Jim Little on a fast Atlantic crossing from Iceland to Newfoundland via Greenland.
Safely aboard in Reykjavik, about to depart for Greenland some 600 cold, grey miles away, I looked at the GRIB files with the skipper and thought: ‘Wow. You call that a weather window?’
I knew when I signed up for this trip – delivering a 48ft Grainger catamaran from Iceland to Newfoundland via Greenland – that the four of us could expect some bumpy weather, but I didn’t know that we’d be deliberately aiming for it.
The skipper, 68-year-old New Zealander Geoff Thorpe, had sailed Salanjo nearly 45,000 miles from Australia, where she was built, and wanted to take her across the Atlantic by a less obvious route to continue his circumnavigation.
There was nothing gung-ho about him, but he was very confident about our journey. “I think we’ll be fine,” he said. “If we shoot off from here right now on the northerlies at the back of this system, when we hit the next one we’ll go over the top of it on the easterlies. We’ll get some wind but she ought to take it in her stride.”
This was to be my third Atlantic crossing but the other two were made in a monohull, nearly all the time in a T-shirt and shorts.
This journey, it was obvious, would be hideously cold, and no matter how many layers were crammed on, they melted away to nothing in the gale that usually seemed to be blowing on deck.
This near-constant strong apparent wind was a fact of catamaran sailing that friends had told me about.
They had also correctly predicted that watch keeping indoors would be a wonderful luxury and that the boat speed on a cat like this would be dazzling.
That first night, looking aft, I couldn’t believe the view. We were doing 14 knots and it felt like even three water skiers and a grand piano tied to the stern would barely have slowed us down.
On the edge of control
What I had not been warned about – and struggled to get used to – was how hard it would be to get any sleep when the boat was flying along like this.
Under my three blankets and duvet, wearing my thermals and woolly hat and with the hot-water bottle between my feet (still in thick socks) I’d eventually get warm enough to nod off. But the motion in my bed at the aft end of the starboard hull was phenomenal.
We seemed to be hurtling out of control across the face of every wave, or leaping from peak to peak in a series of calamitous crashes. It was like being on a tube train going off the edge of Beachy Head.
This was especially the case when we sailed into the second system, about half way to Greenland. The wind picked up to 35 knots and though we were well reefed down, we began to really shift off the top of the swell.
A train of bigger waves came through, the boat roared down the face of one and we were suddenly making over 23 knots. The leeward hull threw up a vertical wall of white water.
I remember hearing whooping from one of the younger crew, but was pleased to see that the skipper didn’t look in the least bit delighted. Within minutes the headsail was off, we rounded up a little and the boom-furling main was reduced to something about the size of a Laser sail.
We were still making ten knots. The seas were about 15ft, we guessed, but not steep and spaced well apart. Reefed down like that, Salanjo just trucked on. It was awesome.
On our fourth evening at sea, in decreasing wind as we moved away from the system, with the snow-covered mountains of Greenland in sight, we stopped on the edge of the 100-mile iceberg limit and spent the night on the sea anchor so we could see the bergs in daylight.
By the late afternoon of the next day, we arrived at the entrance to Prince Christian Sound, which cuts across the southern tip of Greenland just north of Cape Farewell.
We saw bergs in the dying sun, one as big as the Devon valley in which I live, and between them, intermittent fountains of spray from blowing whales.
This combination of sunset, icebergs, whales and mountains set in almost limitless solitude made that evening the most wonderful landfall I’ve ever experienced. I think everyone was a bit breathless and freaked out by the splendour of it all.
Back in Iceland, Geoff had explained that we couldn’t have even tried this journey if the ice hadn’t been forecast as mostly clear in the sound.
At Cape Farewell, the winds blow very hard from the west nearly all the time, and the later in the year you leave it, the worse it gets. To visit Greenland at all without coming through the sound would involve some grisly sailing to windward in any boat; in a cat it would be pretty much impossible.
All was calm inside the Sound though, as we motored under vast cliffs and snow fields perched a thousand metres up in the sky with tendrils of water cascading down the rocks.
We tied up in the midst of this wonderland at the village of Aapilattoq, home to 130 permanent residents and a gang of Danes smashing out bare rock to accommodate oil tanks. We got to stretch our legs properly here, climbing the hills behind the village to get an absurdly wonderful view of the hamlet, the Sound and the mountains.
Aapilattoq receded astern the next morning as we continued west, a tiny imprint of humanity on Greenland’s vast wilderness.
The town we were heading for, with its 1,500 people, represented an entirely different order of conurbation. It had a laundry, a cafe, three supermarkets and a long-anticipated bar.
Tied up in Nanortalik, having been to the laundry and the bar, where there was a fight (not involving us), we made some minor repairs and filled up with water and diesel. We then turned our attention to the chart table and pondered our departure for Newfoundland.
Looking at that day’s GRIBs for the Davis Strait, we saw an unexpected window opening up. We’d have to wait for a big blow to go through (which meant another chance to go to the fight pub) but could ride out on the back of that and, in theory, endure nothing worse than a day of close reaching in 30 knots heading due west.
We would then make landfall in Labrador and hop down the coast to Newfoundland in between the more awkward bouts of weather. The strait, which had been lurking at the back of our minds as a potential ogre, now looked benign.
So it was a cheerful and optimistic Salanjo that left Greenland the following evening. We motored through the moonlight with a vast iceberg glowing on the southern horizon, then the wind filled in and we got our 30 knots on the beam for the next 24 hours.
We made superb time without any dramas, save the odd wave that broke against the starboard hull with an awesome crash.
Two days later the wind decreased as we sailed into an extended ridge of high pressure, and from then until our arrival in Labrador 36 hours later, we had Tradewind conditions (apart from the cold): wind well aft, glorious sunshine and moonlight, an easy rolling sea, making six to seven knots in 12 knots apparent.
The younger members of the crew thought it a little dull. I thought it was heavenly.
Smelling the finish line
We made landfall at dusk in an anchorage in Labrador at 52.55°N, 55.49°W. By first light we were away again heading south, motoring into a gentle headwind until the breeze filled in strongly from the north-west and gave us 30 knots again.
We flew across the mouth of the St Lawrence, motor sailed through the night in dying wind, and on the evening of the next day went into Bonavista, our first Newfoundland landfall.
On our return from the pub, however, we soon sobered up when we found that the holding tank in the port hull had backed up and leaked about 100 litres of liquid sewage into the bilge.
We were now only a day’s sail from St Johns, where the boat was to spend the winter, and the skipper smelt the finishing line more strongly than he smelt the sewage, so despite the horrific stench, we were off early in the morning.
With 25-30 knots from the north-west once more, crashing along in big, ugly seas, it was hard to decide which was worse: outside in the rain with the thermometer at about four degrees, or inside with the stench.
On arrival, having motored through the narrow passage between the cliffs into the long, thin harbour and tied up amid the oil rig servicing ships and the trawlers in downtown St Johns, we got on with the time-consuming and grim bilge-defouling operation.
But after that, and a blissful shower, armed with the heroic hunger and thirst of successful ocean navigators, we went out and made merry.
I landed back in London after two weeks and two days away, a pretty short time to make a transatlantic journey.
That was partly due to good luck with the weather and partly due to the terrific speed of the boat – we averaged about ten knots – meaning we could get past deteriorating conditions that would have hit slower boats.
And while I hope my next crossing ends at anchor somewhere a little nearer the Tropics, my glimpse of Greenland was stunning, and I’d love to go back.