Into the Ice
Return to the Northwest Passage
by Roger B. Swanson
Headwinds, rain, and fog persisted as we worked northeast along
the south shore of Nova Scotia. It was well after dark when we reached St.
Peter’s Lock at the southwest end of Cape Breton Island where we anchored for
the night. In the morning we went through the lock into the large Bras d’Or Lake
located inside Cape Breton Island. This lake is quite unusual in that it has a
lock at the southwest end and is open to the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the
northeast end about 50 miles away.
Our next step was the small town of Baddeck on the north side of Bras d’Or Lake
that was the home of Alexander Graham Bell. The Bell mansion is still in use by
his descendants. The superb Bell Museum occupied several hours of our time. Bell
is well known for his telephone, but what is less known is his extensive and
exhaustive research and experimentation with early aviation and hydrofoil
watercraft. Probably his greatest interest, toward which he devoted much of his
life, was helping the deaf to hear.
A rental car took us to the fortress of Louisbourg on the south shore of Cape
Breton Island. This was the French Gibraltar of North America and during the
early 18th century was probably the third largest port in North America. The
French were anxious to protect their remaining North American territories having
lost much of their land (including Nova Scotia) in the Treaty of Utrecht in
1713. Louisbourg fell to the English in 1745 after a 46 day siege with most of
the British forces being made up of New England colonists. A few years later it
was returned to the French by a European treaty causing bitter resentment among
New Englanders who had suffered heavy losses in the battle. It was later taken
by the British, occupied for a few years after which it fell into disuse. A
major restoration has rebuilt the fortress including the enclosed village
resulting in an extensive complex that might be compared to Williamsburg,
Leaving Cape Breton Island following the Bras d’Or Channel to the Northeast, we
crossed Cabot Strait to Newfoundland. This stretch of water is known for its
rough weather, but fortunately our headwinds were not strong allowing us to
reach the lee of t he west coast of Newfoundland without problems. Next came the
Strait of Belle Isle separating Newfoundland and Labrador where we found
ourselves in the middle of a large pod of humpback whales. They were spouting
all around us with some breaching. It was a spectacular sight to watch them leap
clear of the water and then land with a tremendous splash.
|Replicated Viking sod structure at L’Anse aux Meadows.
Nights are short at 52 degrees north latitude, so as 0420 on June 20 we were
starting to get our first morning light when we anchored near L’Anse aux
Meadows. It was a relief to find a safe anchorage because a gale was forecast
for our area overnight. After a nap we spent the rest of the day exploring the
only confirmed Viking landing site in North America. It is not known if this is
exactly the location mentioned in the Leif Erickson sagas, but it definitely
existed about the same time, 1000 A.D. It was occupied by a Viking group
consisting of about 80 persons. Enough artifacts have been found to learn a
great deal about their lifestyle and three sod structures have been replicated
to describe their dwellings. Park rangers dressed in period costumes demonstrate
and explain various aspects of Viking life. A nearby museum has many artifacts
and detailed information about this settlement and Viking history.
The wind howled all night as the gale passed over us, but our anchorage was well
protected and we rode comfortably. Later in the day the wind eased and we
proceeded to the port of St. Anthony on the northeast tip of Newfoundland. The
only ice we saw was a grounded iceberg on an offshore shoal. This was in
contrast to our 1994 trip when we saw many large icebergs floating south along
this coast. We hoped this might be a good omen for this year’s trip.
St. Anthony is the home of the Grenfell Mission started by Wilfred Grenfell in
1892. He started as a missionary doctor living and working on fishing schooners
visiting numerous remote villages along the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts.
Over the years he established hospitals, nursing stations, orphanages, and
cottage industries greatly improving the standard of living of the native
people. It was finally taken over by the Canadian government in 1981 and is
still in operation.
St. Anthony was our last stop before leaving for Greenland so we used this
opportunity to change oil, fill batter water, top off fuel, water, propane,
provisions, and make all preparations for our passage north. After having dinner
at a restaurant that had once been a lighthouse, we were underway at 0420 on
June 24. Fair south winds favored us for a day and a half resulting in good
progress, but by the evening of the second day we were hove to in a gale gusting
up to 50 kts. When the wind eased we set headsails and mizzen only and continued
north under this reduced sail plan. Weather eventually eased and a variety of
winds accompanied us on this 900 mile passage. We ran in fog about half the
time, but fortunately encountered no ice. It seemed strange to see the sun set
in the north and then rise again a short time later, still in the north. It was
no longer completely dark at night and when visibility was good, the long
twilight hours with their many shades of pink and red were glorious.
Luckily the weather was clear as we made our way through the rocks guarding the
harbor entrance at Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. The harbormaster informed us
there were no customs or immigration entrance formalities other than to check in
with him upon entering the country. He wasn’t interested in seeing our passports
or any other papers. He simply asked us a few questions, answered a few of ours,
and welcomed us to Greenland. In the harbor we met and exchanged information
with a New Zealand boat, Balaena, who planned to spend the summer in Greenland.
Nuuk is built on a stark rocky headland with steep cliffs dropping away into the
harbor. About one half of the Greenland population of 56,000 lives here, much of
it in large community housing blocks. It is a rather depressing scenario, but
probably better living conditions for the Inuit population than the sod huts and
shanties they occupied previously. The city itself is pleasant with a good
variety of general merchandise and grocery stores although nearly everything is
expensive. An excellent museum with many interesting artifacts and other
information helped us understand the incredibly harsh environment in which the
Intuit people have managed to survive for the past 5000 years. Santa’s post
office is located here at Nuuk including a gigantic mailbox designed to handle
Santa’s heavy mail load at Christmas time.
Leaving Nuuk, Cloud Nine headed north again and the following day, July 3, we
celebrated crossing the Arctic Circle, 66 degrees 33 minutes north, with snacks
and champagne including a toast to Neptune for luck. Later in the day we
anchored in Sisimiut harbor and were met by Hans Peter Peterson (HP), his wife,
and children. I first met HP during our visit here in 1994. He was part of the
team that rescued Geoff Pope and his crew when his boat, Sheila Yeates, was lost
in the ice off the southern tip of Greenland in 1989. HP and his wife were
gracious hosts inviting us to dinner at their home and showing us around
Sisimiut, now the second largest city in Greenland.
Our route continued north against light northerly winds, much of
the time running in fog. In the early morning hours of July 6, we were excited
to see our first iceberg looming out of the mist. One never forgets his first
iceberg, huge, silent, overpowering, and unyielding as it drifts past and then
disappears again into the fog. As we approached Disco Bay we saw many more. A
crew change was scheduled to take place in Aasiaat on the south coast of Disco
Bay on July 11. Since we were a few days early, we decided to bypass Aasiaat and
try reaching Ilulissat (formerly Jakobshavn) located in the southeast part of
Disco Bay hoping to see the magnificent Jakobshavn glacier, the largest glacier
in the northern hemisphere.
Approaching the harbor, we were met by a seemingly impenetrable wall of icebergs
discharged into the bay by the glacier. Fortunately the weather was clear and
calm. For the next several hours, we attempted to make our way between and
around these floating leviathans to reach the harbor. Via VHF radio the
Ilulissat harbormaster told us the port was open, but he could not tell us how
to find our way in. Completely surrounded by icebergs and able to see nothing
but a massive jumble of white giants ahead of us, we decided to turn back. A
strong wind could cause the ice to close on us so it was time to get out of
here. It took some time to work our way back into thinner ice from where we
could retreat west again.
|Big fella! Probably rises 150 feet above the surface.
The ice we were seeing on the coast of Greenland was in the form of icebergs.
They are formed by large chunks of ice, often gigantic, sometimes weighing
several million tons, breaking off Greenland’s seemingly endless supply of
glaciers winding down from its vast frozen interior. The icebergs are often
strikingly beautiful, but one must remember that eight to nine tenths of their
incredible bulk floats beneath the surface of the water. One needs to be careful
when approaching these floating mountains lest one should happen to roll over
when Cloud Nine is close by.
Bergy bits or growlers are small pieces of ice that break away from the
icebergs. They post a navigational threat because they are had to see and do not
show up on radar. This is particularly true of growlers that are bits of very
old dense ice that come from the heart of the glacier and have been subjected to
great pressure for long periods of time. They are often clear rather than white
and float low in the water making them almost invisible. Many boats have been
lost as a result of colliding with one of these pieces of ice while running at
Later, in Canada, most of our experience was with pack ice which is frozen sea
water. It is relatively flat and lies low in the water. I consider it more
ominous than beautiful and is normally not visible until less than four miles
away. If a vessel is surrounded by pack ice, it may well be unable to escape. In
these circumstances, winds and tides can cause pressure between the ice floes
that could crush a boat or drive it ashore if land is nearby. Pack ice can vary
from a few inches to many feet thick depending on its age, and is designated as
first year ice, second year ice, or multi year ice depending on how many winters
it has existed in the Arctic.
Godhavn is on the south shore of Disco Island and we decided to stop there on
our way back to Aasiaat. Just as we were working our way through the ice outside
the harbor entrance, our reliable engine died. That got our attention! Assuming
it was a plugged fuel filter, I switched to the reserve filter but only got a
few hundred yards farther when the engine died again. By this time we were in
anchorable depth so we dropped the hook and changed filters keeping a wary eye
on the ice drifting around us. Fortunately this solved the problem and we were
able to continue into the inner harbor where we anchored at 0130 in the morning.
We went below to relax a few minutes before turning in when our cook for the day
asked, “What would you all like for lunch?” We looked at her in surprise until
we realized that with our 24 hour daylight, she was experiencing vertigo in time
and genuinely thought it was early afternoon!
After a sleep, we spent most of the day ashore. This was more of a traditional
Greenland village without the oppressive block housing of the larger cities. The
people lived in small but relatively tidy brightly painted wood frame houses.
Like most Greenland towns, it is built on a rock promontory overlooking the
harbor so one must almost climb from one street to another. Two men, having just
returned from a hunting trip, were dressing out seals on the beach near our
dinghy. When finished they threw the skins into the harbor. When I asked why
they were discarding the skins, they told me they were of no value because of
the market prejudice against fur. Previously it had been a needed partial source
of income for the native people. If it were not for the seals, the Inuit people
could not have survived through the years. They remain a primary source of food
in Arctic regions and we often saw hunters returning with their kill.
During the evening we made the 30 mile passage back to Aasiaat. This entrance
would be difficult in reduced visibility with unmarked submerged rocks in the
harbor approaches, but fortunately it was clear and we were able to follow range
markers into the anchorage. The time was 0037 on July 9 and our log indicated we
had now traveled 5170 nautical miles since leaving Trinidad.
Here we had some bad luck. Our diesel generator that was working find a few days
ago had seized. Realizing this was no shipboard repair job, we removed it from
the boat and took it ashore and to a diesel engine mechanic. After examination,
he felt it would cost more to repair than it was worth and recommended scrapping
it. With no parts available and having had many problems with this unit in the
past, we agreed and left the generator in the boatyard. A small Honda portable
was available that I purchased to charge batteries in case of emergency.
|Replacing planks at Aasiaat boatyard - copper bottom
sheathing has been peeled down.
The majority of Greenland’s working fishing fleet is still made of wood. The
boatyard at Aasiaat is probably one of the few places left in the world that
actively carries on major repair work on wood vessels. Several large craft were
pulled up on the hard undergoing serious wooden hull surgery. The copper
sheathing was stripped down from the water line and new planks were being
steamed, formed, and bolted into place. Other mechanical work of all kinds was
going on in addition to the woodworking projects.
With our new crew scheduled to arrive tomorrow, we took our present crew ashore.
Gaynelle did laundry while I worked at other chores preparing for the new
arrivals. Gaynelle and I were alone on board that night. Before turning in, we
noticed the wind was coming up so we let out our full 100 meters of chain to
improve our holding. At 0200 the wind was gusting above 40 knots and we
discovered that our anchor was dragging through the silty bottom and we were
slowly moving toward the rocky shore to leeward. I felt we must reanchor, but
with no third person aboard to stack chain as it comes in, I had to run back and
forth between the wheel and the chain locker to keep it from piling up and
jamming the hawse pipe. This was a dangerous situation in this wind, but we
succeeded in getting the anchor up.
I had a difficult time maneuvering the boat with this fierce wind within the
limits of such a small harbor, but we managed to reanchor and once again let out
our entire 300 feet of chain. But after settling down, we discovered our anchor
was still not holding. Gaynelle and I retrieved a second 75 pound anchor and 200
feet of rode out of an aft locker and carried it forward. While I motored ahead,
Gaynelle put down the second anchor, but we continued to drag even with both
anchors down and set. By keeping the engine running and increasing and
decreasing speed with the wind gusts, we succeeded in holding our position
reasonably well until morning, but we were slowly losing ground toward the rocks
to leeward. Gusts were now over 50 knots and our situation was becoming
|The awe inspiring Arctic sunset.
Gene and Peggy Duenow from our previous crew had spent the night in the hotel
ashore preparing to catch a flight home. Seeing the rough conditions, they
called us on the VHF radio to see how we were doing. After learning about our
situation, Gene was able to round up two volunteers and someone to bring them
out in a small boat to try to help. The wind had been blowing for several hours
now so the seas were pretty rough, but the three of them managed to scramble
aboard from the pitching boat alongside. It was a struggle to get the two
anchors on deck under these conditions, but we succeeded and then worked our way
upwind toward the fuel dock where Peggy was waiting with several hands to take
our lines. We were able to moor to the fuel dock where we were finally secure
and could breathe a sigh of relief. It had been a close call for Cloud Nine.
That night the wind eased and all was clam again.
In the morning we moved back to our anchorage and our Arctic crew from
California arrived and moved aboard. After final preparations, we weighed anchor
on July 14 and headed north again along the west coast of Greenland. We ran in
fog about half the time, but when the weather would clear, the stark beauty of
this remote wilderness would reveal itself to us.
This has been an excerpt from Roger Swanson’s book Into the Ice.
In the next installment Swanson and his crew sail northern Greenland.
Roger Swanson is from Dunnell, Minnesota. He has cruised Antarctica twice,
almost the Northwest Passage and circumnavigated four times.He has received
numerous international awards for cruising and seamanship.