When a former winner of the Whitbread Round the World Race invites you to sail the Northwest Passage, there is only one sensible answer. No.
More adventurous types might disagree, but they weren’t the ones facing frostbite of the lungs or the possibility of having the yacht’s hull ripped apart by an iceberg, or being part of a polar bear’s picnic.
In the course of 40 years of ocean racing, New Zealander Ross Field not only crewed on Peter Blake’s Steinlager 2 when she won the 1989-90 Whitbread, he won the race’s Whitbread 60 class as skipper of Yamaha four years later and helped campaign the Volvo 60 News Corp in the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race. He also campaigned any number of maxis in Europe as Ross Field Yachting, his victories including the Fastnet Race, for which he held the record for 10 years.
In 2012 Ross and his son, Campbell, were leading the Global Ocean Race when the boat crashed off a wave. Ross was at the nav station and landed hard, breaking his back in two places. It ended his professional sailing career and prompted him to take up something a little easier—high-latitude cruising. Now in his late 60s, he assured me we wouldn’t be sailing upwind or heeling over at more than 15 degrees. That changed everything. I told him I was in.
Twelve hundred miles later, after having left the UK aboard Ross’s 55ft aluminum-hulled sloop Rosemary, we were off the coast of Greenland. The pilot book said to clear its lowest point, Kap Farvel, or “Cape Farewell,” by 120 miles because within that zone icebergs, strong currents, and huge waves often meet to sort out their differences. Thanks for the tip. Unfortunately, staying clear also put us at a horrible sideways angle to plenty more huge waves. Seeing Ross’s eyes go wide as he looked over his shoulder and yelled, “Hang on!” I knew I was in for the best fairground ride I’d ever been on, even as I held onto the cockpit table for dear life.
After that, for the next 12 hours or so, with the winds peaking at 40 knots, we had several more of these wild rides, as a great mass of water would rear up from behind, picking up Rosemary’s hard-chine bum and pushing her forward like a sled on a ski slope. On and on we went, the ride sweeping us along, chasing valleys, sliding across hills. I’m pretty sure we broke the 15-degree rule. “How’s this one going to end?” I’d wonder. But it was always the same—a sway back to equilibrium, a steady course waiting for the next wave.
Not surprisingly the autopilot couldn’t keep up, so Ross and our shipmate Nick Leggatt shared the helm all through the night. As they did so, I tried to balance my time between making them drinks and food and sleeping, so that when calm weather returned, I could take over and let them rest.
Then there was the noise—the wind that roared against the tiny bit of staysail and double-reefed mainsail, the screaming whirr of the windvane. I’ve heard people liken monster waves to freight trains, and I have now had a chance to listen as a true Midnight Express went roaring past my bunk. Occasionally it would derail and smash up against the hull beside me in my port aft berth, rolling me into the pillows I’d lined up against bulkhead. Boomph! Fortunately, it sounded worse than it was. Rosemary’s aluminium hull was like a drum. Once there was a mighty deluge from above and yelps of indignation from Ross and Nick as the cockpit filled from an especially steep breaker.
The other sound I could make out coming from abovedecks took the form of a kind of re-fighting of the Battle of Britain. Ross was reading a tome about it and had become an expert. I was trying to sleep, but couldn’t help straining my ears as Churchill, Hitler, the invention of radar and even the Spitfire versus the Messerschmitt was hotly debated. Eventually it came time for Ross to go to bed and a cease-fire was called. Nick was helming as we took another wild ride, on and on through swathes of sound. Then came another noise: Swish-a-donk.
After that it was quiet again, so I stayed in my warm bunk. I could almost pretend the noise wasn’t there. Then: Swish-a-donk.
Sod it. I was just pushing myself up from the sway of the boat and scrambling into my sea boots when Nick called out that a jerry can had fallen over the side and was still tied on. Ross rolled out of his bassinette—my name for his pilot berth amidships—and took the helm as Nick kitted up and left the shelter of the pilothouse to enter the storm outside. I kept an eye on Nick so Ross wouldn’t have to.
Of course, even a Force 8 storm must eventually pass, and once the wind and waves were behind us all that was left was to trot a mere 500 miles up the coast of Greenland to its capital, Nuuk. Because Greenland is the second-largest island in the world, 500 miles is not far, relative to its coastline. Once again, on the advice of Denmark’s Ice Service, we stayed well out to sea to avoid huge icebergs, individually coded and known to be drifting off the coast.
As we did so we could see the tops of mountains off the to the east, jagged against the sky that fired to burnt orange and purple hues as midnight approached and a few degrees to the south, the jags drifting in the softer reds and pinks of dawn. It was as though the sun were dipping and rising in different places at the same time, a phenomenon of a two-hour night.
Suddenly, Rosemary’s wheel turned and aimed us straight for these same jagged silhouettes. “What the hell are you doing?” Ross said.
“I didn’t do anything.”
Ross pushed the autopilot to standby, brought Rosemary back on her course of due north and put the autopilot back on. Within seconds, the wheel spun hard to port. Damn.
As the manual for the autopilot would later patiently explain when we checked it, in high latitudes the magnetic dip of the Earth’s surface comes in at a shallower angle and can affect compasses. Yes, we knew that. Unfortunately, this can also affect autopilots, especially when heading due north. We didn’t know that. The solution, apparently, is a gyrocompass. We didn’t have one.
After that, I hand steered as Ross and Nick tried to convince the autopilot that north was the way to go. In the bright light of day, I also spied our first iceberg: a mighty ship of crystalline perfection. At one point, the blunt black bow of a pilot whale also split the water’s smooth-satin blue surface. So this was Arctic sailing.
Downwind of the icebergs floated numerous, smaller “growlers,” bergie bits that had broken away like errant children. They sparkled as our wake licked their curves. “What are growlers? Baby polar bears?” a friend e-mailed after one of my reports. Cute. But these growlers had a potentially bigger bite than any polar bear, maybe enough to chomp through Rosemary’s 20mm hull or nibble at her propeller blades. No problem, they were easy to miss. Then came the fog. In no time I found myself kneeling on aching knees leaning forward in the pilothouse, peering into the gray air. If I saw white water, I looked again. If it was still there, it was a growler.
“Icebergs go away at night,” Ross said, an old Whitbread witticism. But there was no night, and since Ross didn’t seem worried, I had to worry for both of us. He sent me below. I made him promise to keep a lookout and fell exhausted onto the saloon settee, only to wake to a scream so terrible icebergs could have shattered.
Luckily, it was only me. The world had literally crashed on my head in the form of a huge Atlas in its cardboard sheath that had toppled from the bookcase above me and punched me in the face as we came off a wave. I picked up the effing Atlas and threw it across the effing saloon. Ross leaned down from the helm to chide me, but realised he now also had a tired growler onboard and that he had better be careful she didn’t turn into a polar bear. An hour later, I dragged myself up to the pilothouse. Our worthy skipper was snoring at the helm. Growlers all around.
Greenland excels at fog. For 24 hours, Rosemary motored through a world of monotony, mapped only by the chartplotter. We obediently followed its digital lines between the menace of islands shapeless in the fog and aimed the bearing line for our tiny boat icon on the chartplotter screen down the narrow confines of the shipping channel to Nuuk.
Eventually, Rosemary emerged like a magician coming out through a curtain. The sky was a striking blue, the mountains, a drama of black and white. It was as though the sea had risen thousands of feet and lifted us up alongside the shoulders of the Southern Alps. We were on a yacht, but we were among the mountains of Greenland.
In Ireland, Rosemary’s bare aluminum hull had been a rebel among the fiberglass hulls of the other recreational sailboats. In Nuuk Harbour, though, she was a fully-patched member of the gang. In the following days, more bare-aluminum expedition yachts arrived wearing their wind vanes and jerry cans like campaign medals. One was badly wounded—she had cut the corner at Kap Farvel.
I loved the solid scruffiness of Nuuk’s fishing fleet. Fishing boats the world over are staunch and dependable, but Greenland’s carvel-planked craft are thicker than most and munch growlers for breakfast. Naïve soul that I am, I didn’t realise that among them were a number of whaling ships. Until I figured that out, I loved them. I was brought up on fishing boats. Fish guts and diesel smell like love and integrity to me.
Unfortunately, while the mountains may have been pristine, litter was everywhere, and black ravens ravaged rubbish sacks like extras in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Within a week, the rustic charm would wear thin, but for now, it was wonderfully intrepid to tie up to a Polish yacht that was tied up to an Italian ketch that was tied up to a rusty, oily crane barge. “Six fat men and three pretty girls,” a member of the Polish crew boomed, accurately describing himself in his tracksuit. As he gulped his beer, he also told us that checking in would be a two-hour process between customs and the police.
A short while after that I climbed up to the barge, trying to avoid the puddles on its deck shimmering with diesel. From its stern, I stretched out my foot to hook onto the ladder leading up to the wharf. The water a meter beneath my feet was 40 degrees F. When you know you’ll be a human ice block if you fall in, you don’t.
Nuuk’s population includes roughly 16,500 of the country’s 70,000 total. We walked into town: sparse, graveled, with a dismal cemetery of crooked white crosses. I wondered how they bury their dead in winter. Do they wait for summer?
Random flights of steps climbed rocks on the hillsides, ready to get people home during the dark of the winter’s snows. It was mid-summer, but there were few blades of grass: more than half of Greenland is green, but only when it is written down.
Large, Inuit-style sculptures of igloo people and polar bears hulked at wide plazas where modern buildings sat among neglected blocks of accommodation. Entrances to shop fronts featured the metal grids of ski lodges, and even the prams for babies were like all-terrain vehicles. The people of Inuit descent walked bow-legged like hunters; the Greenlanders descended from the Vikings, had lighter skin and softer features, but were still mostly dark-haired. I had expected more blonds, reflecting the guardianship of Denmark.
That said, the policeman was tall, blond and film-star handsome. He flicked casually through our passports, thumped a stamp on each and handed them back.
“Do we have to see customs?” Ross asked.
“Do you have anything to declare? Weapons?”
The policeman shrugged. Apparently, it takes two hours to clear Poles, five minutes to clear New Zealanders. Unfortunately, he also said the general consensus was that the Northwest Passage would not be opening this year, something we hadn’t known either.
As it happened, the passage did open, but Rosemary was not among those who made it through. Linked to a fluxgate rather than a gyro compass, the autopilot continued to freak out due to the proximity of magnetic north. Our crew, therefore, flew home from Greenland, and Ross and I sailed Rosemary back to the UK via Ireland, doublehanded. I confess I was disappointed when Ross made the call to turn back, but only for a second. We’d still sailed to Greenland and back, and that was plenty of challenge for now.
Born on New Zealand’s South Island to a sailing family, Rebecca Hayter is both an award-winning journalist and veteran mariner
Photos by Rebecca Hayter