Motoring to Pond Inlet , we received news from “Destiny” an English aluminum boat we met in Sisimiut. Like us, they are leaving the Arctic . For now, they have an engine problem and believe they would be unable to anchor by themselves in Pond Inlet.
Can we help them when they arrive? Of course! It’s an universal law between mariners. On the high seas, they respond immediately to any request. The Arctic, so far away from any structured help, qualifies for this quick response. I suppose it’s the same for all sailors living in far away areas, at sea or on land, where organized responses like the AAA or Boat US are unknown. Here, the international solidarity between boats is going to take place. Before anchoring in Pond Inlet, we saw them. They are in no danger, don’t require an immediate attention and are slowly coming closer to land. At this time, we can only guess about their intention having no more details about their situation.
We anchor in Pond inlet around midnight…
Dom and Joe are in already in Morpheus’ arms and sleep like angels.
With some envy , we rejoin our respective bunks. We deserved now a long night rest . At least a few hours of sleep. A quick nap will also do. This was not part of Mother Nature scenario.
Ten minutes later, I feel a weird movement of the boat with an unusual noise. Remember, a good captain never sleeps! In the anchorage, the waves are so strong and we roll so much that my first guess goes to some waves hitting the scoop at the end of my transom . Another weird noise. I am fully awake now. Are we hitting the bottom? Strange, but something is wrong, never felt that when grounded before. Eric joins me and we try to figure it out. We hit again. No doubt now, we strike the bottom with the center-board.
In a well scripted routine, the board is up and the anchor on deck in a few minutes.
We have to find another spot. Not easy, seas run strong and Pont inlet is not an anchorage. It’s mostly a beach, open to the wind and sea, with nothing to protect us against the waves. Getting far from the shore, we drop the hook in deep enough water to avoid pounding the bottom again.
Can you believe that in their warm bunks, our two angels cuddled in Morpheus’s arms didn’t even notice our late move.
Our turn now… Sadly not for long!
At 4:00 am, we get a call from “Destiny”. He asks for help. With no wind and no engine, they are coming dangerously close to shore.
« Of course, man, help on its way right now… »
Anchor back on board, with Eric, we organize the boat for the tow. Not always an easy task. We need to find on deck a mooring point as far front as possible to steer more easily the towed boat. Happily, the sea is quieting down. “Destiny” lays 3 or 4 miles away. When we get there, we find Andy in his little dinghy trying desperately to tow his huge boat! To say that he was happy to see us is an understatement…
We throw a line and without any mishap tow them expertly to Pond Inlet. We give them enough time to anchor safely . For “Destiny”, a well deserved rest after fooling around for so long offshore.
For us also, a good sleep after dropping for the third time the hook in the last hours. It’s 6:30 am.
What about our two angels? Could you believe that the next morning, when discovering about our night multiple adventures, they confess having missed it all… That give you an idea about Morpheus charms !
The day passes by.
Eric and Dom go onshore to get diesel. They return with two full bladders of fuel and an unexpected invitation. We are the guests of honor in a barbecue given on “Ocean Endeavour”, a Canadian cruise ship which anchored close to Breskell 4 hours ago.
At 6:30 pm, well dressed crew members dock along Breskell with a Zodiac.
We board the dinghy and they ferry us to the mother ship. Our welcome is unbelievable.
First, they asked for a short talk about our experiences in the Arctic waters.
Not a lot of yellow wooden boats made by their captain/owner sail in these northern parts. We reported about ice conditions, about our difficulties and rewards in this fascinating country. I explained also why we had to turn our back from the North West Passage this year, about our hopes and later our disillusions. The closing of the channel, our impossibility to go through even after pushing our little wooden boat to the limits.
They all listened carefully to the description of a world from which all of them are total strangers. After my presentation, one of the officer thanked me. My talk was a perfect link for his own speech. He explained to their guests that this year, they also had to cancel their passage due to the ice condition. Big boat, small boat, this year was not a suitable one.
The evening following our talk was wonderful: food, wine, guests and officers. A perfect mix of foods and talks on board of one of those luxurious liners visiting the Northern latitudes.
A universe so different from our own. Before returning to Breskell, the officers invited us to the bridge: a huge pilot station with severely restricted accesses. As sailors of the deep seas , we all share the same basic equipment: compass, map, radar, depth-sounder, GPS.
Still, there are the same differences between the navigational station on “Ocean Endeavour” and that on “Breskell” than the dissimilarities between the cockpit of a Cessna and the ones of an Airbus.
An impressive array of powerful instruments with a reassuring redundancy in case of a partial break-down. On the bridge of these ships, the power of the multiple radars, the accuracy of the navigational map, the precision of the gyroscopic compass make the plotting of a course a sailing exercise with surgical accuracy.
The navigational officer works with a bearing precision of half a degree!
With waves pushing around Breskell, with the wind pressing on my sails, my navigational wobbling is sometime more than a few degrees one side or another. The tracks left by Breskell on the water look like the stitching done by a very drunk surgeon! At the end of the day, happily, the precision of my landing is much, much better. With all their safety measures and the redundancy of their navigational equipment, these huge cruise-ships are as safe as any airplane.
It was an impressive visit in the hand of master mariners. Time to get back to Breskell.
Cruise-ships like “Ocean Endeavour” are on a tight schedule.
They plan to leave soon. At the end of their next journey, they make their landing with the precision of a Swiss clock. Reaching harbor before 7 o’clock am in some coastal ports costs them extra money for docking the boat. From far away, they simply schedule their arrival just 2 minutes after seven!
I plan later to carry on this accuracy on Breskell…
For now, we start our old faithful Perkins, haul the anchor and swing around “Ocean Endeavour” to wave them goodbye… All cameras on the cruise-ship are recording this moment . After playing the “rowing walrus” sharing the stage with some majestic Greenland glaciers in the background , we get today another celebrity moment in Pond Inlet. They wave at us… We wave back … Joe even blows the horn for the occasion… A wonderful interaction between so small a yellow wooden boat close to so huge a metal ship. Cruising guests on “Ocean Endeavour” know perfectly well that they have been sold an “adventure”… when in fact there is none! It’s like climbing the top of a beautiful Himalayan mountain summit with a helicopter. The very same landscape is shared with the struggling mountaineer starting from down below, a pack sack on their back. Same results without any hardship. And why not? For others, hardships are necessary to give meaning to their long-term memories or to qualify for adventure. On the cruise-ship, the passengers were fascinated by our story. Don’t get me wrong. Those pricey Nordic cruises are worth every penny. Guests travel inside a majestic landscape in a first class mobile hotel without suffering any inconvenience of the harsh environment. From down to the engine room to up in the bridge, each of these highly trained professionals sail these ships by the book. They assure the total security and comfort of their passengers . The cost of a navigational mistake, any mistake this far north, could be staggering. It’s why every single moment of the travel experience of the guests are so perfectly choreographed .
Behind their gala diner with the captain to their more informal barbecues on the deck, from their organized activities on board to their ventures on the ice-sheet, behind all those occupations trained professionals fine tune all these features. For those suffering seasickness, they even found a way to stabilize the rolling of the ship by playing with the underwater-wings that some liners activate .
A hedonistic way to discover the Arctic!
Rolling in exposed anchorage, dragging anchor, ice walking , mast climbing or escaping in a hurry from unsafe spots are another way of “discovery”. Only when the captain is cooking his Brittany traditional buttery recipes, can the lifestyle of my crew be related to some epicurean moments for “Ocean Endeavour” guests.
Yes, we deserve awe and applauses from the average cruise-ship consumer. Yes, we are hardened sailors!
Hardened sailors until you read more about the sailing life of our predecessors in these same northern waters.
Bering: you surely know the name of this channel between Alaska and Siberia. Bering is also the name of an unassuming Dane sailor. Taken out of his retirement by the Russian tsar, Vitus Bering was not only a hardened sailor, he was a sea dog, in fact a sea bulldog. When such a man clamped his teeth on a project, it was impossible to break him loose. When we compare our “hardness” with his, we look finally like Chihuahuas!
After hesitations about his own ability, he clamped his teeth hard on the mission given by the Russian tsar: to discover what kind of lands lay around the tip of what is now known as Alaska. He started from St Petersburg, with horses and equipment (and without any boat) to hibernate along the cost at 5000 miles from his departure point. After a last trek of thousand of miles on foot in the rugged Siberian land, this fellow started, during the long winter, to build not one but two boats! Not simple dugout canoe cut out of a tree trunk but real seaworthy boats out of sawed planks. And all that without any epoxy! Between the beginning of his mission and his death in what is now known as Alaska, he spends 8 years on that project….the last survivors returning to St Petersburg 9 years later!
What about weather fax, depth sounder, radar, VHF , autopilot?… Name them all. They had none of them. Not even a reliable map! And in place of my highly regarded traditional Brittany recipes, they ate mostly ship biscuits with whatsoever they hunted or fished around. To really appreciate the inadequacy of their provisioning , these chaps don’t even keep any butter in their larder. That doomed their mission. Stay with me to understand . When from his ship, the “St Peter”, Bering saw for the first time a mountain more than eighteen thousand feet high, soaring from the eternal fog of this area, he named it St. Elias. Bering had now discovered Alaska. He was unable to celebrate for long. Unable to set a foot on land, being so late in the season, he turned back.
Shipwrecked, he had to spend another winter in the middle of this inhospitable land. A look at his diary tells the story of these “hardened sailors”. ***
“Terrific gale blowing. Today I became ill with scurvy but do not count myself among the sick. I have such pains in my feet and hands that I can with difficulty stand my watch, 32 on the sick list. By the will of God died the Yakutsk soldier Karp Peshenoi, and we lowered him into the sea. Ivan Petrov, the naval carpenter, died. The drummer boy Osip Chenstov, of the Siberian garrison, died. 10 o’clock died the trumpeter Mikhail Totopstov. Grenadier Ivan Nebaranov died.”*
And Vitus Bering death followed soon in December.
“At about four in the morning, Bering wakened with a host of new plans which, he felt sure the authorities in St. Petersburg would approve…. “Go back to sleep, Little Captain,” said his officer…and shortly before five o’clock on that storm-swept island the old man died.” *He died of scurvy…
And the irony of this story was that the biologist in his own expedition, a German, discovered, used and cured many men of this disease with a home made decoction off grass. “No damned German can make me drink grass” said Bering. The stubbornness that served him so well during his interminable mission, killed him at the end…
And now my point: on Bering sea biscuits, some of my butter could have made a difference. But I have still to check out the anti-scurvy property of butter…
For now, we are on track to Baffin Bay…
***Alaska: a novel. Michener James A
2014 Dial Press Trade Paperbacks Edition Copyright © 1988 by James A. Michener