Into the Denmark Strait

1 Mmcintyre 0040

A bristlingly cold gale whipped across the silvery North Atlantic and up the narrow fjord. The wind rattled against Aurora, a 60-foot bright red sailing yacht, as it chugged slowly out of the Ísafjörður harbor. Aurora was scheduled to be my home for the next three weeks on a passage from Iceland to Greenland. When we arrived in Greenland, we planned to spend two and a half weeks of exploratory skiing along Greenland’s remote west coast. It would be an expedition with some of my best friends and ski partners.

1 Mmcintyre 0040
The Arctic expedition sloop Aurora at anchor in her home waters in Iceland’s West Fjords.

The ship bobbed and rolled comfortably over the first swell it had felt in months. The waves gained power quickly, however, and seasickness began to set in. I haven’t fared poorly on past sailing excursions, but I had been diagnosed with mononucleosis a few weeks earlier and the strong antiviral medication made me woozy even on solid ground.

From the early stages of planning this trip, I experienced trepidation regarding the open-water crossing from Iceland to Greenland. Most sailors — and humans in general — avoid the world’s northern oceans in early March. The weather is notoriously cold and stormy. But in my mind, the crossing was a means to getting to the wild areas in Greenland where we planned to ski.

We started preparing for this expedition in the fall of 2019. We had eight spots to fill on the boat and wanted a group that would not only have fun while sharing tight quarters for weeks on end, but also bring a variety of skills and knowledge to our off-the-grid adventure. Decisions about snowpack safety and route choice would be ours alone to make, and we needed to get things right. If an accident happened in the mountains of Greenland, we would be on our own to render aid and evacuate any serious injuries. That was the part I was familiar with. As a skier, runner, climber, and mountain biker living in Utah, listening to the mountains is second nature. The ocean … not so much. That felt like a big, scary unknown. The idea of being on open water between Iceland and Greenland for four days terrified me.

The days leading up to the boat’s departure were filled with uncertainty and stress. Our group — hailing from the U.S., Switzerland, France, and Greenland — worked the stress out of our systems by backcountry skiing in the mountains surrounding the town of Ísafjörður. Nestled against the edge of the dark sea, this small hub of Iceland’s West Fjords region was picturesque and charming. Fishing boats bobbed in a half-frozen harbor, the eaves of colorful houses were draped with icicles, and 2,000-foot-high rock walls rising above town were painted white with months of snow. It was a beautiful place to wait for the weather to improve.

We practiced avalanche scenarios, simulated pulling someone back to the boat on a rescue sled, and honed our skills as a team. The weather was terrible; blizzards, strong winds and low visibility were forecasted for the two weeks ahead. Our chances of leaving the harbor anywhere close to on-schedule looked bleak. Captain Hayat, a Frenchwoman well-practiced in Arctic sailing, and two Polish crew members, Pitur and Voychek, constantly checked and analyzed the weather. Finally, over a dinner of local Arctic char and buttery potatoes, they told us a weather window had opened for us to make it out of Iceland and around the southern tip of Greenland with favorable winds. It was time to pack the boat.

Discussing the plan
After we settled in and stowed our gear in the boat’s many storage compartments, we sat down to discuss the plan. It turned out that the “sailable weather” was 40-knot winds and a 5-meter (16-foot) swell. It wasn’t ideal, but these practiced Arctic sailors seemed unphased, so I tried to calm my nerves. Due to the wind, we would arc north to avoid a depression directly off the Icelandic coast before turning south down Greenland’s east coast, which was chock-full of winter sea ice and offered no chance of boat landing. Rounding the southern tip of Greenland would be the crux: winds meet from opposite directions and often cause wild waves to mix with massive icebergs breaking loose from the tongue of ice curling down along the coast. We would sail further south to avoid these house-sized chunks of ice before turning north to enter the relative calm of the western fjords.

“Most people don’t sail this time of year, but actually, it is safer to leave earlier in the spring because the ice is still frozen,” Hayat explained. “Once the weather warms, more ice begins breaking off, and it can be difficult to avoid, especially in the dark!” She met our wide-eyed, nervous glances with a smile. Now, with cold winter weather on our side, we’d have a lower chance of hitting scattered icebergs as we rounded the southern tip.

Pitur showed us a wind map and explained that it would be a “dynamic crossing” because we’d be zigzagging between two depressions. With a crew of just three people, the sailors were happy to have our help, so it was important we all knew the general plan. Ilka Hadlock, hailing from Maine, had sailed extensively growing up and was our most experienced crew member. Keree Smith, from Oregon, had recently gotten her captain’s license and was ready to work on deck as well. Corinne Prevot, from Vermont, would be the third member of our group to assist, while the rest of us, it turned out, were overcome with seasickness.

Besides preparing our group for the crossing, Hayat also regaled us with tales of Greenland itself. She had spent months exploring the nation’s jagged coastline by boat and spoke of high-walled fjords that cut entirely through the island. “I’m excited to bring you there and see what you can do with your skis,” she told us excitedly. “You need to have the wind right, the ice right and the tide right to make it through there. It’s a very wild place almost no one goes.”

The more I heard, the more thrilled I was to make land on the other side. Visiting Greenland; walking and skiing among its mountains and meeting its people had been on my mind for the past five years, and I was eager to finally reach its shores. The energy on the boat was palpable. We had a young female captain, eight female skiers between the ages of 27 and 47, and two Polish men who added a contrasting yet complementary component to our crew. They baked bread, cooked us three meals a day and kept us laughing at Polish jokes.

Hayat’s goals in Greenland extended far beyond bringing foregin recreationalists like us to visit. She was most interested in working with locals to get out and enjoy their incredible natural environment. “We need to put our energy in the younger generation because ours is f***ed. I love bringing kids on the boat to show them their home from another perspective. We talk about sustainability, we gather food, and work as a team. It’s a great learning experience.” She approaches sailing with a deeply reflective, almost spiritual attitude. “We’re all running around like crazy in this modern world. This is an opportunity to be deep with yourself and enjoy each moment. It’s very special. It’s intense, uncomfortable. After each crossing, I’m not the same person I was before.”

With that in mind, I steeled myself for the journey ahead. It felt like a good time to be casting off toward pristine mountains and fish-filled fjords as the world devolved into mayhem behind us. Borders in Europe were slamming shut and the U.S. was implementing sweeping travel bans. The stock market dropped. The global economy was in tatters. Hospitals in Italy were overwhelmed with patients and death tolls were rising at unprecedented rates. As increasingly alarming Coronavirus news reached us in Ísafjörður, we felt lucky to be heading into the wilderness on a boat stocked with three months of provisions. Was that not the best place to be during the outbreak of a global pandemic?! We also knew that after being on the boat for nearly three weeks, we would be effectively quarantined, meaning we wouldn’t bring any potential sickness with us to the people of Greenland.

As soon as the frothy storm swell hit Aurora’s bow exiting the protected harbor, I stumbled down below to my bunk. The sailboat crashed back and forth between waves with a violence I hadn’t expected. As the hours stretched on, I struggled with basic, necessary tasks. Taking a sip of water meant minutes of preparation and recovery, walking 10 steps to the head felt like a Herculean effort, dressing myself in waterproof outerwear and donning a life jacket to go on deck, impossible. I couldn’t tolerate lifting my head off the pillow. So, although I knew fresh air was the only way to break this horrible spell of seasickness, I was stuck in the tiny four-bunk area with two of my cabinmates vomiting into pails. I had a nightmare that our plan had gotten derailed by one of the storms and that we were anchored, weathering it out in one of Iceland’s many fjords. Maybe we hadn’t actually gone anywhere, and these awful hours had been for nothing. But I eventually mustered the energy to check my GPS and found that we were, indeed, in the middle of the ocean. It felt terrifying.

I finally fought my way into the galley after 16 hours, knowing that sustenance was necessary to gain the energy to feel better. A small mound of leftover oatmeal waited for me on the stove. I chewed slowly, willing it to stay down. Voychek, who was below after finishing a nightwatch, looked as exhausted and haggard as I felt from my night in bed.

“I was out there, alone, thinking … what am I trying to prove?” Voychek said. “This isn’t something a normal person does. Am I trying to show I can get wet and cold like the others? Okay, I did it! Enough! … But then, the clouds parted, and I saw more stars than ever, not in normal constellations, but like rice across the sky…”

Meanwhile, I had been having a similar experience in my bunk. I was asking myself, WHY? Why did I choose to do this? Then I switched tactics. The rocking feels good. This is fun. A good experience. And then CRASH, my positive mindset would shatter as I was tossed against the side of my bunk. The mast ran through the boat at the foot of my bunk and all night it whined eerily, groaning like a wild animal in pain. I heard waves smashing into the portholes and breaking onto the deck overhead. I was terrified. Would we survive?

A voyage decision
After 24 hours of rough seas, Hayat called a team meeting. It was the first time the entire crew had been together since we left the harbor a day earlier. Faces were pale and several people hugged barf buckets like teddy bears. We sat around the table as she told us the news: Greenland had officially closed its borders to sea and air travel. Siggi, the owner of Aurora, had been in contact with Greenland’s Coast Guard. They knew we were en route, so maybe we could be counted as an exception.

Complicating matters, however, Hayat had been in her bunk for the past 12 hours and revealed that she thought she had pneumonia. Because of this, she wasn’t helping sail the vessel, meaning the two deckhands were doing everything — forced to stay awake for long hours in the freezing cold. Hayat and Siggi had talked a few minutes earlier via satellite phone and decided it was unsafe for us to continue to Greenland.  Hayat’s eyes were teary as she shared the news. I was crushed that this trip we’d poured time and money into for months was getting shut down, but it was apparent that she was just as disappointed. The voyage to Greenland was over, but we still had 24 hours of stormy sailing to get back to Iceland.

Pitur and Voychek worked around the clock to backtrack through 60-knot gales. We finally returned to Ísafjörður in the early hours of the morning after a wild and windy ride up the fjord. I woke to what sounded like the boat ripping in two as we broke through sea ice to reach town. After getting some sleep, everyone slowly emerged from the hazey 48-hour twilight zone experience, happy to be tied to solid ground. The men had deep, dark circles under their eyes. Over breakfast, Pitur joked, “The reefline broke, but at least nobody got pregnant!” I laughed, confused. I guess that’s a Polish sailing joke. But also, the reefline broke?!

As we caught up with international news, we learned things had changed quickly during our short sailing foray. It was time to head home if we wanted to get home at all. Julia, our Greenlandic friend, had the tightest timetable. The borders were closing to locals in two days and the weather was still so bad that most flights were cancelled. “You’re so strong,” Corinne sympathized, referring to Julia’s calm reaction to the chaos. If she didn’t make it home before the closure, she might not see her husband and two children for a month or longer. “I’m just smiling because I don’t know what else to do,” Julia replied.

This was how we got through the next several days of hurry up and wait. Smiling because there wasn’t much else to do. Suddenly, the first flight out of town was scheduled to leave in two hours. We scrambled to pack and get to the airport. It felt surreal lifting off from the tiny snow-lined runway, seeing the red of Aurora shrink into the distance, hoping that we would be back to try this journey again. Or, maybe the world would become an entirely different place, and our dream trip would stand in my memory as one of the wildest, scariest things I’ve attempted. Only time will tell. n

Mary McIntyre grew up in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and is a photographer and writer as well as a skier, biker, kayaker, runner, and sometimes sailor.

By Ocean Navigator