(originally published on the SetSail website)

Kapisillit Kangerluaq bound for Ameralik
64 º 13’ N 051º 21’ W

We arrived in Greenland several days ago, after a boisterous passage from St. Anthony, Newfoundland. We’d meant to leave from St. John’s, but the weather window wasn’t long enough, so we squeaked into St. Anthony’s just before a NW gale, and tied up to a crabber at the St. Anthony Seafood dock to wait out the blow. Helen revelled in freshly frozen shrimp from the Seafood company office and we rested up for the passage. It looked like we were in for a gale, but at least the coming one would be from behind.

We left St. Anthony as soon as the wind started to shift, motoring along past the first iceberg of the season. The wind gradually came up through the day, and as we went past Belle Isle, we started to sail.

And it built. And built. And built. After 24 hours or so, it was up to a full gale, on the beam, and we were having a fine time with the third reef and a few turns wound in on the jib, and the full staysail. Our light weather jib, which was much too small for the Caribbean, came into its own in the heavier, cold air of the higher latitudes. The heavy weather jib is still in its bag in the forepeak.

And the fourth reef pennant was dangling from its block – it is always an encouraging sight to see one more reef waiting to go.

This was Seal’s first time sailing in a true gale, with winds gusting to 40 knots and sharp, steep seas. We found the seas didn’t seem as large as they would have been with an equivalent wind in the Southern Ocean, but they were closer together and steeper.

After a day or so, the wind crept up to 40 knots, with gusts to 50. In went the fourth reef, and a few more turns on the forestay.

It was handsteering weather, so we stood watches of 6 on/3 off, which isn’t quite enough sleep. One person helmed, the other did nav and stood by ready to reef.

The seas were dark gray, dotted with turquoise left behind after breakers. Just above the face of the water, streams of water flew along, not yet at true spindrift, but definitely airborn. Northern Fulmars swooped around the boat, resting in front of us, and then running along the water to take off, just in time. We had a half dozen with us the entire way, until the wind crept above 40, and they must have had the sense to stay on the outer edge of the low. A few murres crouched on the water.

The wind whistled in the rigging loud enough to sound like the tea kettle to a hungry person on the helm. Three hours is a long time. The standby person passed bite-sized chocolate bars and cups of lemon tea out the door, and occasionally when the wind abated a touch, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. With only three adults on board, food became very haphazard. Hamish boiled a lot of potatoes, and we made several pots of rice. Both children were feeling sick, so they went through a lot of instant porridge and potatoes with ketchup, and made lists of things they wanted as soon as we arrived: hot chocolate, pasta putenesca, and James Herriot.

The worse the weather, the better I felt. Each notch on the Beaufort Scale was a new one for Seal, and as she went through each one in good form, I relaxed a touch. It wasn’t anything near the worst weather Hamish and I had ever seen, but it was definitely the biggest blow Seal had experienced. And the highest mileage: between midnight and midnight she sailed 220 miles point to point (rather than the GPS track which was doubtless higher), our best ever without any current assist.

The raised saloon provided an unexpected boon – the standby person was within easy hailing distance of the helm – all the helmsman had to do was lean down to the galley hatch, which we kept open the entire time, and call for help or chocolate in a conversational tone. The girls (and the standby) could see what was going on, and it was actually easier to check on trim and chafe from the chart table than from back at the helm. Not to mention, it was a three-foot hand-off from the galley counter to the helm for all those cups of tea and hot chocolate.

At night, the standby person often could catch a bit of sleep at the chart table or at the settee. Once, when Helen and Anna had both fallen asleep on the settee, and I couldn’t be bothered to tack them to bed, I lay down on the saloon sole, between the island and the settee plinth (that raises the settee up to window height) and slept very well. We’ve designed the saloon to be wide open above waist level, so it feels open and airy, but below the waist, all the passages are about two feet wide, easy to walk through in heavy weather, and comfortable sleeping slots.

It was hard to imagine, as I settled myself down on an ensolite pillow (one that I’d actually made for sitting on the cold ground in Greenland), that it was only four years ago that we built this space in plywood and two by fours in our front hall, and laid these same passageways out on the floor with blue painter’s tape.

The galley worked too – all the plates and pots stayed in their racks, and the big double sinks proved their worth when acting as a 10” deep fiddle. Once when Seal was tossed on her ear, a spice jar freed itself from the rack, so I moved all the spices down to the larder: we don’t use many spices at sea, anyway.

Everything was fine, in fact, until the wind died. Then as we lolled in the leftover sea, we went to start the engine to carry on. Nothing. Not even a cough, just the whine of the starter. Low battery? No. Hamish bled the engine. Nothing. Bled it again. Nothing. We hove to and passed the night (though it was light all the way through), Hamish bleeding the engine while I drained the waterlift muffler, and offered moral support. The girls fortunately slept through most of it, as did Jason after going though a few nauseating rounds with the water lift muffler.

Finally, I broke out Nigel Calder: Marine Diesel Engines and looked at his checklist. Air? We took off the newly mounted air filter and tried running it without. Nothing. In gear? We checked, and discovered there was no resistance in the gear shift – sometime in the past few days, the cotter pin had worked its way out of the Morse cable fitting, and indeed, we had been trying to start in reverse. We put it manually back to neutral and tried again. Nothing. Compression? Everything was turning when we cranked the starter; we didn’t have a cylinder full of water or some such awfulness. Fuel was coming out of the injector lines when we took them off and in a clear stream out of the bleed point of the pump.

Hamish bled it again. In desperation he changed the fuel filters, way before their normal time, trying to eliminate that possibility, and bled it again having pumped up the day tank to its highest point to get maximum pressure. In the end he opened up just about every nut on the entire fuel system, concentrating on the fuel injector pump. We’ve operated this engine for 800 hours, and before that, Hamish operated the same type of engine on board Pelagic for ten years, and he’s never had to bleed the injector pump from other than the two normal bleed points,. Finally, on opening up every connector in sight, on the pump the engine suddenly roared into life much to Hamish’s relief (he was starting to doubt his sanity). Never has the sound of an engine starting sounded so good: the fjords on the west coast of Greenland are no place to be engineless, Eric the Red notwithstanding (he had quite a few stout men on the oars, anyway.) Why this happened is still a mystery. Probably though it was the violent motion of the gale combined with a pinhole leak in the fuel system, though we haven't seen a trace of diesel anywhere.

One great relief through the whole process was, despite cranking the engine dozens of times, the starting battery never dipped below 25 volts. We originally bought starting batteries based on the recommendations for cold weather starting in the Cummins manual, but when we discussed it with Rolls Batteries in Salem, Massachusetts, they recommended going much bigger. We did, and it was worth it (the old batteries became the 12 volt starting battery for our DC genset and the 12 volt household battery.) Although the runs are short, the cable is oversized 3/0 AWG wire.

We motored through the calm patch until the wind filled in again. This time it built much more quickly, reaching 40 knots in a few hours. We watched the wind angle nervously – it crept around 90º, wandering up to 80º and then to 100º, flickering back and forth. If the low tracked north as the forecast had promised, we would be freed as we neared the coast; if it went south, we’d be headed and probably have to spend a day or so hove to waiting for it to come around. The wind continued to build, but at last settled at about 120º: relief.

By the time we reached the coastline we were down to the fourth reef and a sliver of jib. As we approached the Narssaq Lob, we had 50 knots behind us, with gusts to 60. Down came the main and the jib and we approached under bare poles. I’d never sailed under bare poles before – we did ten knots at times, with only the Q flag and the Greenland flag flying from the rig. (It didn’t do my grandfather’s Q flag any good: it is in need of some trimming and stitching when I next pull out the sewing machine; the Greenland flag was made of stouter stuff.)

Hamish came on deck and took over the steering, which was quite hard work by that point, and sent me down to do the nav with the warning, “It’s a bit of a mess on the radar; not sure if it’s ice or what.”

We had almost no visibility in fog and rain and blowing sea. The wind was blowing straight into the narrow channel (it’s about 30 miles through narrow island passes into Nuuk.) The radar was a mess: I never did find out if it was ice aground in the “foul ground” or rocks that weren’t shown on the chart. I kept my eyes out for the racon light on Saatut Island, and we came closer and closer without seeing it. Hamish figured our radar was just jockeying around too much to pick it up, but I was quite anxious to see it. I had no idea how accurate our charts were to the GPS position (not too bad, it turns out. That particular chart turned out to be about a tenth of a mile out; in Tierra del Fuego charts are sometimes a half a mile out) The radar screen was a wall of targets.

We were certainly glad we weren’t navigating by celestial navigation – if that were the case, we wouldn’t have had a fix since our first night from St. Anthony’s. That night I was thinking what a fine place for celestial work – we had a twilight that lasted all night, plenty of time for leisurely sight taking. That was the last time we saw the horizon for three days.

Eventually the racon showed up strong and clear. We were in the right place. Now it just was a matter of navigating through the islands. Several times I poked my head through the door: “Keep an eye out: the chart shows an island right ahead, the C-Map shows nothing, and neither does the radar.” This happened enough times that we began to joke that our paper chart was Slartybartfarst’s blue print for Greenland, and those particular islands had never been made. More likely, the chart was developed from satellite photos and there had been morainic icebergs cluttering the channel on the day of the photo. (Some icebergs have enough rock in them to make them look exactly like islands.)

We came into Nuuk harbor with much talk of how we were going to shift into reverse – we still had no gear connection between the helm and the engine, but a 40 knot headwind came in handy: Hamish was able to bring Seal alongside a diving boat, without ever taking the engine out of gear and a swift spring onto a bollard kept us in place while other lines were run.

Once secure, we made Helen and Anna their hot chocolate, opened a beer for ourselves, and looked out at the sheer rock face on the other side of the dock, dotted with moss and Alpine flowers. Greenland.

We were told to do customs and immigration in the morning, so we stayed aboard and contented ourselves with the view – even though we were very sleepy from the passage, the light was electrifying and it was hard to force ourselves to pull the shades and go to sleep.


© Kate Laird, 2005


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