October 25, 2012

Leg 7: 8/9 - 23/9 2012: Point Barrow - False Pass, Alaskan Peninsula

Is this IT?

Point Barrow is such a low featureless cape that it is hard to believe that so many sailors took a very deep breath once they rounded the cape and could head south. Late in the ice free summer the whaling was at its best but if a northerly wind came up and pressed the pack-ice against the cape they had to find a safe anchorage for the winter. Or else the ever moving pack-ice would seal their fate. That year the whalers would not come home. And nobody knew if they would next year or that their boat was already crushed to bits by the ice. Nowadays this is different, oil companies just had to abort drilling in the Chukchi Sea for the ice was threatening their rigs.


We sail along the coast, enjoying a very friendly and stable northerly breeze. Great conditions for Penny to get used to Jonathan.  After 4 hours of undisturbed sleep she wakes me asking for another hour. To watch the Northern lights flowing in yellow and green bands along a cloudless sky. Staring at the dancing, colourful and fickering light, the half full moon and the stars, time seems to disappear. Jonathan looks after himself.

Our luck with the weather.

The days flow by seamlessly. The wind blowing gently from the north, day after day. We laugh a bit on the comments of other sailors who wrote horrendous stories on sailing the Chukchi Sea. Ok it is fresh at times and we need to gybe every now and then to keep the sun on our face but apart from that this seems to be a very friendly sea. Penny bakes bread, pizzas, cakes and other laborious stuff as if the boat is not rolling. The Grip-files keep on telling us there will be northerlies. The Pilot is not too positive on the narrow part of the Bering Strait. A windy funnel between Russian and Alaska with a north going current of 3 knot and a short steep sea. But also; after prolonged northerlies the current is often reduced to a knot or less. Luck is sailing with us on this one.

Gold-diggers and Iditarod

A days work of gold panning
Closing in on Nome we meet the first seabottomvacumers. Well I would not know of a better word for it, it floats and by way of a bizarre construction sand gets sucked up containing tiny gold particles. The suction mouth is operated by a diver whose wetsuit is warmed up by the cooling water of the generator. This way he can stay down for 4 hours straight. We meet dozens of these floating work platforms build with a lot of fantasy and very few dollars. Luckily the beach is not far away.
Nome is also Iditarod, now a dog sledge race over 1100 miles. It began as a serum transport for the kids of Nome dying off diphtheria in the winter of 1925. The sea was frozen over and the planes of that time could not handle the winter cold of Alaska. Mushers drove their dogs and themselves to the limits crossing the icy desert. Days and days knowing that their hardship would save many young lives.

Gold panners shacks on the beach
Footsteps on deck. A bright high visibility jacket shows up in the cockpit. Rolland introduces himself in a few lines, "we sailed the North West Passage in 2009, now training for the Iditarod, kids going to school here". Full of energy he already arranged to haul out 2 NW Passage boats, "yes it is pretty late for the Bering Sea but with a boat like this, no problem" He comes up with False Pass as a possible landfall in the Alaskan Peninsula. Did not look very tempting when I saw it on the chart earlier but it might have been the name that put me off.

The last miles . . .

Another deep depression moves over the Bering Sea. The hard northerly wind blows all the water out of the harbour. Parts dry out and Jonathan gets so low that we end up under the tyres. The harbour patrol looks down on us and notices our struggle with now too small fenders. “Wait  I got something better for you” . 5 Minutes later he is back and lowers some huge ball-fenders. “Autumn came early this year” he shouts against the wind before he leaves. Yea and with 600 nm of infamous water ahead of us, shallow, counter current and kelp fields the size of a hockey ground. On board Belzebub we grumble about what is ahead of us. The Grip files are ok for the first 2 days, so let’s go, comes what may. Halfway we have to decide on our landfall. By now we are surfing down 4 meter waves so “False Pass” does not sound very tempting. Going down wind we still have 40 knots over deck.  The Grip-files give a short weather window in 1 ½ day. I am dreaming off a harbour with huge breakwaters and strong bollards. After 7000 nm since Spitsbergen I would not mind some long long nights. Hove too we wait for the wind and sea to die down. High tide is at 11.30, we should be in by then for the current will be flowing out at 3 knots soon after.

At dawn we can see some of the volcanos that make up the Aleutian chain. Their peaks covered in fresh snow glow up in the early morning light. On the top of the swell we can see the opening in the breakers before we find the marker buoys. Next to us the swell are breaking violently on the shallows but the ones that roll under Jonathan have lost their venom. Sea-Otters float lazily in the calm water, Sea-Eagles dash close along the mountain sides. All in full fresh autumn colours topped by white volcanos, some virgin like others with blown of tops or flanks. The anchor goes down in stiff mud with 90 meters of chain to follow. De wind comes back with 45 knots from the south but we just want to sleep tonight!

October 24, 2012

Leg 6: 5-7 September 2012: Approach Point Barrow

Where am I?

Hove to we slowly drift towards the sandbanks that block the entrance to Elson Lagoon. Just 15 knots of wind left but the swells take longer to subside. How much patience can one have? We are all strained, can we get in? Waiting only builds up the pressure, let’s go than, impatience forces us on? Give it more time, it can only get better. The pilot describes the winter ice as a huge bulldozer that easily moves the sand banks. Late in the afternoon with 4 hours of daylight left, I cannot stop myself anymore and we turn the bow towards the shallows. We need to pass between several sandbanks straight towards the low sand spit. Then when we get close, the depth should increase, 90 degrees to port and find the small entrance between more shallows and the spit. There is no visibility, no buoyage; big swells are still running in from the Beaufort Sea. Radar and C-map give different positions. Where am I? In a grey world we can only see the brown breakers forcefully running on the shallows. Also right ahead where it should be 6 m deep.  Full reverse when the forward looking sounder goes down to 2,5 m. The swells break against the stern. Water is forced up through the cockpit drains. Brr so not here then, do we go on to Nome 500 nm further south? Half a mile to the north-west we try again. According to C-map we should now hit the bottom but there is the spit, the depth increases so full to port now. Radar and chart-plotter are still arguing, so much for electronic navigation….   We have to go through there?  In between the violent breakers where swells run into less than 2 meters and the spit? 9 m, 11, 14, pfff,  we are in the small gully. We turn into the lagoon and there on the high water line lays the marker that the radar could not find. Seems like the winter ice did. In the flat water of the lagoon we breathe easy again, broad smiles on relieved faces.

Welcome in the USA

Crossing the lagoon to the anchorage we pass Point Barrow, on the wrong side for now. Time to celebrate though. We get the whisky out and I light up a fat cigar that Auden gave me for the occasion. From Cambridge Bay this was the last part of the North West Passage, but only when we have sailed the Bering Sea in September can we realy celebrate. This is our first port in the US but we cannot clear customs here, well I guess there are not many yachts coming in here!!!. By e mail the crew gets permission to fly to Anchorage. Coming down the stairway an immigration officer is awaiting them. If they can pay 580$ each they are welcome in the US. Their ESTA approval is not enough when you arrive on a foreign yacht. Ai!

The vicar's faith

The anchorage is far from town so I call the cab that took Kees, Marco and Patrick to the airport yesterday. No he is not coming, the swells are still coming onto the road and parts have eroded into the sea. So I walk, the minister drives with his wife, dog and hunting gun over the spit. They seem to have less worries, not sure if it is because of their faith or their enormous Dodge 4 wheel drive in which they take me to the airport. With Penny we find a cab for the way back. The driver from Thailand just arrived here some weeks ago. He has no idea where the lagoon or anchorage is. On my instructions he finds the way back. The driver is pretty pale when we get there and Penny has a broad smile when she sees Jonathan at anchor in the grey lagoon.

September 21, 2012

Leg 6: 24/8 - 5/9 2012: Cambridge Bay to Point Barrow: the NW Passage is accomplished!

In Cambridge Bay an all new crew boards the boat. Great to see Kees, Patrick and Marco. But sad to see so many good friends leave. Not much time to think things over though, since we have a tight schedule to Point Barrow. Close to 1200 nm in less than 14 days. We start with some of the best weather of the North West Passage so far. 15 knots from the south east pushes us along nicely. With a brilliant sun it feels tropical to me. The new crew does not really agree on that. At the end Coronation Gulf we should sail into Dolphin and Union Strait but the wind has veered northwest and is now heading us, we find a nice anchorage under lady Franklin Point. Muskoxen roam the flat tundra but keep their distance when we go out to stretch our legs. We never get close and the heard moves on. Might be that they do not really fancy that bright yellow foul-weather gear that some of us are wearing.

Early morning the wind has dropped off but as soon as we are in the strait we have a 3,5 knot counter current. Tacking soon becomes a useless affair and we have no other choice then to motor against an 18 knot headwind and the current. All the ingredients are there for me to get grumpy, I hate motoring at the best of times ... We enter Pearce Point Harbour just after dark. The spits that protect this perfect bay show nicely up on radar. The chart plotter agrees with what we see on radar so lat- and longitude match up for a change. We wake up in a great place, a bright blue sky, white beaches and dramatic rock island in the middle make us decide to stay for the day. We spend most the time onshore exploring the area, we find a derelict cabin of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a workshop that was used by scientist and some leftovers from the DEW line the Defence Early Warning system.

The Gribfiles leave us little room to play, we got to move on quickly towards Point Barrow, in hindsight not a smart place for the next crew change. The anchorage of the town is only good in very settled weather. And the entrance to the shallow Elson Lagoon winds between shallows of which the pilots says that they can be easily shifted by the pack ice. The wind forecast makes it a lee shore in up to 30 knots of wind . . .

So we give Tuktoyaktuk a miss but cannot possibly bypass Herschell Island. Rowing ashore the Park Ranger comes to the beach. They already closed the station for the winter but the strong winds kept them from leaving in their small open boat to the mainland 40 nm away. We get a short lecture on Inuit life and how the commercial whaling was at the root of all the changes to their culture. We came to see what was left to see of that time and now we hear what is left of the Inuit culture and how they fight for their rights.

Early next morning we move on towards Point Barrow 350 nm to the west. The strong north easterly pushes Jonathan at great speed, surfing down the waves at 13.8 knots in a 19 ton boat is fun. But it builds up quite sea too. No way we can get in Elson lagoon under these conditions, next stop is Nome. 500 nm down the Bering Strait, some might miss their flight connections ... The Gribfiles show a lull in the wind for almost a day. The swells won’t die out that fast though. At 30 miles off we hove to, to wait for things to get better. The wind eases of to 15 knots but we still measure 2 meter swells. Either we go in before it gets dark or we loose our chance for tomorrow the wind will be back again. Shifting sand banks on a lee shore, bad visibility, a nice swell and no navigation aids to speak off . . .

September 16, 2012

Leg 5: 18-20 August 2012: Paisley Bay to Cape Victoria

The next morning we have to leave our anchorage since the ice is moving in with the south-easterly wind.  With one man up in the rig we try to find our way around the ice but the forward looking sounder has different ideas. So we have to go back into the ice field and slowly we find our way to the western side of the bay. It takes 2 hours to cover the 5 nm to our new lively anchorage.  Eirik, Mark (S) and Mirek go ashore to have a look at the sea-ice. No happy faces on their return. The ice has not moved away with the offshore wind yet. The latest ice-chart isn’t any better and leaves little hope for a quick departure. 9/10 ice cover for the southern Mclintock Strait.

During the night the wind blows with 30 knots from the east south-east. Enough to go out and see if there is now an inner lead very close inshore. For 30 nm we stay as close to the shore as our sounder allows. To leeward we can see the ice edge of the heavy sea ice at 2 miles off. The same 30 knots that slows us down keeps the lead open. At times we have some ice on our track and have to move closer in. Past Cape Adelaide Regina we have the now 35 knots of wind  just over our port bow, with a well reefed main and the engine we tack endlessly to stay close in an out of the waves. Hoping for a good anchorage at Cape Victoria but nothing seems certain here. The new 4 blade feathering prop gives the boat an enormous drive. Mireks eyes are blinking in the hard snow but they speak a clear language, we are going to make it and leave all the heavy ice behind us. 

An hour later the new Rocna Anchor digs in never to let go again behind Cape Victoria. Never mind the 35 knots or the latest ice chart we know we made it. We pour ourselves a serious “ankerdram” an excellent Norwegian way to celebrate the arrival in a new anchorage. On the chart we are only just half way and “Jonathan” still has a long way to go. It is all gong way to fast, months you could spend here to explore all those small inlets and historical sites. Desolation, isolation, the fatal expeditions, the human tragedy, the ultimate island feeling, all in a perfect Arctic setting.

We have to call at Gjoa, even if it is just for one night. This is the bay where Roald Amundsen stayed 2 winters in 1906 during his historical first passage and thus proving the North West passage could be done. During his stay he learned lots from the Inuit. In contrast to many others he recognized the superiority of their culture in the Arctic. And thus became the first man to reach the South Pole some years later. Relations must have been more intimate since there are still some Amundsen’s around in Gjoa. Too soon we have to move on to Cambridge bay. The sailing schedule has become a bit tight once more. Eirik Ashleigh. Ewa, Mirek and Mark will all be leaving. Their time is up, since Pond Inlet this was an easy going team. All working hard and eager to do any job at hand. Hard to get them away from the helm no matter the weather. Nothing was too much trouble and the pleasant competition between the two watches made this leg a great success.

September 2, 2012

Leg 5: 16-18 August 2012: Bellot Strait to Paisley Bay... Now waiting for the ice to disappear

We spot 13 Polar Bears on the northern shore of Bellotstrait during our passageIt is best not to read what the Arctic Pilot has to say on the Bellot Strait before going to bed. A current up to 7 knots in combination with ice can make it a dangerous mix. They even advice icebreaker assistance for bigger boats. The info is that there is little or no ice on the western end of the strait, from this side all looks ok. So the change that the current will take us into the ice at great speed seems small. Although we started the passage at the recommended 2 hours before highwater we mostly have the current against us. At times we have favourable current but a bit later we are only making 3 knots over ground. It is a slow passage but with 13 polar bears on the northern shores the passage becomes a wildlife sensation.

The ice just outside Pailey bay looks spectaculair in the low light. But 5/10 is too much and keeps us at anchor one more dayWe get some more excitement but of the wrong kind. Later in Franklin Strait we are high on the wind, I am at the mast to shake out the last reef when a hard pounding sound vibrates through the boat. At first I have no idea what I did wrong, looking up the mast I hear shouting from the cockpit: "2 meter on the depth-sounder". I turn on the engine full throttle, Mirek turns the wheel all the way over and Eirik is already pumping up the centreboard. We tack and feel immensely relieved when the bottom disappears from sight again. Pfff.... Another good reason for a centreboard boat, you are not immediately stuck on a rock in the middle of nowhere. The rock is charted at 20 m depth. Charts in the Arctic ...

Mirek pushing an ice floe from our bow and anchorchain in Paisley Bay
Ahead of us lies one of the most tricky parts of the North West Passage. From the east and the west large area of the North West Passage had been explored but the middle part stayed blank on the charts. The heavy pack ice crushed the Erebus and Terror of the Franklin expedition just there. The crews of the ship tried to get back to the civilised world over land and sea-ice. But how little did they know about surviving in the frigid Arctic. The cocky Englishmen turned to cannibalism to survive, but all died in the end. Whatever they discovered stayed a mistery. Luckily we know more of what lays ahead of us. Patrick is sending us ice charts by way of an Iridium data connection. Heavy ice is blocking our way south, no way we can get through it. We have difficulty to get into Paisley Bay, clearly the ice has moved north with the wind and now just about blocks our way in. Once inside, protected from wind and ice the wait for the ice to move begins. Willy de Roos had to wait here for 4 days, the St Roch ended up staying here a full winter ...

Heavy ice is blocking our way south,
no way we can get through it.

August 19, 2012

Leg 5: 14 - 16 August 2012: Dundas Bay to Fort Ross via Beechy Head

From Dundas anchorage we get out into Lancaster Sound again, the great waterway that runs east to west. The current runs the other way, year round. It slows us down, with the light head winds progress is slow. But we have to save diesel, in case we need it badly later on, if we get into ice again or ...  Aim of this leg is Beechy Head, so much history has been written in the search of the North-West Passage, that we need to do this pelgrimage to the graves and memorials. The Erebus and Terror wintered here twice in 1845 and 46. The first crew members died a slow death. The first signs of things to go wrong, how must it have felt to be in such a barren, desolated place, the sun gone for the winter and an unknown sickness taking out crew members one by one . . .  Walking the beach I feel the shivers running down my spine, Jonathan safely anchored off, well prepared and equipped. How little did they know of what lay ahead of them in their search for the North-West Passage!!!

We choose Prince Regent Inlet and Bellot Strait. We leave in perfect weather the sun is out, a nice breeze on the beam, brilliant weather. The change comes fast, before we get the first reef in and the yankee furled we are covered in snow. Fingers stiffen quickly in the now freezing winds that blow up to 30 knots over deck. Leopold Island disappears from sight, ice floes join in the mix. The bigger once are easy to spot, the smaller bits are our worry, dodging growlers at 8 knots is fun in an ice strengthened alloy boat. In a glass-fiber boat it would be playing Russian roulette.

Fort Ross is our anchorage at the eastern entrance to Bellot Strait. Discovered in 1852 by one of the ships searching for survivors of the Terror and Erebus. It took till 1933 before the first ship sailed through, the ice and 7 knot current making it a deadly mix  for anything less then an icebreaker. Checking out the strait from a hillock behind the station we have to retrace our steps rather quickly. Not sure if the Polar Bear noticed us but we do not plan to wait and find out it's appetite.

August 15, 2012

Leg 5: 9 - 13 August 2012: From Pond Inlet to the Dundas harbour on Lancaster Sound

We left Pond Inlet on 9th August to sail West and attempt to pass through Navy Board Inlet to get in the Lancaster sound. The experts tell us to wait but we see possibilities and we have a strong alloy boat after all.The latest ice chart still shows large area's with heavy ice in the sound but there might be a passage through. The alternative is going out to the east and all the way around the ice north east of Bylot Island. A detour of 235 nm. Weather conditions are ok. Wind from east so we try to stay in the windward side of the ice. Less dense and less risky if the wind decides to increase. Several times we have to track back. To find area's with less dense ice. Smaller ice we can push but where the cover is more than 5/10 we can not do anything. Full power on the engine but the ice hardly moves. So back out  to find a more open area.

11 August 2012

We manage to find more open water closer towards the eastern part of the Sound. The wind stays light and the water is without any swells. Fog comes down for shorter periods but never for long. When the water opens up a bit more we spot some whales and during Eirik's watch they spot a polar bear with a one year cub swimming across the Sound towards the ice. Their hunting grounds for seals no doubt. By the time we get the new ice chart in we are sailing in open to very open drift ice.
The chart shows a bit more but they are always late. We anchor at the end of the strait for a well deserved rest. It has been some long hours. A closer look at the ice charts over the last days shows the ice moving east at 25 miles a day. So the 5/10 ice to the west in Lancaster Sound will nicely block our way out of Navy Board Inlet tomorrow. We got to leave or stay for some days and get blocked in. As soon as we get out of the Navy Board Inlet the cold westerly winds blow right in our faces. One after another goes inside to put on some extra layers. On our track to Dundas harbour on the northern shore of the 55 nm wide sound shore we meet some ice belts at first. We can see the denser ice further out. We slalom through the ice for a while and get out in open water again, 25 knots of freezing winds blow right into our face. Half a day later we anchor in some great sand/mud bottom. perfect holding in perfect protection so time for an ankerdram before turning in.

August 9, 2012

Leg 4: from Ilulissat to Pond Inlet, the NW Passage has begun!

Ice blocking the entrance to IlulissatIlulissat has a very small harbour and lots of fishing boats in all sizes. Moored Greenlandic: an old badly worn rope tied to a mooring that is already in use by 6 other boats. Put some big chunks of glacier ice in the mix and the chaos is complete. Turns the wind or tide and all has to find a new order in the chaos. A 20 tons piece of glacier ice loses balance and starts to turn over ever so slowly. With a force that accepts no resistance, wood splinters to pieces, a stay breaks under the pressure and the aft mast of a fishing vessels breaks and falls in the water on the other side. Nobody pays any notice…..

Just too much to take in

Upernavik fjordCountless icebergs on our way out of IlulissatFrom Ilulissat we motor through Vaigat Strait. With 4 new crewmembers we slalom between all the huge icebergs with of course lots of smaller ones in between. Just south of Ilulissat the most productive glacier of Greenland spits out iceberg after iceberg. All has to go over a 200 meter deep bar. The ones that run aground get pushed over the bar by the mass behind it. We go slow at first how else can we take this all in?

Church or Polar Bear trap

Anchored of the Bear TrapA well fed polar bear. Beautiful white coatOur first anchorage is at the tip of the peninsula. The Vikings came here for their summer hunt in the 1300’s and erected a small chapel here. Later it was in use as a Polar Bear trap by the Greenlanders. Enough reason for the Norwegians on board, Eirik and Hanne to explain us what a great sailors the Vikings were in their time.

How do we get to the Glacier?

gaining info from localsWe get into a small place called Prøven. We could not get a detailed chart of the fjords here but we heard that yachts used Angmarqua sound to get to the Upernavik glacier. We could not find any info or soundings so we need to find a fisherman who can tell us more. He sketches a route and some possible anchorages for us. Once in Upernavikfjord, about 5 nm from the glacier front we get into 5/10 ice cover. Lots of it are small chunks of glacier ice, frozen together. It easily splits under Jonathan’s bow. But also plenty of lager and harder bits of glacier that we need to avoid. We measure the iceberg in front of us with the sextant: 78 meters  high!!!

Once again

Jonathan in light ice conditions in Upernavik fjordThe tablet decides to pack up once again. So we go on by sight following the track drawn by the fisherman from Prøven.  Barny is a software engineer and designer. He does not really understands what went wrong but he manages to get it all working again and we can see on the screen again how we pass the intricate track between the islands.

Nova Zembla Island

Icebergs, mountains and the low light of the midnight sun .........Upernavik is our last port in Greenland before heading across Baffin Bay to Baffin Island.  370nm as the crow flies, quite sizeable for a bay. At the Canadian side there is an Island called Nova Zembla. No clue how it got it’s name or is this our navigation software playing up again? Guess it is named after the Nova Zembla in the North- East Passage.  A pleasant breeze just keeps us moving along at 5 -6 knots under sail. Yes Jonathan is in there!!! We can cross Baffin Bay in a straight line since the pack ice has melted early this season. Closer to Baffin and Bylot Island we might have some. Now we have some larger icebergs at first but halfway we hardly see any. By the time we get to Nova Zembla Island we get icebergs again but we can spot them only on radar. We do not see much of Nova Zembla anything above 100 m is covered in low cloud.

Sounds nice??

So we move on to Pond Inlet. The “hamlet” Pond Inlet is on the southern shore of Eclipse sound. It all sounds quite idyllic: an Inuit village at a sound with a name like that. But not now since we arrive with a strong wind with the current flowing out. It makes the open anchorage more than lively. Cups slide of the table and Barny has to put up his lee cloth to stay in his bunk. Ah well, we are in Nunavut, the Arctic part of Canada!!!

Barny getting the flags ready for Canada