Greenland’s Prince Christian Sound is part of a spectacular fjord system often hemmed in by ice. Silvia Varela describes a memorable passage in a 40ft Najad
“Can you see a way through?” Perched on the spreaders, binoculars in hand, Magnus shook his head. “It looks like it’s completely blocked with ice,” he replied. Down in the cockpit, we stared tensely at the expanse of white ahead, wincing each time a chunk of ice clunked and scraped against the hull. “So what now? Should we turn around?”
“No, we keep going.” Foreshortening, Magnus explained, often makes ice look more closely packed than it actually is. In any case, turning around was out of the question. It had taken a great deal of patience and planning to arrive finally at the entrance to Prince Christian Sound, a towering 66 mile-long channel that connects the east and west coasts of Greenland, north of Cape Farewell. We were determined to get through.
Cape Farewell, Greenland’s southernmost tip, is a maelstrom of gnarly winds, confused seas and drifting ice. Often, yachts sailing between Greenland and Europe give it a wide berth, steering away from the west coast of Greenland 100 or more miles north of the cape and sailing at least 100 miles offshore to avoid encountering ice.
But for about three months in the summer, sailing through Prince Christian Sound can be a rewarding route. Reportedly described by 15th Century explorer John Cabot as ‘a river of melted snow’, the Sound and the surrounding fjord system are spectacular cruising grounds.
Yet a successful passage is far from guaranteed. Freshwater icebergs calved from glaciers and saltwater pack ice that forms in the circumpolar ocean north of Greenland drift south along the east coast on the East Greenland Current, around Cape Farewell and up the west coast.
Wind, tides and currents conspire to funnel this ice into the complex maze of fjords and channels that form the Cape Farewell archipelago, meaning a yacht could spend weeks waiting for a window to get through. Even then, the risk of getting trapped in the ice is all too real.
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Knowing this, Norwegian skipper Jarl Spandow called on my partner, ice pilot Magnus Day of High Latitudes, to help him navigate his Najad 415P performance cruising yacht Fryd safely through the Sound. Jarl is a very experienced sailor and no stranger to the high latitudes.
A few years ago he cruised South Georgia on Skip Novak’s Pelagic Australis with Magnus as skipper. But while bumping into ice on a 75ft purpose-built expedition yacht like Pelagic Australis is a fantastic adventure, getting trapped in the ice in your own glassfibre yacht is a very different prospect.
We joined the crew of Fryd (Jarl, his son Max and Max’s friend Sindre) at the small village of Narsasuaq, the gateway to southern Greenland and home to a unique team of expert navigators and pilots charged with monitoring the movement of ice in the sea around Greenland: the intrepidly named Ice Patrol.
Ice Patrol in flight
Part of the Danish Meteorological Institute, the Ice Patrol flies over southern Greenland in a helicopter two or three times a week, surveying and photographing inshore ice.
Together with satellite data, model forecasts and shipping reports, they produce ice charts and reports that are vital for navigating Greenland’s ice-strewn waters.
The morning after we arrived, we dropped in on Ice Patrol officers Ulrich and Kim at their sunny offices next to the airport. The most recent ice chart and aerial photographs showed only light ice, mainly offshore of the islands and skerries up to Nanortalik Island.
Around Nanortalik and further south-east into the fjord system that leads to Prince Christian Sound, however, there was considerable loose pack ice, bergs and bergy bits.
For the next few days, in the variable light winds and surprisingly mild temperatures typical of Greenland during the summer months, we sailed down the length of the breathtaking Tunulliarfik Fjord.
After a brief refuelling and provisioning stop at Qarqatoq, we headed for the town of Nanortalik – ‘the place of polar bears’ in Greenlandic – which stands on an island by the same name.
Our strategy of staying inshore and venturing out to sea only occasionally to pass headlands had worked so far. Now, however, standing on the boom as we approached the intricate channel that leads to the town from the north, Magnus could see ice.
But as hard as he squinted through the binoculars, he couldn’t establish how much there was. Did it form a gridlock, too thick to pass? Or was there was just enough room for Fryd to squeeze through?
What we needed was a bird’s eye view, and fortunately we had the perfect tool on board. Max and Sindre’s drone, which they’d brought along to make a short film about the trip, proved invaluable to help us navigate through the maze of ice. With Magnus on the spreaders, Jarl at the helm, me on the bow and the boys relaying live footage from the drone, we slowly steered Fryd through the narrow rock-strewn passage.
We tied up at the municipal dock and, eager to stretch our legs, walked the length of the sleepy town, painted gold by the late afternoon sun. Surrounded by steep mountains and the vertical walls of nearby Tasermiut Fjord, Nanortalik’s landscape is as dramatic as East Greenland’s but, unlike the barren east coast, the town is carpeted in vibrant green meadows, alive with tiny orange and yellow Arctic poppies.
Fryd edges gently past the ice. Photo: Sindre Kolbjørnsgard
Failing to find anywhere to download weather information, and in the absence of new ice charts, we climbed a quaint observation tower at the end of a tall wooden ladder. Looking south-east, we saw an expanse of ice just outside town. Everything from brash ice to enormous icebergs was piling at the entrance to the channel, driven by the sea breeze that had sprung up suddenly as a result of the balmy day.
The stunning spectacle of blue and white icebergs shimmering against the pink evening sky made Fryd seem tiny by comparison. Thankfully, large icebergs are too deep to enter the harbour, and run aground just outside. It’s the smaller, bergy bits that draw less than the depth of the harbour that are the real threat.
That evening the boys stayed up all night, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a series of car-sized icebergs that had managed to slip into the bay and were drawn to Fryd like magnets, herding them away with the help of ice poles and the tiny outboard on the Zodiac.
Fishing provided a bountiful supply of Arctic char. Photo: Silvia VarelaThe weather remained on our side as we entered the archipelago that forms the southern tip of Greenland. Slowly making our way through the increasingly vertical scenery of Torssukatak Fjord, we stopped to hike in picture-perfect valleys, fished more Arctic char than we could eat, and visited Norse ruins brought to life by Jarl’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Norse history.
After many days alone in the fjords, one afternoon our radio crackled into life. It was the captain of cruise ship Hanseatic, which had come through Prince Christian Sound that day. He warned us that there were 8 -10/10ths of ice for two to three miles at the eastern end.
Four or five yachts were stuck there, unable to make any progress. Even an 8,000-ton ice-strengthened expedition ship like Hanseatic had struggled to get through.
This news confirmed the most recent report from the Ice Patrol, issued two days earlier, which showed 7/10ths at the eastern entrance to the sound and, even more worryingly, a 30-mile patch of 9-10/10ths drift ice to the north, with icebergs, bergy bits and belts of ice stretching some distance offshore.
We’d hoped this would have cleared by the time we got there, but the report from Hanseatic was sobering.
Having made it this far, we weren’t prepared to turn around and sail offshore, so decided to take our chances and wait for the next report from the Ice Patrol at the last settlement before the Sound.
Named after the red mountain that towers above the settlement, Aappilattoq is a tiny hamlet of 50 or so brightly coloured wooden houses set on a rocky headland around a small, sheltered bay.
Our days in Aappilattoq were unforgettable. Walking through the village, we were constantly chased by giggling children.
At a makeshift football pitch, several boys in Ronaldo and Messi shirts kicked a ball while girls did cartwheels and handstands on the grass against a background of snow-capped spires.
Although few people spoke English or Danish we managed to make friends, and were even invited to a combined christening and wedding. But as days went by we began to feel restless.
Fog in the area meant the Ice Patrol had been unable to fly in the previous days, so there were no recent ice reports. Time was running out and we were in the dark.
One morning, as I poured myself a second cup of coffee, expecting another quiet day in the village, Jarl bounced on deck, beaming with excitement: “Get everyone together! The Prince is open! We’re leaving right now!” He’d spoken to the Ice Patrol – the Sound was clear.
We motored out of Aappilattoq in high spirits. For the first five miles we saw only random floes. But as we rounded a sharp headland that marked the entrance to the sound itself, we fell silent. It was blocked with ice.
Magnus insisted it was worth going for a closer look. We cautiously followed the faint possibility of a lead close to the northern shore of the channel, hoping that it wouldn’t peter out to a dead end.
For several tense hours we slowly snaked our way up the sound, the deep silence of the fjord punctured by the peculiar snap, crackle and pop made by tiny air bubbles as they’re released from ancient ice.
As we neared the Atlantic mouth of the fjord, Jarl tried to call the Ice Patrol. Inside the deep fjord, satellite coverage was poor and he managed only a broken exchange, enough for them to warn us that there was extensive ice for many miles ahead of us.
Anxiously, we looked out to the mouth of the sound. To the naked eye the open ocean appeared to be ice-free, but the faint impression of a fog bank some miles out to sea suggested otherwise. Ice cools the air above it, causing moisture to condense, so where there’s ice there is often fog.
And was the white glare we could see on the horizon iceblink? This phenomenon, caused by light reflected on sea ice bouncing off low clouds, may be the first indication of the proximity of an ice field.
Magnus tuned the radar’s gain, sea clutter and rain clutter filters to get maximum data, but he couldn’t find any reliable reflections out to sea.
Jarl called the Ice Patrol again, which insisted there were dangerous levels of ice for many miles ahead. To turn around at this stage seemed like a crushing defeat, but to ignore the Ice Patrol, which had precise satellite imagery and aerial photographs of the area we could only vaguely see from the spreaders, and go blindly into miles of sea ice on the open ocean, would be folly.
As we pondered our alternatives, Fryd began to rock gently. A long, slow, barely perceptible swell was rolling in. “Yes!” Magnus burst out. “It’s open. Let’s go!”
As I later learned, substantial belts of ice act as energy absorbers and smooth out seas. Whatever the Ice Patrol had seen, the swell meant there was no extensive ice around the exit of the fjord.
On the last stretch of the Sound, as the fjord opened up, we finally got a decent satellite signal, and we called the Ice Patrol once again. On the phone, Magnus shrugged – we could see miles of ice-free ocean ahead of us, and yet, on the other end of the line, the Ice Patrol insisted the Sound was packed with ice.
Suddenly, he burst out laughing. “No, we are leaving the fjord, heading east!” After a long pause on the line, the answer came. “Oh! Well, in that case you should be fine. The open sea ahead of you is pretty clear of ice.”
Unable to hear clearly on a terrible line, probably compounded by our language difficulties, the Ice Patrol had thought we were sailing in the opposite direction and into the pack ice we’d just left behind.
Gazing back at Greenland, on course to Iceland, the evening haze had transformed the island’s jagged peaks into layers of soft pastel tones, while the sun twinkled on gently undulating seas. Looking deceptively benign and inviting, it was hard to imagine that only hours earlier the same expanse of open water was awash with deadly ice bouncing freely in the swell.
Navigating ice-covered waters is as much art as science. Conditions change hourly and often unpredictably. Our misunderstanding with the Ice Patrol could have cost us dearly, but Magnus’s knowledge of high-latitude sailing gave him confidence in his own judgment.
When it comes to high-latitude sailing, ice charts and reports are invaluable navigation tools, but ultimately, human experience, judgment and intuition are key.
Magnus Day’s top tips for Arctic voyaging
- Light winds and large distances are common in the Arctic and Antarctic so large diesel reserves are necessary.
- Built-in tanks are much safer than jerrycans on deck.
- Blown air heaters use a lot of electrical energy and are notorious for malfunctioning at the worst moment. Take an entire spare unit.
- Solid fuel burners are simple and reliable but fuel is bulky and can be hard to find.
- A drip pot-style diesel burner is simple and reliable but it can be tricky to find space for it and the chimney.
- Hard or soft dodger, you’ll be glad to hide behind one when it’s cold and wet.
- Protect your boat from well below the waterline up to the stem fitting with a stainless steel or Kevlar bow patch.
- Consider swapping your fancy breathable foulies for old-style fisherman’s PVC foul weather gear.
- Sit out a big blow with a modern anchor and plenty of chain.
- Consider taking very long mooring lines to tie into the shore where it’s too deep to anchor effectively.
- You can be far from help in high latitudes, so medical training and supplies and a doctor on call service from the likes of Medical Services Offshore are a good idea.
- Make sure your storm sails are heavily built and your crew are well drilled in deploying them.
- Check lines and deck gear are up to the job and look out for chafe.
- Take spares for everything you can and find suppliers able to ship parts overseas quickly for things too big to store on board.
- A satellite phone and software to download emails and GRIB files will allow you to make good weather decisions as well as call for help.
- An EPIRB with a hydrostatic release for the yacht and another in the grab bag.
- Handheld VHFs make tying in to big coves and other off-boat comms much easier.
First published in the October 2018 edition of Yachting World.