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

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS: Su­laiman Al Beayeyz IMAGES: Cody Dun­can LO­CA­TION: Ice­land and Greenland

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.

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