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In Greenland

Iron Bark

Iron Bark
Under full sail


At Russell Boating Club's Tall Ships Regatta

Blue Water Medal

Blue Water Medal
Blue Water Medal

Books By Annie Hill

  • Brazil and Beyond
  • Voyaging on a Small Income

15 May, 2006

I wanted to be in Newfoundland for my birthday and we also wanted to spend some time in St Johns; our friend Denise had told us that this was one place we really should see. Our first stop was right at the north end of Newfoundland, at the harbour of St Anthony: a great place to start because it was so kind to us. We had a hole in the silencer when we got there and were told to contact one Albert Pilgrim. Trevor couldn’t get through to him on his cell phone, so called his wife, who despatched him forthwith to meet Trevor. Trevor took him the rusting silencer and its pipe, which is a rigid construction, so had to be perfectly made in order to fit. Trevor explained this and Albert said that he reckoned that would be no problem and by the way, he should make a new silencer because you can’t buy stainless steel ones in Canada (!) and that he’d do all the rest in stainless steel while he was at it. Trevor came back to the boat somewhat concerned about it, because of course Albert couldn’t come back and forth to fit it. This was about 1830, so I gave him a whisky to reassure him and cooked dinner. We were drinking our coffee, at about 2100, when we heard an outboard motor coming our way. It was Albert with silencer and sidekick, whose name I’ve forgotten. Trevor offered it up and it fitted as near perfectly as you could hope for. ‘How much?’ he asked. ‘$60’, says Albert, which was daft, because that’s about £30, and the materials and welding rods must have cost nearly that. So Trevor gave him $80 and offered them both a rum. Albert gave $20 to his mate and they both quaffed two or three (large) glasses and shoved off. We reckoned that for $80 and $10 worth of rum, we’d done OK. The following morning, the mate came by to check that everything actually did fit and while he was at it, he gave Trevor half a bottle of shine (as we cognoscenti call moonshine), which was at least as good as the rum they’d drunk!

We also met a couple of boats from St Johns, off on their summer hols and had a splendid day with them. They had a total of 5 crew, and together we hired a taxi bus and went to L’Anse aux Meadows, a Viking staging point, which has a superb museum. The ride cost us $20 a head, which was pretty good value and then one of our new friends paid for us to go in, which is typical Newfie generosity. Trevor had been a bit hesitant about going and because I’d already been, I hadn’t pressurised him, although I felt he would be missing out. However, he thoroughly enjoyed it and was fascinated and impressed by the whole thing. They have the clever idea of people dressing up and acting out the parts. This sounds tacky, but is in fact done very effectively. We got talking to the ‘blacksmith’, who was extremely knowledgeable, and after chatting for some time, took us to his forge and showed us how he made iron from bog iron. He then forged a couple of nails, one of which he gave to me. He’s been to courses about blacksmithing and talked to all sorts of historians about the matter and is probably as well informed as many a university-based historian. He was a great talker, a natural storyteller and charming, to boot, as well as being completely enthralled by his ‘trade’. It was a wonderful afternoon.

We pottered our way south stopping at several places and meeting all sorts of interesting people. The weather was magnificent, there were no mosquitoes or blackflies, the scenery was superb and I can’t help wondering why more people don’t go there for a holiday. We saw dozens of humpback whales, fooling around, breaching and flapping their tails and fins about; thousands of enchanting puffins; seals and dolphins and all sorts of seabirds. Ashore we picked raspberries and blueberries and were shown every kindness by the locals. It was marvellous. I spent my birthday in a little town called Fogo. We didn’t manage to find the perfect food for my birthday feast – which was a shame, because it was my 50th – but we did have a lovely walk ashore along a superb trail that had been laid out by the local town council. To make up for the somewhat inadequate birthday blow-out, Trevor took me out to dinner in Trinity, a little further down the coast, where we had a splendid evening in a restaurant that overlooked the water.

Then we went on to St Johns for ‘the music and the craic’ and had plenty of both. We tied to a floating pontoon in the middle of the city. A little tour boat was on the opposite side and when we went to our chosen pub to drink the superb Quidi Vidi beer and listen to the music, we discovered that the lead singer was the chap on the tour boat. The band was excellent, singing Newfoundland and Irish folk and we had a great time. We’d got the best table and were joined by two couples, who asked if they could lean against it and see the band. Of course we said yes and in return they bought us each a beer, which we appreciated, because it’s so expensive in Canada.

The next day, I saw Con O’Brien, as his name is, on the dock and asked where we could buy some of his CDs. We’d already decided to buy a couple of Newfoundland folk music and felt that we couldn’t do better than to have some of a band we’d actually seen. He said he’d bring some along that evening and I asked him how much they were, so that I’d make sure I had the right money. ‘Sailors’ prices,’ he replied. So we had another good evening of music and at the end, he gave me a couple of CDs. When I offered to pay, he said he’d be along for coffee the next day, but although we were there a further 3 days, he never came by. He’d obviously planned to give them to us all along!

After leaving St Johns we went to two or three other places and then set off for the south coast, but the wind wouldn’t let us. In the end, we gave up and headed for Cape Breton Island, arriving about the 1st September.

We’d love to have stayed longer, because of all our friends in the area, but unfortunately, we feel duty bound to use Henry’s marina and he charges us $25 a day for the privilege. This is really more than we can afford, but he would be hurt if we anchored off and I’d hate to upset Henry – he’s been so good to us.

Anyway, it was worth doing, because as well as spending time with Judy and Henry, we had good times with several other friends there and felt that we’d caught up with everyone we wanted to see. We went out in our friend Corky’s lovely little motorboat – the Cape Islander (a local fishing boat) that he was doing up lat time we were there. She’s turned out a treat and we had a lovely evening on the Lake, visiting a village where we went ashore and had a chowder take away from the community centre. We had lunch with Ruth and Aaron in a wonderful restaurant/gallery that has opened down by Baddeck Marine and does really good food – a rarity in Nova Scotia, in my opinion. It was lovely weather for most of our stay and we really enjoyed it. We then went down the Bras D’Or Lake to Isle Madame, to visit Don and Marjorie and Greg and Denise, more friends from our winter in Baddeck. We spent nearly 3 weeks there. Trevor was doing some jobs in Iron Bark and I made use first of Greg and Denise’s holiday home (which they rent out) and then Don and Marjorie’s spare bedroom, to use my computer and get on with some writing. All in all, it was great to be able to sit somewhere with endless electricity and no distractions!

Sadly, though, we had to tear ourselves away. This business of saying goodbye gets worse and worse. On the other hand, there are often reunions to compensate for the partings. Our friends in D’Escousse (Isle Madame) asked us to go back for Canadian Thanksgiving, so at least this was more of an à bientôt.

The sail to Halifax was a mixed bag, but we stopped at some pretty harbours. Coming from Newfoundland and heading east is not recommended, however. Not only are you going against the prevailing winds, but the country gets less attractive and more crowded, and the people seem less interesting the further you go. I could easily imagine spending years in Newfoundland. I’m very fond of Cape Breton, but the rest of Nova Scotia, now seemed less appealing, although the Canadians are some of the most genuinely friendly and civilised people I have ever had to deal with. We are not, of course, talking about the Authorities, although this time we had no problems entering, largely due to the super-friendly harbour master in St Anthony who apparently bullied the Authorities into letting us clear in there, instead of going on to St Johns like what we should of. We ended up clearing in via the phone and a guy in Ottawa who apparently had never heard of Newfoundland and wanted to know if ‘this St Anthony’s marina place is in the Halifax area’! Anyway, we were given our magic number and that was the end of it.

We were so busy in Halifax that we hardly had time to catch our breaths. However, we did have time to spend a night or two with my friends Chris and Lesley, who kindly lent us a car to help with shopping and problem solving. Then we hired a car to drive back to D’Escousse, where apart from enjoying some great parties, we also attended a couple of marvellous concerts. I came back full of enthusiasm for my music!

Trevor’s nephew, Tim was in Canada on a young person’s work visa. We managed to meet him in Halifax and he stayed with us for a couple of weeks. He was a joy to have aboard. We sailed with him down to Lunenburg. The poor boy was horribly seasick, but very gallant about it all. He loved Lunenburg, I’m pleased to say, because it is one of my favourite places, too. My old friend Norma, widowed the previous winter, made us very welcome, enjoying having a distraction in her very real and painful loneliness. She is being so brave, but without Cliff, her life has neither meaning nor sparkle. It seems a terrible price to pay for such a happy and long marriage – 63 years – but it’s always the case that the more you have, the more you have to lose. My feeling that a paucity of things is the ideal, in no way relates to personal relationships and I almost envy Norma the enormity of her loss, because it tells so much about her marriage.

We were busier than I’d have chosen to be in Lunenburg, too, but we did have a little time to see friends and to chat to some of the interesting people there. By the time we were ready to leave, I was once again in love with Nova Scotia and quite ready to put down roots!

We got away on 4th November, which I reckoned was pretty good, considering that our earliest possible departure had been scheduled for the 1st. It took us several days to get away from the Gulf Stream’s influence, but we never had more than a knot or so against us, as far as we could tell. It was noticeably warmer by the Sunday. We had one nasty blow a few days out and it was after that one, that I think we must have got involved with a Tropical storm on 11 and 12 November, around 35°30’N, 61°00’W. We apparently went through the eye and when the wind came back, it caught us with the mainsail still up. By the time Trevor had got it down, the wind was blowing F10 or 11 – I’ve only seen it as strong as that, at sea, once or twice before. It literally tore at you as you crawled about on deck. It took Trevor ages to secure the sail, as you can imagine, with the whole thing bellying about in the wind. The only consolation was that at least it was relatively warm. It was seriously frightening for a while, but once the sail was muzzled and we were under bare poles, all we had to do was to endure. The new staysail on its boom came down without too many problems. However, nothing would ever induce me to sail single-handed with anything other than junk rig.

The wind continued strong for the best part of a week, with a few breaks of no more than 12 hours. Then it seemed that we had found the Trades, but a few days later they died away completely and we were almost becalmed at about 17°N for the whole of 23rd November, with very light winds both before and after. Then the breeze came back and we sighted Martinique: the freezing temperatures of a couple of weeks previously were already only a memory.

As well as the storm, we had a jammed roller furling gear (fortunately, we have the sail either wholly in or wholly out. In this case it was out, so we lowered it), the boom fitting for the boom vang come adrift, the self-steering broke a block and chafed through its line, a 6 l container of rice emptied its contents into the bilge. There were several other incidents that I can no longer recall. To say nothing of course of lots of wind. Of course, this has nothing to do with leaving on a Friday! Trevor is not superstitious, he tells me, which is fine for him, but can lead us into trouble. It’s not a case of being superstitious, anyway, just not pushing your luck! Next time, I’ll find a reason to ensure that we cannot leave on Friday!

We arrived in Trinidad on 1st December, having put in for a couple of days in the Grenadines, due to lack of wind. We immediately booked a place ashore. We hauled out on the 7th and 13 days later were back in the water, having prepared and repainted the hull and antifouling, installed a new heads, refitted the dinghy, changed two seacocks and done several welding jobs. The yard gave us their award for the fastest turnaround in memory!

We moved round to beautiful Scotland Bay, where we can tie up so close to the trees that we can watch the Capuchin and Howler monkeys in the trees. Trevor also saw a toucan one day, only about 100 yards from where we were anchored, but I had been sent off to do the shopping and missed it. While we were there, we installed new lockers in the galley and made some bunkboards, our previous leecloths having been less than satisfactory. Trevor went back to Oz, to see his aged mother, leaving me with a vast amount of gluing, scraping, sanding, varnishing and painting to do. I was less than happy about this, because I planned to finish my book (The Voyaging Vegetarian) while he was away. However, I got through the list, painted out one extra locker and managed to do some work on my book. It was far more bother than it should have been because although we are supposedly in the dry season we had a tremendous amount of rain and I ended up having to bring everything below. When it wasn’t raining, it was blowing! I was given huge amounts of moral support by Jamie and Marjorie on Ave del Mar – the sort of people who remind you that the best part of cruising is the people you meet. I also enjoyed seeing John and Gudrun on Speedwell, whom we seem to meet regularly, either in Trinidad or on the Bras d’Or in Nova Scotia. Heaven knows when we’ll cross tacks again.

One day we woke up to find another Wylo anchored in the bay. Miracle was built in Yorkshire and we became instant friends with Maggie and Humph. They too needed to do work on their boat and we recommended IMS, the yard we’d used. We were almost sorry that we had, when they left a couple of days later to go and haul out. They had a rather unstable plywood dinghy and had given their second one to a fisherman in Tobago. We decided that this was the perfect opportunity to offload our Portabote, which Trevor hated with a passion. They were more than happy to take her off our hands and Trevor then built a small plywood dinghy, to fit inside Lisa. We do enjoy having two dinghies on occasion. Lisa is still a delight and she did sterling work, ferrying us back and forth to Chaguaramas. Scotland Bay is about 3 miles away and our 2 hp outboard took us there in about 45 minutes. Unfortunately, the impeller burnt out one day and we couldn’t get a replacement. However, we had the sailing rig aboard and Lisa coped very well with us, the o/b and various bits and pieces. We’d have been tempted to do it as a matter of course, but it’s not easy beating to windward with a load of shopping onboard and it would disastrous if we capsized her.

We were just about to leave for Panama when we heard that two more Wylo were up in Bequia. One of them was the original, still owned by Nick Skeates, whom we’ve both known for many years. The other, Ariel, belongs to a couple from Falmouth; we met them there the day the boat was launched and have kept in touch since. As we wanted to see both boats and people badly, we bit the bullet and beat back to Bequia. This should have been relatively straightforward – a hard thrash from Trinidad as close as she would lie and then close-hauled up the east side of Grenada. We’d done it a couple of years previously. However, this time the wind was well into the north and the current was running to the east like a runaway train. By the time Grenada was abeam, we were thirty miles to leeward. It took us 3½ days to sail the 140 miles, but the welcome we received when we got there made it all worthwhile. As well as Wylo and Ariel, was another gaffer that belonged to a couple, Chris and Marsha, I’d met in 1997. Now they had two children aboard. It was fun catching up with their news.

Trevor and I managed to persuade Nick that he’d rather go back to the Pacific and spend his 60th birthday in New Zealand, just as he has spent his 40th and 50th. Ian and Kathy had been working on him, so it didn’t take too much persuasion on our part. We tried to persuade Marsha, too. The children were just the right age to appreciate and benefit from it, but in the end, she decided she’d rather go back to Europe. We left a couple of days later to sail to Margarita (an island off Venezuela). Our plan was to stock up with rum for the 3 Wylos planning to go into the Pacific, some cheap food for ourselves and then to sail down to Panama. Poor Barky, having struggled hard to get north, now had to be reined in going south. The great drawback of sailing in the Tropics is the 12-hour nights that make landfalls a real problem, unless the harbour is well charted, well marked and well lit. Porlamar, the main town of Margarita, is a dirty, depressing place and the anchorage is a long way from the shops. We had to use taxis to get to and from the supermarkets – no hardship in itself, and not particularly expensive, but I missed being able to saunter around and see things for myself. We were there over the weekend and had to say longer than planned because everything closes down at lunchtime on Saturday. The rum was certainly cheap – a good bottle was US $2 a litre, and beer was also a very good price at about 25¢ for a 250 ml can. We got plenty of both. Food, however, was more expensive than I’d anticipated – at least the same price as Trinidad. Apparently, this was because we were on an island, and a tourist resort at that. Food on the mainland is supposedly a lot cheaper. Diesel fuel for our engine was an unbelievably cheap 10¢ a litre – delivered to the boat!

We were pleased to leave the rolly anchorage and head off towards Panama. On the way we stopped at some beautiful offshore islands, well-named Aves (Spanish for birds). Here were thousands of red-footed boobies, wonderful, colourful birds, nesting in the mangroves and quite unafraid of us, as we rowed quietly by in the dinghy. They nest for most of the year, so we saw everything from eggs being carefully turned, to tiny, newly-hatched chicks, through fluffy fledglings, to young birds flexing their wings, ready for their first flight. It was wonderful.

A couple of days later we sailed off for the San Blas Islands, the home of the Cuna (Kuna) Indians, an ancient tribe who have never yet been conquered by white men. One wonders how they survived, because they are tiny, gentle people: only the pygmies are smaller. However, they must be tough and they are certainly strong. One day, while visiting the village of Playon Chico, we saw a boat unloading supplies. I watched a man pick up a 50 kilo sack of rice, hoist it negligently on to his shoulder and set off at a jog trot back to his home. He couldn’t have been a day under 70 years old and was considerably shorter than I. The villages are delightful, most of the houses being built of wood and palm thatch. They and the streets are all kept swept clean and inside, the breeze wafts through, taking away the wood smoke from the fire that is kept constantly burning and bringing in cool, fresh air. In spite of the density of housing, there are few flies and no unpleasant smells. Their more sophisticated neighbours on the mainland could learn from these people. We were shown round by one of the elders, who introduced us to two or three of the leading figures. Even without them being pointed out to us, we would have known who they were: they carried themselves with a natural dignity and the air of one who expects respect. They seem to get it, too. The Kuna women are renowned for their wonderful needlework. Their blouses, all of one style with a scoop neck and puff sleeves, are decorated on bodice and back with intricately made molas. These consist of 3, 4 or 5 layers of cloth, the middle layers often divided into 6 or 8 differently coloured squares. A pattern is created by careful decoupage and competed with layers of appliqué, so that the end result is a complex and amazingly colourful design. Some are near abstract, some show people, animals, household objects or tell stories. For many years, the women have made more than they need to sell on the mainland. Needless to say, passing yachtsmen also provide a good market and it was with great difficulty that I resisted buying scores of these beautiful pieces of work. We had been told that they were very expensive, but bought several beautiful ones for only $20 each – a pittance for the work involved. The Indians were delightful to deal with. They offered you what they had, stated their price and then waited for your decision. If you said ‘yes’ you were rewarded with a delightful smile and the mola, if you said ‘no’, they accepted this and packed their wares back. The old man who showed us around the village, craftily inveigled us into his home, where we were instantly surrounded by womenfolk, offering their work. There was none of any quality at this time – it had probably all been taken to the mainland – but we bought several cheap and cheerful designs, two of which were destined to go on a new sail for Lisa. Yes, another one – the one we had made in Lunenburg is wonderful but too big for the Trades and Trevor wanted a small boomless one for fooling around with.

The San Blas Islands, as well as being the home of these wonderful mola-making, dugout canoe-sailing Indians, are spectacularly beautiful in themselves, consisting of picture perfect islands, with white sand beaches and graceful palm trees, complete with obligatory turquoise water. And if all that isn’t enough, there is hardly anyone there. Where we were anchored for 5 days, there were two other yachts, Katinka, from Britain and Elysium, from USA. They too, were enjoying being almost alone after the bustle of the Eastern Caribbean. It was only the promise of more of the same in the Pacific that made it possible to leave.

Portobelo was our next stop, made especially romantic and interesting for me by John Masefield’s poem. Francis Drake died of dysentery at sea, nearby, and is buried just off the town, cast into the deeps in a lead-lined coffin. It’s a very historic place – all the gold from the Spanish Main would end up in warehouses here, awaiting the ships to carry it back to Spain. There are several magnificent forts and some well-preserved buildings standing, in spite of the best efforts to the English to raze the place to the ground. Morgan raided it, as did sailors that are slightly more respectable. However, the difference between a pirate and a privateer is moot at the best of times and probably seems extremely theoretical if you happen to be in the besieged town. Wylo and Ariel were both there. They sailed for Panama a few hours after our arrival and we followed a couple of days later, secure in the knowledge that they would have done our homework for us.

We sailed in through the imposing breakwaters on Friday 24th March. We cleared in on the Monday. It is possible to do this yourself, but it might well take several days. A number of the English-speaking taxi drivers will go with you and handle all the paperwork for US$20 and believe me, it’s $20 well spent. They know exactly how many copies of each document are required, where to copy them and where to go for the passport photos that are also necessary. Our driver, Ellington, sat beside us to fill in the forms. My Spanish is quite sufficient to know that ‘fecha’ means ‘date’ and therefore should not be followed by the name of the boat, but I did as I was told and no one on the other side of the counter seemed to care less. The whole process took less than 2 hours and then we were driven back to the Panama Canal Yacht Club, who, for a fee of $2 a day, allowed us to tie up our dinghy. They also provided Internet access, a bar, restaurant, washing machines and telephones – none of these are free, of course, but they are not expensive and are very convenient. They were quite happy for the yachtsmen to use the club house, too, which was useful at times: several afternoons a week, the yachts waiting to go through would get together and sort out line handlers.

The passage through the Panama Canal is an amazing feat of organisation and I suspect that the yachts are a damn nuisance. The average ship pays $60,000 to transit – we pay $600. For this, we not only have people coming to measure us and fit us into a complex schedule, but we also get an advisor on board for the whole transit. And if you think that this is an unnecessary bureaucratic demand, you have no idea of what is happening. Because of the number of ships passing through and unforeseen situations, the advisors need to be in constant contact with the other pilots and the lock keepers. The yacht may be suddenly moved forward to pass through in front of, rather than behind, another vessel; a delay in the passage of a ship coming the other way may impede the whole process – 101 things can happen to change the situation. The big ships are handled by electric ‘mules’, which take their lines and assist their passage, but anything under 100 ft requires people: usually four of them, one at each corner. Generally speaking, the yachts go through rafted to one or two others, but occasionally they go through in glorious solitude as we did: one of our assigned raft was moved forward a day, the second one had to postpone when his advisor failed to turn up. This was not necessarily because of sloth and idleness: the advisors are often tug captains and he may well have been asked to do some other, more important task. Tug skippers are normally paid $50 an hour, which reflects both their international qualifications and the number of years required to get there. However, the only way to get advisors for the 2 or 3 months that yachts are going through, is to ask people to work overtime. On top of this, they get danger money, due to the very real risk involved when transferring from the big (superbly handled) workboats on to the deck of a small yacht. They are paid from arriving at the workboat station, until they leave there, and as the transit itself generally takes a total of around 12 hours, I can’t see that the Canal Authorities are making much money from the yachts.

Because of needing to be tied at four corners, all boats have to provide 4 line handlers, plus someone to work the engine. Of course, if you go through in a raft, only two of your handlers will need to work and if there are three boats, most of the line handlers will be redundant, but as our own experience showed, there is no way of being sure that all will go according to plan. Generally speaking, the line handlers come from other yachts. If you’ve got any brains at all, you want to go through with somebody else before taking your own boat through, so with a couple, if you both do two trips, you can ask other people to help you with an easy conscience. As it turned out, due to a number of circumstances, I only did one other passage through, while Trevor did four. We were very lucky in that friends who had already taken their own boats through wanted to come back and help us. Ian and Kathy from Ariel and our Czech friend Pepe from Argo were wonderful to have on board. Because you go up one evening and lock down the following day, you have to keep your line handlers aboard overnight. This is a lot easier if you are all friends because most cruising boats do not have several separate sleeping cabins.

Before we could pass through the Canal, however, we had to wait patiently in a queue. The average time was about 2½ weeks and during that time most of us anchored on The Flats, about half a mile from the yacht club. We took advantage of this time to finish stocking up. Colón is a dirty, scruffy, unsafe city and with the exception of about 2 or 3 streets, it is unsafe for foreigners to walk around. Trevor and I, with reddish hair and blue eyes stand out like a sore thumb, of course. After we had spent some time there, my feeling was that we were probably pretty safe in daylight if there were 2 or 3 of us together, but as taxis were only $1 a ride to most places, it didn’t seem worth the risk. It was irritating, however, not to be able to wander at will and explore the place. Pepe and Blanka have full-sized bikes on board and cycled all over. He remarked that by the time the more unpleasant element had realised they were ‘gringos’, they’d already gone past. Panama is one of those countries where everything appears to be dirt cheap, especially compared with the West Indies, so you end up spending a fortune saving money!

One by one, our friends went through the Canal and after one disappointing postponement, it was our turn. We were scheduled for Easter Sunday and I had resigned myself to having it cancelled, but to our astonishment, our advisor not only turned up, but did so on time. As they can be anything up to 4 hours late, we took this as a good omen. We then found that we were going to be on our own and set off towards the first lock. Because we needed four line handlers, it was decided that I should work the engine, so that we could use Trevor’s greater strength, if necessary. Gerardo, our advisor, was excellent, and although I was very nervous, he was most reassuring. We went up behind a ship, Barrington Island and I concentrated on putting my bow in line with the centre of his big, red stern. All went well and as soon as we were out of the third lock and into Gatun Lake, we motored over to a big buoy, where we made fast for the night. We were so early that we could enjoy a couple of drinks and a leisurely dinner.

Next morning, Alex arrived, again on time unlike on my previous trip where we’d waited 3 hours. Our plans to swim and wash the boat had to be cancelled: indeed, we hadn’t even eaten breakfast. I soon dealt with this and we set off through the Lake. This is wonderful. Although the flooding of the whole area to make an artificial lake for the locks was probably an ecological disaster, the other side of the coin is that the whole area is out of bounds to anyone but the Canal Authorities, so that it is, in effect, a huge nature reserve. On my first trip through, I saw a toucan (as astonishing, unexpected and colourful as I’d imagined) and a monkey. On this trip, Alex took us through a short cut, Monkey Cut, and sure enough, there was a monkey. Trevor told me later that Alex did this because he thought I’d enjoy it. A little while later we saw a crocodile, so our day was made. During this time I was busy feeding people, washing up and ensuring that they had drinks – it was hot and sunny. We had an awning up and we tried to crowd under, but it wasn’t really enough for all six of us. Down below was untenable: noisy and very hot from the engine, but no one complained.

When we came to go down, I took the helm again. Alex decided that we’d go down sidewall, which was a worry. Ian had done it with another boat and had had a very unpleasant time. However, Alex knew what he was about. He explained to me that the object of the exercise was to use the current that flows in the lock as the water level lowers. I would move the tiller from side to side in such a way as to keep us off the wall and the lines would be used to steady the boat. Ian suggested that we have poles to end off, and as the boat hook was being used for the awning, another pole and a dinghy mast were brought into play. In spite of our forebodings, Alex was right and the whole thing went like clockwork. We passed into the Pacific at 1305 on 17th April. We dropped off Alex, disposed of the tyres that we’d used as fenders and went round to anchor off Flamenco Island, near Panama City. Then we broke out the bubbly!

In total, all hands had completed a total of 18 transits and this was generally voted the easiest of the lot. While this rather stole my thunder as helmsman of the year, I wasn’t complaining. Indeed, the only drawback was that with everyone occupied, I didn’t have much chance to take photos. The one that I’ve included really doesn’t give any idea of the excitement of sighting the Pacific at last – not in the least because when you descend down to sea level, you are still in the river and have to go round a bend before you see the sea - but everyone said that their photos failed to portray the scale and impact of the experience. We only stayed there two days. I went on a final shopping expedition to Panama City – a much more pleasant and safe place than Colón – and the following day, Trevor, Ian, Kathy and I went to the vegetable market. This is both wholesale and retail and covers several acres. The quality was superb and the variety was astonishing. We needed to exert massive self-control not to buy too much, with avocadoes at 30¢ each, aubergines 3 lbs for $1, pineapple 4 to the dollar and so on. We shared 20 kilo sacks of onions, potatoes and oranges and then invested a whole $5 to take everything back in a taxi. By now Trevor was convinced that we had a fair wind crying to be used, so as soon as everything was aboard, we said goodbye to Argo and Ariel (Nick on Wylo had already left) and sailed off to the island of Taboga for the night, while I washed, sorted and stowed all the fruit and vegetables. Nick was at anchor when we arrived, so we watched the sun go down together. He left at first light. We will probably cross tacks with all our friends again in the Marquesas.

We were away bright and early the next morning, but after a good start had an unbelievably slow passage. We duly followed the directions in Ocean Passages for the World, but even though we got well south, experienced headwinds and a foul current. This would have been OK if the winds had been a bit fresher, but they rarely reached F3 and poor Iron Bark struggles to make progress in these conditions. I took us 14 days to make half way to the Galápagos – and the next day we went backwards again!


Well, we’re trying to sail westwards

But the wind sends us north.

Yes, we’re trying to head westward

But the wind sends us north.

If we tack, I know we’ll just be

Wand’ring back and forth.

Now Frustration takes me over

So I head off down south.

Oh, Frustration takes me over

And I sail off down south

But that current sends me eastward

I’m down in the mouth.

When we set out from Balboa,

We planned a damn’ fine cruise.

Yes, we sailed from that Balboa

Planning a damn’ fine cruise

But I’m trapped by wind and current,

I’ve got the May Day Blues.

However, I dare say the wind will come back eventually, and the current go somewhere else.

14 May 2006

Well we finally made it in on Friday evening, after what must be a record passage – 22 days! And that included motoring when we finally started going backwards. What really gripes is that yachts are arriving now that left 10 days or so later than us. Admittedly, some of them did a lot of motoring and can make 6 knots under power, (we only made about 4 to 4½ motoring, which meant that we were only making 2½ to 3 over the bottom) but some of them did it largely under sail. I guess it’s just the luck of the draw – a couple we spoke to yesterday had a lovely breeze from about 100 miles out! And no noticeable current! Ah well.

We are in Wreck Bay on San Cristobal, surrounded by frolicking, friendly fur seals. Wonderful. I shall tell you all about the Galápagos in my next letter, which, if things go well, should be from New Zealand!

A Winter in Greenland (2004 to 2005)

Mostly written aboard Iron Bark, Nako Island, 72º30.9'N 54º58.6'W, Greenland

We survived the winter in Greenland! I had hoped to feel a hero, but I have to confess that it was actually a lot easier than I anticipated, in fact, so much so, that I console myself that the brave part was making the decision to do this, rather than the actuality.

We went straight from Baddeck to Greenland with never an e-mail outlet on the way. In fact, we stopped at a little harbour called Flower’s Cove because something had worked loose on the self-steering (an Aries) and it had jumped a cog; this did nothing for its accuracy. Our horror at being forced to hand-steer for several hours was ludicrous! Anyway, we sorted that out, did a bit of shopping and were given ‘lunch’ and deliciously hot showers by a kindly native, that being the sort of thing that one expects in Newfoundland.

I have to say that it was with a certain reluctance that I left to head north. Newfie and its people seemed so much more appealing than Greenland. I wasn’t looking forward to our passage north, either, because when I went in Badger, we’d had loads of fog and had to keep almost constant lookout. With the pram hood, that hadn’t been much of a hardship, but Iron Bark, whatever her manifold virtues, is not set up for watchkeeping out of the elements. However, my fears were largely ungrounded and we had relatively little fog. We also had a distinct lack of wind and resorted to an embarrassing amount of motoring. Trevor reckoned that the Davis Strait is no place to hang around waiting for gales. I agree, by and large, but even so, it was a lot of motoring.

Although we didn’t have a huge amount of serious fog, we didn’t have exactly sparkling visibility, either and we didn’t see much of ‘Greenland’s Icy Mountains’ until we were just about on top of them. We were heading for Disko Island and had clear weather as we approached, on 21st July, which was just as well, because now we began to see icebergs – if not hundreds, then certainly scores of them. We’d only seen half a dozen up until then. We were reckoning on being in by the end of the day, but from flat calm, the wind increased rapidly to a full gale. We pulled the sails down, rolled them up, reefed them or whatever was necessary and cursed our bad luck. We really didn’t want to go careering through a field of icebergs at 7 knots, with waves and spray hiding growlers. Between us and Disko were several relatively shoal patches of water, with bergs grounded on them, so there was really no avoiding them. We decided to heave-to and although the wind took off, we stayed put for a while to see what would happen. By the time we’d decided that the lull was permanent, the wind had just about died, leaving a god-awful jobble behind. We motored and sailed and motor-sailed, feeling generally cross and bad-tempered, but at last made it to Fortune Bay on Disko and dropped our hook just before midnight. Being in the land of the Midnight Sun, at least we didn’t have to worry about saving our daylight.

Before we had left for Greenland, we’d studied charts with thoughts of a wintering place in mind. We had to be north of the Arctic Circle, of course, or otherwise it wouldn’t really count, and the Upernavik area looked promising, with several fjords leading deep into the land, which would keep us well away from sea ice and all the pressure associated with that. It also meant that we would have more opportunity of travelling about come the winter. We confidently expected that all the fjords would freeze, while if we were among the outer islands, gales might well break the ice up from time to time. Trevor said that this had happened to him quite a lot in the Antarctic (where the choice of wintering sites is much more limited) and that it can be quite nerve wracking while it happens. I could well believe that and was more than happy to go along with his idea of getting frozen in once and for all so that we could relax. ‘Once you’re surrounded by ice’, he pointed out, ‘nothing can disturb you.’ It was a pleasant thought to be able to ignore gales.

At about 72° 30' N, there is a long fjord called ‘Laxe Fjord’. Our small-scale Admiralty chart, when studied with a magnifying glass, made it look very promising and the larger-scale Danish one seemed to back this up. Our plan was to head north to this area as a matter of priority and find ourselves a winter harbour. That done, we could potter about ‘exploring’ until such time as we decided to settle ourselves in. After a few days in Fortune Bay, we headed out up the Vaigat, stopping at Qeqertarsuaq (Godhavn) and several other equally unpronounceable places along the way.

Greenland, at least as far as the settlements are concerned, has changed quite a lot since I was here in 1991. There are more shops and they are more European than they were. Yes, they still sell fishing line and bullets, but they also have CDs and fashionable clothes. The villages are much cleaner and tidier than they were, the people less shy and more (although not many) people speak English. Being under benign Danish rule, they are obviously indoctrinated into a healthy way of life and are all slim and very un-Eskimo looking. Part of this is probably because sweets, sugar and so on are all quite expensive. Basic foodstuffs are obviously subsidised and are European prices. I’m not quite sure what they decide is basic and what is luxury. Bacon, for example is outrageous, while eggs are twice Canadian prices. Tinned tomatoes are average international price, as is coffee, but other foodstuffs are two or three times more than one would normally pay, including meat and fresh vegetables. The whole country, of course, is heavily subsidised by Denmark because there is very little paid work here. Fewer people seem to go fishing or hunting in serious fashion compared with 1991. Even so, I think Trevor was surprised at how small and limited the larger settlements are. On the way here, he was talking of perhaps buying some plywood and insulation foam and I don’t think he believed me when I told him that they wouldn’t be available. It appears that people are provided with houses and do nothing more than basic maintenance, although a lot of stuff may be ordered via catalogues and so on.

We arrived in Laxe Fjord in early August and immediately found that our choice was perfect. We were, however, more than a little disconcerted to find that we had selected one of the busiest places in Greenland. Laxe Fjord, as I should have guessed, means ‘Salmon Inlet’ and the place was positively buzzing with little boats full of cheerful Eskimos tending lines and nets, and there were tents scattered around with women and children pottering happily about. This didn’t unduly bother us because we reckoned that they’d all have shoved off by the time we came to settle in.

I should point out here that we didn’t actually have permission to spend the winter in Greenland. We had tried to ‘enter’ the country officially in Godhavn, a major town, but no one seemed very interested. A Dane there, told us of two Norwegians who had spent the winter tied to a dock in the town, so there was obviously in principle, no objection to people staying for longish periods. However, as we wanted to be isolated and remote, we felt that perhaps it might be imprudent to ask if this were OK, knowing how Authorities tend to worry about accidents and so on. Greenlanders, for the most part, are delightfully incurious, so we didn’t feel that we’d have any problems.

One of the ploys that Trevor had used to persuade me to acquiesce to his scheme, was that we would have fuel to keep the heater going throughout the coldest months. I didn’t have any hopes that we would keep the boat at 18ºC or anything like, but I really didn’t want to live as he had done, with frost and ice inside the boat. Trevor reckoned that we’d need 200 l paraffin and 800l of diesel, which would be sufficient to keep the cold at bay and melt snow for water. Having confirmed where to spend the winter, we went to buy the fuel to cache ashore. Once we were set up, we’d cruise around the area and maybe do a bit of charting for the RCC. The business of getting the fuel from a town to Orpik, the name of chosen anchorage, was worrying Trevor a little. Obviously, we needed oil drums, but in the new clean and green Greenland, they weren’t scattered around the settlements like they used to be.
Upernavik is the nearest place of any size. It has an airstrip built on the top of a mountain, which must have cost a fortune because the whole top of the hill has been levelled off to create it. It also has stores, a hospital and so on and seemed a likely spot to provide us with oil drums. Upernavik has been an important harbour for over a century, although why anyone should have chosen to place it there is incomprehensible. It is a dreadful place for a boat. The harbour has been improved by a substantial wall and a breakwater, but is crowded, encumbered by rocks and prone to invasion by bergy bits. On the other side of the wall is a bay with poor holding, wide open to the west and rolly. There is no natural fresh water. We tried securing Iron Bark in several places and the least bad was tying alongside the wall, surging slightly. There were good rubber fenders – not ideal for white plastic topsides, but fine for our stainless rub rail and plenty to tie up to. Unfortunately, the top of the pier was covered in grit, which fell in a steady stream all over our decks, and if one of the locals wanted to get in front of us, he was quite happy to cast off any line that was an inconvenience. However, we managed to locate and obtain some empty fuel drums, with the obliging chap selecting them for us and never showing the slightest curiosity as to why we should want them. You’d think that foreigners came knocking on his door every day, asking for half a dozen oil drums. Unfortunately, however, the local bobby did show some curiosity, when he encountered Trevor. (I was off shopping at the time.) Trevor being a skilled and practised dissimulator put him off the scent, but we decided that we’d better not revisit Upernavik until spring.

We had a somewhat harrowing time taking the oil drums back to Orpik, 30 or so miles away. We dodged a blow in a good anchorage that we discovered on an island near Upernavik, (making one wonder why they didn’t choose this place to settle) and then steamed back in perfectly calm weather, with Barky still lurching horribly on any wave, as well she might with half a ton of deck cargo. It was a relief to get among the islands and deep into Laxe Fjord, where no swell could reach us. Indeed, these fjords must nearly always be calm – the tiniest skerries are covered with a green crown of grass and moss, which would never survive if they were frequently inundated with salt water. I don’t recall ever seeing more than a slight slop in any of them. The wind can blow, but never seems to raise much of a sea.

When I came to Greenland with Pete, we spent some time in Umanak Fjord and as I recall, this was very susceptible to katabatic winds. The area that we explored, between the Kangeq Peninsula and Upernavik, is riddled with fjords, scattered with mountainous islands and close to a very elevated icecap: an ideal, environment, you might think, for katabatic winds. Astonishingly, I don’t believe we’ve experienced a single instance. In truth, it’s a lousy place for a sailing boat. Occasionally you get a breeze sufficient to encourage you to raise sail, but even then, the wind is very fluky and constantly shifting and heading you. Most of the time it’s flat calm and if there’s a real breeze, it’s generally because the weather’s going to hell and by that time you’re more interested in finding a sheltered anchorage than sailing.

Anyway, on this particular trip, the last thing we wanted to do was to sail, so we were very grateful for the calm weather. We dropped the hook about midnight and then felt our way into Orpik, our little, perfectly sheltered pool right at the end of the fiord.

Trevor decided to get all the fuel ashore and set up the drums on the beach. This would enable us to continue ‘exploring’ for another few weeks until it was time to settle in for the winter. It wasn’t a pleasant job, pumping up diesel from a drum into jerricans, then ferrying those ashore and filling the empty one that he’d set up there. There wasn’t much I could do to help, either, apart from make encouraging noises. It took him 2 days to get 1,000 litres of fuel shifted and onto the beach.

This little anchorage was a very pretty spot and ashore we could wander around without being stopped by too many precipitous cliffs or rocks falls. Generally, the countryside is not ideal for walking because it’s very rough and steep, with lots of unexpected and usually water-filled hollows into which you – or at least I – keep stumbling. But the views make the effort worthwhile. We also discovered lots of wild mushrooms and bog whortleberries, as the Pilot describes them – bilberries to you and me. I took a selection of the mushroom and asked a couple of locals which were edible. The most common one was, but I didn’t care for it very much; however, there were two others that were a lot less common, but absolutely delicious. These particular Eskimos (not Inuit here) or Greenlanders, if you prefer, were camping at the ‘Salmon River’, tending the nets that they set from the shore and getting in a supply of salmon. They came by 5 or 6 afternoons to drink tea or coffee with us. Most of them could speak no English and the communication was inadequate to say the least, but they obviously enjoyed themselves and we managed the odd comprehensible joke, question and answer. They very kindly gave us a salmon just before they left and one of them, the first day he came on board, gave us a harpoon head. Not alas, hand-carved out of bone, but cast in aluminium. It was kind and I treasure it.

According to our plan, we duly chugged off and did a bit of ‘exploring’, but when we were nearly back ‘home’ were overtaken by a small boat containing a couple of Wildlife Rangers. They suspected us of poaching their salmon, I believe and although we managed to convince them that we were simply a pair of lunatic foreigners, pottering around making charts, they asked us about the fuel drums. Then, as we were approaching our pool, a group of locals came over in their boat and told us to go no further – ‘it was forbidden because of the salmon’. At least we gathered that’s what they meant – they tried Danish on us and we caught ‘salmon’ and ‘forbidden’. Hmm. So we anchored elsewhere, consoling ourselves with the thought that we could outstay them.

Rather than upset the locals, we left again – the season was due to end in about a week, at the end of August, after which we anticipated everyone would leave.

We pottered off and waited out a gale in a local anchorage. Then we did a bit more exploring. Trevor was a bit concerned about our being so prominent at Orpik and said that if we were told we’d have to leave, the best thing would be to cut our losses and go to Newfoundland. This was a terrible temptation for me, because it would be much more my idea of wintering ‘somewhere cold’, with all the advantages – snow, ice, etc, plus the possibility of company and a much earlier spring. I liked the idea of being isolated for a winter, but I also liked the idea of being part of a friendly community and Newfies are nothing if not friendly.

We were hoping to explore the inner leads behind Upernavik, near where the icecap comes down to the sea, but there was loads of ice about, even at that time of the year, and all the anchorages we checked were either too deep, too small or too encumbered with ice. Not uncommonly, they were all three! However, we did some lines of soundings and sorted out islands from headlands from rocks, which were not always correctly shown on the chart.

Towards the end of August, we went back to our winter quarters. In the last few days we’d had rain and this had fallen as snow higher up; all the mountains now had white tops. Most of the locals had gone and we were getting quite excited about our winter. Each morning, the snow crept down lower on the hills, but we could still find mushrooms and bilberries and the days that were sunny and calm were still delightfully warm. Even better was the fact that the cold nights were obviously having a discouraging effect on the mosquitoes so that going ashore became a real pleasure. We climbed quite high on 1st September and got snowed on! The dwarf beech and the bilberries were turning to rich reds and browns; everywhere was at its best.

A few days later, we chugged off again for a bit more ‘exploring’. We were about a couple of miles from Orpik, when we saw the Wildlife Rangers’ boat again. They came alongside and obviously wanted to talk to us, but we were in a very shallow and winding channel and could neither stop nor anchor. In the end, Trevor went aboard their boat while I continued slowly on our way. Apparently, while their real concern was that we might be poaching salmon, they were uncomfortably curious about our cache and our intentions. When Trevor came back on board, we continued on our way to an anchorage for the night, discussing what we should do.

We were rather worried about so many people knowing our whereabouts and that we had a dump of fuel ashore. The last thing we wanted was for someone to come at the end of September and tell us that we had to move. Even if they didn’t insist on our leaving the country – and the thought of traversing the Davis Strait at that time of the year was far from appealing – they might insist that we go closer to a settlement, which we didn’t fancy. Trevor again suggested going to Newfoundland. I think part of his reason for suggesting it was that Greenland seemed rather more populous than he’d realised and also that the lack of wildlife was a great disappointment. I very nearly agreed, but I thought better of it. After all, I had signed on to spend a winter north of the Arctic Circle and I knew that Trevor would be very disappointed in retrospect, to spend it in populated Newfoundland instead of in Greenland, which would be much less busy come winter. We were anchored in a place that we’d not spent any time in before, on an island called Nako, and I suggested that we consider this place as an alternative to Orpik. It was a lovely spot, well off the beaten track and not likely to be visited by curious Wildlife Rangers. I said that if we saw no sign of anyone for a few days, we could assume that they’d lost interest in us and then we’d go back to Orpik, pick up the fuel and bring it back. Trevor agreed with the idea and when we went ashore, we were reassured at finding no trace of people. The Greenlanders tend to leave rubbish about, so it’s quite easy to work out which places they visit regularly. Having effectively been given the option of backing out, I’d had to make the decision to spend the winter in Greenland, all over again. Of course now I’m pleased that I did it, but for several weeks I wondered if I’d done the right thing.

Anyway, we decided that Nako was the spot and went back to Orpik for the fuel. Poor Trevor had to reload and then unload it yet again, although I did give him some assistance. It was a relief to get the drums off the deck.

We started settling in on 10th September. We could have continued cruising around for at least another 3 weeks, although the days were rapidly drawing in, but were feeling a bit paranoid and felt it was better to vanish. In fact we thought that we’d freeze in sooner than we did, because already we were getting ice in the mornings. As it turned out, this was fresh water ice and in effect we had two freeze-ins, one with fresh ice, the second with salt. September and October also brought quite a lot of weather, with gales and snow. The gales were quite alarming because they caused the ice to break up, which made the most appalling din as it bashed against the sides of the boat. We were by now securely tethered with about a dozen lines ashore, and I kept telling myself that Barky has already been through all this before, but at times it was something of an act of faith.

Getting to and from the boat was interesting. The ice was not solid, but sometimes it was too thick to row through. We had taken Lisa, our plywood dinghy, ashore and turned her over in a sheltered spot for the winter and assembled our ‘Portabote’, which is a collapsible affair, made of some very tough form of plastic. This we used as part boat, part sledge, pulling ourselves along the shorelines. It took to its role well, and saved Lisa from a lot of abuse. Trevor had warned me that we might be trapped for a few days because the ice would be too thick to pull through, but not strong enough to walk on. By the end of October this situation seemed imminent, but in fact what happened was that we had a particularly cold night on 4th November and by the time we got up, the ice in front of the boat was hard enough to walk on. It was a very strange sensation, jumping off the bowsprit and walking ashore. The ice alongside and astern of us was still thin and a bit broken up, but between the stream and ourselves, there was a good, solid layer.

By now we had lost the sun from the boat. There was a spit of land between us and the main part of the fjord, that we called ‘the tombolo’, and if we walked up there, we could still see the sun. The days, although short, were often sunny and fine. Winter, however, seemed to come in a hurry. We were walking ashore, then the heads froze and we had to start using a ‘honey bucket’, as they call them in Canada. In fact, this one was exactly that – we bought a lot of honey to see us through the winter. Trevor likes his cakes, puddings and flapjacks! Temperatures outside were regularly down below –10°C and in the mornings, the boat was at –2°. We didn’t have enough fuel to run the heater 24 hours a day and were anyway being a bit careful with it at first, to see just how much fuel it used. We expected the cold months to be December, January, February and March and I worked out a ration, which allowed us increasing amounts so that we might be able to keep the heater on nearly all the time in those months. To do so meant being a bit mean in October and November, but on the other hand, it enabled me to get more acclimatised to the cold. For Trevor, the idea of having regular heating was a luxury he couldn’t dream of in the Antarctic – I don’t think I could have managed without it. The next thing that happened was that the water tank froze. We have a little tank in the galley, that we usually fill with salt water at sea and this proved ideal for the winter. We fetched water from the stream and filled this little tank so that we had water on tap. We had packed a lot of our food in 6 litre plastic buckets and as these were emptied they became available for ferrying water. In the fullness of time of course, the stream froze up, but we could get water from the lake that fed it. To our delight, we managed to get water from this all winter. Trevor had to do some pretty strenuous work with a pick axe to do so, but it was a lot better than melting snow. We did this once or twice and it’s a slow, tedious business. We ended up with loads of paraffin left over, because of this good luck.

The polar night set in on 13th November. Although the ice forward of the boat was still firm, that around us came and went, cracked, melted from water welling up from below and drifted in and out. At times it was quite alarming and once or twice I cowered aboard, too afraid to risk going ashore. This was the hardest time for me. The cold frankly frightened me and it was still only around –10°; the boat was always cold – about 6°, rising to 9° for a while after I’d cooked dinner; the heater was struggling even at these temperatures and I dreaded what it was going to be like at –30°. My hands had chilblains, going ashore seemed fraught with risk, ice was encroaching in all the lockers and in places in the cabin, where the steel was in contact with the panelling. Life was lived by the light of two oil lamps and two candles and for a while I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

Slowly the ice thickened up. Our little bay was the first to freeze, then ice started to form in the north bay. We had to keep our lines free, otherwise they would get pulled down into the ice. This was a continual chore throughout the winter. We were still sleeping in the forward cabin, but were troubled with both condensation and ice. I solved it in the end, by putting a cockpit cushion across the foot of the bed, and lining each side with camping mattresses. I put a fleece blanket against the deck head, securing one end over the bookshelf at the foot of the bunk and the other end I tucked under some trim which held it in place. Occasionally there was ice between the blanket and the deckhead, but we never had any drips after that. The cushions and mattresses froze to the side of the boat and Trevor took it upon himself to chip ice and mop up every few days. We had brought extra sleeping bags and fleece liners for when it got really cold, but in fact we never used them. We slept under two duvets – a light weight and a medium weight one, and, to our surprise, they were sufficient.

Although by the end of the winter, the snow was 10 feet deep in places, we didn’t really get a lot of it. The ‘rainfall’ so far north in Greenland, is very low – semi-desert really – and it took a while for the snow to accumulate. Of course any that fell tended to stay around – we didn’t get much melting, but it was quite a while before everything was thickly covered. However, by the end of November, there was enough that we could start using the skis that we’d bought.
My only experience of skiing, previous to this trip, had been a couple of afternoons in Cape Breton, when we spent the winter there. Trevor had had skis in the Antarctic, but hardly used them, so was little more skilled than I. On the recommendation of a young man at the Mountain Equipment Co-op in Halifax, we’d bought a new type of ski, which was short – 120 cm – and wide – about 10 cm at the widest – and only slightly waisted. For me, this proved to be an ideal beginner’s ski. Because they were was so short, turning was easy and because they had built-in ‘skins’, we could climb up hills with astonishingly little effort. Trevor reckoned that the width and the skins meant that the skis were a lot slower than traditional ones, but that was fine by me. We had a huge amount of fun with these skis and although we never travelled as far as we’d originally hoped, we still covered a fair few miles.

Although we were now firmly frozen in, the rest of the fjord took a lot longer and it wasn’t until Christmas that we looked out to see ice everywhere. This was a temporary state of affairs, however, because upwellings on spring tides often melted and broke up areas of the ice. It was a disappointment, because we’d hoped to do a lot of skiing over the sea ice, particularly during the ‘night’ when travelling ashore was difficult because of the very uneven terrain. My dream of skiing under the Arctic Lights never quite materialised, but on the other hand, once daylight returned, travelling over the land became a delight, immensely more pleasurable than trudging and stumbling about in the summer. I never really got the hang of downhill work, and fell over with monotonous regularity. However, that was partly because once I did get going, I never wanted to slow down. Trevor was much more prudent and so took far fewer spills.

Our cove, which, with startling originality, we called ‘Winter Cove’ was the territory of an Arctic Fox. She wasn’t white, but instead was a soft brown colour. Apparently this is not unusual in Greenland, although there where white ones as well. With even more originality, I christened her ‘Foxy’, although this was in a feeble attempt not to get too emotionally involved with her. It was a failure, of course, but she gave us both a lot of pleasure, trotting down for her breakfast of oats, milk and cheese every morning. She would take food from my hand, but never let me touch her. I think I could have ‘tamed’ her to do that, but felt it an impertinence. Later in the winter, when the snow was really deep, she would come onto the boat and lie on deck. We felt immensely privileged that she should do so.

We celebrated mid-winter day, instead of Christmas, but in fact had so much food left over that we celebrated that too, and drank toasts to absent friends who, we hoped, would be thinking of us. We had lots of prezzies to give each other and even a tree – a small willow, which I felt rather guilty about. But it did look nice. While there was no chance of the orthodox turkey and all our fresh vegetables had been eaten by the end of November, we did have lots of good things to eat. Trevor had decided that instead of a blow-out feast, we should have lots to nibbles instead and it was a great idea. We also went for a short ski in the gloaming and enjoyed the day. Christmas pudding was consumed, of course, but there was some for the 25th, too. I’d also made a Christmas cake, which just about lasted until Twelfth Night. During the dark period, I made lots of excuses to have something a bit special and we never got depressed by the endless night. The weather was generally clear and crisp, which allowed us to see amazing quantities of stars in the crystal-clear atmosphere. And of course, there were some splendid displays of Lights, which had us standing in the hatch gazing out until we got too cold.

One advantage of living in a fridge was that we had a certain amount of fresh food. Vegetables wouldn’t tolerate the alternation between freezing and thawing that happened towards the end of November, but eggs, cheese, butter, bacon and salami kept well. Some of the eggs froze and cracked and we lost a few to mould, but Foxy enjoyed those, so they didn’t get wasted. We had scrambled eggs every week and used them in other ways. They lasted until the end of May and we bought new ones in the beginning of July, so only went without for a month. We had some dried eggs, but I didn’t try scrambling those.

We had laid in a goodly supply of freeze-dried onions and mixed vegetables, which were a great help in adding some taste and interest to our meals. The vegetables were not something that you’d want to serve as a side dish, but were grand in soups, stews and curries, especially pressure cooked. I also had freeze-dried mushrooms and would have liked more. I bought tins of corned beef (to keep Trevor happy!), tuna, sweet corn, tomatoes, baked beans and tomato purée. We had one or two special things like asparagus and half a dozen tins of smoked salmon for high days and holidays. If I’d had room we’d have had tins of spinach, but as it was, the boat was terribly burdened and I could only really load her up with necessities. I overdid it, of course, but not by too much. We also had rice, spaghetti, penne, pasta twists, lasagne and some wonderful dried, sliced potatoes. These last were quite superb, but terribly bulky, so we could only have them every couple of weeks, especially as the cold had us eating huge meals. I’d laid in whole and split lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, red kidney beans, butter (lima) beans and split peas (for soup). I did get frustrated at times, trying to devise meals around these stores, but by and large we ate well and looked forward to our meals. Breakfast was usually muesli, which I mix myself from oats, dates, raisins, dried apricots, prunes, nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. I baked bread and I ate it every day, usually as a toasted cheese or bacon sandwich. Trevor often had cake or flapjacks instead. Baking was very much encouraged – not only was the end product much appreciated, but the oven warmed the boat!

I found it cold in December, and the ice inside the boat was demoralising. The other thing that I found hard to handle, on occasion, was the silence. Generally speaking, I would say that I love silence, but what I mean by that, of course, is the absence of artificial sounds like cars, or radios and, I suppose, also the absence of howling winds and breaking waves. But the silence in Greenland was immense. It was total. Often, not a breath stirred, so there was not even a susurration of snow; nothing moved, no birds called, no fox barked. For hours and hours there wouldn’t be the slightest sound. It was rather overwhelming at times.

In the boat, of course, there were sounds. We had no electricity – we didn’t have enough fuel to run the engine, there was no sun for the solar panel and if we’d had a wind generator, it would have been useless in the calm conditions that prevailed – so we couldn’t listen to music, but this never felt like deprivation. In fact it was often quite noisy below, because whenever the ice moved, on the tide or as it expanded, the sound reverberated through the boat. At times it was quite alarming and once or twice it even woke us up. At breakout, we discovered one or two of our lines and chains had snapped and they were probably responsible for those occasions.
In January, when there was sufficient well-packed snow about, Trevor got out his machete and started to build a snow cave over the boat. In case you don’t know, mountaineers often use a snow cave for a snug shelter at night. Snow is a very good insulator and itself stays at a temperature just below freezing; therefore, a cave built under a good thickness of snow stays at about that temperature, which if the outside is –30°C, is snug. The first thing Trevor did, was to carve out frames and lintels for the windows, which he set up on snow piled to the rubbing strake. Then he cut out big blocks and laid them along the side of the boat and in other places necessary to bridge any obvious gaps. After that he shovelled snow over the lot, so that Iron Bark was encased in a thick layer of snow. The difference was amazing. Immediately, the ice inside started to recede and the temperature in the saloon rose to 9°. After I’d been cooking for a while, it occasionally even reached 14°! The best thing, however, was that when we went off for a ski, the boat was still above freezing when we came back, rather than several degrees below, as it had been previously. Life really became pretty comfortable after that until May, when the snow on deck started to melt and create holes. It wasn’t worth building a new cave, but was a grand reminder of what it could have been like.

We did lots of calculations as to when the sun would come back, but they were complicated by the fact that refraction could make a tremendous difference. The first day of February was beautiful, still and clear and we decided to go for a ski up ‘North Col’, the valley to the north of us. We thought that there was a chance that we’d be able to see the sun shining on hills nearby, but as we climbed we realised that we might well be able to see the sun itself. We settled ourselves at a site with a good view south and as we looked, the sun appeared over one of the high cliffs and sunlight poured down the fjord at us. It was a glorious sight. As it moved sideways, the light ran along the snow turning everything into pinks and golds and then poured down the valleys sides and onto the sea ice. It was a perfect day to watch it and we were astonished at the fact that it was on the sea ice. It had been overcast for the previous two days, but before then, the sun had only been glancing off the mountain tops. Three months later and it had stopped setting at all. The Land of the Midnight Sun is a strange place. The moon can stay in the sky for days on end during the dark months and then there is a time of long, long twilights interspersed with bright sunshine. Suddenly you realise that it’s always sunny. Where we were, there were relatively few overcast days and it was strange to be living somewhere that was always sunny. My body clock is regular and prosaic; Trevor’s is anything but and he would be happily pottering about at 4 am when my body was shouting ‘Bed! Bed!’ Then we’d get up about midday with my body shouting, ‘Oy! What happened to breakfast!’ In the end I gave up and went to bed some time after midnight and let him carry on. We were so lucky to choose somewhere with such superb weather. Days and days of overcast, especially in the dark period, would have been very depressing and a lot of wind would have been horrible. As it was we got quite fussy and would sulk and pout if there was a F3 blowing – at –30°C, it soon made itself felt if you stopped moving for any time.

Those beautiful sunny times when we went skiing into the hills were just wonderful. Everything was so pristine, the sky a deep, transparent blue and often the sun would pick out crystals in the snow which, wearing ski goggles, were transformed into tiny prisms, flashing rainbow colours. It was breathtakingly lovely. The snow was different every time we went out, sometimes creaking, sometimes swishing, sometimes crunching. The sun rose noticeably higher every day – each day was 30 minutes longer than its predecessor – and the birds started to come back. I think the first were the Great cormorants, that nested on a cliff close by. Soon after came Black-backed gulls, Glaucous or Iceland gulls (I never worked out which), Snow buntings, Eider ducks, Mallard, Mergansers, Redpolls, Black guillemots, Canada geese, Lapland longspurs and finally, just before we left, the Loons returned, not only common ones, but Red-throated, which I’d never seen before. One seemed to be settling into the High Pond, one of our favourite walks.
Early in May, the temperature was in the low 20s and we were really beginning to wonder if we’d ever break out. We’d found a sledge on the beach on the far side of North Col, which Trevor had cut down and used for ferrying water from Loon lake. We also used it to go and dump some of our bottles and tins in deep water beyond The Skerries. To do this, we had to dig a hole through the ice and Trevor had a long crowbar for this purpose. He’d had an eye welded to the top of it, so that he could tie a line through it and to himself so that he wouldn’t drop the crowbar into the water, when it went through. He was busily digging away, this day when for the first time the crowbar slipped and then, to add insult to injury, the knot slipped in the rope and it plunged into 100 metres of water. The moral of the story being that if you tie bowlines in slippery rope – put a stopper knot in the end first! This accident made life more difficult, because most times Trevor went for water, he had to dig out the ice that had formed. He’d already broken off the sharp end of the pick-axe that we’d brought and besides, pick-axing is very wet work, once you’ve hit the water! We consoled ourselves by returning via Cormorant Cliff to have a close look at the cormorants there, which looked very dapper in their breeding plumage. It’s not often that you can approach so closely. Cormorants are not the brightest of birds, by any stretch of the imagination, and we were amused to see cormorant-shaped marks in the snow, on the sea ice, where they had crash landed. I couldn’t help thinking that the stupid birds had probably forgotten that the funny-coloured water was actually solid and had tried to land on it.

One of the things that I could never really get over, was the fact that although the sun was very warm, it seemed to make not the slightest difference to the snow cover. Day after day, it shone on the hillsides and nothing seemed to be happening. In mid-April we were excited to see drips falling off the rubbing strake and indeed, we cleared the snow off the boat, because now it was often warmer outside than in, and the insulation was working the wrong way. Early in June, we looked around and could not believe that in a fortnight’s time, the ice would be melted. It seemed an impossibility and we were becoming convinced that it would be a late ice year.
Suddenly, however, things changed. We woke up one morning to find the stream from Loon Lake had broken out from the lake and was flowing into our bay. It was a glorious sight of rushing water and I spent hours making channels through the snow and ice and watching the water flowing into them. It was like going back 40 years and playing at damming streams in the Yorkshire Dales. A few days later, we went up to Loon Lake and across to High Pond. The snow was now in a sorry state, soft and wet and we could no longer use our skis. Even on snowshoes we frequently plunged up to our hips. The lake was still largely frozen, but we could see that there had been a burst of water over the surface of it. As we rounded a bluff, we saw the most tremendous cataract leaping out of the side of a mountain about a mile away. An ice dam must have disintegrated only a few hours previously, and the water, that had been held behind it, was pouring down the mountainside, into the valley and flowing down to Loon Lake. By the time we were back at Winter Cove, our stream was a raging torrent and the sea ice along the shore was cracking. The stream had made a pool at the head of the bay, which was now occupied by a pair of mergansers. It flowed along the tide crack to the south of us and ice was breaking off by the shore and filling this gap. Our path from the bow was still solid, but the water was encroaching on it.

A couple of days later, we found we could no longer go ashore by this track. We could still get ashore easily on the north shore and with a bit of dodging, on the south. Foxy was finding it more and more difficult to get to us for her breakfast – she hated getting wet – and a young fox that we called Scratty, who used to hang around hoping that Foxy might not quite lick her bowl clean, was entertaining us with wonderful leaps from floe to floe. Foxy was much more cautious – I suspect that she’d fallen through on one occasion, but Scratty had no concern as to where he landed. He got away with it, as far as we could see, but I suspect that he too will fall through one day and learn prudence.

The sea ice was now covered with pools of melt water that had run down the hillsides. Some of
these went right through and the whole business of travelling on it was fraught with difficulty as far as I was concerned. I turned my attention ashore and found that hillsides that had seemed unclimbable in the autumn were easy going now. Above the cove was a sort of plateau and I spent some time, one afternoon, sitting on a sun-warmed rock, with a ptarmigan, still in snow-while plumage, sitting on a rock about 12 ft away, convinced that he was perfectly camouflaged, while snow-buntings flew around, singing their little hearts out and a pair of longspurs courted among some rocks a few feet on the other side. I could see down to High Pond where a couple of mallard were splashing round in the pool that had formed. It was like paradise.

At the beginning of June, we walked onto the sea ice and looked north. At midnight, the sun shone over North Col and lit up the sea ice. A few days later, it shone on the boat. Spring seemed to be with us at last . We went ashore onto The Tombolo, the next day, and almost got trapped coming back. We had to leap from floe to floe, and some of them tipped alarmingly when we landed. Kicking off pushed the floe away as did landing with any enthusiasm. Some of Trevor’s steps were jumps for me, as I followed behind, but it was great fun. Later in they day, Trevor was trying to free the starboard stern lines which were trapped in the ice. He was using the Portabote to get across the open patches, pushing it over the ice in front of him. One time he did this and fell through the rotten ice. It was frightening to watch, but he soon got out and was back aboard. It was so warm in the sun, that he could strip off his clothes, soaked in freezing water, on deck. The ice was certainly no longer safe. Our trip onto The Tombolo showed us that the water was now clear of fast ice, beyond The Skerries, as far as we could see.

I reminded Trevor that we’d intended to have a bonfire on the ice. Better do it now, I suggested. I got our one of our remaining 1 litre boxes of Spanish wine and mulled it. We gathered up bits of wood – many of them offcuts from when we’d cut the sledge down – and lit the fire. It burnt merrily and we sat round it in the sunshine, sipping our wine. Although it did melt a little pool under it, there was not enough water to put the fire out; it’s a remarkable phenomenon and hard to believe until you see it. Foxy came by and scrounged some cheese from us and the Scratty also wondered by hopefully, so he got some too.

The next morning, 8th June, Foxy had a real job getting to us. She tried several routes and I was sure she wouldn’t make it, but she persevered and got a big bowl of food as a reward. A little later, Trevor went to free our port stern lines, that were trapping floes drifting out of the bay. He fell in again and I told him that this time he wasn’t going to have his medicinal rum, because he’d obvously done it deliberately! Dried and dressed, he went off to see if he could free the starboard stern lines and eventually decided to cut them. The result was dramatic. Suddenly, our stern slewed across to the south side of the cove and big sheets of ice started moving out on the north side. This reduced the pressure on the rest of the ice, which now started jostling and moving. Some of the pieces were pushing against Iron Bark and I started fending them off. This kept it all in motion and because the boat was no longer held in one place, the ice could move past more easily. Trevor came back on board and we pushed and shoved, grateful for the fact that it was flat calm. It was great fun, in fact because there was no risk to the boat and we were having a wonderful time. There was a big pile of ice jammed around the bow and we broke lumps off and pushed them to one side. Trevor was bashing at one particular piece with the boat hook, when the stress split off a huge piece. This spun off down our port side and all the stuff to starboard started moving. Within a few moments, the whole mass of ice in Winter Cove was streaming out and into the main part of the bay. An hour later, only isolated floes remained. It was astonishing. It was hard to believe that Foxy had been eating her breakfast on the ice a few hours previously. Now, the snow ramp that I’d walked down to feed her was several hundred yards to the east of us, complete with sledge. (We’d decided that this deserved to go back to sea whence it had come.) The next day, all the remaining ice in the bay flowed out and a few hours later had completely vanished. It happened so quickly that I could hardly credit it.

We let go our lines and went back out to anchor. Some of them were still stuck fast in the ice and we went off for a few days’ cruise to let them melt for a while. The highlight of this was going up the Icecap, where it flows down to the sea near Upernavik, a little to the north of us. We explored up the fjords and then found ourselves sailing in open water which, according to the chart, was solid ice. The ice has actually retreated 3 or 4 miles inland. It was very exciting to be exploring what were literally uncharted waters. We followed the line of the ice cap round, for several miles and then decided to see if we could get out to the west. Several times we found the channels blocked solid by ice: everything from tiny pieces of brash to enormous great ice bergs. We took it in turns to climb up the ratlines 20 feet above deck, which gave us a much better view over the ice. I thought that I could see a way out, but it was no go. However, I had better luck the second time and could direct Trevor at the helm so that we wriggled our way through the floating and grounded ice and finally got ourselves out through a narrow channel where the depths of 13 metres were too shallow for the big pieces of ice. It was a wonderful day, all the better for ending up without our needing to back track. We decided that such a high note was where we should end. A few days later, we collected our final ropes from Winter Cove and said goodbye to the place that we had spent 9 months.

I had been worried about the trip south, but after one false start, we carried a fair breeze and sunshine down to Disko I. Here we spoke to new people for the first time in ten months. In spite of Trevor’s dire prognostications, we didn’t catch even as much as a cold. (When Trevor was in the Antarctic, he picked up some infection when the first cruise ship of the year arrived, and was quite ill from it.) Although we’d promised ourselves some fresh vegetables, they were so expensive and looked so weary, that we put it off until our arrival in Newfoundland. However, it gave us the opportunity to send out some letters and postcards, announcing our continuing existence to the rest of the world! It also gave us the chance to buy some rather expensive wine, but we reckoned we deserved it.

We finally left Greenland on 6th July. I wanted to be in Newfoundland for my 50th birthday and we both wanted to see more of that island. We had 5 days of glorious weather, fair winds and sunshine. We later paid for this with calms and headwinds, but had no gales. We stopped for a night on the Labardor and arrived in St Anthony on 21st July – exactly 1 year after arriving in Disko. And what a wonderful year.