When Henry Bomby was asked to deliver a Pogo 12.50 to France from north-west Greenland he jumped at the chance of adventure. But he soon discovered the darker side of Arctic sailing
In order to keep a good lookout on deck during the night we were now having to stick our heads above the dodger, which meant getting colder, wetter and generally more uncomfortable when on watch. As some reference, Aasiaat, where we departed from, is at 68°N, the southern tip of Greenland is 60°N and Cape Horn is at 56°S.
The following night, visibility was down to less than 500m as the inevitable fog rolled in. With last night’s adventures still weighing heavy in our minds, we took in the third reef and slowed down a bit more.
The breeze was now building, mid 30s, gusting 40 knots. It was rough, really rough, with very confused seas. We were reaching at 90° TWA which meant the waves were regularly breaking over the boat now too. Slowly, but surely the water started soaking in and chilling us to our very core.
We were sailing in a cauldron of confused seas thanks to the current, wind and leftover swell all merging as we rounded Cape Farewell at the southern point of Greenland. The forecast had increased dramatically from when we had left, but this was to be expected. We had had a good ride until now, but we knew the chance of the perfect weather holding was pretty slim.
Loic felt progressively worse through the day. He wasn’t keeping anything down, food or fluids and the very thought of going down below made him worse. During the fourth night, as we changed to our one-hour night-time routine, he decided to stay on deck, to avoid having to face the dreaded cabin and changing out of his kit.
I was hesitant about his decision to stay on deck; it was bitterly cold, but it was his decision. Loic is an experienced sailor, having raced the past two seasons on the Mini Transat circuit. I suggested he perhaps should put on one of the dry survival suits we had on board, which he did, and he cracked on with his watches as normal, gritting it out when many would have quit. He must have been feeling dreadful.
At about 0300 it was his turn to take over on deck. I tried to wake him where he was sleeping in the companionway ten minutes before his watch started, but he was dead to the world. This wasn’t abnormal, when extreme tiredness sets in, especially after being so seasick.
I decided I would just let him sleep as I was feeling fine, and would rather he rested up and stayed sleeping if he had finally managed to get to the land of nod.
Drenched in freezing water
Ten minutes later we were hit by the biggest wave of the night. As it came crashing over me I was knocked down by the force of it, but with my hood up, neck and wrist seals done up tightly, I was unaffected. Loic, however, got the full brunt of it as he slept in the companionway. This water was 3°C and I thought: that must have been freezing, no one could sleep through that! I nudged him. Nothing. And again. Nothing. Typically, the breeze was now squally and at that moment we were hit by another 40-knot squall that came ripping over the boat. I shouted and kicked Loic hard for a response. He moaned, but made no sense.
He started to speak in French to me. We had a thing going where I would speak French to him and he English to me to practise. I told him to try to stand, but he said he couldn’t feel his legs. A few seconds later he realised what he had said, and repeated it again and again sounding more scared each time. I grabbed his left leg and started to crunch and stretch it out to get the blood flowing once more. He made some positive sounding noises so I tried with the other. A few seconds later he got to his knees, and then stood up.
A 40-knot squall ripped over the boat. I shouted and kicked Loic hard for a response. He moaned, but made no sense
Suddenly I panicked. Had I just sent freezing cold blood back around his body to his vital organs? Too late now, we just had to act quickly.
I called Sara from radar watch to get his sleeping bag ready and the heater on. As Sara went on deck to take over the watch, I got Loic out of his kit, which was soaked through. He fumbled into his sleeping bag stark naked, breathing heavily and delirious.
I chucked my own hot water bottle from in between my mid-layers into his sleeping bag with him and Sara forced a seasickness tablet down him along with some water. We placed a bucket beside him in case he felt sick again and kept checking on him every ten minutes for the first hour. As he became more coherent and talkative we let him get some proper sleep. Sara and I spent the rest of the night rotating between radar watch and on deck until dawn finally broke and the dreaded icebergs became easier to spot.
It frightened me how fast and how dangerous the situation had become in such a short period of time. It just goes to show what an unforgiving environment the Arctic and the sea can be. It took Loic nearly 12 hours to recover enough to hold another watch, but for the next four days he was always cold and really struggled at night, but he stuck it out.
It took him a lot longer to get over not eating for three days and he was very dehydrated as well. It might not have been until after our first proper meal on shore of steak frites that his cheeks showed signs of colour again.
The Arctic is truly a magical place, unlike any other sailing I have ever done before. But it has a dark side too. The cold combined with the wet makes it a harsh and potentially very dangerous environment. Saying that, however, with a carefully planned trip at the right time of year in a suitable boat, you really can enjoy this amazing landscape in reasonable comfort – in the knowledge that after you leave you have well and truly quenched your thirst for adventure for at least another year or two.
After leaving school at the age of 18, Henry Bomby set off to sail single-handed round Britain, with a view to one day racing across oceans as a professional offshore sailor. In 2012 he won the Artemis Offshore Academy scholarship for a fully funded season on the Figaro Solo circuit.
He has since competed in the subsequent two Figaro seasons and is currently battling it out on this most testing solo racing circuit once again in 2015 under continued sponsorship of Rockfish. Bomby is also one of Yachting World’s regular gear testers. www.henrybomby.com
This is an extract from a feature in the June 2015 issue of Yachting World