SAILING IN The High Arctic
I can only think of a few times in my life I have found myself in tears of happiness and at least one of them was while sailing in the High Arctic. I had been on the helm since about 4am as we sailed down the coast of western Greenland and while I had become accustomed to the beauty of this frozen landscape, nothing prepared me for the sight that sunrise would bring. The sky lit up first, purple, then pink, highlighting the lofty peaks of the mountainscape off to our port side, then the sun peeked in above the horizon, throwing brilliant golds, pinks, reds and a rainbow of other colours that are too beautiful for a name across this incredible landscape. The water was smooth and we were sailing with all sails up in a beautiful light breeze doing about 5 or 6 knots cutting through this exquisite scene, me sitting in silence with tears streaming down my cheeks, it is a moment I will never forget.
Sailing in the high Arctic has it's own set of complications when the conditions deteriorate but probably the most common one you will come across is ice. Not only does ice make navigation up here challenging at the best of times, but throw in some wind and waves and the rough sea will quickly start to conceal hidden dangers like icebergs or growlers (chunks of ice that sit right on the waterline making them very hard to see). One cubic meter of ice weighs a metric tonne, so what might seem like a small piece of ice can still do some serious damage to your boat.
Our defence against large icebergs is using both radar and eyesight, however when it comes to smaller growlers, chances are they won’t get picked up on radar so we have to rely on eyesight alone making passages at night, in fog or low light quite stressful. In areas with lots of ice we will slow the boat right down, set up a spotlight on the bow and someone (with very warm, waterproof foul weather gear and a harness) will sit on the front keeping an eye out for these hidden dangers. When the weather is too rough to sit on the bow we will have two or three keen-eyed sailors on watch from the cockpit and ideally someone up the mast as well (conditions permitting), however sailing at night in areas of ice is an absolute last resort and we would only do it if there was no other option. The safest way is to keep a close eye on the weather and plan to be in a safe anchorage or well away from any ice-strewn seas if bad weather is coming your way!
In these icy latitudes, water temperatures can dip below freezing which makes life on deck in the sea spray very cold if you don’t have the right equipment and falling overboard up here is not an option. I have seen crew-mates go unconscious due to hypothermia and it is a very scary situation!
Saltwater freezes at about -1.9°C (28.4°F) and in some places in the high Arctic we have had water coming over the deck that is actually at a temperature below the freezing point of fresh water!
When the water is below freezing point, around -1°C (30°F) and you get a wave over the cockpit, you duck!
We probably didn’t take this risk seriously enough when preparing for a trip to the Arctic but truth is, more and more bears are coming into contact with people as we encroach on their environment and climate change is diminishing the sea ice they rely on for hunting.
Anyone planning on exploring the high Arctic should have a firearm with them if they want to step off their boat at any point. The idea isn’t to have to shoot a bear but to have a loud ‘bang’ to deter them should a bear become too friendly. Polar Bears can be very curious and I have seen bears swim right up to the side of our boat sniffing around for all the weird and wonderful aromas coming from our galley (and probably from under our foul weather gear).