The green of Greenland
27 June 2013 | South east Greenland
Rachel and Pete
We spent several days in the sheep farming area of Greenland, long fjords up to the mainland scattered with Norse ruins.
On Sunday June 9th we left Tuttutooq island, on the edge of this area, with its reindeer farm and geologists, and moved on way up near the mainland in their main sheep farming area originally settled by the Norse in 985. Here are again sheep farms - bare slopes of verdant green, already ploughed and sown and even a few animals let out to graze, spry leggy sheep with little horns and lambs already at foot, some hairy small horses and a few cattle too.
Past Narsaq to Narsarsuaq we came to the fjord where the ruins from the original farmsteads of 985 of Eric the Red are still evident. In Eric the Red's time a hundred or so souls travelled here from Iceland, the Inuit had not come this far south at that time. At the Norsemen's peak a few hundred years later there were 5000 or so on more than 200 farms here and in the fjords of Nuuk. But by 1450 they were all gone. An interesting historian at the local museum argued they probably simply moved back to Europe to take up opportunities presented by the huge mortality of the plague from the 1300's on, leaving just the best farms occupied and too small a community to survive once the Inuit were here competing for resources.
After our visit to Narsarsuaq we motored across to Qassiarsuk, through icebergs to get to Eric the Red's farm, we walked among the ruins, rather lovely art work on cliffs above, copper shapes on a rocky face, and reconstructed long house and tiny church, both turf covered and extraordinarily beautiful. A local, Lars, showed us around, small, fine boned, very elderly. A modern farm is built among the ancient ruins and much stone was used for the modern houses from the ancient ruins until this was stopped in 1928.
Icebergs in the fjord meant we needed to move on so we motor-sailed down to Itilleq, anchoring in a bay near a farm. Next day, Tuesday, was amazingly warm and sunny, eventually we were basking in 24 degrees as we walked on a gravel road over a ridge to Igaliku, Norse Gardar, seat of their Bishop and strange pink granite ruins. The walk took us between farms all framed by these huge snowy mountains. A few sleepy hostels and cafes were in the tiny settlement, as in the Pacific closed and half asleep but spring to life when the few flights in the region start from Copenhagen still a week or so away. The large farms are familiar from NZ with NZ style equipment and eartagged sheep, electric fences, but also huge indoor sheds for housing stock in winter.
On Wednesday we went south, and missed Narsaq again as the wind was unfavourable We actually tied up in the harbour but the wind was blowing onto the dock pushing us against the huge truck tyres, and the 4 metre tide range and a 5m iceberg bumping along the pier persuaded us to move on and find a bay of our own. Anchoring just a couple of miles away in a nice cove we had dinner and then noticed a huge berg heading straight for us pushed along by the outgoing tide. As it approached we motored forward a few metres while still anchored and let it bump past us with a few encouraging pushes from the ice poles before relaxing again with no further berg problems
The next day we passed Qarqatoq en route to Hvalsey. One of the most complete and beautiful ruins of a church is there, very simple on the side of a slope, not as elsewhere in the heart of a farm. Perhaps for this reason the stone was not used for other things and the church walls are very fine and simple, originally plastered and painted white they think, now bare stone with wonderful bright lichens. The settlement very clearly laid out.
We anchored nearby then made our way back to Qarqatoq where we'd seen a large yacht tied up to the pier, and we rafted alongside the Dutch yacht Bo. Ron and wife and daughters, on board, 5 and 7. They'd travelled from Newfoundland and hit bad weather on the way, still recovering, and we were able to provide them with our old Dell laptop since theirs had been hit by water en route. Qarqatoq was great but we needed to move on as bad weather was coming - went in behind Nanortalik, anchored in calm behind the town dump. It was very shallow on the sheltered side of town but we found an 11m deep hole and anchored in that.
Sunday 16th we spent holed up in Tokimata in a violent storm: gusting over 50 knots while we monitored it from instruments in the cockpit and now and then as we stay below seems even worse - the hull pushed right over as if we were underway, a great screaming of wind around the mast, banging and clanking in the rigging, and the flapping of our clears... altogether this is weather one dreads to be out at sea in ...
Monday all was calm and after pulling the mud encased anchor up by motoring forward - the windlass wouldn't budge it - we motored around to the main harbour of what turned out to be a pretty little town with friendly people. We visited their museum which in an entire "colonial area" of old buildings and an enthusiastic guid who spoke no english - he dragooned a danish visitor into translating, the poor thing was kept pretty busy... Nanortalik also has a great tourist office when Niels the retired local headmaster runs a fine operation and helped us get the latest ice information for Cape Farewell and phoned the weather station and friends in Price Christian Sound to check things out for us. The consensus was that our way out east was still blocked by thick ice (the weather station officer said "only a fool would try it"). So we decided to move a little further south and head up the Tasermiut Fjord where we anchored at a small settlement. Lone;y Planet rates this fjord as one of the most spectacular in the world and it is a mecca for rock climbers because of its sheer 2 to 3000 foot rock walls rising straight from the sea. Unfortunately the weather was overcast and dreary now and we saw very little of that. We would head back to Nanortalik the next day to check on the ice situation again to see if we could get away around Cape Farewell.
Nuuk to Narsarsuarq
10 June 2013 | Narsarsuaq, Greenland
Pete, Rachel and Phil
We left Nuuk in snow flurries and deep cold. On Monday 3rd June Pete got the latest weather using wifi at the Seaman's home in Nuuk then we headed to the fuel dock and left at 1.00 pm in 20 knots, slight seas and snow. We took the inside route to Faeringhavn, one of many abandoned settlements here, left by people encouraged by the government to consolidate in towns. Although some houses are used as "holiday homes" there was no-ne there - just a 40ft fishing boat who's Greenlandic skipper motored over to say hello and ask us what the weather was like to the north as he had been waiting 3 days to get back to Nuuk.
Tuesday evening found us 90 miles south of Nuuk, anchored off Ravns Storo (Ravens Island in Danish). En route here a Danish naval vessel came racing out of a fjord and zoomed around us: Pete hurriedly put up the NZ flag and updated the log book... They interrogated us but were ever so polite: "If you don't mind me asking how many people do have on board?" They were very interested in our trip all the way from NZ perhaps not having encountered many sailing boats before. They were also keen that we did the 4 hourly reporting but Pete pointed out how difficult this is for small boats - we've heard of many here who have had attempted "rescues" when their messages do not get through to the Greenland MRCC. So they agreed that when we got past Cape Farewell it would be good to at least do the reporting there.
Heading south was been a mix of sailing and motor sailing with some great runs through low lying islands and increasingly huge icebergs. Compared to the North American arctic we saw very little wildlife, the odd frightened seal and seabirds but little animal life in the water, though heaps of healthy seaweed on the anchor each time we leave... the lack of animals no doubt has something to do with the large number of men in boats with guns...
Wednesday 5th June we were anchored near Pamiaat and Thursday we called into the small busy harbour. Our plans to tie up to a fishing boat changed drastically when a huge dog thundered out of it leaping and barking while three locals, semi-interested, indicated with snapping motions of their hands that he would bite. They gestured to a small and filthy dock nearby so with some difficulty we manoeuvered in growing winds over a rubbish pit of dead bikes and prams and old ladders underwater to a dock that could only just fit us (we protruded a metre each end). We spent ages scrambling up steep broken ladders in rain and wind to find appropriate places to tie up - there's a big tidal range so the boat must be allowed to move 3 or 4 metres up and down... The town itself had pretty houses and church around the harbour (which was clogged with rubbish), giving way to hideous old concrete apartment blocks in the hinterland, evidence too no doubt of the abandoned settlements. These had a dirty down at heel look. The people inscrutable, not as friendly as one sometimes finds.. and even some little good natured punks slouching by with dyed hair and tattoos...
Friday June 7th we headed south past Arsuk, huge towering peaks above and the small town of high pitched coloured houses huddled on a plain below. Here it was great to meet a young minke whale slowly breathing by. The landscape is spectacular down here with patches of densely thick fog. As we rounded a headland (and the autopilot suddenly lost its brain: "No comp" on screen and compass points flashing by) the fog cleared and beside us we could see these hugely high cliffs, their shapes exaggerated by great bands of snow running in gashes to the sea, only 100 m or so away from us with no bottom on the depth sounder so more than 150 m below our keel. Huge rocky hills often topped with a cairn, and amazing high icebergs, some the most heavenly blue, make this a wonderful landscape.
By Saturday 8th we were sailing up a winding fjord on the Island of Tuttutooq, not far from the town of Narsaq, and anchored where the pilot book said an ancient Norse farm had been. The Norsemen had their "eastern settlement" in this area between about 950 and 1450 AD before it mysteriously died out. There were two modern little huts/houses there and some extensive livestock yards - from the boat we couldn't tell if they were for reindeer or sheep - both of which are farmed in these parts in the little green valleys. In the morning a fast speedboat came into the bay and unloaded two blokes and a load of gear. They walked around a bit and then started setting up camp a few hundred meters above the beach.
Pete went ashore in the kayak to investigate and found dead reindeer in the yards: maybe 50 skulls with antlers, lower legs and feet and quite a few skins all around the place. It seems they take the meat away leaving quite a mess. NZ made post bangers and wire spinning jennies lying around showed this is a professional operation, with kms of high netting fence snaking across the the hills where they must drive the reindeer off the hills and into the yards and a race leading down to the beach where they could load them into a boat. It is early in summer here but already green shoots are poking through.
Next the men who had now setup their tents were investigated, clearly scientists with their aluminium cases of important looking stuff. These men turned out to be very friendly - Alex and Tom - one German and one Swiss but both working for the Danish Geological Survey. They were doing field work for about 5 days mapping some alkaline dykes - they said this whole valley was a huge dyke. The surrounding granite is abut 1.8 billion years old and the basalt 1.2 billion. They are doing several sites in the area then going north to where the cryolite mine was (now worked out) which we passed a few days ago - apparently near the oldest rock on the planet (can't remember if they were 2.8 or 3.8 billion years old). How geologists do get about!
Sunday we sailed on up the fjord past Narsaaq and saw several farms - smooth fields with huge piles of boulders all around where they had dug them out of the ground so they could plow. At one large farm tractors were ploughing and at another big portable irrigators spraying water or slurry over the fields. There are huge barns where they keep their sheep and cows for 9 months of the year, and behind a small cemetry of white crosses. Each farm has about 10 or 20 acres of irrigated fields and much more rough brown rough grazing. In the evening we paused in a fjord full of icebergs, then tied alongside a dock opposite where Eric the Red had his farm. We moored inside big concrete dock just outside the ice boom that protects the small boats inside but we can't get over it as it is too shallow for us - we just watched one car sized berg get blown in past us and neatly glide through the gap in the boom reserved for small boats - just like it was radar guided. There is a lot of ice here from the glacier nearby and we may need the ice poles in the night!
Here is the heart of the Norse farmland a beautiful place with slopes of verdant green in front of tall snowy mountains, and huge icebergs in the bay. The lower slopes already ploughed and sown and even a few animals already let out to graze, spry leggy sheep with little horns and lambs already at foot, some hairy small horses and a few cattle too. In Eric the Red's time a hundred or so souls traveled here from Iceland, the Inuit had not come this far south at that time. At the Norsemen's peak a few hundred years later there were 5000 or so on more than 200 farms here and in the fjords of Nuuk. But by 1450 they were all gone. An interesting historian at a local museum argues that they probably simply moved back to Europe to take up opportunities presented by the huge mortality of the plague in the late 1300's, leaving just the best farms occupied and too small a community to survive once the Inuit were here competing for resources.
Also here is a huge airfield constructed by the Americans during WWII - known as "Bluie West 1" - at one time more than 5000 servicemen served here, the USA building this crucial airfield before they joined the war so that aircraft could be sent from Canada and USA to Europe - the USA declared an interest in Greenland as part of the American continent after Germany had invaded Denmark, ensuring this staging post came under their control. Huge ships took enough people and resources to build a runway hospital and barracks for thousands: perhaps the most interesting photo in the museum was of a man in a kayak "the first local to see the ships" - his face upturned to the great height of the deck above from a tiny frail but elegant kayak his jaw open and eyes wide in utter amazement a man completely gobsmacked by what he saw!! The scale of the operation was boggling to our modern eyes - to a local in that remote place it must have been unbelievable. At it peak in 1943 more than 300 planes landed or took off in a day from the airfield en-route from New Foundland to Iceland and then Scotland. Starting next week there are two tourist jets a week coming into Narsarsuaq from Copenhagen. Flights onwards to the local towns from here all being by helicopter, or else travel is by small speedboat. There are a few sleepy hostels and cafes that as in the Pacific are closed and half asleep but spring to life when these few flights start
In spite of the balmy weather here it's been storms and winter ice blowing on shore in the south. We consulted the "Ice Central" office at the airport who had latest satellite pictures showing the fjords we hoped to exit from (on the south east coast just north of Cape Farewell) are blocked by ice as is the eastern coast where we had hoped to wait for a weather window to Iceland. They reckoned it might be blocked for another 2 weeks. This office conducts the ice surveillance flights from here and publishes the ice charts for Greenland. Denmark took over the airfield form the US in 1958 as a base for the ice patrol after a ship on its maiden voyage from Denmark to Greenland was lost off Cape Farewell in ice with all 95 on board lost without trace. The ice analysts explained that the ice free section of the east coast we had been watching for the last 10 days was unusual and was caused by a gap in the pack ice working it way down the east coast from further north, rather than a melting of the pack itself. So it is now back to normal with heavy polar pack ice right down the east coast of Greenland and around the bottom of Cape Farewell.
As we arrived back from our walk into the small village at the airport a Danish Navy frigate was tying up on the outside of the big dock. We must have now seen the entire Danish Navy - two large patrol boats and a frigate. They were operating their helicopter from the deck just across the dock from us and Tokimata got sprayed with all the small sand and pebbles on the dirty dock. Between take-offs and landings we slipped out right under their stern with crewman anxiously peerong over as our mast towered above the landing pad as we slipped through just between some large icebergs and the rear end of the frigate.
We're heading across the fjord now (10th June) to Brattahlid (Qassiarsuk) where "Eric the Red", the first European discoverer of Greenland had his farm in the 980's. These will be our first Norse ruins.
Ready to leave Nuuk
01 June 2013 | Nuuk Greenland
Its now nearly 8 months since we left Tokimata tied up in Nuuk Harbour to brave the winter storms. We were pretty nervous with the prospect of being rafted up to several fishing and tour boats in the commercial harbour - comings and goings of boats all winter pushing ice around, with heavy snow and temperatures down to -25 deg C. We were very lucky that our Austrian friends Claudia and Jurgen (whom we'd met in Aasiaat) were planning to spend a lot of the winter in Nuuk in their steel ketch, with a few trips up and down the coast in between and they would be tied up next to us some of the time to keep an eye on Tokimata. The other option was a very expensive lift-out by crane at the boat yard and a custom built cradle ashore, but several locals assured us that it was no problem to keep a steel boat in the water in Nuuk.
Things have worked out pretty well. I returned to the boat on 13th May (having left on 5th October - the day of the first snow of the winter). Tokimata was covered in a foot of snow, the cockpit full of it, and the temperature was below zero with quite a wind blowing. After a great meal on board "La Belle Epoque" with Claudia and Jurgen, and our Danish friends Kim and Kirsten from "Sol", I borrowed a shovel to dig out the cockpit and get on board. I had to get the kayak, folded up porta-bote dinghy and other big bits and pieces we had stored inside out on deck to make enough room in the saloon to sit down. After putting the chimney back on the diesel stove it was soon roaring away and over the next 18 hours the boat slowly warmed up from minus something to a comfortable 18 deg C inside. A storm came in over night and flights were canceled for 2 days as 40 knot winds and more snow came. All the water had been drained of course from the boat before I left, and so it was a treacherous icy walk along the dock in the gale to to fill up jerry cans from the small water shed ashore and to empty these into the tanks.
Tokimata had survived the winter well. One stainless stanchion holding the lifelines had been bent by a bump from a fishing boat, and a few mooring lines had chaffing damage (lesson learned: when it freezes for prolonged periods ice builds up inside plastic anti-chaff pipes and causes worse chaff than no protection at all!). The battery voltage seemed OK at 13.5V during the day with the solar panels which I'd raised to point south at 45 degrees pumping in 5 amps on a dull day and up to 15 amps in the sun. But I found the battery water level low in one of the 4 house batteries and despite adding water the level didn't come up. After removing the batteries I found one of them had a split down the corner from half way up to the top allowing acid to leak out. It had obviously frozen at some point. Jurgen said that when they came back alongside one time the solar panels were completely iced up and the battery voltage had dropped to 11.8V - this is low enough to allow a wet cell battery to freeze at -25 deg C - but if they had been at 12.6 V they would not have frozen. There is no power available on the commercial dock at Nuuk except for a couple of private supplies, so relying on solar panels is the only option - I should have mounted them at an even steeper angle to keep the snow off. Luckily only one battery was damaged and the leaking acid was pretty much contained in the battery compartment. I washed everything out with baking soda to neutralise the acid and then set about trying to find a replacement 6 volt deep cycle battery. Well it seems these US-style batteries are not used in Greenland at all. In the end our Danish friends were replacing their 12 volt wet batteries with AGMs that were available at a good price, and they offered me the best two of their old batteries and I fitted these in parallel with our remaining ones to get us back up to capacity. This should get us to the UK where we can buy the 6V deep cycles at a good price.
Some other minor repair and maintenance jobs kept me busy for the next 10 days or so. Despite the climate being quite dry in Nuuk, there seemed to be common theme of corrosion in electrical connections - something we hadn't had in Alaksa over the previous two winters when we had left Tokimata in the water. Even one of the main battery switches had failed, although this may have been just accumulated wear of 13 years since it was installed. Nuuk is well supplied with hardware stores, and a large excellently stocked chandlery/boat shop that has most parts you could want - and with no VAT sales tax in Greenland the prices are pretty much the same as Europe.
Over the 2 weeks before Rachel and my brother Phil arrived in Nuuk on 30th May, the weather slowly warmed up and by the time of their arrival all the snow had gone from the boat and it was a reasonable 5 to 8 degrees C during the day. Our friends on "La Belle Epoque" had headed north a week earlier to make a start on their Northwest Passage attempt in the opposite direction to us and Kim and Kirsten had got "Sol" craned back into the water from her winter berth on the hard stand.
Just before Rachel and Phil arrived I had been invited to a "boat warming" by Jens, a local who had salvaged a lovely British Saga 40 sailing yacht "Islander of Menai" that had gone aground south of Nuuk 18 months ago and been written off as a total loss. Jens bought the wreck for one pound from the insurers and after a month with water sloshing through her managed to patch the hull, refloat her and tow her back to Nuuk to get lifted out. Amazingly the rig was still completely intact with the sails all in place. He scoured the coast north and south of the wreck and recovered missing bits and pieces such as floor boards, hatches, lines and spare equipment. Over the 18 months he worked on the boat to bring it back to sea-worthy condition replacing some interior timber but managing to dry out and restore most of it. She is now renamed and ready to take Jens and his wife on a shake down trip to Denmark and back before heading further a field in a year or two. Jens has already sailed an old wooden trawler to the Caribbean and back and is looking forward to doing it in more style next time!
The day after the crew's arrival we had been invited on a day trip up the Nuuk Ice Fjord by Jakob, who I'd met when he came aboard the tour boat tied up next to us to do some guiding. He took us 3, along with Kim and Kirsten, in his 7 m launch at 25 knots around 100 km up the fjord where we had lunch drifting in the glacier ice at the head of the fjord. On the way back we stopped at an old settlement that had once had a thriving dried salt-fish processing plant but now the abandoned houses had been done up to be used as weekend and holiday retreats for residents of Nuuk. The weather was stunning and Jakob was a very knowledgeable guide to the area and gave us a great day out.
The 16 metre tour boat on which Jakob sometimes acts as guide was going out most days now as the tourists began to arrive in Nuuk. The main activity for the boat is whale watching and the Innuit skipper Aqqata ("Karl" for short) had told me each day how many humpbacks they had seen as he tied up rafted next to Tokimata at the end of each trip. Over the last week it had gone from one or two whales up to 10 on the 29th May. Then the next day he came in sadly to say the whales had all gone because one had been harpooned the day before. There is a quota set by the International Whaling Commission of a handful of humpbacks each year that can be killed in Greenland - one of those is for the Nuuk area and that was the one killed. It is clearly a source of contention between those who hunt the whales and those who make a living from the tourists. Jakob had showed us a leaflet with the tail fin patterns of dozens of humpbacks, some of which had been coming to Nuuk for may years, and others that were new comers only spotted for the first time this year. Aside from the small quota of humpbacks, and only 2 right whales (also called Bowheads in Alaska) for the whole of Greenland, Minke whales are the only species of whale still hunted in large numbers commercially. Whale meat is still eaten in Greenland, especially by the Innuit, and some controlled hunting in your own local waters does seem a reasonable compromise between the desire to continue the traditional way of life, and the desire of tourists to "see nature". While distressing it is very different to the situation in the Southern Ocean where the Japaneese having destroyed the whale fisheries in their own backyard and so come south of New Zealand and Australia to kill that wildlife.
After the Nuuk Fjord trip, the next day was spent provisioning and getting ready to leave. With so much food left over from the Northwest Passage trip we needed only a few fresh items. Last year we had carried huge quantities of rice, flour, pasta and tinned food in case we had a protracted stay in the ice and this is all usable this year.
Finally we headed out of Nuuk on Monday morning 3rd June. We topped up our diesel fuel at a price cheaper than the US, Canada and Europe (still the same price as least year - prices of diesel are the same throughout Greenland and only change when a new seasons shipment comes in). As we sailed out of the harbour with a 15 knot northerly wind behind us it started to snow! We're heading down the south west coast of Greenland and a little way up the east coast before sailing across to Iceland and then down to the Faroe Islands and on to Scotland. Stay tuned.
Greenland's majestic west coast.
14 October 2012 | Disko Bay to Nuuk.
With our arrival in Aasiaat on 8th September the issue of where to leave Tokimata for the coming winter loomed. The options were either to hurry onwards, perhaps to the UK or down to the Azores - both trips of around 10 to 14 days from Aasiaat, or to stay in Greenland. Looking at the weather files for the coming week showed a series of strong low pressure systems coming up from the south west to the North Atlantic - some the remains of hurricanes. They seemed only 3 or 4 days apart which meant we would inevitably get some nasty weather. On the other hand, we had hardly seen anything of Greenland and it seemed to merit a leisurely cruise on its own account, a wonderful coast of rock pinnacles and fjords with glaciers tumbling into the sea. There are no dedicated pleasure boat facilities anywhere in Greenland for boats of our size, and any wintering has to be done either on land, using traditional cable and winch slipways to haul boats out, or in the water tied up to commercial boats in one of the small harbours. Prices for hauling out in both Aasiaat and Nuuk were similar at around 36,000 Danish Kroner (US$6,300) which is an awful lot compared to the $800 per winter we had paid for two seasons in Hoonah, Alaska. So we decided to leave Tokimata in the water in Nuuk after our Danish friends on Sol had made some phone calls and spoken to the harbourmaster there.
So we decided to see some of the sights, especially since Dan and Tom would not be with us next season, and head south 300 miles to Nuuk. We filled up with the cheapest diesel we had seen all year (around US$1.00 per litre - way cheaper than the US) and after 4 days in Aasiaat headed north east across Disko Bay towards Illulisat (formally known as Jakobshavn) to visit the famous ice fjord. Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is just a couple of miles south of the town in Illulisat Fjord. It is the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere, moving at 19 metres per day and calving some 35 cubic kilometres of ice into the sea annually. It accounts for 10% of all the ice calved off glaciers in Greenland. The ocean current flows north up the west coast of Greenland and this takes all the ice up the coast and then across the top of Baffin Bay and into the Canadian arctic islands. It was icebergs from these glaciers we had seen in Lancaster Sound and Pond Inlet, and even as far away as the east end of Bellot Strait. Some of them move south again down the east coast of Baffin Island and into the north atlantic near Newfoundland where shipping can encounter them, as the Titanic did so famously. Some of them are so large it takes years for them to melt.
The wind had been blowing strongly from the north for a few days before we left Aasiaat, and ice from the fjord had blown south to form an ice field 20 miles east to west and 10 miles north to south, lying way out from the fjord and pushing right onto the shore at the town. This ice is quite different from arctic pack ice which is frozen sea water. Ice calved from glaciers is of course fresh water, and is dominated by huge towering bergs - some hundreds of metres high and up to 1km long. Between these are pieces of ice of all sizes down to small brash. As we pushed through from the south the ice got thicker and thicker until we were only 1 1/2 miles from the harbour of Illulisat, the coloured houses perched on the rock ahead of us quite visible. While we could dodge the bergy bits at first, we then had to slow down to 2 or 3 knots and push the bigger pieces out of the way with our ice poles (also know as "tuks"). We finally came to a halt as the ice completely blocked our way. Tackling ice thicker than anything we had encountered on the northwest passage we powered forward and Tokimata's steel bow lifted 15 cms as it rode up onto the ice then slid back. Powering forward again the ice cracked under the weight of the hull and began to drift apart. On the third attempt we could push the pieces apart and make our way slowly forward. This refrozen brash ice was only about 20 or 30cms thick and only continued for a few hundred metres before we got into clearer water.
As we got clear of the thick ice we met two 10m fishing boats laying out long lines for catching halibut. Apparently the best fishing is just in front of the big icebergs - a risky business as they can topple over unpredictably. As they laid out their lines a crewman was shooting seagulls trying to get at the bait. They are certainly trigger-happy in Greenland and we had already seen seals and musk ox shot by locals being brought into the market in Aasiaat. Polar bears are not often seen on the west coast of Greenland as they will get shot before they get close to a town or settlement.
We made our way into the tiny harbour of Illulisat, completely crammed with boats. There was nowhere obvious to tie up and in the inner harbour not even enough room to turn the boat around without doing a 10 point turn. So we rafted up outside four fishing boats. Our friendly neighbour invited us for coffee and explained we would be OK for 48 hours as more bad weather was coming, no one would leave until after that.
Its about a 30 minute walk through the town and up a hill to a ridge overlooking the ice fjord. The calving face of the glacier is about 15km up the fjord but the viewpoints show water spectacularly full of ice, huge bergs hundreds of metres high foundered on shallow spots at the mouth of the fjord. The site is truely amazing and no wonder it is designated a Unesco World Heritage site. RIght on the edge of the fjord is a small beach where the remains of grass turf and sod houses still exist from settlements dating back more than 2000 years. Clearly this area was always productive in terms of food with ample seals, fish, berries and whales to support local communities.
We left Illulissat late the next afternoon and after a couple of days of strong southerly winds most of the ice had blown clear except for the big bergs. We sailed due west out of Disko Bay in a nice 30 knot southerly on the beam and around the southern tip of Disko Island and into the little port of Qeqertarssuaq (or Godhavn meaning Good Harbour in Danish), where we arrived at around 2am as the wind died. This town of less than 1000 people perched on rocky slopes around a perfect enclosed harbour. High peaks rise to the north of the town and the snow cap that covers the central part of Disko Island was visible. Dan and Tom set off to climb the peaks and ended up on the glacier at the edge of the snow cap where they found a shipping container full of husky dog food that must be a cache for winter sledging. An icy descent in the dark on improvised crampons didn't see them calling us for a pickup in the dinghy until after midnight!
Next day we headed south, passing Aasiaat and heading down the coast towards some of the big fjords cutting up to 100km inland. After a scenic stop en-route we entered Evigheds Fjord and anchored in a bay that had been a base for the sailor/mountaineer H.W. Tillman in the 1960's. We hid out here for 3 days while another of the now frequent storms blew through until a clear day arrived and we could explore up the fjord, visiting one of the three or four spectacular tide-water glaciers that empties into it.
The final 200 mile stretch of coast to Nuuk we sailed over two days and nights - sometimes ducking into inside passages and other times outside the myriad of small coastal islands. At Nuuk we met up with the Danish sailboat "Sol" again, and started our final preparations for leaving Tokimata over the winter.
There is no cost at all for leaving a boat in the water in one of the public harbours in Greenland. The harbourmaster directed us to a good looking spot beside a large wooden ex-fishing vessel. With 4 metre tides in Nuuk it is easier to tie up to another large vessel that is going up and down against the rough commercial docks so your own lines can be tight, holding you close to the larger boat. Nuuk harbour does get ice in winter - up to 30cms thick sea ice, and bergy bits from glaciers - but freighters and large fishing boats keep operating all year round and stir up the ice as they move about, pushing chunks into the sides of moored boats. The locals told us to expect some ice scuffs and scratches on the hull. A couple of locals, and an Austrian couple in a sailboat planning to do the NW Passage east to west next year, have offered to keep an eye on the boat for us. Everything has been taken off deck to reduce windage - sails, bimini, clears, liferaft all put away below, along with the dinghy and kayak. It does blow in Nuuk - we had one blow of 50 knots across the deck in the harbour in the week we were there and all boats tie up facing south into the prevailing wind.
We will be back in May and plan to cruise down the south west coast of Greenland and then to Iceland and over to Scotland and Wales.
The last leg
11 September 2012 | Aasiaat Greenland
Pete and Rachel
Our sail into Tay Bay in 40 knots in the middle of the night was our first taste of the much more variable weather we were to encounter on this last section of Northwest Passage. Up until now we have had pretty much favourable winds all the way from Point Barrow in Alaska. A scientist in Tuktoyaktuk told us that this summer's sustained period of westerly winds during August was very unusual, but it has allowed us to sail much more than is usual for boats crossing west to east. The Dutch single-hander on Tranquillo has not used his engine since Nome and it is very impressive that he has kept up with us (who do turn the motor on when we get down to about 3 knots under sail) and at Fort Ross he was only 24 hours behind the big British Nauticat Upchuck who motored all the way from Nome without sailing at all. We're only aware of one other sailboat who has actually sailed all the way through the NW Passage and that was New Zealander Graeme Kendall in 2010 on Astral Express who went east to west (also sailing solo).
Tay Bay is one of those uncharted places represented by white space on the charts, but is also one of the few anchorages in the area so many boats stop there. We knew the Danish boat Sol was there but in the dark, wind and rain we could not see them at all and made our way toward the the SE side of the bay watching the depth. Suddenly it fell from 5 metres to nothing and we were momentarily stuck on the sticky bottom ... after twisting and turning 180 degrees we managed to power off forward and get anchored. From Barrow as far as Cambridge Bay the tidal range is quite small - usually less than 0.5 metres. But from Bellot Strait east the tidal range gets rapidly larger with over 2 metres in some places. So some care is needed not to get stuck on the bottom on a falling tide. In the morning we could see Sol anchored half a mile away with a long mud bank sticking out between us.
As the wind had dropped and was now blowing from the north we decided to head off down Navy Board Inlet for the settlement of Pond Inlet. The name "Navy Board Inlet", like the Royal Geographical Soceity Islands that we passed earlier, shows the 19th century British explorers' ignorance, arrogance and lack of imagination, naming places with Inuit names after their sponsors and patrons. Boothia Peninsula too was named after Felix Booth, a London gin merchant who had given money to one of the early expeditions. In contrast to Canada, Greenland has replaced most of the Danish colonial place names with local Greenlandic names.
Pond Inlet is a substantial settlement built high above a sandy beach. We anchored off in flat calm conditions near some large icebergs. On shore we met some friendly locals about to go sea kayaking - he a metallurgist and she a biologist, very interesting! We also met the local Mounted Police sergeant who was incredibly helpful and phoned the fuel truck for us so we could fill our gerry cans on the beach. The fuel here was the cheapest we had found anywhere at CA$1.08 per litre - even cheaper than Sitka, Alaska, and much cheaper than Cambridge Bay or Tuktoyaktuk. We arrived on the Saturday of what turned out to be a long weekend for Labour Day, so most of the town was closed including the visitor centre, library and all shops except the two grocery stores. But we did learn a lot about the area from the locals. There are huge iron ore deposits in the area with some very high grade (80% pure) ore about 100km away. A road to the mine site has just been completed and a rail line is being built 200km south form the mine to the top of Foxe Basin (the very top of Hudson Bay) so send out the ore for transport on specially strengthened bulk carriers. This is bringing employment back to the area that has reduced since the big zinc mine closed near Arctic Bay. Exploitation of the mineral resources of the arctic is a tough issue: the area is vast and there is a need for employment and economic development if it is balanced with environmental protection.
We left Pond Inlet in the late afternoon as the wind was forecast to rise and there is no shelter whatsoever off the town. We headed 10 miles down the coast to Albert Harbour - a spectacular ravine between some amazing pyramid shaped mountains and a similarly rugged island. The water is so deep in the area that it is difficult to find an anchorage and we ended up just 50m off a gravel beach with the anchor in 15m of water but the boat hanging out in 40m of water - not ideal. The wind came up to gale force that night with gusts well over 40 knots and we had Sol on the radio talking to us as they tacked their way down the sound heading for shelter with us. They came in at 2am after looking for a better place but ended up next to us hanging off the same beach as big swells rolled in and gusts bashed us about. Both boats hung onto their anchors and by morning all was calm again. The speed that the weather changes is quite remarkable here. Tom was shore early and climbed to the top of the peak towering 2500 feet above us.
It was a relief to leave next evening and we headed off towards the open ocean of Baffin Bay then sailed south east down the coast of Baffin Island for about 200 miles heading for the last sheltered spot before crossing to Greenland. We pulled into Ravenscraig Harbour on a beautiful day, with a mother polar bear and cubs on the beach. Some Inuit in an aluminium skiff came by to say hello. There is no village here but these guys were out camping, a group of youngsters from all over the Nunavut region who were being given first hand experience of traditional skills by an older local guy. They invited us over to their camp to get some arctic char fish. We moved to another bay next to Sol for the night as the wind was forecast to strengthen, and sure enough by 10pm it was blowing a gale again with gusts over 40 knots. We woke in the morning to find the beach and boat covered with snow. As the weather system passed overhead it was calm for an hour before the wind was raging again from a different direction and we bounced around and finally dragged down very close to Sol - just in time we powered away and re- anchored. This weather is so changeable, so extreme, with no room for error! Only the evening before we'ld been talking with Sol about how reliable our Rocna anchors are ...
Tom and Pete went ashore in the afternoon to try and find the Inuit camp but failed after an hour of trekking about and we decided to head of across Baffin Bay that evening to Greenland while we had a good NW breeze. As usual for this area, the wind was fickle and the good breeze died after 24 hours and we spent the next 2 1/2 days motor-sailing towards Aasiaat in a SE direction. There are large icebergs in Baffin Bay still, especially for the first 100 miles form the Baffin Island coast. Some of them are huge - up to 1km long. Tipping the last of our gerry cans of diesel into the main tanks we arrived in Aassiaat in the dark after the 380 mile trip with just a few litres of fuel left.
Aasiaat is a very small and crowded harbour and at 11pm in the dark it was quite confusing with unlit boats moored everywhere, big mooring lines snaking across the water, and docks not shown on the chart. Kim from Sol heard us on the radio and directed us into a spot next to him using a big flashlight, he was tucked in between some big fishing trawlers. Greenland is one of the most relaxed countries in terms of official procedures and nothing was open on Sunday so it was not until the next day that we found the police station and asked what the clearance procedures were. The local policeman just stamped our passports and said "Welcome to Greenland" - none of the usual drama of declaring how much alcohol was onboard, how long we were staying, issuing cruising permits, writing out intended itineraries, or reminding us of time limits and complicated rules and reporting procedures.
This little town has such a different feel to the north american settlements: here are colourful little buildings, all apparently pre-fabricated in Denmark, houses perched on rock with clean streets and generally tidy houses... the only worry is graffiti with swastikas (?!) and obscenities... the small harbour is absolutely full of boats - shrimp fishing is the main industry. A "seaman's home" on shore, run by young Christian folk, offers cheap accommodation apparently, spotless dining room and toilets, some local art for sale and a (rather expensive) laundry service. A local museum shows the history here, this settlement for example founded in the 1750's with Dutch and Norwegian whaling already well-established. The Greenlandic peoples are Inuit (Thule culture) but there are obvious differences for example in costume, amazingly bright suits of fur and felt, with white lace, leather embroidery and tremendously bright and complicated beadwork, just lovely! The "kamiks" for example, their long fur boots were made in all sorts of shapes and sizes, some for everyday use, some for special events, with costume differences for elderly and young women for example. The use of floral decoration, bright colours, white lace and beads all faintly reminiscent of south sea island aesthetics... The local language appears vigorous here, with signs in Greenlandic and Danish and sometimes English too.
So, we have pretty much finished the Northwest Passage. Amundsen's definition of the passage was arctic circle to arctic circle but we are still 200 miles north of the arctic circle at Aassiaat. Another definition is from Bering Strait to Baffin Bay. We plan to leave the boat in Nuuk, 300 miles south of here, for the winter so that will be the official finish. Next summer we will explore Greenland and then head for Iceland and Europe.
For the sailors amongst you, here are some statistic of the trip. We have covered 5287 nautical miles (9,797 km) since leaving Sitka (3423 NM since Nome), done an average of about 80 miles per day including all stops since leaving Nome for the passage proper - the short season and long distances require a fast rate of progress compared to normal cruising. We have run the engine for 427 hours since Nome, including motorsailing and straight motoring and some battery charging. That works out to around 50% of the distance covered purely under sail and the rest either sailing with the motor assisting or full-on motoring. We've used about 970 litres of diesel at an average cost of around US$1.20 per litre. 250 litres was used for heating (Dickenson diesel heater) and 720 litres for propulsion. The warmest days we had were nearly 20 deg C in Nome and the coldest about 0 deg C on Baffin Island. The sea water temperature has ranged from about 10 deg C at Sitka and Nome down to -2 deg C near Victoria Island. We had one day with snow, about 10 days with rain out of 90 days travelling, around 10 days with significant fog (mainly in the last 2 weeks), 3 or 4 days with strong winds (40 knots or more) and probably 30 days of flat calm. We had to work through sea ice (broken up pack ice no more than 3/10 coverage) on about 5 or 6 days - along the north coast of Alaska and off the west coast of King WIlliam Island in Victoria Straight. We had to watch for big icebergs (shed from the Greenland Glaciers) for about 10 or 12 days from the east end of Bellot Strait onwards. The current has been with us most of the way, giving us around 350 "free miles" or nearly 10% extra boost on average. Nothing serious has broken on the boat - we replaced an alternator in Nome, repaired a torn genoa sail as sea, replaced the autopilot display unit with a spare as sea, jury rigged a spare fluxgate compass for the autopilot when close to the magnetic north pole, and fixed a seized anchor windlass solenoid with a big hammer. Most of the spares and emergency equipment we had we not used but we wouldn't be without them as there is almost no help available quickly in the arctic and you must be self reliant.
The bear who came to dinner
01 September 2012 | Tay Bay
Rachel and Pete
From our overnight anchorage at False Strait Bay - a tiny cove with barely enough room to turn the boat around, we went through the 15 miles of Bellot strait to Fort Ross, a lonely bay with two wooden buildings ashore, the old Victorian wooden house semi-derelict but with the remains of posh wooden skirting, architraves and built in cupboards, so strange around windows of derelict rooms that look out on this utter wilderness. Next to this the Hudson Bay Company warehouse still proudly named ("Hudson Bay Co. incorporated 1670" in metal relief on the front). This building has been looked after and serves now as a refuge for travellers. The door protected from bears by stout horizontal planks that fit in a robust metal frame and have to be removed one by one to get in, and the windows by huge panes with the sharp end of screws poking out to stop the bears clawing them... Inside are the essentials and much of interest, records of boats that have passed since 1984 and also of "polar bear captures" on a map from 1998 and 1999, showing hundreds of bears counts.
We got here from Cambridge Bay traveling up the west coast of King William Island, though ice charts showed it blocked, rather than the east coast which was known to be free of ice. The wind had been strong easterly while we were in Cambridge Bay and we reckoned on the ice clearing, and Pete in particular was very keen to travel where Franklin's men had last been seen. So we sailed up the channel, pack ice to one side and probably Franklin's ships Erebus and Terror somewhere deep beneath us. Kit's latest ice chart came just in time to show that all was pretty clear ahead and indeed at Victory Point there was ice quite passable, though scary sometimes in such very thick fog. We picked our way through, anchored off the point and went ashore keeping an eye on the boats (Sol was with us), as large icebergs were very near. What a flat, featureless terrible place even in sunlight it was, partly our knowledge of the horrible history here but also it was all rock, no tundra, very few plants... just cairns of all sizes including the remains of Ross and then Franklin's... we left a small Tokimata cairn, clambered aboard a huge flow near the boat, then got the hell out of there...
Bellot strait, the narrow water between Boothia peninsula and Somerset island can only be passed near slack water so we anchored at one end and early next morning went through - 8 knots of current with us at one stage towards the far end, Tokimata surging and swaying with whirlpools all around... polar bears were on the hills, one walked down to the beach, then suddenly saw us and took fright bounding up the hill; another was a white ball asleep, but at the end of the strait on Foxe island one walked down, came down to look at us and stood on shore wondering whether to swim over - we circled in front several times within just a few metres of it as he stood staring, these huge white haunches (they apparently have up to 4 inches of blubber), and enormous furry feet (fur on the soles as well), with that elegant long tapering neck and pointed head with just the black points of nose and eyes and small black insides to its ears - absolutely white and beautiful with an intelligent look, not at all phased by us, perhaps deciding whether we were a meal - one would not want to be any closer!
At Fort Ross, a bay at the end of the strait, we enjoyed a shared meal in the cabin on shore. Three boats : Tokimata, Sol and Tranquilo decided to fix the broken diesel heather there then have a "Fort Ross summit" to celebrate the top of the northwest passage, the end of the main ice passages. A great meal was topped off by a Danish cake complete with banner and flags, Danish, Dutch and New Zealand ...we all had a few whiskies and rum tea then Pete ventured out in the dusk at 11pm only to come rushing back: "**!@#! there's a polar bear outside!" Sure enough we ran upstairs to the only non-barricaded window and gazed down at a young polar bear gleaming white in the darkness just outside the door. So utterly beautiful, her huge rounded glowing white contours, that expressive narrow face with a dark streak on his nose... Dan remembered he'd poured some cooking oil out there after cooking some sausages... well we hollered, screamed, sang, shouted and the bear just continued to gaze... Kim the Dane fired bird shot from his gun into the air with absolutely no effect, the bear simply continued to gaze up at us Only when Dan banged pots and pans did he give us a rather disgusted look and ambled off... We suspected the bear was a female because her shape is slightly different to the large males - she was possibly a previous years cub about ¾ grown.
Well we made it back to the dinghies though worried about Bart walking back a mile or so to a nearby anchorage (Port Kennedy). In fact Kim heard him shouting on shore so he and Pete dinghied over in the dark, but by the time they got there all was quiet and when they radioed later he said "it's amazing in the dark how many rocks look like bears"...
After 3 days in the Fort Ross and Port Kennedy area we sailed north en route to Beechy island, a bit of a diversion from our route but Pete was keen to see the place where Franklin wintered, the year before he died... it's pretty amazing under huge cliffs, the remains of buildings and structures of some of the people looking for him, as well as old cans and barrels, with rather touching graves of three of Franklins crew (some have now been exhumed then replaced), as well as some who died looking for him. Strangely hideous concrete cairns from the '70's including one from Prince Charles and another from a Dutch royal. This is the "official" Franklin site I guess as the place we're sure he wintered... the cliffs above are huge, the beach grey rock with fossils of coral scattered over it too...
We intended to stop at Fury Cove on the way there, swung in under these enormous cliffs and tried to anchor, but it was pretty wild wind and sea blowing onto the beach, frothy whitecaps around us, a couple of large bergs close inshore and the anchor dragged and most amazingly of all two "snowdrifts" on the beach rose up and turned into giant polar bears! One walked out into the water to get a better smell of us. The fog then swept in and we couldn't see the beach 100 metres away, so despite having the dinghy in the water we left without landing.
We'd seen several more polar bears after leaving Fort Ross, a mother and two absolutely lovely cubs, a single one (that we suspect was the one who visited us at the hut) and another huge one on its own small island, I think we're up to 15 polar bears seen by now!
Port Leopold at the end of Somerset island was the next stop, another amazing huge landscape of high cliffs of bare stones, whale bones scattered over the beach, a single cabin on shore. As we entered the end of the bay was seething with white shapes close inshore which turned out to be Belugas! They're amazingly white, some grey and greyish pinks which we later read are young and newborns, all cavorting, twisting turning, humping out of the water and spouting! They are quite small whales - 3 or 4 metres long at most, and enjoy playing in shallow water - scratching their backs apparently - these ones were in only 1 metre deep water.
There are drawings and etchings done at the time, of the early polar explorer's ships dwarfed by huge black cliffs. Seeing these in books always fascinated me as a child, but they have always looked like the artist exaggerated the scale to make things look more dramatic. The interesting thing about Fury Beach, Port Leopold and Beechy Island is that they are all framed by huge cliffs that absolutely tower above the beaches - the reality is even more dramatic than the 19th century drawings and there was no exaggeration involved at all.
After Beechy island we've hurried on, winds not very favourable and as we finally turned off Lancaster Sound towards Pond Inlet decidedly strong: we swerved around huge icebergs (they are absolutely enormous here, from the Greenland glaciers) the winds increasing until with 40 knots sustained we turned into Tay Bay on Bylot Island, where we are now. Sol are also here�... We will head to Pond Inlet tomorrow to get some diesel before crossing Baffin Bay and Davis Strait to Greenland.