A resourceful single-handed sailor overcomes obstacles while sailing a junk-rigged schooner in Greenland. Introduced by Tom Cunliffe

Dave Leet’s Nomad is a junk-rigged schooner which he sails mostly single-handed. He certainly puts the miles in, because although this article is about his experiences in West Greenland, when I wrote to him about his work he was in Martinique where he’d been waiting out Covid.

The account here is edited from three articles written from his blog (svnomad.blogspot.com) for the magazine of the excellent Junk Rig Association. Talking with Dave makes crystal clear his view that remote places like Greenland should only be cruised by sailors with a totally self-help attitude, and the way he rebuilds his gearbox to replace the seals from spares which he ‘just happens to have on board’ says a great deal about this modest man.

Leet also notes that the Greenland and Canadian authorities give yachts no hassle so long as they clear in, keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. His cruise to the top of Disko Bay at 70° North, where ice conditions slip him the wink that it’s time to turn south, is exemplary. To be alone on one’s boat, sharing the bay with only icebergs in the Arctic twilight as the aurora blazes above you is an experience granted to very few.

Dave Leet’s blog articles were published in the Junk Rig Association’s magazine

Dave Leet’s junk rig adventure

Well rested and with a full load of fuel, Nomad headed toward the source of all the ice floating around Disko Bay. Icebergs became more numerous as I approached the shoreline, and this was my first experience navigating close-up to them in bright light. They are a brilliant white that stands out against the blue sky, quite unlike their usual near-invisibility in foggy overcast conditions.

Approaching Quasigiannguit late in the day it was easy to work around a number of bergs in the harbour entrance and head for the far end of the bay. Anchoring in water as shallow as possible limits the size of iceberg that can run into your boat.

Leaving the harbour and steering around an ever-increasing number of bergs I headed up towards what looked like a solid wall of ice in the distance. Sailing closer revealed there was space to get between the bergs, where many were grounded near shore. Two rocks noted on the chart were hidden in the ice field, but no soundings are given in this area. Carefully working through the ice I found that the Nordre Huse anchorage was clear.

A strong breeze began blowing down the fjord late in the day so I felt it was safe to spend the night behind the icefield. It was a surreal experience with ice coloured by the twilit arctic night and the sounds of the glacier moving, clearly audible through the hull. Outside, an occasional sound like thunder could be heard as pieces of glacier broke off.

It’s only a few miles around the glacier face to Illulissat, so I spent a fascinating morning motoring between the gigantic icebergs at the front of the glacier. Entering the tiny inner harbour I found it extremely crowded with no convenient place to tie up Nomad. With some difficulty I got her turned around and out of the harbour. The three cruise ships in town supplied enough encouragement for me to clear off and head instead for the tiny village of Oquaatsut with its sheltered bay for the night.

Sometimes the best planning doesn’t help in the remote areas of the Arctic. After carefully working my way into an unsurveyed area I was greeted by the sight of a small berg grounded in the cove and the shallow areas full of bergy bits. It was obvious where the local fishermen tied to the rock wall in 40ft of water, but I was not comfortable with the amount of ice coming in with the wind so I retreated to a cove with a sandy patch showing at low tide.

The north entrance to Smallesund appeared closed by ice, but getting nearer I could see there was space enough to get through by the rock wall. Torssukkatak was full of ice, but navigable. Here at 70°N looking down the ice-choked Vaigat channel north of Disko Island I reluctantly decided it was time to head south towards the deep water around the islands on the west coast of Arve Prinsens Ejland.

It was no problem navigating the uncharted channels between them to the abandoned settlement at Ritenbank where I found a large shallow shelf allowing good anchorage with some current.

Close ice encounter.

Ice and smoke

Early in the morning I was awoken when a resounding thump shook the boat. Sitting up, all that could be seen out the portholes was a wall of ice. Nomad and an iceberg had collided in the tidal current. The berg had run aground, so I pushed Nomad clear of it and the current kept us apart.

Pulling up the anchor chain eventually brought the boat against the iceberg again, but fortunately the iceberg had just missed parking on top of my anchor so I was able to get underway without having to wait for another tide to float it clear. It was another beautiful sunny arctic day as I motored across the bay bound for Qeqertarsuaq on the south shore of Disko Island, intent on doing some hiking.

I was dodging large icebergs and enjoying the otherworldly scenery of Disko Island when smoke started coming out of the open hatch. Expecting a fire, I was relieved to find the gearbox had overheated and the only thing burning was its seals. Hoisting full sail, I was able to coax Nomad another mile away from shore in the faintest breath of wind while the gearbox cooled enough for me to touch it. It was still full of oil, but this was very burnt so I changed it. Back in gear, the shaft turned slowly but would not speed up even at full throttle.

Ruined Norse village of Hvalsey

I worked every breeze that came by throughout the night keeping Nomad away from the icebergs and attempting to head across the bay towards Aasiaat where I could attack the machinery in a safe berth. Making less than four miles overnight I was considering all manner of possibilities when troubleshooting revealed that the gearbox would provide full power in reverse.

Problem solved! I’d be able to back all the way to Aasiaat, 24 miles distant. I hurriedly dropped all the sails, eager to get moving after a long, unproductive night, but in my sleep-deprived state I forgot to check both sides of the boat for lines in the water. With the sails lowered I promptly backed over the junk rig’s port main ‘sheetlet’, stalling the engine. After spending some time trying to clear the prop from on deck I realised there was only one solution. I retrieved my diving gear stored in various places around the boat and set up my scuba tank on deck. With my dexterity impaired by wetsuit gloves and ice cold water I was unable to free the line from the propshaft, so I returned with a knife and cut it clear.

After wriggling out of my wetsuit I took a moment to warm up before throwing the dive gear below and starting the engine. I then began the tedious task of backing across the bay steering from one iceberg to the next as my course was too erratic to follow the compass. As I closed the coast near Aasiaat, a large cruise ship went by with a number of tourists standing on deck watching me. I can only wonder at what they thought, watching a schooner zigzagging backwards between the icebergs.

The ice is constantly on the move

Having failed at several attempts to back between the rocks guarding the inner passage to Aasiaat, I felt a faint breeze near shore. Up went the jib and foresail, the main being out of service with its sheetlet cut. This proved enough combined with the propeller turning slowly ahead to get the boat moving. Nomad made it between the rocks without incident and slowly crawled into the harbour, reaching speeds of up to two knots.

Dismantling the gearbox the next morning I quickly found the problem. By pure chance I happened to have the spare parts on board to repair it, but it cost five days of the short Greenland sailing season and I was still 600 miles from the southern tip of the land.

Some days later, well down the coast with a good sailing wind, I departed Paamiut bound for the inside passage at Nunarsuit, the large island at Kap Desolation.

The shimmering lights of the Aurora Borealis provided a magical display

Northern lights

Numerous icebergs were floating around as I made my way into the tiny, ice-free anchorage at Tunulliatsiaap Nunaa. The sunset was magnificent, illuminating the rocks and icebergs with reds and golds reflecting on the still waters. I ducked below to make dinner as the temperature plunged below freezing without the sun. Opening the hatch to toss out some onion skins I was awestruck by the sight of the sky shimmering in the green waves of the Aurora Borealis. Dinner forgotten, I sat on deck watching the aurora until they faded away.

There were numerous icebergs to dodge crossing the Braedefjord but I was able to get through to Tugtutoq island without a lengthy detour offshore. Sildefjord is at the east end of Tugtutoq island with a well protected basin to anchor in at the end of the fjord. Climbing the mountains, there were many patches of blueberries and the ice cap was clearly visible from the top across the berg-studded Braedefjord.

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The sun was setting in the canyon to the west as I made my way back to sea level. A few reindeer came down, and as the light faded grey streamers appeared at the mountaintops and slowly developed into a brilliant display of the aurora covering the entire sky above the fjord.

In the morning the boat was surrounded by fresh ice and my wet laundry was frozen solid on the lifelines so I reluctantly decided to move on before I got frozen in.

Qaqortoq has a busy harbour and is the largest town in southern Greenland. Nomad was comfortably rafted up to a fishing boat on the far side of the harbour where I changed the oil and topped off the fuel tanks again. Ten miles up Qaqortoq Fjord lies the ancient Norse village of Hvalsey, the best preserved Norse ruins in Greenland. I spent two days anchored at Hvalsey, hiking and examining the ruins in an absolute windless silence before returning to Qaqortoq.

Spectacular sunsets are a feature of high latitudes cruising in Greenland

After studying the weather beyond the bottom of Greenland for a few days, the possibility of finding a gap between the storms off Kap Farvel to reach the Azores did not look good. This being the second week of October and not wanting to risk being stuck here for the winter it was time for Plan B. There was a depression passing just to the south, so I backtracked to Kap Desolation and sailed across the Labrador Sea just above 60°N to avoid the west winds from the low. Nomad passed the last iceberg of the trip at the edge of the continental shelf near Nain and made her way into Makkovik Labrador as the wind began blowing from the south with the approach of the next storm system.

Arctic essentials

Careful preparation paid off for this Arctic voyage and there were no serious problems. There are, however, a few things to change on deck and some more equipment that would make life much easier before returning to the north. Top of the list is a pilothouse or at least some shelter for steering and watch-standing. Reels for the 122m shore lines would greatly aid deploying and retrieving them. A bus heater plumbed into the main engine would enable the Refleks cabin heater to be shut down when motoring, saving quite a bit of fuel. A Navtex receiver and an Iridium device to receive weather reports and ice charts would be extremely useful. I couldn’t receive weather-fax charts on the shortwave receiver at all. And a forward-looking sonar would be a big help navigating the many unsurveyed areas on the charts.

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