to survive and thrive in polar waters.
As inspirational characters, I reflected on the demographic of most of their counterparts comfortably kicked-back in hearthside electric armchairs discussing, perhaps, which Doris Day movie to watch while Jane and David battled ice and isolation with great seamanship, resourcefulness, humour and resilience. A chronicle of which is authentically disclosed in Jane’s Bloomsbury published book ‘The frozen frontier’.
After an entertaining and informative conversation we left Polar Bound with a plan to rendezvous in Nanortalik, before entering Prince Christian Sound and going our separate ways: Polar Bound across the Atlantic back to Scotland and Abel Tasman heading into the Iceland Basin and the Norwegian Sea.
It was ‘Arctic afternoon dark’ when Polar Bound and Abel Tasman tied up to Nanortalik’s wharf but, in the morning, there was time to walk through the Inuit settlement to find rugged-up locals saturating in weak autumn sunshine with a certain look of winter waiting about them.
Our short passage south to Prince Christian Sound was on a perfect windless day as we skimmed through brash ice past snow-covered peaks and circumnavigated the most wildly shaped icebergs.
The greatest width of the Sound is 2nm narrowing to .25nm. Its awesome flanked shores are jagged, sheer and wind and ice scarred. Gleaming white icebergs creating a mystical barrier, heralded the entrance to this paranormal place that has the reputation of being more dramatic and beautiful than New Zealand’s Milford Sound.
The grimaced landscape echoed tumultuous geographical cataclysms and bore a story of furious wind speeds funnelling through its confines where great underwater depths offer little opportunity to anchor. Thankfully, we negotiated the entire 60nm in calm conditions with a procession of icebergs and growlers harmlessly slipping past Abel Tasman’s hull.
In awe, we motored on and on into the heart of the Sound, our heads lifted skyward to a vertical landscape of splintered summits plunging to shoreline glacier polished boulders clad in glowing autumn vegetation cowering in protected crevasses or soaking up south facing sunbathed surfaces. Past baby, alas receding, glaciers falling short of the shoreline in networks of pulverised shale. Waterfalls, on the verge of freezing, collapsed over cliffs in hesitating gushes.
We were encircled by the Sound’s panoramic enormity and its perfectly mirrored reflection, which changed dramatically around every twist and turn. There was nothing but us on a gliding black boat disturbing this place.
After about six hours of motoring, we came upon the isolated Inuit small boat basin of Augpilagtoq. The only access to this Shangri-la is by boat. As we approached the wharf the brightly coloured buildings, raft up of runabouts and overlording mountains were perfectly reflected in the tranquil basin.
Nestled at the base of a sheer mountain was a scattering of colourful cottages gripping polished rock platforms housing Augpilagtoq’s population of about 100. Legend has it that most ‘Augpilagtoqians’ born here, die here; some never find the will to venture further than the village and surrounding fjords.
Transfixed on the bow I scrutinised this extraordinary remote outpost and contemplated the remarkable scene before me was someone else’s everyday world. Everything is relative and it is humbling.
Within earshot of Abel Tasman, the moon illuminated a dockside shack where fishers gathered to repair nets and bait tomorrow’s hooks. Voices and soft laughter seeped through an ajar door on a beam of weak light leaking from an oil-smeared globe.
The following morning, with only 40nm to the Sound’s eastern entrance there was time to walk on bright vegetation weaving narrow cushioned trails between cottages, a church, school, tiny general store and a picket-fenced graveyard strewn with weathered greying crosses randomly listing skyward.
Five children were in the schoolhouse with their teacher and affectionate dog. With violin cases strapped to their backs, Meg and Esther were waved in to entertain the kids at morning teatime.
I wondered how any serious blackboard work was ever done with the most magnificent view in the world lying beyond the weather-beaten classroom window ledges. As for us, we were nothing more than a slight distraction in an otherwise routine school day.
Motoring to the east, away from Augpilagtoq, the Sound tapered more tightly. In some sections the mountains were so high and opposing shores so close the noon sun never reached the icy water.
Approaching the eastern end of the Sound we could see the Iceland Basin to seaward. A weather station in Naajat Kangerluat (Natsek Cove) is located 1.5 miles within this eastern entrance. Its conspicuous radio masts stand at the highest point of the land and there is a light for nighttime confirmation.
Looking back, there were off-lying overlapping islands scattered along this entrance so it is well hidden, although a slanting white glacier and lordly jagged mountains to the south loom like custodians to this almighty remote interior.
Out at sea, in the Iceland Basin, it was uncomfortable in a steep and cranky backwash swell. The slowly disappearing reddish foreshore was heavily scarred by ice action and, with icebergs still drifting menacingly along the coast, our sheltered break was over as we contemplated the remaining miles.
It mattered little that we were heading into bad weather; a sort of weather indifference emerges when you have been at sea for a long time. The only cursory thought is one of intensity: how bad is bad going to be?
Four days later, accompanied by wrecks of mapping northern Fulmares, Iceland’s south coast was clearly visible to our north. Dissected by glacial torrents falling into the sea, perpendicular walls of snow-capped dark basalt rose from the coast. Icelandic habitation lay on low narrow shelves in pockets along the shoreline. The elevated volcanic landscape above these shelves was entirely uninhabited.
We were in half a mind to make a landfall somewhere along Iceland’s south east coast as a series of intense low pressure systems were due to intercept us in a couple of days. There was talk of a ‘mega storm’ heading for the United Kingdom.
Dozens of unpronounceable Icelandic fishing boats surrounded us. As we approached a coastal town Roger tried to raise passing boats on the VHF calling their hard-to-say names as featured on the AIS. Hmm, no replies, due to not recognising their boat name delivered by an Australian accent perhaps.
In a 40 knot gale, we cautiously approached Hoefn pushing a strong ebbing current with heavy surf breaking over scattered rocks lying at its entrance. It felt like a serious place to be reckoned with.
On the plotter, Hoefn’s channel was narrow and tortuous with shifting off-lying sand. A string of lagoons lay inland, it reminded Roger of his Victorian homeport of Lakes Entrance where tides rip back and forth over a treacherous bar. Without the aid of local knowledge it felt safer to stay at sea than deal with the inevitable hazards that lay within.
Grippingly, several shipwreck shelters have been established along parts of Iceland’s south coast. Guideposts, about 0.75 mile apart, help survivors reach the shelters or nearby settlements with the routes and directions conveniently described in various languages!
On cue within the next 12 hours, we were hard on the wind in 45 knots being peppered by marble-sized sleet. Abel Tasman handles these conditions beautifully with her staysail and reefed schooner sail, which provides well-balanced helm.
Since departing Cairns in April 2017 the boat had done close to 15,000nm without an autopilot, so these conditions gave us a welcomed break from helming. Yet again we seamlessly crossed the Arctic Circle and passed over the Greenwich Meridien to the east. In huge seas that make you stagger and rescue airborne objects fleeing from incensed cupboards, a school of visiting pilot whales surfed the wave barrels breaking high above our mainsail boom.
Like any former high-speed trimaran sailor I do believe I am pretty adept at dodging boarding projectile waves. Arriving in the cockpit for my watch after a ritual of encasing myself in layers of clothes that would out-blubber any pilot whale, a wave: perfectly silhouetted in my shape with my name on it, disintegrated over me. Dry Meg, just inches from me, was aghast as we registered the flood of water running off me and cheerily gurgling its way down the cockpit drain. With red-rimmed eyes, chafed lips and wind-wounded cheeks we yowled with the wind.
In what seemed like no time at all, while immersed in the rhythm and routines of a long passage, Norway’s snow streaked, barren, rugged mountains and island chains appeared on the horizon.
Among the islands were hundreds of navigation marks and squat red-capped lighthouses on rocks and headlands; sentinel-reassuring, Noddy-like figures confirming the way through a labyrinth. The mountains were gigantic versions of a child’s sandcastle created from layer upon layer of wet sloppy sand, terminating in jagged, angular apexes.
After our brief official landing at Bodø we lay a course back to the west across the Vestfjorfen, a broad deep body of water that separates mainland Norway from the Lofoten islands. On our approach we could see twisting coastal roads connecting islands and tunnelling the way through mountainsides heavily indented by small fjords and inlets penetrating the interior in all directions.
Sund’s little basin, in the Flakstadoya group of the Lofotons, branched off in a couple of directions below its dandruffed peaks. We headed for a strong looking dock up an inlet until a group of shoreside locals started waving and whistling us back from where we had come.
Glued to the echo sounder we knew that depth was not a worry so we wondered what all the fuss was about. Later we discovered we were headed for overhead power lines strung 24m above the fjord. Abel Tasman’s air draft was 27m!
Sund was like arriving home to a friendly and supportive community immersed in the local fishing and boating culture. Terje Mørkved’s family slipway became a comforting constant in the weeks ahead while boat jobs were done and we caught up with our lives ashore after months at sea.
The Lofotens are wet in autumn and the weather was either ferocious or benign providing a practical lesson that strong winds outside fjords give way to calm weather within; yet gales generated from funnelling wind inside fjords offer light winds and respite outside!
No better example of this scenario than on the raging wind blown night we left Sund for Tromsø. As soon as we were out in the middle of the Vestfjorfen channel the edge of the fury mellowed to manageable for our final two-handed passage northeast to Tromsø.
Capricious wind also influences the movements of Vestfjorden tides: when there is little or no current mid-channel, a regular current runs along the land on either side, invariably setting in a contrary direction on the opposite sides of the fjord.
So, with a favourable wind and current, we headed NNE surfing down the middle of the channel flanked by rainy coastlines and the wind-filled fjords and off-lying dangers.
Fjords track in all directions along the eastern side of the Vestfjorden. Connected by low-lying boggy depressions, the entire coast is a maze of intricate channels between islands and peninsulas. Steep mountain ranges, separated by valleys, lead away from the shores of the fjords that penetrate so deeply they almost reach the Swedish border.
The further we sailed northeast the shorter the days became. We entered the sheltered harbour of Lødingen in afternoon darkness, tied up and walked through torrential rain to a small group of buildings in the hope of finding a drink but returned to the boat drenched, shivering and clasping a litre of ice cream.
We found, as we navigated through the fjords, that the wind to a large degree follows the direction of the sound. Strong whirling currents beset the channels north of Lødingen, narrow and intricate because of the abundance of underwater rocks and shoals. Dangers abound but navigating with our iSailor/Navionics software made for an unreal degree of confidence that would have been misplaced a decade before.
Our first bridge, the Tjeldsundet with a vertical clearance of 41m, spanned the fairway near Langkvitneset and was followed by a straddling set of high voltage power lines.
Then out we sailed into the relatively expansive land-locked basin of Vagsfjorden surrounded by majestic snow covered mountains and a procession of heavily laden fishing boats shadowed by mobs of squabbling sea birds.
With strong tidal currents besetting us, we wanted to duck under the next bridge in daylight, so we anchored overnight in the small rock bottomed bay of Molnvagen near Vagan Point in sight of a towering bridge spanning the narrows between Senja Island and the mainland.
We were about 15 days away from the sun no longer rising in this latitude so we got underway in weak light on our final short leg along the passage of Malangen, to the city of Tromsø, located 30nm from the open sea and covering the two islands of Tromsoya and Kvaloya, and the neighbouring mainland.
Since leaving Cairns in April 2017, Abel Tasman had clocked up 15,238nm of safe passage-making from Cairns
Some of the things I discovered about high latitude sailing, in my staggering merry-go-round way, is that the anticipated spookiness and fear are only in your head. Moment to moment and mile after mile you simply troop-on rewarded by an inexhaustible supply of surprises, which grace you in their daily revelations.
In no time at all, the remote ruggedness of where you are and what you are doing becomes addictive; although I do recall paraphrasing my age-old shallow short-lived prayer that goes something like: “if I get through this I promise never to put myself through this again”.
Bit by bit, you learn to trust that the journey and all its demands and challenges will strengthen and enlighten you in unexpected ways in places and situations bigger than your imagination. You find and lose yourself among auroras, snowstorms, icebergs, polar bears, fogbows, whales and unlikely friendships where age, skin colour, creed and nationality matter zilch.
My favourite quiet times were on my night watches as a mere iota in the cockpit of a black boat under a giant sky on a vast ocean. It was both crushing and consoling in the same moment.
The passages through unsounded and unnamed places enabled me to step out of a place I knew too well and into places that have staked their claim on what is worth remembering in life and how those tales, even to my own ears, sound extraordinary.
Travelling to the high latitudes of Antarctica and the Arctic has expanded the dimension of my world and as
it has grown so have I. ≈