Gjoa Haven, Day 8

We are moored in the very snug, very sheltered natural harbour of Gjoa Haven. Our days are spent comfortably: I light the stove in the morning, and put on the water for coffee. We get up, putter about the boat for an hour or so before heading to land. We visit our friends, play some music, enjoy the company of their young family, talk about our voyage, and talk about the ice. Always it comes back to the ice.
You see, we are heading eastbound on this Northwest Passage. The westbound route is virtually ice-free. Should we wish, we could leave Gjoa Haven, spin the boat around towards the setting sun and end up in Nome, Alaska in three weeks or so.
The east route, though, is where we want and need to go. Originally we planned on overwintering the boat in Iceland, but more and more the possibility of Greenland for the winter is becoming real.
The ice, with its moving, shifting, s-l-o-w-l-y thawing mass, presents a huge roadblock for our passage east. 9/10ths or greater ice still covers most of our first 400 miles. This stops us from even considering leaving Gjoa. Once we depart here, we will have few places to shelter and fewer still where fuel, water, groceries, internet and the relative comforts of modern life are accessible. Once we leave Gjoa, we plan to not stop until we reach Greenland, a thousand miles away.
Historically, September is the month with the most ice-free days for the Central Arctic. Our window is slim – Jesse and I deliberately set our date to return to North America (Canada for me, Alaska for him) on September 17. We knew that sailing the North Atlantic Ocean after mid-September was not a pleasant prosect, so with that in mind, way back in May, we booked our return trip for September 17.
So, as of today, August 18, we have now 30 days left to get this boat out of the Arctic. Nuuk, Greenland, is our planned overwinter port.
Always it comes back to the ice. Daily we pore over the ice charts published by Environment Canada. Is that lead opening up? Is the ice receding? Is there room for the pack ice to break up in the small stretches of open water that don’t seem to grow? Waiting, and waiting, watching the incremental changes in the ice pack, testing our patience but not our resolve. We discuss back up plans…freeze the boat in here in Gjoa? Return to Cambridge Bay and haul out again with the crane? Head west to Alaska? This last alternative is rapidly becoming moot as the days creep by – we would need fair winds and great progress to make it through the Aleutian chain before mid-September…and the Aleutians in the fall are not recommended any more than the North Atlantic.
Today, the wind howled out of the northeast at gale force (30-35 knots) and kept us bound to our little floating home – too windy to risk leaving the boat unattended (anchor dragging is always possible in strong winds) and also too risky to row to shore in our tender. So today, we did not check the ice charts. We discuss the ice with our neighbour boat, Altan Girl, crewed solo by a man from Nanaimo. The talk is that these gale force northeast winds will help break up the ice pack, by hurling the ice in a different direction than the prevailing northwest winds.
And so we wait. We chop wood, haul water, tell stories, visit with our new-found friends, watch movies, cozy up in front of the woodstove. Empiricus sits very still on the water, barely moving except in strong winds, so quiet that I almost forget we are in a boat, floating on the Arctic Ocean. She feels homey and secure, and I almost forget that we have 1500 miles of Arctic sailing to do before we get to ice-free waters. But at night, lying in comfort in this snug harbour, I dream of ice.

Empiricus in Gjoa Haven harbour

Empiricus in Gjoa Haven harbour

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Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven

August 6, at 6:30 p.m. we motored off the dock at Cambridge Bay and made our way to Gjoa Haven. The weather was perfect for our shakedown sail – clear skies with winds at about 15 knots on our tail, and forecast to remain so for 36 hours. The ice was not completely clear from our route, but was sufficiently thawed for us to be able to contemplate getting all the way through.
During the first few hours aboard, Jesse shows me the boat under sail. We raise the main, and the jib for a while, and make steady progress under sail out of Cambridge Bay and into the Queen Maud Gulf. (Queen Maud, former queen of Norway, had this particular body of water named in her honour due to Roald Amundsen. Amundsen, a Norwegian, was the first to go through the Northwest Passage in 1905.) We fire up all our navigation systems – a paper chart, an excellent Ipad app for an electronic chart plotter, a depth sounder with a GPS position, speed and track display and a handheld GPS for backup. Jesse’s iPhone also has another copy of the chart plotter app (Navionics) installed as a redundancy for the iPad.
After 24 hours, I get comfortable with the rhythm of the shift schedule: two hours on, two hours off from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., then three hours on, three hours off during the warmer daytime hours. I sleep well each between each shift, though not for long, 2 hours at the most, but feel rested and relaxed. The hours roll by, slow at times but steadily. From my diary I see the note “Must remember to brush teeth.” Jesse describes it as having 10 mornings a day.
The woodstove has become my new best friend. Cleaning the stove becomes my task. By keeping her clean and well-stoked, she rewards me with a warm and cozy heat that shakes off my chills at the end of a two hour shift spent outside in just-above-freezing temperatures. The woodstove heats the kettle, and also the pot of salt water that fills my hot water bottle. Yes, a hot water bottle, the very same kind that old ladies knit covers for and put over their feet at night. I call my hot water bottle “Old Salty” and joke with Jesse that “He ain’t much to look at, but he sure do keep me warm.”

The next day the winds pick up out of the northwest to be quite strong, 25 knots gusting to about 30. Word gets to us that there is quite a lot of ice along our route from the strong northwest winds. (We get weather reports, ice condition reports and basic news of the outside world from our Delorme InReach device. It sends and receives text messages via satellite.) We decide to head to Jenny Lind Bay, to wait it out until the ice conditions improve.
Jenny Lind Bay is the site of a DEW (Distant Early Warning) line station, now abandoned. These stations dot the Arctic in a line from Alaska to eastern Baffin Island. The Americans set them up during the Cold War to detect any missiles launched from Russia. There is one in Cambridge Bay, and three more along the way to Gjoa Haven. The distinctive giant golf-ball shaped radome make them easy to spot on the flat horizon of the tundra, and we see Jenny Lind from miles away.
We set anchor and a watch schedule to make sure we don’t drag anchor in the strong winds. Both Jesse and I sleep, cook, write and catch up on chores – I clean the chimney. The winds ease slightly and we relax about our anchor, slightly, too.
After 12 hours pass, we get word that the route to Gjoa is ice-free and the weather again favourable for this passage. We tidy up, get dressed to sail and then it’s anchors aweigh! We’re off again.
We see the first patch of noteworthy ice shortly after leaving Jenny Lind.

The first ice we see just south of Jenny Lind

The first ice we see just south of Jenny Lind

The winds are still strong but forecast to diminish throughout the night. They are on our stern and the boat is rocking and rolling about. Not a bad feeling, but it is tough to do any cooking or tasks that require a level surface. I love the rolling motion of the boat – kind of like an amusement ride crossed with a camel.
We resume our 2 hour on/2 hour off shift, and throughout the night the winds die off slowly but the seas hold the same roll-y state, conditions Jesse describes as “obnoxious.” The sea power is greater than the wind in the sails, especially given our double reefed condition. I elect to change course by 10 degrees on my shift – at 3 knots, the difference in course is marginal but the boat helms much more obediently, without the boom slapping around. It also puts us away from the closest lee shore.
I finish my shift and shortly after changing out of my foul weather gear (quick note – I always wear my foul weather gear when at the helm, even if the conditions are “fair”) I hear the rumble of the engine. The winds had dropped off so that we weren’t even making 2.5 knots.
The next morning dawned fair, with very light winds again on our stern. This day stands out as the one where we encountered the most ice, so far. Oddly, the start and finish of each of my shifts were made in ice-free waters, and yet each shift I found myself picking a path through pack ice up to a mile wide.

Picking our way through the ice.

Picking our way through the ice.

The recommended route was the only one with charted waters, and with rumours of reefs and shoals about, neither of us was keen to stray too far off the safety of the recommended route.
I hit one very small chunk of ice off the starboard side, just after successfully navigating through a particularly dense section of pack ice. With dismay I saw it glancing off the hull, with a dull “thump” and a strip of bright blue paint now adorning it.
As we passed Hat Island, we discussed our plan to enter Simpson Strait at slack high tide, on a recommendation from one of our contacts.
(Another note to the readers on the route – you’ll have to do some searching with Google Maps or the like to find these places that I am talking about …but it might make the narrative more comprehensible.)
So. Simpson Strait, described in the “Sailing Directions for the Western Arctic” as one of the most challenging parts to navigate due to the narrow passage, many shoals and strong currents. We hove-to for a few hours to time our entrance to the Strait correctly. (Yet another note: Hove-to is a means to stop the forward motion of a sailboat while still leaving the sails up…essentially a way to pull over without drifting aimlessly). After a nap and dinner, we are ready to run the Strait.
Our passage through the Strait was marvellous.

 

Sunrise in Simpson Str.

Sunrise in Simpson Str.

 

At times it was possible to feel the current tugging at our rudder, and we could see our speed decrease on the chart plotter, but the weather was beautiful and the winds nil. We saw all the range markers and landmarks, including Gladman Point DEW line station.
We motored at about 5 knots through the Strait, with both Jesse and myself ‘on’. I took the helm from time to time but mostly kept track of our position in the log.

Our Wake in Simpson Strait

Our Wake in Simpson Strait

The rest of the journey to Gjoa Haven was uneventful – ice-free waters on a finally gloriously sunny, WARM day. We pulled into beautiful, historic Gjoa Haven harbour, set the anchor, confirmed it was holding and then slept soundly.
We’ve been in Gjoa Haven for 4 days now. On our second day here, we took a day use room to have a shower, do laundry and connect to the internet. Among our emails was an invitation to dinner from a family who spotted our boat in the harbour and googled “Empiricus.” Thanks to their gracious hospitality, I am able to upload this blog post, after enjoying a great dinner. 

Lift in

Empiricus sat patiently on her 45-gallon drum cradle (that’s 55 US gal drums if you are American) all winter. We are ready to lift in and have been ready to lift for a few days now.  We spoke with the crane operator and he told us he would be able to lift us in on Sunday (August 4).

I did not realize until this year that the Canadian government puts out ice charts that detail the ice (or lack of ice) conditions in the navigable waters of theNorthwest Passage.  Here is the ice conditions for July 31QueenMaudIce30July2014.  All of the red is 9/10ths ice cover.  The white area to the north is so ice-bound that Environment Canada hasn’t bothered assessing it yet as it is still impassable.

 

So although we were anxious to get Empiricus off the hard and into the water, we didn’t really have anywhere to go, anyway.  It was still tremendously frustrating to be sitting in the cockpit of a perfectly serviceable boat, stuck on land.

We spent some time visiting and gleaning information from the Captain of the other boat that over-wintered here, Gitana. He came through the passage from the East late last year and provided us with contacts, information and sage advice on the route we are about to set out on….as soon as we can get our damn boats in the water! Gitana is heading west and their route is much more ice-free than ours, so they are ready to get cracking.

The night after we spoke to the crane operator, a big ole summertime thunderstorm rolled across us – wind, rain, thunder and lightning.  Jesse hadn’t seen one since he was a kid in Oregon.  I’m not sure if it was a highlight for him, as the boat shook on her cradle and the rain made our footings a mudhole precariously perched on top of a hill.  I don’t think he slept at all for worrying about sliding into the ocean or toppling over.  I was not troubled by these thoughts. What I thought was that if the boat was going to topple, I had better just sleep now while I could.

The boat did not topple or slide into the ocean.  I told Jesse my dream and we joked in the morning about the latter outcome being a backup method to launch into the water should the crane not pan out.

 

Saturday came and went – the only activity being the delivery of a large excavator required to move some earth in front of our neighbour boat.  We spent the day prepping should the crane come Sunday, though we were doubtful it would arrive at all.  Sunday morning brought no news.  We made plans to go into town, chop wood, meet up with friends from last year….but only after a nap around 4 pm.  We woke to the sound of the excavator, well, excavating beside our neighbour boat.  The crane had arrived while we were sleeping.  Lift in!

Empiricus lifting in to the water.

Empiricus lifting in to the water.

We lifted in and cut the lines (seven short words to describe an hour long process to move a 38000 pound boat 16 feet over and two feet up.)  Once on the water Jesse started the engine and then we were motoring across the water on the ocean.

 

A huge grin crossed my face when Jesse said “Why don’t you take the helm for now?”  My stomach flipped as I realized that now we really were going to sail away from the relative comforts of Cambridge Bay in just a few days.  No more was it a distant thought.  Our imminent departure was really happening.

 

We still needed fuel, water and firewood though.  I scoured the beach daily on our walks back and forth from town for decent looking firewood, and was rewarded for my efforts with a fine batch of dimensional hardwood.  We raided the dump for pallets, too.  Jesse ran the chainsaw and I bucked up our miniature wood into elfin sized pieces for our little elfin stove.  Before too long we had a sizeable pile of wood.  Perfect for me – I love being warm.

Elfstove

Our wood chopped and ready for stowing.

Our wood chopped and ready for stowing.

 

The Hamlet of Cambridge Bay came down and filled up our water tank – 90 litres for $6.75.   The diesel fuel was not quite as much of a bargain.  A note to any other boaters coming through the passage – fuel is not always available for sale, especially towards the end of August before the supply barge comes in.

I am writing this post on the eve of our departure from Cambridge Bay.  The ice chart from today shows much more open water, at least as far as Gjoa Haven, and the northern section is now assessed, although it is still shore-to-shore ice north of King William Island.  Our route will take us to Gjoa, then north along the east side of King William Island, through Bellot Strait, then north through Prince Regent Sound, east around the Brodeur Penisula to Pond Inlet (although we may go north of Pond, depending on the ice) and then across to Greenland.  We’ll then pick our way along the west coast of Greenland, to the southern tip, before heading north and east again to Iceland.   We will be cautious and careful, taking our time.  There is enough risk just sailing in these waters without adding to the odds.

I have flown in the Arctic for nearly 10 years, and I have learned that one does not conquer her.  You must be patient and humble.  Respect the strength and ferocity of her weather, and have patience to wait for the right time to travel.  If you are impatient you will be humbled.  Such are the lessons of the Arctic.  We have already discussed the very real possibility of not getting out of the ice in time this year…meaning we will come back to Cambridge Bay and try again.  I think optimistically that we will get through to Greenland, but I know that being attached to the outcome is not a good mindset for decision making.

So, we will cast our lines and put our skills to the test tomorrow morning.   Check out the tracking link to follow us on our path if you like: https://share.delorme.com/empiricucsembarks

Meet Empiricus

After a week of living aboard Empiricus, let me tell you about her. She is the boat that will house and transport us from Cambridge Bay to points East – North Baffin, Greenland and then Iceland, ice and weather permitting.

Empiricus sitting on her drum cradle waiting to go in the water.

Empiricus sitting on her drum cradle waiting to go in the water.

She is a 50 foot gaff-rigged yawl, a one-off design, custom built in 1986 for ocean crossing. Her skeleton is a 1943 Navy Liberty Launch. You may nod sagely, as I did, upon hearing this information, because perhaps you will know what both a gaff-rigged yawl and a Liberty Launch are. I didn’t have a clue. Let me fill you in. A yawl is a sailboat that sports a small mast hanging off the stern – the mizzen mast. The gaff-rigged part refers to the spar on the top of the main sail. (The Bluenose was gaff-rigged – dig out a dime and check it out.) The Liberty Launch was a wooden power boat used by the US Navy to bring sailors ashore during World War 2. They were sturdy and well-built, able to handle heavy loads and big seas.
The builder of Empiricus used the Launch as his building platform, designing a sailing hull around it, adding a big bulb keel and beefing up the rudder. He meant to remove the Launch when he finished the fibreglass, but found it too much trouble to bother. The hull is now a very solid fibreglass one with a wood core. She is strong, flexible and warm.
When I first arrived on her last week, we had over 600 pounds of cargo. Food, parts, clothing, books and various sundries all arrived with us in Cambridge Bay. I wasn’t sure we would ever get it all put away, but Empiricus, like all good ships, has myriad nooks and crannies for storage. Under the bunk where I sleep, 250 pounds of dry goods are stored. The pantry is full of provisions of all sorts: potatoes and onions and carrots, cookies, chocolate, coffee (a mission critical item for me), dried fruits, flour, rice, soup mixes, oatmeal, chocolate, etc. The built-in cooler is full of cheeses and a few odd items – yogurt starter, pickled herring, and some sort of weird sauce Jesse likes that I have never heard of. The other cupboards and drawers in the galley are full of more of the same. We will not go hungry on this trip.
Before I go any further I should explain about boat language. If you are on a boat, the right side of the boat when looking forward is the starboard side, and the left side is the port side. The area where the wheel is and the sailing of the boat happens is called the cockpit. The inside living quarters are called, communally, the cabin. The stairs to and from the cabin is called the “companionway.” Also, the kitchen is called the “galley,” the bathroom is the “head,” and bedrooms, if there are any, are called “staterooms.” I’m not sure why the old navy terms for a boat’s interior still endure, but they are the ones used on ships the world over.

Galley - not very shipshape right now.

Galley – crammed full as we slowly stow provisions.

The only stateroom on Empiricus is also partly the hallway to the forward storage berth. Not especially private, but privacy is nearly the last consideration in boat design. Multipurpose rooms are de rigeur. With just Jesse and I aboard, it’s not really a problem, but last year Empiricus had 5 crew aboard. I imagine quarters were tight. The stateroom, which would be a tiny, tiny bedroom by North American housing standards, could and did house three people comfortably – though not all slept there at the same time. For my part, I don’t feel cramped at all in the small space, probably because of the large portholes that let in plenty of light.
The interior is finished in hardwood and my, she is a beauty. The cabin feels roomy and warm, despite the slimness of the hull design (her beam – the width of the boat – is only 9 feet, small for a boat of her length.) The first thing that struck me about Empiricus was her sturdiness. You can put a hand anywhere in the cabin – on the shelves, the galley racks, the navigation table – anywhere, and she will hold your weight. No flimsy particle board construction here. The living quarters are comfortable. Two settees, one on either side of the boat’s main interior, are backed by books and lovely wood cupboards. The engine and room for tools are to the aft of the main cabin, and forward of it is the stateroom and the vee berth.
We do have plenty on the go these days, and the cabin often looks like the floor of a garage as the assortment of tools and parts used for in a constantly shifting set of projects. We are both kept busy sorting, repairing and cleaning, all while still living on the boat. A couple of frustrating days were spent stepping over each other and putting away items, only to haul them out immediately after they were stowed to use them for another project…grrr. But the hard work paid off as the cabin slowly cleared out.

Jesse getting some grub between projects.

Jesse getting some grub between projects.

Right now, I am sitting on the starboard settee, in front of the woodstove in which a toasty fire crackles. The stereo is on, John Prine playing. The feeling akin to a Christmas card come to life. My computer is plugged in and charging and a hot coffee is by my arm. Life is simple. Now if we could just get in the water!

The Waiting.

Dear blog readers!   

I see that the last time I wrote at all was on Father’s Day, over a month ago.  I have not been idle, rest assured, but I agree an update is overdue.

The waiting, the waiting! It seems as if I waited forever for July to arrive. July is nearly over now: time flies for sure when you are busy.  Here are some notes from my July days:

July 1- Canada Day. Going to visit friend Jen in her new home.

I spent the last of my Yellowknife days visiting friends, flying a little and sorting out paperwork and logistics for my return to the “real world” in September, including a long-awaited appointment with the US Consulate in Vancouver to get approval for my visa to live the United States. 

July 4 – Smokey in Yellowknife again today.  Independence Day for the U.S. Jesse leaves Juneau for Seward. He will be there to teach sailing for a few days.

If you haven’t followed news about the forest fire season in the Northwest Territories, a brief recap for you.  On July 24th, 200 forest fires were burning across the territory.  On July 4, “only” 140 fires were burning.  Daily, across the territory, the summer mornings began with a layer of thick smoke.  The fires spread and grew, eating up the sparse, dry boreal forest as they swelled. That day, the Fourth of July, stood out because that was the day my friends lost their beautiful home on the eastern edge of Great Slave Lake to a forest fire.

Another smokey day in Yellowknife.

Another smokey day in Yellowknife.

I spent some time  ages going through and packing and storing and shipping and disposing of my “stuff”.   I sorted my gear into 3 piles:  stuff for the boat, stuff I need for the next week and stuff that will stay until my return in the fall.  I remember thinking “Ack! These piles are too big, I have TOO MUCH STUFF! And how on earth do I know what I am going to need?”  I made a last-minute decision to put my seldom-used hair dryer in the “stuff for boat” pile.  Will Jesse laugh at this, I wonder?  Probably – he thinks I’m really tough, and a hair dryer doesn’t exactly scream rugged.  I just want to stay warm in the Arctic, and I know the boat has power enough to run the hair dryer so I can dry my hair quickly.

July 9 – my last day of work, and it’s a busy one.  I hustle out of the dispatch office as soon as politely possible, say my goodbyes, and pick up Tico and my baggage to get on the plane to Edmonton.

Tico supervising the sorting process.

Tico supervising the sorting process.

Tico is my West Highland White Terrier.  He is Mr. Popular with my nephews (more exciting than human relatives for sure).  The ultimate travelling companion, he is compact, opinionated, cheerful and charming. Also a brilliant squirrel discoverer, conversation-starter, and schedule-keeper.  (Tico likes to get up early, when the squirrels.) Tico visited in Edmonton with me and, a seasoned road warrior, relished the 17 hour drive back to Yellowknife with Jesse and me and all our stuff. Sadly, Tico is not joining me on the Northwest Passage sail, for a number of reasons, all very sound.  He will stay in Yellowknife where he lives happily with Mike, who loves him as much as I do.

July 10 – Jesse flies into Edmonton. Naturally, I am excited to see him.

We spent about a week in Edmonton, visiting with my family there.  It seems like a very long time ago now that I was sitting on the deck of my brother’s house, enjoying a frosty beer in my summer dress while the sun beat down cheerily on us. 

Among those fires were ones that burned alongside the highway in and out of Yellowknife, closing it down due to reduced visibility in smoke and, well, fire.  We managed to whistle up through the highway from Edmonton during a brief window when the highway opened July 17th

Once in Yellowknife, we dropped off Tico with Mike, and did a little more visiting with friends excited to meet Jesse, the mystery man. We were then able to fly out to the homestead of my friends the Olesens, where the fire had taken their main home, and spent some long and happy days visiting and working with them.

On July 24th we FINALLY fly up to Cambridge Bay. It is cool and rainy here, foggy in the mornings and evenings. I check out the boat that will be my home for the next seven weeks. Last fall when I first met Jesse, I spent about two hours total on Empiricus, so I don’t really have any sense of how it will be to live on her. We get busy prepping the boat and ourselves for the journey-we’ll need everything to be in place and organized when we hit the water.

As of today, July 30, Empiricus has been my home for a week now, and I’m feeling comfortable with her and her amenities now. I can’t wait to get out on the ocean and start this journey!  More on Empiricus in the next blog post.  I promise it won’t be a long wait.