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How to travel Greenland: Adventures in the Arctic on a tiny boat

Nuuk, the world’s northernmost capital city. Photo/Getty.

Mountainous waves, errant icebergs and the wonder of two-hour nights – Rebecca Hayter takes a wild ride to Nuuk.

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 would disagree, loving the idea of exploring the sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Canadian Arctic – but they weren’t the ones facing frostbite on the lungs, having the yacht’s hull ripped apart by an iceberg and being part of a polar bear’s picnic.

However, after 40 years of ocean racing and a crash off a wave that compressed his spine, Ross Field had given up professional sailing to take up something easy like high-latitude expedition cruising. Officially a pensioner, he was adamant that he wouldn’t be sailing upwind or heeling over at more than 15 degrees.

Really? Truly? I’m in.

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Fifteen-hundred nautical miles after leaving the UK, we were off the coast of Greenland in Ross’s 55-foot expedition yacht Rosemary. The pilot book had said to clear Greenland’s southernmost point, Kap Farvel (Cape Farewell), by 120 miles because within that zone is where icebergs, strong currents and huge waves meet to sort out their differences. Thanks for the tip, but staying clear had put us onto a horrible sideways angle to other huge waves. When I saw Ross’s eyes go wide as he looked over his shoulder and yelled “Hang on!”, I gripped the cockpit table for the best fairground ride I’ve ever had.

Over 12 hours and in winds up to 40 knots, we had several wild rides in which a great mass lumbered up behind us, picked up Rosemary’s hard chine bum and pushed her forward like a sled on a ski slope. Every time, the ride swept us on and on chasing valleys, sliding across hills. I’m pretty sure we broke the 15-degree rule.

“How’s this going to end?” I’d wonder. It was always the same: a sway back to equilibrium, a steady course waiting for the next wave.

The autopilot couldn’t keep up with the strong forces required to control the rudder, so Ross and crew member Nick shared the helm through the night. I made them drinks and food, and slept, so when calm weather came I could take over and let them rest.

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 now I heard the Midnight Express roaring past my station – or not. Occasionally the brakes failed and it smashed against the hull beside me in my port aft berth, rolling me into the pillows I’d lined up against the bulkhead: boomph. It sounded worse than it was; the aluminium hull was a drum. Once, there was a mighty deluge from above and yelps of indignation from Ross and Nick as the cockpit filled and drained.

The other noise was a history lesson on 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 ear muscles as Churchill, Hitler, the invention of radar and even Spitfire-versus-Messerschmitt were debated in the cockpit.

A pilot whale and our first iceberg. Photo/Rebecca Hayter.

The Battle of Britain finally called a ceasefire when Ross went to bed. Nick was helming when we caught another wild ride, on and on through swathes of sound. Now there was a new noise. Quiet. Regular. Swish-a-donk. Almost quiet enough that I could stay in my warm bunk. Almost pretend the noise wasn’t there. Swish-a-donk.

Sod it. I pushed myself up from the sway of the boat and scrambled into my seaboots as Nick called out that a jerry can had fallen over the side and was still tied on. Ross rolled out of his bassinette – the pilot berth amidships – and took the helm as Nick kitted up and unzipped the clears to the storm outside. I kept an eye on Nick so Ross didn’t have to.

If this sounds awfully calm for someone who was over-anxious about polar bears just paragraphs ago, calmness was my standout impression of this passage. When I sailed across the Pacific 20 years ago, I was constantly anxious. If it was bad weather, I was scared it would get worse. If it was good weather, I knew it would get worse.

Part of my calm reflected how I’ve evolved in those 20 years, but it was also testament to Rosemary’s 25 tonnes, solid aluminium hull and Ross’s thorough refit. In 5000 ocean miles, we never heard that dreaded “bang!” followed by: “Shitwhatwasthat?”

Now our force-8 storm was behind us, all we had to do was trot a mere 500 miles up the coast of Greenland to its capital, Nuuk.

Midnight as the sun set on a 22-hour day, photographed on the onward leg from Nuuk, about 150 miles north of the Greenland capital. Photo/Rebecca Hayter.
Greenland is the second-largest island in the world, if you count Australia, so 500 miles is not far, relative to the coastline. 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.

To the east, we could see the tops of mountains jagged against the sky that fired to burnt orange and purple hues as midnight approached. A few degrees to the south, the jags drifted in the softer reds and cool 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.

Rosemary’s wheel turned and aimed us straight for those jagged silhouettes. “What the hell are you doing?” That was Ross.

“I didn’t do anything.” That was me.

He pushed the autopilot to standby, brought it back on course: due north, 000. He put it back to autopilot. Within seconds, the wheel spun hard to port.

As the manual for the autopilot would patiently explain, compasses may be unreliable in high latitudes where the Earth’s magnetic field converges at the North and South Poles. Yes, we knew that. This can affect autopilots, especially if heading due north. We didn’t know 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 spied our first iceberg, a mighty ship of crystalline perfection. The blunt black bow of a pilot whale rose to split the water of smooth-satin blue. So this was Arctic sailing.

Downwind of the icebergs floated growlers that had broken away like errant children. They sparkled as our wake licked their curves. “What are growlers? Baby polar bears?” a friend emailed from New Zealand after one of my reports.

Cute, but these growlers had potentially even bigger bites than polar bears. Maybe enough to chomp through Rosemary’s 20mm hull or nibble at her propeller blades. But no problem, they were easy to miss. Then we met the fog.

I knelt for hours on aching knees, leaning forward in the pilothouse, peering into the grey air. If I saw white water breaking, I looked again. If it was still breaking, it was a growler.

“Icebergs go away at night,” Ross said, a Whitbread witticism, but there was no night and since Ross didn’t seem worried enough, 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.

I woke to a scream so terrible that icebergs shattered.

It was me. The world had crashed on to my head. The huge atlas in its cardboard sheath had toppled from the bookcase above me and punched my 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 had a tired growler onboard and he 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 chart-plotter. We obediently followed its black lines between the menace of islands shapeless in the fog and aimed the brown bearing line from our tiny boat icon on the chart-plotter screen down the narrow confines of the shipping channel to Nuuk.

Two weeks after leaving the UK, Rosemary emerged like a magician walking through a curtain. The sky was striking blue; the mountains, a drama of black and white. It was as though the sea had risen thousands of metres to float us up to the shoulders of the Southern Alps. We were on a yacht, but we were among the mountains of Greenland.

The writer in a fjord near Nuuk. Photo/Rebecca Hayter.
In Ireland, Rosemary’s bare aluminium hull had been a rebel among the fibreglass hulls of recreational sailing; in Nuuk Harbour, she was a fully patched member of the gang. In the following days, more bare-aluminium expedition yachts arrived wearing their wind vanes and jerry cans like campaign medals. One was badly wounded – she had cut the corner at Kap Karvel.

I loved the solid scruffiness of Nuuk’s fishing fleet. Fishing boats the world over are staunch and dependable, but Greenland’s carvel-planked fishing boats are thicker than most and munch growlers for breakfast. Some of the fishing boats were small ships and, naive soul that I am, I didn’t realise these included 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.

The mountains may have been pristine, but litter was strewn everywhere and black ravens ravaged rubbish sacks like extras in an Agatha Christie movie. Within a week, the rustic charm would wear thin but for now it was wonderfully intrepid to tie up to a Polish yacht, which was tied up to an Italian ketch, which was tied up to a rusty, oily crane barge.

“Six fat men and three pretty girls,” the Pole boomed, accurately describing himself in his tracksuit. He gulped his beer.

He told us that checking in would be a two-hour process between customs, police… customs, police. I climbed up to the barge, tried to avoid the puddles on its deck that shimmered with diesel and, from its stern, stretched out my foot to hook into the ladder to the wharf. The water a metre beneath my feet was 4.5°C – an effective health and safety regime. When you know you’ll be a human ice block if you fall in, you don’t.

Nuuk’s population is 16,500 of the country’s 70,000 total. We walked into town: sparse, gravelled. 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 stretched over rocks on the hillsides, ready to guide people home during the dark of winter’s snows. It was midsummer 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 a wide plaza where modern buildings sat among neglected blocks of accommodation. Entrances to shop fronts featured the metal grids of ski lodges and even the babies’ prams were like all-terrain vehicles. The people of Inuit descent walked bow-legged, like hunters; the Greenlanders, descended from Vikings, had lighter skin and softer features but were mostly dark-haired. I had expected more blonds, reflecting the guardianship of Denmark.

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?”

“No.” The policeman shrugged. It takes two hours to clear Poles; five minutes to clear New Zealanders.

Local knowledge, he said, was that the Northwest Passage would not open this year.

We didn’t know that either.

Fishing boats in Nuuk Harbour. Photo/Rebecca Hayter.

North, to Greeland and beyond

As it happened, the Northwest Passage did open but we were not one of the yachts that attempted it. Rosemary’s autopilot continued to swap from port to starboard on its magnetic whims, and after sailing north about 150 miles towards the passage, Ross decided it was unrealistic to hand-steer for thousands of miles through icy waters.

Nick had already flown home to South Africa from Greenland, and Ross and I sailed back to the UK. But first, in between helping Ross carry out boat maintenance, I explored Nuuk, the world’s northernmost capital city.

I found it hard to tune into the vibe – the people seemed neither happy nor unhappy. They went about their business in a country where, for much of the year, survival would be a challenge, despite the facade of normality in the stark shopfronts, Katuaq Cultural Centre and wide streets. Even in summer, the temperature was around 8°C; once we woke to snow on the decks. Apparently Nuuk is the capital because its winter temperature never drops below -22°C, and therefore the harbour doesn’t freeze over.

I tried to imagine the winter here – the dreary all-day dusk in which shadowed, bundled-up figures push through the streets – and couldn’t.

The Inuit people fascinated me, although I met few who spoke English. They are similar in looks and demeanour to the Native Americans and originate from the same stock. They wear an ancient air of resilience and seemed somehow out of place within the confines of a town, even one settled on the edge of the wild like Nuuk, where most people still hunt or catch their own meat.

Like the Native Americans, the Inuit connect with the animal spirits and believe where there is total respect for the animal – the seal, reindeer, polar bear or fish – it will accept being killed for food, as long as all parts of the animal are used.

That belief is demonstrated at the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk, which displays Inuit clothing as it has evolved over centuries in some of the earth’s harshest conditions. Generally, clothing consisted of two layers: a fine, inner layer of fur worn inwards next to the body to wick away moisture, and an outer layer with the fur on the outside to deflect moisture. Air would be trapped between them. Exactly the same thinking that went into my expensive, technical wet-weather gear.

Pelts of caribou produced warm, lighter clothing and, by harvesting it at different times of the year, the Inuit made clothes suitable for different seasons. Greenland has just 150km of roads, none of which connect any two towns. Domestic air travel is expensive, so small cruise ships are the best way to explore the fjords. Mostly, the tourists come for icebergs and polar bears, mountain climbing and hiking or, in winter, the chance to see the Northern Lights.

With global warming, it is expected that cruise ships will regularly offer tourists an even more intrepid opportunity: to transit the Northwest Passage. If they promise not to heel at more than 15 degrees, I’m in.

This was published in the April 2018 issue of North & South.