The Crux of the Matter, I

Aug 16th
Underway from Graham Harbor

All day the sea birds are flying the other way. They are headed out of the ice maze, out into Lancaster, back into Baffin and south. Winter migration has begun. All the while, Mo pushes further into the heart of it.

Last evening’s ice charts show improved conditions. Above Bellot, the ice is about 3/10ths for long stretches, but below there’s still a tongue of 7/10ths above Tasmania Islands.

And then there’s the difference between the report and actual. Alioth is a day ahead of Mo by now, and Vincent reports, “We just spent 12 hours finding our way through at times very dense ice (probably 5/10ths) from Hummock Point to Hurditch Peninsula.” I measure it off: 12 hours to go 40 miles.

“You must consider to sleep in 20-minute shifts for every four hours of steering,” wrote Vincent. “Keep moving. The sun also shines below Bellot Strait.”

At midnight that shining sun is still above the horizon, but I am pooped. We’ve been underway from Graham for 20 hours, and there is always a white chunk or two on the horizon; now an hour in the bunk is too long. Given the difficulties of the next 150 miles, I decide to take one last, long sleep.

Off Cape Swansea at the top of Peel Sound, I heave to and shut down the engine. Mo drifts slowly N. I crawl into the sleeping bag. But it is no good. I am up every hour. At 4am, I rise. By 5am we are underway for our engagement with the ice.

Aug 17th
Underway from Cape Swansea

Clear and calm. As we motor hour after hour, each notation in the wind column of the log reads simply, zero. The sun is bright and warm. In the cockpit, temperatures are in the 50s. After breakfast, I set about chores. The fuel tanks are topped off from jerry cans, and at the transom, both the hydrogenerator and Monte’s water paddle are removed. Either could be damaged easily if we are nipped by ice.

By 11am we are across Aston Bay and it has been open water. In any case, I don’t expect ice here. 

Noon, still open water.

Half an hour later, we are moving through 2/10ths ice off of McClure Bay. I start hand steering. It is easy going. Though beautiful, the ice is rotten, the pieces are small and much eaten away. I weave Mo at full speed as I keep an eye forward for more.

Only once do I screw up. I aim to pass between two small floes but fail to see the diagnostic light green between them. They are one floe connected by an underwater bridge. But it is too late. There is a clinking sound much like the jostling of ice cubes in a glass. Mo thunks. And the floes drift apart.

Off Hummock point, ice thins out but two hours later I begin to see solid white on the horizon. The day’s mirage picks up this image and makes it look like a tidal wave of white rolling towards us. Now we are in it, solid 5/10ths ice. Still, with care and concentration I am always able to find a lane just when it is needed. We weave back and forth; I am pulling on the tiller as though it were the handle of an oar. It is exhilarating. And still we are at full speed. 

Ice goes thin then thick then thin again. Hours pass and I am still working the tiller. 

What has been heavy going begins to thin at 11pm. The water is clear enough that my course changes are mere nudges of the tiller. I play the dangerous game: how little can you change course; how close to the ice can you get? Only sometimes do I miss, proof being the thud on the hull and a smudge of black on the ice. 

Midnight. The sun is down. The aspect is of late evening. It is a struggle to see. Luckily now the floe is but odds and ends. I have been hand steering for nearly twelve hours and can feel the fatigue in my leaden eyes. My thighs feel shaky. 

In the dusk ahead I see a long, dark opening. There is white further on but it must be a whole ten minutes distant. I flip on the autopilot, drop below, and set the alarm for a five minute nap. I collapse against a bulkhead; am immediately asleep. 

On the fourth minute there is a heavy crashing sound. Mo shudders as if hitting a wall. She stops dead. The engine grids right down. I leap for the throttle and back her off and then look forward. There Mo and ice the size of a car are drifting as if dazed. But the ice block has been split in two. 

At 2am we are below the ice. Yes, there’s a bit here and there, but we’ve got past our first big plug. A sense of satisfaction. New territory, and we have managed. Maybe we can do this after all.

On we sail south. On and on. Finally there is that cut into the land, False Strait. I ease Mo in and drop anchor at 6am. We’ve come 150 miles in 23 hours and passed our first of three ice gates. Bellot Strait is but one mile S. Below it begins Franklin Strait. Above is Peel. We are through Peel. 

7 Comments on “The Crux of the Matter, I

  1. Wicked good reporting there, Captain Bergdodger! You put the ICE in the word exICEting!

  2. Seeing Mo move slowly past the submerged ice, sends a chill down the spine. Spooky to see that.

  3. Just, wow. I can’t manage anything articulate after holding my breath as I read your wonderful recounting.

  4. This is wonderful writing — very observant, touched with emotion, and with just the right amount of concrete detail. As an old sailor myself, I can easily imagine the amount of stress involved. I’m so glad the small iceberg split when you hit it dead on! John, retired sailor, just turning 82.

  5. Incredible pictures and even better news. All the best for your final sprint(?) home

  6. That’s one way to remove any straggling barnacles, peel them off with a touch of ice. Stay of sound mind and continue doing what you love.

  7. The tracker tells me you are in Cambridge Bay. Whew. That was one great push. Exhausting for you, Moli did a wonderful job & just a few new dents to prove another NW passage ticked off. How many yachts under 15 meter have transited twice? You are in our thoughts. Connie, s/y Sage

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