A bitter Arctic northerly is whirring and howling through the rigging. It’s not often, when you’re in your bunk, that you want the wind to blow harder and the whirring to go up an octave. We need a gale with grunt to reshuffle the ice, crack it up and get it moving to create passable leads north so we can get to, and through, skinny Bellot Strait that separates Boothia Peninsular and Somerset Island.
We are sheltering in an unnamed bay south of Gloster Point in the James Ross Strait on the Bootha Peninsular. We have been forced to retreat. Nothing is quite as demoralising as loosing ‘ground’ to a nautical destination – all those hard earned miles needing to be ‘renavigated’ on yet another day.
Just after the sea temperature dropped from nine to four degrees, we were in ice. There “starteth” Abel Tasman’s nudging, wriggling, squirming, reversing and throttling through 3/10ths ice – the limit of ice percentages, despite her robust 10mm steel hull, she is able to tackle.
After 11nm of writhing and fuel guzzling we progressed a trifling 3nm off Cape Frances that day in late August. Our track on the plotter is like the contorted footprint of a dismembered worm.
In ice, it’s quite a work out on the helm – spinning that 1100mm diameter wheel to port and starboard trying to steer Abel Tasman’s 23m hull into cracks and gaps that may lead us out of icy puzzlement. Hot times in the cockpit followed by chilling stints on the bow pointing to possible leads – signing thumbs-up or thumbs-down back to the cockpit to relay progress pass a pack.
All this ice hypnosis sends your mind into a biosphere of rumination until a Polar Bear stealthily leaps onto an iceberg, water deluging from its buttery pelt, black nose targeted aloft while nimbly rotating to find stability on a listing berg barely able to support its heftiness. We saw two more bears on that ice-bashing day and a couple of seal pups wearily taking quick breaths between fractures in the ice.
The idea, in this clogged-up predicament, in a relatively small yacht in light airs, is to hug the barren brown coast and find an open lane along the shore. Abel Tasman’s draught is 2.8m so we weren’t as close to the shore as we wanted to be. In the temptation to find open water, we lightly scraped the undulating bottom urging us to steer further offshore.
The problem with ice, and the mirages of the Arctic, is that they give the impression that open water is just beyond the radius of your private entrapment. Tantalisingly, just over there, or so it would seem, is the freedom to be on course unobstructed.
In the James Ross Strait we were hoping for a nor-easterly gale to push the ice pack south west and off the eastern shore to create a northern runaway of deliverance. This didn’t happen.
Ice bashing is a daylight light-air pursuit so, as soon as the last bit of light dissolved, we hove to in the pack and kept watch on three essentials: our distance from shore, an increase in wind strength and boarding Polar Bears.
Most boats carry a gun to scare off Polar Bears. Instead of a gun we had a Bear Banger – a hand held spring-loaded device that shoots a flare. The cartridge detonates just past your hand and the ‘not very directional’ projectile arcs through the air to “poof” into a flare. I imagined the cartridge blowing my hand off, the bear not registering the bang and disinterestedly tracing the flare through the air, shrugging its shoulders and returning to the business of landing me for lunch minus one hand.
At 0315hrs – the wind started to blow and that moveable feast of rotating, flexing, cracking ice got on the go. As soon as a gap opened to our south (from where we had come) it was time to retreat 32nm before its agitation beset us and did more damage to Abel Tasman’s already twisted propeller blades.
So, here we sit in an unnamed bay willing more wind while we each find our ‘project’ space. Hours, then days slip by in our hushed library-like hull. It is getting late in the season and our ‘window’ for getting through the Northwest Passage is shrinking.
Back to telling you about our stay in Cambridge Bay/Iqualuktuuttiaq (where I left off in my last email) and the hundreds of dead snow geese (not ducks) floating belly-up on our approach. Two theories – a recent oil spill off the coast or, perhaps, the chemical used on Cambridge Bay (CB) roads to dampen the dust. People were surprised to hear about the deaths – “it’s not unheard of but it is uncommon”.
CB was a mixed 1,800-bod community of Inuits, scientists and public servants at all levels of government. Over the past 5,000 years this site has been chosen as a place to live for its location and resources – Iqualuktuuttiaq means, roughly, a place of many fish.
I will remember Cambridge Bay, not for its dusty roads and busy populace, but being witness to “what’s possible” with tenacity and passion. I’m talking about the Maud Returns Home project that conceived and implemented the raising of Roald Amundsen’s Maud by a Norwegian artist, taxi driver, general tradesman and boat yard owner.
These self-effacing friends have achieved a feat as much about art and bringing an innate relic to life, as it is about history and the expression of cunning amateur engineering devoid of repressive intervention by bureaucrats and regulators. A group with a vision to refloat Maud from its 80-year submersion, strap it to a barge and tow it home to Norway from where it started its Polar exploration 100 years ago.
Like Amundsen, the team is one of dreams and action. The terrestrial age of discovery may be over but a project like this gives hope that occasionally, with spirit, it’s possible to transcend our regulatory western world that thwarts, disheartens and erects hurdles in the path of inspired (and inspiring) notions.
All the model making, the complex what-if and how-to tête-à-têtes, the resolve to solve compounding problems, the countless year-round freezing dives on the wreck to figure out Maud’s ascent and collect an abundance of relics buried in knee deep mud.
Always with a mind to the aesthetic, it is a project so ambitious that the naysayers and poo-pooers would have been out in force at idea’s conception but now, with Norway just over the horizon, comes its new set of popularity challenges.
Resurrected, Maud is now exposed and perched on a rusting ex-oilrig barge ready to be towed through the Northwest Passage to Greenland to ready her for the celebrated 2018 homecoming.
Three Norwegian brothers who have harmoniously been in business since their youth are the sole and vital funders of the project. Without any ado and notoriety they purchased the Tanberg Polar tug, barge and have covered the costs to get Maud home.
With the prospect of ice ahead, and lots of it, we said our goodbyes and good luck to the Maud crew and departed CB in mirror calm conditions to cross Queen Maud Gulf and Simpson Strait where Muskox grazed on flat tundra through a labyrinth of shoals, currents and deceptive horizon mirages born from the extreme flatness of the land.
Immersed in Amundsen, we detoured and anchored overnight in “Amundsen’s Gjøa spot” at Gjøa Haven in a natural harbour on King William Island where he wintered for two seasons and named the harbour after his first expedition boat, Gjøa.
The great thing about Amundsen, in my mind, was his desire to learn the art of polar survival from the local Netsilik Eskimos. He was unusual among polar explorers in , sensibly grasping that the Eskimos weren’t savages but highly adapted to their surroundings, with much to teach him.
After Gjøa Haven we headed further north into the ice. (Part Two in December)