Extreme Arctic Adventure: Sailing to Greenland and The North West Passage

Sailing expedition on an extreme Arctic Adventure

Last summer my girlfriend and I went on an extreme Arctic Adventure!  We were asked to take part in a sailing expedition to Greenland and across the Arctic to Alaska.  This is a lonely world of cold, wind, ice bergs and polar bears! And we were going to sail through it on a 13m aluminium sailing boat…  Awesome!

Extreme Arctic Adventure

Our Team for the Extreme Arctic Adventure

Captain Joe (60) was from Alaska.  Shanan (22) from New Mexico, Jeremie (26) from Montreal, Gracie (26) Minneapolis, USA, and myself, Chris from New Zealand.  Luckily we liked each other…. we would spend the next 3 months together on a 13m boat!

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My amigos for the next couple months!

The Yacht for our Arctic Adventure

And most important of all was our yacht. The mighty SV Hawk.  She was designed for the Arctic and made out of 8mm aluminium with plenty of insulation and a strong heater. Her previous owners had sailed her around the world.

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Our awesome yacht!

When you go to places like the Arctic, you are by yourself.  If your vessel or crew fail that’s it, game over. There’s very little chance of rescue and you probably will never come home.  Before we left we had to have total trust in the five of us and the yacht.

The shopping list

The first thing to do before our Arctic adventure was the shopping and prepping the yacht.  We had to think of and prepare every single thing we would need for the next 4 months!  This is just some of what we bought…

1100 eggs, 20 cabbages,  25kg potatoes,  20kg Onions,  15 pumpkins,  20kg carrots, 80 cans tuna,  60 cans salmon,  60 cans chicken,  80 cans olives, 100 cans tomatoes,  15L almond butter,  10kg bacon,  25kg of Cheese,  5kg butter,  60 cans of milk,  10 loaves of bread,  8kg crackers,  100 apples,  60  oranges,  15kg salami,  25kg oats,  25kg rice,  30kg pasta,  30hg flour,  40kg fruit and nuts

Some history

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Crazy Arctic landscape

There have been only about 200 small vessels (under 20m) to ever complete the North West Passage and when you set off the chances of getting to Alaska are 50/50.  That’s if you even make it up to Greenland!

The captain of the yacht (Joe) found us on a classifieds page on Latitude 38.  This is where captains look for crew.  Anyone can put an advertisement on here and it’s an awesome way to find a volunteer crew position sailing anywhere in the world!! You crew for free and sometimes share expenses in exchange for incredible experiences!!

This trip cost us about USD $2000 each.  We only paid for food.  The rest of the expenses were covered by the captain.

Departure:  22nd July Baltimore, USA to Halifax, Canada

The first 4 days of our Arctic adventure were absolutely horrible.  We came out into the end of a tropical storm with 45 Knot wind gusts and towering ten metre waves.  I was terribly sea sick and wanted to die.  Joe had plenty of sailing experience and he was teaching us all how to sail.  Shanan and Jérémie had some sailing experience but never on the high seas.  Gracie and I had never sailed before. We were all thrown in at the deep end but luckily we were all very capable and learned fast.

Halifax to Greenland

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‘Steer’ing through the mess!

Two days north of Halifax, just off the coast of Newfoundland, disaster struck!  Our steering wheel broke!  It sounds serious and it is, however our auto pilot still worked.  We changed course and headed straight for the nearest town, Stephenville, Newfoundland.

It took five days for a new part to be sent to this small isolated town and during this time we got to know some of the locals in this awesome little fishing village.  The most generous was the mayor of the town who lent us a car and took us out to dinner, Newfoundland style!  All you can eat pizza…   At night we sang sea shanties with the local fisherman on the beach around the campfire.

Once we fixed the steering wheel we were off again and it was a fast passage as we followed winds all the way to Greenland.

Between Baltimore and Greenland, we saw whales.  So many of them that they weren’t exciting anymore.  Sometimes there would be 100 pilot whales swimming along behind us and every morning on sunrise there would be dolphins riding our bow wave.

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Can you imagine being tired of whale spotting!

We sailed 24/7 taking turns around the clock.  Always 2 people on watch at any time.  In the middle of the night, we would see Luminescent Phosphorescents.   All the waves would be glowing psychedelic green!

Baltimore to Greenland had been our training and familiarisation with the yacht and our crew mates.  We always saw Greenland as the last place we could pull out if we had major safety concerns.  At this point, we were confident, ready to begin our Arctic adventure and head into the unknown!

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Nuuk, The capital of Greenland. We took the longest taxi ride that is possible in Greenland, it takes 10 minutes. There aren’t roads here.

Greenland to Pond Inlet

We sailed up the west coast of Greenland to a place called Disco Bay, home of the ice bergs.

Disco Bay was one of the most incredible places I have ever been.  The Ilulissat Ice Fiord is massive and completely full of ice bergs.  In the early morning, the wind was bitterly cold and we were tacking around the huge chunks of ice.   Around 8 am we anchored in a sheltered little bay and went ashore.  Everywhere you looked there was ice and we could see in the distance where the glaciers began.

We spent four more hours motoring through the bergs looking for a way into the town of Ilulissat itself.  There wasn’t a breath of the wind, completely magical.  I was at the top of the mast searching for a way through.  We watched a local seal hunter shoot a seal from 90m in his small fibre glass boat.

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Just the tip of the iceberg…

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Freezing our asses off but smiling through it!

The Greenlandic town of Ilulissat

Ilulissat town is just incredible.  It has this crazy little boat harbour with hundreds of small seal hunting boats, some even have harpoons for hunting whales.  It’s normal to buy whale or seal in the meat markets here.

All the houses in Greenland are painted bright colours.  For nine months of the year, this is the only colour the locals will see.  Even in the middle of summer, it’s still only five degrees here.

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Look at the colourful boats dotting the waters…

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Such myriad landscape!

Shanan’s first fish

We decided to stop for some fishing the next day.  Shanan had never caught a fish before so she dropped down a cod jig with 5 hooks.  Instantly she got a fish on and began to pull it up.  She complained it was too heavy and we gave her a hard time for not being stronger and for taking too long.  Anyway, it turns out she had five large cod out of five hooks!!  Beginners luck certainly played its part there!

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Killed it with this catch!

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Doorway to heaven…

Our first Canadian Inuit Community

The first stop of our Arctic adventure in the Canadian Arctic was Pond Inlet.  Sadly most of the Inuit culture in this part of the Arctic is gone.  They still hunt and fish but only as a secondary food source after the supermarket that sells American junk food for crazy prices.  One lady I saw paid $200 for one normal sized box of groceries.  While walking around these towns it’s not uncommon to see polar bear or caribou skins hanging out to dry.  Anything that moves is fair game and seen as food here!

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Gracie on the beach at Pond Inlet. We had to move 400L of diesel from this beach to refuel the boat in 20L Jerry cans.

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Look at us mad mofos!

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For many hours we tried to catch an Arctic Salmon….without success

Pond Inlet to Gjoa Haven

We continued our Arctic adventure through Lancaster Sound to Beechey Island, the wintering over sight for the lost Franklin Expedition in the 1800s.  Besides my trip to Antarctica, this is the most desolate place I have ever been.  There are no plants, no lichens on the rock, nothing living in the water, just sand, rocks, and Polar Bears.  Wait who said Polar Bears…?

Look there a Polar Bear!

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When you spot a cutie in the distance!

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Look there… the fluffy white dot that you just want to run up to and hug but you know it’s a really bad idea!

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These guys weren’t so lucky as us. In the 1850s they spent 3 winters in this desolate place and eventually went crazy and died from lead poisoning.  The lead came from the tins their food was preserved in. What a horrible way to die.  Note the rifle we always carried encase of Polar Bear attack.

South

From Beachey Island we headed south down Peel Sound. Usually, this is hard to navigate through due to thick sea ice but with our ice charts we downloaded each day via the sat phone we knew it was safe to navigate south.  You never want to get between a large area of ice and the shore.  And if you do you are history!  Your boat will be crushed in minutes.  Don’t want that….!

Here we saw more polar bears too.

On the southeast side of King William Island is Gjoa Haven, another small Inuit village.  Here the locals were catching Arctic Salmon.  They would hang fish in the sun to dry into Salmon jerky.  There were also bits of Caribou and polar bear drying.  They preserve these for the long winter.  There are no igloos anymore but hey it’s still pretty cold and miserable for them most of the year.

Gjoa Haven to Tuktoyaktuk to Nome

Halfway between Gjoa Haven and Tuktoyaktuk we had an uncontrolled jibe.  This is where our huge sail crashes across with a huge bang.  If it hits you your dead. And important parts of the boat can break.  It was one of the scariest split seconds of my Arctic adventure, maybe my life, and we were lucky to escape with just some minor damage.

The Bering Sea at the top of Alaska is one of the roughest oceans in the world.  Here we again had a storm.  With 45 knot winds and scary 10m waves, we were tossed around like a cork on the ocean.   But hey at least we were kind of used to it by then!

At night we would see the northern lights dancing above us with the crescent moon.  One of the most spectacular special things I have ever seen.  Raw nature at its best.

Gracie at the helm in a storm. Note the harness that we would wear so we couldn’t be lost overboard

A big wave rising up behind me

Our first shower in 5 weeks!

I’m not going to describe that shower but yes it was amazing!  Never has a shower felt so good.  Even after scrubbing for 5 minutes there’s still dead skin coming off you haha!  It’s all a part of the Arctic adventure.

Here we saw 5 other yachts who had been sailing just in front of us.  It was awesome to share stories over beer at the local gold miners bar.

Nome boat harbour is full of gold dredges and people trying to get famous on TV and rich with gold.  For this is where Discoveries “Bering Sea Gold” is filmed.

There is nothing more spectacular than a sunrise on the ocean. I got to see it every day as my watch was from 4 am to 8 am each morning.

Nome to Kodiak

Here the weather god shone down on us and gave us amazing conditions all the way to the final destination of our Arctic adventure, Kodiak, Alaska. Our second last night we anchored up in Geographic harbour, Katmai National Park.

In the morning there were 10 huge grizzly bears fishing for salmon in the river…another magical sight.

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Another cuddly creature you probably shouldn’t hug!

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Kodiak Boat Harbour!! Our final destination

Kodiak and the end of our Arctic Adventure!

In Kodiak, we were treated like celebrities by the locals.  Everyone wanted to hear our stories and see our pictures.  They invited us out every night for dinner and drinks.  An amazing way to finish off a trip of a life time with such hospitable people.

When we set out we never quite knew if we would make it.  On expeditions like this, there is always that chance of things going wrong.  The number one goal is to make it home alive.  And we had done it!!

And that was my Extreme Arctic Adventure.

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About the Author

Christian Long

To see more of my adventures in Antarctica, China, New Zealand and lots of other places, please visit my blog – Footsteps of a Wildkiwi.

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