August 20th. Cambridge Bay fades behind us. Our camp 4, in Nome, Alaska, lays 1700 miles (ca. 2,736 km)away. To officially qualify for a Est- West North West Passage, we must first cross the Bering Strait.
Of course, we are motoring. A big ship overtakes us. Going fast, she disappears quickly.
At around 4:00 PM, we enjoy sailing on the quietness of a moderate ESE wind on a starboard tack. After another tack, I hook up the Aries. As always, in those high latitudes, stable conditions don’t last long. One hour and a half later, we motor again. One of the numerous things you learn in the North West Passage is that here, Nature rules. Nature makes the law. Nature is law. You want to stay alive? Adapt!
Taking shelter to weather a serious storm.
And speaking of lively sailing, a good storm is expected soon. Our friend “Altego” left earlier Cambridge Bay just for taking shelter in a better anchorage. We plan to do just the same. The wind backs up a couple of hours later, and we motor-sail on a close reach.
Opale, slower than us, appears ahead. We call them on the VHF and chat for a while. Soon, we overtake them. We will never meet again. That’s part of the long distance sailing life: lot of exceptional and brief memories. Early next morning, the wind refuses. Our old faithful “iron-sail” takes over. Brewing up north, the predicted storm is closing on. We will need a protected anchorage soon.
Around, the land looks very flat, very brown, very deserted and as rocky as it can be.
No grass, no tree, no green, nothing inviting at all on shore. We consult our charts. Difficult to find a good shelter around.
What about Muskox Bay?
Our “cruising guide” describes the little bay as a great anchorage with a fair protection and a good holding. With one cautious side-note: it’s very shallow.
We decide to give it a try with in hand the report of the two previous visitors. We abandon our previous waypoints, turn to the North East to reach Muskox bay. Eight to ten miles from shore, we have somewhere between 20 and 30 feet of water under the keel. Everything is going smoothly and we keep a serious look-out. Sailing in darkness now, the boat suddenly jumps and crunches on… What? Damn, we hit the bottom hard. Immediately, “Breskell”‘s crew switches on alert mode.
Everyone on deck. We lift up the center-board, check for drifting growlers or ice. Nothing around and with 46 feet (14 meters) under the keel, what’s happened? How can we have been grounded so far from shore? Checking again the chart for some previously undetected shoal, we are all puzzled. No navigational mistake nor arctic monster lurking in the dark to sink unaware mariners.
Only one rational explanation left: we hit a “PINGO”! A kind of tiny under-water mountain like some huge mole-hill scattered here and there on the Barents sea bed. They can reduce the depth up to 30 or 40%, sometime more. Discovered recently, these domes, with a width up to 1600 feet (ca. 488 m)) and sometimes extending close to the sea surface, are bubbling with methane. I have a strange relationship with methane bubbles. Did I ever told you about my first disappearance in one? It was in another life and around Bermuda. “Breskell” plunged and totally disappeared into one gigantic gas bubble. I told my wife, “this time it’s it”, we are doomed!”. My old galloping horse decided otherwise. Surfacing again, she snorted, shaking out the water covering her deck and sailed us out of it and safely to Europe. Good old girl!
Return to our “Pingo”… If most of them are now charted, out of the main channels, some waits to be discovered like this one. What a surprise! We were so scared that we brought all sails down, heaved to and drifted slowly into the dark for the next 4 or 5 hours. At first daylight, we went back on track.
Tiny “Muskox Bay” emerges soon on our port side. With Eric, we slowly made our final approach. We keep sounding : 10 feet of water 3 meters), 9, 8,7,6… and not even close yet. I slow down. We lift-up the centerboard, like about 1/3 of it, and keep going. The ground keeps also coming-up pretty quickly. From 6 feet to 5, to 4 under the keel; with only 3 feet left, I don’t think safe to proceed much further. 3,2,1.. We hit the ground, and stuck the boat. Centerboard totally up, we turn around and return “Breskell” into deeper water. One hundred yards away (100 meters) from the entrance, and only one foot of water; you need an Inuit’s kayak to use this shelter not an ocean going vessel!
“I don’t go inside Eric, let’s drop the anchor”.
In fifteen feet of water, we feel safe without any obstacles around. My problem: the anchor doesn’t hook well on the bottom. A nagging feeling that seasoned sailors experience in uncertain situations. On stronger gusts, if “Breskell” doesn’t hold well, we are going to be blown away. Not dangerous, but very unpleasant to anchor again in the high winds forecast later. Leila and Joshua, in the quietness of their bunk, rest peacefully after their watch.
With Eric, we scrutinize again our charts…
Read island: why not give it a try?
Read Island, not far away, offers what looks like a beach and some protection from North and West wind.
“We should try this one, what do you think ? “.
A gust of wind answers my question. Our anchor starts dragging.
Eric retrieves chain and anchor and Joshua shows up right on time to help bring back everything on board.
Moving to Read island, a short 30 minutes ride, I bring “Breskell” in front of a beach made of loose pebbles and sand. I take another chance. If the anchor drags again, we will have to weather this storm at sea, not dangerous but not pleasant either. Fifteen feet of water and within a safe distance from shore we drop again the anchor.
I back up to secure the hook and the boat reacts immediately swinging strait online with the anchor. I know we are safe, with a good mooring on a secure holding ground. It’s beautiful up there.
On our port-side, a small peninsula circled by nice beaches advances into the water. Farther south, the water breaks heavily over tiny islands. Some residual swells made their way into the anchorage slowly rolling our boat. On the other side, on Read Island, a house sits on top of the hill with a commanding view of the bay. The building doesn’t look in great shape. Unfortunately, we cannot pay a visit on shore today. With the coming gale, we need all to stay on board. As predicted, the wind picks up from a good 20/25 knots, then to a gale before piping up to storm force at 40 knots and more in the next few hours.
Breskell swings from side to side on her anchor but doesn’t move or drag. We can feel the chain tightening up and then the anchor pulling back the boat. It holds and it holds well. I am very pleased and feel secure. We had to wait here, in this safe anchorage, at least 24 hours until this depression is over. We rest, read, watch movies and take our turn to keep an eye on the boat. No way to leave “Breskell” during that storm. It’s too dangerous. An unexpected wind change, and we could go aground very fast. No Boat US to tow “Breskell” back to sea around Read island. Drifting out to sea is not so bad. We would be uncomfortable but safe. I don’t want to take any chances with both options.
On the road again.
Darkness takes over. Next morning, with the rise of the barometer, the wind starts to drop. In the early afternoon, the sea quiets and by 5:00 pmthe wind dies altogether.
Time to rise anchor and return to our previous waypoints. Nome is still far, far away. This time, it’s not a storm our problem but our « old faithful motor». My Perkins shuts himself out. I get upset. We filled up both tanks and opened the starboard tank. I went down and found both tanks closed. The fuel valve was so jammed that finally it never opened. Another item to add on the “to do later” list. The priming of an old diesel obeys to a ritual well-known to traditional sailors. First, with the mechanical hand pump, fill the bowl of the diesel filter; then open one injector, crank the engine until fuel appears there. Close this one and repeat with each injector. A proper procedure insures that no air stays in the fuel system . At this point, the engine starts… Generally! With all mechanical interventions things can go wrong. I confess a stomach’s knot and some anxieties when this kind of shut-down appears. Specially in the middle of nowhere and so far away from the advises of my good friend Walt, our engine mechanical genius.
Back on track in the dark, we have a real night now. Only four or five hours each day but darkness doesn’t facilitate our navigation. What about some ice around waiting to bite again my “Breskell”? A frightening prospect. We motor-sail with the main and half of the jib out. A strong head wind builds an uncomfortable high and short sea.
A last challenge by the ice.
To attenuate this unpleasantness, we stay close to shore waiting for a predicted wind shift to the SW. It will make for an easier ride. For now, we hand steer. The strong waves overcome easily our small electric autopilot. Life is so much easier when our mechanical slave works for us.
Next morning , around 3:00AM , “pétole” for a few hours before we pull out the gib and enjoy sailing again. Our choice, close to shore, gives a chance to our electric pilot to slave for us. Not for long!
We find ourselves in the dark and the rain, one steering, one watching with a short two hours shift for sleep. And Murphy laws apply also at sea. It’s not only cold outside on deck but damp inside the boat. The wind direction makes the wood stove smoke more than warm our saloon. We let the fire die. So, it’s now cold, damp, unpleasant and uncomfortable inside and out.
And Nome is still far away. You don’t like this kind of sailing? Stay plugged in your marina. It’s part of the game in the Arctic! Don’t complain.
August the 25 at noon, the rain stops as we pass Cape Parry. Just to remember that this Parry fellow makes, like me, three attempts in three consecutive years not to accomplish a North West passage but to discover a way to do it! Unlike us, he spent two winters frozen with his two boats, the “Hecla” and the “Fury” on the east side of the passage. He never found a way to cross on the other side! Never complaining, he carefully surveyed the Est coast. He wrote a detailed and interesting account of his three journeys of discovery and his cordial relationship with the Inuits.* With our cold feet and damp boat, on the other side of the Passage, we are finally doing much better than him!
Around Cape Parry, the water is pretty shallow . The sea breaks frequently and, at time, covers “Breskell”’s deck. From boats ahead of us, we receive this encouraging news.
“No more ice in front of you “Breskell”. None-less, we keep watching!
Around 8:00 pm, everyone is tired, wet and eager to get warm. We relax our vigilance just a little bit. A little bit too much damn it! Suddenly, the boat shakes and swervesaround with a grinding noise. It feels like “Breskell” was hitting the sea floor. I check immediately the depth. More than 40 feet (ca. 12 m)of water under the keel, I understand immediately, We didn’t hit the bottom. The culprit rises just on my port side. OH, No !/??… A huge growler, a small iceberg stares coldly at me. Assaulted again, like in my last year tragic encounters. I look around. Our sailing friends were right: no ice around… Except for this solitary rapist! In the dark, alone, hidden and waiting for us. A short moment of distraction and I hurt again my poor “Breskell”. Ice is expected much farther north than where we sail now. Come on!!! What is it doing here alone ? I check again and do not see other piece of floating ice. Unbelievable. This boat molester lurking in the dark is standing here alone. After the last difficult days, we relaxed just a bit. And we got it … or he got us! We rush to the bow to assess the damage. Oh! My God !.!.! This piece of sh… stroke poor “Breskell” hard! It went right trough the hull and damaged my boat. Another hole. Our third! Fortunately, this one stays high above the waterline. No need to send Eric overboard to nail part of my cabin floor to tame icy water rushing inside. So close to the deck, we are not in clear and immediate danger of sinking. We have time to appraise quietly our options and find a way to keep going. Still, I am so upset. How it’s happens to be so unfortunate? One simple and final answer to you sailors, climbing your own Arctic Himalaya. Enjoy the awesome landscapes but don’t take anything for granted in the North West Passage. Like weather or avalanches in the highest mountains, everything from forecasts, to ice movements or currents change suddenly in the Arctic. Whatever the weather, your comfort, your fatigue or your personal timetable, keep a sharp look out at all time. A magnificent nature rules here and doesn’t tolerate any human weakness.