This leg of the NWP is all about ice this year. Irene needs to get to, then through, the choke point of Bellot Strait. In some previous years this section has been almost ice free, but we are not so lucky in 2017. Ice pack breakup further north and north winds have filled the area with floating ice. But it looks like we can get through, as our last ice chart just before leaving Cambridge indicates a clear path passing north of King William Island.
We had a wonderful couple of days in good weather after leaving Cambridge Bay. While hoisting anchor after an overnight off Jenny Lind Island we were pleased to see Tranquilo (Bart and Helen) just passing us.
The sun came out, the wind was steady, and we had a fine time trying to keep up with Tranquilo. Spinnakers were set and sunglasses were worn.
We could clearly see the ice pack on our port side, and late in the evening just after sunset, both boats dropped the hook at Grover Bay on King William Island. We weren’t really in Grover Bay – neither of us could find an entrance deep enough to allow us in. We anchored out front in flat calm water – the presence of the mass of ice just offshore calmed the sea. The mass of ice did not calm us, however – as we had expected to be in clear water at this point according to the most recent ice chart. Bart would be able to get a fresh chart via his sat phone in the morning.
Next morning brought some bad news, Bart reported that the ice gap we needed in order to get past the north end of King William had narrowed considerably and was closing fast. He thought Tranquilo might be able to squeak past and would continue on. Careful as always, we decided to turn south and go around the south end of King W and then make our way north. It was disappointing to turn back, and we knew it would add several days of travel to our effort to reach Bellot.
Alone again, we motored south in the windless flat conditions. Morale was not high, and we were anxious to get to Bellot Strait. We knew that one group of east bound boats had gotten through already, but another group a few days later had gotten pinned down by heavy ice in Pasley Bay 80 miles south of Bellot. We stopped for a short night at anchor in shallow Simpson Strait.
The next day brought us to Gjoa Haven, where we anchored next to two French yachts, Tonga and Makore II. It turned out they were freshly arrived from the east. We enjoyed a visit aboard Makore II where we could see the newest ice charts and had a wonderful strategy discussion with Paul (regular job aboard an icebreaker in the Antarctic) and Kristina.
At 4AM August 26th we departed Gjoa Haven and sailed into St Roch Basin headed north. Wind was expected, and being near the edge of ice we needed to get to shelter – which we found in Oscar Bay.
We were well protected, and enjoyed the wild flat landscape. But our DeLorme text communications brought nothing but bad news. Environment Canada issued a Special Ice Warning for our area of “Unusual Presence of Sea Ice.” The cruise ship Hanseatic was reportedly stuck in ice and waiting for assistance. (Turns out this was likely just a rumor as we were unable to verify it later. We heard untrue rumors about our own situation as well.) The wind was expected to continue. On the HF radio, we heard our eastbound friends that had already gone through Bellot sailing in good conditions and some were now near Greenland and Labrador. We began to seriously consider what we would do if we couldn’t get through (or even near!) Bellot Strait.
We spotted the distinctive schooner masts of Abel Tasman on the morning of August 27 in the bay just north of us. On VHF radio the skipper Roger told us of trying to make it through the ice the night before, and being forced to turn around. Conditions were too thick. Roger is a very experienced Arctic/Antarctic sailor and his vessel is capable, fully crewed, big, tough, and steel. We could hear the fatigue is his voice, and were glad to be in a safe bay and glad we had not tried to push on. Waiting was the best strategy for the time being. So we kept our wood stove going, the cabin warm, and made the best of it.
A couple of days later, Roger and crew brought Abel Tasman around to Oscar Bay and anchored near us.
We watched as they explored ashore, and invited them aboard for fresh baked oatmeal cookies and coffee. Irene’s cabin had never been more crowded or more cheerful, and we all had a great time chatting. They invited us over for dinner, and even provided transportation over to Abel Tasman and back in their inflatable. We met the rest of the crew, seven in all, and had a delicious dinner. Sometimes being stuck waiting for weather and conditions to change isn’t so bad and we were extremely grateful for the company.
That same night just as we were getting into bed Roger called on VHF and outlined a plan – a tug and tow were heading our way, at slow speeds, and he was planning to rendezvous with them and follow them to Bellot. The tug was Tandberg Polar, the tow was the Maud on a barge, one of Amundsen’s historic Arctic exploration vessels. (We had seen them in Cambridge Bay, and knew they were friends of Roger.) Roger said we could tag along if we wanted. It sounded good to us, and at first light we found ourselves following Abel Tasman weaving through broken ice at breakneck speeds towards the north end of King William Island, not far from where we had been forced to turn back a week ago.
Abel barely slowed in the fog that filled in. We were all motivated not to miss the Tandberg Polar and Maud.
We waited for a time near a floe with polar bears.
The rendezvous happened, plotting tug and tow by radar at first then seeing them just before sunset. We bashed into stormy seas all night dodging ice by radar. (Our radar worked better than we would have guessed at this task.)
With sunrise came a change of plan. We altered to port and began a circuitous route through the ice. Slowed to idle speed, we followed the Norwegians and Abel Tasman. We hoisted our Norwegian flag in honor, and settled into the routine. We sailed when we could to conserve fuel,and learned much about route finding through such thick ice. The Norwegians were very deliberate, stopping and plotting an exact course before proceeding. They were very gentle with their tow, rarely even brushing ice. Only once, in the three days we travelled with them, did we go up a lead only to find it eventually closed out and forced to backtrack.
We watched our progress through the ice, monitored the weather feeling ever thankful for the calm, enjoyed the amazing variety of beautiful arctic ocean and ice and sky, encountered a cruise ship with accompanying ice breaker, and soon found ourselves approaching Bellot Strait. Amazing!
On board Irene we felt our eyes misting up as we entered the strait, passing the Tandberg and Abel as we waved and cheered. It was a great feeling to drop anchor at the old Hudson’s Bay post at Fort Ross. We were short on sleep from so much ice travel but euphoric to have made it through the strait. Tranquilo was anchored there, having taken a much more direct route. Abel Tasman anchored nearby, and the Canadian icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier anchored just offshore. After a long delicious night of sleep, we enjoyed a lazy morning as it snowed.
Abel Tasman pushed on after a quick trip ashore and a visit on Irene to say goodbye. By afternoon in true arctic fashion the sun was out and we headed ashore to explore with Bart and Helen.
We explored a bit, but feeling tired and mindful of the need to keep moving we returned to Irene and turned in early. The next morning, September 5th, we headed out past the icebreaker and onward. We really wanted to pick up speed and get below the Arctic Circle as soon as possible. Our long detour around King William and waiting for conditions to improve had consumed more time, diesel, and firewood than planned. We had reserves, but did not want to find ourselves in the Arctic fall running out of resources.