Rachael Sprot describes meeting ice in Greenland in her expedition yacht Hummingbird and offers some advice on how to prepare for Arctic conditions


“Turn left after the berg with the Marge Simpson hair-do and continue past the one that looks like the Sydney Opera House,” Susie, the first mate, called from the top set of spreaders. “After that it’s looking pretty chocka . . . really chocka . . .”

Her voice trailed off and I knew she thought it was unlikely we’d get much further. We had been weaving our way through the ice fields since dawn and had managed a grand total of four miles in three hours. “Can you see a clear route?” I shouted back up. There was no answer.

We were four miles outside the harbour of Tasiilaq, the largest settlement on the east coast of Greenland and cruising in ice was becoming stressful – the belt of ice that had refused to break up this season was looking impassable to us in our 60ft glassfibre sloop Hummingbird.

The east coast of Greenland is remote even in high-latitude terms. A cold current draws ice down from the pole, making it far less accessible than the west coast, which has a warmer north-going current.

When the Admiralty Sailing Directions describe anchorages as having been reported by the Seventh Thule Expedition, which took place almost a century ago, you know you’re somewhere that is more than a little off piste.

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We had been planning the trip for a year, originally intending to make an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of Iceland before returning to the UK in September – see our feature on exploring Iceland aboard Hummingbird here.

Well, as we’re here …

Just as we had confirmed the itinerary, Bruce Jacobs, co-director and Hummingbird’s other skipper, looked up with a glint in his eye: “If we’ve got as far as the Westfjords of Iceland . . .” – I knew exactly what was coming next, I just hadn’t voiced the thought myself – “. . . it’s only a few hundred miles across the Denmark Strait to Greenland.”

The pilot guides warn that some years the coast is inaccessible owing to persistent ice, but in the past decade or so most of it had cleared early in the season. Our attempt on Greenland would start and end in the Icelandic Westfjords, so that in the unlikely event that we couldn’t get through, we could cruise around there instead.

However, by the second week of August when eight paying crew arrived, there was still a thick band of drift ice close inshore, up to seven-tenths coverage in some places; it was looking unlikely that we would get there that summer.

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These satellite images are from 16 August (above), the day we left Iceland, and 19 August (below), the day we arrived off Greenland. There is a rapid improvement in the amount of coastal ice in the two images, though of course this also meant the situation could have deteriorated quickly too.

The glaciers calving into Sermilik fjord to the west of Tasiilaq are also very visible, and this fjord was totally inaccesible for the duration of our stay.

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Broadly speaking there are two types of ice: glacier ice, which is fresh water; and sea ice, which is salt water. Glaciers form over the land and discharge into the sea by a process called calving. The resultant bergs then move seawards and continue to break apart, giving off bergy bits and growlers.

Growlers can be very difficult to distinguish, particularly if there are a few white crests about, so they pose a serious threat to a yacht under way. A cubic metre of ice weighs around a tonne and may barely protrude above the surface.

Formation of ice

Sea ice forms along the coast in vast sheets. Some of it will remain frozen all year and become ‘second’ or ‘multiple year’ ice, which is much denser. Some breaks up in summer to form pack ice and more open drift ice. At this stage it is constantly on the move, so there is a very real threat of a vessel getting trapped, damaged or driven aground by it.


The ice navigator’s bread and butter are ice charts and satellite images. The charts for Greenland are produced by the Danish Meteorological Institute, and they use the universal symbology of the Egg Code. They are produced every few days from a combination of satellite data and ice reports from vessels in the area.

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It was the lingering pack ice that we were most worried about. The only positive aspect was that it was made up of thin and medium first year ice, which meant it could break up quickly in the right conditions. We needed a change from the relentless north-easterly winds to blow the ice apart, which finally, we got.

As soon as a weather window developed, we prepared the boat for the voyage, making a passage plan, looking at the search and rescue facilities, identifying ports of refuge, checking all the bilge pumps and conducting a full inspection of the rig, steering system and through hull fittings. We familiarised the crew with the storm sails, abandon ship procedures and tactics for ice navigation. We were as ready as we would ever be. We set off not knowing whether we would get through the ice.

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Having drawn the ice limit on the charts, we maintained a visual look-out on the bow as soon as we reached it and, sure enough, just after dawn on the third day at sea, the cry of “Iceberg!” came down the hatch. We were 80 miles off the coast and had 15 hours of daylight ahead of us; we’d be in before dark.

As the shadowy profile of mountains drew closer, the bergs became more numerous, but they were still easy enough to avoid. It wasn’t until we got ten miles offshore that we saw the extent of the ice belt ahead of us. There was a seething mass drifting south-west on the current.

Alive with the noise of ice – like Rice Krispies

The water rushing around the floes sounded like someone had poured an enormous bowl of Rice Krispies. The place was alive with the noise of ice. After an hour or two trying to negotiate it, darkness defeated us and we withdrew to open water. In the glassy dusk we kept a skeleton watch, drifting on the current for the night, hoping to start promptly at dawn.

No one slept of course. Shouts of “Northern Lights, over there” were interspersed with a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as whales surfaced nearby. By dawn, fog had rolled in. The radar showed the larger icebergs and we used the engine to dodge any that got too close, but we couldn’t possibly attempt an approach. Listening to the distant thunderclaps of giant icebergs breaking apart we had resigned ourselves to giving up when bit by bit it started to lift.

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Now, three hours later, here we were, halfway through the ice belt and it looked as if we would have to abandon it after all. “Susie,” I shouted up the mast, “is there any way we can get closer?”

“Well, there’s a path to starboard if you can get past the sunken Vespa. After that, we’ll have to see.”

Our spirits lifted. With two crew and an ice pole fending off smaller lumps on the bow, we crept forward. Progress was slow, but steady. All the crew were involved, from manning the VHF to calling lateral distances from the beam of the boat. We had found our stride now. By the time we were two miles out I knew we were not turning back.

We threw our lines ashore at midday, and were given the supply ship’s berth until it returned at 1800 after which we would have to anchor. “Can you relax now Rachael?” one of the crew asked. “Are you kidding?” I replied. “We’ve still got to get out of here at some point! But I will have that gin and tonic, thank you very much.”

Planning a passage into Arctic waters

  • Start a year in advance – Voyages to the high latitudes will have to be completed within a limited timeframe. Too early in the season and the ice hasn’t melted, too late and the days are shortening and the weather deteriorating.
  • Get professional advice – We attended a preparation course run by High Latitudes, a sailing consultancy company. They were also on hand for voyage support if needed.
  • Enlist good shore support – Bruce Jacobs was constantly in touch, checking the ice reports and satellite images. Shore support from someone you trust is vital to your first voyage.
  • Don’t commit to anyone or anything – Saying that you will be in a particular place at a particular time could pressurise you into a bad decision.
  • Do your research – Before we left we scoured the archived ice charts and satellite images from the past ten years. We learned how quickly the ice break ups, and got our eye in with the satellite images, which aren’t always easy to interpret. The RCCPF guide to Arctic and Northern Waters and the Admiralty Sailing Directions for the Arctic are essential, but other than that there isn’t a lot of information about many high-latitude destinations. Personal accounts from adventurers such as Bob Shepton can be very informative.

What you need in the Arctic

  • Fuel   Expect to do lots of motoring. Make sure you have enough fuel on board, even if it is in jerrycans.
  • Ice pole A 2-3m pole with a spike on the end is vital.
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  • Good anchors There are no marinas and the muddy creeks of the British Isles are a world away from the deep, rocky anchorages of the far north.
  • Long shorelines Often the best anchorages are in shallow, narrow inlets that large bergs can’t enter. This will mean running lines ashore, so take a couple of 100m polypropylene (floating) lines. We also had wire rock strops made.
  • Sat comms VHF coverage is almost non-existent on the east coast of Greenland, yet you will be required to report your position, plans and current ice conditions to the Greenlandic coast guard on a daily basis. Choose an HF radio or Iridium system – the Inmarsat footprint won’t reach inside the Arctic Circle.
  • Warm clothing Thermals and mid layers are essential. Insulated fisherman’s gloves are good, as are Fladen flotation suits which have a 3mm neoprene lining – incredibly warm and windproof. We also carried immersion suits in case we had to abandon ship.
  • Heating and insulation It would be pretty miserable without them.
  • Rifle to scare off polar bear  Can be hired in Greenland, but only if you make it through to a largeish settlement.

Golden rules to stay safe in ice

  • Don’t mix ice and weather – Richard Haworth of High Latitudes is to thank for this one. Generally speaking, the weather closer to the poles is dominated by the polar high, but not always. Wait for settled conditions before approaching.
  • Keep a visual watch at all times – Nothing will detect ice quite like a keen-eyed crewmember.
  • Stop during hours of darkness or reduced visibility – You won’t be able to detect the growlers in the dark or with radar. If you drift the theory is that you and the ice will be moving at about the same rate.
  • Don’t enter an area of ice greater than 3/10 coverage – Beyond this the risk of becoming trapped is greater. We were in an area of 3/10, but it felt like there were no clear leads. For a first time in ice choose somewhere with less coverage than east Greenland!
  • Know how the ice is moving – You need to assess what it’s doing before getting close and always have an exit strategy.
  • Constant vigilance – You need to be prepared to move the boat at a moment’s notice. The presence of ice dramatically increases the levels of concentration required from the skipper and crew. That said, the rewards are worth it.

    Rachel Sprot, skipper of Hummingbird

    Rachel Sprot, skipper of Hummingbird