Tough as Ice

Boruki and wulf

Meet Jerry Borucki, a fluid-dynamicist retired from NASA’s Ames Research Center, resident of Mountain View, California and extreme sailor. His goal, one he has chased for many summers since 2006, has been to reach the North Pole in a small boat.

Most people would think Borucki is going at things in reverse. Sailing exploits during his younger years were to more relaxed and tropical destinations like Hawaii. In fact, he says that when he departed San Francisco in his Freya 39 in 2005, just after leaving NASA, “I started out for Hawaii and, 26 days later, wound up in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.”*

The beauty captivated him and that was that.

The next summer he set out to reach the Aleutians, and the summer after that, the Arctic Circle. A year later he was searching for the western pack ice, which he found at 76 degrees north latitude, 500 miles above his venture of the previous summer.

Each time all he wanted was “to see how far north I could get.”

Jerry built his Freya from a bare hull, adding heavier-than-normal bulkheads and other strengthening measures to bring the boat, as he says, “to Lloyd’s Class 1 standards for my assault.”

And for good reason.

In 2007 he, and now aptly named Arctic Alpha Wulf, were rocked by a full storm and two gales while holed up in uninhabited Nash Harbor on Nunivak Island. Here he waited at anchor sixteen long days for a weather window that would allow his sprint south. He began to run short of food and fuel, and was assisted with both by a tug and barge also waiting. Once below the Aleutians he experienced a gale every three days and a severe knockdown that held the boat on her side for a full five minutes. Surprisingly, damage was minimal–a canvas dodger blown clean off and a swamped stove due to the flu being underwater so long. “It was (rough) enough to knock the sugar out of the coffee,” he said.

He thought 2010 to be the perfect year for achieving the North Pole, but by the time he reached Dutch Harbor in August, it was clear winter was already on the way. He retreated to Icy Bay to anchor and explore a while, but first he was trapped under a month-long, deluging rain storm–waterfalls cannoning off cliffs and deck leaks soaking his clothes and gear. Then ice began to form, blocking his exit. Days were growing shorter and by this time (late October) night lasted for eighteen hours. The cold began to take over the boat. Everything he touched burned with cold. “I shivered in the heated cabin…I had the feeling that nature was taking me apart…There is a lot to think about in the darkness.”**

Again he was waiting for the weather to moderate and allow a departure for home, but each day he waited saw the ice around Arctic Alpha Wulf grow thicker. He began to wonder if escape was possible.

Finally on November 14 he decided to make a break for it regardless of the conditions in the Gulf of Alaska. After warming the engine and raising anchor he began to move.

Lurching forward the boat hit the ice and came to an abrupt stop. The ice didn’t even crack…I backed up 20 feet and then rammed the ice at full throttle until the bow lifted three feet in the air…The keel shrieked and moaned as it took the hit. I flew into a wild rage: ‘Shitty ice! This is for Shackleton!’ I shouted as I rammed the iron-hard ice at full throttle…the consequences if I failed were too awful to contemplate…There was a huge jolt as (again) the boat stopped dead and the bow hung suspended at a hellish angle over the ice…A long, dreadful silence ensued.Then a salvo of gunfire erupted; rifle shot after rifle shot rang out as the ice shattered. Twisting and grinding, the bow came crashing down into open water.**

A storm in the Gulf blew out his main and he put into Yakutat for repairs, but at last he was free of the Arctic winter, and free to plan his next year’s assault.


Copyright Jerry Borucki 2014 via Latitude 38


Voyage Ends, David F. Smydra Jr., Half Moon Bay Review, October 24, 2007.

*The Iceman Cometh, LaDonna Bubak, Latitude 38, February 2008, p. 114.

Bound for the Pole, Ladonna Bubak, ‘Lectronic Latitude, Latitude 38, August 8, 2008.

**Jerry Borucki, Jerry Borucki, Latitude 38, February 2011, p. 88.

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