Sailing boat vs polar bear - who gives way?
05 August 2012 | Just past Prudoe Bay
Rachel was on watch 4 hours ago, constantly dodging big pieces of ice and keeping just off the low sandy islands along shore when a huge polar bear swam across Tokimata's path. He looked at the boat but couldn't care less and just keep on swimming right in front just a few metres away - a quick 30 degree dodge with the autopilot got round him but it is clear that sailboats give way to bears up here. That was the fourth polar bear we've seen today. Three others were on Cross Island, one of the sandy barrier islands barely a metre above sea level that run all along this part of the coast. They were wandering along the shore amidst a huge pile of wale bones and two small huts. By the look of their dirty chests they had possibly been feasting on a whale carcass on shore.
For the last 12 hours or so we have been quite close in shore - just 200 metres off the barrier islands at times - skirting inside of a huge area of pack ice. The ice chart showed it as running 60 miles along the coast and 20 miles out just east of Prudoe Bay - a big chunk of slightly rotten pack ice. Although it is clearly in the process of melting and quite rotten, we can't go through it. It has been an amazing ride with brilliant sailing - 15 knots on a beam reach - perfect for manoeuvring in the 2/10th ice cover near shore - and now brilliant sunshine and 15 deg C outside.
We came past Barrow at 11am on Friday with a good NE breeze whizzing us along as we passed the Coast Guard cutter Sycamore anchored off the town and checked in with the Barrow Comms Centre. Given that the ice was due to close in Friday night, blocking the route around Barrow, all four boats had elected to keep going and not stop at Elson Lagoon just past Point Barrow. Upchuck was nearly 12 hours ahead - motoring full on, Sol and ourselves passed Barrow together, with Tranquilo a few miles back. The pack ice was visible off Barrow and also once round the point there was a scattering of ice to be avoided.
Barrow is the furthest north part of the USA and our heading is now slightly south of east as we sail down the Alaskan coast towards the border with Canada, some 350 miles away. We had a great days sailing under spinnaker with a 10 knot SW wind. By the end of the day the wind had died and we had to motor for a few hours - plodding along at 4.5 knots and 1200 rpm to minimize diesel usage. Loads of seals popped their heads out to check us over and we have seen the odd one basking on the ice flows.
By Saturday afternoon we were approaching the Prudoe Bay oil terminal area. For about 50 miles along the coast before and after the bay there were lights, buildings, abandoned oil rigs, platforms and a huge lit up oil terminal on an artificial island in the bay itself. We were about 20 miles out from the head of the bay but the mirage-like affect you get in the arctic of making things seem closer lifted in the buildings and rigs above the horizon making them seem quite close.
The charts are not too accurate in this area - most of the surveys are years old, and at places close to the barrier islands our chart plotter showed us sailing over the top of the islands. But fortunately the sea bottom seems to be quite regular and it is easy to follow a depth contour along the shore when close in to the islands - sometimes we were down to 3 metres of water - 1 metre under the keel. It would be possible to get in behind quite a few of these island and anchor up for a rest and get shelter from any waves, but for us it is flat calm and tranquil with just enough breeze to keep us moving now. We plan to stop at Demarcation Bay, just before Demarcation Point which marks the border. Tom and Danny are keen to try a bit of fishing in the small rivers in the area and replenish our supplies - we have just about finished the 10kg of salmon they caught in the Nome River. The flat islands have plenty of drift wood on them despite no trees for hundreds of miles. This will have come down the huge McKenzie RIver from the heart of Canada. The river is still 300 miles away but it disgorges timber that is found all over the arctic.
This is certainly a magic place and seeing it with pack ice so close to shore, and therefore polar bears and seals making use of it is a real privilege - one that may not be around for long at the rate the arctic is melting.