There is an old generosity idiom: “he’d give you the shirt off his back”. In Lewisporte, Newfoundland, this truly happened. We were the receivers of, not only a shirt off Peter’s back, but lasting friendship, support and much, much more.
Lewisporte lies in the centre of Notre Dame Bay on Newfoundland’s north east coast, on the shores of some of the finest sailing in the world, when the ice eventually melts. We had flown into a community bonded by weather adversity and a culture of open-handedness, bred from the realisation that “you may not be the one who needs help today but tomorrow may be a different story”.
After a foggy-headed, sandpaper-eyed 44 hour flight that deliriously detached us from reality, we landed in Newfoundland in jet lag daze. Packed to our luggage limits with thermals and boat bits Simon Pahor and I were there to dewinterise 52’ Philos, relaunch and sail her across the North Atlantic via Iceland to Norway to charter her in the Arctic high latitudes of the Lofoten Islands and Svalbard.
Cunningly, at home, it had been one of those cracker Australian summers that has the blissful knack of obliterating any recall of how penetratingly cold the high latitudes of our planet can be. Some head-numbing acclimatisation faced us.
Stepping out of the Newfoundland taxi into knee-deep snow, sleep deprived and economy class brittle, we beheld our frozen, black steel boat. Were our eyes deceiving us? Were we really looking at an expanse of hull paint that was tessellated and crazed after enduring cycles of freezing and defrosting over five Newfoundland winters?
I heard my ‘head-voice’ say: “it will look better after sleep. Just concentrate on getting up the ice block rungs of that neck breaking boat ladder. Then, while you are at it, find the snow shovel, dig your way into the cockpit and locate the companionway”.
Down below, Roger, Philos’ owner, had left fluorescent Post It notes of instructions for us. They were, overwhelmingly, hanging off everything.
I picked up a bottle of olive oil in the galley and tilted it to discover the oil was frozen solid. I knew oil separated and ‘glugged-up’ in the cold but it had to be glacial cold for it to be completely crystallised. It was dark down below, the hatches and windows were submerged in snow. We were effectively living in a boat-shaped fridge.
We used our last bit of energy at the end of that longest trans-planetary day to climb into our chilling bunks and bury ourselves under exhumed sleeping bags and blankets.
Where to begin
Philos’ superstructure is well-insulated but below the waterline it is not. Perched on a cradle in that snow covered boatyard, the hull was so steely cold you could barely touch it without your skin sticking to it and, when the wind blew, its chill would strip any warmth collected from within.
The electric fan heater was cranked to the maximum trying, without success, to keep the cabin air warm. All the condensation in the bilges was frozen solid so bailing the bilges meant throwing sizeable sheets of ice over the side.
On day two in Lewisporte, local boating saints Peter and Carolyn Watkins, drove by the boat, wound down the window of their heated car and politely ordered us to “get in, bad weather’s coming: 60 knots, -20° Celsius and a 26 centimetre dump of snow”. A traditional Newfoundland meal of roast moose awaited us in their cosy heated home decorated with nautical memorabilia of their yachts and decades spent as a charter and delivery team.
More than a week went by under snow before we even saw Philos’ deck, got a feel for its shape or knew what colour it was painted. We pounced on every weather window that materialised to complete and half-complete jobs. It took five days to pry apart and service all the winches, working with methylated spirits in any breeze below zero makes your fingers ineffectual and sting like crazy.
It was a mission in itself to get adequately dressed to have a crack at working outside. Five weeks tore by in a web of boat jobs where one thing led to another and other jobs came out of ‘left field’ from the top of the mast to the bottom of the keel.
Our progress on dewinterising Philos paralleled the unfolding weather, it was slowly improving but there were extreme setbacks. We saw temperatures swing from -20 to +18 degrees, icy waterways dissolve and refreeze, daylight time conspicuously elongate, snow thaw into watery mud puddles and rain instantly freeze when it hit something. On Philos, it hung from everything as stalactites.
Simon spent three days submerged in snow, sanding Philos to ensure it was ready to paint on the first fine, above zero degree day. Our third crewmember, Antarctic ecologist and cinematographer, Frederique Olivier, arrived to help us sail the boat to Norway but the ice in the bay had a stranglehold on delaying this plan.
We all continued to work on Philos and collect gear stowed in the basements, sheds and homes of sailing friends around the neighbourhood. Did you know that all electronics with a display screen will fail when it is below zero degrees and they should never be turned on until they have been exposed to many days above zero.
The keys of the Lewisporte Yacht Club were handed to us upon our arrival and we were blessed to have its shelter, heat and leather couches to recover on.
Here, we repaired Philos’ sails, pre-made passage food and hot washed the cold and mould out of everything.
All the while we marvelled at how these sweet and softly-spoken Newfoundlanders could bear up to the snow shrouded environment and overwrought weather day-in-day-out and be so jovial. We were checked on daily, invited to dinner, handed car keys, soaked in hot baths and lent bicycles.
A steady procession of intrigued locals drove through the snowy boatyard to seek updates on our acclimatisation and progress. They never ventured out of their vehicles, all greetings and inquiries concerning our lucidity transpired from wound-down windows with a gap just big enough to speak through. We were also the solo pedestrians on snow-ploughed streets.
Everyone we encountered had an opinion about the ice and when it would melt and set us free. In one conversation a single prophecy oscillated from extremely pessimistic to “you’ll be gone by the end of the week”.
Then one day, the Newfie fisherman took the ice entrapment into their own hands with chainsaws mounted vertically through sheets of plywood. They sawed through the ice ahead of their boats to slacken it before executing transmission-wrecking punches into it. After two days of inventive, non-existent OH&S, ice-breaking the fishing fleet made its way beyond the marina.
A few days later our Frederique became an urban legend when she donned her survival suit, walked out on the ice and attacked it with a shovel to create a puddle of water for Philos to be launched into.
Suddenly, the ice melt went into fast forward and in no time there was an escape route out of the bay. The once deserted boatyard became populated with locals working on their boats in full sunshine. Within a day of the boatyard crew returning from their winter break, a maxed-out travel lift slung Philos onto a gigantic forklift that slipped her through a thin film of ice and into the water.
From Lewisporte, after sorting engine glitches, lowering Philos’ lifting keel and installing the electronics, we had a 30 nautical mile sail out to the North Atlantic Ocean through the Bay of Exploits.
Run from the pack
We were now fixated on the state of the pack ice and migrating icebergs from the Arctic and Labrador coast that awaited us off the northeast coast of Newfoundland.
We had been downloading Canadian ice charts for weeks and had observed a massive mutating ice sheet being shuffled and reshuffled by wind and currents; thickening and thinning between 1/10th and 9/10ths concentration.
With a 4.2 millimetre to 6mm steel hull, the most ice we ever wanted to deal with was between zero and 1/10th to 3/10ths of ice, which is enough to stop most smallish boats from pushing through.
On our imminent departure from Lewisporte the generosity of our Newfie friends was showered upon us with traditional meals, a stockpile of wool to knit with, dried fish, moose, cakes, jams, cream pies, hand knitted socks, slippers, beanies, insulated drinking mugs and extra jumpers.
We were off within 48 hours of launching, before the bay decided to refreeze, with no time for our planned shakedown. We would have to troubleshoot along the way and troubleshoot we did in the wrath of the North Atlantic Ocean in spring among pack ice and icebergs, tenacious polar fronts and incorrigible calms all the way to Iceland.
Our strategy for getting around the pack ice was to locate it according to the latest ice chart and follow it as far south as it stretched down the Newfoundland coast. After sighting the bottom ‘tongue’ of the pack ice we followed it southwest back towards Newfoundland until we thought we had cleared it. We then sailed due east under it so we did not accidentally re-enter it to our north, gave it enough distance before laying our northeast course to Iceland. The accuracy of the ice charts are a credit to the Canadian ice service.
Flicking back through the yacht’s log I can see we nailed dodging all those nasty 50+ knot triangles in the bruised purple patches on the weather Grib files. There are water-marked entries reporting over 40 knots, snow, sleet, hail, big seas atop of big swells, fog, freezing toes and fingers. But drier entries record a star-filled night with a sliver of an aurora, broad-reaching in 20 to 25 knots and one whole day of full sunshine.
Sixteen days after leaving Lewisporte with gear repair stops in Bridgeport and Fogo Island, we tied up to a convenient floating dock within a street’s walk of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, home to nearly half the country’s population.
Time had run out for Frederique who was due on a film job back in Utah. Simon’s uni-day’s friend, John Makin, who was in between geology jobs in Sweden and Canada, put his hand up to join us.
John had never sailed before, a day’s sail on a Laser on Hazelwood Pondage in Victoria did not count!
When first asked if he was free to crew his tenuous reply was, “when in doubt, say yes and work out the details later.”
“Awesome,” was Simon’s e-mail reply, followed by: “bring warm stuff. The boat has a heater but we can not use it at sea so we are living in a fridge. We live like filth wizards: the boat’s clean but not us. It is way too cold to change your clothes everyday.
John was warned that the first few days were going to be a baptism of fire, tiring and queasy while he got used to snatching short naps and living in a rolling world. “You’re likely to spew on the first day of any real weather but don’t feel apprehensive about having a few shitty days.
“We do two-hour watches in these cold temperatures but each person is effectively on call all the time. We won’t leave you to deal with anything on your own. Bring a good book or two and your music,” wrote Simon. John was quietly anxious but after working on boat jobs for a week he felt psychologically ready to undertake the passage.
We left Reykjavik on the tail end of a 50 knot SW blow in headwinds against tide to set us up to escape the next 50 knot blow. It was a bit of a rough intro for John but he pulled through the chundering stage to really enjoy broad reaching in sunshine along the south coast of Iceland past the specky Vestmannaeyjar volcano crater islands.
We continued reaching under yankee, storm sail, schooner sail and mainsail for most of the passage, reefing and unreefing, rolling up and unrolling the yankee as required. In the middle of one reefing session our eyes widened to a stomach-twisting ‘clonk, clonk’ on the keel. Turning around, we saw a long fin pilot whale emerge in our wake. No damage down below but the whale must have had a cracking headache.
At the end of this blissfully uneventful seven-day passage where we crossed longitudes from west to east and passed over the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees north, we made a landfall on Norway’s Lofoten Islands in the golden midnight sun on our port side and a full moon suspended in a pastel sky on our starboard side.
I was intrigued to hear John’s impression of his first passage as it had been 45 years since I had undertaken my first ocean passage and had lost an appreciation of the newness of crossing oceans: “it takes a couple of days to get into the rhythm of dividing your life into six hour blocks: two hours on the helm, finding time to sleep and eat to get energy for the next watch.
“Once I settled in I got a sense of the constant motion that slowly became less tiring. It was actually relaxing as all the distractions and pressures of life ashore slipped away,” said John.
“My whole world was a 52’ boat and a radius of water and sky. There could have been a nuclear war happening and it would have been just a corollary and curiosity out there somewhere. It’s the most geographically remote I’ve ever been with no one, other than you and Simon, around.
“I liked how it’s futile to get stressed about things you can’t control like the weather, wind strength and wave height. All you have to do is respond to what’s been thrown at you, keep the boat ticking along and steering the course.
“You really get a feel for the true distance between places and the actual time it takes to get there under your own steam,” he said.
“There’s no defined moment of arrival.Your destination is delivered to you so gradually. Certain birds disappear, new birds appear, we got ‘wiffs’ of different discernable land smells, the swell changed, snowed covered mountains rose incrementally onto the horizon and, minute by minute, got bigger and revealed more detail. You can even have a sleep for a couple of hours and not miss the arrival.
“I felt safe and knew you and Simon wouldn’t leave me in a situation that I couldn’t handle. If I had any questions either one of you were there to answer it. Help was never far away despite the fact there were only two of you in my world,’ said John. ≈