The Block Island Times

Passage to Greenland

By Jon Spier | Jan 27, 2014
Photo by: Marjorie Cole Island resident John Spier, at right, is seen with Avalanche skipper John Barry and crew member Matthew Church during their trip to Greenland.

One of the many things I love about living on Block Island is seeing interesting boats come into the harbor. Everyone in the boating world eventually sails into Great Salt Pond, and by keeping an eye on the anchorage, I’ve met a lot of fascinating people. Thus it was, early last spring, that I spotted a big sexy trimaran anchored out. I naturally hopped in a dinghy and went for a visit.

I recognized the boat right away as a Chris White design, and over coffee in the cockpit, made the acquaintance of her owner and skipper, John Barry. Both of us being confirmed multihull sailors, we had lots to talk about, and after an hour I reluctantly had to get back in my dinghy to head ashore. As I was leaving, John said that he needed some experienced offshore crew for his upcoming leg to Greenland. Was I interested?

This was a surprising proposal on short notice, so I said I’d give it some thought. I went straight home, got out my atlas and Jimmy Cornell (“World Cruising Routes,” the bible of offshore sailors), spent a few minutes thinking about it, and called John to sign on. I had been wanting some offshore trimaran experience, and when would I ever get another offer to sail to Greenland? I also asked my wife Kerri, but she’s smarter than I am: She said something like “Are you %#^* nuts! Have a good time!”

So, at the end of June, I flew up to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to join the crew of Avalanche. Aside from John Barry and myself, the other crew members were Matthew Church, an old sailing friend of mine, and Marjorie Cole, an old sailing friend of John’s. Our passage would take us from St. John’s, at 47 degrees north latitude, 1,400 miles across the Labrador Sea, to Nuuk, Greenland, just shy of the Arctic Circle. Between us, we had a lot of blue water miles, but none of us had ever sailed so far north.

After a day provisioning, bending on a new mainsail, and checking over the boat, we set sail from St. John’s in a brisk southwest wind. Leaving through the famous Narrows between the windswept rocky hills of Newfoundland, it was hard to imagine the place as the bustling harbor it had been during the war years and in the heyday of the vanished cod fishery. We felt as though we were leaving a remote outpost of civilization, bound for the edge of the world

Sailing strategy for this passage is to make easting for several hundred miles from St. John’s to avoid the cold south setting current and ice along the coast of Labrador, and then turn north, catching the slightly warmer north setting current along the west coast of Greenland. It is recommended to give Greenland’s southern Cape Farvel at least 100 miles clearance, again to avoid ice and the possibility of entrapment on an inhospitable lee shore. A Canadian Navy captain whom we met in St. John’s gave us a grim picture of our chances if we got in trouble out there: he said that we would have about nine hours in survival suits, and perhaps a day if we made it into our life raft, all well beyond reach of his country’s life saving capabilities.

Our first 24 hours were glorious, broad reaching effortlessly in the mid-teens and occasionally surging over 20 knots. We made our turning point and hardened up, slowing down as multihulls do, not because we couldn’t go faster, but to maintain some comfort on board. The Labrador Sea, even in mid-summer, is a very volatile place. Shortly after turning north, the barometer started to drop and the wind clocked into the northwest and picked up. Within a few hours, we were pounding into sustained winds of over 40 knots, and things started going awry.

Avalanche was sailing well, but we had started the diesel to generate some heat and power, and sharp-eyed Marjorie noticed that our charging amps had dropped to zero. This led us to discover a flooded engine compartment, with the water level just arriving at the alternator. I nominated myself to climb down into the cave under the cockpit, bail and pump out the knee deep steaming oily water, crawl forward over the engine, and repair the broken bilge pump hose. Mission accomplished, I crawled back on deck and promptly got seasick for the first time in 40,000 miles or more, joining Matt who was already suffering stoically.

This left us with no charging capability other than the wind generator, which was feathering itself in the storm and not keeping up with the demand of even the autopilot. We had a few thousand miles of sea room at this point, so we hove to and tackled the job. Of course the spare alternator had the incorrect pulley, and we had no puller for the pulley on the damaged one. A few hours in the cockpit with a variety of tools and techniques finally made the switch, and we were back in business by the time the storm blew out.

We had a one day respite of lighter winds before another compact little low-pressure center appeared on the weather fax, and a few hours later we had headwinds of over 50 knots. Our working jib had exploded in the first storm, so John and Matt had gotten the ATN storm jib on and proactively rigged the third reef in the main. Instead of heaving to, we sheeted in tight and fore-reached, making a few knots to the northwest into massive seas that occasionally broke over our bows.

Avalanche handled the conditions without complaint, and by this time we were all feeling much better, eating a wonderfully hot fish curry that Matt had put together before the conditions got bad. The second storm passed over us fairly quickly, leaving us in the merciful grip of a big high pressure system that gave us lighter conditions for the rest of our eight day passage.

We began to see ice about halfway through the passage, at first an occasional huge majestic berg gliding along, and later more frequent and lesser bergs, often accompanied by smaller chunks: ‘growlers,’ ‘bergy bits,’ and ‘brash ice.’ These ranged from car- and truck-sized down to snowball- and cocktail-sized. At this latitude in summer it never gets dark, just a bit grayer in the wee hours, so the ice was easy to see. We kept a sharp and constant watch; we could envision an ama torn off or a hole in the main hull, and the image wasn’t pretty. Air temperatures ranged from the 30s at night to around 50 at mid-day if the sun happened to poke through, and of course the water temperature was just above freezing. We wore our foulies for the entire trip, even inside the boat; at night we would trade off outside watches every hour or two to stay warm.

We made landfall at a place called Ravn Storo, on the southwest coast of Greenland a few hundred miles south of our eventual destination, Nuuk. Our first anchorage was an abandoned fishing camp on a small bay; looking at the cold preserved remains of the primitive shacks in this desolate place made us all very thankful for the ease and bounty of our lives. We spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the tundra and rock, and in John’s case, climbing the nearby mountain. For the next few days, we coast-hopped north, sailing in the light air and sometimes motoring, stopping in deserted coves where we could find water shallow enough to anchor, and in one small fishing village where we were able to fill our tanks with diesel and buy some groceries — reindeer, whale blubber, yak, or bread; no vegetables! As we neared Nuuk, the capitol (population 15,000), we began to see occasional fishing boats and seal hunting skiffs, but the landscape was still bleak, barren, and inhospitable. Twelve days out from St. John’s, we tied up to the crowded pier amid a handful of other sailboats, a couple of trawlers, and a few hundred local and commercial boats, all overlooked by snow-covered peaks surrounding the harbor.

Coming home from Greenland wasn’t much easier than getting there, although considerably more comfortable. I flew from Nuuk to Reykjavik, Iceland, in a small propeller-driven plane, crossing the vast expanse of the Greenland Ice Cap, and marveling at the ice-choked fjords on the east coast. I had too short a stay in spectacularly beautiful and friendly Iceland, before flying home via Boston to get back to work. Meanwhile, Avalanche continued east with assorted crews, sailing to Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland, and finally Ireland, where she awaits John Barry’s return in the spring for further adventures.

Avalanche is a 1986 Chris White Hammerhead 54 trimaran that John bought in San Francisco for his circumnavigation of indefinite route and duration. She handled everything that the Labrador Sea threw at us with grace and aplomb. It is amazing to me that Chris nailed this design 30 years ago; in terms of pure all-around sailing ability, she is the best boat I’ve ever sailed, bar none. In terms of high latitude comfort, maybe not so much! Matt and I named our forward cabin ‘the ice cave’; small, unvented, uninsulated, unheated, every surface dripping wet, shared by two men in full foul weather gear.... and our forward head, with the toilet jammed into the bow just behind the anchor locker; words cannot begin to describe the acrobatics involved in getting undressed and planting your behind on that thing in offshore storm conditions! We suspected that John and Marjorie were much more comfortable in their aft cabin and head.

I got the offshore trimaran experience that I wanted, and then some. I also got a good taste of high latitude sailing; I can see the appeal of these wild waters and places, but I’m not sure that they’ll draw me in the future. All in all though, it was a great adventure, and I’m glad to have done it.

Skipper John Barry’s Avalanche can be seen docked at a Greenland pier in front of the larger ship. (Photo by: Marjorie Cole)
One of the many icebergs the crew saw on its way to Greenland. (Photo by: Marjorie Cole)
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