Baffin Bay: the crossing of many challenges (20)

Baffin Bay is a huge bay far-out north in the Canadian arctic with a lot of ice floating around.  Baffin Bay, the crossing of many challenges

Baffin Bay, the crossing of many challenge

The sailor has two options for this crossing.

Neither of these are totally without dangers.   Indispensable tools for making a wise decision  are  ice charts coming from the Canadian coast guard.  Each day, they send planes spotting the position of the ice and the practicality of sailing in or around it.

Ice chart from the Canadian Cost Guard

Today, the ice charts show a huge area of ice with a spot in the center.  A red light for the incoming sailor. No way to go through this part.   No debate.  Except if you are a Canadian, American or Russian icebreaker, this area is closed.

For now, the mariner crossing the bay is left with two practical options.

  • The long road

The first one is ice-free.  You  circle north, around the red area and all the floating ice around it , all the way up to 75 degree North.  (Barrow in Alaska sits at 71 north with Prudhoe bay at around 70). You barter an ice-free sailing for an extended exposure to heavy weathers in a region well know for its sudden ferocious gales. 

Our option, almost a direct crossing of the Baffin Bay

The second option shows on the ice chart as a green area. 

The devil  in the details

The devil, in Arctic navigation, hides in the details.  A careful study of the charts green territory shows scattered ice with a cover of less than 4/10.   That, for us is an assurance of 60% more free water than floating ice.  We have been in worse scenarios.  North around or straight across:  these two options are reasonable.  A long navigation with a heavy weather exposure or an ice slaloming avoiding some traps.  A captain choice. Most boats went north.  I made a different choice.  Against the natural forces, there is no safety in number, only good or bad decision. And some luck. We have been through some heavy ice cover before.  We know how to make “Breskell walking the ice”.  With so much open water around and the promise of free water on the other side of the icy patch, I feel secure to bring my crew and my boat across.  I choose sailing a direct line with some slaloming when needed.

This  judgement calls for a bearing of 320 from Upernavik.  Almost west with a much shorter sail, cutting two days out of the northern solution. 

We run all night in the beautiful Arctic Twilights

We run “all night” in the beautiful and amazing arctic twilight . In the early morning, at about 7:00am, it’s “pétole” again and raining hard. Eric, to his credit, adapted the remote control of my former autopilot.  Now, under the dodger, and out of the elements , we  steer Breskell with our fingertips.  A more  comfortable option than, cold and soaked, slaving behind the wheel. Adding to the rain , the fog is now settling down.  Not much visibility around, we need a sharp look-out during our watch.  

We meet our first ice in the early afternoon. This one is totally different from the one I know.  Innus have dozen of words for describing snow or ice conditions.  “Ice” for me, illiterate inhabitant of a warmer south, suggests simply those chunks of different size and shape falling from  glaciers.  Not any more.

A new kind of ice: flat slab…

All these slabs are flat  and between 3 to 6 feet thick.  Glaciers are not anymore their calving mothers. These come from another breed. They are born from the permanent ice-sheet of the polar area. 

The pretty large opening and open water around: a wonderful news…

 The pretty large opening and open water around these chunks are crucial and a wonderful news for us.  I know now that my decision was the good one.  In these surroundings, Breskell navigates without difficulty , weaving easily in and out of ice  at 7 knots. Soon, the wind picks up from the SW.  We set up main and gib and Breskell slides over flat water in absolute silence except for the water gurgling around the hull.  A soft music for the hardcore sailor always searching for the best harmony between wind and water.  “Quel bonheur”, what a delight in this melody. … Together, we share this special moment when  sailing and quietness escort us.  A rare occurrence in Greenland where too much or not enough are more the local sailing norms. On watch, Joe and Dom, our filmmakers, enjoy that kind of sailing coupled with the multiple opportunities offered by this photographic paradise. Soon no more ice, even if we know we are not done with it.  After one day and a half at sea in Baffin Bay, we only encounter a chunk of ice from time to time.  Mostly, we sail in open water.  Almost too easy after all the horror stories shared in Greenland’s taverns.  Now, just wait!

Soon after midnight, I rest in my berth when the engine starts.  I jump out and climb on deck to enquire.  Eric is on duty and reassure me:  the wind is dying.  Nothing special. Back to bed for some more sweet dreams. Arctic navigation along the ice edge is rarely quiet for long.  A few minutes later, with a huge bang, Breskell shakes violently and stops right on her tracks.  Suddenly from dream to reality, I apprehend what is happening even before awaking completely. We hit some ice.  We hit it pretty hard. Back on deck, Shannon at the helm said:  

“sorry, sorry, I didn’t notice this slab.  My fault.  I was watching Eric and Joe bringing the sails down and did not give enough attention to my route.”

My immediate and thorough inspection reveals nothing abnormal, no intake of water, no structural damages. Once again, Breskell demonstrates  her strong design.

At the same time, I want my crew to clearly understand her limits. This is a wooden boat not a metal ship.  With all the advantages of a wooden boat but with her limits also.   

“Please, guys and girl, pay attention:  we must stay watchful and vigilant at all time.  We cannot face this life-threatening situation too often. “

I return to sleep, my crew is taking a sharp look out..

With that,  I went back to sleep confident in the structural strength of my boat and in the reasserted vigilance of my crew.

At 5 am,  we are motoring in water free of any obstacle. I know it’s just a matter of time before our next meeting .  For now, the wind picks up from the east, an occasion for a sailor to pull out the gib.  We use it to sail at around 7 knots, in great silence again and for the pleasure of all.  We have not seen ice for a while and I take for granted that our crossing will finish very smoothly.  A mistake.  Never assume anything you have not already seen with your own eyes in the Arctic. I was in  bed when Eric  and Dom, on watch again, start the engine. I don’t feel anything wrong this time and return to sleep without any more enquiry . My turn on the watch role. As soon as I emerge on deck, a massive iced island crops up on my port side in front of me. I cannot believe it.  So huge, so close.  Well, you have to get accustomed to it remarks Eric. For the last hour, we followed its edge.  Yes, but have you been close enough to find your way to the other side ?  Close enough to tell you this: 

“yes, you can go to the other side.  You need only to take out your sled and your beloved husky dogs.  For us, film makers, it’s another expedition. We have not signed for it yet…  Better to go around. “

 So, instead of going NW, we went North for almost two more hours before returning  to our previous track. That meant also that this icy island was at least 12 to 15 miles long. A significant pack.

Back to open water. Now, I don’t bet on anything about the ice proximity.  This time, I was right. Not long after, we come across another ice-pack.  Happily, this one was much shorter.  And the next one ?  Sure enough, and not long after.   This one is so far-ranging that we need to cross it. 

Surrounded by ice again

Quickly enough, we are again surrounded by ice and, at one time, we made “Breskell walking the ice “ again and gently pushing her way across.   We have a long practice in this unusual navigational skill.  From time to time, I wonder for how long we are going to meet these islands of ice.

Almost midnight and Eric calls me again. What’s going on?  Just look.  Surprise. The boat has stopped and is drifting.   We are totally enclose by ice, trapped into the maze of a great ice-pack.  North: Ice, East: ice, West: ice. Only the south is open but there is no way to go south except again with a sled-dog. The worst case scenario.  One option is to wait but for how long?  Sure, the ice drifts very fast and opens in no time .  With its corollary.  It closes even faster and compresses very hard. I do not want to witness this happening.

Up the mast went the captain

Up the mast goes the captain to check the horizon. Not really looking good even from that hight.  Dom flies his drone.  No luck there, the sun, right in front, overexposed the pictures. Hard to detect anything in it. Time for me to take a decision. A difficult one: hang on or go.  My crew waits. They have confidence.  Their captain is going to take a good decision.  For now , I ponder and ruminate again and again the options. Not one without risks, but that goes with any complex navigational decision in the Arctic. I know how to sail through ice, what I do not grasp is for how long.  How many miles:  1, 2 or 5.  May be even 10 miles or more…  I  review all these ways-out with  Eric.  After a while, suddenly, I have no doubt any more.  That happens often with seasoned sea captains.  A long period of doubts and suddenly a clear-cut solution. We need to get out, to get out now, and to sail our way through the pack.


Breskell again wrestles with the ice. Not for long. Very quickly, we realise it’s going to be easier than anticipated.  

We navigate comfortably.

In fact, we navigate comfortably without even “walking the ice” and pushing it around. Forward we went, and after 2 miles, the narrow lane of free water become wider and wider and soon we enter open water, sailing again at our arctic safe cruising speed of 7 knots. You cannot believe the sense of relief that I feel right now 

We took a  damned good  decision…

We took a  damned good decision.  Again, thanks to all of you my wonderful crew and please don’t forget our boat.  Without failing us, it get a good punch or two in the process.

Lancaster Sound

Lancaster sound is getting closer.  A very thick fog closes on us.  So no more congratulations, back on watch and please a sharp look-out. Growlers again materialize everywhere.   With the radar’s help, we slalom around effortlessly. Fog is coming in and out.  Definitely, the weather is not fully cooperating.  But we know it’s not the Caribbean’s  here. Even there, after the last year bashing , they are now watching the new hurricane season with some anxiety .  So it’s not too bad here.  In fact, it’s not too bad YET.  The weather report gives us a gale warning but just for tomorrow. 

With such dire predictions, a protected anchorage is needed. And again, it’s needed soon.  Graham harbour was our first sailing choice, not any more.  165 nautical miles in the west, it’s too far away. 

Dundas harbor

What about Dundas Harbor? Only 95 miles on our charts.  An easy decision this time.  It’s Dundas harbor, and we check in ASAP.

In the entrance of Lancaster Sound, ice condition looks great.  All is for the best.  For now. 

Glacier at the entrance of Dundas harbor

The gib is rolled up, time for me to drop the main. Joe, at the helm, yells at me.    The wind is getting so strong that I cannot make any sense of what he is bellowing. I stop dropping the sail and proceed to the cockpit.  There, Joe shows me the mast. I understand in a wink. Unfortunately, the sail gets caught in the spreader.  That happens even to the best!  Stuck there, the main is badly ripped.  I finally bring it down.  Before returning to serious sailing, I will need to patch it.  For now, the wind is blowing hard, probably over 25 knots.  Along the shore,  landfast ice shows everywhere, fortunately very few chunks venture far offshore.

We enter Dundas Harbor at midnight. 

Pretty hight mountains  around, all covered with snow….

Pretty hight mountains around, all covered with snow.  Dark rocks and snowy slopes.

Dark rocks and snowy slopes.

This great contrast makes this landscape spectacular.  We drop the anchor in a gorgeous and astonishing setting. Now,  Sunday sailors, I hope you don’t assume a harbor with docks, a marina, even hot showers.  And why not, just close by, a bar for the thirsty sailors to share great stories about their eventful and memorable crossing of Baffin Bay. 

Sadly, Dundas Harbor is nothing more than a name on a chart. 

Not a crowded anchorage!  Only one mega-yacht..

Nothing else, except for one 170′ mega-yacht already at anchor there. We knew her, having catching sight of this ship during her few hours stay in Upernavik.  Another serious candidate ready for the North West Passage.   

Breskell lays at anchor .  For us, even with so much ice around, it was a speedy crossing of 3 days.  Most of the dozen of boats crossing Baffin with us at that time spent 5 days at sea.  

And what does  the gale warning means for tomorrow?

For them, probably a good beating to come.  For us ?  That’s another story… but never assume anything quiet .  For now, let me get some well deserved sleep.

Talk to you tomorrow.