Wind: NE 20
Sky: Solid occlusion, rain last hour
Temp: Air: 4C; Sea, -1C
Sea: slop to 1 meter in Franklin
Onward to Gjoa Haven.
At 6am (local) we departed Depot Bay for an attempt at Bellot, targeting our entrance into the strait for the last two hours of the west-setting current. Wind still sharp from NE. Novara, Gjoa, Arctic Tern weighed together–Arctic Tern got her anchor first but soon was passed by larger Novara; smaller Gjoa trailing. Waves and a blast of the horn as we passed our friends on the Tandberg Polar.
The previous day’s hike to Kennedy Island’s western ridges allowed us to see the first half of Bellot and revealed a solid ice band crossing the whole of the strait at Zenith point and clear water beyond. We hoped the two intervening tides would wash that out, but were not surprised the next morning to find the ice band still at Zenith. A close inspection showed clear water to starboard and another ice band just past Halfway Island showed clear water to port. The west-end opening, however, was solidly plugged.
Before arriving, we noticed a vessel making slow way towards us through the plug. This turned out to be L’Manguier (commonly known as Mango), a red-hulled French “tug” with a tall scaffolding and a man on watch atop. The bridge informed us that the ice plug was indeed heavy going but more open on the north.
Novara, a mile on, approached the plug first, and after one experiment (bow out of water in imitation of an ice breaker) cut to the right, wiggled through, and then sprinted north around the ice spit that reached in but did not yet lay upon the northwestern point.
We cut in a little earlier. The current closed our chosen lead just as we approached and Arctic Tern met a solid chunk head on. We backed and tried again, Nick, Ali and I poling from the bows as Les maneuvered. Large ice blocks were swirling in the tide. Several times we were squeezed and pivoted around. We found the pieces too large to push, so we stopped and allowed the current to work the ice in our vicinity until more leads opened; then with gentle pressure from the engine and more poling, we eased our way through. The entire process took about 20 minute.
We exited Bellot at 9am, a fast, clean passage. We saw clear water and no ice line in the offing of Franklin.
Gjoa was not so fortunate. From my vantage she appeared to enter the main ice plug and then rise, heal over, and stop. As we rounded the Franklin side of the plug, I spied a Polar Bear on the ice roaming a quarter mile from Gjoa’s position. We called over to inform.
At this time we also saw that the Akademik S. Vavilov, an ice-strengthened cruise ship (looked more like a battle cruiser in binoculars), was approaching Bellot’s western exit. Gjoa called requesting assistance, reporting that they were fast atop an ice ledge with no ability to go forward or back. Reconstructing from what we heard over the radio (by then we had lost the Gjoa side of the conversation), over the next hour, the Vavilov made slow way toward Gjoa in an attempt to cut a lane for the small sailboat. This appears to have failed, for next we heard, a line was being passed and Gjoa was towed out, whether by the ship or a heavy launch we could not tell. We look forward to hearing her story when we all arrive in Gjoa Haven. Likely Ann and Glenn have some spectacular photographs of a particular bear.
Two hours after entering Franklin, we were passed by a northbound sailing vessel, Lady Dana making for Bellot, and the ice breaker, Pierre Radison, could be seen on the western horizon, sitting at the ice line and waiting to escort the Vavilov to Cambridge Bay. Ahead of both was a cargo ship. All told, it was a busy day in Franklin Strait.
(Later I also learned that our friends on Drina have departed Maxwell Bay, where they retreated from Port Leopold, and are making fast southing toward Fort Ross.)
One lesson for me was how on one’s own boats are in the arctic ice. Once we had escaped the ice plug in Bellot, there was no practical way for us to return to Gjoa’s aid. Not only was she on the other side of the barrier, she seems also to have been embayed. When we weighed that morning, we appeared to be a fleet of three yachts, but that was a fiction.
Our current plan on Arctic Tern is to push this opportunity; to continue on overnight, if the way remains clear, the 210 miles remaining to Gjoa Haven, there to fuel and press on again. We have effected an important escape, but we are far from home free.