Flanagan's vertical circumnavigation takes him through ice drifts and the local wildlife 17/8/07

15 August 2007: Since clearing the Lena Delta and discovering that the pack around Proliv Vil’kitskogo was impenetrable – leaving no passage open from the east – Adrian Flanagan consulted his charts to find an anchorage in Bukhta Pronchishchevoy on the eastern side of Poluostrov Taymyrskiy. Adrian now has to manoeuvre around the ice drifts, as well as tackle the local wildlife:

“50 miles offshore I came to the pack, a line of drift ice set loose by the wind. From the deck it looked like solid white but I knew on approach it would comprise scattered pieces. I found a gateway in. Large pieces of ice formed an intricate mosaic. Something moved in the water. At first I thought it was a bobbing ice chip. Moving fast. I looked again. Two black eyes stared back at me. Now twenty meters in front of my bow, the Polar bear lifted his snout to sniff at this strange thing in its midst. He swam off to one side checking over his shoulder. I circled round. I wasn’t expecting this. The bear reached ice and lumbered up out of the water. A young male with an immaculate coat. He shook himself and studied Barrabas from a better vantage. Everything was still. Just me and the bear. He sniffed vigorously, confused. As I came closer, he loped off to the other side of the ice island and slid back into the water, swimming away though the maze.

“I carried on, passing through two more lines of drift before getting to the edge of the main pack that curved away in a great arch to the north east. I worked my way in for a couple of miles. The ice became 7/10 cover, too dense for me to go any further. No way to get through to Bukhta Pronchishchevoy. I thought of anchoring up to the ice, but decided against. Sleep deprivation was beginning to make itself felt. My eyes were leaden. I worked my way back to clear water and headed south. Anchorages are few along the north Russian coast in this part. In most places a mud bank extending up to 15 miles offshore has depths of only a few feet and what places there are do not provide good shelter. I decided to check out the western side of the Olenekskiy Zaliv (Bay). The water was shallow but a 5-meter contour worked its way round the south of a promontory. I also wanted to get south of 74 degrees and away from the drift ice.

“Once clear of the main pack with open water to the south, I set the boat and went below. The prospect of a hot, strong cup of tea was more appealing to me than anything at that point, short of being teleported to a tropical island paradise. I never had the tea. I had sat down and immediately fallen asleep. I was woken by a terrible screeching from the bow. Rushing on deck, we had collided with a chunk of drift. A wave of dread washed through me like a cold rain. I rushed back below, grabbed a torch and went forward to inspect hull. The forward part of the boat has been stripped of insulation and fittings so I can see the inside of the hull plates and access the area quickly should I get holed. Barrabas seemed fine. We pressed on. After 12 hours, I could evade sleep no longer. Hoping we were clear of drift ice, I laid out my sleeping bag on the floor of the galley because my starboard berth was on the high side of the heel. The port berth is covered with fuel cans.

“Sometimes, even the most logically founded decisions are wrong. I believed I was clear of the drift. There had not been any at this latitude on the way up. I could have heaved-to and stopped the boat to sleep. I was woken three hours later. The same screeching sound, a shudder and then no movement not even the gentle side to side rocking motion of a boat afloat. I tore topside. We had collided again only this time the ice was a flat piece. Barrabas had hit with her reinforced stem bar. The bow had ridden up on to the ice. Luckily the wind had died. Our impact speed was less than 3 knots. As the ice spun beneath us and we slid off, I could see red anti-foul scraps like blood smeared on the ice.

“As we entered Olenekskiy Zaliv the wind was in the east. My forecast was for a west wind. I was expecting it to veer round as we went deeper into the bay and further into the narrowing 5- meter contour finger. The wind built – 20 knots, then 25. Doubts started. I had 13 feet of water beneath the keel and less than half a mile of similar depth on either side. Beyond that, shallows where Barrabas would ground. 30 knots. Still in the east. Arnie’s voice played in my head – ‘Jus forged abou’did.’ I needed to get the hell out. Barrabas was under shortened main. I needed all the pulling power I could get. We had very little searoom and making leeway towards oblivion. Over 24 hours had now passed since I had slept with only a few hours in the last sixty. 30 knots of wind does terrible things to water only 20 feet deep. The seas heap up. The frictional resistance of the sea bed slows the lower portion of the waves. The upper portions keep moving and loose purchase, tumbling over to create the sailors’ worst night mare – breakers. They were marching towards us, line abreast. I didn’t have much time before we ran out of depth. I needed to change direction eastwards and I needed to get more sail up to pull Barrabas’s nose as hard into wind as she would go, without over-powering the rig. I figured we had five minutes max before the keel touched bottom. Barrabas would be rolled onto her side and swamped. Game over.

“I closed my mind to the shrieking wind and maddened water and went into the drill. Lock the wheel over to jibe. Sails across. Preventer on to stop the boom inswinging. Boom breaker off. Topping lift on to raise the boom’s aft end. Clutches off the reefing lines. Dash to the mast. Drop the main six inches. Second reef cringle off the horn. Raise sail. First reef cringle on. Tighten the luff. Rush back to the cockpit. Wind on the first reefing line, now the new outhaul. Preventer off, topping lift off to drop the boom. Unlash the wheel. Jibe round. Sails across. Boom breaker on. My back was soaked in sweat. The wind bit. I had to make a course of 30 degrees to run parallel with the contour line, more to begin to get away from it eastwards and make safe water. Barrabas got to 20 degrees. There was no time to shake out the last reef and raise more sail. I had made my call. I hoped it was enough. 25. Boiling crests were crashing into her bow. 27. Come on. 29. I guessed we had less than 50 meters behind us before the shoal took the keel. A wave rode under us slewing the bow round. 30 degrees. I punched to driven air, screaming encouragement at Barrabas. The breakers were lifting her bow skywards before we crashed down the back of the waves, digging two feet into the trough, water spuming over the foredeck. Then up, then down, then up, then down. 31, 32. We did this for six hours, inching our way towards safety.

“In 1933 a Russian Schooner, the ‘Vasily Pronchishchevoy’ drawing 3m had made anchorage in a similar spot but had crept passed the 5-meter line to within one mile of Ostrov Sylkay, the southernmost of three islands at the western end of Olenekskiy Zaliv. Had the wind changed to the west I would have given it a go. As it was, we had had a close call. By the time we were clear I was literally asleep on my feet, at one point falling in the cockpit and gashing my forehead on the cuddy. 12 miles offshore, I shortened sail to slow the boat. The wind had veered south and lightened. The plan was to head north east to greater safety but that if the wind changed adversely I would have enough time to sleep before we were back in the shallows. Heaving-to was not an option – the landward current was too strong. I turned in. When I woke this morning, 14 hours had passed. The wind had held direction. We were still on a north east track and close to the island of Leykina. I am on my way there now to see if it can provide anchorage. I hope so.”