Two slothful weeks end with a Bang

Summer 2022
John Andrews
Fri 8 Aug 2014 19:32

Well, it’s now 7th August, or is it the 8th? I’ve just checked the log and see we arrived on 24th July – is this possible? Apart from our little ice foray, we’ve just been here for just over two weeks! Despite social visits, quizzes, musical evenings, fruitless fishing trips etc, a certain amount of sloth and lethargy has inevitably crept in. I haven’t even had the energy to post a blog.

We’ve had expeditions ashore, always with a gun slung over one shoulder. Not just for show, as it turns out. Another polar bear has turned up on this side of the bay, but has shown no interest in any of us.

We have visited the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police)post, a desolate collection of abandoned wooden huts, last occupied in 1951. These islands are in disputed waters, with Canada naturally claiming them, but with other nations, particularly Russia, claiming that they are in international waters. So it was that a post was set up on the island in the 1920s, and three officers were sent for a year with no prospect of being taken off. It is bleak enough in the summer, but must have been terrible in the long, dark winter. Not even Inuit people lived on the island. It proved too much for one young man, who shot himself in 1926, and whose grave is up on the hillside, alongside that of another officer who shot himself accidentally two years later while hunting walrus.

The Canadians still actively demonstrate their ownership by flying surveillance planes over the area. While we were ashore a few days ago we were actually called up by a plane that had made several passes over the bay, wanting to identify all the yachts that were anchored there. We had our hand held radio with us, and had a long communication with them. We asked if they could see what the ice conditions were like further West, but they weren’t able to help, unfortunately.

More and more boats are arriving in Dundas Harbour, most intending to try and make it through the North West Passage. Six yachts are currently anchored here, four British and two Canadian. A few others have gone West and are keeping us informed about ice conditions there and some have already headed South towards Nova Scotia and the Eastern US, or back to Britain.  After our ice adventure, we are taking good heed of the advice given to us by Peter Semotiuk, a former resident of Cambridge Bay, now Yellowknife, who has for many years helped yachts through the North West Passage. He is saying that all the other bays on the South of Devon Island are prone to ice choking and Dundas Harbour is the safest place to stay. Much as we would like a change of scenery, we are staying put for the time being. The boats that have gone West, have indeed encountered ice and are having to keep a constant anchor watch which with only three on board would be very tiresome indeed.

There is a lot of to-ing an fro-ing between the yachts, and exchange of information about ice, prospects for opening up of channels, and what the best alternative plans might be. Canadian and American boats have reinforced that trying to get to Vancouver any time after mid September is crazy. Huge storm systems arise out of the blue driven by the change in temperature at that time of year. Two or three huge storms would be guaranteed on any crossing. We are therefore looking at places to winter the boat in Alaska, should we make it through. This would mean the following summer taking the boat in short hops down the Alaskan coast which is apparently stunning.

Another American boat has waxed lyrical about sailing in Maine. They have given us detailed charts of the area, and also contact details of marinas and yards where we could winter the boat.  We would have to work out the best way of getting there avoiding the worst of the ice bergs. It might mean going back to Greenland, and perhaps seeing some of the South of the country which we missed on the way up.

As each day goes by, we are getting closer to the stage where we will have to make a decision as to whether we go on or whether we move on to Plan B. Western Lancaster Sound and Prince Regent Sound have been opening up, but Peel Sound, the preferred route, remains stubbornly blocked and there is solid ice beyond which is showing little sign of breaking up or melting. We do not intend to wait much longer, as we do not want to find ourselves in the Western Part of the NWP as the weather starts deteriorating.

So our plans now are to go over to Arctic Bay later today, where we can refuel and re-provision. This is now apparently ice-free. We will have internet access there and will be able to study all the ice charts and decide whether we will be turning left or right when we sail North again out of Admiralty Inlet.

We were jolted out of our sloth and lethargy in no uncertain terms yesterday and overnight. Protected Dundas Harbour may be, but gale/storm force winds from the North East made for an extremely uncomfortable twenty four hours. The hills, rather than providing protection, seem to concentrate the wind so that huge squalls whip the water into a frenzy and then hurl themselves in a fury down the short fetch to where we are all anchored.

We had gone to bed having watched the midnight sun perform its set and rise above the glacier at the head of the bay, in perfectly calm conditions. We were awoken early in the morning to the sound of a fearsome wind and looking out realized that our dinghy had overturned, complete with engine, luckily still attached but now fully immersed in the water. John and Max managed to recover the dinghy and get the engine on board and spent the morning while conditions were not too extreme, stripping the engine down, removing all the fuel and oil and the quantities of sea water that had got into the system. Remarkably, when they had put it all back together again, the engine started after only a few pulls and seems to be running normally.

Conditions however deteriorated and it was now getting extremely uncomfortable. Several yachts were having problems with dragging anchors and were trying to manoevre and re-anchor in increasingly difficult circumstances. Our new Rocna anchor did sterling service until the squalls reached 58 knots, in the middle of the night, of course, and we then dragged a few boat lengths before the anchor reset itself. We have not moved since. All the boat crews were up throughout the night monitoring the situation, and sleep was impossible in the horrendous conditions. The 50 ft. boat next to us developed a nightmare situation when the top of her foresail started to unfurl  with a loud bang and began flogging itself to death. Their only solution was either to get the sail down, or to unfurl it and furl it up again. They decided to unfurl, but as they were doing so an almighty gust hit them and the boat was laid nearly flat in the water. From our boat we had a clear view of her keel – a very frightening moment. Boats are designed to come upright again though, and she did pop back up and they managed to complete the furling of their sail. There were only two people on board, both of them at one stage on the foredeck, which was being washed by the huge waves that were coming down on them. We contacted them when the wind had calmed down and they were very tired and wet but safe again.

The only damage to us was to one of our 50 mm diameter ice poles ( known as “tuks” in these waters), which are stored upright in plastic tubes. It had simply been snapped in two like a match stick by wind pressure alone.

It is now early afternoon after the storm. We have all had a sleep and some ‘brunch’ and have set off for Arctic Bay. There is brilliant sunshine, a sparkling sea and a gentle wind and we are looking at the dramatic hills of Devon Island newly dusted with snow, recede into the distance behind us.