Just a few hours after leaving Tuktuyatuk and already falling far away behind, disappears a little dot. A last farewell to “Morgane” before losing forever sight of our friends.
They need to hide somewhere before turning Barrow Point ahead of this storm. Not much wind for now, “pétole” they will say in Brittany. At least, we run a good seven knots with my iron horse under power.
A stupid fall
At night, the sea slowly wakes up under a ten knots wind. The sleeping Arctic Ocean is rousing up. It’s chilly. The water temperature is higher than the air during the day: 41F/38F. At night, outside, it drops to 32 F. The arch freezes. If we started the night with rain, at sunrise we finish it with snow. Not much improvements during the following day. The sea looks like a mirror as they said south. Not for long in autumn in the Arctic. The wind shifts east. The first blink of a sleeping giant. A new opportunity to make my horse galloping again. We pull-out half of the gib. Like hunting dogs, sailors sniff the wind. We know it’s coming. A new wind shift to the North East and another slight increase: 15 knots now . Perfect to adjust sails.
I decide to set up the main and climb on deck with Joshua. We raise the sail. No luck, it gets stuck in the running backstays. No problem. I climb on the balcony, up to the boom. From there, I plan to free it easily. I have done that before. As always , one hand for you, one hand for your boat. I grasp the mast and the spinnaker halyard. “Hold on Olivier”. I am safe. Until an unexpected wave swings the boat on her port-side. I lost my balance and the halyard flights away. My left arm lets go its secure handhold. I tumble over Joshua and fall on deck, flat on my back. The acute pain is hard to believe! I lost control of all my movements. I breathe with difficulty. I take a while to recover. Quickly, I realize that nothing seem broken “inside”. Well, at least, I hope so. It’s damn painful. I get up and keep working. We have a job to finish, a sail to tune and a boat to run. Everyone is quietly sleeping below deck. With the boat safely underway under Josh’ care, I myself crawl to bed. No move, no more! As a matter of fact, I will stay the next two days in my bunk simply crawling laboriously to the bathroom. So much pain and no way to stand up. Not everything looks gloomy around. We now sail and the upcoming storm will bring even more wind. Wind makes sailors happy. Even, a bunked sailor! And no more motoring. That makes the planet happy as well.
An unexpected decision.
Today, I take an unexpected decision. One, I had never considered before: I release the command of my beloved boat. As captain, you have the responsibility of your boat and crew. No matter what, returning your crew safely to port belongs to your obligations. No excuse. Climbing on deck belong to the many daily routines of a ship master. Today, I can hardly move. I have to be removed. When Eric wakes up for his watch, I ask him to take command of “Breskell”.
I totally trust Eric. He was on my side since the beginning of this amazing project. We shared together the fabulous moments of this fantastic journey. The frightening one as well. Diving into icy water, climbing the mast in stormy weather or hammering overboard part of my cabin floor. When I was down, Eric quiet words and easy smile make me rise again to the challenge. Your turn now Eric. Our fate in your hands. I know we are safe. With the upcoming storm, life and death decisions will be needed. That’s our daily challenges up north. Eric will simply take the good one. The burden of command out of my hands, I can now concentrate on trying to manage my excruciating pain. A full time job! And to add to the upcoming challenges, checking the sail locker on the bow, Eric finds water going through my repair. Like always, he assesses quietly the situation. A storm coming, a captain unable to move and now a leaking boat!
Same quiet assurance. Eric is ready to move forward. God, I love this guy. And sure, my total confidence in him leaves my crew fully functional. That’s the hidden part of the fabulous human adventure of this kind of sailing in extreme latitudes. Sorry, no Instagram pictures to post about what finally really matters. For now, after installing a water pump in Tuk, all we have to do is to run it once in a while. A nice and easy back-up. Well, deep inside, I am really mad. I thought I had waterproofed completely the patch in Tuk. Arctic waves disagree. You don’t argue with nature up there. Depress, dejected, thrilled or euphoric, nature doesn’t care about your human emotions. You humbly bow your head, adapt and, working around, found an alternative solution. The new surgery will wait until Nome. For now, Eric and his crew will keep one eye on the bleeding scar.
My boat is front leaking and the captain is side leaning.
The wind increases, our speed too. We reach 7 or 8 knots easily.
Waves are building to 10 foot or more. “Breskell” enjoys the ride and goes fast. Real fast. Now 11 knots and more. And I am happy. The exhilarating happiness of the pelagic sailor playing inside the nature game with a fine-tuned boat in lively conditions. And still, the boat and her dismissed captain are not in tip-top shape. My boat is front leaking and the captain is side leaning. With a sad difference : “Breskell” is moving fast, her captain is not moving anymore. I start worrying. My pain is getting worse with painful muscular spasms from my neck to my lower back. Am I going to paralyze? In fact, I am almost crippled. Eric, already chased by a storm, adds, with my crew, a nursing role to his captain’s duties. Same quiet efficiency, same serene empathy. He gets in touch with a close friend. His brother -in-law is a doctor. In my land based team, I have also another guy who has done university researches on back-pain. I feel so bad that we even consider a MedVac. A medical evacuation in this Arctic waters looks like a military intervention. And, like all military interventions, are better to be avoided! Let’s wait for both replies before making any further decision. May be, we can negotiate with the pain!
And starts with my two consultants a long exchange via satellite emails . Not being a doctor, I understand that first they were trying to figure out the life threatening emergency of the situation before the long term damages of a non-intervention. For me, the pain was intense. Was I going to die soon? Worse, to paralyze for ever? The pain intensity doesn’t seem to bother much my consultants. They were more preoccupied with pain radiation, above or below the knee, loss of sensibility or worse, loss of some motor functions. They seem to know, each of them, what they were speaking about. My boat was secure in Eric’s hands. I felt safe in their digital hands. My pain was extreme when I try to move. It disappears when I crouch like a new born baby in my bunk. With my condition, in rich countries, they scan, X-rays and prescribe one test after another. The most expansive the process, the better the outcome they believe. A lot of impressive diagnostics follows and sure, they eliminate a lot of exotic possibilities. Usually, the prescription is written around the same three basic ingredients: rest, anti-inflammatory and antalgic medications from a week to 10 days. With generally good long term results. In poor country, after the initial important clinical screening, they prescribe directly the same basic ingredients: rest, anti-inflammatory and antalgic medications. The least expensive the better. No choice here. They don’t have the money to conduct many tests. I will stay with the poor country choice. I don’t want to start a war! Finally, I understand that I was not going to die or stay incapacitated.
One of my digital consultants even described what I should feel if I was doing this or that kind of movement. Extraordinary world. Fascinating experience. In the middle of a good storm, far away in the Arctic Ocean, immobilized by pain, in the safety of my bunk, surrounded by a compassionate crew, under the command of a trusted captain, cared by digital hands lost in the cyberspace, I was now “enjoying” one of the best sailing ride of the year.
The predicted storm falls on us: 35 to 40 knots of wind, gust to 45 knots and big waves. Brothers and sisters, that’s exhilarating sailing. In my bunk, the rock and roll of “Breskell” gives me a good massage with some unorthodox free chiropractic manipulations.
I thought about my friends from “Morgane”. I hope they found a good shelter. I would not be in this kind of sea with a small boat. For now, “Breskell” is doing really fine. Point Barrow gets closer by the hours.
The washing machine.
September 2nd. The wind decreases to 20/25 knots today.
From my porthole, it looks much quieter outside. Eric, with a full jib out, keeps “Breskell” happy and running around 9 knots. As a sailor, I am elated. Still, better to avoid any physical excitation. Coughing or sneezing is forbidden. Laughing difficult. In fact any movements of some importance. Point Barrow is behind us. Our last summit, Bering Strait, hides strait ahead in the fog. Every single mile is now a mile south linked with a slow increase in the temperature. After two days curl-up in bed, I finally crawl out of my bunk. To stand up is very painful, even if my digital mentors encourage some tiny careful moves to regain control of the painful muscular spasms. Supposed to protect the damaged area, those contractions kill me. I cannot stand for long. Outside, the temperature climbs to a more comfortable 45 F.
We are going south and it’s shows. After Point Hope, the well named, Bering strait is not far away. Preparing for this historical moment, I start training moving again out of my bed. Reassured by my cyber consultants, I know that I am not going to stay paralyzed. My nightmare. And what about dying? This , we will have many more opportunities during our return trip to Port Townsend, thousands of miles away. And Eric and my crew will take great care of avoiding everyone of them. Speaking about my crew, some drama oriented land bloggers asked for pictures of the stricken captain. An hardened sailor, sweating in pain and laying crouched like a baby on his bunk, makes always a good scenario in social medias. Respectful, my crew never invaded my privacy. And for that, I thank them again. Sorry folks, no picture to prove my word. And no regret. We all have much better memories of our glorious journey than pictures of those difficult moments.
Our exhilarating ride on the back of the storm is finished.
The left-over seas are confused, waves come from many directions. We sail against a strong current. Have you ever been in a washing machine? Try sailing the Bering Strait! And the wind? Now, on the nose from the south. Eole, please, send us another good storm. Well, a good easterly storm. Progress is slow. No more than four knots on the ground.
What about the plaster from my past surgery in Tuk? Not so good. The stitches are bleeding. The wound is not healing properly. We pump water regularly. I will have to operate again. That’s happens even to the best surgeon!
On September the 4th, we are by 67 degree 11 North and 167 degree 39 West when Joshua and Leila observed an “aurora borealis”, those famous Northern lights dancing in the sky and never seen farther south. The free show lasted 20 minutes. We got very close to Bering strait. My entire crew takes great care of their bent, twisted, crouched and dismissed captain. In those far away waters, in bad shape and with a leaking boat, I never felt helpless. On the contrary, I felt supported and appreciated. And let me talk about my last recruit: Leila. Eric and Josh are seasoned sailors. Josh is a West Coast live-abord, Eric is… Eric. Leila has no marine experiences, no sailing skills, no useful mechanical talents.
On intuition, when choosing her as part of our crew, I bet on her other strengths like her indomitable determination just to “do it”: the North West Passage. From her habitual surroundings and her enclosed Paris subways to the open Bering Sea and the magnificent Arctic, if her dream was alive, the gamble was enormous. For her, for me, for all of us. Still, a successful Arctic expedition is as much about skills on the high seas as ingenuity on the human tidal interactions. And what a great job Leila has done there! From small details about our life on board to the great convivial lunch she organizes for all of us today.
Not a small task in a washing machine!
When a “galloping horse” from Brittany meets a legendary dragoon from the Bering Strait.
Bering strait, we are coming. Slowly. No more than 2 knots, fighting both currents and wind. Today, only one knot and a half. Ridiculous. Why not sailing backward? At sunset, we decide to go straight to shore, find some shelter from the land and just wait. This strong front wind will calm down.
Weather changes is the norm this time of the year in the Bering sea area. A low comes from Siberia each 30 hours associated with a permanent low over the whole area during the winter months. The depth decreases slowly. Within the 20 feet (ca. 6 m) line, we slow further “Breskell” speed. In 15 feet (4.57 m) of water, we drop the hook. We anchor in familiar surroundings: middle of nowhere, unknown faraway place, nowhere to be described on our map, safe and solitary and well protected by some landmass… until the next wind change!
Bering Strait, our last summit, lays just five miles away. The center board will stay partially up for safety. A light swell rolls us gently to sleep. As expected, the next day, September 5, the weather is quieter. A 10 knots breeze on the nose. The current ? Against naturally, but not enough to impede our progress and our six knots speed. The summit is right here! Strange coincidence. The high cliff which overhangs the small settlement, looks exactly like the dragoon draw on my bow by my daughter Aziliz. With its head resting on the ground and its long back tail, these two mythical creatures symbolize our challenge. The “galloping horse” from Brittany meets here the legendary dragoon of the Bering Strait. Together, they celebrate the last summit of this extraordinary journey.