Young Breton sailor Guirec Soudée and his famous red hen, Monique, ride out Christmas ice-bound in Greenland. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract
Say what you will, but the French have got style. We Anglo-Saxons may fancy ourselves as adventurers, but then along comes an unsponsored lad from North Brittany in a 30ft steel boat and trumps us all. Not only is his voyage more than notable in its own right, his choice of shipmate is unique. Very few single-handers take pets along for the ride. Examples like Pete Crowther who shipped out with his cat on the longest-ever passage in the single-handed Atlantic races are rare, but Guirec Soudée decided to sign on his favourite chicken.
A little red hen called Monique accompanied him to the Caribbean, wintered in Northwest Greenland, sailed on through the Northwest Passage, down to Antarctica and home again to Brittany, rewarding him with an egg a day whenever she could manage it.
Guirec was just 18 when he slipped his lines. His humility, humour and youthful love for the world around him shines through every page of his inspiring book, A Sailor, a Chicken, an Incredible Voyage. We are lucky enough to join him and Monique aboard Yvinec over Christmas and the New Year far up the coast of Northwest Greenland. Things are not going smoothly…
Sometimes, I worry I’m going mad. I’m talking to a chicken, grooming my facial hair with a fork and I could do with a really good meal.
It must be a little after eleven in the morning when I see it. Heading out on deck, I can suddenly sense something moving really close to the boat. Maybe it’s just a chunk of ice. Maybe I’m hallucinating. I keep my eyes trained on the same spot, and again, there’s a ripple in the water. There it is, a seal! With the cutest little round head and whiskers. Instinctively, I think ‘meat’ and ‘dinner’ and duck down into the cabin to fetch my rifle.
When I come back out, the seal is still there. Just as it pokes its head out of the water, I tuck the butt of the rifle into the crook of my shoulder and take aim.
I’m about to pull the trigger. The seal isn’t moving a muscle. It’s just looking at me, not a hint of fear in its eyes. Its handsome face is right in my sights.
I lower the rifle. I can’t seem to think straight. I pull myself together, tuck the rifle into my shoulder again, and take aim. If I land this seal, I’ll have enough meat for the next two months. But still the seal doesn’t move. It could dive and swim away, but it doesn’t. It just looks at me with puppy-dog eyes, and says, ‘Come on, you’re not going to do that to me, are you?’
It really spoke to me, I swear.
I can’t bring myself to pull the trigger. I’d never forgive myself. This is the seal’s home. I’m the stranger here, intruding on its territory. I don’t have the right to do this. Or the heart.
I let the seal swim off and put away my rifle. I’m really going to have to up my fishing game.
The pack ice only ends up holding for two days. The next night, the wind blows hard. Some of the gusts clock in at 35, even 40 knots. From my berth, I can feel the boat shifting. The ice is damping the movement. It feels like we’re stuck in mud.
The swell has started to form, and it’s rolling beneath the thin crust of sea ice. The ice is starting to crack into big pieces. The motion of the waves is pitching the pieces up and down, and they’re gaining momentum in the troughs between the peaks.
The ice isn’t very thick, so it won’t do much damage when it hits the boat, but if a growler or a small iceberg were to hit the hull with the same force, it would be a serious problem. What am I supposed to do? There’s still too much ice for me to raise anchor.
By the morning of day three, the wind has dropped a little. In the light of dawn, I climb up to the first spreader. The view from up there is incredible. The entire expanse of sea ice has cracked apart. It looks like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
The wind has started to blow again, and the pieces of the puzzle are jiggling around, bumping into one another like bumper cars at the fairground.
These are hefty slabs of ice, nothing like the thin plates I saw the other day. They are as hard as rock. Things weren’t good before, but now the bay is a living hell. And Yvinec, Monique, and I are caught in the middle of it all. We could find ourselves crushed at any time. The anchor chains are encased in ice and can’t hold the weight of the boat anymore, not now that it’s ballasted with all the chunks of pack ice stuck to the hull. We’re drifting toward the shore. I can hear the chain groaning. I can feel the anchors slipping. The boat is definitely moving.
Outside, the visibility is zero. The wind is howling a solid 30 knots, and it’s blowing all the snow off the summits and sending it swirling around in squalls.
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Powerless, all I can do is glue my eyes to the depth-sounder and try to estimate how far away we are from the shallows. The needle is starting to go down, first from 65ft to 60ft, then 50, and on it goes, until it reads 12ft. It won’t be long before we run aground.
It’s time for me to put on my drysuit and grab my dry bags. In one of them is my survival kit, with the tent and freeze-dried food. I’ve filled the other with everything else I’m going to need: sleeping bag, camp stove, clothing, rice for me, grain for Monique, and headlamp, among other things. Then I sit down on the edge of my berth with the bags at my feet, hold Monique in my lap, and wait.
And there you have it: we’ve run aground. But we’re not leaving the boat, not yet.
We’re still in the ice, and there’s no water around us, so we’re not sinking. That’s the golden rule in the Navy: as long as you’re still afloat, you don’t abandon ship. We’re lucky our sailboat has a steel hull. If it were made of plastic, we’d have sunk by now. Months later, the local fishermen are going to find a sailor and a chicken frozen to death.
Dark thoughts are the last thing you need when you’re up shit creek. If you start to lose hope, that’s when you’re completely screwed. Success is dependent on attitude. You have to stay positive. Right now, the plan has to be to somehow get back afloat and get the hell out of here.
Holed up warm and cozy inside the cabin, Monique and I can hear the wind whistling outside. The boat heels to the side, then rights herself before heeling over once more. Everything is shaking. Books are falling from the shelves and dishes are rattling in the sink.
Through the cabin windows, we see vast sheets of water and ice crashing over us. It’s terrifying. The sound is deafening. It pains me to think what this is doing to the boat. I’m sure everything must be getting completely trashed.
In my lap, Monique isn’t moving a muscle. She looks up at me, and I can tell she’s worried too. She knows something isn’t quite right. I give her feathers a gentle rub and tell her that everything is going to be alright, that we’re going to be just fine.
By reassuring her, I’m reassuring myself too. Oh, poor Momo, what have I roped you into? She’ll never survive if we have to abandon ship.
We aren’t completely out of luck, though. I get the sense we’ve managed to avoid the rocks, and we’re resting on the sand. The next morning, that best-case scenario is confirmed. The wind has turned, and now, thanks to the high tide, we’re afloat again. I fire up the engine and we motor away to cast anchor again in a good 60ft of water. That night, when I’m lying snug and cozy in my bunk, I look out through the cabin window and smile up at the stars.
That’s how Monique and I ring in our second Christmas together. Last year we were celebrating in St Barts, and I was out on deck in boardshorts watching the spectacular fireworks. Today, we have nothing fancy to celebrate with. One of us is chowing down on his rice, and the other is pecking at her grain.
It’s 0600 in the morning on New Year’s Eve and Yvinec is heeled over about 40° on her port side. The depth-sounder is telling me we’re in 45ft of water, but still we’ve run aground. We must have drifted free from the shore overnight, only to hit a sandbar. The wind is blowing 30 knots, the water temperature is a frigid 30° Fahrenheit, and the air temperature is -22°. With the wind chill, it feels closer to -40°.
I’m powerless. All I can do is try to stay calm. Our fate lies in the hands of Mother Nature. We can only count on the wind, the tide, and the current to get us out of here. There’s a lot riding on the strength of the boat too. Once again, I have the survival kit at the ready. I’m not sure we’ll be quite so lucky a second time. Unless there are greater forces at work. I’m not usually a believer, but if the situation calls for it…
New year, new ice
Out on deck, I can see big, fat snowflakes falling through the beam of my flashlight. It’s so cold, I can’t feel the tips of my fingers at the end of my gloves. We’re beached about 60ft from the shore. And there’s a nasty-looking growler sitting barely 6ft away. Maybe I can give it a push. First with one foot, then the other, I step out gingerly onto a slab of ice beside the boat. It seems solid enough to me. Hanging on to the edge of the boat, I inch my way around the boat, camera in hand.
Suddenly, the slab of ice I’m standing on breaks loose and starts to drift away. I only just manage to scramble back aboard in time. What a stupid thing for me to do. I really can’t afford to take risks like that. Seriously, in these temperatures, if I fell into the water without my drysuit, I don’t think I’d last very long.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and for 35 days, I’ve been holed up in this damn bay with nothing to do but suffer my way through one ordeal after the other.
I came out here to live a dream, and it’s turned out to be a nightmare. I’m willing to make whatever sacrifices and end up losing 40lb if I must, but I don’t want to lose my boat. My whole life is on this boat. This boat is the reason why I busted my ass halfway across the world and left my life at home behind when I was 18 years old. I have this boat to thank for bringing Monique into my life. So please, whatever happens, don’t let my boat go down.
I think about my father. I’ve never been afraid of death and I’m definitely not worried about it now that I know I won’t be alone up there when my time comes. I’m not in any kind of hurry. I love life, and there are still lots of things I want to do and plenty of adventures I want to experience.
To pass the time, I decide to tidy up the cabin. When I come across some brightly coloured paper garlands from St Barts, I slip one of them over my head and another around Monique’s neck, then I turn on the video camera and pretend that everything is okay. ‘Happy New Year, my sweet Momo!’
I’ve had a terrible night, constantly waking to the sounds of the boat bumping aground. Between nightmares and keeping watch, I’ve lost count of how many times I thought the hull had caved in under the relentless attacks from the swell. I might have worried Yvinec was a bit of a rust bucket, but she’s turning out to be a tough one who can really hold her own.
This morning, the tide has come in, the wind has dropped, and my berth is quietly swaying. The boat isn’t listing to the side the way it was last night, and I can feel a slight rocking movement. It sure looks as if Yvinec has righted herself.
I tug a hat over my ears before I head out on deck. A good amount of the ice has given way to open water. The tide is high, and the wind has set us free.
It’s a miracle. I can pull up the anchor. And just like that, gently we glide away in the light of the Arctic dawn.
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