08/09/10, Approaching Demarcation Point
After supper last night cottage pie and whilst I was blogging (all cooked one pan at a time by Maire on the diesel stove to save gas) Sibeal noticed that the Northern Lights were starting up. She was very keen to get a photo (or a few dozen) of them. In order to do so you need a long exposure time and the movement of the boat even at anchor will blur the picture.
For the photo nerds out there, the trick seems to be to put up the ISO speed setting to about 1,600. Set the camera somewhere steady, preferably on a tripod. Use a wide-angle lens, at a wide aperture of 4.5 and an exposure time of 30 seconds with a remote release or timer so there is no wobble pressing the shutter release, and then experiment.
She and I went ashore after midnight to wait and to experiment. By the time we got ashore they had faded a bit but this gave us time to get set up. I was sure I had packed a mini-tripod but I haven't been able to find it. As a result we set up our cameras on a sheet of polystyrene. I balanced my camera on the loaded rifle! It was quite disturbing to think that there could be a bear out there. When walking with the crew of Ariel IV that day, Sibeal had come across very clear ice bear tracks on the beach on the other side of the bay. One suspects that a bear would be much better at spotting us than we would him! To start with I couldn't make my camera do what I wanted it to, but I found an obscure bit of its menu choice and it worked. I hope you like the results! Note Jupiter shining brightly in the picture too.
It was gone 2am before we were back on the boat. Nevertheless Andrew, Maire and I (but not Sibeal!) were up early to finish off the gaff and rig the sail. It does look great and is effectively a near identical replacement. There was also a fair bit of tidying up to do after all the work. I have to say we could not have had a better place to do it than Herschel Island. It was midday before we were weighing (and washing) a very muddy anchor.
We could have aimed for an anchorage just inside the USA/Alaska border but would have arrived at about 2am. For this reason, and because time is marching on (I have to be back on call at work and Young Larry has almost 2,000 miles to cover to Kodiak before winter proper arrives) we decided to press directly onto Point Barrow, about 400 miles away.
There isn't really much between here and there. There is the giant oil refinery at Prudhoe Bay but it is possibly too shallow for us and they really don't welcome the likes of us in yachts.
The winds have eased away to become light and variable. There is some conflict between various forecasts, but it is likely that we could have a day or two of headwinds to slow us down, before it veers (a clockwise change in direction) into a more favourable NE direction. We hope.
We are currently motoring along the last of the Yukon coast before we get to Alaska. An impressively high mountainous area, with ranges of 7-9,00 foot mountains inland. Looking at the chart, it is amusing to see that the British mountains straddle the Canada/USA border.
The border runs due north. Cheekily, the Americans then claim territorial waters perpendicular to the coast, rather than continuing northwards towards the North Pole. This leaves a disputed wedge shaped stretch of sea and sea-bed. The whole issue of sovereignty of the ocean bed stretching towards the pole is highly contentious, especially as it gets more accessible with global warming. Russia, USA, Canada, Denmark (through Greenland) and Norway are all in the chase for potential mineral and oil rights. The Chinese even think they should have a say along the lines of the way that Antarctica was declared a global resource!
We have had a look at the Canadian and US ice charts- we prefer the Canadian ones. There is a band of ice close to the Alaska shore that has been pretty static doe sometime. The centre of it is old 7/10ths ice with thinner 2/10th around the outside. There is potentially a passage inside it but the distance we would save going that way, as opposed to going over the top and north of the ice, isn't that great. In addition we really don't fancy the thought of negotiating even 2/10ths ice in the longer hours of proper darkness that we now experience. Accordingly we have set a course to go the slightly long way round.
We heard on the radio schedule that Ariel IV are staying in Demarcation Bay which is apparently fabulous. A shame to miss it but I am sure we are doing the right thing.
We also heard about the progress of some other boats. There is a New Zealander doing the NW Passage single-handed and non-stop in a boat called Astral Express. One has to ask oneself why one would want to miss out on all the fabulous places that we have stopped off at. Presumably it is another "record" to aim for but from my point of view would be a shame.
In addition the motor-less Norwegian trimaran is currently in the lead for the combined attempt to be the first to do NE and NW passages in one season. They are going the other way to us and have recently passed Point Barrow so we might pass them soon.
Best go now. I am cooking and tonight's menu is a novel form of Chilli Con Carne- made with chick peas in the absence of kidney beans.
07/09/10, Herschel Island
Early this morning the weather was pretty unpleasant. Cold, windy and very, very foggy. We couldn't see the shore and didn't know if perhaps Ariel IV might have slipped into the harbour unseen during the night. We had received an email from them saying that they were heading here from Snowgoose Passage.
They hadn't actually anchored in the night, but did arrive just as the fog was partially lifting. In the end it cleared to another beautiful but chilly blue sky day. There has been a really quite strong force 6 easterly wind blowing all day. It is in the right direction. Manageable but probably best to be in harbour. In the distance on the mainland were some impressive mountains that we had not even glimpsed yesterday. Certainly we could not have picked a better spot to make a new gaff.
We are anchored in Pauline Cove on Herschel Island. Our old friend Franklin was the first European to come here on one of his overland expeditions. It then became a major whaling centre. Whalers would winter here coming from Alaska to get a head stsrt in the brief season. At its peak 500 men would spend the winter here. There are a large number of buildings her and it is now a Yukon Territory Park. Very well maintained and possibly one of the highlights of our trip.
The first job was to chisel out the old one from its throat fitting, without breaking the metalwork. No mean job but a bit of brute force and ignorance did the trick. One can definitely say that the original one was put together soundly. All this was done ashore which made it far easier. There was a brazier with copious drift word to light a roaring fire.
We also decided to save on gas and have a BBQ on the beach! Grilled chicken and roast spuds. Unfortunately we left the potatoes in too long and they became a bit brick like. All delicious though. Speaking of gas there were loads of huge cylinders connected to some of the buildings but nothing we could use. There is a very well equipped refuge house that even had a loaf of fresh bread in it!
After that we needed to remove all the other fittings from broken gaff and disassemble the spare jib pole. Then we needed to shape the various end to fit which involved lots of planing and sanding. The current state of play is that it all fitted together. All the exposed areas have been epoxied and varnished as necessary. Only a pair of brass rubbing strips need to be attached and then we can start fitting it back to the mast and attach the sails. Been hard work but very satisfying to have effectively made a brand new spar. Shows the advantage of working with wood.
The aim now is to leave tomorrow and head west. We are only 40 miles from the USA-Canada border, called Demarcation Point. There is a bay there we can stop in if necessary.
After that it is 350+ miles to Barrow where I am planning to fly home. There are several possible impediments to this plan. Firstly there is the phenomenon of ice that we have rather got out of the habit of worrying about. There is a band of 7/10ths of ice extending about 60 miles offshore, that hasn't changed for a while now. There is a narrow passage inside it but it depends how narrow and we will have to make a decision as to whether to try going inside or the long way round the outside.
Secondly there is the wind. Slightly oddly, we have strong easterly winds here, as correctly forecast by the Canadians. Yet the Americans are forecasting quite strong westerly winds (not what we want!) only 40miles from here. These would both be most unpleasant and slow our progress. My mum can go back to checking ice and weather forecast.
Finally there is the issue of actually getting off the boat in Barrow. There is absolutely no shelter there. It is just an open roadstead- ie a straight beach. If the winds are strong then it might not be possible to put me, and all my stuff, into a small boat to get onto dry land. Only time will tell
And the final surprise was the sauna ashore here. Thanks to the Swedish experts of Ariel IV and especially Niklas who went to great effort to get it all set up and running and find fresh water. Sibeal started the trend with Niklas and Lotte. Maire went on her own, whilst Andrew and I finished off the repairs to gaff and came back extolling its virtues and said that we must try it. Thanks to her exhortations, Andrew and I set off ashore, as Ariel IV set off towards Demarcation Bay. The Herschel Island sauna truly is a bizarre wonder of the Arctic. Fully kited out with pine benches and the most enormous wood burning stove and plenty of huge pieces of beautifully seasoned firewood. Suffice to say, Andrew and I had the most wonderful sauna that culminated in us skinny dipping at 10pm in the waters of Pauline Cove with a beautiful sunset and our faithful companion Jupiter rising in the East. We were accompanied to hoots on the ship's horn from Maire and Sibeal. I don't know if Sibeal took any photos but even with the longest telephoto lens, there'd have been nothing to see! We celebrated our achievement with a well-deserved Guinness.
It was a most wonderful and surreal experience and I would put a sauna on Herschel Island as one of the 101 things one must do before one dies (assuming the shock of actually doing so doesn't kill you. I am really grateful that Maire pushed us into taking the sauna and that the Scandinavians showed us the way.
06/09/10, Herschel Island
Sorry for the gap in blog posting. Incompetence on my part meant that I failed to include the text in my email on Sunday, and I am late in sending Monday's post due to tedious technical problems. So much to write about. No doubt though about where I must start.
At about midnight I had just clicked send on yesterday's blog. It was Sibeal's watch and she asked me to check on the engine throttle, which was charging the battery. I happened in the dark to look up at the sails and noticed that the main really didn't look "right". To my horror, I saw that the gaff had broken about two feet behind the main mast. Young Larry is a traditionally gaff-rigged boat. Most modern rigged boats have the biggest main sail that is triangular. A gaff-rigged sail is more square-shaped and the gaff is the wooden spar that hols up the top of the sail.
At the time we were sailing with the wind behind us. Our destination was actually dead down wind which paradoxically isn't always the easiest point of sailing as there is a risk of gybing (when the mainsail and the boom can violently crash over to the other side of the boat and cause harm to the boat or the head of anyone who might get in its way. To avoid this risk we had been sailing about 30 degrees off the wind and had a rope set up called a preventer to stop any gybes and indeed we had not gybed. The wind was about a force five which isn't unreasonable. We were going nice and fast but everything seemed under control and safe. It is still not at all clear why this should have happened. The bit of wood that broke did not seem rotten. It did break at the end of the fitting (called the throat) that attaches it to the mast so it could have had some form of pivoting force that caused it to snap but we aren't sure why.
Clearly this was not a high point. I called everyone upon deck and with a great team effort we managed to get all the sails and spars back down to deck level and mercifully the sail seemed intact. There was a real risk that it could have shredded itself. We wrapped it all up and continued on our way only slightly slower with just the front jib sail and the back mizzen sail. We planned to continue to Herschel Island and reassess things in daylight.
Not long after that I was woken by Maire to look at our first viewing of the Northern Lights! Wow. One of the Tuk residents had said we should see them soon and she was right. So much for only seeing them on calm nights though.
Just as we approached Herschel Island, Maire and I got a glimpse of a solitary whale- the first since I was on board. We arrived into the anchorage bay on Hershel Island in the late afternoon with bright blue skies. There is the remains of an old whaling station here and it looked like there was a lot to see ashore.
First of all however our priority was the gaff. We disentangled it from the (intact) sail and rigging. Next we undid all its fixings to the mast etc. a few days ago I mentioned a pole for the front jib sail. We have also been carrying a spare for this, attached to the rigging. Andrew had meant to take this off as an unnecessary encumbrance. It transpires that the gaff, the jib-pole and its spare are all the same length and size.
Andrew and Maire brought the boat from its designer and builder, Dick Coulture. We are deeply indebted to him in thinking ahead and building in such a backup solution.
Tomorrow's task will be to remove all the fittings from the old broken gaff, and the spare-jib pole and swap them round. We have made a start on this. It is fair to say that they are pretty firmly wedged into the fittings and that it isn't going to be easy but I am sure that we will manage somehow. Needs must!
Clearly this is a set back and you feel you isolation from outside support up here, but it could have been so, so much worse.
Once we had done as much as we could this evening we got another reward of a school of at least 8 beluga whales actually in the harbour. These are a unique and easily identified pale colour. Apparently their skin makes for the best and most prized Maqtaaq, if there is such a thing.
We then decided to have a stroll around the abandoned buildings here. I have to say that this is perhaps on of the most amazing places that we have visited in the Arctic.
To do it justice will probably take a whole blog in itself, so more tomorrow folks.
05/09/10, The rather splendidly named Beluga Bay- despite its absence of said whales so far
The man with a promise of a cylinder of propane in a red truck never materialised. No more baking by Maire until we get some more. Disaster.
We joined Sister Fay and the community in the Catholic Church for their Sunday service. Daryl has done a great job putting it back together. The wood burner had been cleaned out and had made a big difference in drying it out and warming it up. Next week they plan to jack it up three feet to bolster its surroundings on the sinking permafrost. Hope that goes well and it doesn't break in two. It was a lovely service and Sister Fay gave an excellent sermon of the theme of wisdom. I have to say I was very impressed with Sister Fay and as an example was the way she very effectively dealt with a pair of bickering kids- making them tell each other that want to make the other one happy and not listening to wo started it.
Afterward we were made incredibly welcome in her house with bread, cheese, fish and baked beans. It was a privilege to be so invited into their community. very interesting to hear their insights interchanges in their community. As an example the next generation had kept their taste for caribou but lost it for seal. Apparently one has to start early to get a terse for whale/maqtaaq. Clearly and advantage of my getting older is that I need not preserver in trying! Daryl had also constructed a new see-saw for the kids or a 'teeter-totter' as they call it. Just as we were leaving an eagle was spotted pestering the gulls for some fish that had been washed ashore. Impressive sight.
We then found Tuk's only taxi to see a woman carver, Mary-Ann, who lived some way out of town. Before getting back on board I managed to get a very brief sniff of internet access and it was lovely to have a chat online with my new fiancee, Liz. She has sent me an email form the captain of the Hanseatic with copies of pictures of Young Larry they took. I also found out in a text that I had lost out to daughter Eleanor in our monthly competition for pinch-punch with mutual sense of humour failures when we lose. Taking advantage of my lack of internet access (and a time-zone delay) isn't playing fair. I would never stoop that low. An important ritual, even though we are both are old enough to know better.
After all this, we were a bit after our intended departure time. We weighed anchor and washed copious quantities of mud off the chain and anchor. We set off through the narrower and shallower western entrance.
Sister Fay and two of the local kids, Marcus and Dominic, came out to the point to wave us off. In order to really lay on a show we chose a nice patch of shallow ground very close to the point to go hard aground on a falling tide!
We were well and truly stuck and it was soon clear that we were not going to be able to motor ourselves off. We launched the dinghy and with some struggle managed to lay a kedge anchor. The aim of this is to put out an anchor in the deep water (actually only metres from our well wishers on the point) and use the anchor winch to pull our bow round and into deep water. This actually worked a treat and we were on our way. Some loss of face but Sister Fay was there to help us afloat. She might have some excellent photographic evidence of our embarrassment but at least we managed to get off under our own steam.
We have just had a clear chat with Peter Semotiuk updating us on the weather forecast, which is currently favourable. We are reaching along beautifully at 7.5 knots.
We are bound for Herschel Island, which we should reach tomorrow afternoon. There is an abandoned community there as apparently a small museum. There is another shallow-water short cut called Workman's Passage. Not sure if we will be brave enough (or daft enough) to try it after today's little escapades!
Local knowledge tells us that we should start being able to see the northern lights (or Aurora Borealis which is a phrase that my speech impediment renders impossible for me to pronounce!) any night now. Apparently the best chances are on a clear, still night-so not tonight with reasonably strong easterly winds.
as for 9/4/10