Sunday, 30 June 2013

Greenland Arrival

Our nine day sail from Iceland to Greenland lasted less than 20% of the duration of our longest voyage to date but has to rank as the most challenging. It was completed mostly under much reduced sail with the wind almost always from ahead as we sailed Traversay III as close into the wind and waves as was possible. As the crossing progressed, sea and air temperatures in the gusty winds and flying spray dropped from 9C [48F] leaving Iceland to a bone numbing 3C [37F] as we sailed in behind Kap Farvel. Sailors know, of course, that you can't hoist sails and tuck in reefs with gloves on!

Having sneaked past storm force winds near Kap Farvel to deal with a mere gale, we were initially presented with a benign forecast that promised to waft us on toward Nuuk with, if not following winds, at least gentle ones.

Iceberg in the fog
But it was not to be!  As  we crossed the longitude of the Cape, whisperings started of Gale warnings around Kap Farvel before we would be able to clear the area.  A perusal of the Greenland ice maps followed by a phone consultation with the Danish Met organization's "Ice Central" suggested we could make an end run around the pack ice coursing around Kap Farvel and tuck in behind it for a safe arrival in southern Greenland ahead of the gale.  It is vastly more pleasant to wait for fair winds in port rather than at sea!

We chose to make for Narsaq rather than Qaqortoq for no other reason than that our onboard information suggested the harbor was less crowded - or perhaps we thought pronounciation would be easier when we told the authorities our new destination!!

What followed was a bit more work than we expected. With about 70 miles left to sail, 50 of it in open water, fog thickened, the water temperature dropped radically and little black dots marking icebergs began to appear on the radar.  Icebergs are not a major problem precisely because they DO appear on the radar.  But where there are icebergs, there are often "smaller" caterpillar-tractor sized pieces of ice that are invisible to radar.

Thus, for our last night at sea, rather than spell each other off to provide four hour sleep periods as we usually do, we took short turns outside in the cold dodging growlers and bergy-bits while the other watched the radar screen to plan the best route through the larger bergs toward our destination fjord. During all this the wind kept increasing with the forecasted gale so we had to maintain the watch and course alterations while shortening sail.

Narsaq Harbor
A few miles from the coast, the fog finally cleared to reveal the horizon ahead studded with mountains.  The icebergs that had hitherto been black electronic dots and occasional ghostly apparitions in the mist revealed themselves in the foreground as emerald hued apartment-block sized floating islands. All this grandeur was brilliantly lit by a golden sun reluctantly declining in the northwest.

Dinner ashore!
The wind died as we entered the fjord with 20 miles left to Narsaq. Under power we continued our bergy-bit dodging in the midnight twilight, the task immeasurably eased by the ice being hidden in ripples rather than waves. Sure we were passing the night without any sleep but after our windward slog out in the ocean, it was a joy to be drifting up a placid fjord surrounded by majestic dawn-lit mountains.

Then ... tie to a fishboat ... walk in the town ... dine out with someone else doing the cooking and dishes.


At 29/06/2013 07:50 (utc) our position was 60°54.46'N 046°02.63'W

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Sneaking Past the Giant

… we're now past and behind him. He's out there shaking his fist at other hapless mariners bound for Greenland from the UK or Iceland. Although his ugly face is turned towards them and they're enduring his gale-force winds, he's also managing to kicking up the dirt in our direction. We're sailing close-hauled with fairly high winds against us. Fortunately, we seem to be in our own little South Cape Farvel weather system and we are not far from where this wind starts blowing. This means the wave heights are not bad, and we're spared the huge upward thumps which ruin any attempt to do productive work.

What's the motion like? Imagine that you're on a trampoline with a random-motion-inducing machine attached which fails to honour any self-initiated action. Or that you've a nasty King-Kong sized adolescent in charge of your motions. He's playing with one of those children's toys which features a ball attached by elastic to a ping-pong racket. Reduced in this schema to the size of the ball, you're being tossed around at the whim of this malevolent character.

Seasickness was not a problem when my family sailed the N Atlantic via ship. Of course, it was really luxurious aboard the Maasdam and the Carinthia in the 50's during the heyday of big ocean-going vessels. Although ship passengers can experience some of this discomfort it's just not the same. They have the advantage of not having to do any work. We have to stand our full 12 hours of watches daily, attend to the weather, the charts, the sails, the icebergs and also all the domestic tasks. Every single task (especially in the galley or heads) is magnified in difficulty.

However (you say!) we've chosen this life. How do we cope with storms?

Firstly long before the advent of the storm, and while the boat is still quite stable, we batten down all the hatches (read a previous blog to see how we do this). An hour before really bad weather, we each install a Scapalomine patch to combat seasickness. These last for 3 days, and Larry rarely uses more than one whereas I sometimes resort to a second one if I still feel queasy.

In heavy weather, we find it essential to keep to our routines as much as possible. I remember when we started on my first offshore trip, we were trying to keep 6-hr watches. These quickly failed when one of us woke up and caught the other sleeping with a ringing alarm on their chest! We now alternate days. One day I'm "on" from 0800 to 1200, 1600-1800, 2000-2400 and 0400 to 0800. Now I'm "off" at 0800 and I will not cook or do dishes all this second day.

If we're on starboard tack the wind is blowing from the right-hand side of the boat. In this tack, all our dishes fall out of the cupboard if opened at the wrong time, and the stove is hard to work at. We make food preparation more simple. We call this "shower tack" because the drain is far to the left of the shower.

IN 20-30 KNOT HEAD WINDS: … especially on "shower" tack, we sometimes eat pizza or bread and butter. We dispense with salads and our normal Traversay III dessert. We only wash dishes once daily. We eat lots of nuts and chocolate.

On port (or "galley"tack), we don't shower because we get nasty bruises and the drain is on the port side. I don't use the computer because it's nearly impossible for me to keep my balance at the chart table (which is at a bad slant). I can read but I choose books that make no emotional claim on my limited resources - (biographies of happy people, certain kind authors). You'll also find me working numerous Sudoku puzzles in little booklets.

We don't have AS MUCH trouble cooking on this tack, and we take turns. I think so far this week I'm winning the cooking Challenge. Even though Larry came up with steak one night, he had to resort to pizza last night. So far this week I've cooked a crabmeat rotini dish, a pork tenderloin curry and today I'm making a green Thai-style chicken curry. I have used up the wonderful peppers grown in geo-thermal greenhouses in Iceland. I now wish we'd purchased a bushel of them and a bushel of tomatoes. From this you can tell we're on "galley" or port tack.

IN 35-40 KNOT HEAD-WINDS: I tend to try to sleep whenever I'm off-watch if the motion isn't too bad. When on-watch (and especially in the middle of the night), I cannot read or even work puzzles. On watch I set the alarm for 12 minutes to check the sails and watch for traffic. Mostly I just endure. Our friend Henrik gave me some little licorice pastilles from Denmmark. Munching on these has the added advantage of lubricating the mouth (dry mouth is one bad side-effect of Scapalomine). I'll be purchasing a lot more in Nuuk.

We're glad the worst threats of this trip seem to be over, and that we just need to endure 3 or 4 more days of 20-30 knot winds. 35-40 knots plus is not something you want to experience in a small boat.

At 27/06/2013 13:41 (utc) our position was 58°19.25'N 044°55.47'W

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Storm Warning

Sailing is always more enjoyable when the winds are from aft of the beam and, of course, not too strong. With this in mind, we always check forecast winds and waves along our route 8 days into the future as well as climatological expectations for our route and time of year.

And so it was as we prepared to depart from Reykjavik. Kap Farvel at the southern tip of Greenland has a thoroughly nasty reputation for storm force winds combined with year-round coastal ice. Nonetheless, for our passage, uncharacteristically benign conditions were on offer. So we made final preparations, arranged a visit by the customs and immigration authorities and set out to sea.

Forecasts, while thoroughly scientific, are not scripts for what is to come; they are just informed, calculated predictions. And so, just 12 hours out of port the forecasters began predicting that a storm would pummel Kap Farvel just around the time we would get there. Nautically a storm is roughly half way between a gale and a hurricane and is never a pleasant experience at sea. Oh well, remember that "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" advises the reader "don't panic".

And so we didn't. The storm was far enough into the future that we could head forward for two days and still have time to return to Reykjavik before being affected by it. That would allow a reassessment closer to the date of the storm as well as allowing the forecasters and computers who materialized the storm to dematerialize it on a later forecast.

As the first two days passed, the storm stayed stubbornly in the forecast but we became confident we could get to the other side of it before it arrived and experience a mere gale rather than a wicked storm. So we pressed on.

51N48W TO 49N55W WINDS 25 TO 40 KT. SEAS 8 TO 14 FT.
44N49W WINDS 20 TO 30 KT. SEAS 8 TO 12 FT.
20 TO 30 KT. SEAS 8 TO 12 FT.

And so here we are to the south of Kap Farvel with a steady west wind - strong but not as strong as anticipated. Because of this wind from the very direction we want to proceed, we can either sail south south west or north north west. With pack ice on the south coast and stronger winds near the cape, the southerly choice is really the only choice.

So we will go sideways for a day or so and then resume our travels toward a Greenland port on the west coast. It is really not so bad .. the sun is shining - glittering on the waves and lighting up their foam crests.

At 25/06/2013 16:00 (utc) our position was 57°55.06'N 042°10.70'W

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Vamp 'till ready

You're on stage with a pop band. Everyone else seems super cool … You look over at the singer who's giving a short autobiography of their life as related to the next song … on your chart you're following the directions 'Vamp 'till ready'. All of you are playing the same two bar phrase as the monologue continues until finally the leader says "… ANDA One, TWO … one ..two..three..four" and you're ON. .
The 'performance anxiety' described above is similar to what I now feel waiting for Larry to decide how to deal with our little part of the North Atlantic over the next week. Unlike the tropics where winds are mostly predictable, winds here seem to take bi-polar extremes. For over a day now we've been motoring through a calm. But a change is coming.

We have an axe hanging over us … we're trying to at least avoid the full force of that axe which will fall in 5-6 days. We're trying to get to a point (a largely mythical place) where the blow will be somewhat ameliorated … with winds not AS strong, the waves not AS high. PLEASE … just let us sneak past to the far side of the storm before the cruel downbeat can hammer us. We're prepared for a glancing blow but not for a direct 'hit'.

That Certificate of Advanced Performance hanging beside your piano and knowing that every single patron of the bar and your fellow musicians are falling-over-drunk will not necessarily keep you from absolute terror while 'vamping 'till ready' and waiting for the real gig to start. I apologize for earlier blogs that suggest this life is possible for all women. Right now I'm certainly not an expert and I'm wondering if I have "what it takes" for the upcoming storm …

But if you like watching a few dozen Arctic Terns swooping and wheeling over one particular patch of ocean, and if you want to experience the sun hovering over the sea to the West and never touching down, this is the place to be.

At 22/06/2013 22:25 (utc) our position was 60°33.45'N 031°44.65'W

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


Travel towards a goal can yield more than the goal itself - it may seem to be a cliché but we often find it to be true. We left Stornoway hoping to get to Greenland as quickly and safely as possible. Luckily (due to diminishing fuel and bad weather south of Greenland) we happily ended up in Iceland.

So often, it’s the people you’re fortunate to meet who make the difference … and we’ve met some fine 
fellow travellers and “locals”. When we got here the HMS Endeavour was tied in the prime spot at the dock. Captain George Richardson warmly invited us to come alongside and sent over some enthusiastic and attractive crew to assist. We have lovely memories of being tied up next to her sister ship ‘Discoverer’ in January 2008 in Antarctica. At that time, Captain Andrew and the crew were equally helpful although this time they were that little bit more attractive with four female crew members (in 2008 there was just one!) The crew are of varied experience and are drawn from all three services of Britain’s forces. These ships were newsworthy in the 70’s as Chay Blythes ‘Wrong way Around’ circumnavigators and the solid British Steel construction is still holding up well.
Hellisheiði Geothermal plant
Although we had a number of problems to fix, these were quite quickly sorted out. Frederick and his mechanics fixed our broken engine mount  by appearing at the boat and welding a new one within two hours. Fuel arrives conveniently by truck right to the boat tomorrow after which, if only the weather would co-operate we can leave.

We arrived during Iceland’s Independence Day weekend so we celebrated by seeing the “Golden Circle” via Sterna tours (high points are pictured). Our small group of five people chanced to be lucky when Gunnar Ingi Valdimarsson showed up as our leader. He’s a knowledgeable, organized and clever chap with a particularly wry and somewhat cynical command of the English language. We learned Iceland’s first parliament was conducted orally CE 930. Writing was developed and laws from 1157 are still visible on long-lasting calfskin with the original language so unchanged that it’s still understood by native speakers. Iceland came under the domination of various Scandinavian powers until - after having been occupied by Britain during the earlier war years and being constrained by a Danish economic monopoly for years – they became free on June 17, 1944.
Strokkur geyser

The economic recession of 2008 took its toll on both the Icelandic economy and Gunnar’s education which had included some years in Norway and a year in the US. He’s now using his marketing skills in the tourism industry which - along with IT and such companies as Össur (marketing prosthetic legs to Oscar Pistorius and others worldwide) – is now showing a gradual growth and may one day supplant fishing as the country’s most important industry.

Gullfoss waterfall
Not only the social fabric of the country (with only about 300,000 inhabitants) but also the fragile shell of Iceland’s epidermis are at risk if many huge cruise ships arrive at once. Not far under the top layer, you’ll find lava hot spots. The potential for volcanic action is always imminent by one of Iceland’s more than 130 volcanoes. The country is poised on the North Atlantic Rift System – and the earth’s crust is separating the Americas and Eurasia by about 2cm/yr. Whereas this is covered by ocean further south, it’s visible on the surface here.

Living over the Volcano has a few benefits, though. Iceland is practically self-sufficient (not counting motor fuel) with green energy. Boiling hot lava sub-surface heats surface water to create steam. Steam–powered turbines generate electricity, cooled by lakewater it provides a hotwater via a  pipeline all the way to Reykjavik. Steam comes up through the porous surface in various spots all over the inhabited parts of the country and allows people to luxuriate in hot tubs, saunas and heated outdoor swimming pools. The lakes and streams are crystal clear, the fishing is spectacular and you'd love the horses. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

Weather Routing

As we finished our departure preparations in Stornoway, forecasts indicated that the gentle southeast winds that had been blowing for days were about to be replaced by strong westerlies along our route toward Greenland. Sailing into strong winds is slow, exceedingly uncomfortable and to be avoided.

Given that sailing downwind in strong winds is fast (as sailboats go) and merely uncomfortable without additional qualifying adverbs, we used the last of the southeasterlies to shape a course well to the north of the direct route - passing close to the Faroes and Iceland. By passing to the north of various low pressure weather systems we could take advantage of the counterclockwise circulation around them.

Now as we rapidly approach Iceland, it is becoming clear that there will be a number of days of very light contrary winds involving many hours of motoring. This would be followed by a gale or possibly storm-force winds as we approach Kap Farvel [Cape Farewell] on the southern tip of Greenland. These gale-force winds, though perhaps not the NEXT spell of inclement weather, can be avoided by a short detour and a few days sightseeing around the Icelandic capital!

The above described process, combined with access to modern weather forecasting and to GPS goes a long way towards making seasonal high-latitude small boat voyages acceptably safe. As a matter of interest, airlines adjust their long-haul flight-paths daily to account for changing winds, rarely using the same route on successive days. This is more a matter of saving flight minutes and money, along with giving passengers a pleasant ride, rather than of safety. Nonetheless the principles are similar.

* * *

Surtsey at 2 am
In 1963, a new island emerged from the sea south of Iceland. Surtsey, named after Surtur - an evil spirit, is now 50 years old and has been kept almost free of human contact to be used for research into how life populates an initially sterile volcanic island. Near midnight tonight, we may pass close enough for a binocular look. Midnight is not very dark at 63 north latitude in midsummer!

At 14/06/2013 06:24 (utc) our position was 62°34.20'N 016°10.78'W

Saturday, 8 June 2013


Lews Castle
Our time here has been busy organizing the boat so that we can spend a long time at sea. I've bought a pressure cooker and am attempting to convince it to bake bread. It would save on propane gas which is difficult to come by and must be conserved for long trips. We're planning to go to Greenland, and provisioning properly has taken a lot of thought. Our measure for the economics in a country is a tin of mandarins. Mandarins here are 48p, so we're stocking up.
Feeding seals

Here in Stornoway, the local Port Authority are planning to put in a 40-yacht dock in the near future. However, at the moment boats still tie to a wall and adjust to the 4 meter tidal range. This has had some benefits ... from our deck we have a  view of Lews Castle, we can look at seals playing nearby or partaking of a free meal from our fishboat neighbour. Children in the local rowing club splash into the water near us and then crawl into their kayaks. Even the kids are tough in the Western Isles!
Making Harris tweed

We can chat with 'locals' as they saunter by the boat, and one such was Jock Murray. Chatting about where we'd been brought forth the information that he'd been a whaler at the South Georgia station in the closing years of whaling and had subsequently spent years as a detective with Scotland Yard. He's a local boy who "made good" and came back here to live having purchased his grandparents croft.
Standing Stones

He offered to take us on a tour of the island ... we saw how Harris Tweed is still hand-and-foot manufactured, how people in his grandfather's time lived (in black houses) and we saw
the Standing Stones of Callanish.
Black Houses

We saw HIS sheep, and were then invited to his home for a wonderful dinner with his wife Donalda. Jock's written a great book "The Whaler of Scotland Yard" about his impressive adventures whaling and then arresting bad guys - car thieves, murderers and drug pushers. The book is easily available from Amazon ... as we each needed a copy, we have a print copy and a Kindle copy.

With Donalda and Ian ('Jock') Murray