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

Advertisements

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.

(Posted the day after) Father’s Day, 2014

Happy Fathers’ Day! This week I travelled from Baffin Island to Juneau, Alaska, where I am writing this post. On the way I spent a couple of days with my family, seeing two of my three brothers and catching up with my sister, too. My brothers are great dads and I enjoyed visiting with their growing families. We talked a lot about the upcoming summer, and a lot about our Dad, Jim.

Hercules! Hercules!  Dad at work, flying the C130 Hercules

Hercules! Hercules! Dad at work, flying the C130 Hercules

Let me tell you a bit about him. My Dad is a supercool explorer. His skills include: navigating by the stars, flying vintage aircraft (yup, exactly like the ones featured in Ice Pilots), evaluating sea ice by air in the high Arctic to determine suitability for landing, playing six games of chess simultaneously on his iPad with various, curated opponents from his treks around the world, scuba diving (a recently acquired skill), oh – and he can waterski on one leg while holding the other ski over his head. I’ll try to dig up the picture of this last item next week for any doubters. There are a few things he is not very good at, but it is Father’s Day and the list would be short in any case.

So if I want to do anything cool, or adventurous, chances are, papa has already done it. North Pole – check. South Pole – check. Flying floatplanes – check. Trading a parka for a Soviet fur hat at a Siberian research station – check. Delivering an aircraft for the United Nations to Nepal via Iceland – check. Scuba diving – check. Sailing around the world – *check. (* In process.) Currently, he is in New Zealand, living on his sailboat with my lovely step-mom Isabel. They sailed there from Hawaii this winter past.

On of the sailing trophies won by my Dad. This is the Commissioner's Cup, a race across Great Slave Lake.

On of the many sailing trophies won by my Dad. This one is Commissioner’s Cup, given to the winner of  a race across Great Slave Lake,Northwest Territories.

You’ll have to forgive me, then, if I take just a little, teensy-weensy bit of pleasure from the fact I am going to do something that my Dad has NOT already done – yet. I certainly wouldn’t have nominated myself for the “Most Likely to Sail the Northwest Passage” category in the Cool Life Achievements awards. And I haven’t done it yet – but it is a pretty bad-ass goal to have. I am delighted to join Jesse in the pursuit of his goal, and I confess to enjoying in a very un-modest way the notoriety and cool factor that comes along with such a rigorous pursuit.

But back to my father for a minute. Obviously, my Dad is a cool guy. But I think the coolest thing about him is that he strives to be a good person, and a good dad, and not just a guy that does cool things all the time. I used to say that if I told my folks that I was selling all my worldly possessions and moving to Africa to work at an elephant nursery, their reply would be: “Right on! We love you.” Growing up, I took this this “go-for-it” attitude toward unorthodox life decisions for granted, and only now do I realize how unusual this unconditional support is.

When I told my Dad about my plans to marry Jesse, sail the Northwest Passage and move to Alaska, he said “Awesome. I love you.” Then he wanted to know how big Jesse’s boat was.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

Dad checking out a train, somewhere in the world...

Dad checking out a train, somewhere in the world…

An Unexpected Journey.

I would like to tell everyone that it is my lifelong dream to sail through the Northwest Passage.  But frankly, that just isn’t true.  I have never dreamed of Arctic exploration, rather, I dreamt of sailing to exotic locales in a bikini, not a parka.  But this summer, through an improbable set of circumstances, I will join my fiancé to do exactly that.  In late July, we plan to set sail from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to Iceland.  And a bit unexpectedly, I am really, really excited about it!

I am not a stranger to the North.  When I was six (a few decades ago, now), I crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time to spend Christmas on Little Cornwallis Island.  It is right smack in the middle of the Canadian Arctic, just north of Resolute Bay.  My dad was stationed up there as a pilot and he had the opportunity to bring my mom and me along with him over the Christmas holidays.  I remember the darkness of the days, the biting, dry cold, and seeing fluffy arctic foxes prance in front of the windows of the camp.   Another Christmas a few years later, my family joined my dad in Iqaluit (the capital of Nunavut on southern Baffin Island).  As we were above the treeline, my mother, unable to secure a real tree (the few that were flown in – amazing! – were sold out quickly) reluctantly erected a “fake” tree.  The near 24-hour darkness stymied our sleep schedule and I think we ate Christmas dinner at 4 p.m.

I have lived in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories for 23 years.  It is a sub-arctic town, just skirting the edge of the treeline.  It boasts long summer days and many, many inland lakes, full of fish.  It is a gateway to the remote hamlets that dot the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Pretty typical summer view near Yellowknife.  Lakes, trees, rocks. Aircraft is a Beaver on amphibious floats.

Pretty typical summer view near Yellowknife. Lakes, trees, rocks. Aircraft is a Beaver on amphibious floats.

I work there as a pilot, flying people to various communities and remote destinations across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.  Right now, I am writing this post from a mining camp on Northern Baffin Island. One of the places I fly to regularly from the mine site here is Pond Inlet, about 100 miles away.  It is hard to imagine that in another two months, I will sail into this little town, beside icebergs and the glaciers that pour into the ocean from their mountain origins.

PondInletApr23,2014

About 14 miles south of Pond Inlet, May 2014.

The same view, July 2013.

The same view, July 2013. The ocean was ice-free in this picture.

When I met Jesse, I told him that I like to go fast in my sailboat, and I wasn’t up for puttering around, tourist-style, through life, whether on a boat or on land.  That is still true.  I like to have a mission: a race to win, a destination to get to, a schedule to keep, cargo to deliver. The best part of my job as a pilot is that it is mission-oriented.  I get to balance many factors to have a safe, successful mission.  Weather, aircraft performance, facilities at the destination, my skill set, my first officer’s abilities, customer expectations, company expectations and government regulations all come into play in my decision-making.

My sailing experiences are fairly limited, compared to my flying background.  For a few years, I did own a 25 foot racing sloop (a Kirby 25) called “Knot Krazy”.  She’s now sold to an enthusiastic new owner who will love her quick response and sporty performance as much as I did.  I raced her regularly on Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife, but I didn’t go outside of the 5 miles of race course, ever.  Last fall, before heading to Alaska, I spent 4 days on a Bavaria 32 called “Arcturus” in the Gulf Islands between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island.  This trip was the first time I had sailed more than 6 hours in a row, and the first time I overnighted on a boat.    So I have much to learn; I need to hone my sailing skills, learn more about navigation, ocean weather, trip planning and ice avoidance.

Sailing Knot Krazy.  Photo credit Darren Jacquard

Sailing Knot Krazy. Photo credit Darren Jacquard

About Empiricus:  she is a gaff-rigged yawl (this means she has a mizzen mast, a little mast on her stern). She weighs 38,000 lbs and is about 50 feet long.  I haven’t spent any time aboard her under sail, so I really don’t know much about her.  We will get to know each other this summer.

I am ready to take in the view from the boat, sailing at 6-8 knots, and seeing the world from the horizontal.  It will differ from the speedy, bird’s eye view of the aeroplane.

My goal is to post weekly updates on our preparations and subsequent voyage through the passage.  I welcome comments and questions – I hope you enjoy the blog.