Journey to Ilulissat

Summer 2022
John Andrews
Thu 17 Jul 2014 12:54

69:14N 051:04W

Voyage to Ilulissat

“So what are the plans for tomorrow?” James asked casually over dinner. “Oh, refuelling, finding out where to get water, sorting out the hydro-generator”, said John. The usual, in other words. ”So no possibility of going to Ilulissat then?” James, Kat and Max had spent the day exploring Aasiaat, and had pretty much covered everything the small town had to offer. They were beguiled by the Lonely Planet’s take on Ilulissat . “This is it. This is why you came to Greenland and spent all that money. Ilulissat is one of these places so spectacular that it just makes everything else pale in comparison. Within walking distance of town you will be confronted with icebergs of such gargantuan proportions that they are truly incomprehensible.” This is the Jacobshaven Isfjord, the northern hemisphere’s biggest glacier at sea level, producing 200,000 tonnes of ice and advancing 40 metres every day in summer. “Absolutely not,” continued John, “there will be far too much ice at this time of the year, we’ll never get in”.  As the evening wore on, however, we noticed that the pilot books were coming out, and later, up in the Fishermen’s Home where we went to access the internet, an ice chart was downloaded. “Well, it says there’s three tenths ice outside Ilulissat – that’s just about navigable for a yacht if we take it carefully. Perhaps we could go and see and turn back if it’s impossible.”

The following morning dawned foggy and damp. We had our porridge breakfast, refuelled the boat, and by the time we had done that the fog had lifted, the sun had come out, so off we set. We had passed a few icebergs on the way in, but now there was a steady procession of icebergs, of all different shapes and sizes and Kat was in seventh heaven, photographing them all from different angles as they passed by. At one point a great block of ice fell off the side of one of these leviathans and crashed into the sea. Don’t get too close!

 “A whale!” Kat shouted suddenly– “A whale’s tail!”.  And sure enough, a few minutes later, we all saw a whale spout, then the shape of its back and fin as it rolled out of the water, and then, spectacularly, the whole of its distinctive black and white tail, identifying it as a hump-back.

We motored on towards Ilulissat, getting closer and closer to what looked like an impenetrable wall of ice in front of the town. We had been told that ice can look completely impassable, but as you get nearer, leads open up and you can find your way through. We changed course towards the North, to see if it looked easier to get through, but there seemed to be no break in the ice at all. Suddenly we saw two small speed boats chasing along the edge of the ice. They must have come from Ilulissat, so there must be a way through. We turned towards the wall, and sure enough, as we got closer, gaps opened up and we entered the ice.

We found ourselves in a complete wonderland of ice and water. It was eerily quiet. The conditions were ideal for our first ice experience; the sky was clear, the sun was shining, there was no wind and no possibility of fog. At first we were able to gently nose our way through, nudging small bits of ice away with the boat. The ice got a bit thicker and we cut the engine, and listened to the silence. Only it wasn’t silent. All the clear bits of ice near us were fizzing, releasing gas that had been trapped for thousands of years in the glacier. This of course is not the sea ice that we will meet in the North West Passage, but fresh water glacier ice. In amongst the smaller pieces of ice there were much, much larger icebergs, some almost the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. They were melting fast in the hot sunshine, and had waterfalls coursing down them. Judging from the roar of water, there must have been considerable waterfalls inside the glaciers themselves. It wasn’t long before the ice poles came out. James and Max went on the foredeck and pushed the larger bits of ice away to stop them scraping along the hull. Progress was painfully slow as we felt our way forward. We were encouraged by the appearance from time to time of small motorboats in this maze of ice. They were hunting, seals I suppose, and we heard the occasional crack of rifle fire, although on reflection it may have been the crack of glaciers breaking up. It didn’t take much imagination to conjure up the vision of kayaks being paddled through the ice floes by Inuit hunters intent on catching seals.  Our passage through the seven miles of ice took us nearly four hours, and there was always the fear that we would not be able make it through and have to turn back. Eventually, to our relief,the leads got wider and wider and finally there was clear passage through to Ilulissat.

As we approached the harbour, a big Royal Arctic container vessel came out. We assumed she would take a northerly route round the edge of the ice. Not a bit of it. With one blast of her horn, she turned smartly to port, towards us, and ploughed straight into the ice that we had so painstakingly wound our way through.

Ilulissat harbour is very sheltered, but extremely smelly and excessively crowded, not helped by having a large sunken fishing boat right in the middle. We found a pontoon to tie up to, but a boat owner approached us and said that it was private and we couldn’t just moor up there. We asked whether we could pay to stay the night, and he kindly rang the owner. The owner was not happy though, because of a local phenomenon called the ‘Kanele’. Apparently, when a particularly large iceberg calves from the glacier, a tsunami type wave almost 2 metres high is created which curls into the harbour and causes mayhem. He told of us of a very quiet inlet just round the corner, so we made our way there and found ourselves on our own in a very protected anchorage, with just a few bits of ice floating near the shore. It was perfect.

It was late, but the sun was still up. We had the obligatory ‘anchor nip’, a good supper and then to bed to dream of ice. A real adventure.