Voyager’s notes on sailing in Greenland

To the editor: A recent summer adventure to Labrador and the west coast of Greenland on my J46, Cielita, provided me with useful, practical information for those voyagers able to sail that far north.

Clearing customs on entering Greenland did not seem to be much of a problem. We attempted to clear in with the harbormaster in Aasiaat. He was very cordial but seemed to have little interest in the fact that we had just come from Canada. He asked us for no names or passports or anything else. However, shortly after our arrival in Ilulissat, our next port of call, we were greeted by a uniformed police officer who took our passports back to the station for a check on the computer and returned them onboard an hour or so later. He was Danish, very friendly and spoke excellent English. He asked us nothing about any items aboard or anything to declare. Owning a gun in Greenland is the rule rather than the exception, and he suggested where to go to buy one for hunting seals (open season, no permit required) and caribou (limited season, $15 permit required). He never said we would need to clear customs when leaving, so we didn’t.

As for guns, we had been advised to carry one for self-defense against polar bears. We had aboard a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun with heavy slugs and buckshot, but we never needed it. We never saw a polar bear.

The currency of Greenland is the Danish krone. Dollars, either U.S. or Canadian, are not readily accepted in most places, but the towns all have banks with ATMs from which one can obtain kroner with a Visa card. Credit cards are otherwise not very useful, except in the bigger hotels and restaurants in places like Nuuk and Ilulissat. The Pasifik grocery stores, for example, only accept the DK credit card and would not take our Visa, MasterCard or AmEx.

The stores are well stocked with Danish goods. The supermarkets are quite modern. There is limited fresh produce, almost all of which has to be imported. We noted, for instance, that the apples we bought were from New Zealand. Plums came from California. Tomatoes were good. Lettuce was pretty old. Cucumbers were nonexistent. There were no fresh vegetables or meats to speak of. Even the fish in the supermarkets came frozen. But there were lots of frozen meats and vegetables, and many rows of imported dry goods. Having the ability to carry frozen foods proved extremely useful. Each supermarket also had a bakery section with wonderful Danish pastries and fresh breads. The larger towns have open markets for fresh fish and meats, including caribou, seal and whale for those with the courage and inclination to try the more exotic.

Each supermarket also had a reasonable wine selection in the $15- to $20-range and bottled beers, but hard liquor was limited and extremely expensive. A fifth of blended scotch cost about $75, for example.

Marine supplies are limited. The larger towns have stores that sell gear for the fishing boats and the outboard crowd, but not much for sailing yachts. One should bring a lot of spare parts and be prepared to jury-rig things that break.

Obtaining propane anywhere in Greenland is a problem. It apparently isn’t used much. Homes are heated by diesel, which is the source of all power as well. The latter is easy to come by, although sometimes it must be carried aboard in jerry cans. The diesel we took on was of excellent quality. Although we always used a filter when filling our tanks, this was more out of habit than necessity. We never once noted any water or particulate matter in the fuel. Propane, on the other hand, is available only in small canisters with the wrong fittings, and the ship’s propane tanks could not be filled anywhere we tried, including Nuuk. We carried three 10-lb tanks, which lasted us comfortably for more than six weeks.

Fresh water is available in most towns, we were told, but may be of questionable quality. We never had to take any on, because we had a reverse-osmosis watermaker that easily kept us in good supply. In a pinch, one could harvest some ice from bergy bits and melt it.

Laundry and showers were available in the larger towns, such as Nuuk, Maniitsoq, Sisimiut, and Aasiaat, at the Seamen’s Home. These are well kept facilities with relatively inexpensive rooms and cafeteria-style dining rooms. A shower cost 20 kroner. Soap and towels were extra. Laundry is rather expensive, but it’s done for you. Taxis are available in the larger towns, but most facilities are walking distance from the harbor.

All in all, cruising in Greenland is not for the faint of heart or those seeking calm, well charted and warm waters. The season is short, the distances are substantial, the weather can be rough, the temperature is cold most of the time, the seas can build rapidly, communication can be difficult, the languages are very foreign, the water is either very deep or very shoal and always very cold, and icebergs often are everywhere. One must be prepared to spend most days in foul-weather gear, and a cabin heater is a must.

On the other hand, Greenland is one of the most spectacular cruising grounds in the world. With careful planning and a well equipped vessel, the experience is well worth the considerable effort it takes to get there.

Ned Cabot is a retired surgeon based in Boston.

By Ocean Navigator