A high-lat­i­tude pas­sage dishes up storms, whales, ice and even a wonky au­topi­lot

When a for­mer win­ner of the Whit­bread Round the World Race in­vites you to sail the North­west Pas­sage, there is only one sen­si­ble an­swer. No.

More ad­ven­tur­ous types might dis­agree, but they weren’t the ones fac­ing frost­bite of the lungs or the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing the yacht’s hull ripped apart by an ice­berg, or be­ing part of a po­lar bear’s pic­nic.

In the course of 40 years of ocean rac­ing, New Zealan­der Ross Field not only crewed on Peter Blake’s Stein­lager 2 when she won the 1989-90 Whit­bread, he won the race’s Whit­bread 60 class as skip­per of Yamaha four years later and helped cam­paign the Volvo 60 News Corp in the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race. He also cam­paigned any num­ber of maxis in Europe as Ross Field Yacht­ing, his vic­to­ries in­clud­ing the Fast­net Race, for which he held the record for 10 years.

In 2012 Ross and his son, Camp­bell, were lead­ing the Global Ocean Race when the boat crashed off a wave. Ross was at the nav sta­tion and landed hard, break­ing his back in two places. It ended his pro­fes­sional sail­ing ca­reer and prompted him to take up some­thing a lit­tle eas­ier—high-lat­i­tude cruis­ing. Now in his late 60s, he as­sured me we wouldn’t be sail­ing up­wind or heel­ing over at more than 15 de­grees. That changed ev­ery­thing. I told him I was in.

Twelve hun­dred miles later, af­ter hav­ing left the UK aboard Ross’s 55ft alu­minum-hulled sloop Rose­mary, we were off the coast of Green­land. The pilot book said to clear its low­est point, Kap Farvel, or “Cape Farewell,” by 120 miles, be­cause within that zone ice­bergs, strong cur­rents and huge waves of­ten meet to sort out their dif­fer­encess. Thanks for the tip. Un­for­tu­nately, stay­ing clear also put us at a hor­ri­ble side­ways an­gle to plenty more huge waves. See­ing Ross’s eyes go wide as he looked over his shoul­der and yelled, “Hang on!” I knew I was in for the best fair­ground ride I’d ever been on, even as I held onto the cock­pit ta­ble for dear life.

Af­ter that, for the next 12 hours or so, with the winds peak­ing at 40 knots, we had sev­eral more of th­ese wild rides, as a great mass of wa­ter would rear up from be­hind, pick­ing up Rose­mary’s hard-chine bum and push­ing her for­ward like a sled on a ski slope. On and on we went, the ride sweep­ing us along, chas­ing val­leys, slid­ing across hills. I’m pretty sure we broke the 15-de­gree rule. “How’s this one go­ing to end?” I’d won­der. But it was al­ways the same—a sway back to equi­lib­rium, a steady course wait­ing for the next wave.

Not sur­pris­ingly the au­topi­lot couldn’t keep up, so Ross and our ship­mate Nick Leg­gatt shared the helm all through the night. As they did so, I tried to bal­ance my time be­tween mak­ing them drinks and food and sleep­ing, so that when calm weather re­turned, I could take over and let them rest.

Then there was the noise—the wind that roared against the tiny bit of stay­sail and dou­ble-reefed main­sail, the scream­ing whirr of the wind­vane. I’ve heard peo­ple liken mon­ster waves to freight trains, and I have now had a chance to lis­ten as a true Mid­night Ex­press went roar­ing past

my bunk. Oc­ca­sion­ally it would de­rail and smash up against the hull be­side me in my port aft berth, rolling me into the pil­lows I’d lined up against bulk­head. Boomph! For­tu­nately, it sounded worse than it was. Rose­mary’s alu­minium hull was like a drum. Once there was a mighty del­uge from above and yelps of in­dig­na­tion from Ross and Nick as the cock­pit filled from an es­pe­cially steep breaker.

The other sound I could make out com­ing from above-decks took the form of a kind of re-fight­ing of the Bat­tle of Bri­tain. Ross was read­ing a tome about it and had be­come an ex­pert. I was try­ing to sleep, but couldn’t help strain­ing my ears as Churchill, Hitler, the in­ven­tion of radar and even the Spit­fire ver­sus the Messer­schmitt was hotly de­bated. Even­tu­ally it came time for Ross to go to bed and a cease-fire was called. Nick was helm­ing as we took an­other wild ride, on and on through swathes of sound. Then came an­other noise: Swish-a-donk.

Af­ter that it was quiet again, so I stayed in my warm bunk. I could al­most pre­tend the noise wasn’t there. Then: Swish-a-donk.

Sod it. I was just push­ing my­self up from the sway of the boat and scram­bling into my sea boots when Nick called out that a jerry can had fallen over the side and was still tied on. Ross rolled out of his bassinette—my name for his pilot berth amid­ships—and took the helm as Nick kit­ted up and left the shel­ter of the pi­lot­house to en­ter the storm out­side. I kept an eye on Nick so Ross wouldn’t have to.

Of course, even a Force 8 storm must even­tu­ally pass, and once the wind and waves were be­hind us all that was left was to trot a mere 500 miles up the coast of Green­land to its cap­i­tal, Nuuk. Be­cause Green­land is the sec­ond-largest is­land in the world, 500 miles is not far, rel­a­tive to its coast­line. Once again, on the ad­vice of Den­mark’s Ice Ser­vice, we stayed well out to sea to avoid huge ice­bergs, in­di­vid­u­ally coded and known to be drift­ing off the coast.

As we did so we could see the tops of moun­tains off the to the east, jag- ged against the sky that fired to burnt or­ange and pur­ple hues as mid­night ap­proached and a few de­grees to the south, the jags drift­ing in the softer reds and pinks of dawn. It was as though the sun were dip­ping and ris­ing in dif­fer­ent places at the same time, a phe­nom­e­non of a two-hour night.

Sud­denly, Rose­mary’s wheel turned and aimed us straight for th­ese same jagged sil­hou­ettes. “What the hell are you do­ing?” Ross said. “I didn’t do any­thing.” Ross pushed the au­topi­lot to standby, brought Rose­mary back on her course of due north and put the au­topi­lot back on. Within sec­onds, the wheel spun hard to port. Damn.

As the man­ual for the au­topi­lot would later pa­tiently ex­plain when we checked it, in high lat­i­tudes the mag­netic dip of the Earth’s sur­face comes in at a shal­lower an­gle and can af­fect com­passes. Yes, we knew that. Un­for­tu­nately, this can also af­fect au­topi­lots, es­pe­cially when head-

ing due north. We didn’t know that. The so­lu­tion, ap­par­ently, is a gyro com­pass. We didn’t have one.

Af­ter that I hand steered as Ross and Nick tried to con­vince the au­topi­lot that north was the way to go. In the bright light of day, I also spied our first ice­berg: a mighty ship of crys­talline per­fec­tion. At one point, the blunt black bow of a pilot whale also split the wa­ter’s smooth-satin blue sur­face. So this was Arc­tic sail­ing.

Down­wind of the ice­bergs floated nu­mer­ous, smaller “growlers,” bergie bits that had bro­ken away like er­rant chil­dren. They sparkled as our wake licked their curves. “What are growlers? Baby po­lar bears?” a friend e-mailed af­ter one of my re­ports. Cute. But th­ese growlers had a po­ten­tially big­ger bite than any po­lar bear, maybe enough to chomp through Rose­mary’s 20mm hull or nib­ble at her pro­pel­ler blades. No prob­lem, they were easy to miss. Then came the fog. In no time I found my­self kneel­ing on aching knees lean­ing for­ward in the pi­lot­house, peer­ing into the gray air. If I saw white wa­ter, I looked again. If it was still there, it was a growler.

“Ice­bergs go away at night,” Ross said, an old Whit­bread wit­ti­cism. But there was no night, and since Ross didn’t seem wor­ried, I had to worry for both of us. He sent me be­low. I made him prom­ise to keep a look­out and fell ex­hausted onto the sa­loon set­tee, only to wake to a scream so ter­ri­ble ice­bergs could have shat­tered.

Luck­ily, it was only me. The world had lit­er­ally crashed on my head in the form of a huge At­las in its card­board sheath that had top­pled from the book­case above me and punched me in the face as we came off a wave. I picked up the eff­ing At­las and threw it across the eff­ing sa­loon. Ross leaned down from the helm to chide me, but re­alised he now also had a tired growler on­board and that he had bet­ter be care­ful she didn’t turn into a po­lar bear. An hour later, I dragged my­self up to the pi­lot­house. Our wor­thy skip­per was snor­ing at the helm. Growlers all around.

Green­land ex­cels at fog. For 24 hours, Rose­mary mo­tored through a world of monotony, mapped only by the chart­plot­ter. We obe­di­ently fol­lowed its dig­i­tal lines be­tween the men­ace of is­lands shape­less in the fog and aimed the bear­ing line for our tiny boat icon on the chart­plot­ter screen down the nar­row con­fines of the ship­ping chan­nel to Nuuk.

Even­tu­ally, Rose­mary emerged like a ma­gi­cian com­ing out through a cur­tain. The sky was a strik­ing blue, the moun­tains, a drama of black and white. It was as though the sea had risen thou­sands of feet and lifted us up along­side the shoul­ders of the South­ern Alps. We were on a yacht, but we were among the moun­tains of Green­land.

In Ire­land, Rose­mary’s bare alu­minium hull had been a rebel among the fi­bre­glass hulls of the other recre­ational sail­boats. In Nuuk Har­bour, though, she was a fully-patched mem­ber of the gang. In the fol­low­ing days more bare-alu­minium ex­pe­di­tion yachts ar­rived wear­ing their wind vanes and jerry cans like cam­paign medals. One was badly wounded— she had cut the cor­ner at Kap Farvel.

I loved the solid scruffi­ness of Nuuk’s fish­ing fleet. Fish­ing boats the world over are staunch and de­pend­able, but Green­land’s carvel-planked craft are thicker than most and munch growlers for break­fast. Na•ve soul that I am, I didn’t re­alise that among them were a num­ber of whal­ing ships. Un­til I fig­ured that out, I loved them. I was brought up on fish­ing boats. Fish guts and diesel smell like love and in­tegrity to me.

Un­for­tu­nately, while the moun­tains may have been pris­tine, lit­ter was ev­ery­where, and black ravens rav­aged rub­bish sacks like ex­tras in an Al­fred Hitch­cock movie. Within a week, the rus­tic charm would wear thin, but for now it was won­der­fully in­trepid to tie up to a Pol­ish yacht

that was tied up to an Ital­ian ketch that was tied up to a rusty, oily crane barge. “Six fat men and three pretty girls,” a mem­ber of the Pol­ish crew boomed, ac­cu­rately de­scrib­ing him­self in his track­suit. As he gulped his beer, he also told us that check­ing in would be a two-hour process be­tween cus­toms and the po­lice.

A short while af­ter that I climbed up to the barge, try­ing to avoid the pud­dles on its deck shim­mer­ing with diesel. From its stern, I stretched out my foot to hook onto the lad­der lead­ing up to the wharf. The wa­ter a me­ter be­neath my feet was 40 de­grees F. When you know you’ll be a hu­man ice block if you fall in, you don’t. Nuuk’s pop­u­la­tion in­cludes roughly 16,500 of the coun­try’s 70,000 to­tal. We walked into town: sparse, grav­elled, with a dis­mal ceme­tery of crooked white crosses. I won­dered how they bury their dead in win­ter. Do they wait for sum­mer?

Ran­dom flights of steps climbed rocks on the hill­sides, ready to get peo­ple home dur­ing the dark of the win­ter’s snows. It was mid-sum­mer, but there were few blades of grass: more than half of Green­land is green, but only when it is writ­ten down.

Large, Inuit-style sculp­tures of igloo peo­ple and po­lar bears hulked at wide plazas where modern build­ings sat among ne­glected blocks of ac­com­mo­da­tion. En­trances to shop fronts fea­tured the metal grids of ski lodges, and even the prams for ba­bies were like all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles. The peo­ple of Inuit de­scent walked bow-legged like hun­ters; the Green­lan­ders, de­scended from the Vik­ings, had lighter skin and softer fea­tures, but were still mostly dark-haired. I had ex­pected more blonds, re­flect­ing the guardian­ship of Den­mark.

That said, the po­lice­man was tall, blond and film-star hand­some. He flicked ca­su­ally through our pass­ports, thumped a stamp on each and handed them back. “Do we have to see cus­toms?” Ross asked. “Do you have any­thing to de­clare? Weapons?” “No.” The po­lice­man shrugged. Ap­par­ently, it takes two hours to clear Poles, five min­utes to clear New Zealan­ders. Un­fort­nately, he also said the gen­eral con­scen­sus was that the North­west Pas­sage would not be open­ing this year, some­thing we hadn’t known ei­ther.

As it hap­pened, the pas­sage did open, but Rose­mary was not among those who made it through. Linked to a flux­gate rather than a gyro com­pass, the au­topi­lot con­tin­ued to freak out due to the prox­im­ity of mag­netic north. Our crew, there­fore, flew home from Green­land, and Ross and I sailed Rose­mary back to UK via Ire­land, dou­ble­handed. I con­fess, I was dis­ap­pointed when Ross made the call to turn back, but only for a sec­ond. We’d still sailed to Green­land and back, and that was plenty of chal­lenge for now. s

A rather large bit of ice: good thing ice­bergs go away at night!

An­other big roller rears up from astern (left); Ross catches up on his e-mails (be­low) Rafted off a com­mer­cial barge in the har­bor at Nuuk

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