Wind. Fire. and Ice

Death is potentially close to the sailor. Lovely blue water can swallow a person up, or a pretty coastline can turn into an inferno of spray and crushing waves. Drowning and hypothermia are risks, especially during the cold time of year and in high latitudes. We have all made mistakes and had accidents, usually looking back with relief that minimal material damage was done, but just occasionally the outcome could have been fatal. At the tip of Labrador, 60° 23′ N, we had such a close call that the memory still hurts.

Cape Chidley is the northern border of Labrador. The rugged and dramatic cape is not the tip of the Labrador peninsula, nor is it on the mainland, but on Killiniq Island, separated from Labrador by McLelan Strait. To the north lie the Cape Chidley Islands and the most northerly point, which is unnamed.

Charts in this area are only sketchy reconnaissances with single lines of soundings snaking around rocks and islands. They include warnings of many uncharted dangers. In addition, there are ice floes blocking the way, as well as ferocious currents trying to sweep the vessel from the safe track. This is not an area to navigate in bad weather. Thus, the handful of anchorages where shelter can be found are highly prized by voyagers.

Having rounded the cape in light winds aboard our 42-foot gaff cutter Balaena and battled against racing currents in MacGregor Strait, we reached O’Brien Harbour. Nestled in amongst almost vertical mountains and snow fields, it’s a basin totally protected from the seas and free of ice floes. We knew from our experience in Patagonia that sooner or later fierce rachas, (hurricane-force squalls, see Katabatic winds on page 38) would come tumbling down the steep slopes.

But when we arrived, there was not a breath of wind, no sign of the polar bears we had seen outside the entrance. Only frolicking seals disturbed the smooth surface of the water.

Magnus, my 16-year-old son, was fired up to go fishing, and my wife, Ulla, and I waited eagerly for our first taste of arctic char, the salmon-like fish that abound in those waters.

“Ahoy Balaena,” Magnus was shouting from the rocky shore while the dinghy slowly drifted seaward. Ulla helped launch the spare pram (our lifeboat), and I recovered the dinghy and crewmember.

“Magnus,” I lectured, “losing your dinghy is something that should happen once in a lifetime.”

The next day, a clear and calm morning, Magnus went ashore while Ulla and I were down below, writing.

“Ahoy Balaena!”

The same thing again – Magnus standing on the shore yelling, but this time there was a bit of wind, and the dinghy was drifting away fast.

“If I go after it in the pram dinghy,” I told Ulla, “it may be difficult rowing both dinghies back against the wind. We’d better up-anchor.”

As this was going on, the wind gained strength astonishingly fast. The wind generator was spinning furiously, but we had no time to stop it as we hurried up to go after the dinghy.

A sudden fire

First we chased after the wayward oars while they were still visible. We retrieved one and were turning toward the other when dense yellow smoke started to billow from the engine box. After stuffing a rag in the engine ventilator, I dived below to shut down the engine. The smoke was choking and obscured my visibility; it was hard to reach the fire extinguisher. When, with what seemed like my last breath, I emptied the extinguisher into the engine compartment, the fire went out immediately.

Meanwhile, Ulla was barely able to steer us away from the rocks, and the wind swept Balaena down the inlet toward Hudson Strait. A 60-lb fisherman anchor was already rigged with 300 feet of line, and I let it go in 100 feet, hoping for the best. The hook held precariously on the rocky bottom, and we came to a stop.

We were then a mile downwind from where Magnus was stranded, with no engine and the certainty of being swept out to sea if the anchor let go. Rachas were gusting down the mountainsides, picking up the surface of the sea and driving dense clouds of white spray before them. Things were bad enough for us, but we were unaware of how bad they were for Magnus.

Magnus recalled: “When my fishing lure stuck on a rock, I bent to retrieve it and fell in. This was at the mouth of a stream flowing from a patch of snow 200 yards away. The water was very cold; by the time I got over the initial shock and tried to grab the dinghy, it was already a few meters away from me. I tried to swim after it, but first I had to kick off my rubber boots, and by the time that was done, the dinghy was gone.

“Loud shouting got Daddy on deck. He didn’t have a clue I was wet. For some stupid reason I didn’t bother to try to tell him. I was too concerned for the dinghy.

“They went off after it. About this time the blue sky had disappeared and the first rachas started. The bay had steep, high sides with three big gullies running into it. Great gusts of wind started dropping out of the biggest gully. They would pick up more and more water, and by the time they reached Balaena they completely hid her from my view.”

Engine damage

On Balaena we got the trysail and storm jib ready and inspected the engine. The first discovery was what a terrible mess a dry-powder fire extinguisher makes: the fine yellow and irritating dust was over everything. The fire had started in the wiring from the wind generator. Presumably the furious gusts had made it produce so many amps that the wires had glowed red hot and set fire to the sound insulation around the engine, other wiring and the wooden bulkhead.

The only damage to the engine was to some water hoses. I set about replacing those and soon had the diesel going. We immediately tried to up-anchor and get back to Magnus, but Balaena could hardly progress into wind. Even if we could have weighed anchor, it was doubtful we would have been able to cover the mile back to our anchorage where the clouds of spray showed that the wind was even stronger.

As we waited for the wind to abate, I cut and spliced burnt wiring to our radar, GPS and depth sounder. Ulla monitored our slowly drifting position and took photos but couldn’t take the camera outside in the water-filled air to record the worst gusts.

Magnus: “I saw Balaena stop out in the bay, but didn’t know why. I even wondered if Daddy was punishing me for losing the dinghy.

“Two hours had passed. I was huddled down underneath the best rock I could find, very cold and with strange thoughts going through my head. I told the world loudly that I was pretty bloody cold. This was to make sure the polar bears knew they wouldn’t get a hot dinner.

“The wind strengthened, and gusts kept coming from different directions. Brief patches of rain kept me soaked. Scrambling up the rocks I found better shelter; a small space for my body with my legs sticking out. Shivering, I tried to think warm thoughts: Fiji, Mauritius, spa pools and fires. I decided that sometime soon I would die.

“I don’t think I will ever watch anything with as much dedication as I watched Balaena. She looked about half an inch long and wasn’t getting any closer. I still had no idea what was happening out there but realized that the weather must be difficult for them. Hour after hour passed with nothing I could do to help myself and nothing anyone could do to help me; we all waited on the weather.�VbCrLf

No surviving the night

We had no idea Magnus was wet, but we had discovered that his waterproofs and emergency pack were still onboard and knew he would have difficulty surviving the night. Finally I decided to make a pan-pan call on 2,182 kHz SSB to alert the Canadian Coast Guard and ask for assistance if we were not able to rescue Magnus.

What a relief it was to hear the calm voice of the radio operator at Iqaluit on Baffin Island. An icebreaker, Des Groseilliers, was diverted immediately to come to our aid, but they could take eight to 10 hours to reach us and asked if we wanted a helicopter to pick him up. I felt Magnus’ situation did not warrant the risk the chopper’s crew would have to take. But they would have come immediately if asked.

Seven hours after the dinghy was lost, the wind started to moderate slightly. It still took us an hour to weigh anchor; I sweated on the winch while Ulla tweaked throttle and rudder to keep us into wind and to give me some slack. At last we were able to motor, painfully slowly, across the basin. Anchoring in our old spot, we searched the shore. For a few minutes I wondered if Magnus was unconscious or, worse still, if a polar bear had found him. Finally we saw a small blue speck waving through the murk and spray. It was not possible to get ashore in that spot; the gusts would have whipped our unwieldy pram dinghy into the ocean in the blink of an eye.

Magnus: “Balaena seemed to be getting bigger, but I thought I was dreaming. I was only sure when I heard the foghorn.

“After being in the same position for hours, my body wouldn’t move properly. My legs didn’t want to straighten; my feet and ankles had no feeling and didn’t move at will. When I lifted my legs, my feet just flopped down. The strangest thing was watching them; if I’d shut my eyes I’d have had no idea they were moving, like a mechanical joint.

“I slid down the hill, hands holding my back off the ground so I wouldn’t topple over face first.�VbCrLf

Every two or three minutes, rachas shot down the valley and picked up the surface of the bay.

“Over to starboard,�VbCrLf Ulla said, “there’s a spot close to shore that seems to be missed most of the time.�VbCrLf

We had a long struggle to get the anchor up, this time thickly covered in kelp that had to be chopped away. Ulla brought Balaena toward the spot.

“The depth is down to 6 feet; we can’t go on.�VbCrLf she called.

“The dinghy can’t be launched here in this wind,�VbCrLf I shouted. “We have to get closer.�VbCrLf

This was crazy. We were going to put Balaena on the rocks in the middle of a gale. Knowing the Coast Guard was aware of what we were doing was an enormous reassurance. They had given me an alert time to call by. If they didn’t hear from us they would assume the worst. So even if the three of us were shivering on the beach, there would be a helicopter on the way.

“Crack, bump,�VbCrLf went the keel as we touched rocks in the shallow water.

“There,�VbCrLf I directed Ulla. “Clear water.�VbCrLf

The anchor chain rattled out, and a gust stretched it tight. We were no longer bumping anything, though there was only a few inches of water below the keel.

Timing the dash to shore

We launched the pram between rachas that came every few minutes in groups of two or three. I got in and hung onto the bowsprit as Ulla watched for a quiet period. A squall splashed against my exposure suit and wrenched at my arms.

“Now!�VbCrLf screamed Ulla. “Go before the next one hits.�VbCrLf

I rowed desperately for the shore. It was still blowing 30 knots. I headed upwind as much as I could to give us a better chance of making it back.

“Over here,�VbCrLf I called to the crouching figure.

As he hobbled slowly over the rocks, I saw he had no boots.

Magnus: “Daddy came in the pram, which blew all over the place in the strong wind. I crawled in, and they bundled me aboard in uncontrollable tears.

“Daddy stripped, and I got into his warm clothes and was buried under a mountain of quilts above the hot-air fan.�VbCrLf

By now I could see his state: soaking wet, weak from exposure and crying uncontrollably with relief and shock. Ulla had a hot drink ready, which we had to badger him to keep sipping at. With a temperature down to 88� F, he had reached that state of apathy that precedes unconsciousness. Magnus was a few hours from death.

Ulla and I returned to the problem of getting Balaena to safety. The anchor came up easily, and after a couple of bumps, we were in deep water. Miraculously, the lost dinghy was hanging by her painter on some sheltered rocks. As quickly as the rachas had come, they had lessened, and it was not difficult to row ashore and rescue the dinghy. We had lost only one oar – even the life jacket and torch that had been in the dinghy were on the rocks nearby.

Thanks to the Canadian Coast Guard

Soon we were anchored safely in our original position and called the Coast Guard to cancel the emergency and thank them for their assistance. No words can express our admiration for the Canadian Coast Guard. They were very efficient; the radio operator asked no unnecessary questions and listened carefully to all I told him. I know they would have saved Magnus had we failed.

Magnus: “I have many things to be grateful for. Especially the fact that I wore a polar fleece jumper rather than a woolen one that morning. My woolen socks caused me great pain; they refused to warm up. For the first time in three days I’d put on polar fleece gloves; even wet, they offered some heat. My cotton jeans were useless.

“It is scary to think that in another few hours I probably would have been dead.

“I went ashore in the morning for the boots and fishing rod; they had drifted against the river current and were caught in the rocks.

“I have learned a lot, and in a strange way I’m glad it happened.�VbCrLf

By Ocean Navigator