When planning a voyage route far north, you can't just do as you wish, above all you must know what’s possible in the given period of time. In the warmth of my home with my maps, I hadn’t even considered the possibility that we would not be able to get to Greenland's Scoresby Sund at the end of June.
In the Arctic Pilot it clearly states that the first ship may enter Scoresby Sund at the end of July and the last by the end of August at the latest, but I had planned to read it during the voyage, when I had enough time to do so.
Therefore, it seemed to be a pretty good idea when one member of the crew, Radim (a participant in several previous challenging voyages) called me in mid-May to join us in Scoresby Sund. But as it began to become a reality, I began to browse servers about the state of the ice along the eastern shores of Greenland and discovered that everything was still completely frozen.
Are we sailing into impenetrable ice?
I called Radim and announced our almost zero prospects of landing in Scoresby Sunda. But I also told him we’d give it a try. As a bit of a joke, I advised him to try and order a helicopter and land at the end of the ice field. We would wait for him and bring him on board. I told him to borrow a rifle, just in case polar bears got there before us.
I didn't expect Radim to consider such nonsense. Radim, however, is a man of action and began finding all the necessary information. He discovered that no one would bring him to the ice barrier, but someone would lend him a rifle. So we reached an agreement.
We would try to reach Scoresby Sund, although it probably wouldn’t work, and Radim would fly there and not get mad at us if we didn’t make it.
Before we left the island of Jan Mayen, we requested a map at the weather station of the current state of the ice fields around Greenland. We found out that they were 120 miles far into the sea, and it was clear that they would not suddenly dissolve by themselves.
We called Radim to tell him to stay there. But Radim knew that Sund was completely frozen and had already changed the plan. He had decided to hire a dog sled in Greenland for a few days. Of course with a rifle to protect against bears. And so he flew to Greenland.
We decided not to change plan and headed from the west coast of Jan Mayen to the Greenland ice fields. It was about 150 miles directly west. And since there was a southwesterly wind meaning we couldn’t sail in the other direction, we went there.
I studied everything I could find on ice navigation, and found that, with the utmost caution, you can only sail when there is sea ice coverage of up to 40% and that when the wind direction changes, the ice field can be completely closed off within an hour.
At 7am on the second day of the voyage, we encountered our first small floating ice floe.about 130 miles from Scoresby Sund. It was foggy with a slight wind, and we continued to sail with light assistance from the motor to the still safely sparse ice field.
The engine suddenly died in the middle of the ice field
About a hour before the first ice floe had appeared, I switched the reserve oil tank over to run the oil into the main tank. Always after a while the oil filter is clogged, so the motor must beturned off and the filter cleaned or replaced. I do this only if there is no danger ahead.
This time, however, I hadn’t assessed the situation quite so well. At the first stagger in engine speed, I climbed into the engine and switched off the engine. Inside the cockpit, Kos was quietly steering, and Míra was reading a message from his girlfriend on Iridium. After reading the message and writing the answer, he lifted his eyes from the phone and with astonishment found that the ice field had thickened dramatically and ice floes were drifting everywhere around us.
At that exact same moment, the engine stopped. Nervously on deck, he called out to me, asking what was happening with the engine, I calmly informed him that I was just cleaning the filter. But I did feel a certain urgency in his voice, so I asked him what's going on up there. Mira responded that ice floes were absolutely everywhere.
We still had the genoa and the mainsail on the mast and the light wind pushed us slowly into the ice. The crew removed the genoa, I speeded up the filter cleaning, and got the engine started again in no time at all. I climbed aboard and there was quite a lot of ice around. We estimated 20% to 30% coverage, which was still fine.
We zigzagged in the fog in a labyrinth of ice floes
Because of that, we chose not to leave the ice field immediately, we found our way out of the thickest of the ice slurry, turned and set a course of 220° in the direction of Iceland. This course was to run alongside the ice field. I consulted with our experienced polar explorer Vilém, and we agreed to gradually sail out of the fragmented ice field and return to it about 150 miles south. There should be a continuous compact ice field there and we may encounter polar bears.
For several more hours, we cruised on a course alternating between 90° and 220°, according to the preference of the current helmsman. But we still didn’t get out of the ice field. We watched the seals lying on the ice floes, and on one floe even saw bear's paw prints in the snow. The bear was nowhere to be seen.
The density of the ice field fluctuated, and alternated between relatively open passages to areas with denser coverage. The size of the ice floes had gradually increased and I already wanted to leave the ice field and get to open sea. We turned the ship in the direction of true East, which, in our opinion, was the shortest way out, and we removed the main sail. Zigzagging in the fog between the ice floes began to resemble being in a maze.
I climbed to the first spreader to see if there were any channels in the ice to get out us of this mess. The visibility in the fog was about 1 mile, and it increased and diminished erratically.
The impenetrable wall of ice floes closed in and gripped us in despair
I told Vilém at the helm where to turn, at the bow they guarded the distance from the ice floe and the stern as well. Vilém did a great job, but the advance was very slow. We tried to sail through the free channels between the ice floes, and we were constantly dodging them. The ice field was pretty closed and at best it had 50% coverage.
I was happy to have chosen the steel SEELORD for our expedition. Occasionally the side or bow was thrust onto the ice, but the ship held its own. Our amazing icebreaker! And the 130-horsepower Mercedes engine also did a fantastic job and pushed us back and forth slowly.
We all stared at the ice field and told the helmsman where to sail. One said to the left, the other to the right, and a third to the back. It was a bit confusing, but I really didn’t know which way was the best. One person would look at the direction on the GPS, because after a few sharp turns in the fog we immediately lost our orientation.
Again, areas alternated between thinner and denser coverage, areas of hope and hopelessness. After a while, however, we always seemed to end up at a hopelessly impenetrable wall of ice. It started to look pretty unpleasant.
Mira looked at the route on the map plotter, which was we had already sailed in the ice and especially where we entered the ice. While the ice field had resembled a sparse soup, here it was a dense, sometimes impenetrable slurry.
We decided to try and retrace our steps. The sea between the ice floes had totally calmed down and there were no waves. The wind was also very weak, but it had changed from the south to the north, which could completely rebuild the ice field. We turned the ship and for a while we moved between the ice floes back along our route.
In the ice it was very difficult to maneuver. When reversing the SEELORD could only go to one side, and turning in such a small space between the ice floes was extremely difficult. I had a feeling of hopelessness at the mast, because there was ice as far as the eye could see. Whenever we went where we wanted to go, there was dense ice everywhere.
We slowly sailed back and the fog lifted a little. At starboard I saw a patch of open water about 2.5 miles away, and it seemed that maybe the ice barrier was finally over. I called it down to the crew and told Vilém to head that way.
Mira climbed the rear mast and looked out at where the ice ended. The voyage to the open sea was not far, but it was completely impenetrable. There was no free channel through the ice. Only occasionally could we see water between the floes.
Exhaustive struggle with the boat as an icebreaker
I called to Vilém and told him that we would have to use the floe as a ram to open up the way. But then I climbed down the mast and stood at the wheel. I know this ship better than anyone and doing complex maneuvers is not trouble for me. I told Láďa to focus on a course to the open water.
Suddenly the fog closed in and we needed to know what direction to stick to. I was considering whether to launch the liferaft and use it to help push the floes. After consulting with Vilém, I dismissed the idea. We had to completely change our approach.
So far we had been trying to find open water and move. But on the sea there was no open water. So it was necessary to create it ourselves. I told the crew to take their hooks in their hands and push away the ice floes. No one protested and the boat suddenly bristled with hooks.
Even as I issued this command, I realized how ridiculous it was and I had to laugh. With a short hook we couldn’t even reach the water, and the idea of pushing away tonnes of ice was ridiculous. But at least it was a command. It is important that the captain has a clear strategy when leading towards a goal :-).
From the mast Mira gave me directions so as to keep to where the ice field was not so high and dense. Tomáš and Kos watched the bow and Láďa and Vilém the stern. Everyone was trying to take photos and Roman shot some video. Láďa was still careful to remain on course, because the fog was getting dense again and the end of the barrier was in sight.
I maneuvered the boat so that the bow slowly drove into the ice floe ahead. As soon as the bow sank into the floe, I gradually added a bit of gas, the bow slightly slid onto the floe and lifted up and the floe slowly moved. I managed to partially correct the wheel and the movement of the floe so that we inched the floe ahead of as like a battering ram in the ice field.
The smaller floes we pushed away and the larger ones we pushed against and stopped. This way we managed to open up short channels in the ice, which we travelled through using complicated maneuvers. The wind picked up a little and when maneuvering slowly it pushed us to the side. Again, the only way to maneuver was to push the bow against the floe and accelerate forward, turning the stern to the required position.
We inched slowly forward. The entire crew worked perfectly as a team. Although it was far from clear that we would get through this adventure unscathed, no one thought about it and just did their job. And all our guardian angels also did a great job.
We were about 2.5 miles from the sea when we saw the end of the ice barrier. Slowly, extremely slowly it began to diminish. Covering this distance took us almost 3 hours. We had to burn a lot of fuel doing it and push hundreds and hundreds of tons of ice.
Will we break free of the ice embrace?
The SEELORD proved itself beyond worthy, and its steel hull was something we could rely on. On the mast, Mira clearly determined our course, his calm voice helping calm the entire crew, and we slowly worked toward the end of the ice barrier that looked extremely compacted.
We would never have willingly headed into that. Finally, we were pushing off the last big floe and the channels released us out into the open sea. The crew’s faces showed genine relief. We had wanted to experience what it looked like in the ice field, but none of us could have quite imagined it.
I asked Vilém about the similar situation in Antarctica, and he said that during his five Antarctic voyages, not once had he got into the ice field. But he did confirm that we couldn’t have proceeded. In places the sea coverage had been 70 to 90%, and according to the Arctic Pilot it was impenetrable ice.
After leaving the icy embrace, we retreated several miles from the edge of the ice field and headed for Iceland. The fog lifted and we watched the glow of the ice field on the horizon. In good visibility, this field reflects the light and glows like a lit city in the distance.
It was a final stunning view of the receding ice barrier that had released us from captivity.
Author: Zindulka Jiří
- SEELORD steel two-seater sailboat built in the demanding conditions of the Nordic seas. It’s a two-masted ketch, 18m long, 4m wide, 2m draught. It weighs 27T and it is powered by 110m2 of sails and a 130 HP Mercedes engine. Overall, it is for 8 + 2 people.
- Mainsail, back mizzen, front roller furling genoa 2, pull up genoa 1, gennaker 110m², jib 2, storm jib.
- Route of this part of the voyage:
- Iceland Akureyri, Hrisey Island, Grimsey Island, Jan Mayen Island far past the Arctic Circle, there is only one polar station with 18 members, ice field near Greenland, Iceland Westfjords Isafjardardjup
- Length of voyage:
- 1400 NM
- Sailing dates:
- 30. 5. to 20. 6. 2010
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