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Dermot's NW Passage voyage on board Young Larry
So near. And yet so far?
Dermot O'Riordan
11/09/10, 25 miles east of Point Barrow

We are making very good progress. Motoring-sailing, with a light SE wind from behind us to push us along to Barrow at a respectable 6 knots. At the current rate of progress we should get there about midnight or soon after.

It all then becomes a matter of if I can get off safely. Obviously if it stays like this I could. This morning╒s forecast is pretty similar to last night╒s. 25-knot winds rather than 30-knots but still in an onshore direction. I suppose it all depends upon when the change happens.

All in all makes us all a little nervous. Me, because I have to get off. Also however, Andre, Maire and Sibeal will have to deal with whatever winds are sent their way. At the moment it is looking pretty unpleasant heading towards the Bering Strait with headwinds forecast. The trouble is that it is coming to the end of the season and there is a limit to how long a boat can hang around waiting for better winds. Not only that, but on this coast there aren╒t really any decent ports of refuge where one could wait, even if you chose to.

I do feel bad at having to leave them, but I have no choice. Losing a quarter of the crew strength will impose a bigger burden on those remaining.

We did come across a very short band of ice, exactly where he Canadians had forecast and Andrew had plotted on the chart. Nothing to trouble us though.

As well as the potential difficulties in getting me ashore, we also have to negotiate with the US Customs and Immigration people to allow me to enter the country. Barrow is not an official port of entry. We are thinking about how best to approach this issue. The original plan was for us all enter the country in Nome but I now have to leave the boat in Barrow. One apparently can pay for a customs person to make a special trip from Fairbanks but that seems a little excessive.

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Where's the ice? And stay away wind, please!
Liz for Dermot
10/09/10, Beaufort Sea

From this morning the wind, and then the seas died away and we have been mostly motoring. Allowed the water maker to fill the tanks and the engine running provides how water. This means showers are feasible without balancing on one leg. The simple things in life become much appreciated luxuries on a long passage like this. It also means that we can head and make progress in the right direction. Very good for morale.

The ice that we have gone north to avoid had not so far materialised. Indeed today's Canadian ice chart shows that the two tongues of ice that have been pretty static for some time and that were sticking out to the north from the band of ice close to the Alaskan shore have now disappeared. There might be a bit of 2/10ths ice to deal with just before Point Barrow but that should be fine. Other than that, the main polar ice cap has retreated miles away from the Alaskan shore. Sarah Palin might not think that global warming is an issue on her doorstep, but the last few years have been totally abnormal. Ordinarily there would still be a lot of old multi-year ice in this region, stretching continuously up to the polar pack ice.

I thought we might be approaching some ice on m watch when we had banks of cold fog, a group of more than 20 seals (the most I have seen in one group) and funny white clouds. These turned into the second white rainbow that we have seen I don't know if this is described but it is a real phenomenon that seems to exist up here. It didn't photograph well, so I have added a nice picture of a double coloured rainbow that we saw two days ago.

The current weather and ice situations are both conducive to good progress. What is less good is the forecast wind.

You can get the forecasts at http://pafc.arh.noaa.gov/marfcst.php (though we use the simple text version at http://weather.noaa.gov/pub/data/raw/fz/fzak51.pafg.cwf.nsb.txt as it is smaller and cheaper to download). We are currently in area 240 between Cape Halkett and Flaxman Island. We will be moving into area 235 between Point Franklin (aren't we all a bit bored of this guy naming things after himself?!) and Cape Halkett. This is also the area in which Barrow is. Essentially Barrow is a long straight beach running SW to NE with absolutely no shelter.

They are predicting that a weather front and a low-pressure system will move into the area on Sunday. The bottom line is that for the Barrow area they are forecasting 30-knot SW winds and 9-foot seas!! Our current estimated time of arrival in Barrow is early Sunday morning. Only time will tell if I am able to get off then or not. If we can't we might have to spend a very uncomfortable time waiting for the winds to blow through. We shall see.

I have been asked about the progress of Mathieu Bonnier, the rower. He arrived the other day in Cambridge Bay. A few days earlier Tico, the dog, was picked up on another boat and taken ahead to Cambridge. I understand that Mathieu has had enough of rowing in the Arctic and won't return next year. In fact I think he and the dog may have already left and his boat will be shipped back to France. He has achieved an incredible feat, starting on the West coast of Greenland and crossing Baffin Bay and then rowing most of the NW Passage in a single season.

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Going west, slowly
Liz for Dermot
09/09/10, Beaufort Sea

We are plugging away to windward. The wind is coming from the west- ie exactly where we want to go. As a result progress is slow and we are heading well north of the ice. Sailing to windward is not Young Larry's favourite, nor that of its crew. The wind isn't that strong so we aren't really complaining. In fact we have been pretty lucky not to have had too many headwinds. Unlike the Finnish boat Sarema who had head winds nearly all the way going west to east. Now they are in Baffin Bay but yesterday we heard that although the wind is now behind them, it was 50 knots!! That is a heck of a lot of wind.

According to today's forecast via Peter Semotiuk we should have slightly more favourable winds from tomorrow night.

When you are sailing into the wind it isn't that comfortable down below, so I predict a shorter blog today.

We are unequivocally into USA waters and flying the Stars and Stripes courtesy flag, not that there is anyone near us to notice. The ships clock has remained on Yukon time mainly because it is easier and there would be something not quite right about watch changes on odd as opposed to even hours.

We got some additional news from Peter Semotiuk yesterday on ship groundings in the Arctic. I have previously mentioned the Clipper Adventurer. The crew of Ariel IV knew him well and I gather he was very experienced and highly regarded. According to the news reports however the shoal that they it was known about and had been issued in the "Notices to Mariners". These are produced weekly and are updates to charts, list of lighthouse etc. They are all pretty turgid stuff but carry vital information and a big ship will receive little sympathy if they haven't taken notice of them. When you buy a chart it is supposed to be updated according to all latest notices. After that it is up the ship's master to ensure subsequent corrections are incorporated in the chart. There is going to be some soul searching going on somewhere. Depends when they brought their charts and who from. Interestingly when we were talking to the Hanseatic's navigation officer about this. Whilst they are at sea it is his job to incorporate updates to charts of places they are visiting. Every year they send all their charts away to be corrected. Navigation students often do this as a way of topping up their income. Also was nice to learn that all German ships use British Admiralty charts.

We also learnt that the Clipper Adventurer cruise chip is not the only one to have gone aground this season. A fuel barge is also stuck on a shoal near Gjoa Haven with 9 million litres of diesel, petrol and aviation fuel. Fortunately it isn't leaking any fuel and another barge is on its way to pump out its contents. Could play havoc with the communities it was supposed to be supplying who all rely on an annual delivery. Also once again shows the hazards of navigating big (and little) ships round here.

Not seen any ice yet, not even small growlers. Neither have we seen a Norwegian trimaran going in the opposite direction. They would be almost flying with this wind. In fact Peter tells us that we have passed each other without noticing.

I have finished reading David Mitchell's Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which was great. Probably the best readof the journey but they have all been good. I don't ordinarily read enough at home so it is a pleasure to do some catching up. Now on the lighter Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which is good passage making reading that doesn't require much intellectual investment

I was struggling to provide a picture given that we are 40 miles or more offshore and out of sight of even the big Alaskan mountain ranges. There really is not much to see out here. Sibeal then spotted that we had a stowaway who clearly has been blown a long way from where he should be.

Happy 50th birthday to Ed. Sorry will miss the party. Perhaps you can identify the bird hitching a lift when you have a moment!

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US of A, here we come
Liz for Dermot
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.

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10/09/10 | Cait O'R
Your updates are a very welcome addition to my morning commute. Will miss them when you disembark. Very glad there were no ice bears enjoying the northern lights. Why aren't they polar bears any more? Have they come over all Prince. What news of the rower? Love x
Fixing the gaff and a final surprise at the end of the day
Liz for Dermot
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.

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08/09/10 | Victor
That ice about Prudehoe Bay seem to be there all the time. Its anything between 145 and 152 West. "Nekton" and "Stary" in 2006 had to keep on the inside. "Sarema" this year had problems and found pass near shore. Visit Cross Is. whaling cemetery there would be some Eskis. Watch for Bears as they come there this time of the year. Cheers, Victor
A little spar problem
Liz for Dermot
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.

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