A Journey to the North Pole…
A feature story by Toby Bromley, a 70- year-old novice sailor who took his 73-foot ketch, Ashley St. Mary, farther north among the bergy bits than any other private yacht has gone before. Ashley St. Mary logged 7,826 miles from England and came within 704 miles of the North Pole.
Ashley St Mary set out on her maiden voyage to northwest Greenland soon after my 70th birthday, and it was on that day that I ran away to sea. Looking back, it may have been a little crazy to take an unproven boat into such dangerous waters. However, we got there and back alter logging 7,826 miles and coming within 704 miles of the North Pole. The Greenlanders told us we had been some 500 miles farther north than any other private yacht.
The splendid thing about our new 73-foot steel ketch was that, although many small defects showed up, nothing occurred that interfered with our safety or even our comfort. And I was delighted to find that she really could take incidents in her stride. Eighty-knot winds, heavy contact with an underwater rock, even a full Force 10 gale in the North Atlantic — all left her undismayed.
The adventure started on June 22 when we sailed from England for Greenland. John R. was the skipper, Monique, the cook: They were the two paid hands. The others were adventurous fellows along for the ride: Andrew was a husky, young rugby player who knew quite a bit about sailing; Alastair, a large-scale farmer whose knowledge of the sea was slight; and the owner, myself, unskilled as well as aged. We were the permanent five, but we also had Oliver, an electronics whiz kid, on board for spells. And there was always a flow of visiting crewmembers — an angling expert, an anthropologist, a professor of marine biology—Who joined us for varying periods of time. We were thus usually seven, and I think the new faces and new outlooks made a pleasant change and helped to keep us happy.
Our first night out was very rough, as first nights at sea so often are, and no one slept much. But the next day was marvelous for me: I experienced for the first time the joy of a full day of sailing with a fair wind — that sustained, effortless, hissing glide through the water. Ever since that day, I have inwardly groaned whenever we have had to break the lovely silence by putting on an engine.We seemed to be an even-tempered lot. There was no dissension about work; everyone did his fair share. Each cabin had its own “head” with washbasin and shower, so this possible cause of conflict was ruled out. We all had to adjust to each other’s foibles and it sometimes seemed to me that I, as the owner, had to adjust more than most. Possibly I had to be extra tolerant because of my state of general ignorance — I had to compensate for this while I learned.
All in all, we got on well together for the whole four months of the voyage. People often wonder how it can be possible to spend so much time in such cramped quarters in peace and concord. One answer is that it ‘s not hard at all, simply because the alternative is unthinkable. In our case, it was even easier once we had reached the ice as there was so much beauty, so much to see, that no one could have been bored or ill-tempered.
It was an uneventful passage, though exciting for me. The skipper’s birthday came and went with champagne and a gourmet dinner. As we neared Cape Farewell, we saw our first icebergs: To my relief, they showed up well on radar. In the evening, the wind dropped, until we lay motionless as though in a sea of oil. Then a wet fog closed in. In the morning, it began to blow and we saw our first pack ice. We were 150 miles offshore and we sailed along the edge of it, dodging loose floes and an occasional growler. By noon, it was blowing 35 to 40 knots and even bergy bits were hard to see; the wave troughs hid them, and the white tops camouflaged them. We each did one hour’s watch outside, and it was more them enough in the wind and spray. It would have been even more unpleasant and rather dangerous in the dark, so at nightfall, we hove to and lay ahull with the mizzen set to steady her. The detour to get around the pack ice was 450 miles and our approach to Godthib was thus from the northwest. We entered the harbor at 0115 after a 17-day passage. We were now at 64°N, and it was daylight.
In this, the capital city, formalities were slight. Johnnie, the Danish harbormaster, came aboard and took a glass of whiskey. When at last I asked whether he could hasten the arrival of customs and immigration, he roared with laughter. “I am customs, I am the police and you are OK!” He told us that a big French yacht had been lost a few days before. They had tried to go to the landward side of the ice we had skirted and got trapped. The pressure of the floes had broken up the boat, and a helicopter rescue team was sent to get the people out.
He told us we could tie up along¬side Regina Maris, an American barquentine full of scientists engaged in whale research. Outside of us lay Bride of Gastonia, a 50-foot Sparkman & Stephens ketch from New York.
We spent a few days in the fjords behind Godthdb and filled the freezers with redfish pulled up from the saltwater depths and equally delicious arctic char, caught on the fly in the river. Then we went north, not forgetting to pour a libation to Poseidon the Thunderer as we crossed the Arctic Circle. We had to motor rather too much: The “polar high” brings day after day of flat calm. However, we found we could get five knots on one engine at low revs and, as this was economical and not too noisy, it became standard motoring practice.
It is terribly easy to become an ice addict. Many of the bergs have been carved into strange and beautiful shapes over many years by the action of wind and water. The sheer size of the big ones is staggering, especially when one thinks that only about one-tenth of the total mass is above water level. Glacier ice is of every imaginable color and is especially intense when backlit by the evening sun. The procession of sights was endless, but no one ever tired of it; the click of camera shutters was continuous.
At Disko Bay, we called at Egedesminde and Jakobshavn, and at the Green Islands where there is a large breeding colony of arctic tem, those astonishing little birds that fly about 30,000 miles each year to enjoy one summer in the Arctic and another in the Antarctic. Here, John L., our marine biologist, and Andrew went down with the scuba gear and brought up a fine supper of fresh mussels.
We reached Upemavik, the best place in which to find public transport. In the summertime, they get a weekly helicopter and a monthly ship. All Eskimo place names have a meaning and Upemavik is “The Spring Place.” We met Lars Grunnett, the Chief of Police, and learned later that he was also the only policeman. He said he was quite busy with several minor matters: The beer had run out some weeks before, the supply ship had arrived a few days ago, and the whole town had been drunk ever since.
Ahead of us lay the real wilds and John R. and I were worried about the lack of charts. There were only three of them for the whole of the north, on a small scale with a minimum of soundings and detail. Lars sent us to the Danish owner of a fishing boat and he allowed us to take tracings from what he called “my nautical land maps.” Thus equipped, we set forth into the dread waters of Melville Bay. We were in truth relying on a good set of navigational instruments, the skipper’s inspired guesswork and lookouts with a proper sense of self-preservation.
We spent a day at Agparssuit (“where there are many guillemots”), said to be the biggest bird cliff in the North Atlantic with more than two million inhabitants. It was a stupendous sight. The next night we were motoring through a dense field of icebergs, pushing our way slowly through the brush that lay between them. My watch ended at 0130, but I stayed up all night. It was breathtaking to slide between those great mountains of ice, wonderful beyond description. The midnight sun touched their tops and added strange opalescent colors to their incredible shapes. In the background towered the vast ice cap that had given birth to them. I could not turn in and leave this wonderful dream sequence.
At the north side of Melville Bay, we passed the Crimson Cliffs, brilliant with startling red lichen and anchored at the Pitugfik (“where one can anchor a boat”) Glacier. I went back to the glacier face in the dory, pushing slowly through masses of brash ice to get there. I felt very small and very much alone in this wild place; in fact, I appreciated my inflexible rule (except in harbor) that no one ever leaves the ship without a hand-held radio and the ship’s VHF kept on continuous watch. If someone had broken an ankle ashore or if a dinghy outboard had failed when wind and tide were adverse, this would have meant the difference between life and death.
We anchored at Dundas and made a circumspect approach to the U.S. Thule Air Base where we were received most kindly. We next called at Thule Qaanaaq about 100 miles to the north and then went on to the Bowdoin Fjord. This was named by the explorer Admiral Robert Peary, who had studied at Bowdoin College in Maine. We were looking for the anchorage he had used there in 1893. He had in fact made it his arctic base until one night the glacier calved a berg that set up a tidal wave big enough to swamp his three ships with the loss of most of his stores.
We didn’t know it, but the glacier had plans for us, too. During the night, we heard a most terrific noise. It sounded like a thunderstorm that went on continuously for five or six minutes, with salvos of heavy naval guns and fusillades of infantry fire added as well. In the morning, the far side of the fjord was thickly covered with ice, and we realized that the glacier had calved a berg that had then exploded. During the day, wind and tide moved this ice to our side of the fjord until we were surrounded by thick brash. We had found that ice usually sidles to the attack in the eve¬ning and at 2100 we were being nudged, then rudely jostled, by bergy bits weighing some thousands of tons that were trying to foul the an¬chor chain. It took all hands and both engines to ease us out so that we could seek a safer place.
The Inglefleld Fjord, 40 miles long and 12 wide, is a hunting area and the use of engines there is banned by a Polar Eskimo law. Using our light-air sails to do Vh knots, we saw pod after pod of narwhal: We even saw the famous horns of the males as they came up to blow. At Qeqertat, at the head of the fjord, a hunter had killed a narwhal and the whole village was helping to cut it up. These Polar Es¬kimos hunt very honorably, with kayak and harpoon, and 1 must say that I admire the man who can kill a 16-foot whale from such a craft in those icy waters.
Siorapaluk (“the beautiful sand”) is the world’s northernmost village at 77°47’N and we posted letters there at the world’s northernmost post office. Then we went on again until at 78° 16’N, 704 miles from the North Pole, we were halted by a barrier of polar ice floe that Tilled the 25 miles of Smith Sound from Greenland to Canada. We had a good look at this dramatic sight, then rounded Cape Alexander to find anchorage at tiny Sutherland Island. This was the only time we saw white arctic hare in any numbers. I was fascinated by the way they ran, bolt upright on their hind legs, looking back at me over one shoulder as they went.
On August 27, there was a long red twilight and a brief setting of the sun. It was time to hurry south as winter was breathing down our necks. The darkness increased each night and this I did not like; sailing among growlers is all right under the mid¬night sun but it is not pleasant in the dark. So we stopped only at Marmori- lik where we visited the most extraordinary mine (lead, zinc and silver) about 2,000 feet up in a 4,100-foot mountain of solid perma-frosted mar-ble; and at nearby Umanaq (“the heart-shaped thing”) for stores.
Near Godth&b, the wind was 30 knots gusting to 40. A few minutes later our wind speed needle was jammed at its maximum reading of 55 knots. We called Johnnie by VHF and he said it was blowing 60 knots at the harbor. We pointed out that the har¬bor was sheltered by cliffs. There was a short pause, then he reported 80 knots of wind at the heliport. The sea was not too bad, as though the wind had blown it flat, but we could see little except spindrift. The whole ship hummed underfoot, the effect no doubt of the wind on the masts trans-mitted to the deck.
We had a rough passage home. The wishbone boom buckled in a Force 4 or 5. Soon after that, we were in a Force 10 storm and the weather fax cheered us up with a chart show¬ing 33- to 36-foot waves. Most of the sails were damaged, as the reinforc¬ing was not up to North Atlantic gale standard. I learned once and for all to keep “one hand for the ship” when she threw me three feet across the wheelhouse and broke two ribs. We arrived home on October 13. Ashley St. Mary had done marvelously well. It had been the maiden voyage of a lifetime and I have been homesick for Greenland ever since.