When panning for gold at the turn of the century, Alaskan Sourdoughs had a description for the storms that plagued Nome and the rest of the Seward Peninsula: “Unequalled and obnoxious.” Nothing much has changed since then. The gold has gone, of course, but the storms linger on.
Standing on the breakwater in front of Nome, with the wind howling in my ears, rain lashing at my face and whitecaps stretching as far across Norton Sound as I could see, “unequalled and obnoxious” defined conditions perfectly. In the shelter of the harbor, tucked away behind a convenient barge, Audacity bobbed at her mooring, impatient to get to grips with the sea.
We were in Alaska to begin the first stage of what I hoped would be an eventual solo transit of the Northwest Passage. It was late July. The October storms had arrived early. The coast from Nome to Barrow was being battered by wind and waves.
Audacity was a 13-feet-7-inches-long Metzeler Tornado inflatable speedboat, powered by a 30-hp Johnson outboard motor. She was fast, rugged and stable. My plan was to refuel at the many Inupiat settlements scattered around the coast. Though small, Audacity was a good sea boat. Her attributes were, however, quite irrelevant at the time. Until the latest storm died down we were effectively trapped in Nome. My wife, Penny, and a friend, Glen Colclough, had helped me prepare for the expedition at home in Vancouver, B.C., and in Nome. With an increasing sense of frustration, we sat out the inclement weather. We checked hourly with the NWS office for a positive sign.
Nome was shrouded in a clammy fog, made more uncomfortable by a drizzling rain, when I finally left. Penny and Glen waved from the rocks as I rode the chute between the twin breakwaters to the open seaa roller-coaster ride that was to go on day after day. The whitecaps were gone, apart from a tormenting few that spat at Audacity in derision. Steering by compass and chart most of the time for the first few hours, with few reference points visible through the murk, I fumbled my way west-northwest toward distant Cape Prince of Wales and the Bering Strait. Sledge Island, an enormous rock standing offshore, should have been in view all the way from Nome. I passed it without ever noticing. The only sight of any importance was a gray whale, making way for southern waters, which I passed somewhere near Cape Rodney.
Off the Coast Guard Station at Port Clarence, perhaps half a mile out to sea, Alaska’s capricious weather chose to intervene in the voyage. While I stood up, facing the stern to change fuel tanks, a meandering rogue wave swept me off the boat, tearing open the snap hook on my lifeline. When I surfaced, reasonably well protected by layers of wool, a full-length Mustang floatation suit, and a Tapatco life jacket, Audacity was nowhere in sight. I was alone in the dangerously cold Bering Sea. For perhaps 45 secondsit seemed like an eternityI adopted the H-E-L-P (heat escape lessening position) stance and tried to make sense of my predicament. Fog and rain persisted. The loran tower at Port Clarence was invisible.
Left off lightly Still testing me, the waves let me off lightly this time. Audacity surfed off a crest and nudged me on the head. I wasted no time on thoughts of divine intervention. Scrambling aboard and getting to land became a high priority. The lonely mariners of the nearby Port Clarence Coast Guard Station dried my clothing, gave me a hot shower and a berth for the night. In return I entertained them with my story.When underway again, fog and rain persisted much of the way to Cape Prince of Wales. Only 55 miles separates Alaska from the Siberian mainland. The Bering Strait, which keeps the two land masses apart, is the western extremity of the Northwest Passage. It has a fearful reputation. Capt. James Cook, on his final voyage in Resolution, was blown across to Siberia by a storm in the strait. I had always considered it the first major barrier to my northward progress. After refueling at the settlement of Wales, Audacity and I cruised in a large semi-circle, southwest, west, north, and northeast, to avoid the boiling shoals off the most-westerly point on the North American mainland. Two islands, Little Diomede, belonging to the U.S., and Big Diomede of Russia, stood silently on the horizon; halfway between powerful nations. Behind them was Cape Dezhnev, the eastern end of Siberia. I traveled through the Bering Strait under near-perfect conditions: a clear blue sky, gentle rolling swells, and no wind. En route to Shishmaref, while I was relaxing at the wheel in the relative warmth of an Arctic sun, a beluga whale came to briefly inspect Audacity. Formations of geese and ducks, already heading south for the winter, passed overhead. We crossed the Arctic Circle close to Cape Espenberg. I wasted a few moments by going ashore to stand with one foot on either side of the imaginary line. Off the cape a thick bank of fog rolled over the shallow expanse of Kotzebue Sound. The sound is notorious for its sand bars. At low tide even boats as small as Audacity could hit bottom. To avoid such obstructions, and to keep clear of the fog as much as possible, I crossed the Arctic Circle again, setting course directly for Deering at the southern limit of the sound. The fog thickened and enveloped me anyway, escorting me for the remainder of the day. By the next morning it was gone.
For one day, as I crossed the Arctic Circle again between Deering and Kotzebue, the skies cleared, the sea rested. Reindeer herds, foraging on the hillsides south of Cape Blossom, looked up as we purred over the calm sea. It wasn’t to last. A westerly blew in, kicking up turmoil in Kotzebue Sound, driving huge rollers into Hotham Inlet and pelting the town with torrential rain. Though dozens of boats strained at their moorings, none ventured onto the sea until the winds subsided.
From Kotzebue to Kivalina is approximately 75 statute miles. Under reasonable conditions the journey should take roughly five hours. Audacity cast off from Kotzebue in a light fog before the sea had settled. Running almost due north for 10 miles, planning to sight land again near the mouth of the Noatak River, I took each successive incoming swell on the port beam. Audacity rolled alarmingly but never faltered. Close to the north shore we turned bow on to the rollers, riding up and down enormous swells. Off Cape Krusenstern we were forced southwest to avoid confused seas. The westerly wind forced big waves on shore, trying to funnel them through the gap between capes Espenberg and Krusenstern. The resulting turmoil of waves breaking on waves gave me many anxious moments as Audacity climbed foaming crests more than 10 feet high. We eventually entered the relative shelter of Kivalina Lagoon nine hours after leaving Kotzebue. One night’s rest, camped beside Audacity, was all the time I could afford. My next port of call was to be Point Hope, a town of about 600 residents.
Pounded by williwaws It was an easy four-hour run until I got caught among the williwaws and cross-currents off Cape Thompson. There, while murres skittered across the surface or dived out of sight, and puffins and gulls circled overhead, I took a bit of a pounding for a while. Audacity’s built-in resilience took me safely through.
Getting ashore without assistance at Point Hope from a small boat is a difficult job. The pebble beach on the south side rises out of the sea at close to 45 degrees. I decided to take a look at the beaches north of the settlement. I was not prepared for the scene off the point. Thundering south like express trains, the enormous Arctic Ocean waves, unimpeded for hundreds of miles, were terrifying. I chose to take another look at that steep beach. With help from a friendly local, and a large amount of muscle power, Audacity was hauled out so I could set up camp and go in search of fuel.
“Gas is no good here,” I was told by another customer at the fuel station. “You buy five gallons, you get two gallons of sea water and three gallons of gas.”
The story was confirmed by others. The gasoline tanks had been contaminated. No clean fuel was available. Not having enough in my tanks to reach Point Lay, I had little choice but to return to Kivalina. Their annual fuel supplies, I knew, were due in any day. I returned to Audacity to discover my tent and food supplies had been vandalized by local children. Disgusted with events at Point Hope, I raced back to Kivalina. There, for many days, I sat out storm after storm while waiting for fuel that never came. The supply ship arrived, but there was no gasoline on board for Kivalina. It had never been ordered.
Finally, thanks to a friendly villager and a previously unmentioned cache of full drums, my tanks were filled. Audacity had enough gas on board to bypass Point Hope and continue far to the north. The weather report from Kotzebue convinced me the less-than-ideal conditions would improve as the day went on. Believing the weather synopsis, I set off again.
The journey was slow. The closer I got to Point Hope, the worse the weather became. Rounding Point Hope was a more violent replay of the previous visit. Gigantic waves rushed south, colliding with contrary winds. I took a look and retreated in alarm. The storm intensified. There was no way of getting Audacity ashore this time. I had two choices: sit out the storm on Audacity under the doubtful shelter of the southern beach, for as long as necessary, or we had to face the mighty waves and round the point. From there I would have to follow the north shore for at least 15 miles to reach the mouth of the Kukpuk River, entrance to Marryatt Lagoon and safety. Neither option appealed to me. For better or for worse, I chose the latter. Wrong again!
Audacity acquitted herself well at first. She surged up steep gray faces, crashed through breaking crests, and slid down long hairy backs. In the troughs, like great valleys surrounded by liquid mountains, all was calmuntil the next climb. Time after time we broke through and over the giants. Once clear of the westerly point of land Audacity began a cautious turn to the northeast. Now the waves threatened her port beam. To ease the risk I angled farther and farther from shore, taking each wave diagonally. I developed a rhythm. Hold back, with bow aimed at the wave, then climb up the face at full speed to be over the top before the wave broke. Then a sigh of relief, an easy descent, and a few seconds of calm before the next attack. It was frightening, but supremely exhilarating too. For well over an hour I fought my way onward.
Somewhere north of the river mouth I misjudged a bigger rogue than normal. It sucked me up under its curl, turned Audacity over, and spat us out again. I had capsized in the Arctic Ocean, nearly 140 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I hit hard, surfaced under the upturned hull, swam out and climbed up the motor to Audacity’s slippery bottom. The next wave knocked me off again. Time after time, well aware that I might survive drowning only to perish from hypothermia, I climbed on board and was swept off again.
Noticing we were making little or no progress toward the barely visible shore, I decided a sail would be an advantage. With nothing remotely resembling cloth available I resorted to the human variety. Crouching gingerly at the stern, with fingers clamped round the horizontal fins, I waited until Audacity was lifted to a crest. Immediately I stood up with arms outstretched to catch the considerable north wind. The trick, I learned through trial and error, was to remain upright for long enough so that the wind could give a push and help me surf down the slope. Then, before the wave broke, I had to squat quickly and hold on tightly to the fins to avoid being thrown off. The theory was fine. In practice, sometimes it worked; mostly the waves simply picked me up and hurled me contemptuously aside. It was exhausting.
The problem, as I later ascertained, was that the considerable current from the Kukpuk River was holding me back while the wind and waves pushed me forward. The resultant clash made progress slow. For a while, the thought that it might be easier just to lie down and drift into sleep probed at my mind. But I had made a promise to my family. “Don’t worry,” I told them, “I’m not planning to die in the Arctic!”
Inexplicably, while resting full length on the hull thinking about my promise, I found myself floating close to the clouds with a panoramic view of the storm. In the center was Audacity, with my physical being spread-eagled on top. All around were huge gray waves and white water. I watched in appreciation as my body sought a solution to the dilemma of how to stay alive. He stood up carefully, rocking back and forth and sideways; he managed to turn Audacity until she was beam on to the sea in a trough. Facing the approaching wave he took hold of the safety line and leaned back with all his might. The intention was to use his own weight to persuade the wave to flip Audacity right-side up. Again, a good theory. The wave didn’t cooperate. It tossed him overboard. I was impressed with his efforts and went back to help.
In spite of the physical activity my body was terribly cold. I hadn’t eaten or had a hot drink since early that morning. Although extremely fit, my defenses were low. Hypothermia was already at work, breaking down my system.
Audacity crested a wave, and there, only a couple of ridges ahead, was land. Standing braced like a California surfer, I rode my charge to terra firma. As the final wave began to break I kicked off to avoid being crushed by the boat. I landed side by side with Audacity as the ocean poured over me.
Leaving Audacity to her fate, I set off to jog along the ridge of land the many miles back to Point Hope. My glasses had been lost during the capsize. I was waterlogged, cold, and tired. On one side the Arctic Ocean slammed into the shore. On the other the lagoon was almost invisible through the rain. A growl and a dark shape on the lagoon side scared me into thinking of a bear.
“Mister,” a voice called. “Mister, come here.”
I could deal with a bear that spoke my language. I staggered down to meet two Inupiat men, a boat, and a snarling outboard motor. Against all the odds, I was saved.