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.