|Kirsten Thomsen and Kim Mathisen, 2012.|
Just in case you'd like to read about their passage through the Northwest Passage, here is their account:
Sailing Vessel SOL across the top of the World
"Proud does it look, as it stands there, nose pointing in our direction, sniffing for our scent; a male Polar Bear in its prime, apparently well fed, and in fine form.
SOL has almost transited Bellot Strait, which separates Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island in the eastern part of the mythical Northwest Passage. And this is the third Polar Bear we have seen within the last 12 hours. He isn’t shy, as we carefully point our bow towards the shore where he stands--quite the opposite--as he poses for us, turning and moving, while pondering whether we would make a satisfying meal! Our cameras are clicking, the video is whirring, until the strong currents move SOL and crew eastwards to an old Hudson Bay Company trading post, Fort Ross.
We have planned to stay here for some days, resting after a month of almost continuous voyage through the Northwest Passage. Sometimes we have had to be on the alert, zigzagging through ice. We are somewhat exhausted; although we have had plenty to eat, we have both lost weight on the voyage and our clothes are sagging a bit.
Our voyage started from Nome, by the Bering Sea in Alaska. We arrived there on 17 July 2012, and tied up alongside two other sailboats in the cramped harbor: UPCHUCK from Glasgow, Scotland with skipper Frank/4 crew, TOKIMATA from New Zealand with skipper Peter, his wife Rachel, their two adult sons, Dan and Tom. A week later TRANQUILO from Holland, with singlehander Bart, arrives and ties up alongside. Now we are 4 sailboats, all bound for Baffin Bay via the Northwest Passage.
30 July--Departure! The 5-day forecast for weather and ice is favorable for the first time this summer. Ice still blocks the Passage by Point Barrow. Strong southerly winds are forecast to push the pack ice northwards for a few days, opening a narrow lead along the coast in 3 days time. This lead is only expected for a few days, as a strong NW gale is forecast to move the ice back on shore. Such a window of opportunity is not to be missed. So everybody departs Nome, bound for Bering Strait, which is transited next day in a pleasant easterly breeze.
UPCHUCK is a 52-ft motorsailer, that is motoring. He is now 30-mi ahead. TOKIMATA and SOL are same size, and perform very much the same, so we tend to keep the same speed. When the wind falls light we motorsail to get to Point Barrow in time. TRANQUILO sails almost exclusively, and is tailing the rest of us in the light winds. We have set up a radio schedule once a day on the shortwave radio. We have the advantage of UPCHUCK being ahead, reporting on the ice situation.
The ice forecast is spot on, as we are passing Point Barrow very close to the shore on 3 August. We can see the edge of the pack-ice as a white line on the horizon.
Two days later the wind at Point Barrow turns, and picks up to 45-knots from the NW, which moves the ice right back on the coast. While we have southerly wind for the next days, we move east under sail, in the shallow waters along the shore. The ice has moved far enough out to establish a lead with only 1/10 of ice, which is easily negotiated with due care.
The sailing is out of this world; completely flat water, perfect breeze, mainly sunshine from a clear sky with a few fog patches. We enjoy the ever changing shapes and colors of the ice in all hues of white and blue, against the deep blue waters of the Beaufort Sea.
We still have midnight sun, so sailing between the ice floes is no problem. In the background we can see the towering mountains of mainland Alaska. Often we only have 10’–13’ under the keel, but with no waves or swell, our boats are zooming eastward in great comfort.
In the early morning hours of 5 August we are passing very close to some gravel islands, which for centuries have been centers for Bowhead whale hunting. There are a few primitive huts, and a whole forest of giant jaw bones arranged in a peculiar way on one of the points. And then there are Polar Bears! As we approach the first island, we observe what we think are two dirty snowdrifts on the beach. Until the drifts suddenly move and transform into two big Polar Bears, avidly sniffing in our direction, trying to catch our scent. One of them apparently finds us sufficiently alluring, as it jumps in the water and start swimming towards us. SOL is moving at 6 knots at the time, so it never catches up with us. But TOKIMATA who is ¼-mile behind us, has to take evasive action in order to avoid collision with the beast: “Sail gives way to bear!”
According to the ice report we will soon be out of the ice. No ice until we get to the eastern part of the Northwest Passage, 1000 miles further, where all passages are still blocked by dense ice. Before we get out of the ice, we anchor for a few hours by Flaxman Island, together with TOKIMATA. Flaxman Island has some special interest for us, as it is the spot where Danish explorer Ejner Mikkelsen over wintered in 1906/07. Together with his American partner, Ernest Leffingwell, he had set out to find a mysterious land supposed to exist North of Alaska. They spent a couple of years on the project, where Mikkelsen among others made some long dog sledge voyages out in the frozen Beaufort Sea, under very difficult conditions. They never found the land, which probably had been a mirage--not uncommon in the Arctic. But Mikkelsen found the edge of the Continental shelf, and Leffingwell is known as the person who found the oil deposits at Prudhoe Bay.
Their ship, the DUCHESS OF BEDFORD, sank in the lagoon by Flaxman Island. Some of the timbers were used to build a hut, where they spent the winter. Actually Leffingwell spent most of the next 10 years in the hut, while exploring and mapping most of the North coast of Alaska.
Ashore there is very little left of the old hut. We find some remains of an old sledge, and other odd bits and pieces. But otherwise everything has returned to nature.
There is very clear evidence of Global Warming--the islands' permafrost is melting! The whole north shore is slowly falling into the sea. The pack ice used to protect the shore from waves most of the year. But the last decade has seen increasing wave erosion on all the shores of the Beaufort Sea, and it looks like Flaxman Island is slowly disappearing. Who knows, in a few years the island may have disappeared; we are happy to have visited the place. Mikkelsen wrote an excellent book about the expedition, Mirage in the Arctic.
After a much needed nap we continue our long voyage towards the East. We are tired, and feel the need to stop somewhere for a couple of days to get some sleep and rest. The ice still blocks the Eastern straits of the NW Passage; we will soon be out of the remaining ice of the Beaufort Sea. So we need not hurry along anymore, in fear of being pressed onto the beach by the ice, in case of northerly winds.
Our “Toki-mates” feels the same way, not to speak of Bart on TRANQUILO, who is completely exhausted, having dodged the ice on his own for the past 4 days.
So we all anchor in Demarcation Bay, close to the Canadian border. A great sheltered anchorage by a small stream, complete with a grazing herd of Musk Ox on the plain, and with towering mountains in the distance. A perfect spot to rest, make excursions ashore, and enjoy some socializing.
Our next stop is Pauline Cove on Herschel Island--one of the few protected anchorages on this part of the Beaufort Sea coast. Beginning c. 1890 it was extensively used by whalers in the short summer season. For a while a trade station was established here, and in the winter 1894/95 2000 whalers over wintered, to get an early start of the season once the ice broke. This attracted Inuits from the whole region, sadly introducing them to alcohol and tobacco.
We arrive in beautiful weather, and anchor in perfect shelter behind a narrow spit, where the old buildings still stands. Herschel Island is a National Park, with two Park Rangers in the summer. The old buildings have been restored, some of them housing scientists, studying among others permafrost. They can confirm that permafrost is thawing at an alarming rate, and Herschel Island is also slowly disappearing into the sea.
The Park Rangers give us the grand tour of the building, where there are artifacts from the whaling period on display.
The wind increases to a NW gale, which gives us a somewhat rolling voyage across the very shallow McKenzie River delta to Tuktuyaktuk. Much of the time we only have 6' under the keel, but we arrive via the very well marked channel, without mishap.
Entry into Canada is easy on the local Royal Mounted Canadian Police Station, including a permit to import our shotgun. The friendly policeman points out that we must always carry the gun ashore outside towns--Polar Bears are a real threat in these waters!
We fill up with fuel and fresh provisions, before continuing. The wind is still out of the NW, but has abated somewhat. Following winds are rare here, so our stay in Tuktuyaktuk is less than a day. We are heading into the Amundsen Gulf. The land is rather flat--we see it as brownish smudges on the horizon. Not until we get closer to Victoria Island do we get to see anything that resembles mountains. The sea has changed colors from the muddy brown of the McKenzie delta to deep azure blue.
We arrive in Cambridge Bay after 5 days of great sailing. Most of the 700 nautical miles we have traveled under sail, which is rather unusual.
UPCHUCK is tied to the jetty in Cambridge Bay, where they have been sitting for a week. They motored nonstop all the way from Nome, and have been waiting for the ice further east to clear. TRANQUILO, who didn’t stop on Herschel Island or in Tuktuyaktuk, is also here, so 4-eastbound boats are reunited.
We also meet the first two westbound sailboats. They had some luck, getting through the ice, when it opened up for a very short spell. But right now all passages east are completely blocked by solid ice, being pressed down from the north.
Cambridge Bay is a cozy little village, with a very friendly Tourist Office, offering free internet, free hot showers, and fresh coffee.
A piece of maritime history also exists here in Cambridge Bay, or rather in a small cove outside town. It is the wreck of Amundsen's MAUD in which he tried to drift frozen in the ice across the North Pole. He thought he could do better than his big idol Fridtjof Nansen, who didn’t get close to the pole in FRAM (1893–1896). It was one of Amundsens few fiascos. His expedition started in 1918, but in 1925 he had to give up, as he went broke. MAUD was sold to the Hudsons Bay Company in 1926, and spent the next years working in the waters of the NW Passage. In 1930 she sank as she was laid up as a depot ship and telegraph station by Cambridge Bay. Ice and water has of course chewed into the old hull, but parts of the ship under the water are still in remarkable shape.
Norway has found new interest in the old ship, and a team of diving archeologists have been registering all details during the last few years. Next year they plan to refloat MAUD put her on a barge, and tow her back to Norway--ice permitting.
We meet the archeologists and a film crew documenting the project, and get a good chat with them.
The wind comes up from the SE, increasing to gale force. So TOKIMATA and SOL anchor in the very sheltered anchorage in the cove next to MAUD
The southerly wind is exactly what is needed to get the ice to open up. The ice charts shows the pack ice moving north, opening leads in Victoria Strait along the coast of King William Island, and also in James Ross Strait.
We are now moving into historic waters, where numerous shipwrecks, hardship and human tragedies have taken place, in the quest for the Northwest Passage. Not least the Franklin-expedition, which left Great Britain in 1845 and disappeared without trace, gave cause to numerous search expeditions, new discoveries and explorations. Not until 1859 did one find proof of what happened to John Franklin and his 134 men. Many books have been written about this, so we will not go into details here.
We leave Cambridge Bay on 19 August with TOKIMATA. We hope that the ice forecast is correct. The latest chart shows that we can save 200 miles by transiting to James Ross Strait via Victoria Strait, instead of taking the long, tortuous route south of King William Island via Simpson Strait and Gjøa Haven.
We had looked forward to visiting the latter, where Amundsen over wintered twice on his historical first transit through the NW Passage. But a fast and safe passage to Baffin Bay before the bad weather of fall sets in, is more important.
Great parts of Victoria Strait haven’t been properly charted, and we are mostly sailing in waters without charted depths. Luckily wise there’s plenty of water, even when ice forces us close to shore. We get close to Victory Point, where McClintock found Franklin's cairn in 1859. The cairn contained a report about what had happened to the expedition 14 years earlier.
Victory Point is rarely approachable because of ice, so we decide to anchor and pay the historic place a visit. Franklins cairn is still there, although it has crumbled somewhat. Victory Point is a very desolate place: Rocks and pebbles as far as one can see, with hardly any kind of vegetation. It is easy to imagine Franklin’s scurvy-ridden men desperately pulling sledges and boats southwards, hoping to be saved somehow. Southwards from here skeletons, equipment, and lifeboats have been found--apparently people dropped dead on the route, and nobody survived long enough to tell about the disaster. There are lots of theories about what caused the disaster. A known fact is that an important part of their food was badly prepared tinned meat, in poorly lead soldered tins. The book Iceblink by Scott Cookman gives some fascinating insights in the probable causes for the failure of the “best prepared Arctic expedition ever”.
We have to move anchor twice because of drifting ice floes during our brief visit. On the last occasion we make it in the last moment before the bow is hit by the ice!
Under sail we continue North and Northeast in increasing fog. We pass Cape Felix, King William Island's northernmost point, and head east into James Ross Strait. The ice chart shows the edge of the pack-ice a couple of miles north, with a few dense belts of ice pointing south, that has to be negotiated. In the fog we have to be extra vigilant, as we had to react rather fast a couple of times, to find a lead in the dense belts of ice.
As we close in on the Boothia Peninsula, the fog lifts. Soon we can head North through James Ross Strait in glorious sunshine. We can see the dense pack ice as a shining white line in contrast to the deep blue sea about a mile to the East, and we constantly have small ice bergs around us.
If there is no ice, it is possible to make a shortcut toward Baffin Bay via Bellot Strait, which separates Somerset Island from Boothia Peninsula. The currents run up to 10 knots, and the strait has a bend in the middle, so it’s not possible to check if there should be ice further on. The Pilot Book warns about great dangers if any ice is present, and even tells a horror story about a big expedition vessel, that almost came to grief in Bellot Strait. We encounter a huge British motor yacht, sailing the opposite direction. And he reports no ice in Bellot Strait, and only a few big ice bergs between Bellot and Baffin Bay. So that’s where we are heading.
We have very strong headwinds for the last 6 hours, which makes for rather slow progress under reefed sails. But can finally drop the anchor at dusk on 22 August in a small cove in False Strait, just N of Bellot Strait. As we anchor, a Polar Bear with her cub comes ambling along the shore. The noise from the anchor chain scares them, so they disappear over the nearest hill. Now we are in Polar Bear country!
As we transit Bellot Strait with a favorable current next day, we encounter two additional Polar Bears. They are both asleep as we approach, but both wake up and take a closer look at us. None of them seem to be afraid of or worried about our presence--it seems as if they are contemplating whether we would make a tasty meal, or not worth the bother!
We drop anchor in a bay by Fort Ross. The station was abandoned back in 1948, but the buildings are still standing. The manager's house is in poor shape, but the depot building has been restored, and serves as survival hut and backup accommodation for scientists for short periods in the summer.
We have a feeling of having almost through the NW Passage, although there is still 1000 miles to Aasiaat, Greenland. The main thing is that we don’t need to worry about being caught in the pack ice any longer!
So we, the Toki-mates, and Bart on TRANQUILO, who arrived a few hours later, decide to stay by Fort Ross for a few days, for some much needed rest and recreation.
The old Hudson Bay depot becomes center of our activities. Doors and windows are heavily shuttered with sturdy planks in steel frames, to prevent Polar Bears from entering. The necessity is proved by deep claw grooves in the shutters, made by prowling bears trying to enter. All passing vessels stop here to write in the visitors’ book, which makes for very interesting reading.
Inside the old building we find an old oil stove lying on its side. We reinstall it, and soon the whole building is warm and cozy inside.
We planned a potluck, to celebrate our great successful voyage so far. Some friends from the San Juan Islands presented us with a fine Ice Wine when we departed, to be enjoyed in the NW Passage. It is served with the sumptuous dessert made on SOL, followed by “Buttered, spicy, Rum Grog” composed by Bart. Finally Peter serves some very fine old Single Malt Scotch. So we are all in a very good mood, without being drunk. At one stage the room gets a bit too warm, so Peter opens the door to let some cool air in. We all wonder, why he immediately slams the door, until he shouts: ”There’s a bl…y Polar Bear right outside!” Everybody finds it a great joke, until we realize that Peter's hair stands straight out, and he has a somewhat shocked expression on his normally calm face. There is only one window in the house, on the loft right above the front door, where everybody soon gathers. We must admit that a fully grown Polar Bear actually is right outside the door, staring up at us, and sniffing avidly at all the interesting food aroma coming from the small house.
To start with we find it great fun so cameras are clicking away. But we also realize that we need to scare the beast away before heading for our dinghies. Bart is particularly worried, as he has anchored in a neighboring bay, and has to walk a couple of miles in pitch dark, before he reaches safety on his boat. A warning shot right over the head of the bear doesn’t seem to make much impression. But our combined effort, shouting and screaming, while banging pots and pans, finally makes the big animal move away ever so slowly, until it disappears in the dark.
When we all leave the hut a little later we don’t see it, but maybe we are a bit faster than normal getting to, and launching our dinghies! Poor Bart is hiking along in the darkness, with only a small headlight on his forehead for illumination, and his rifle on the ready. As we arrive on SOL, we suddenly hear him scream and shout, and see his light whirl around in there.
A rescue operation is immediately put in action: Two heavily armed skippers head for shore with powerful spotlights, to see if they can still do something to save the poor guy. In the meanwhile we have heard absolutely nothing from Bart, and everybody fears the worst. The rescue team lands on the beach near the place where we last saw Bart. No trace of neither him or the bear, and no traces of blood to be found. So they follow the track he must have taken in order to get to his dinghy. We can just make him out in the distance, climbing on board TRANQUILO, when they walk over the last hill. Via the VHF radio Bart somewhat embarrassed confirms that he is safe. But that it is quite amazing, how many white rocks looks exactly like polar bears in the dark!!
On our last night by Fort Ross we all gather on TRANQUILO for a chat and to say goodbye to Bart. This is where we split up. TRANQUILO is going to over winter in Fram Haven on Ellesmere Island, close to 80° N, where the Norwegian Otto Sverdrup over wintered in Fram in 1898-1899.
TOKIMATA leaves first in the morning, and reports via the radio about a whole family of polar bears just a mile from our anchorage. Bart offers to take us there in his fast dinghy, and we have another close-up experience with the impressive animals. First we encounter a single bear on a rocky point--we recognize it as our old friend from the other night, from a scar on its nose. We get very close to it (40’) as it stands by the water’s edge, probably pondering whether it might be worth the effort trying to catch us. Apparently we don’t look delicious enough for bear food, so it stays where it is, without getting wet feet. Just around the corner a mother bear and her two cubs are sitting on top of a rock, keeping a vigilant eye on all traffic in the area. As we approach, they all move down to the waters’ edge, probably pondering whether it might be worth the effort trying to catch us. Apparently we don’t look delicious enough for bear food, so it stays where it is, without getting wet feet. Just around the corner a mother bear and her two cubs are sitting on top of a rock, keeping an eye on all traffic in the area. As we approach, they all move down to the waters’ edge, to have a closer look at us. They don’t seem afraid or disturbed by our presence, merely curious, as we slowly drift around, filming and photographing. But we notice that Mother Bear keeps a very vigilant eye on us at all times!
We haven’t been on the move for 3 days, time is running, and we move on. Next stop is Port Bowen, a large bay on the NW corner of Somerset Island. Commander Parry spent a winter here with his two ships FURY and HECLA back in 1824/25 in his search for the Franklin expedition. The bay has very little likeness with our chart, and a prominent island in the middle is not charted! But we find a good spot to anchor, and climb the highest hill by the anchorage. Here we find Parry’s old cairn, together with numerous fossils of maritime origin in the rocks about 500 ft. above sea level. The landscape around us has changed considerably from the rather flat and almost undistinguishable gravel plains from Nome to James Ross Strait. Suddenly there are dramatic cliffs and high mountains along the shores. Right here in Port Bowen erosion has carved amazing, almost troll-like shapes out of the soft sand stone of the steep cliffs, which makes the place look like something from a fairytale.
After a quiet night, we enter Lancaster Sound, which gives access to Baffin Bay. On 29 August we reach the northernmost point on this voyage at 73° 53, 08 N. We have fog and frost, which in combination deposits ice on sails and in the rigging. From time to time lumps of ice fall on the deck--time to head south!! At sunrise the fog persists, but with a blue sky above.
Temperatures have declined as we moved east and north, while the layers of clothing we wear have increased. Our waterproof thermal boiler suits have been invaluable, and long ski underwear has been in use most of the way.
Our autopilot quit working after Herschel Island, as we got too close to the magnetic North Pole, with its weak magnetic field. Both the Pilot Book and the charts state that magnetic compasses are useless in this area. So there has been a lot of hand steering, mainly from the lee of our small cockpit enclosure, with some lines and pulleys. The GPS shows the course, and it is somewhat warmer inside the enclosure.
Well protected anchorages are scarce in this region, so when a gale is announced, we seek shelter in Tay Bay on Bylot Island, TOKIMATA arriving the day after.
An American we met further south, Alvah Simon, over wintered here 18 years back in his steel boat. And wrote the book North to the Night, which we carry onboard. So we know the bay is safe, and almost feel as if we know it in advance, after his description.
And a beautiful place it is, surrounded by lofty peaks, and with a non-tidal glacier in the bottom of the bay. We explore the place while the gale blows itself out, eager to get moving as soon as possible. The early morning of our departure, we wake up to the sight of two new arrivals in the bay: the Dutch boats TOOLUKA and ABEL TASMAN. Both old acquaintances from far southern latitudes. We last saw Eef on TOOLUKA in Chilean Patagonia, and ABEL TASMAN with Gerda/Jacques on South Georgia.
High latitude cruisers are not numerous, and during our years doing this sort of thing, we probably have met most of them. We almost feel like family, and it’s always a pleasure to reunite and swap stories!
We feel the beginning of fall as we get closer to Baffin Bay, with more unsettled weather, and darker nights. During our journey we have had generally settled weather and mostly flat sea, so we have to get used to it, when we start feeling the big swell from Baffin Bay.
Our "Toki-mates" are anchored in an old whaler’s anchorage, Albert Harbour. We are struggling against a building gale right on the nose for a whole night under very small sails. During the night we tack past the small settlement of Pond Inlet, which seems to take forever. Albert Harbour is described as a safe anchorage in the Pilot Book. It is a cove between a very high and steep island and a likewise high and steep mountain range. On arrival we find it rather marginal, with depths between 20 and 30 fathoms and frequent williwaws screaming down from the peaks. TOKIMATA is anchored behind a tiny sand spit, close to shore, and is pitching and rolling. After checking out the whole bay, we end up anchoring beside them. We anchor in about 9 fathoms, a boat length from the beach, and by the time all our chain is out, we have 15 fathoms under the keel! The wind is howling, and the swell makes the boat rock and roll. But our fabulous Rocna anchor bites immediately, and keeps us safely on the spot, while we more or less pass out after the rough trip.
In the morning wind and swell abates, and we wake up to a beautiful sunny day, with a few ripples on the water. Our photos show a beautiful and peaceful cove, with two yachts at anchor by a nice sandy beach. But we would never really recommend Albert Harbour as anything but an emergency anchorage.
The weather forecast is for freshening northerly winds, so we’re moving on. In a few days another deepening low-pressure system will bring strong winds. So we head for another old whaler’s anchorage 200 miles southeast, Ravenscraig Harbour, Baffin Island. On arrival the anchorage looks great in a small cove, surrounded by rocky peaks in a wild but beautiful landscape. But as the bad weather arrives, with strong gusty winds, horizontal snow and big swell, there is not much beauty on the spot. We keep an anchor watch for a long, unpleasant night, where SOL feels like a wild horse, trying to kick us off! Boat and landscape are covered in snow, as the sun finally rises. In the early morning hours the anchor chain suddenly makes more noise than usual. Kim is on deck checking, and finds our new stainless Wichard chain hook has been bent out of shape, no longer connecting the snubber line with the chain. We have a spare in hardened steel, which is quickly deployed, and no damage has been caused.
No storm lasts forever, even if it may feel so. This one finally abates, and the weather pattern for the next days tells us it’s time to head for Greenland.
In the beginning we still have 12’–15’ swell from the N, but the windvane handles things perfectly. Later the wind disappears, and we have to motor, and now the autopilot works beautifully! We have absolutely clear nights, where fantastic Northern Lights are performing astonishing and ever changing shows over our heads in complete silence.
We arrive in Aasiaat, Greenland on 8 September at 8:45 p.m. Next day we have a howling southerly gale; the fall has caught up with us! And we have to realize that SOL is probably going to spend winter somewhere in Greenland, not on the Azores 2000 miles further south, as originally planned.
This is where we cross our outward track; 7 years and 38,000 miles ago we last visited Disko Bay, in the meanwhile circumnavigating North America via Cape Horn and South Georgia. Any records or “firsts” we may have broken, is completely unintentional!
If we have to put some numbers on our passage, we have sailed 3,208 miles from Nome, AK to Aasiaat, Greenland; approximately half of the distance under our new, very efficient sails from Ullman Sails. We have sailed 30 days, and been at anchor 10. We have used 716-liters of diesel fuel, estimated 140-liters for heating. The engine has been running for 363 hours, with a consumption of only 1.6 liter/hour, which is exceptionally low for a 54-HP engine. It probably has to do with the favourable current during the first half of the transit, enabling us to run the engine under very low revs, still keeping a good speed. Our efficient Autoprop gave us very good speed in light winds under both engine and sails. In total we have sailed 5,300 miles from Cordova, AK to Nuuk, Greenland this year.
The Northwest Passage has been a fantastic adventure. It is difficult to express in words the many impressions we have had on the way. How do you describe the crystal-clear air, the colors, the ever-changing landscapes, the ice in all its blue-white splendor, the midnight sun, the constantly changing light, while moving through it all on a small sailboat? Or the very special experience of having eye contact with a family of polar bears a few boat-lengths away?"
SOL has been hauled out at Nuuk Shipyard for the winter, while her crew is recharging at home in Denmark, preparing for 2013 return sail to home waters.
Text by sailors Kirsten Thomsen and Kim Mathiesen,
To Saltwater People Historical Society
Final Leg––Sailing home letter in September 2013.
|Track of SOL with Mathisen and Thomsen|
S.V. SOL arrived home to Denmark in September 2013 and is safely in, Esbjerg, after 10 years and 3 months of voyaging.
The last voyage home from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, started in June. SOL had been on the hard at Nuuk Shipyard for the winter. We returned to Greenland early May, and found her in good shape, despite 8” of snow, and deep frost. The main hatch was frozen shut, so it took a while to get into the boat. It took a couple of days to get cozy cabin temperatures, with the stove running max output!
During the next weeks we applied a couple of coats of antifouling, in the few sunny spells, and other necessary jobs, to prepare for launching.
Nuuk’s largest mobile crane lifted her gently into her right element, on a calm, sunny day. The whole operation took no more than an hour, including stepping the mast. How wonderful it was, feeling the movements of the sea again, sailing from the yard to the Nuuk dock!
Preparations for the coming voyage took a few weeks. But the Greenland spring was exceptionally cold and windy, so we didn’t feel any rush in heading out! A local friend talked us into giving a lecture at the National Library, on our NW Passage transit. It was a great success; we donated the proceedings to a shelter for children on the east coast of Greenland.
When we finally left, we had a leisurely cruise down the Greenland west coast, stopping in many beautiful anchorages. The ice was not a problem yet––some of the glaciers spewed huge amounts of ice out of the fjords. But in general we mainly saw solitary huge bergs floating on the currents.
For us it was very interesting to explore the old ruins and read the old sagas. We did a lot of trekking, and climbed a few small mountains for fantastic views over the ice spattered fiords and magnificent landscapes. This area is where the Vikings settled, more than 1000 years ago. It is well described how they farmed the green, fertile valleys in the sheltered fjords. At the same time Inuit settled Greenland from the north, slowly moving southwards. These Viking settlements lasted about 500 years––hereafter they disappeared without trace. Only the ruins of their farms and churches remain, scattered in the landscape.
We spent time in Qaqortoq, the largest of the southern Greenland towns, and Nanortalik, the southernmost town. Lovely little places, with friendly people and all the necessary services. In Greenland there are no harbour fees, but the facilities are not really built for yachts.
By the end of July we were a whole group of yachts, mainly from Scandinavia, just waiting for the ice to break up. Nanortalik harbour is well sheltered from most wind directions, except southeast. There were still heaps of ice outside the harbour entrance, which is normally not a problem. But when an early morning southeasterly gale awoke us, it meant a very speedy evacuation of the dock. The ice was moving very fast into the harbour, rapidly filling, and almost blocking the entrance, by the time we got underway. A 54-ft. Dutch yacht needed a towline to get her off the dock, and we both just made it out, before everything closed down; the pleasures of cruising!!
Finally the ice had broken up sufficiently, for us to depart. By now it was already late July, so we decided to abandon our plans for a cruise around Iceland. The trip through the channels and sounds to Prins Christians Sund was breathtaking: enormous vertical mountain walls rise directly from the surface of the sea to more than 3000 feet. And everywhere magnificent ice bergs floated around, in contrast to all the grey granite. We had to zigzag between the ice chunks, but had an easy transit, anchoring for the night at the eastern entrance to the Sound.
On July 30th we left Greenland in beautiful sunshine, very light winds, and only a few scattered icebergs to dodge. Motoring into Stornoway as the sun rose was a beautiful finale of the 1200-mile trip from Greenland. Here another of our circles was closed, as we last visited Stornoway in 2003, outward bound, after having spent the summer cruising Spitzbergen and Iceland.
In Stornoway we had a happy reunion with our friends on TOKIMATA, the New Zealand boat that we sailed with, through the NW passage. They came from Iceland––what a fantastic coincidence, to meet again here in Scotland!
We stayed in Stornoway for an entire week, enjoying the lush vegetation with tall trees for a change. We toured the island of Lewis, and saw many of the historical sites, such as old rings of “standing stones”.
Stromness, Orkney Islands was next, where we also spent time, touring the islands, experiencing their historical heritage, rather similar to the Hebrides’. Scotland and its many Isles are a magnificent cruising ground; we’ll just have to come back again sometime!
A good weather forecast and 36 hours of great sailing across the North Sea, took us to Norway, and old cruising friends. Our last visit with them was 10 years ago, outward bound for Spitzbergen. So we had a great reunion, which lasted several days! The weather allowed for T-shirts and shorts––the first time, after spending the last summers in the Arctic.
Heading south, we revisited well known anchorages, enjoying warm weather and fresh sailing breezes. From an anchorage near Norways southernmost point Lindesnes, we crossed Skagerrak to the fishing port of Hanstholm and on to Thyborøn by the western entrance to the Limfjord next day––hereby making the final full circle on SOL’s long voyage. Thyborøn was our last Danish port, when we set out on our adventure back in 2003. SOL has left around 60,000 miles in her wake, and her crew has fulfilled most of their dreams. Although the “Admiral” could name quite a few places that we missed! Kim is going back to work full time in the near future, and there will be many changes to our life. SOL is going to have a major refit, spending the winter inside a boatshed by the port.
Looking back at our journey, the highlights have of course been nature and wildlife, but not least all the lovely friends we have made on our way. Everywhere in the world we have met wonderful, hospitable, helpful, and generous people, who have been a tremendous help and bonus for a couple of wayward sailors. We are very grateful––that part of cruising life we’ll miss a lot. We hope to be able to keep in touch with as many as possible for a possible reunion somehow, somewhere!
Kirsten & Kim
S. V. SOL