The Northern Route

Most sailors who choose to make an Atlantic crossing from west to east in the summer months prefer the middle path. They take advantage of the prevailing westerlies north of the mid-Atlantic high-pressure zone, yet well south of the region where icebergs are likely to be encountered. Because of this, the route from Bermuda to the Azores is well traveled.

Those who study weather patterns in the North Atlantic and want to take the easiest and most direct route to the other side of “the pond” are doubtless well aware of the never-ending sequence of low-pressure systems that march across from west to east. At around 60° of north latitude all summer long they come out of Northern Canada, head for Southern Greenland and Iceland, and on into the North and Baltic Seas. So it’s not surprising that few sailors choose to put themselves in harm’s way when the certainty of gales and likelihood of icebergs can generally be avoided farther south.

But, depending on how you look at it, three weeks of open ocean sailing with the wind at your back and no land in sight can get kind of boring. So, having become previously addicted to high-latitude sailing in Labrador and Greenland, I decided to take the northern route – the one used by the Vikings 1,000 years ago and one that afforded the opportunity to visit some exciting cruising grounds along the way. I knew I’d encounter some big blows, rough seas and the dangers of ice. Those were just some of the elements that would make this a very different kind of Atlantic crossing.

But I also knew this would be an exciting challenge with potentially big rewards. It would be anything but boring.

Trip preparations

Planning for this adventure was also a big part of the fun. I planned to sail from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, via Newfoundland and Labrador to Southern Greenland, then on to Iceland and the Faroes, ending up on the west coast of Scotland. From my trip to Labrador and the west coast of Greenland in the summer of 2003 I knew my boat, a J-46 named Cielita, was well equipped and capable of handling the journey I had in mind. But I also knew that none of my usual sailing companions would be able to join me for the whole nine to ten weeks that I was planning for the trip. So a big part of my thinking had to do with crew logistics and the numerous crew changes for which I had to plan. Part of the fun was also reading up on the places I was going to visit, and acquiring the charts and other publications I would need. To have a dream and work toward realizing it is almost as much a part of the adventure as the trip itself.

Cielita departed Baddeck and the Bras d’Or Lakes, where the boat had wintered, in late June with two friends aboard. We crossed the Cabot Strait and headed up the west coast of Newfoundland in what were by then very familiar waters, stopping at various harbors along the way. After my first crew change in Port au Choix, we headed on north through the Strait of Belle Isle to Battle Harbour in Southern Labrador with two fresh and very experienced crewmembers aboard. From there we headed out across the Labrador Sea to Southern Greenland, a four-day passage of about 600 nautical miles. We made landfall at the town of Qaqortoq (Danish name: Julianehab) in the thick fog, after dodging a few icebergs and picking up the breakwater at the harbor entrance with the help of our radar.

This was a section of the Greenland coast that I had not visited on my trip two years before, when we had cruised the west coast farther to the north, so we were at last breaking new ground. Clearing customs proved to be something of a joke. We were referred by a local inhabitant to the police station, which we found locked up tight, and which remained so until our departure the following day. No authorities ever appeared, nor could they be located, despite our best efforts. But we enjoyed the town and its local color, and we had an excellent meal in a fine restaurant. When we awoke the following morning and went up on deck, we were greeted by a small motor boat tied up directly astern of us with two freshly killed and beheaded musk oxen on the foredeck and in the cockpit, welcoming us to the land of subsistence hunting and Inuit culture.

Prins Christiansund

We spent the next week cruising south along the west coast of Greenland, visiting numerous fjords and small towns, and bathing in a natural hot springs on a beautiful island surrounded by glaciated mountains and icebergs. We eventually entered the intricate and spectacular 70-mile passage of Prins Christiansund at the southern tip of Greenland, which affords an alternate route – provided it’s not plugged with ice – to going around Cape Farvel. We were indeed fortunate to find this narrow waterway open, for it is, perhaps arguably, the most spectacularly beautiful passage on the face of the Earth: 7,000-foot peaks rising out of the sea on either side, monstrous waterfalls every few hundred yards and huge glaciers hanging above us or plunging into the sea. To sail for two whole days through such a passage is a life experience that would be difficult, if not impossible, for any yachtsman to surpass .

Having completed this passage, we found ourselves out at sea on the east coast of Greenland. Our plan to cruise north along this coast for a couple of days was thwarted by the presence of big seas and vast fields of icebergs and growlers extending for many miles offshore, preventing us from safely putting in at any of the fjords or inlets along this coast. After considering our alternatives as we dodged the growlers at 8 to 9 knots in heavy following seas, we quickly decided to strike farther out to sea into the Denmark Strait and head for Iceland. This was undoubtedly a wise decision under the circumstances, but as it turned out, our timing left a lot to be desired.

Gale in the Denmark Strait

About 12 hours later and a good 100 miles from the Greenland coast we found ourselves in the northern half of an intense low that we had not known was heading our way. We had all kinds of devices aboard for obtaining weather reports, but for a variety of reasons, fate conspired to render them largely useless. We could get occasional weatherfaxes from the U.K., but these proved to be a day late and a dollar short. We were way out of VHF range. The shore-based server for our Iridium satphone link to the Internet just happened to be down (and remained so for three days), and our newly installed SkyMate system couldn’t find any satellites. So there we were, in a whole gale with head winds of more than 50 knots and head seas of more than 40 feet with breaking comers threatening to knock us down or roll us over.

I was very lucky to have aboard two very experienced offshore sailors for crew. We discussed storm tactics at some length. Lying ahull was obviously not a viable option. Running before these huge breaking seas did not appear to be at all safe either, even if we deployed our drogue. The danger of being pooped or of broaching seemed all too real. Deploying our sea anchor would have committed us to that particular tactic for an indeterminate period of time and risked the danger of carrying away our large spade rudder. Heaving to would have required carrying more sail than appeared prudent and might not have worked in these conditions anyway.

So we decided to keep on sailing. The following is a quote from my log for that day: “We are hunkered down under storm jib alone and riding it out. The seas are enormous and very confused, with breaking waves coming over the bow and filling the cockpit from time to time. One of us has to hand steer the whole time on what amounts to a close reach, heading up into the comers to avoid a knockdown (or something worse), then falling off to avoid going in irons. Steering requires great concentration, and we are constantly being drenched by spray and breaking waves. All the clothes we own are now soaking wet, as is much of the cabin. Eating is next to impossible. Going to the head is a big ordeal. Getting back into our wet gear to stand our watch on deck (one hour on and two off) is torture. And they call this fun?�VbCrLf

The log for the following day reads: “Today would normally be considered a very stinking day: gale force winds, big seas, close reaching, banging to windward under storm jib and triple-reefed main with cloudy skies and wet clothes. But compared to yesterday, this is a delightful sail! We no longer have to hand steer in rain showers and constant spray with ski goggles and frozen hands and feet. True, we still get the occasional wave breaking into the cockpit, and all our socks, gloves and longies are soaking wet. It’s still difficult to sleep due to the constant pounding and erratic motion, but at least we are moving at a respectable pace in generally the right direction, the rig has held up well, and none of us are seasick. So things are looking up, despite what most would consider fairly miserable conditions. Of course, the cabin heater has stopped working, we still have no Internet access, we can get no useful weather data, the refrigerator is having problems, the SSB radio isn’t transmitting and the jib furler is useless, but the boat isn’t leaking. We’re still afloat, and no one has broken any ribs yet. So hopefully the weather will improve so we can dry out and tend to some repairs soon. Ah for the life of a sailor �� �VbCrLf

The storm passes

By the day after that, the storm had passed, the seas were settling down and the sun was coming out. We completed our 700-mile passage from Southern Greenland to the southwest corner of Iceland in less than five days, despite the nasty weather in the Denmark Strait – a body of water, which, for us at least, lived up to its wretched reputation. We made our landfall at the island of Surtsey in the Vestmannaeyjar group just off the coast of Iceland. These islands are quite extraordinary. Like the rest of Iceland, they are entirely volcanic. Surtsey itself rose out of the sea de novo in 1963 and is off limits to visitors while research is being carried out on the vegetation of this newly formed island.

After a day at the town of Heimaey on the main island of Vestmannaeyjar, where we cleared customs and bought supplies, we headed on to Reykjavik, where I planned my next crew change and intended to lay up for several days for some travel on land with family and friends.

My schedule and the crew logistics called for a little over two weeks to get from Reykjavik on the west coast of Iceland to Seydisfjordur on the east coast. If one is planning to circle Iceland, one has to decide whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise around the island. The currents tend to favor the former, while the prevailing winds favor the latter. We ignored both factors and chose to go clockwise from west to east around the north side of Iceland because the cruising ground there is far superior to the south side. And we were rewarded accordingly with many beautiful fjords,
s, glaciers, mountains and harbors. We stopped in a number of towns for fuel, provisions, repairs, and several baths in the local pools and hot tubs. At one point, we had to cross above the Arctic Circle to clear the northernmost capes of Iceland. But despite the distances and occasional head winds, we were able to keep to our schedule and actually arrived in Seydisfjordur a day early.

Stormy weather to the Faroes

From the east coast of Iceland we headed for the Faroe Islands on a passage of 250 nautical miles that included another gale and took about two days. Landfall on the northern headlands of the Faroes was quite spectacular, as were the passages between the many islands of this little-known group. We put into the town of Klaksvik on the island of Bordoy. Klaksvik is the second largest community in the Faroes after the capital, Torshavn. Here we found prosperity and friendliness equal to that of Iceland, and after a tour of some of the other islands for a day or two, we returned to Klaksvik to help the town celebrate its first-ever “Harbor Fest .�VbCrLf

With another gale in the forecast, we hurriedly set sail from the Faroes for Scotland in the hopes of arriving there before nasty weather once again caught us offshore. This passage of 235 nautical miles took us about 36 hours, and after making our landfall off Cape Wrath at the northwestern tip of Scotland, we sought shelter in Loch Laxford a bit further south. When the gale finally arrived, we had moved on to what appeared to be another excellent harbor in a place inauspiciously called Badcall Bay. Unfortunately this anchorage did, at least to some degree, live up to its name. As the wind piped up to more than 50 knots, we started to drag anchor and were forced to deploy, for the first time, our Luke storm anchor to keep from going onto the rocks. Welcome to Scotland! And we hadn’t yet even cleared customs yet.

However, our subsequent efforts to deal with the local authorities did nothing to prevent more Scottish gales from requiring a couple of additional deployments of the big Luke. Nonetheless, along with another few crew changes, we had a couple of delightful weeks cruising through the Inner Hebrides, ending the journey at Ardfern near the head of Loch Craignish – 69 days and 3,800 nautical miles out from Baddeck.

Although a little sad that this epic voyage was over, I was delighted and quite proud to have completed our crossing of the North Atlantic. If one has a well-equipped boat and is prepared to deal with some nasty weather and the inevitable but exciting encounters with ice, this Northern trans-Atlantic voyage affords some spectacular scenery with relatively short open-ocean passages and a chance to retrace the ancient route of the intrepid Norse explorers. I’d do the passage again in a heartbeat – and I hope I will.

By Ocean Navigator