In this instalment, Dex Mann describes his sailing voyage, an arctic training trip with a team around Greenland’s East coast.
The Adventure Log is a new series, brought you by those who go outside their comfort zone to explore the wonderful places our planet can offer; describing and capturing imagery of some of the wilder frontiers.
How does one sum up three weeks of sailing in and around the Fjords of NW Iceland and across the Denmark Straits and a voyage to the midnight sun in Greenland? Exciting, exhilarating, mentally and physically exhausting, a once in a lifetime event.
It fulfills all points in the definition of ocean adventure; it’s certainly challenging, and this was highlighted when loading equipment onto the boat–there were the two body bags, just in case!!
There was plenty of that. Negotiating a safe passage through the ice, if the skipper misjudges, we could easily hole the yacht and start to take on ice-cold water.
Here you have to show strength to ensure your watch is up on time, and in rough seas you need to inspire your team to carry on: to cook, clean, and keep a clear head when all starts to go wrong.
As a crew the only way to sail a boat successfully is by teamwork. You need to ensure that your team completes the task safely when asked to do something even when cold, wet, and hungry.
Strength and stamina are required. The main sail alone weighs about 500kg and takes 5-6 crew to fully hoist. The foredeck sails weigh between 100kg – 200kg. As you can see, offshore sailing fits in perfectly with the definition of adventure.
I was lucky enough to be selected to take part in this once in a lifetime sailing expedition up to the Arctic waters. As a crew we did not know each other, but by the end of three weeks in close proximity, we got to know each other and ourselves really well. We flew to Reykjavik to meet our skipper, Chris Sumner and the yacht HMSTV Adventure. Here we loaded our kit, found our bunk for the next three weeks, and were told who was on which Watch and what other duties had to be done. My main duties were twofold, Watch Leader and Purser. The second part of this was to come up with three meals per day for 18 days for 15 crew. A balanced and varied meal list was required. My first supermarket bill was over £2’500!!
Once the food was stowed and all drills completed, it became a waiting game. Waiting for a weather window and ice reports from Greenland. Storms were raging on the Southern Cape of Greenland, with thick ice all the way along the East Coast. This voyage to the midnight sun is looking quite frozen.
After three nights in Reykjavik we headed out north to NE Fjords of Iceland to await the ice reports again, a 322km sail. After completing all the mandated drills we soon settled into the Watch routine,. There was one Watch on Mother, who cooks and cleans for all, the other two Watches are on a 4hrs on, 4hrs off routine; all change every 24hrs. Very quickly puffins and fulmars are ignored, but we are all keen to spot whales and dolphins. After a few hours the cry from duty Watch of “Whales!” is heard and we all scramble topside to see Orcas off the starboard bow. Fantastic!
Sailing alongside the massive cliffs (2’500ft) of the NE coastline of Iceland is just incredible. Words just can’t do it justice and nor can the many photographs we took. After two days sailing we arrive in Hesteyifjord where we anchor up for the night. So still and quiet, not a breath of wind, surrounded on three sides by steep slopes that tower up for about 900ft. Five waterfalls can be heard in the distance and the sea is alive with jellyfish. No swimming today!! A run ashore for two Watches and our Watch remain to prepare an evening meal and clean. Food on-board is varied, we have pasta dishes, rice dishes, and very occasionally a potato dish. Tonight’s meal is Irish stew with potatoes, dedicated to the four Irish crew members.
Ice, Ice, Baby
We spend five days around the NE Iceland fjords visiting different anchorages, a glacier and spending one night at Sudavik, a small fishing village. Back in 1995 it was badly hit by an avalanche, killing twelve people. We visit Isafjordur to restock on fresh bread and milk. We take time to look at this “frontier town,” spending two days exploring, and waiting for a clearance in the ice around the East coast of Greenland. There are a number of plans. Plan A is to sail around the Southern Cape and up the west coast; scrapped due to storms. Plan B is to sail north to Ittoqqortoomiit, Greenland; scrapped, too much ice. We revert to plan C, which is to sail due west Tasiilaq and explore the local coastal villages and Fjords, whilst still waiting on ice reports.
It’s time to go. The weather and ice are good for plan C, to head west to land on East Greenland, distance of 665km, about 3-4 days sailing. Wind is light but fair. We all prep to sail, stowing all kit and ensuring all is secured below, before up anchor and set sail with the engine on. Soon we are engulfed in fog which stays with us for some time. With fog the cold sets in, chewing its way to your bones, but morale is high and expectations are higher.
We all soon settle back into our Watch routine, waking up at midnight for the tough graveyard shift. The boat is heeling over, smashing up and down. This voyage to the midnight sun is not warm. You try really hard to don your many layers of clothing, make a wet cup of tea then eventually put on your final safety kit and head up to daylight!! It’s midnight and it’s still bright, no night sailing hours for me. The other Watch then head below, freezing cold and equally tired, we will see them soon, too soon for them but not for us. The wind picks up, sails are changed, reefs put in and then we are sailing swiftly at 11kts. This could be a quick passage.
Icebergs And Growlers
We are on watch and at 03:15 we spot our first iceberg, beyond that Greenland. By the time the next watch arrives the iceberg and land still don’t look any closer. We head to our bunks and after a very quick 4hrs we are back on watch. Wow!! Icebergs and growlers (small 5ft to 20ft icebergs) are everywhere and the massive mountains of Greenland tower in front. This is going to be an exhilarating Watch. We are close now to our port and the ice flow is thick. We pick our way through, looking for safe passage. Slowly, slowly, we head forward, power off, nudge the ice away, turn full to port, full reverse, turn starboard, forward power, slowly creeping through the ice. Our watch is over, but no way am I heading down below. This is adventure at it’s best!!
The skipper is concerned. He doesn’t think we’ll find a way through. We head along another possible channel between the ice sheets; about 1km behind us is a small cruise ship also weaving it’s way through. Clear water is just 20m away, but we can see no way through. A possible route is spotted, and we head for it, desperate to ease past the ice. We nudge and pole our way through the final 20m, grinding noises can be heard as the ice scrapes past us. Then we are free, power on and head straight for the harbour. We are in Greenland and I have just experienced one of my top four life changing events.
Small Towns, Big Island
We spend two days exploring a wonderful small town. Some of us become members of the East Greenland Kayaking Club, and spend an outstanding afternoon canoeing around the Fjord. On day three we set off up the adjacent fjord to a very small village named Kalaallit. It was only 20km away, but with the amount of ice to navigate through, it took 13hrs. After one night we head back out to sea heading north up to the Arctic circle (66°34’ 029N) before heading back to Iceland; arriving back to Reykjavik on a Thursday. We have seen orca, minke and pilot whales, dolphins and porpoises, puffins, fulmars, artic terns and many other wonderful wildlife.
So, is an ice-cold ocean voyage to the midnight sun worth it? Yes, it certainly is.
Dex Mann, or David, as we call him, learned to sail in a little village across the water from Edinburgh and worked for the RAF. He likes going to the ends of the earth, taking our waterproof dry back pack with him.