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Drifting behemoths

Feb 28, 2019

Ice, fjords and fog on a passage along the Greenland coast

Peter Smith’s aluminum sloop Kiwi Roa in the ice-choked harbor at Ilulissat.

Peter Smith’s aluminum sloop Kiwi Roa in the ice-choked harbor at Ilulissat.

As the Newfoundland coast vanished astern, we headed on a bearing directly north aboard our 52-foot aluminum sloop Kiwi Roa. This passage was a general continuation of a clockwise circumnavigation of the Northern Atlantic that began thousands of miles ago on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. For now the Arctic region was both destination and voyage, the Greenland coast ahead a thin break between sea and ice.

Coastal voyaging around Newfoundland involves constant contact with ice, which drifts south from Baffin Bay, the marginal sea that divides Greenland from the American continent — Arctic breakaways, many from the eastern Arctic driven south then north again by currents, and their cousins calved from Greenland glaciers. At sea it is a traffic problem, something halfway between a shipping lane and a rocky archipelago. One never truly has the feeling of being mid-ocean as we pick our route between these icy behemoths, island-hopping all the way from one coast to the other.

Midsummer is the sensible time of year for this sort of “cruise.” We were late and made landfall at the end of July, season of the midnight sun and never-ending sunsets that only flip, at some indeterminable point, into sunrise. This at least provides navigable light to safely thread a route northwest along the coast — more glacier and ice than coast, really — while the sun burrows along beneath the terrain from east to west. Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, is some 300 nautical miles north of the southern extremity, 10 miles in from the western coastline; it is here we finally closed in with the land, entering into the calm waters of the enclosing fjord network.

Crewmembers from a patrol boat delivered clearing-in forms.

A patrol vessel intercepted us a few miles away, sending a crew on an RIB to board and give us customs and immigration forms — all very friendly and welcoming — and by the evening we were tied up in Nuuk harbor. Ports in Greenland tend to be situated in indentations in rock where the bottom shelf is shallow enough to provide a workable depth for moorings and wharfs, with a surrounding topology that might provide foundations for housing. Accessways are miniature fjords, little channels cut through rock that the sea has seen fit to fill with navigable veins a few tens or hundreds of meters wide, a fractal picture that looks much the same at a larger scale where the arteries can swell to five miles or more in breadth. The pattern only breaks at the boundaries, at the ocean outside and inland where the icecap smothers everything.

Where these natural piers are insufficient, breakwaters and docks have been built at the scale for small fishing boats and runabouts. Kiwi Roa seemed out of place, neither small nor large, and the only solution was a raft five vessels deep: three yachts docked in parallel to two large trawlers, themselves moored to the wharf directly cliffside. About 150 feet above us, three large blue buildings perched on the ridgeline, a foundation of near-vertical rock.

   

Kiwi Roa’s
passage
along the
Greenland coast went
north to
Disko Bay
and ended
when the
Smiths
passed Cape
Farewell
en route
to Europe.

A base for the Northwest Passage
Some of the transient yachts use Nuuk at the base for an attempt at the Northwest Passage, which is becoming more and more accessible with every year — although still an unpredictable challenge with the possibility of turning back being just as likely as making Alaska. Peter’s friend Mike Thurston, on Australian Drina, left only the day after our arrival. Kiwi Roa would be back here another time for the same reason, but for now Greenland was the focus.

The Nuuk area has a multi-millennia history of settlement as far back as the Paleo-Eskimo, although it was deserted at the arrival of Viking explorers in the 10th century with the Inuit coming shortly after. Both peoples appear to have lived locally with little interaction before the Norse disappeared again during the 1400s. The modern city was not founded until a Dano-Norwegian effort in 1728; founder Hans Egede gets a prominent statue visible from half the town. Most of the early founders were wiped out by scurvy and then smallpox. Now some 18,000 Greenlanders make up the population, the largest grouping on the largest island in the world.

Two iceberg pinnacles floating in Disko Bay.

After some five days we were ready to proceed north once more. From the water, even in bright sunlight, the Greenlandic towns have a habit of disappearing into the terrain. There is not quite the same look to them that seafarers will first imagine when recalling the sight of a city from sea. Buildings are dispersed widely, there is no standout height to them and the colors are really more pastel than rumor and over-processed photos might have you believe. Their greenfield surrounds are not flattened and sharpened as with most cityscapes. It may just be that any manmade structure has a challenge competing with the elevation of the background terrain, but the feeling really is more that the settlement is still subject to its environment, man’s mastery of the land still a work in progress.

Back at the mouth of the fjord, as we exited the outer entrance, an old settlement is nestled on rock shoulders — half a dozen forlorn houses with holed roofs and missing timbers. This was to be the first of many redundant fishing hamlets, made superfluous by the modernizing effects of centralized townships and faster boats. Kiwi Roa anchored in the deserted rock harbor.

Slowly declining population
Ninety miles north is another town, this one with a slowly declining population but still harboring an active fishing community. Maniitsoq is a colorful carpet of houses and commercial buildings below rounded voluptuous rock hills, set behind a harbor formed from a breakwater that snakes out to join a few small islands. In the harbor is a marina, intended chiefly for the local fishing boats, but one side of one pier lacks fingers. We were able to comfortably moor here and avoid the wharf. The rocky shoreline is broken by the occasional boat ramp, concrete beaches with jumbles of landed dinghies, and ringed by a road empty of automobiles; here, the preferred motor vehicle floats.

A view of the capital, Nuuk.

We stayed here just a day before pushing north once more though poorly charted channel routes framed by jagged peaks. Through Hamborger Sund, across the mouths of wide valleys tipping glaciers over from the ice cap above, past small local fishing boats towing even smaller dinghies, stopping for the night at roadstead anchorages found in little holes in the rocky coast. Sometimes the cliffs are sharp, sometimes eroded and curved like the sugarloaf hills near a small village called Kangaamiut. Sometimes the sky is clear and the rock stands in sharp contrast with rough detail, other times the weather closes in and fog descends to split the heights in two or to pool in valleys and shroud the nude rock lowlands. When the fog spills out to sea, navigation is reduced to a scale of hundreds of meters commensurate with visibility. Everything stills, and the wider world recedes as small details ashore — a low promontory, a stand-alone fishing hut — pass by silently and everything ahead is unknown.

The GPS told us when we crossed the Arctic Circle: 66° 33’ N. A few hours more is Attu, another small fishing settlement with a population of probably less than 200 by now. Small, square, traditional-style houses dot a flat peninsula. The locals don’t appear bothered with property boundaries, each home something like a boat anchored in a bay. A few flags were on display, one Danish and one Greenlandic but both the same red and white, both at half-mast for what turned out to be a local funeral. In the harbor there is a little breakwater and wharf, and adjacent is the focus of the place: a fish factory to process local catch before it’s shipped away.

An abandoned house at Imeriqssoq.

A day later we made the southern end of Disko Bay, which was to be our northernmost destination on this voyage. “Disko Bugt” is a large inlet with a 30-mile-wide mouth formed by the mainland and a big island. Its waters are nutrient rich, hosting an increased wealth of wildlife as a consequence and making it a resourceful location for fish, walruses (ivory), seals (pelts) and whales. Norse settlers arrived soon after establishing their southwestern settlements in the late 900s, uninhabited at the time but later also by the Inuit from the north.

The administrative center for the bay is Aasiaat — “spiders” in Greenlandic, no one really sure why — with a population of some 3,000 sprinkled across the usual rocky plateau of an island at the southern coast. After the small fishing settlements, the wharf and built-up township felt like a return to modernity. Kiwi Roa was docked directly to rusting steel plate, up and down with the tides and a high climb to get ashore. Further into the bay we found Imeriqssoq, an abandoned hamlet above the anchorage, first hiding in the fog but easily visited by dinghy — old ramshackle houses still standing, but slowly dying next to a cemetery comprised of less than a dozen white crosses mostly tilted or fallen.

We sailed past this convoy of ice in the making for Disko Island to an anchorage in Fortune Bay where a little microclimate encourages some patches of green growth.

Ice fills the entrance to Ilulissat.

Neatly maintained village
At the southern extremity of Disko Island we stopped in at another township, Qeqertarsuaq, a fishing center across the bay from Aasiaat. From the anchorage we watched fishermen at work on racks, drying cod. The pier is gated by an iconic whalebone arch and flanked by some small cannons and a harpoon gun. This is a particularly neatly maintained village with a lovely aesthetic, the people holding on to their traditions. We started to notice more and more huskies and sleds around, the dogs dozing and molting in the summer sun on top of the warm rocks where they were chained up.

We headed back again to the mainland through the procession of icebergs sometimes mired in fog through which the 24-hour light struggles to penetrate. The wispy underside of a low-lying cloud can intersect the heights of a berg, and a ray of sunlight makes the ice walls seem on fire as they disappear skyward. Behind, a glacier shimmers on the horizon. A solid rank of bergs standing off the coast forced us up north and around them to then find a lead inside back down to an isolated anchorage in a fjord. This was our northerly turning point at just short of 70° N.

Huskies wait for the snow at Oqaatsut.

Close by is Oqaatsut, named for cormorants, with fewer than 50 inhabitants. This settlement is peppered across the saddle of a peninsula, a makeshift harbor on one side and the bay to the other.

South to Ilulissat, we convoyed through fog with two local tourist boats doubling as ferries and haulage contractors, close but barely visible until the late-day sun cleared the mist from the flat calm sea of brash and bergy bits starting to accumulate.

Blocked by ice
The town of Ilulissat was once called Jakobshavn. It is a little larger than Aasiaat, making it the third biggest in Greenland, although that’s not saying much, and one of its claims to fame is that the population of sled dogs equals that of humans. The harbor entrance was already blocked by ice on our arrival, and so we followed a trawler that smashed a path through. The inner harbor was incredibly busy, choked with hundreds of small boats double-parked on long pontoons and wharfs, the remaining water occupied in equal parts by moorings and drifting icebergs. Immediately as we arrived — mooring on the outside of a raft of six fishing boats — the ice situation began to worsen with more and more uninvited guests creeping up on the harbor entrance, first packing it tight, then spilling over into the harbor itself.

Kiwi Roa in ice-free water at Attu.

Outside, the seascape went properly Arctic: a jumble of brash ice filling in the space between large icebergs until almost no liquid sea was visible from some points on the coast at all. A trapped cruise ship froze into part of the scenery.

Inside, over the course of a few days, Kiwi Roa was packed in along everything else that floated. And then, a local experience: a surge of water called the “kanele,” which occurs when ice calves from the nearby Kangia glacier. This sudden collapse of ice drives a tidal surge, a mini tsunami that raises the water by as much as 6 feet over a period of some five minutes. When the water subsides, the ice remains. Despite the density of the bergs, they remain movable and the locals simply drive through it at the expense of a bit of abuse on their boats. We resorted to running the engine and using prop wash to generate a current to keep ice away from our rudder and wind vane, assisted by ice poles and manual labor.

Drying cod at Oqaatsut.

A large trawler trying to exit the harbor shoved ice under Kiwi Roa’s transom and lifted her stern quarters out of the water. Peter was unamused — metal hulls are strong, but propellers and rudders remain vulnerable. The chastised culprit backed off, expressing apologies, and explored another route out.

From the ice of Ilulissat we were to run back south, negotiating the sea bergs, to Aasiaat once again and then out of Disko Bay. Before we escaped, a little accident with a rock brought 28 tons of boat to a violent stop while an inattentive skipper fussed with positioning fenders on deck. We weren’t able to examine the damage until much later in Europe, where we found a split open keel requiring substantial metal work to fix. No water got into the main hull, and we view this as dividends on a strong alloy boat.

We fled south alternately through inner leads and outer coastal passages, ultimately doubling back past the apartments of Nuuk and toward the southern coast. A day south of Nuuk, at Qeqertarsuatsiaat fishing village we couldn’t find a suitable anchorage and so retreated to nearby Irkens Havn, a teardrop-shaped basin 150 meters or so from rock to rock.

Kiwi Roa passed the southernmost point on Greenland, Cape Farewell, on its way to Europe.

Further south, yet more rock, the mountainous coast is shaped by ancient glaciers and smoothed by interminable winds. With a forecast blow we anchored near Arsuk, Peter unhappy with the terrain — which is nothing more than a funnel for wind — but there was nowhere else to go. Our Rocna anchor held, on what we don’t know, through sustained 50 and 60 knots with gusts ricocheting around the valley’s cliff walls, the stern 15 meters from the rocks and the boat sailing about the anchor at 3 knots.

The rugged high country continues through the lead inside Cape Desolation, which is the southwestern extremity of Greenland. The impact on the airs is ever present, causing violent downdrafts and sudden changes and reversals in 20-knot winds. Paying attention to the topography becomes as important as reading anchorage depth and bottom types.

Finally we reached Qaqortoq (formerly Julianehåb), the largest town in southern Greenland, nestled in a system of fjords but open to the south. Other than the port, the town’s only other link is a helicopter pad, and the thump of bright red choppers frequently comes and goes overhead. For us, this was the last place for convenient refueling.

One of the many uncrowded, rock-rimmed anchorages in Greenland.

From there we departed Greenland, although the first day of the passage across to Europe was 50 miles of acute angling away from the mountains and fjords of the coast. Here off the south end of the island, ice of a slightly varied quality appears: polar Arctic pack ice from the north making its way down the eastern coast and around Cape Farewell. It tends to be flat with weathered and rounded tops, huge submersed bread loaves difficult to see in less-than-ideal conditions and mostly invisible on radar. Ice from the eastern glaciers joins in to make for a slightly stressful departure, adding to the dangers from the stream of depressions that tend to march off the American continent.

Kiwi Roa would return to Greenland, but for now it was south to more moderate climates for the winter.

Peter Smith at Qeqertarsuaq harbor.

Peter Smith is a New Zealand boatbuilder, offshore sailor turned long-distance cruiser, and designer of the Rocna anchor. He currently is living on board his custom-designed, self-built, aluminum expedition yacht. Read more about Peter and Kiwi Roa’s voyaging, including lots more photos from Greenland and other recent voyages, at www.petersmith.net.nz. Craig Smith is Peter’s son — and biographer — who was brought up in the cruising lifestyle. He now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, while trying to keep track of Kiwi Roa’s whereabouts.

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