Sailing in Search of an Iceberg
The wind had been building for the last hour and was now a steady 35 knots. Time to put in another reef. Up to this point, I had spent my entire watch immobile, huddled behind the dodger. Besides the occasional shiver, my only movements had been to periodically scan the horizon and check the compass. Now it was time to climb below to wake my partner, Ben, and let him know I would be going forward. I decided to spare him my usual trick of placing my cold hands on his neck. Instead, I woke him gently.
Ben and I had agreed that in addition to always staying clipped in during our watches, we would wake each other whenever one of us had to leave the cockpit. The sea was too rough and the water too cold to be anything but extra safe aboard our 28-foot Bristol Channel Cutter Elizabeth. “Benji,” I said, “I’m going forward to reef the sail. Will you come watch me?” Ben rolled out of his bunk and stood in the companionway while I tottered forward to the mast and began reducing sail: lowering the halyard, tightening the reef lines and then snugging up the halyard again. My hands were numb and every few seconds I had to stop what I was doing to shake them out. It hurt to touch the cold shackles and winches. Sometimes my hands just stopped working all together. They were like rubber. I wondered again why we’d ever decided to sail north.
An Unlikely Mission
A few years earlier, after wintering in Massachusetts aboard my Nor’Sea 27, Daphne, I’d wanted to get as far away from ice and snow as possible. Sailing side-by-side in our respective boats, Ben and I had set out for Florida, where we planned to work, save up some money and then explore the Bahamas. We’d barely made it south of Long Island Sound, though, before I’d started planning a way to get back to Maine. For whatever reason, the rugged coastline there holds a special place in my heart. The cold water revives me; the fog offers its own special thrills. In no time, Ben and I had decided not only to spend yet another summer in northern waters, but to sail beyond Maine in search of an iceberg.
“An iceberg? Why an iceberg, when you can explore tropical islands, snorkel through rocky sea caves, or enjoy cocktails under a palm tree?” people asked. The only reasons I could think of were that, well, I’d never seen one before, I knew it would be beautiful, and finding it would be a challenge, a treasure hunt. And so our driving question became, “Can we find an iceberg?” To document our trip, we teamed up with Doctrine Creative, a Florida-based movie production company, to produce the film One Simple Question. The goal then became not only satisfying our own curiosity, but using the trip as a storytelling device to educate others about icebergs in particular and climate science in general.
I began researching icebergs and learned that Newfoundland is the best place to find them off the Eastern Seaboard. I also learned that although inorganic, they have a rich life cycle all of their own. Icebergs are large pieces of ice that break off, or “calve,” off arctic glaciers and then are set adrift on ocean currents. Greenland icebergs travel south with the Labrador Current, which flows along the east coast of Newfoundland. Along the way, waves batter them, and they are melted by the warmer water. Large crevasses form and the once-large icebergs break down into smaller and smaller pieces called “bergy bits” or “growlers.” Ultimately, they meet up with the Gulf Stream at the Grand Banks. Those that have survived the long journey melt away here and assimilate into the ocean.
The more I learned about the interconnected elements of temperature, current, density, salinity, climate, ice and water, the more charmed I became. I needed to see one.
In Search of Ice
Icebergfinder.com became a great resource as Ben and I prepared for our journey. Spring and early summer are the best seasons for spotting bergs off the coast of Newfoundland. Unfortunately, work commitments delayed our departure and shrunk our window of opportunity. Finally, we set out with a fully provisioned boat and no intention of stopping until we saw an iceberg.
The production company sent along a cameraman named Chris to record our efforts, and we met him for the first time only a few days before leaving. Chris was quiet and polite, and Ben and I did our best to make Elizabeth as much like home for him as possible. Nonetheless, it took a few weeks before we really got to know him. He was there to do a job, and he took that very seriously.
A Florida native and a city boy, he also wasn’t entirely prepared for life aboard; nor was he really prepared for the weather we encountered. In fact, none of us were. I used to boast that I’d never been seasick. But that’s no longer the case. Everyone, even Dory the ship’s cat, became seasick on this particular passage.
I first began to doubt our decision when we hit a 50-knot storm just a few days out. I was sitting at the helm and was able to watch as the wind hit at a steady 12 knots, then quickly built.
“It’s 25 knots,” I told Ben. Seconds later I said, “It’s 35 now,” and then seconds later, shouting to be heard, I said, “It’s 40, no, it’s 45 knots!”
Ben was now lashing things down and reefing the sails as I steered Elizabeth to keep the seas on her quarter. I worried over the wind increasing, the lightning intensifying, and the waves building. To my relief, the higher gusts topped out at 52 knots; this we could manage. Although wet, cold and on edge, we settled in to ride things out and even found them enjoyable. As the storm had been building, though, I’d longed for the comforts of lubberly life: the ability to go inside, to shut the door to keep the weather out, to dress in warm clothing fresh from the dryer.
After the storm we had a few days of steady breeze, during which we fished frequently and settled into our watch rotation. As we proceeded north, the coastline grew taller and more beautiful, which made me wonder why I saw fewer and fewer cruising boats. I stopped wondering this when our few days of sunshine turned to weeks of rain, fog and headwinds. We made a stop to await better weather, but it never really came.
When the weather eased a bit we got underway, but all souls aboard Elizabeth still felt pitiless Poseidon testing our hearts, our strength and our stomachs. I always thought simply adding more layers of clothing would be enough to stay warm, but it wasn’t. The cold clung to my skin and made the passage uncomfortable and the work more difficult.
For days we sailed into a nor’easter. When I wasn’t standing watch, all I could do was lay in the quarterberth with my eyes closed. I slept in short bursts, and my body was constantly tense: tense with cold, tense with the exertion of bracing against the rolling and pounding of the boat.
Arriving in Newfoundland, we were greeted by delightful fjords, hills, coastal towns and a fascinating local dialect. Assuming the fishermen would best know where to find icebergs, we approached one to ask for some advice.
“Where you ‘long to?” he asked.
“We’re from New York. We sailed up here to see an iceberg.”
“Go awn wich ya!” he said, putting down the net he was mending. When he realized we were serious, though, he added, “Nare one here, but wait long enough, and you’ll get one. You heard of that big one, I suppose?”
The “big one” he was referring to was the Petermann Ice Island, the biggest piece of ice to break off of Greenland in the last 60 years. Just when we were resigning ourselves to maybe not seeing an iceberg, here we’d been sent the biggest one on record.
“Yes, we did. We heard it was traveling south and would be here soon. So we thought we would anchor for the night and then head out in the morning to see if we could find it.”
“Well, proper ting by watin.’ I lows it be here by tomorrow.”
The next day, the fog was so thick and the rain so heavy, the only way we knew we’d left the harbor was by the swells that soon became big enough to fully heave Elizabeth up and down. We had the coordinates of where a fisherman last saw the giant iceberg and headed in that direction, but never found it. We turned back to the harbor and anchored again.
The day after that brought clear and sunny skies and a cold, steady 20-knot breeze. Sailing off our anchor, we exited the harbor, turned north and soon saw a large slab of ice ahead. It looked like a long, flat island sitting on the horizon the continued growing bigger and bigger the closer we got. Closer still, we could see it was actually two large icebergs. One was tabular, with steep sides and a flat top, resembling a table; the other was pinnacle, with several spires, and a current wake trailing behind.
For several hours we sailed circles around the icebergs, taking pictures, marveling at their beauty and flying our kite-camera overhead for a bird’s-eye view of the rivers and lakes on top. One of the bergs towered high above our mast and was aground in 350 feet of water. Ribbons of blue, purple and green wove in and out of the frozen water. Icy cataracts poured off the edge. Thunderous sounds rang out every time another piece broke off and dropped into the ocean, kicking up monstrous waves.
By mid-morning a company of fishing boats surrounded the iceberg to collect the smaller bits of ice that had broken away—chunks that were still large enough that cranes were required to lift them aboard. We later learned that the fishermen would sell the ice to a vodka distillery or a bottled-water company. It would be the cleanest drinking water on the planet, having been frozen in a glacier centuries before there was even a word for pollution.
Watching the iceberg, I felt like I’d been taken back in time. This was a beautiful piece of history that had run its course and had been set free, soon to melt in warmer waters. We were witnessing the cycle of polar ice and climate change on a grand scale. All our questions about the purpose for our journey were resolved. We’d come to see an iceberg and were now returning with more than we could have ever hoped for.
All photos courtesy of One Simple Question
Teresa Carey is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain,
a keynote speaker and a regular contributor for SAIL.
Her first film, One Simple Question, is set to air this year
For more by Teresa Carey visit teresacarey.com
To watch the trailer for One Simple Question visit simplequestionmovie.com