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, Virginia.

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 cruising speed.

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 desperate.

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.