FROM ICELAND TO GREENLAND ON HUMMINGBIRD
After finally resting in my bunk from my early morning shift, I hear one of the crew members yell “Iceberg, right ahead, turn starboard!” That's when I knew we were in Greenland. The idea of taking a trip to a place so remote was something I couldn't get
Sulaiman Al Beayeyz
GROWING UP, I have been inspired greatly by explorers. It's the unknown and ambiguity that makes explorations fascinating. So I set my mind on going somewhere distant and thrilling. I couldn't think of anything farther away on this earth and more exciting than the Arctic Circle. I began to make preparations. I started by seeking out the right trip and crew. After months of looking, I came across Hummingbird: a 60-foot ocean racing clipper that once belonged to an amateur ‘round-the-world sailing race' fleet and is currently used for expeditions and training trips. I reached out to Rachel, the boat's co-owner and skipper, to inquire about her itinerary for 2015. Hummingbird was sailing around the North Sea to Holland, Germany, Sweden, and the beautiful Lofoten Islands of Norway. But the highlight of Hummingbird's voyage was an attempt to reach Greenland from Iceland. The vision of sailing through heavy seas to Greenland and trying to navigate through icebergs to reach our destination was undoubtedly exhilarating. It was just too tempting to pass up.
Mentally and physically prepared for the endeavour, with my luggage weighed down by an extra 30 kilogrammes of sailing gear and books, I boarded a flight to Reykjavik. I spent two days in the capital to acclimatise and enjoy the sights of the capital region. Then I headed to Ísafjörður in the Westfjords region, in the north-west of Iceland. There I boarded Hummingbird. The crew was as exciting as the voyage was. We had a broad range of backgrounds, careers, and sailing expertise. There was a book publisher, a fashion marketing executive, a water researcher, a professional outdoor photographer – the list goes on. I was the youngest of the crew of 11. For the first couple of days, we sailed through the fjords of northwestern Iceland, which offered us endless views of waterfalls, flocks of puffins, and sometimes a spouting whale. We spent our mornings plotting our route in the navigation room and the rest of the day honing our seamanship skills. We shifted roles from helmsman to dishwasher, from navigator to cook. And since we seldom had the internet or even a phone connection, we got
our entertainment the old-fashioned way, by holding live conversations at the dinner table, or enjoying a coffee on the deck.
Throughout our first sailing days, Rachel kept tracking the ice movements in Greenland through reports issued by the Greenland Coast Guard. We had to make sure that Tasiilaq harbour, our first point of entry to Greenland, had less than 30 percent ice cover. Given the fact the Hummingbird is a fibreglass boat, we had to be extra cautious about ice. While waiting for the ice in Tasiilaq to clear, we embarked on a sailing tour of the Westfjords region, an area rich in natural landmarks. As I was plotting our route from the fishing town and we docked in for the night to anchor near a hot spring, I realised much of the waters inside the fjords are uncharted. We resorted to the basic way of navigation in uncharted waters; the crew hoisted me up the mast to look for rocks and shallow water to notify the helmsman. We were unable to reach the hot spring as the water was too shallow for Hummingbird, so we got there using the small inflatable power boat we had on board. After spending a couple of days on the ship, the hot spring was truly refreshing.
Five days passed, and still we received no ice reports. The crew started to feel anxious. We had several discussions with Rachel and weighed up our alternatives. We had no choice; it had to be Tasiilaq or nothing. It's one of a few well-inhabited harbours on the entire east coast of Greenland, and it is prohibited to land on any uninhabited area without a gun. We didn't have any weapons, and none of us were anxious to go head-to-head with a polar bear. A week passed and we were still sailing up and down the Westfjords. When we came back to a harbour, Rachel checked the ice reports again. This time, she said we had a chance. We discussed it and agreed there was a risk of sailing all the way to the Coast of Greenland and being unable to land due to ice. We also agreed the trip would be worth it just to see the icebergs. We headed back to Ísafjörður for the night, to begin a long day of preparation. The following day, we all went into town, with each of us given a particular assignment, from refuelling with diesel to stocking up on chocolate cake.
Other crew members plotted the route to Tasiilaq and prepared Hummingbird for the voyage. At 9am on a cloudy day, we departed Ísafjörður for Tasiilaq, leaving the majestic Icelandic fjords behind us.
The journey across the 400-mile Denmark Strait was expected to take 70 hours. With the wind in our faces, it wasn't an ideal start. Several hours into the trip we initiated the shift system. We divided into three groups, with each group taking over the deck for three hours, followed by a six-hour rest. Halfway through the first day the weather was still unkind to us. We were still heading into the wind, crashing into the waves, unable to sail and having to use the motor. Sea sickness began to spread through the crew. It was evident at mealtimes that most of us had little appetite. Even though we'd been sailing the week before, seasickness hadn't affected us as much. But now we were pitching in the
open sea and getting slammed by the waves. Some of the experienced crew on board who have crossed oceans were feeling quite sick. I started to worry given my relatively new experience in sailing, let alone crossing a strait in the Arctic Circle. Motion sickness usually happens when the body feels movement, but the eyes can't see it. To make yourself feel better, it's best to stay on the deck and observe the horizon or the water. The conditions on deck may not have been terribly inviting, but at least they didn't make one sick. But avoiding seasickness this way meant doing without the other entertainments of shipboard life. Reading, playing games or even sitting inside were problematic. Obviously, we couldn't shower during the crossing; I probably changed my outfit only once. Cooking and washing were a challenge when the boat was heeling at 30 degrees. I spent the entire crossing either on deck, trying to get as much fresh air as possible, or huddled in my sleeping bag. At first, the crossing seemed challenging and miserable. However, with time, it began to grow on me. I saw beauty in the vast emptiness that surrounded us. It was a great opportunity just to lie back and meditate on the shifting waves and sky. On our second day of the crossing, we were able to put the sails out. Rachel got an updated report giving an ice density of over 30 per cent near Tasiilaq. She gave us two options: either keep going and risk being unable to reach port, which would put us in a storm on our way back to Iceland; or head back to Iceland right away and avoid the storm that was approaching the Strait. As a sailor, making quick calls with limited information is something you have to do every day of the week. For us, there was no choice. We came here to see icebergs, and icebergs we were going to see – one way or another. There was still the challenge of managing the boat and getting across the strait. A watch crew had to be constantly on deck. Several times I had to be on watch during the early dawn or late at night. It's quite a switch to go from a warm bunk to changing and winching the sails on a frozen deck in the cold morning light. Not only was the weather hindering us, it dramatically affected the boat's heel and movements over the swells.
Having experienced all roles of a crew member on board; the cooking for 11 people, navigating through fjords, changing the sailing in rough conditions, and being on the helmsman post, I have realised the true challenge of a sailor is psychological. Ocean crossing takes days if not weeks making you bear the misery with patience.
Also, it teaches you on how solidarity among crew members is vital for the basic functionality of a sailing boat. These issues are magnified during rough conditions or long crossings and I could tell that we had done it right. Halfway across the strait on our second day we spotted our first large iceberg. It was more than ten miles away and looked like a snowcapped mountain rising out of the ocean. After a day and a half of grey skies and difficult winds, the sight of the iceberg was a positive joy to the exhausted crew.
Mesmerised as we were by the distant iceberg, we still had to maintain a constant watch for growlers. Growlers are small pieces of ice that have broken off the larger bergs, and which barely show above the water. They are hard to see from a distance and especially from the cockpit in the back of the boat. Watching for growlers meant being at the bow, right at the forefront of the waves, and bombarded with the freezing waves' splash. My two pairs of woollen socks and waterproof boots were completely inadequate for the situation. After 30 minutes of watching for growlers, I had lost all sensation in my feet. But I could not abandon my post. One cubic metre of ice weighs about a tonne, and even small bits of ice can cause tremendous damage to a fibreglass boat. We had to keep a watch on the bow until we reached port, almost a day and a half away. With everything going on, it got harder by the minute to spot for the growlers. Looking at the water in the cloudy day we had, a growler or simply a current can be hard to tell apart.
With the weather getting colder, we decided to reduce the growler watch to 30 minutes.
On our third day, I got up at 3:45am to get ready for the 4am shift on deck. It was a pleasant time to be up because the coast of Greenland was becoming visible as a series of high pointed mountains. The closer we got to Greenland, the calmer the waters became. Now the icebergs were becoming plentiful, and it was a truly gorgeous day. Time passed more quickly, and soon other crew members were coming up on watch. I went back below to rest, with no idea that I would wake up in a different world.
I woke to the sound of the engine getting louder and louder, and realised that the crew had shifted to reverse to avoid colliding with something. I needed to see where we were. After hurrying through the annoying part of sailing, which is getting one's gear on, I clambered up the stairs and onto the deck. I looked around and thought I had entered a new world. The rough grey seas had transformed into sparkling calm waters adorned with glistening mountains of crystal blue ice. The scene was like a play set, with everything positioned in its right place. And yet it was all made by nature. We were going parallel to the coast and heading to Tasiilaq. We were still some
distance from the coast, but the size of the dark, barren mountains and cliffs made the land appear much closer. Even though the scenery entranced us, we still had to navigate through the ice. The coastline was wreathed with much smaller chunks of ice that never made it out to sea. The crew around the deck had to keep a sharp watch for these smaller pieces and shout out their direction to the helmsman. Getting closer to Tasiilaq, we could, at last, see the sheer amount of ice scattered around us. We realised how difficult the situation was when the skipper asked a crew member to be pulled up the mast to get a better look and find a path into the bay. No clear path was visible and our skipper was worried about getting trapped in the ice. It was around 7pm, with the sunset in three hours. Since we did not want to be stuck in the dark amid the moving icebergs, the skipper called for postponing our arrival until tomorrow when we would have a full day to navigate into Tasiilaq.
The reflection of orange sunset sky on the bergs and still waters made the entire place shine in a vibrant play of orange and red. But we couldn't spend all our time enjoying the view. The sea was too deep for us to anchor, so we had to hover around and dodge ice while waiting for the sun to return. Again, we split into shifts to watch for icebergs. I had the first watch. Lying back in the cockpit, with no sound but the squeaks of the boat rocking over the swell, I suddenly heard a heavy wet breathing from close by. I looked around and saw a humpback whale surfacing ten metres away from us. Another whale joined, and soon we saw one of the whales jumping out of the water. I kept asking myself how such an enchanted place could exist in our world. And if watching the icy sunset and whales was not enough for the day, we were then treated to the Northern Lights. It was the first time I ever saw this amazing phenomenon, and the sheer dazzling beauty of it took my breath away. It was surreal. When I see the Northern Lights in pictures, I simply see green skies. But their true magnificence comes from the way they change colours from purple to green, how rapidly they shimmer across the sky, and how close they feel. In the space of a single day and night, the sky changed from blue to orange, to purple, and to green. A truly magical experience.That night I went to my bunk excited about tomorrow.
The next morning, we tried to negotiate our way through a bay crowded with ice. Everyone was on the frozen deck and helping to direct the helmsman. Up until then we hadn't been able to glimpse Tasiilaq, as it sat inside the bay. After five hours of manoeuvring around the multitude of ice boulders, we finally reached our safe harbour. By then I was beginning to think I had seen what Greenland was all about, through its beautiful waterways and light-filled nights, but I was in for a surprise.
I like to consider myself culturally aware. And yet, before this trip, my focus was simply on sailing, rather than Greenland's history and culture.
Knowing that Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, I had expected that the Inuit, the people native to the Arctic Circle, would be influenced by European culture and have ties to Denmark. I was simply, wrong.
Tasiilaq, with a population of 2,000, is the largest town on the east coast of Greenland. I wanted to discover what it was all about. I met several of the locals and embarked on the typical conversation you have when you meet people from a different culture. We talked politics, the economy, and jobs in Greenland. It was interesting to learn first-hand about their lifestyle, their hunting stories, and how they survive their winters. The presence of the environmental group Greenpeace sparked many conversations with the locals, with some for and others against the activists. I met several of the Greenpeace activists, who certainly had their perspective on the mining and oil explorations around the region. We spent our last couple of nights in other places around the bay. One memorable event was when we got into a kayak and paddled up to and inside some of the icebergs. The echoes of water dripping and ice breaking an arm's length away was fascinating. Some of the icebergs were as shiny as crystal, indicating they had been formed many years ago. We couldn't resist the urge to carve out a small sample and taste this ancient ice. Amazingly, water from old ice tastes just as fresh as water can get.
On our last night in Greenland, we headed back to Tasiilaq. The locals had caught a whale and were cutting up the meat to split among the locals. I had my last meal with the crew, and it was only fitting to have the local dish, grilled whale. The pleasure of that night wasn't just the dinner or the company, but something greater, a shared memory to last a lifetime.
As I boarded the small fishing boat that would take me to the airport an hour away in another settlement, I couldn't help but think of the whole experience. It wasn't the sailing or the fjords of Iceland, nor was it the beautiful crystallike icebergs. It was more than that. It was the journey from Saudi Arabia to Greenland. It was not the place as much as the encounters and obstacles throughout the journey; the late night stories with the crew in the small cabin, the 1am shifts during the crossing, the political discussions with the Inuit, and navigating through uncharted waters all added up to a chronicle of human endeavour. It was the simple desire to discover new things that are the very essence of our humanity.