Below is another attempt at sending a blog post from the middle of nowhere, via satellite, and at 160 characters per message.
August 8 and we are still anchored Cummings Inlet–fourth day. Either our fuel stops, like Arctic Bay, are iced in or we are weather bound. Right now it’s the latter. As I write an east wind to 40 knots howls in Lancaster Sound. In our bay, winds come racing down the mountain ice cap from the northeast, and the rigging moans. We are boat bound.
Except for an invitation to pancakes this morning. In the calm before the storm we three rowed over for breakfast with DRINA, a 50 ft ketch also pursuing the Northwest Passage that pulled in last evening.
Two hours later and after much pleasant conversation there was so much wind we couldn’t row back, though it was but eight miles that separated us from Arctic Tern. Kindly, DRINA offered a tow in their dinghy (plus outboard). The chop drenched us all.
We hung our wet clothes in the cabin to dry, but gusts coming down the flu put the heater flame out until we built a guard over the exit. Then we made a pot of coffee and grabbed our books, there being not much else to do in such weather. I’m reading THE ICE MASTER, about the 1913 Arctic Expedition disaster aboard Karluk, a questionable choice given current pursuit.
Yesterday Ali went for a row to the falls on the other side of the bay for the exercise and to fetch some excellent local water, this while Les and I busied ourselves with our books. Two hours later and she had not returned. Les scanned with binoculars and saw that Ali was some ways between us and the fall and making slow way. When we rang her on the radio, she said all was well though the oarlock had parted. She was forced to paddle the dinghy as if it were a canoe, not quick work with an inflatable and 20 gallons of water aboard. Also, the occasional Walrus inspection tended to be distracting, she said. But she insisted she did not need help.
We weighed anchor and effected a rescue anyway, for the pleasure of the distraction.
While we had Arctic Tern near the waterfall, Les decided to anchor and top off all our tanks.
Devon Island. Imagine a Grand Canyon by the sea or a Lake Powell with glaciers. Such desolate, arid land looks unlikely to host such torrents of water. Yet here it is. Glacier melt. Pouring off icy-cold, diamond-clear, and so pure it tastes like snow flakes.
All afternoon I rowed our jerry cans back and forth between bubbling stream and boat until our tanks overlfowed with the best drinking water yet invented, which I rated very satisfying work.
Hi readers. This is Joanna, Randall’s other half.
Randall and I have tried out a new trick for posting his updates this week. Where he is, he has no internet connectivity. He can, however, text me messages. 160 characters at a time.
So here’s his post. Texted to me, then pulled together, for you.
Arctic Tern and her three charges are anchored Cummings Inlet for the third day, this due to pack ice, which is holding hostage our fuel depot, Arctic Bay. Our second choice for fuel, a town called Resolute, seems nearly clear, but heavy pack ice blocks eastern Lancaster, baring our approach. To a small boat pack ice is essentially floating rocks, and even a strong steel boat like this can only make way in very light ice concentrations. So, for the moment we have to be prudent explorers. Ice conditions have improved greatly since we arrived from Greenland, but we must be patient, and more patient we must wait here, which is dull work.
Now, I’ll admit that yesterday’s excursion ashore to sneak up on the local herd of Walruses from behind and shoot them with our cameras had its moments of excitement. Either we are less smelly than I thought or Walruses are terribly short sighted, because our approach was roundly ignored. Even the warning scream of Icelandic Gulls failed to rouse these beasts from their afternoon slumber. Walruses eat clams which must live in incredible numbers up bay, because not a single of the herd of 50 looked like it could, or should, eat even one more. When one did roll over, its movements suggested it was made up entirely of fat. Our book says that Walruses can eat for several days non-stop, and one killed for science (as noted in our book) had 700 clams in its stomach. Of course, life is not all feasting for Walruses. They live the winter on the pack ice where “room temperature” is consistently well below freezing, in which case their assiduously developed summer blubber comes in quite handy.
I think Les and Ali took well on 300 pictures in 30 minutes during which time we observed much belching, yawning, wheezing, whooozshing (this appeared to be an attempt at sleep-whistling: fail), whisker twitching, lots and lots of sleeping, and nothing else as to “nothing else,” this does seem to be our lot of late too, because that excursion aside, we are very much boat bound here on Arctic Tern.
Rain today. All of us stuck in the cabin. Ali let me bake bread yesterday. Today I got to make Curry. Beyond that it’s just reading, writing and waiting for the next day’s ice report. It’s actually quite dull. But this too is part of the romance of expeditioning.
Aug 1 – Aug 4
If we had been surprised to find “the other” Arctic Tern on Bylot, we were doubly so when rounding the point into Dundas: there *three* other boats already at anchor! Granted, we’d met them all in Nuuk. They were Jimmy Cornell and team on Aventura, a yacht in his group named Suilven, and our now friends Sam, David and Peter on Lillian B. There wasn’t a marina for 1000 miles and the closest town, more an outpost, was over 120 miles south, but of the seven boats we knew making an attempt at the Northwest Passage this year, four were now gathered in the same anchorage.
Here we entered what we hope is a short wait-and-see time. We must have fuel before advancing too far, but ice charts continue to show our three possible fuel stops, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, and Resolute as inaccessible due to ice. Pond has the reputation of clearing late, and its status had been unchanged for several days. Resolute was still encumbered with winter’s fast ice, but a pool was developing around it, making it hopeful, and ice in Arctic Bay was moving if not exactly clearing.
Les Lesson #11: Don’t hope to push a small boat through ice much above 1-3/10ths, even a steel one. The Canadian Ice Service publishes daily, highly detailed arctic ice charts, one feature of which is a measure of ice by its density of distribution at water top in a range of 10ths. 1/10ths ice is virtually clear water and 9/10ths is virtually complete ice coverage; the other tenths express the range in between. Much of the ice we see blocking our way to Arctic Bay, for example, is 4 – 6/10ths, and to the greenhorn aboard (me) it is tempting to pursue passage in it. But Les waggles his finger and insists I be patient. Ice is heavy, always moving, and can close behind you in an instant. And 4 – 6/10ths ice is just too much.
So, having no immediate appointments we visited shore and the abandoned Royal Canadian Mounted Police station, a collection of huts on the south-facing headland, which we found still stocked with diesel for the stoves and a mound of coal. Otherwise, however, the facility was dilapidated, due largely to years of vandalism.
At the top of the hill, we found two grave stones in a neat picket fence, which marked the final resting place of two, young RCMP officers. Both men were in their twenties when they died, and each was killed by self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head while on patrol, but their deaths were in different years and locations, making one wonder at the emotional difficulty of a post on an uninhabited island miles above the arctic circle.
On the return, we met the crew of two other boats, Aventura and Lillian B., also out for a hike.
That evening a north wind suggested we move our berth up into the fjord a few miles for better protection, and after a next day’s hike here, and no better ice reports, we departed for Cumming Inlet 50 miles further west.
July 30 – 31
Our crossing from Greenland ended as it began, with the thrumming of Arctic Tern’s big Ford diesel. Wind we encountered from almost every quarter in Baffin Bay, but its voice was soft and inconsistent, and its arguments failed to persuade us to raise more than a reefed main as steadying sail. We had places to be: reports for Pond Inlet had hinted that the grip of ice was loosening; we wanted to get there.
At departure from Upernavik, we passed through an archipelago of icebergs from the nearby glacier, but their numbers quickly thinned to none as we pushed west. Only after the halfway point did they again appear on the horizon as solitary, tabular giants. In deep fog, a particular feature of my watches (to the point that it’s become a standing joke), these bergs might first appear as bright spots on the radar. In clear weather, we could often anticipate the approach of a berg before it topped the horizon, this by the thin line of brash it left in its wake.
Les Lesson #7. Always pass an iceberg to windward. As large bergs melt they calve chunks of themselves into the sea. This line of brash falls quickly to leeward and can be a hazard. (Les and Ali have a tremendous amount of high latitude experience. Given this passage is training for the Figure 8 solo run, I have been carefully noting their teaching moments in my log as “Les Lessons,” some of which I’ll share here.)
On the morning of our fourth day at sea, Bylot emerged slowly from fog (on my watch!), and we anchored in a bay of no name on the southeast corner of the island. Here we found another Arctic Tern, a research boat out of Iqaluit known to Les and Ali, white hulled and rocking gently in the swell beneath guano covered cliffs. Its hatches were closed, its crew still asleep.
Once anchored, Ali immediately made a large breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and beans with lots of hot coffee by way of celebrating of our successful entry into the Canadian Arctic. Then we all retired to our berths for a long sleep.
In 1963, the explorer, H.W. Tilman, chose Bylot, a blocky island that fits like a puzzle piece into Baffin’s top right corner, for his summer adventure, a trek across its ice field. Bylot attracted him because it was “difficult to reach, little known, uninhabited, and mountainous” and because its maps were “pleasingly vague.” Given this bit of history, we were eager to explore for ourselves what we could, but this was not to be.
Three hours into our respite, the other Arctic Tern woke us with a tap on the hull and news in the form of updated ice charts and weather reports, neither of which were favorable. Pond Inlet, our nearest intended fuel stop, was still solidly iced in and a coming southeaster made our anchorage untenable. So, with disappointment we quickly departed Bylot and steamed north.
Midway across Lancaster Sound the southeaster came on with winds to 25 knots. Arctic Tern frothed along at 8.5 knots under reefed main and full-out Yankee. As we approached Dundas Harbor, a small bay on south Devon Island just inside the sound, a stronger wind brought rain and fog, making for a thrilling, if cold, dashing slalom through the bergs along the coast. We dropped anchor in Dundas Harbor in the early evening, had a hot dinner and again hit the sack.
Day three of our crossing of Baffin Bay to the Canadian Arctic.
We are 230 miles west of Upernavik as I write and Arctic Tern is steaming on a glassy sea, making (currently) for the Bylot Island coast, 130 miles further on. I say “currently” because Les and Ali are weighing our options for both where to enter the Northwest Passage (via Pond Inlet or Lancaster Sound) and where to get next fuel. These decisions are intertwined and impactful. Here are some of the factors.
1. Distance. It’s roughly 3,000 miles from Pond Inlet in the east to False Pass in the Aleutians and escape into the Pacific. The route is long, often shoal infested, and some has no soundings at all (imagine a chart whose water is just white space, no depths). Safe pilotage requires great care, and then there’s the issue of
2. Season Shortness. In a typical year, pack-ice in the arctic begins to break up in middle to late July and can start to refreeze before the end of September, giving an explorer about two months to get from one end to the other. We need to get a wiggle on. No big deal, except that
3. Unevenness of Thaw. The dispersal of pack-ice is far from consistent across the entire run. Much of it doesn’t thaw, but rather breaks up and is pulled out to sea. Passages between the islands are narrow; currents or storms can clear the way ahead while blocking a retreat. What was open yesterday may be closed a few hours from now. Imagine logs flowing through a jam. Add to this
4. Fuel Requirements. Winds in Arctic summer are undependable, are usually light to calm with the occasional gale. Motoring is to be expected. Given the distances and the probable need to backtrack if one’s path is closed by ice, most small yachts like Arctic Tern require a number of fuel stops. Between Pond Inlet and Cape Bathurst (1600 miles) there are five villages where diesel can be taken aboard, but several may require significant deviation from one’s desired route. Realistically, only two or three are usable, and there is no guarantee any will be ice free when called upon.
How does this all add up for us?
For several days Pond Inlet (closest fuel) and Navy Board inlet have been relatively ice free *except* at the elbow and the village. Only today has a sliver of water opened in front of the village. We might be able to enter Pond for fuel but instead of exiting Navy Board, we’ll have to backtrack to enter Lancaster Sound from the east. Lost miles and time.
If we skip Pond and enter at Lancaster Sound, our next fuel stop at Arctic Bay is 80 miles down a dead-end. It appeared to be clearing days ago, but is now impacted; what’s more, ice is flowing down south Lancaster and partially blocking the entrance. Assuming we can enter and *can* get to the village, our long return to Lancaster might be much delayed.
Resolute, above Peele Sound, a further 170 miles, is hopeful but dangerous; it’s an open roadstead that’s famous for roving ice. Moreover, if we arrive to find it closed, we might not have the fuel to return to either of the others, and we won’t have enough to continue on to Cambridge Bay.
Another option is to anchor somewhere east of all three and wait. But waiting, too, is dangerous.
We must have fuel. Where? Right now it’s even money.
“Land of the Midnight Sun,” a tag-line for high latitude Alaska, conjures a false image of the far north because it suggests an occasional phenomenon, like the aurora borealis of winter. In fact, here summer is a time of *perpetual* sun. Consider that for Upernavikians (Lat 72N), the bright orb fails to set at all between early May and early August. And on the June solstice, when other places celebrate their longest day, the sun over Upernavik describes a perfect circle in the sky, boxing the compass at 41 degrees above the horizon.
The opposite is also true. Winter is one long wearisome night. So, now Upernavikians are taking advantage of this perpetual day by being perpetually active, by being out and about always.
On Arctic Tern our sense of time also warps. Inexplicably, dinner hour has slipped from 8PM to nearer 11, after which I walk the town. I pass kids playing a form of football in the ship yard. They have been playing all day. They kick a ball against the empty Royal Arctic containers stacked to one side of a large paved lot. On impact, it says, kapow!
Sometimes older kids take over from the young. They kick the ball from further back and with greater force, but they wear out. They retire to the sidelines for a smoke and to check their cell phones and then the little kids return. They kick the ball with an enthusiasm being released from its hibernation. Kicking, laughing, kicking. Kapow!
But they are not the only ones out. Adults walk the streets at all hours, Inuit women often arm in arm talking quietly. Men go purposefully to the harbor and return. A fork lift roars to life, trundles a pallet of goods from the wharf to the grocery.
At 1AM I crest the hill that holds the airport in place. All over town people are moving. Two fishing boats return to port; a charter leaves for a run to Illulisaat, delivering a group of scientists stranded in town by a week of fog. A knot of people gather at the pier to wonder at Arctic Tern. A more formal game of football is being played on the crushed-granite field outside the gymnasium. Even bergs are energetic, growling out from the Upernavik Glacier and pouring into the sea.
I am in my bunk by 2AM. The sun has just come from behind cloud. I have hung my oilies so they block the light into my berth, but I cannot escape the impression of sunup.
Then fireworks erupt from the other side of the town. Kapow! Kapow! The sledge dogs begin to howl.
A collection of cabins built onto the side of steep rock and scree facing west and an open harbor often imprisoned by ice blocks calving from the Upernavik Glacier.
Dwellings are brightly painted to the Greenlandic theme: colors are primary-red, yellow, blue, and green. Only one house has striped itself in pastels. Windows are small and triple pained. Laundry is hung out to dry. I see thermal underwear blowing in the breeze. It’s July.
The winter’s deep freeze means no municipal plumbing is provided. Household water is delivered by truck and pumped to indoor tanks. Toilets do not flush; their bowls are hung with black plastic bags that are taken to the street when full.
Sledge dogs howl from where they are chained in front yards, back yards, or just off the street, their runs long since mud caked, as is their fur. They are infrequently fed in summer and only fed at the end of a day’s work in winter. A sledge dog is obedient when hungry, otherwise wild.
Above the village, the mountain is flat, dynamited to make way for the airport, a just-fit affair, oddly flat and uniform in a geography starved for anything like regular geometry. Upernavik flights are frequently turned back due to fog, which the airport cannot rise above. Being stranded in town is such a commonplace that it provides a steady income for Gina, the local boarding house operator.
The town has one grocery with household goods on the second floor. The cheapest bottle of wine is $25; a frozen Tbone steak is $19. The bananas just arrived by boat are brown. The potatoes are fresh and hard, and we buy 10 pounds.
Just outside the grocery is a stand, painted blue, from which the local fishermen sell their catch. Arctic Char and Cod are a usual offer, but only seal meat is available during our visit.
The town has one tavern, not open during our stay, two churches, one hospital; an overlarge gymnasium provides recreation facilities during the months of icy darkness.
Writing from a kitchen in a small house on the side of the hill overlooking the harbor. Owned by Gina, a landlady to passersby, mainly oilmen, scientists, and some cruisers. We’ve rented a shower and a squeeze of internet, both precious commodities in the high arctic villages.
Fuel, water, shopping for last fresh items (carrots, potatoes, bread). Long walks above 72 degrees north at 2AM, where the sun never even pretends to set and kids play football all night.
Ice reports show Lancaster is clear and Pond is *trying* to clear. There’s a hook of fast ice in the corner. So we depart west tonight for a three day leap back to the Canadian Arctic and we *hope* Pond clears in route.
Or maybe we jaunt up the coast to Karlshaven while we wait…
It’s an active conversation even at this moment.
Photos of the passage from Aasiaat to Upernivik, some 350 miles of northing, and then a few of the town.
The rest will have to wait a more relaxing stopover.
We crossed from Aasiaat to Disko Island, dodging both rocks and icebergs on a calm, sunny afternoon, coming to anchor in Fortune Bay via the south entrance at 11PM. Mosquitos attacked the cockpit immediately.
The bergs on our route sparkled, running with water where the light hit them, and twice a shot like cannon fire and a great splash announced larger disintegrations. In the slot behind Disko where the current moves these giants from the upper bay’s five-mile wide fjord to the sea, bergs lined up as if neatly taking a lane. One had the appearance of a super tanker, another, the top half of the Matterhorn. One was a set of city high-rises; another cork-screwed to spires like Gaudi’s cathedral. Whatever the shape, none appeared as it was in fact, a piece of ice randomly broken from the bitter end of an ice river.
We departed Fortune Bay at 6AM. Bergs had shifted overnight and now blocked the south entrance like chess pieces. We sidestepped their stratagem by departing to the west before turning north for Upernavik, two days up coast. A deck of cloud covered the day, flat over the sea and rolling over Disko in waves. Red and cliffy, Disko is barren but for a dusting of green at the lower margins and could be the backside of any tropical island, except for the snow in the crevices, and the ice cap. A Fulmar colony high in the rock. Water poured in ravines but died in the scree before making the beach. Calm. Temperature 55 degrees.
We motored until a south wind came up in the early afternoon to 20 knots; then sailed fast until it died as we left Disko and the Vaigat astern. Here we crossed into the 70th parallel of north latitude.
And we are motoring still. Winds along Greenland’s west coast tend to blow bitterly cold from the north or warmer from the south, but calms often predominate in summer. Air temperature has dropped to 44 degrees; sea temperature is 36. Light rain and fog. Here too mountainous bergs that have exited through the Vaigat drift in our path.
It is 3AM as I type. The quality of light, even with the overcast, is that of evening.
We departed Nuuk in the early morning. A thick fog and a chill breeze blew down from the glacier, shooting through my layers until I put on my foulie top. My being the new guy on board means there is a competition, in my head alone, to *not* be the first to reach for warmer clothing. I failed at this competition immediately as Les and Ali seem to be comfortable in but half the layers I require to be just short of shivering. And it’s not cold yet. Note to self: leave pride on the dock and just try to stay warm!
The wind died a few miles off shore requiring that we fire up the engine, and the fog cleared by evening, revealing a jagged, dragon’s tooth coast, black rock, snow-capped mountains, an infinity of peaks. Glaciers poured into the water, and in places the ice cap just came into view.
Ali dug out H. W. Tillman’s compendium and we reviewed the various bays and mountains of Greenland that he visited here in MISCHIEF, many of which these two have also explored. I’ve been so focused on Northwest Passage Makers, I’d forgotten Tillman’s footsteps are all over this coast.
We settled into watches of 3 on and 6 off before lunch.
Sunset came after 11PM and left the oily sea reflecting the color of gold and rose until dawn but five hours later, when it came up over the mountains barely 90 degrees east of where it set into the ocean.
At dawn I came on watch and Ali pointed out a flat top object ahead on the horizon, large as a city block and likely our first berg. Over the hours this berg grew in size but lost its angularity until it resolved to be a lump of an island. So no ice yet, though it was on this day that we crossed the official line into the Arctic, that being 66.5* North.
Wind came up from the south in the late morning and we were soon wing and wing making 7 and 8 knots over a short, steep chop. I made the fool request that we shake out the reef in the main, which Les allowed, and which operation was almost beyond my physical ability. The sails, apart from being much larger than I’m used to working, are made from the heaviest, high-latitude cloth. Insult to injury: soon wind was 30 knots and the heavy sail had to come down altogether.
We continued under poled-out jib until the small low blew itself out overnight.
Late next morning saw us making our last 60 miles to Aasiaat through a series of rocky islands, dark with lichen atop and white stone at the waterline. Les explained the bare rock below had been abraded bare by ice in some previous year. And it was in these channels that we began to pick up our first bergs grounded out in the shallows, drifters down from the great ice machine in Disko Bay. Our way into harbor was nearly blocked altogether by a grounded sentinel at the entrance, but some careful maneuvering put us around it, and we dropped anchor in Aasiaat just in time for lunch.
350 miles of northing. Upernivik next…
Like many such places, the simplest things require effort and planning. Take watering, for example. Not available from the commercial docks where Arctic Tern has been moored these last days. Instead, one must move the boat to a separate part of the harbor; tie along side whatever is already there; call the “fire chief” who will run a fire hose from the closest hydrant to the pier, and for an extra fee, not turn the pressure on such that the hose becomes its own rocket ship.
Fueling is easier, but of course that’s in another location still. We took on over 500 liters in tanks and jerry cans, and will do so often along this route, which requires a strong engine to be frequently employed.
Les points out that remote Greenland fuel stations are unique in that, in addition to diesel, you can buy a loaf of bread and a rifle from the cashier’s shack. That’s considered full service.
After lunch we see if our wire has arrived from Denmark. If so, this evening we depart.
July 15 – 17, Nuuk
Les, Ali and I met for coffee at the Seaman’s Mission early on a foggy morning. Then we hauled my 45 pounds of equipment, almost all clothing, down to the wharf where Arctic Tern lay, and I was given a quick tour (here’s how to make coffee; here’s how to operate the head) and shown my quarters.
She is a big boat, Arctic Tern, steel, nearly 45 feet overall, and orange of hull. She has an upper cabin, “the sun room,” surrounded by large windows in which are a long settee, also orange, and a navigation station; just below this is the galley and dining area, which can easily seat six near the warmth of a diesel heater.
All the way aft is the master stateroom and all the way forward, the V-berth. The V-berth is two bunks, one on the inside of either bow, and a head, both separated from the rest of the boat by a watertight steel door. I have the starboard-side berth and my companion, a swollen net of onions, apples, and lemons, swings heavily to port. Otherwise the cabin is mine. Those who have spent time on boats will know that privacy like this is an unusual luxury.
Our first happy task was to have coffee with our nearest neighbors on Young Larry, whom I was pleased to meet. Young Larry’s owners, Andrew Wilkes and wife, Marie, made an early (2010) transit of the Northwest Passage followed by a long, descriptive article, published by the Royal Cruising Club’s Pilotage Foundation. This was one of the first, detailed accounts I discovered while doing Northwest Passage research. Les and Ali have also spent many years in Arctic waters, and the conversation between these four easily followed through to the end of the cake and second pot of coffee.
In the afternoon we walked our passports to the police station looking to get stamped out of the country for a planned departure next evening. Ten minutes later, and after much rummaging, we were told by the officer on duty that the stamp could not be found. There was only one; likely it was at the airport. The officer would send someone to retrieve it and meet us at the boat (note: two days later no officer has come calling—an indication of the importance of procedure in Greenland.)
There is a common joke among sailors born from common experience; that being, the cruising life provides one with the privilege of working on his boat in exotic places. True to form our departure prep began early the next morning. I busied myself capping the Dorade vents on Arctic Tern’s lower decks against the mighty seas we are sure to face west of Alaska, while Ali zipped Les to the top of the mast to renew the VHF antenna and wiring. All went well until, during his descent, Les found that the starboard-side diagonal shroud had a cracked wire just below the fitting.
We chewed the problem over lunch-time sandwiches of peanut butter, yellow cheese and Branston Pickle. It was agreed that one of the problems with stainless wire is that routine checks, as are performed on Arctic Tern, don’t guarantee against nasty surprises. We also agreed how fortunate it was to find the problem here. Les reasoned that though we had spare wire aboard, using it now would mean not having an emergency replacement further on. Nuuk is the last outpost where ordering from Europe is “easy.” So, after coffee Les made his way to the boat center, and now a double-long stand of 10mil wire should be delivered from Denmark by late Friday.
Jimmy Cornell and team of eight, including guests and a reporter, we are told, departed aboard his Aventura in the early morning. Catryn, a fiberglass, pilothouse sloop, arrived from the UK in the afternoon, as did an aluminum cutter named Gjoa and another glass boat, the Lillian B. of Maine. Dockage in Nuuk is all rafting and we took lines from Lillian B. as she and four crew pulled in along Arctic Tern.
After dinner, Lillian B. invited us aboard for whiskies to celebrate the completion of their first leg, and during which their younger member peppered Les and Ali with questions of the passage further on. During this exchange they made one of those quintessential remote-travel discoveries: their propane tanks, which needed filling, had none of the right fittings for Greenland gas.
Next morning while I renewed the running backs, Ali replaced sheet blocks and Les went up the mast again to remove the offending stay, this while the crew of Lillian B. disgorged their empty propane tanks from their lockers and tore the boat up looking for spares with which to jury rig new fittings.
We had mid-morning coffee in the cockpit. Brilliant sun, windless. Short sleeves shirts and bare feet. Next hour a light breeze from the north, and though the brilliant sun remained, we quickly moved for our boots and sweaters.
In the afternoon I was given a few hours shore leave to explore the town. From the café in which I write, I can see Young Larry departing under sail up Nuuk’s main fjord, this as an iceberg makes its way to the sea.
To see Arctic Tern’s daily progress through the Northwest Passage, go to
(NOTE: if linking from the above does not work, cut and paste the link into a new window.)
How am I doing this?
During Arctic Tern’s 2014 attempt at the Northwest Passage, she will be transiting one of the remotest areas on the planet. Nunavut Territory alone, where I just spent an impromptu weekend, is about one third the area of the continental US and has a total population of 31,000. By comparison, the typical big-city baseball park can accommodate 45,000 on any given Sunday.
One result of there being so few humans in the Arctic is that two technologies we’ve grown to think of as commonplace, even essential, are in short supply; those being cell towers and WIFI networks.
While on passage, I may be able to update this website occasionally over ham radio (much the way I did during Murre’s 2010 – 2012 cruise) but these transmissions will be sporadic, largely due to propagation issues usual in very high latitudes.
To supplement my communications and to ensure I can pilot myself if separated from the boat, I’ve added the Delorme inReach SE to my kit.
The inReach is about the size of a large cell phone (can fit in my back pocket) and is built for three main tasks: the relay of GPS coordinates, two-way texting, and the transmission of SOS messages via satellite. Text messages have a maximum length of 160 characters per send. The device cannot transmit pictures or attachments; nor is it a phone .
Unlike other, similar technologies, inReach uses the Iridium satellite network, which is reported to be the only network that is truly global. Others can have spotty coverage in the remote ocean or at the earth’s poles. Either is problematic for my purposes.
Another important feature is the inReach App (free download), which connects the unit with any IOS or Android mobile device. This is a big plus because while all the inReach functionality is available via the unit itself, the small screen and three-button interface makes some of the processes, e.g. texting, difficult. Mirroring these functions in the inReach App removes this difficulty and allows for the layering-on of other useful features, like the ability to see one’s location and track on a downloadable map or chart, also free via the inReach website.
What this means is that while on passage I will be able to send location and text updates to this site via the Twitter feed you see in the right-hand sidebar. These updates will only include that day’s location and may not be posted every day.
HOWEVER, those interested in daily updates on Arctic Tern’s progress and the ability to see how the journey progresses, please visit the site referenced at the top of this post.
This article contains a summary of the clothing strategy and clothing items I am employing for this Northwest Passage.
There are many reasons to take a practice run at the Arctic before attempting it solo. First there’s the difficulty of pilotage. Much of the passage is shallow and uncharted. Because the magnetic field moves vertically toward the center of the earth as it approaches the poles, magnetic compasses are useless. And, as if the first two weren’t enough, the presence of ice, ranging in size from shoe boxes to container ships, add floating rocks to the problem.
Then there’s the weather. On any normal summer day temperatures may range from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 10 below freezing, with rain or snow depending. The ambient temperature of sea water in this region at this time of year is from 17 to 20 degrees, which means an unheated sail boat’s cabin (fuel heaters often do not function if a boat is at heel) can be chilly at best. Thus for comfort, not to mention safety, appropriate clothing is required.
I was already on passage when the invitation to join Arctic Tern came in. Thus I had just under a week to research and acquire the my gear. I’m thankful for the timely advice of several experienced arctic sailors, including David Thoreson, Mike Johnson, and Eric Forsythe. Additionally Kelton Rhoads, an ultralight backpacking enthusiast, offered much useful information regarding the quality and warmth of several synthetic materials and some of the new downs on the market.
The basic strategy is simple—
1. Plan on layering.
2. Take at least two of everything.
3. Use mostly synthetics.
Because the temperature can vary so widely, it is important to be able to quickly add on layers if the temperature drops or peel them off if it rises. Sailing a boat requires mostly hanging on with short, intense bursts to reef sail and the like; so, keeping core body temperature up is the big challenge, with overheating precautions coming in a distant, though noteworthy, second.
Additionally, I have brought at least two of every layer, the exception being the extremities (hands, feet, head), which have warranted a third or fourth. The reasons for this may be obvious: 1) if the first set gets wet I always have another; 2) if the going gets really bad, I have lots of reserve warmth.
Most of my layers are synthetics, a mix of heavy, Grunden fleeces, the type found at commercial fishermen’s stores, and both heavy Polartec and lighter-weight fleeces and base layers from outdoor stores like The North Face and REI. Also included in this mix are two vests, one of Thermoball and the other of Primaloft fill.
It is a nautical truism that down has no place on a boat, this due to its tendency to absorb and hold onto moisture. That said, I used a down sleeping bag on my boat, Murre, throughout her 2010 – 2012 Pacific run with satisfaction. So, some of my middle layering is down, and I have brought two, North Face down bags for this passage, one rated to 15 degrees, the other to 25 (both older).
Additionally, I’ve brought a GoLite 850 Downtek jacket with hood, whose down is treated with a water resistant coating. I have used this jacket in wet weather on a couple occasions now. Once, while sailing off Vancouver Island, I wore the jacket for several hours in light rain; then I put on a foul weather jacket over the top and wore it for several more hours, during which it seemed to me to retain the vast majority of its loft.
Finally, my outer-body layer is the Gill OS1 foul weather jacket and bib.
I’ve brought numerous hats, but am relying primarily on two fleece balaclavas, both by Seirus. One is tight-fitting and has “windblock”; the other is loose-fitting, thicker and has an adjustable mouth/chin strap. They can be worn together if need be.
My hand protection regime includes a set of NRS Titanium neoprene gloves for “fine” deck work, extra-large fisherman’s rubber gloves with three sets of doubled inserts for standard deckwork, and heavily-lined Goretex mittens by Outdoor Research for when it’s very cold and I’m just standing around.
As to boots, I have three pair: Insulated Extratuffs for deckwork whose size is large enough for felt inserts and doubled-up, thick socks. For inside the cabin I have a set of high-sided Uggs, and for off the boat, insulated Omni Heat hiking boots by Columbia.
The full list looks like this:
Base Layer, Top: short sleeve shirt, synthetic, 3
Base Layer, Top: long sleeve shirt, Smartwool, 3
Mid Layer, Top: pull over, 100 weight fleece, 2
Mid Layer, Top: Polartec jacket, 300 weight, 2
Mid Layer, Top: Vest, Primaloft/Thermoball, 2
Mid Layer, Top: GoLite Downtek jacket with hood, 1
Outer Layer, Top: Gill OS1 Foul Weather Jacket, 1 (plus one light waterproof jacket as backup)
Base Layer, Bottom: thin skins long john, tight-fitting, synthetic, 2
Base Layer, Bottom: light weight long john, medium tight fit, Smartwool, 2
Mid Layer, Bottom: 200 weight long john, loose, synthetic, 2
Mid Layer, Bottom: 300+ weight long john, loose, synthetic, 2
Outer Layer, Bottom: Gill OS1 Foul Weather Bib (plus one light waterproof pant as backup)
Head Protection, one each: wool sock cap; tight-fitting fleece cap; “windblock” fleece cap with ear flaps; tight-fitting fleece balaclava with “windblock”; loose-fitting fleece balaclava.
NRS Titanium neoprene gloves, 1
Extra Large Fishermen’s gloves, 1
Inserts for Fishermen’s gloves, 6 (3 doubled sets)
Heavy Gortex mittens with heavy inserts by Outdoor Research, 1 (wanted extra inserts, but not available)
Insulated Xtratuffs with three sets of flannel sole inserts
Uggs sheep-skin insulated boots
Columbia insulated, cold-weather hiking boots.
Smartwool Hiking sock, 3
Smartwool Mountaineering sock (fit higher up the calf), 2
Liner Sock, 3
I’m making this a matter of record now so we can come back to this later and judge the success of both strategy and items .
“Cancelled?” I ask, as if hearing the word for the first time.
The plane came down hard on the tarmac in Iqaluit, bouncing once. From the window I had seen ice in the bay and ice in flat, white chunks beached at the high tide line like driftwood. But when the doors open, the day comes in warm with a rush. I walk comfortably to the yellow igloo, the Iqaluit terminal, without a jacket.
“Cancelled.” she says flatly.
Inside, the terminal is abuzz. White workmen in bibs and hard hats talking on cell phones. Inuit mothers pushing strollers with other children in tow. Inuit men along the wall. Queues of tourists in fancy boots.
She stands in front of the ticket counter as if guarding it. “Mechanical issues. Next plane Monday.” (It’s Friday.) “Were you making a connection in Nuuk?”
This baffles me, the idea of flying from tiny Iqaluit to tiny Nuuk in order to connect by plane to somewhere else.
“No,” I say. Then, “Yes. A boat. I’m catching a boat in Nuuk. I’m sailing to Nome. Is there another way?”
Now she is confused. Her eyes turn for the first time, searching the help of a colleague.
“Another way across the ocean?” she says as if thinking to herself. “No. There is still only one plane. It’s in Nuuk. We’re putting people up at the Frobisher. We pay for everything except alcohol. It’s a long time to stay in Iqaluit, I know. Come back Monday.”
The plane had departed Ottawa at 9AM, shooting straight north. All the way to the horizon, a lush forest unevenly perforated with flashes of silver, a fortune of water caught in bog, had slowly given way to scrabbled hills of rock still white at the shoulders but otherwise bare. Lakes, reduced in number, were frozen at their centers, serpentine in color, and rimmed with ice. The aspect was that of a high mountain dessert.
“How many people live here?” I ask the taxi driver.
“Seven thousand,” he says. “And it’s the same winter too. Good work here. When it’s sixty below zero, nobody wants to walk. They call the taxis. I make plenty money. I make good cash in taxi; I work in bar for cash. I have good house for free. It’s all cash work—so much money here. I call my brother. He lives in the South.”
“The South?” I ask.
“Yes. In Seattle. He cries to me. HE CRIES. He cannot find work. You have no jobs in America. I say, come north. But he will not.”
“Where are you from?” I ask. The man is African.
“Calgary,” he says. “You are visiting?” I explain my situation. “Oh, that is a long time to stay in Iqaluit.”
Iqaluit comes out of the hillside as if it were a village on Mars. Narrow paved roads are blown over with sand and lined with modular public buildings that look orbit-worthy. Homes, also modular, are raised off the ground and brightly painted; they have tin roofs, small windows. A large diesel tank decorates every front yard. There are no garages, no lawns, no fences. I am walking. Dogs bark as I pass. Each is tied to a stake near its own house of crudely cut plywood. Snowmobiles are scattered about, left where they sat when the snow melted.
Trash gathers in the corners of the land and in the streams that run through town. Cigarette butts, soda cans, candy wrappers, a plastic water gun, an old shirt. A broken bicycle clogs the conduit beneath a dirt bridge.
Cars and trucks and taxis (one in three vehicles is a taxi) and ATVs fill the streets with dust. There’s the noise of traffic. Frequently the roar of a jet from the airstrip just below. A helicopter lifts off with a large satchel hung low and flies north. Everywhere the sense of bustle overmatches the size of this place.
At the beach, ice blocks, askew at the tide line, drip frantically in the heat of the day. A man and woman are laying out a gill net at low water. “Arctic char,” he says when I inquire of their catch. “Pretty much all we have up here besides cod.”
The woman asks where I’m headed. “Not here?” I ask. “Not likely,” she says. I explain my situation. “Oh, that’s a long time to stay in Iqaluit.”
Above the beach, sand and rock give way to tundra and a riot of wild flowers only a few inches high. I am stooping to inspect a carpet of purple when a voice asks, “Do you know what those are?” Across the stream a young woman holds an armful of flowers. “That is Purple Saxifrage, but we call it fire weed. You can eat it.” She stoops, picks a flower and eats. So do I. She explains the Yellow Arctic Poppy, the Arctic Cotton; that the bunches in her arms are Labrador Tea. The wind dies. We are mobbed by mosquitos as large as house flies and I move on.
Iqaluit began as Frobisher Bay, named for the European, Sir Martin Frobisher, who first explored this region in the late 1500s while searching for the Northwest Passage. He discovered gold here, which turned out to be pyrite, and what he thought to be his “strait to Asia” turned out to be but a moderately deep bay. There were whaling operations here until the 1900s and a US Airforce base in the 1940s. Iqaluit’s current claim to fame is as the capital city of the newly independent Nunavut Territory, which separated from Canada’s larger Northwest Territories in 1999.
If it is not clear how a town of 7,000 residents could be called a city, note this from the hotel’s pamphlet:
“Iqaluit is the largest city in the territory of Nunavut, whose total population is 31,000. Our largest neighboring city is the capital of Greenland, Nuuk (population 15,000).”
The bar attached to the hotel is a local’s hangout. It is Friday night. At 9PM the sun rides well above the horizon and traffic at the bar is light. I order a beer in a can because the bar’s entire selection is cans with the most expensive being $9 and the least, $7. The bartenders are two white males; the bouncers, of which there are several already, are African. Between the bar’s two entrance doors is a coat check, manned by my taxi driver from earlier in the day.
By 10PM the bar is beginning to fill; now there is music, the crack of billiards on the mezzanine. My taxi driver busily takes coats from the flood of young Inuits, mostly women, who make up the majority of new-comers.
“Plenty money, these Inuits,” he says to me privately. “Many they get $28,000. Spend it quick. In three years I go back to Calgary and buy a house.”
The bar stools fill with white men just off work. A neat line, again mostly Inuits, forms to one side of the bar and orders are placed one-by-one. The standard order is two cans of beer. The standard Inuit is short, head and neck barely breaching counter top. They take their beer politely and with smiles, as if receiving a gift. The few whites in the mix order shots, served in plastic medicine cups. Twenty dollar bills burst from the till.
An hour later the music is louder still; dancing begins. Two older Inuits are drunk. The old woman has snuck into line and has a beer in both hands before being spied by the bouncers. Two of them escort her, weaving, to a table where she is allowed to enjoy her prize. The old man is not so lucky. A bouncer stands between him and his goal. The old man raises a hand in objection, leans way forward as if battling a stiff wind. The bouncer does not move; does not speak. The old man is gently handed his coat and he departs.
Now the two white bartenders are joined by a third. The new bartender is a young Inuit woman, though paler than most. She is six feet tall and has a bust the size of Texas. Talking at the bar quites as the men concentrate on their beers.
I choose this moment to order the Muskox Burger, the length of day here having fooled me into forgetting my dinner.
“It’s made of Bison, you know.” says the woman.
“Why would be called Muskox, then?” I ask.
“It’s a new menu,” she says. “Not from here are you?” I explain. “Oh, that’s a long time to be in Iqaluit.”
Outside the sun has finally dropped below the horizon, and the night appears to be early evening. The clouds above Iqaluit are lit crimson from below, and they stay crimson until dawn.
What I haven’t told you about the Northwest Passage: I’m going.
This Thursday, to be precise.
All rather sudden.
Here’s the back-story:
Many who have commented on my Figure 8 Voyage slated for 2015 think the attempt downright daft; some say I underrate the difficulty, while an interesting few have remarked, “that sounds like fun! Do you need crew?”
But all agree that any singlehanded challenger of the Northwest Passage would benefit from some prior experience of life above 66.56 degrees north latitude (the arctic circle). As Joanna (amazingly supportive wife) suggests, the wisdom gained from such an exploit could be an insurance policy against my expedition’s future success–especially as no actual insurance company is likely to underwrite it.
For months now I’ve been searching for a berth on a boat attempting the Northwest Passage this summer. What I found was that most who declared arctic intentions already had their crews or were having second thoughts altogether. Last year marked the coldest summer the Arctic had seen in several. Areas that were ice-free in August of 2010, 2011, 2012 were not in 2013. Choke points along the route either closed early or failed to open at all. Some boats became trapped. This gave the 2014 “fleet” pause for thought, and when I reached out in the spring, many were waiting to see what developed before committing.
By June I’d given up finding a berth.
Then just before I boarded the plane for the Vancouver Island Training Run, a note came across from the owners of Arctic Tern, then in Lewisporte, Newfoundland. After much consideration, they had decided to make a second attempt at the Northwest Passage this year. Would I like to join as crew? I accepted immediately.
Is such a venture all that unusual?
By way of comparison:
- 4000: approximate number of people who have climbed Mount Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
- 300: approximate number solo circumnavigations via the Southern Ocean since Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s completion aboard Suhaili in 1969.
- 85: approximate number of private yachts to complete the Northwest Passage since Raold Amundsen aboard Gjoa in 1906.
Arctic Tern is a 50 foot, steel cutter designed by Bruce Roberts and owned by Les and Ali Parsons, both RYA Yachtmaster Instructors, based principally out of the Menai Strait, United Kingdom. In 2013 they and three crew members completed nearly half of the Northwest Passage, but were turned back just outside Cambridge Bay due to unremitting ice ahead. They and crew returned to Newfoundland. Now it’s time to give it another try.
The Vancouver Island Training Run concluded in Canoe Cove, Sidney, BC a couple days early, and with Kurt’s permission, I quickly abandoned ship for Seattle, where I spent two days nosing around the various commercial fisherman’s stores searching for the appropriate cold weather gear.
Now home, last minute preparations continue even as the gear-pile in the living room grows out of all proportion. My Thursday departure quickly approaches.
As for Arctic Tern, she has waited-out Hurricane Arthur in Lewisporte and has just departed for Nuuk, Greenland, where I meet her and crew sometime after July 11.
June 27 – 30
Rain overnight and heavy wind, but the gale we hide from at Effingham stays well to the north. Rain in the morning. We do chores below decks. Kurt swaps out the primary fuel filter and wonders if we will ever solve the engine problems. He rebuilt it, an old Mercedes, over the winter. It starts with the least effort and runs with a confident, brassy beat … until it doesn’t. It must be starved for fuel. But how?
By afternoon wind has filled-in from the southeast, and we decide to wait tomorrow’s forecast. We row ashore and hike the trail across Effingham to the remains of an Indian village. The trail is a wet tangle of wood and fern consistently marked with hanging fishnet buoys and string and without which we would have been lost five steps from the beach. The remains are mere mounds when we find them, but in the detritus of the beach, we spy a plastic gas can with Kanji markings, likely debris from the Japanese Tsunami of 2011.
Another boat is anchored in Effingham. On the row back to RAVEN we meet Mike and Sue of WINDBORNE and are invited aboard for “sundowners,” a word coined by tropical cruisers for happy hour and strikingly unsuited as a description of such festivities in the chronically overcast Pacific Northwest. We learn Mike and Sue are also transiting the west side of Vancouver Island to Sidney.
Over the course of the evening Mike and Kurt convince each other to make the long, 70 mile leap to Sooke Harbor next day. The forecast calls for clearing and sailable northwesterlies to 20 knots. The two boats depart together at 5AM and are anchors down in the mud of Sooke by 7PM, having motored in winds from the south and east turning in the afternoon to dead calm.
Once we enter Juan de Fuca, the cruise is essentially over. Forty miles separate us from Sidney, but the constant traffic in the strait made up of ships and tugs and ferries and commercial fishermen remove any sense of wilderness. Kurt talks of putting RAVEN away for the summer, and I am thinking of nothing but my upcoming Northwest Passage.
In the early morning we are underway again, now for Roche Harbor (to repatriate RAVEN before her return to Canada) and then Canoe Cove. By noon we’ve rounded Trial Island on a screaming flood, and with this Kurt and I realize we’ve each closed a loop. In 2012 MURRE and I passed this rock from the east, bound for Victoria on a southward transit of the inside passage, and Kurt had done the same aboard RAVEN in 2011.
With this second passage around Trial, this time from the west, we have completed a circumnavigation our Vancouver Island.
I entered Tofino Harbor for the first time in August of 2005. Night. A dense fog covered the sea. The boat on which I crewed had departed Hanalei Bay 23 days earlier, overshooting its goal, the Straits of Juan de Fuca, due to a gale from the south. We were out of fuel and water supplies were low. Our radar had failed. We had no Canadian charts.
The departing gale took away the wind and for two days we drifted toward Vancouver Island on a slow current and zephyrs. Five miles off and well after midnight we finally hove to. The skipper rang up the coast guard, whose cutter didn’t arrive an hour later so much as bodily materialize out of the undifferentiated dark just a few feet from our bows. It delivered five gallons of fuel and instructions to follow closely behind its bright lights to the docks. From the helm I followed with a will as our guide turned and turned and turned again. Fog so thick it would have been easier to pilot the entrails of a down pillow. Occasionally the boom of breakers unseen. Once an island of rock loomed close enough to touch, then faded quickly away.
Compare today. Today we depart Tofino Harbor on the ebb under full sun. Our course, a maze of hash-lines on the chart, seeks to pinball toward the open sea without ever touching the bumpers of Deadman Islets, the sand shoal north of Felice Island, the rocks off Stubbs and Wickaninnish; Surprise Reef, Nob Rock, Lennard Island, Frank Island. That these hazards are fully visible makes this a game without danger, until the engine stalls. Count: five, four, three, two, one. Kurt glows the plug; turns the key. The engine sounds. We continue.
In the north, summery skies are associated with windless, calm seas, and today is no exception. We motor on the flat south of Wickaninnish Bay and past Amphitrite Point before lowering cloud brings wind enough to sail, again and always from the southeast. One long tack out to sea for fun; RAVEN sails herself close-hauled and we sit, watching with deep satisfaction; then one long tack into Imperial Channel. Rain begins as we tuck behind Effingham Island.
Now it’s just the two of us, Kurt and me, and without our instigator (our puckish veterinarian photographer), we fall into long periods of silence punctuated by laconic bursts, mostly about boats, boats we admire, work we’ve done on boats, places we’ve been on boats, places we’d like to go.
Dinner of stew and bread and a glass of red wine. I clear the table, but discover we’ve run out of dish soap. I substitute a bar from the head, which clogs the galley sponge with a thick, white, oily substance whose cleansing qualities rival that of lard.
Rain overnight and low fog in the morning, but by the time we’d had coffee and eggs, a light breeze flowed down Matilda’s narrow flanks. We raised the main and then the hook and silently departed this hush of an anchorage. To our amazement, the breeze followed us into the channel and persisted from a direction not entirely unhelpful.
Jay, our photographer, announced he had two wishes for this passage: one, a shot of a Bald Eagle and two, a shot of a Raven. He had the former and now only needed the latter to feel utterly satisfied. “But Ravens are everywhere,” I protested. “No, the RAVEN,” he answered.
We lowered him into the dinghy and cut him loose and Kurt and I tacked RAVEN up and down Millar Channel as smartly as ever we could while Jay worked his big camera. After an hour we lifted him back aboard panting and happy.
The wind persisted and now we continued sailing for the sheer joy of it. On up the channel we tacked toward our cut into Tofino, and only as the fog lifted in the early afternoon and the islands on the chart began to appear as solid beings on our horizon did were realize we’d sailed with intention and great care many miles past our turn. How this could happen on a boat with a large electronic chart plotter, a plotted course to follow, and three seemingly observant humans baffled us, but our bafflement failed to reduce our exuberance for the day. We put RAVEN wing and wing before the wind. The warming sun slowly melted the breeze away, but a flood tide filled in and we drifted with contentment the last miles to our goal.
Tofino is a brightly painted village built on the northern slopes of the Estowista Peninsula. It has a marina (mostly dedicated to the fishing fleet), a float plane dock, a coast guard station, restaurants, a grocery, a few small hotels. It is the largest town on west Vancouver Island.
At the head of the ramp we were greeted by Ben, the harbor master, a man so short and wide as to appear round. We asked for a place to dine. “Do you like good food?” he asked. We avoided as much. “Well, I always recommend SoSo then eh. You’re gonna think it weird, maybe. They have a tofu sushi wrap that is just whoa!” Ben rolls back like he’s been knocked between the eyes with a two by four. “But whoever thought of that, eh? Tofu and seaweed. I dunno.” We are briefly silent, in part because Ben is a shockingly loud talker. I have moved back a few steps. “Once I went there for lunch, eh, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna have a turkey sandwich today,’ and the girl asked if I wanted lettuce or green apple. And I said, ‘green apple?’, and she said, ‘sure, lettuce is so dull’ eh. And whoa! she was right. I mean the apple highlighted the flavor of the mustard, the turkey, the bread. Just crazy, eh? So now I keep a green apple in the kitchen for when I make turkey sandwiches. Be sure to get the cookbook.”
We had plank salmon and grilled squab and toasted the completion of our voyage’s first leg.
Next morning we said goodbye to Jay, who had to return home for a family engagement. Then Kurt and I got on with what cruisers do when they reach civilization after a hard slog. We dug out our laundry, grabbed our computers and made for the WIFI-enabled laundromat, where we have been feverishly typing and folding clothes these last two hours. Next is a run to the grocery store.
Tomorrow begins phase two of a cruise whose eventual destination is the city of Victoria, but that great constellation of islands in Barkely Sound may need exploring along the way.
I woke to grey skies and Kurt’s clanking away at the engine. Over dinner we had worked through the engine’s steaming-up, the most logical source of which was, we reasoned, a broken raw water impeller. On marine engines the importance of this item, of any item, is indicated by the difficulty of reaching it. In this case, a hatch at the back of the quarter berth must be removed and a human body stretched almost to breaking in order to lay the pinky and thumb of one’s non-dominant hand upon a seized nut for which no wrench has yet been forged.
Uncovering the impeller with some effort showed it in perfect working order. So we cleaned the raw water strainer, changed the fuel filters again for good luck and were off. The engine wavered again within the mile, but without the exhaust steam. We slowed; the engine steadied; we pressed on.
Again sun predominated without the predicted northwesterlies and our anchor found the bottom of Hot Springs Cove in the early afternoon. Here lay three other sailboats, the only other cruisers on Vancouver’s west side we had yet encountered.
Low fog next morning and the whine of the entrance buoy. We hiked slowly through the tangled rainforest along a mile of meticulous boardwalk, numerous planks of which were carved with the boat names and greetings of those who’d come before. Soon the smell of sulfur. We stripped and crawled over slick rock into the warm water. We were not alone. Power boats and float planes brought tourists from Tofino, to whom we described our rough passage to this same spot, soaking up the attributed glory of our small adventure.
Next day we made a short hop to Matilda Inlet housing the village of Ahousat. Jay and I had thoughts of another restaurant meal, but as we slowed past the clog of derelict boats at the dock below the two buildings comprising downtown, the sign “Restaurant” that hung askew from the sign “General Store” suggest it not worth the row.
Near our anchorage, a double-ended ketch whose grey hull and white masts impressed as both well used and tidy. Her name, FIREWATER of Ketchikan (an Ingrid 38). With a start I realize I’d seen this yacht in a small bay outside La Paz three years earlier. Here the owner and wife, both elderly, had rowed over to MURRE for a gam. They were about to get underway, they said, were headed north to Hawaii; Mexico had gotten too expensive, too crowded. The man looked like a logger, pale, his flannel shirt and bill cap out of place in the Mexican heat. He was gregarious with a braying laugh and evidently tough, while his Inuit wife, a mere crumple of a woman, could barely manage a whisper. They departed that afternoon. The old man lifted the old woman aboard as if lifting a child from a wheelchair. She hobbled to the cockpit. He sailed FIREWATER off anchor alone and over the horizon.
Now Kurt slowed RAVEN. On FIREWATER a figure swabbed decks. He wore green foulies; held a white bucket. I reintroduced myself, reminded of our meeting in Mexico. “I remember you,” he said as we passed. “I lost my wife in Hawaii, you know. Brought her ashes back here; FIREWATER and I just arrived two days ago. She’s from this village, my wife.” I express condolences. “But I’m not swallowing the anchor. I’m not done.” I asked where he was bound. He raised both arms as if to say where was not important. And then RAVEN had drifted past.
Having got below Brooks Peninsula, we felt we could relax a bit, if not too much. We took the reward of a long night’s sleep without alarm and a leisurely breakfast of fried potatoes and eggs before suiting up and departing through Gay Passage to the south. Soon we were in the open ocean.
It is known to all that the weather improves markedly below Brooks, all but Environment Canada. The forecast called for southerlies building to gale force late in the day. In the morning winds were light and the sea state subdued. We took a route inside the reefs and by Spring Island the sky had cleared. We had sun for the first time since arrival at Port Hardy.
At Tatchu Point Jay spotted a fin to stern, then three. A Humpback greeting, I presumed, but Kurt said Orcas. They didn’t approach. Murres, Puffins, Sooty Shearwaters–birds of shore and sea mixed it up in this zone.
Turning into Esperanza Inlet, we ran before the breeze and in the warmth of sun soon stripped off our layers of protection. We intended to take Nootka Island’s inside passage. The day continued to open as the mountains of Vancouver rose around us; the sea became a lake and emboldened by evident summer, we agreed to go all the way to the fishing village, Tahsis.
In Hecate Channel Kurt spied a whiteness within the monotony of green trees, a bald eagle at his perch. We diverted course; Jay unearthed from his duffle a bazooka telephoto lens and began firing as I edged the boat in close. Here we learned Jay can whistle. With tongue doubled back, create a donut with thumb and forefinger. Insert in mouth and exhale with force. The sound produced pierced such that I felt a blade enter my brain from both ears. But the eagle didn’t stir where stirring was the intent. We wanted him on film in flight. Minutes of haloowing and clapping finally lifted him, though more from resignation than fear.
Immediately after, the engine began to hesitate. We had already had some issues and had renewed fuel filters. Now steam poured from the exhaust pipe. We limped through tight Tahsis Narrows, so deep they are unaffected by tide, and up the runway-straight entrance to Tahsis, docking in the late evening under iron peaks still covered in snow.
Before dinner, before beer even, showers, paid for by Kurt. Then Vancouver Island beer and Lamb tenderloins at a dockside restaurant and to bed.
Wind increased as the morning wore on, swinging SE and upchannel. By noon we had clocked several gusts to 45 knots with average windspeeds to 30. Sometimes came a gust to turn RAVEN’S head, then with her broadside to the wind, another lay her over, almost but not quite to her rail. White streaked water and spume. Salt spray formed into great clouds that flew up from the channel and far into the mountain. The rigging roared as did the trees. The bald eagle of yesterday, the loon and the two grebes, had abandoned the fjord.
At each gust we looked up to the shoreline. Will the anchor hold; will it hold again?
We sat in the cockpit photographing the day in the machine-gun rain and the chain ground away in its chock.
Jay, who had not been through an event like this, began to feel the pressure of such a tenuous existence, “So, do we leave tomorrow?” Kurt shook his head. “Depends on the wind. We could be here for days.”
In the early afternoon the sky cleared and RAVEN sat in calm water. We smiled with the feeling of a successful escape. But an hour later the sky lowered and the southerly filled in again with the same violence as before.
By nightfall our radio propagation improved such that I was able to pull a much anticipated weather forecast. It said:
West Coast Vancouver Island North.
Storm warning in effect.
Wind southeast 35 to 45 knots except southeast 50 near the headlands.
Wind becoming northwest 40 to 50.
This was a markedly stronger forecast than earlier and felt as though Environment Canada (weather bureau) had cheated by predicting the present moment.
It went to on say 55 knot winds were being recorded at Cape Cook, a mere 10 miles west.
The previous day I had resented our giving up on the Brooks. If I’d been alone, I thought, I’d have pressed on. But now I was contrite and as grateful as the newly saved for this heavenly anchorage.
We put out a braided rope snubber on the chain to defeat the infernal cranking and grinding. I wrapped it in fire-hose chafe guard. Within two hours it chewed through and the snubber parted at the chock as if it were a piece of string. I made another with a chafe guard of reinforced heater hose. This one held.
Kurt cooked a dinner of spaghetti with ground buffalo and tomato sauce, steamed broccoli and a salad, again, deeply satisfying. We thought, once, the wind diminished. We looked up and gave it a moment of silence, but then it cranked down again. Always strong, always from the south, and our talk continued until 11PM.
By 4AM, quiet. We motored out at 5AM on a lake but yet without birds, slinking through the narrow pass not sure of our offing. I looked to the horizon expecting a dark line, the 50 knot northwestelies.
We passed quickly around Solander Island. A windless morning, but in a sea still so upset from the night before it threw us against the railings like to brake our arms and legs.
“So, will we sail today?” asked Jay. Kurt and I were tight-lipped, focused only on getting below the Brooks before the next gale.
A light wind from the south by late morning and we did sail the leg into Bunsby Islands. We were early. We’d made it. We sailed back and forth in Ououkinish Inlet for an hour simply for the pleasure of it. Another 35 miles of southing.
At anchor in a horseshoe lagoon and under the perfect protection of north Bunsby. Cheese sandwiches. I suggest chocolate Sundays for desert. Kurt says that by way of celebration he just baked brownies and hands me a chocolate bar. We each have a piece. Just one. They nap. I go for a row and fall asleep on the rocky beach.
Our third member arrived at 8PM and we immediately disembarked Port Hardy for Bull Harbor on Hope Island, this so as to stage our run around Cape Scott with the tide. Here we dropped anchor at midnight. Glassy black water. Two fishing boats; cabins dark. Steady drizzle.
Up at five and underway before coffee, a worrisome practice if it continues. Motored around the horseshoe cove opposite Bull and inside Tatnall Reefs, so as to avoid dangerous Nahwitti Bar. Unnecessary given the calm sea, but interesting. Weather still and rounding of Cape, eventless. Low cloud kept us from seeing it or anything except sea and birds. Murres, Sooty Terns, the occasional seagull.
The forecast called for light southerlies turning to the northwest in the late morning. Given that the forecast continued on to describe a southerly gale coming in Thursday afternoon, we opted to make a long leap around Brooks Peninsula, the other difficult feature of this coast.
As the afternoon wore on, the southerly wind increased. Not much. 10 – 15 knots only, but the chop reduced our speed to 3 and 4 knots, and pushed our arrival at planned anchorage to after midnight, so we turned hard to port just north of Brooks and put into a deep fjord called Klaskish Inlet, where we dropped anchor in the basin at 7PM. 72 miles.
Dinner immediately. Kurt cooked spaghetti with ground buffalo in tomato sauce; heavy, hot, thoroughly satisfying. Hit the bunk by 9PM with intention of departing well before dawn in an attempt, again, to get below Brooks before the low arrived in the afternoon.
Gusts began in the night and laid the boat over. At 4AM I asked Kurt, “So, what to you think?” All he said was “NO.” We both crawled back in our bags.
We drug sometime between then and 9AM. And drug again before coffee (a pattern is developing). Took an hour to reset. Williwaws to 35 knots off the high walls of the Fjord spin the boat. Rain sideways.
So we are here today. Fried eggs for breakfast and Kurt and Jay sawing away at their stories while I type. For a man of my temperament, a crew of three is the perfect number as long as the other two can talk and I can disappear into the corner. Torrential rain. Cozy cabin and it appears the hook is hooked.