Wednesday, 22 March 2017

A long haul - Newfoundland to Western Australia

          Early in October 2015 Iron Bark was in St Johns, Newfoundland, provisioned and ready for sea, waiting for suitable weather to sail for Western Australia. I wanted to be on the Kimberley coast of Western Australia for the next dry season, May to November; the only route that would get me there in time was down the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean, preferably non-stop. The alternative, via the Panama Canal and tropical Pacific is not much further but considerably slower. Fortunately I was sailing alone and did not have to convince anyone else of the attractions of a voyage that would include a long leg in the Southern Ocean.
          Hurricane Joachim roared up the American coast and across the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the first week of October and a few days later a severe gale brought 60 knots of wind. Winter looked to like starting early. I decided I preferred the slight risk a late hurricane to the certainty of another bad winter storm, and sailed on 12 October. The wind was fair when I left St Johns but soon veered ahead and I was close-hauled for most of the four days it took to cross the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The cold Labrador Current gave Iron Bark a useful lift south, but also brought thick fog that kept me busy dodging ships and fishing boats and I got little sleep. I hove-to for 16 hours while a cold front passed but, by using the motor whenever the speed dropped below two knots, got to the Tail of the Bank in four days and sailed into the Gulf Stream. There the water temperature jumped 7°C, the fog cleared and I discarded my long johns.
On the Tail of the Bank the wind was variable in direction and strength with everything from SE2 to W8 and a lumpy sea kicked up by the current. That night I was passing between a ship and a seismic survey vessel towing an 8km streamer when a short-lived but vicious squall drove me towards the streamer. The sea state was such that neither the ship nor the survey vessel could make me out on radar nor could I see them through the spray and rain. The much-blessed AIS let me sort out what was happening and I called the ship on VHF to ask it to alter course to give me room to tack to clear the seismic vessel’s gear.
I resisted the temptation to ride the Gulf Stream eastwards although this would have ensured the Trades were a fair wind when I met them. Instead I sailed south towards better weather, hoping to reduce the odds of meeting a northeast gale blowing against the Stream and the dangerous sea that produces. For five days I plodded southeast across the Stream, generally close-hauled, using the motor when the wind was light. On 21 October in 40°32’N, 47°29’W, I reached the southern edge of the main body of the Gulf Stream and sailed into a detached eddy. In the main part of the Gulf Stream the current set east at one or two knots, but in the eddy the set was north at over five knots. I could neither sail nor motor against a current of this strength so altered course to put the current abeam in order to get out of it as quickly as possible. I wanted to go southeast but was steering east and making good a course of northeast and annoyingly wasting a fair wind. It was a day and a half before the current eased enough for me to resume course.
Once out of the Gulf Stream the peaked cross-seas subsided and I used the quiet conditions to transfer 80 litres of diesel from cans high in the lazarette down into the keel tank. With this Iron Bark reverted to being a sailing vessel, the remaining fuel being reserved for battery charging. I try to limit my electricity usage to the amount that I can easily generate and avoid power-hungry gadgets (fridge, radar, electronic autopilot, water maker and the like) but seem to need more electricity every year. Iron Bark’s electrical system once ran on a few dry cell batteries but since I fitted the AIS, which requires the GPS to be on, my electricity requirements have increased considerably, acerbated by using a computer for writing and electric lights to cosset my eyes when reading. I now have to run the engine every few days to charge the batteries when it is too cloudy for the solar panel to cope.
An all too rare fair wind in the North Altlantic Variables

          After leaving the Gulf Stream behind I pushed south and east through the Variables. Crossing the Variables took 16 days mostly close-hauled, with a day hove-to in a nasty little gale. There were a couple of days of fair winds with good runs including one of 144 nautical miles, but many more when the run was under 50 miles and one of only 24 miles. With a waterline length of 32ft, Iron Bark is too short to punch effectively into a head sea, nor does being gaff-rigged help. The shape of the top of the mainsail is irrelevant but the short mast means the headsail luffs are not long enough to drive her efficiently to windward. Another drag is the propeller, a massively built thing, excellent for withstanding the impact of ice but like towing a bucket under sail.
I had hoped reach the Northeast Trades as far east as 30°W to allow me to stand south through them with a free wind, but headwinds in the Variables meant I met the Trades about 200 miles west of there. To make matters worse the Trades blew from the east rather than the northeast and the North Equatorial Current was setting strongly west so for the first six days in the Trades I crashed along close-hauled with all the discomfort that comes of living with the hatches dogged and everything on a heel. On 14 November, close to the Cap Verdes, the wind backed to northeast, the current and I eased the sheets. Dust, presumably from the Sahara, reduced visibility to such an extent that although I passed within 18 miles of Brava, the southwestern island of the Cap Verde Archipelago, I did not sight land. A nightjar and many butterflies landed aboard Iron Bark while she was briefly becalmed under the lee of Brava and dust plastered the sails and rigging.
African hitchhiker - a nightjar

Where to cross the Doldrums is debatable. They are narrowest on the South American side of the Atlantic but the Equatorial Current runs hard there and may sweep a sailing vessel so far northwest that it cannot weather the bulge of Brazil. If this happens there is little choice but to stand north into the Variables then east cross the Atlantic and try again, wasting several weeks in the process. Close to the African coast the Equatorial Current is weaker but the belt of calms is wider, which can also delay a sailing vessel for weeks. Ocean Passages recommends entering the Doldrums well over towards the African shore, and that is what I did.
On 19 November, 38 days out in 07°19’N, 020°28’W, the Trades died, marking the beginning of the Doldrums. For four days I chased every breath of wind, making hard-won runs of 76, 50, 16 and 30 miles.  I hoped to top off the water tanks in the squalls that are a feature of the Doldrums but it took so long to wash the sails and deck clean of encrusted salt and dust that I only got a few litres of water into the tanks before, on the fifth day, a light southerly breeze set in. Iron Bark rode this breeze southwest and on 27 November she slipped quietly across the Equator in longitude 21°55’W and into the Southeast Trades. The relatively painless crossing of the Doldrums had a price. The water tanks were not full but I lacked the moral courage to turn back in the hope of collecting more rain. I had enough water to get to Australia, but with little reserve for emergencies. In the southern summer there is little prospect of rain in the Southeast Trades and there is generally has too much spray mixed with the rain in the Southern Ocean for it to be potable. My best chance of catching water was in the South Atlantic Variables with diverting to Cape Town for water a last, unattractive option.
Waiting on wind in the doldrums

Iron Bark does not have refrigeration and the mainstays of my diet are pulses (chiefly chick peas and kidney beans), rice, rolled oats and flour with a little salted meat (beef, bacon, salami or whatever is locally available) to flavour the stews. Except for bread, which I make with undiluted seawater, all need fresh water to prepare. I try to avoid tinned food although it comes with water included, regarding it as an inefficient and expensive way to carry water and the resulting diet to be bland and not particularly healthy. With care but without rationing my usual water usage is two litres per day. To reduce the chance of having to divert to Cape Town, I decreased my daily water allowance to one and a half litres, which is an adequate but uncomfortable ration. On days when the run was over 100 miles I had an extra pot of coffee, but light airs and headwinds meant I had few extra coffees.
The Southeast Trades were disappointing. I hoped for fresh, free winds that would push me across the Trades in perhaps 12 days, but it took 21 days. The best day’s run was an unspectacular 118 miles and the worst only 8 miles. The poor showing was party due to the fitful wind but also because Iron Bark’s hull was becoming foul with gooseneck barnacles. Whenever it was calm I went over the side to scrape them off.
Rolling and slatting in light airs is hard on the gear and in many ways worse than a gale. Steadying the booms with preventers and guys does much to stop chafe, but quietening the gaff down is more difficult. A gaff vang led aft keeps the gaff off the shrouds and saves the topsail from being nipped, but a gaff fore guy is difficult to arrange on a cutter. Fortunately the topsail steadies the gaff in light airs, especially if the peak halyard is eased so that the topsail sheet takes some of the weight of the gaff. The topsail, being a light sail set high, keeps drawing when everything else is slatting. Its benefit is amplified because it steadies the whole rig, helping the other sails hold their wind. The gaff vang is useful at the opposite end of the wind scale. When dousing the mainsail while running before a gale the wind often catches the bunt of the sail and blows the gaff skyward. I use the gaff vang to pull the gaff down to the boom and hold it there until I can get a gasket around gaff and boom.
The topsail steadies the whole rig in light airs

           On 14 December, 63 days out from St Johns, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn in longitude 25°W and left the Southeast Trades behind. In preparation for the Southern Ocean I overhauled the running rigging, splicing a new section into the throat halyard and replacing a jib sheet and the reef pennants, then went up the mast to check the standing and running gear at the masthead and replaced the strop on a peak halyard block. Next I dropped the mainsail to replace some frayed gaff robands and reef points and put a few stitches in a seam. Finally I changed the old, worn, fair-weather headsails that I had been using in the low latitudes for newer, stronger sails in preparation for heavy weather in the Southern Ocean.
Light airs and poor progress in the South Atlantic Variables

I need not have hurried. The South Atlantic Variables were even less kind than the Southeast Trades and it took ten days of light airs and headwinds to work south to 31°44’S, 021°30’W, where a fair breeze carried us towards Tristan da Cunha (37°05’S, 012°15’W) and the long awaited Westerlies. Each day there were more birds, a joy after the desolate Trades: white-chinned and Atlantic petrels, white bellied and Wilson’s storm petrels, greater shearwaters, yellow-nosed, grey-headed, shy and wandering albatross.
The weather was becoming cooler and I dug out long-forgotten clothes (29°S), then a blanket (35°S) and finally long johns (39°S). Although there was some rain it was always mixed with too much spray to let it into the tanks. At night I lay in my bunk comparing water usage to the ever-decreasing daily runs then went on to mentally design seawater distillation systems. Christmas and New Year passed uneventfully and, with water short, uncelebrated.
The sea was becoming too cold and rough for me to dive to clean the hull and I was reduced to using a scraper on a long pole from deck. This could not reach around the turn of the bilge and soon the bottom was so foul that Iron Bark would not come head to wind and I had to wear her around to change tack. With such a foul bottom, a day’s run of 100 miles became a rarity. The failure of the antifouling was the most complete that I have ever experienced, but it failed in an odd manner. Nothing grew on the hull except gooseneck barnacles: no weed, no cone-shaped barnacles, nothing but closely packed gooseneck barnacles 10cm long and apparently unaffected by the antifouling.
On 7 January 2016, 87 days out and about 1000 miles west-southwest of the Cape of Good Hope, I crossed 40°S in longitude 002°32’W and sailed into the Southern Ocean. The wind was fair for most of the first week in the Southern Ocean, but her foul bottom meant Iron Bark made good only 706 miles of easting in that time. The next week brought headwinds, light airs, fog and little progress. One hundred days out we were still 159 miles short of the longitude of the Cape of Good Hope; I had hoped to be two thousand miles past the Cape by then.
Running before a fresh, fair wind in sunny weather - unfortunately a rare occurrence

For a few days I was close enough to Cape Town to hear the news on medium wave radio. This was the only news I heard on this voyage until close to Fremantle. Short wave radio has been largely replaced by digital satellite transmissions that unfortunately target land areas only, leaving those of us who lack access to internet at sea ignorant of the wider world.
Ocean Passages recommends making the passage from the Cape of Good Hope to Fremantle between 39°S and 40°S but this year the west winds were unreliable in those latitudes. I pushed further south hoping to find better wind and was 400 miles south of Cape Agulhas in latitude 41°27’S when I crossed its meridian, still without a steady breeze. By keeping well south of the Cape of Good Hope I hoped not only for fair winds but also to avoid the rough seas on the Agulhas Bank caused by the Agulhas Current flowing against the prevailing winds. However the strong currents extended much further south than the routeing chart indicated and about 435 miles south-southeast of Cape Agulhas, in 41°S, 024°E, I encountered a current setting northwest at between three and four knots. This was directly against the wind and produced a lumpy, unpleasant sea. This was merely slow and uncomfortable while the wind was moderate, but the barometer was falling.
The promised gale arrived just after dark on 24 January. In 20 minutes the wind increased from S6 (25-30 knots) to W10 (45-50 knots) and it was a scramble to strip all sail and run off downwind. Iron Bark has run before many gales under bare poles without a problem, but now, for the first time ever, the Aries wind vane could not cope. The foul hull and unresponsive steering meant the Aries was unable to prevent Iron Bark from broaching in the steep, breaking, wind against current seas. The wind eased to W8-9 but she was still broaching frequently unless I hand steered, so I streamed my new and previously unused Jordan series drogue. It is 95m of braided nylon rope with 124 small cloth cones attached at half metre intervals, towed astern on a bridle. The effect was dramatic; Iron Bark's speed through the water slowed from three knots running under bare poles to a little over a knot with the drogue out. More importantly she ran steadily downwind with the rudder lashed amidships and despite hard knocks from the cross-seas, there was no sign of broaching. There was nothing more for me to do so I went to bed; I should have had this drogue years ago. Overnight the current set Iron Bark 27 miles to the west, although we were running eastwards at over a knot, so the current was at least 3 knots against the wind. By mid-morning the wind eased to W6-7 and I spent three hours retrieving the drogue then made sail.
Retrieving the Jordan drogue. The small cloth cones are half a metre apart.

On 3 February in 41°S, 063°W, 114 days out, there was two hours of steady rain with a moderate sea and no spray. Rain unmixed with spray is rare south of 40°S, so I hove-to and caught enough to nearly fill the tanks. Now I had enough water to cope with almost any eventuality with enough over for an extra coffee whenever I wanted one. The rain ended with an abrupt wind shift to the southeast, a dead noser, and the wind stayed between east and south-southeast for the next ten days. Initially I sailed on whichever tack gave the most easting, but then decided to tack south to look for west winds although that meant losing some easting. In a week I sailed 589 miles but only reduced the distance to Fremantle by 100 miles and ended up 5° south of the recommended route, still without steady west winds.
        Having full water tanks made it easier to be philosophical about the lack of progress but it was getting tedious. Iron Bark has five metres of well-filled bookshelves but by this time I had read everything aboard at least three times, including the labels on the jam jars. Fresh vegetables were a distant memory and rum was getting low. My waterproofs now leaked copiously and to preserve a set of dry clothes for wearing below deck I changed into wet clothes whenever I needed to work outside. My self-discipline was barely up to pulling on cold, clammy clothes when I tumbled from my warm bunk to reef on a wet, windy night. I was getting stale and wanted to be done with this passage, but at the current speed land was still six or eight weeks away.
The easterlies finally relented and late February and early March brought generally fair winds with two short-lived gales in which I deployed the Jordan drogue. Normally I would have run before these gales with a storm staysail or bare poles as the wind was fair, but the foul hull meant the Aries could not keep Iron Bark running without broaching. The drogue solved that problem at the cost of losing a day’s run each time. With a strong fair wind Iron Bark can make 140 or 150 miles per day but the foul bottom meant the best she could do now was barely 100 miles and I reckoned any week’s run over 500 miles to be a good one.
About this time I got food poisoning from some poorly preserved salami. This left me weak and made deck work difficult for a few days. Then I had to undertake bit of do-it-yourself dentistry and extract a tooth; the tooth was loose so this was not difficult but it was a bloody business. I had no other health or injury problems on this voyage except the usual minor cuts, sprains and torn fingernails. Fisting in Iron Bark’s mainsail is hard on fingernails and, although I keep mine trimmed short, months without fresh vegetables made them fragile. Vitamin tablets are better than nothing, but are a poor substitute for fresh food.
Early in March I started to slant northward towards Fremantle, but by keeping south of the great circle course stayed in the Westerlies and in the first half of March there were only three days of headwinds. The hull was now so foul that the rudder was almost ineffective and I was steering largely by trimming the sails. This is fairly easy as Iron Bark’s rig spreads well beyond the hull, but trimming the sails for balance rather than drive further slowed her down. The foul hull made gybing difficult. For a while I could get the rudder to push the stern through the wind provided I scandalized the main, but eventually the hull was so foul that I had to strike the mainsail completely to gybe. It had of course been impossible to tack for months.
Gooseneck barnacles - Iron Bark's bottom after arrival in Fremantle. It is obvious how far I could reach around the turn of the bilge with a long scraper.

            On 19 March, 160 days out and 700 miles from Fremantle, the jib’s roller furling gear failed. The lower bearing had been jamming intermittently for some time so it was no surprise when it seized. The gear was 16 years old and had done over 100,000 miles so the failure was hardly premature, but it meant I now had to set the jib flying.
Man unto woman born has but a short time to live,
He goes up like a jack yard topsail and comes down like a flying jib.
Many years ago I took heed of the first bit of that doggerel and abolished the topsail yards by lengthening the gaff and fitting a standing topmast. Now, having reverted to setting the jib flying, the truth of the second part came home. A flying jib can be a difficult sail to retrieve from the end of the bowsprit and it is vital that it does not take charge, as it will if given any chance.
The roller furling jib is one of the few concessions to mechanical complexity in Iron Bark’s rig and one I made knowing it to be a potential source of trouble. However I decided that was preferable to having to muzzle a jib at the end of the bowsprit in heavy weather. The rest of Iron Bark’s gear is simple, robust and easy to repair at sea. The mast is short, stout and well stayed and her running gear is largely worked with tackles that are reliable and provide all the power needed at the cost of a bit of pulley-hauley work. All halyards and control lines are external and can be inspected for chafe then slipped and cut to renew the nip or replaced as necessary. The long, low rig makes it easy to trim the sails to keep the course with minimal input from the Aries wind vane or, in the present situation, the rudder. Iron Bark’s spread out ballast gives her a lovely, easy motion and she will carry a great weight of stores and gear without worrying too much about trim. Unfortunately these virtues have a price. The combination of the windage of the maze of running rigging, the lack of lift from short-luffed headsails inevitable with a low-aspect rig and the large wetted surface from the long keel means her windward performance is unspectacular. This can be irritating in coastal sailing but seldom matters in deep water.
Approaching Fremantle

             The last 700 miles into Fremantle took 11 days and were easy enough despite the lack of the roller-furling jib. A cold front on 20/21 March briefly brought SW7 with squalls to F8, but this was fair wind and gave a run of 77 miles. It would have been 140 miles with a clean bottom. The front marked the end of the Westerlies and the rest of the passage was made in moderate east to southeast winds. By this time the course was northeast so I could generally lay Fremantle close-hauled, averaging 60 miles a day.

         Late in the afternoon of 30 March the Rottnest Island lighthouse broke the horizon. At midnight I hove-to to wait on daylight then let draw at dawn to sail through the shipping anchored in Gage Roads. I used the motor to come alongside the small craft quarantine dock in Fremantle at 0915 on 31 March, 171 days out from Newfoundland, having sailed a little over 15,000 miles to make good about 12,500 miles. It had been a long haul.

Monday, 30 May 2016


Iron Bark and I spent the winter of 2014/2015 in the Outer Hebrides in Stornoway and had a fine time of it. Stornoway Harbour is safe and convenient, the people outgoing and the music excellent. Iron Bark quickly became part of the local scenery and we had some grand ceilidhs aboard, with Friday night a regular event. 
Stornoway ceilidh  on Iron Bark - the fiddler is Jim McWhirr

One Friday I counted eighteen people with nine musical instruments (and gallons of whisky) in Iron Bark’s saloon, quite a crowd on a 35ft boat. It is seldom that a stranger is so completely accepted into a close-knit community as I was in Stornoway and it was with regret that I said goodbye in the spring.

Iron Bark dried out for antifouling in Stornoway

Winter lingered late and the mainland hills were snow covered when I crossed the Minch to Loch Broom in April. Through late April and early May I wandered south through the Hebrides waiting out spells of bad weather at anchor and making the most of the good spells. It was an easy, unrushed time, pottering between empty anchorages without seeing another yacht until south of Ardnamurchan Point. 
On 20 May I crossed the North Channel to Rathlin Island to take part in a maritime festival. Rathlin is a bit like Stornoway; you need to spend a few days there to appreciate it and to be accepted. The locals were friendly, the music good and the poteen abundant so I stayed there two and a half weeks.
Rathlin music
My destination for the summer was Labrador. A westward passage across the northern Atlantic is never likely to be easy; the obvious route is to stay well north and hope for less headwinds and contrary current at the price of some unpleasant weather and perhaps ice. After waiting out a series of westerly gales, I sailed from Rathlin on 8 June. There was a high pressure over Britain that I hoped would bring a northeast breeze but it brought nothing but a calm. It took two days for us drift and finally motor clear of the Irish coast to beyond the 100-fathom line. There was no wind there either, but we were clear of fishing boats and no longer shuttling back and forth with the tide. For three days we lay becalmed with fulmars paddling circuits around Iron Bark before a north wind got us moving. A week after leaving Rathlin I finally had enough sea room to ride out a gale.
Atlantic track with diamonds at noon positions 
In our second week at sea we made slow, steady progress close hauled into moderate or fresh headwinds, with a day and a half lost while hove-to in WSW7-8. During this we lay comfortably under deep-reefed mainsail with our escort of fulmars paddling in the slick Barky left as she drifted slowly across the wind. A few days later there was short-lived gale from the southeast, a fair wind, which we ran before under bare poles. Neither of these gales was more than inconvenient as they barely reached F9 even in squalls and there was ample sea room.

The third week at sea brought more fair winds than foul and we made good 636nm aided by a weak favourably current. Any lift from a current is welcome, but this current was cold and brought a thick, dank fog that made everything in the boat damp, including my bedding. Generally I do not light the heater at sea but on this occasion regretted having only half a sack of peat in the fuel bin. There were pilot whales about, often accompanied by common dolphins, to brighten the dull days. The pilot whales ploughed along sedately behind Iron Bark while the dolphins zigzagged ahead, chirping through the hull.
On 26 July, 600 miles east of Labrador, we crossed the line marking the extreme limit of icebergs. There is little chance of seeing ice that far out and even less of hitting any so I sailed on into the fog keeping only a desultory lookout by day and none at night, but radar would have been a comfort. Six days later, 75 nautical miles off the Labrador coast and 135miles from the intended landfall of Strawberry Harbour, the fog lifted briefly to show an iceberg. Although this was the first I had seen, there had undoubtedly been others hidden in the fog.
Ice in sunlight is a lovely sight
......but frightening when it looms out of the fog

I had resolved to keep a proper watch after seeing the first ice but it was a cold, tedious job in the fog. That night, for the first time, I hove-to for fear of ice. Iron Bark forereaches at about a knot when hove-to so it was still possible to hit something, but the low speed reduces the chances of a collision and improves the odds of surviving one. It was still foggy the following morning when I let draw. That day I saw six icebergs and more probably lurked in the mank. By 1700 it was obvious I could not make Strawberry Harbour before dark so I hove-to for the night. The entrance to Strawberry Harbour is narrow, crooked and of course unlit; it is not one to attempt in the dark. The harbour itself is well protected with good holding but limited swinging room.
Within an hour of heaving-to the wind had increased from SE6 to gale force. The poorly charted, rocky coast was 15nm to the southwest, too close for safety if this wind backed at all. I dragged the storm staysail forward and got soaked hanking it on and hoisting it. The water was cold, unsurprising given the amount of ice around. I crashed off towards deep water under storm staysail and deep-reefed mainsail with the wind just forward of the beam. As the wind was now SE9, this put a lot of strain on the gear but the alternative was risk being jammed against the coast.
Three hours later in the last of the daylight and with 30nm of sea room I was preparing to heave-to for the night when a large iceberg with a train of bergy bits appeared close ahead. Stopping near that lot was not an option so I sailed blindly into the darkness for another nerve-wracking hour before heaving-to. When I went below the temperature in the cabin was 2°C, but it was a haven of warmth and quiet compared to the cockpit. Keeping watch was pointless as visibility was nil so I dozed fully dressed. If we hit something there would not be time to pull on boots.
By morning the wind had eased to SE7 and visibility was about a mile with no ice in sight. Closing the coast in those conditions had no appeal so I remained hove-to for another 24 hours. On the morning of 4 July we set off for Strawberry Harbour, now 62nm away, under reefed mainsail and working staysail in SE6 and, inevitably, fog. Several times during the day we had to dodge ice that loomed out of the murk. As I closed the coast the wind increased to gale force and the fog thinned. I deep reefed the mainsail then, when an island two miles off Strawberry Harbour gave a little protection, handed it and closed the harbour under staysail and motor. 
The entrance to Strawberry Harbour looked horrible but I had no desire to turn back into the fog and ice offshore so dropped the staysail and went in under engine only. At times the motor was barely able to hold Iron Bark’s head into the wind as we crept in against gusts funnelling down the entrance channel. Once inside I let the anchor go on the minimum scope I though feasible. It held, but bullets of wind from the surrounding hills sent Iron Bark sheering dangerously close to the harbour’s rocky shores. As quickly as I knew how, I stocked and set a second anchor to reduce our swinging arc. Then, between gusts, I launched the dinghy and rowed out a warp with a chain sling and got it around a rock. Once safely moored in the middle of the harbour I went below and lit the heater using the last of the Irish turf.
The passage from Ireland to Labrador had taken 26 days. It was straightforward until the last three days, but those days made up for the earlier ease. Ice, fog and a rock-studded shore are an unpleasant mix at any time; in a gale they make a fearful combination.
Strawberry Harbour in flat, misty light
Strawberry Harbour is a lovely spot, uninhabited and named for the colour of the rocks rather than any profusion of fruit. The land is too bleak for that. Ashore there were still snow banks in protected nooks and it was too cool for mosquitoes to be a nuisance. To seaward half a dozen icebergs were in sight whenever the fog lifted enough to see anything. I spent several days there enjoying the pleasures of port as offered in Labrador - all night in, unlimited firewood for the labour of cutting it and water for the labour of hauling it. 
On 9 July I motored to the village of Makkovik to clear customs.  The police in Makkovik called the Canada Border Services in Goose Bay who immediately ordered me to sail there for an interview. I demurred at sailing 250nm to windward in fog and ice with a gale forecast, backed up by the Makkovik Mounties and together we eventually prevailed. The CBS have no procedure for clearing a vessel at ports other than those serviced by one of their offices. As there are no CBS offices between Goose Bay in Labrador and Prince Rupert in British Columbia, separated by thousands of miles of Canadian administered coastline, this allows considerable scope for bureaucratic silliness, some of it dangerous.
Labrador is a big place and the sailing season is short. The choice is either push hard whenever the weather permits to cover as much territory as possible or choose an area and investigate it in detail. This year I wanted to do the latter and hoped to explore some of the maze of uncharted, uninhabited bays on the mid-Labrador coast between 55°N and 57°N.
With the advent of GPS, pilotage in a surveyed channel with a known datum has become simple even in poor visibility, but nosing into the unknown requires good visibility, moderate winds and patience. My first foray into the blank part of the chart failed. The weather was fair when I set off to look at the unsurveyed part of the Bay of Islands, but the fog rolled in as I groped my way across six miles of unsurveyed water with one eye on the depth sounder and the other staring into the murk. The uneven bottom suggested unseen hazards close by but I saw none. The bay I had hoped to use as an anchorage had a rocky shoal in its entrance but the fog was too thick and the wind to strong for me to leave Iron Bark untended at anchor while I sounded ahead with the dinghy to find a way around it.  I retreated towards Roses Island where I knew there was a safe but unsurveyed anchorage. I drew a chart with soundings of Iron Bark’s track across the Bay of Islands but discarded it as misleading; there were almost certainly unseen rocks close to her path.
The southern approach to Roses Island along Lillian Island Tickle follows a line of soundings on the chart. Soundings are a rarity in this area and usually indicate a safe channel at least a cable wide, hence my shock when I nearly hit an uncharted barely-covered rock almost on the line of soundings. The rock is on my sketch chart.

I spent a night in the Roses Island anchorage and sounded it for a sketch chart, then two days of fair weather allowed me to sail 100nm to Tom Gears Run, with a night in Shoal Tickle along the way. The area around Tom Gears Run is lovely and I intended to spend a week or two exploring the blanks on the chart around it. Initially I anchored in a well-protected cove on Tikigatsiak Peninsula that Annie Hill and I found and charted in 2002 but it had several black bears apparently permanently resident on its shore, which inhibited my daily walk. I shifted camp to a less attractive bay, but without bears.
Tunungayualok Island (unpronounceable to we kabloona), which forms one side of Tom Gears Run, is indented by a large unsurveyed bay named, equally unpronounceably, Nuvudluktok. From a hilltop I could see the entrance to Nuvudluktok was nearly closed off by a moraine bar but there appeared to be a channel on its southeast side. The next day was calm enough to take Barky around to the bar and leave her at anchor while I sounded with the dinghy to find a way across. Then, following the channel I had delineated from the dinghy, I took Iron Bark into Nuvudluktok and spent two days exploring and charting it. Nuvudluktok is a land-locked lagoon with deeply indented shores providing a new view around each headland, numerous seals, a trout-filled lake and two attractive, well-protected anchorages. If it were closer to a yachting centre, Nuvudluktok would be a celebrated cruising destination; as it is, a few Inuit skin boats and Iron Bark are probably the only vessels to have ever been there.

I quickly fell back into the familiar routine for investigating an uncharted area. Each evening I drew an outline chart of the area I wanted to look at the next day, usually an enlargement from the appropriate chart. An image from Google Earth would be better but is beyond Iron Bark’s technical capability. The main part of the survey is done by motoring slowly along with Barky, recording soundings as I go. When we get to a shallow or narrow section, I anchor and row ahead to sound it from the dinghy then continue on with Iron Bark. Each evening I transfer the day’s work to a fair copy of the sketch chart, write up the notes and prepare a working chart for the next day.
I have two new gadgets that make things easier. One is a hand-held echo sounder that makes sounding from the dinghy easy. It lets me get the depth before the dinghy loses way between oars strokes without having to deal with a lead line that habitually tangles around oars, bailer and rowlocks while the dinghy drifts off station before the lead gets bottom. The other gadget is a chart plotter with an integrated depth sounder display. Its screen is too small for its advertised purpose but it allows me to quickly and accurately record the position and depth of soundings as I motor along with Iron Bark. With these new tools I can chart an unsurveyed bay in a fraction of the time that I would formerly have taken.
Iron Bark’s motor may not be large but it is extremely useful for this sort of work. It allows me to nose into dubious spots and back out when its gets too shallow, something I cannot do under sail. In less mechanised times such survey work was done from a cutter under oars with the main vessel safely anchored elsewhere, but you need a big crew for that.  Being single-handed has other limitations. With a second person aboard, one can keep the mother vessel standing off and on while the other sounds ahead from the dinghy. Alone, if it is unsafe to anchor and explore a difficult channel from the dinghy, it goes untried or uncharted, as happened in the Bay of Islands.
I spent ten days looking at the bays to the west of Tom Gears Run. Apart from two lines of soundings near a long-abandoned Moravian mission at Zoar Bay, the chart of the area is blank. I started with Takpanayok Bay, which I found to be free of hazards but with only one anchorage that would be tenable in strong winds. However Takpanayok does have a sand beach where a yacht could careen for repairs, something sufficiently rare in Labrador for me to mark it on the sketch chart. There is another large unsurveyed bay in the area called Tasiuyak. I tried to get into it but the ebb was running at eight knots from its narrow entrance so I left Tasiuyak for someone with a RIB with a big engine.

One morning I was drifting down Tom Gears Run in light airs, shifting to a bay with a stream to do the laundry, when a yacht came around the corner, sensibly motoring given the lack of wind. It was Francis B, Nancy and Tom Zygler, friends who have done much enterprising voyaging without ever a fuss. We yarned for a while before they continued north. We met again several times during the summer for some pleasant evenings together.
Yarning with Francis B. Photo copywrite Tom Zygler
On 28 July, having achieved most of what I had hoped around Tom Gears Run, I sailed 39nm miles to Kauk Harbour, with a couple of miles of motoring when we lost the wind in a protected tickle. Kauk is uninhabited but stone tent circles and the more recent ruins of two cabins show it to have been occupied at least temporarily in the past. The harbour is well protected with wooded shores and a stream so I spent a couple of days catching up on the domestic chores of firewood, water and laundry, and of course sounded the harbour for a sketch chart. The evenings were still cool enough to appreciate a fire at night but on the few days the sun shone, the bugs were out in force. There are some good walks around Kauk Harbour with extensive views from the bluffs, but it is worth watching out for black bears.

On 2 August in light airs I motored 16nm north to look at an unsurveyed bay on Base Island that might offer a sheltered anchorage. I anchored off the bay and sounded it from the dinghy but found a shallow bar across its entrance, so prepared to return to Kauk. As I reattached the throat halyard to the gaff after using it to hoist the dinghy aboard, I discovered several fatigue cracks on the gaff jaws that rendered the mainsail unusable. With no mainsail and little wind, I motored out to the main channel. At that point the engine spluttered and died, leaving us drifting with the tide. Fortunately there was just enough wind to give steerageway with the jib as the water was too deep for anchoring. The engine problem was clearly a fuel blockage so I dived below and tore into the fuel system, leaping back to deck every few minutes to steer away from one or other shore. I was watching rocks not the clock so do not know how long it took for me to find which filter was blocked, replace it and bleed the system, but the tide carried us two miles before the engine fired. A few miles from Kauk the breeze freshened allowing me to sail in to anchor, watched by a bear.
In Kauk I fabricated reinforcements for the gaff jaws but needed a welding machine to finish the job. Fortunately we were only six miles from Nain, the northernmost village in Labrador, where I could undoubtedly borrow or rent one. With no mainsail and the water along the way too deep for anchoring, I waited for a quiet day before motoring to Nain. Thus do uncrowded waters make us cowards. A yacht motoring from its marina berth places greater reliance on its engine with no nonsense about bending on the trysail because the mainsail is unusable. By the time I had the repairs completed, I thought it time to turn south.
On 12 August I slipped on the icy deck, something I though unseasonable in such a moderate latitude (57°N). The summer of 2015 will be remembered in Labrador as exceptionally cold and foggy with an almost complete failure of the berry crop. In mid August the black bears, which should have been scattered inland gorging on berries to put on fat for the winter, were still looking lean and foraging along the shore. I doubt if many of this year’s cubs will survive the winter.
For three weeks I wended my way south, anchoring each night and where possible avoiding bays that I had previously visited. The weather remained unpleasant. I can haul on sheets and halyards while wearing mittens but cannot tie in a reef with them on and my hands suffered. The dominant summer wind along this coast is from the southeast. Not only is this a headwind when heading for Newfoundland, but it also brings fog, with visibility sometimes less than 100m. Consequently our progress was slow with a lot of motoring. Navigating in thick fog between the numerous rocks that stud the coast is difficult enough under engine when I can go hard astern if something looms up close ahead. Under sail, the risk of hitting a rock increases considerably. Without the engine I would have missed going into many of the smaller, more interesting bays.
Wyatt Harbour
My first stop was Wyatt Harbour, trumpeted in the Canadian Government Sailing Directions as ‘among the finest on the coast of Labrador’, but I thought it had too little swinging room if it should blow hard. The next night was back in Tom Gears Run at Tikigatsiak Cove in company with Francis B. There was a black bear with two cubs on the shore, and still no blueberries. I spent a night in Shoal Tickle and the next in Blind Mugford Tickle before pushing on to Meshers Harbour. Meshers Harbour is unsurveyed and has a rock ledge partially obstructing the harbour entrance. I anchored off and went ahead with the dinghy to find the way in. A gale gave me an excuse to spend two days in Meshers Harbour, which is well protected with good holding, surrounded by wooded hills and has a convenient watering stream. Water and firewood were low so I filled up on each then sounded the harbour for a sketch chart. Firewood is scarce in much of Labrador and there are surprisingly few good watering places, so I never let pass an opportunity to get either.
The southern part of Labrador is relatively well surveyed but there are still many small bays and natural harbours that are uncharted or inadequately covered by the Canadian Pilot or CCA Labrador guide. I tried to anchor for the night in bays where there was scope to make a useful addition to the pilotage information. The night spent in Webeck Harbour did not fall into this category. Webeck is a roadstead open to the north and unattractively exposed no matter how well it is charted. The next stop in Edwards Harbour was more to my taste. It is a landlocked bay with a narrow, reef-constricted entrance. Although there is a sketch chart of Edwards Harbour in the CCA Labrador guide, the best way around this reef is not clear. I sounded it and drew a sketch chart that I hope shows the best channel.

I took the gift of a rare fair wind to make a 125nm overnight passage from Edwards Harbour around Cape Harrison to Penny Harbour. Between Cape Harrison and Quakers Hat Island, a distance of 20nm, we passed over 50 bergs and bergy bits plus innumerable growlers. By dusk we were 20nm south of Quakers Hat with only two distant bergs in sight so I took the risk of carrying on through the night rather than heaving-to and wasting the northeast breeze.

Penny Harbour
I spent a night in Penny Harbour, drew a sketch chart and left early the following morning in fog so thick that I saw neither side of its narrow entrance. Later the fog burnt off and we had a gentle, sunlit sail to Duck Harbour down a narrow channel glorying in the name Squasho Run. There were no ducks in Duck Harbour but I saw a bear and heard coyotes yipping and howling in the night. Duck Harbour was the last unsurveyed harbour that we visited on this voyage and the last place that I drew a sketch chart. The following nights were spent St Francis Harbour and Fox Harbour, both well charted. Fox Harbour is a village of 150 people and the first settlement I had visited since leaving Nain. From Fox Harbour we sailed overnight across the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland and anchored in St Anthony Harbour on 29 August 2015, bringing this voyage to an end.
St Anthony is a town of 3000 with more supplies and services than I had seen since leaving Stornoway in April. Most things not locally available can be ordered in so I set to work provisioning and preparing Iron Bark for her next voyage.

This year’s venture started and finished on the Atlantic’s Celtic fringes with good company, good music and abundant whisky of quality varying from fine single malt to pretty rough poteen. In between we had an interesting ocean passage and two months exploring an intricate, uncharted coast. There was everything that first attracted me to voyaging in small sailing vessels; it was a complete thing’.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


This post was originally written as a supplement to the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation / Imray publication Arctic and Northern Waters and so deals with the challenges of wintering in the Arctic. However almost everything is equally relevant to a vessel wintering in Antarctica. The chief exception is that there is little opportunity to ferry fuel to the winter site due to the distance of any part of Antarctica from the nearest source of supply. Another difference is that except for a few weeks in summer, all water will have to be melted from ice or snow. The extra fuel this requires must be allowed for.

The post is based on my experience gained during three polar winters on Iron Bark. One was alone in Antarctica, one in Greenland with Annie Hill and another in Greenland alone. Most of the information in this post can be gleaned from elsewhere in this blog or from the writing of a few other people who have spent a winter unsupported in polar latitudes. However I have not seen it summarised in a single article, so thought it worthwhile to do so.

It was possible to ferry fuel from a settlement to both winter sites in Greenland and on each occasion this amounted to about 1000 litres in total for cooking and heating. Ferrying fuel in Antarctica was impossible due to the long approach voyage in the Southern Ocean so I was limited to about 350 litres of fuel for all purposes. As a result Iron Bark was unheated in Antarctica for most of the winter; see Antarctica, Winter

Here is the original article.


Probably the best reason to spend a winter on a yacht in the Arctic is to see the full round of seasons, something that a vessel making a short summer dash to the north misses. Another reason is that ice conditions prevent a vessel completing its proposed voyage in a single season and the crew decides to spend the winter aboard and continue on the following year. A yacht that has decided in advance to spend a winter frozen in somewhere remote from a settlement can scout out a good location and perhaps ferry fuel from a settlement to the wintering site. However if caught by an early freeze-up, the choice of where to spend the winter is going to be limited to finding the safest cove in the vicinity with little chance of getting extra fuel supplies.  Either requires complete self-sufficiency for at least eight months. Wintering near a settlement is much simpler as food and fuel are available locally and help is at hand if the vessel is damaged or lost or if medical assistance is required. Having people around provides company through the long winter night, but at the cost of missing the experience of the remote, untouched icescape and its wildlife.

Many of the issues of choosing a site for the winter, preparing the boat, getting through the winter and breaking out of the ice at the end are similar whether near to or remote from a settlement. The rest of this section assumes the wintering site is remote, so some parts can be ignored if near a settlement.

The potential for crew problems when living in a cold, dark vessel through the winter should not be underestimated. Antarctic bases spend a great deal of effort screening numerous applicants for a few winter positions but still have a significant failure rate, and their living conditions are palatial compared to a yacht frozen in a remote bay. A single-hander is not going to have difficulties with crew but has to cope with whatever problems arise alone and may find the long, dark winter’s night hard on the mind. A larger crew on a bigger vessel has more comfort in the way of heat and light and people to solve any problems, but with a higher chance of conflict within the group. A couple who have lived and sailed together for long enough to be used to one another’s quirks is undoubtedly the best crew for such a venture.

Provisioning for an unsupported Arctic winter is different to provisioning in for an ocean passage. The minimum length of time between shopping opportunities will be about eight months and the amount of food required in the coldest months will be nearly double that usual in a warmer climate. Fresh vegetables, including potatoes and onions, turn to mush in the freeze-thaw cycles of autumn and few small boats can store enough refrigerated meat to last a year. This means the menu is going to be heavy on grains, pulses, legumes, rice and pasta and light on steaks, onions and potatoes. Vitamin supplements are a good idea, as is a well-stocked spice locker.

The menu will vary with personal taste, the size of the boat and how the food is stored, but some things are universal. It is going to cold, requiring as much as 5000 calories a day in mid-winter. A generous ration of carbohydrates and fats will give this. Rice, pasta, flour and oatmeal keep well and are easy to cook. There are many fats to choose from, but vegetable oil, butter and full cream powdered milk are a good start. If the use of tinned food is kept to a minimum but without resorting to dehydrated food, a winter ration will amount to about 1kg per person per day.

Cooking through an Arctic winter takes a lot of fuel as the ingredients are cold and appetites large. The amount of fuel will depend on the boat and on individual practice, but is likely to be about 120 litres of kerosene or the equivalent in propane per person, increased to 200 litres per person if it is necessary to melt ice or snow for water. If using propane, a kerosene backup stove is wise as propane stoves fail at –42°C. Butane is of no use at all as its boiling point is about 0°C. All diesel oil must be winter grade. Any summer grade fuel left in the tanks will gel to an unpumpable sludge during winter.

The pile of gear necessary to survive unsupported through an Arctic winter is considerable when added to food and fuel for cooking. It will include clothes, gloves, mittens and boots, long mooring lines with chain slings to secure to rocks ashore, shovel, pick, crowbar, ice auger, pitons, a sledge, snowshoes, tent, extra sleeping bags, candles and a comprehensive medical kit. Only a large vessel is likely to be able to stow all this and still be able to carry enough fuel to run a heater all winter. Given enough notice, a small vessel may be able to ferry fuel from a settlement to its wintering site, but finding suitable fuel containers in a small settlement can be a problem.

The ideal cove for a wintering site has an entrance only a little deeper than the vessel’s draft to keep out the bigger bits of drift ice, is small enough to run lines ashore to moor the vessel securely without aid of anchors and is surrounded by rocks to hold the winter ice place. It must be deep enough that it does not freeze to bottom as this will cause pressure ridging. The vessel should not be moored directly to a dock or rock face where it may be caught in the shear zone that develops between the floating bay ice and the fixed ice foot attached to the shore. If possible the bay will have interesting wildlife and scenery and a sunny southern outlook. The effects of flash flooding when ice dams up the valley burst in spring needs to be considered if a stream flows into the bay.

Having chosen the winter site, moor with lines ashore so that the vessel is head to the prevailing wind and retrieve the anchors. If an anchor chain is allowed to freeze in, the vessel may be towed out to sea by it when the ice breaks up. The mooring lines need to be kept from freezing in for the same reason. While the ice is thin, the mooring lines can be broken out by hauling a dinghy down them. Once the ice is thick enough to walk on, lifting the lines on top of the snow each day will stop them freezing in. The time between the beginning of freeze-up and being able to walk on the ice is more difficult. All that can be done is to stand on deck and flick the lines clear of the ice for as far as possible and similarly from the shore if it is accessible. The middle section of each line will freeze in and needs to be chipped out as soon as the ice is thick enough to walk on. The rope will be near the bottom of the newly formed ice and will remain there, sinking deeper as the ice thickens, so the sooner it is freed, the easier the job will be. If a rope is left frozen in, it will end up at the bottom of 1.5 or 2m of ice and will have to be cut when the ice breaks out, just when it is most needed.

Tracks in the snow made by walking along each line and pulling it up to prevent it from freezing in.

Once safely moored, the boat can be prepared for the winter. Exactly how the engine is laid up will depend on the installation. A keel-cooled engine with a dry exhaust requires nothing more than an adequate amount of anti-freeze in the coolant and can be run every week or two to keep the batteries full charged. A fully charged battery will not freeze and split its case. An engine with a heat exchanger and wet exhaust cannot be kept in commission once the cooling water inlet freezes and should be winterized by draining the heat exchanger, fogging oil into the cylinders and perhaps draining the block. The body of a seacock should be able to resist the pressure of water freezing in it, but using a dinghy pump to blow air through the line while closing the valve eliminates the problem entirely. Water tanks are best pumped dry before they freeze. Tanks freeze from the outside inwards so there is no problem in the autumn provided there is a small airspace to allow for expansion. However in the spring the tank melts from the outside, leaving in a large ice block surging around in the tank. This is noisy and detrimental to tank baffles and lining.

Poles marking a shore depot - the top of a fuel drum is just visible
It is prudent to have a depot ashore to retreat to if the boat is lost, fire being the chief hazard. The cache will need tents, food, stove, fuel and clothes to keep the crew alive for up to eight months, depending on how far the wintering site is from the nearest settlement. The depot needs to be marked by tall spars so it does not become lost under snowdrifts. Tents should not be erected lest they be damaged or lost in winter storms. The food should to be stored in containers strong enough to keep out an Arctic fox. A good quality plastic box will do. By repute, if there are bears or wolverines around, nothing will keep them out for long, but I have no personal experience with this.

Arctic foxes are common across much of the Arctic. They are inquisitive animals and soon accept a yacht and its crew as part of their landscape, especially if fed occasionally. Arctic foxes are omnivorous and will gratefully accept offerings such as porridge, rice, stew or mouldy eggs (which they always cache). They are timid little creatures that become confiding in time. Rabies is endemic in the Arctic and any fox acting aggressively towards humans should be strictly avoided.

A fox will probably adopt the boat. They are appealing but be cautious as rabies is endemic in the Arctic 

If it is not feasible to ferry fuel to the wintering site for some reason such as an early freeze-up, it will be necessary to do without heating for much of the winter. Living in a well insulated but unheated boat is not particularly difficult; certainly easier than it was for the Inuit who until recently spent their winters in relative comfort in snow houses heated by nothing more than a stone lamp burning seal oil. A small vessel with a snow cover is quite habitable even when heated by nothing more than a couple of candles and the intermittent use of the cooking stove. How habitable will depend on insulation, size of the boat and numerous other variables but the temperature will probably rise above freezing once the cooker and candles have been lit for the breakfast and stay there for most of the day.

All portholes and hatches except the main hatch need to be double-glazed. Temporary double-glazing can be made using acrylic sheeting screwed in place or even more simply and equally effectively from cling film plastic stretched across the opening. To conserve heat, decide how much of the boat is going to be lived in through the winter then bulkhead off the rest and let it freeze. The ends of the boat are the obvious areas to isolate. This is best done with purpose-made sheets of foam but an effective insulated barrier can be contrived using cushions from the cabins that are being closed off. The smaller the living area left, the warmer and more comfortable it will be.

Bulkhead off the ends of the boat and let them freeze. View looking aft from galley with the foam barrier removed.

Before letting a compartment freeze, open all its locker doors as it is difficult to do this without damage if they are allowed to freeze shut. If possible empty these lockers of everything that is likely to be required during the winter as it will be hard to do so once the locker is encased in ice. Equipment and supplies that will not fit in the warm section of the cabin are better stored ashore than left in the frozen sections of the boat. Cooking and breathing will produce enough condensation for everything in unheated part of the boat to be thickly encased in hard ice. Anything stored ashore will need to be dug out from under the snow but as it is in a dry environment, will not be frozen into a solid mass as it would be in the frozen ends of the yacht.

As a lead acid battery’s capacity drops quickly as the temperature falls, it is essential for the battery compartment to be heated if the domestic electrical system is kept in commission through the winter. Few small vessels can carry enough fuel to do this and also run an engine to generate power, leaving no option except to shut down the domestic electrical system for the winter. Candles and kerosene lamps give safe and reliable light together with some heat. Depending on latitude and thus the length of the polar night, 300 candles or 20 to 30 litres of lamp oil (kerosene) per person should do, varying with individual preference and tolerance to discomfort.

Candles vary dramatically in quality and it is worth trying a couple before buying a large quantity. The best burn all the way to bottom with a steady, nearly smokeless flame that does not vary in height and do not leave a puddle of wax behind. Puddled wax can be recycled by melting it into a shallow tin such as a small tuna can and burned using a wick made from a twist of toilet paper. A candles in proper holders is safer and more convenient than one stuck to a saucer or in a bottle. Even the best candles and most carefully trimmed lamp wicks eventually make the deckhead sooty, something that becomes obvious when the sun returns in the spring. Two candles or an oil lamp with a 25mm wick is usually enough to read by without strain, but eyes need more light as they get older.

Electric pumps and similar paraphernalia will of course be irrelevant for most of the winter so any essential for running the boat must have a manual backup. In fact no pumps except those used to transfer fuel are likely to work in midwinter. All critical systems must be able to run without electricity, which rules out Espacher-type heaters and Wabasco or Wallas types of cooking stoves unless they backed up by a system that does not need electric power. Preferred heaters are the drip fed type such as those made by Sigma, Reflecks or Dickinson. They require no electricity and, having no electronic components, can usually be repaired if they fail.

Good ventilation is critical. Ideally there will be a dedicated air supply led directly to the heater. In addition the cabin needs a permanent vent that keeps out drifting snow without restricting the flow of fresh air. Dorade vents are not likely to work unless they have cowls at least 60cm high to keep them above the snow.

Great care is needed on the installation of any generator set, especially regarding its air supply and exhaust system. This seems elementary, but has been the cause of a depressing number of incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning on boats in the Arctic. Candles are safer and as they dim and gutter long before the oxygen levels fall to levels critical for humans so giving early warning if the air supply becomes restricted. Unfortunately they do not give warning of accumulating carbon monoxide. 

As winter approaches, ice will form around the boat only to break out again in the next strong wind. Ice bumping around the hull is noisy and sometimes alarming, but rarely a serious problem. There is little point in wasting energy fending drifting ice off the boat with an ice pole as anything small enough to push away will not put any significant strain the hull or mooring lines. Ice snagging on the mooring lines is more of an issue as a rope stretching perhaps 100m to the shore can catch a lot of drifting ice, which puts it under great strain. Mooring lines can be partly cleared by flicking them over the drift ice nearest the boat. Ice caught on the mooring lines further from the boat can be cleared from a dinghy but this is difficult in strong winds, just when the problem is most acute. Using masthead halyards to lift the mooring lines above the ice generally causes more trouble than it saves.

As the ice thickens, getting ashore by dinghy becomes more difficult. Hauling a dinghy down a mooring line while chopping with an ice axe works for a while, but there will be a few days where the ice is too thick to break with a dinghy and too thin to walk on. When the ice is 75mm to 100mm thick, it will probably be strong enough to stay in place in a gale and should support a person’s weight. For the first few weeks when walking ashore on the ice, the intertidal zone ice will be thin and broken, requiring use of a dinghy either as a bridge or for a short ferry ride to cross it. Care is needed if using an inflatable dinghy for this as some, particularly the PVC type, become brittle and easily damaged at low temperatures.

It is worth building a snow cover over the vessel as soon as the ice will support one. The difference in comfort this makes is dramatic. Shovelling a pile of snow over the decks and around the hull works well, but in much of the Arctic there will not be enough snow on the ice to do this early in the winter. If the snow around the boat is scarce, it can be insulated by building a crude igloo with snow blocks cut from drifts ashore. Not all snowdrifts are sufficiently well packed for the blocks cut from them to be carried or sledded to the boat without crumbling. The Inuit can tell a drift’s suitability for building a snow house by plunging a stick into it, but the same information can be had by trial and error. A pruning saw makes a good snow knife and in summer is useful for cutting kelp off anchors. Alternatively a machete or something similar can be used. Building an arch of snow blocks over each porthole to let in light makes the boat a much more cheerful place.

A snow cover with openings over the portholes to let in light.

Cross section of a snow cover made of a combination of shovelled snow and cut snow blocks.

By mid winter all openings in the hull will be frozen shut rendering the toilet and galley sink useless. A stout bucket in the cockpit makes a good toilet with a similar one in the galley for slops. The contents of the toilet bucket will freeze solid in a very short time and can be emptied in down a tide crack, preferably a good distance from the boat. The best buckets for this are made of high density polyethylene (they have HDPE in the recycling information on the bucket’s bottom) as they do not become brittle at low temperatures. 

Streams continue flowing below the snow for a considerable part of the winter and getting water from them is simply matter of digging through the overlying snow towards the sound of the trickling water. HDPE buckets with clip-on lids are by far the best for collecting and carrying water. Jerry cans are slow to fill, allowing ice to build up around the top and preventing the cap from being screwed on. In cold weather, ice will completely block the neck before the can is full. Water buckets must of course be stored in the cabin to prevent them freezing solid.

After the streams freeze completely, probably in January, it will be necessary to dig a water hole in a lake. In midwinter a lake will have a variable thickness of snow over one to two metres of hard ice. The snow cover is no problem but digging a hole through the ice is hard, slow work. The minimum tools required are a shovel and pick, with a heavy crowbar and an ice auger highly desirable. A lanyard attached to an eye welded to the crowbar allows the crowbar to be retrieved if it slips through icy mittens into deep water. A water hole can be preserved for a couple of weeks by letting it freeze to a depth of 25mm or so then shovelling about a metre of snow over it for insulation. The next time water is needed, all that is necessary is to shovel the snow off and break through 100 or 150mm of ice. Eventually the bottom of the water hole, which is necessarily smaller than the top opening, will freeze shut and a new hole has to be dug.
A simple sledge is useful for hauling water

Digging for water and hauling it to the boat is hard work but the saving in fuel compared to melting ice or snow is considerable. Cooker fuel usage will nearly double if it is necessary to melt ice for water. The conventional wisdom that melting snow for water takes more fuel than melting ice is incorrect. Ice requires less attention to melt as the pot does not need filling nearly as often, but a pot kept full of compressed snow requires no more of fuel to produce a litre of water.

Dramatic photos like those of the crushing of Shackleton’s Endurance have lead to the expectation that any vessel in ice will be subject to pressure and forced upward. In fact the opposite is true. Provided the yacht is in a sheltered bay and protected from the pressure of drifting ice, it will be dragged down as the ice thickens. If the vessel is moored far enough from the shore to be clear of the shearing pressures of the tide crack and in deep enough water that the sea does not freeze to bottom and cause pressure ridging, there is little lateral pressure on the hull.

The sea ice thickens from the top by freezing seawater-saturated snow lying on the surface of the floe, so the oldest ice is at the bottom. Unless a yacht can emulate the Fram and withdraw its rudder, propeller any other underwater projections, these will become embedded in the first-formed, lowest ice and pull the boat down as the ice thickens. Fortunately it will not be pulled down by the full thickness of the ice. Initially the ice is thin and relatively weak so the vessel’s buoyancy will break the ice and it will float near its usual lines. As the ice is thickens and envelopes the propeller, rudder and other underwater appendages, the vessel will be dragged down until its buoyancy exerts enough pressure on the ice to allow it to rise a limited amount through the ice by pressure solution. Typically a yacht will be drawn down by 30 or 50 cm in the course of the winter, depending on the hull shape and depth of appendages.

Keeping the bow and stern clear of ice and turning the propeller regularly may stop the yacht from being drawn down at all, but breaking the ice under the flare of the hull is a miserable job. Ice has to be broken from the bottom of a pool of water while working in a kneeling position using a pick or crowbar and the ice fragments then scooped from the pool. Every stroke with the pick or crowbar sends up a shower of water that instantly freezes to clothes, mittens and the boat. It is an exercise best avoided.

Living in winter on a small vessel with marginal heating requires a little fortitude and much patience. The alcohol for preheating the kerosene stove will itself need preheating before it will burn, pens do not write and toothpaste will not squeeze from its tube until warmed in an inner pocket, butane lighters are useless, liquid detergent freezes and rum is a slushy solid. However these are merely time-consuming inconveniences, not real problems.

Thin polypropylene gloves are a great comfort working in a cold cabin and also make a good base under two layers of mittens for working outside. These gloves get grubby when working in the galley and wear out quickly, requiring frequent darning. At least ten pairs per person are a good idea.

A vessel with a pressurized hot water shower will find the system frozen for most of the winter and needs to make other arrangements for the crew to wash themselves. Less mechanized boats will probably already have a system that can be adapted to a cold environment. Simplest of all is to sponge bath in a large plastic tub. Alternatively a shower can be had using a sun shower suspended from the deckhead or using a pressurized garden spray. There must be a method of collecting the wastewater from these manual showers so it does not run into the bilges and freeze there.

Laundry is a nuisance but should not be neglected as dirty clothes quickly lose their insulation properties. It is easiest to carry the laundry to the water source and do it there but this is only possible down to –10°C. Below that clothes freeze to the side of the washing and rinsing buckets almost instantly and tear when pulled free. When that happens there is little option but to carry water to the boat and do the laundry there.
Doing the laundry beside a water hole in a frozen lake. This is only possible when the temperature is above -10°C. (Photo credit Annie Hill)

Drying clothes is equally problematic. There is an urban myth that clothes hung out in cold condition will dry by ‘shaking the ice out’. Nothing of the sort happens to anything more absorbent or tightly woven than nylon fishing net. At temperatures just below freezing, clothes will dry by sublimation when ice evaporates without going through a liquid phase. Sublimation slows as the temperature falls and is imperceptible below –10°C. At this point clothes have to come inside to dry, to the detriment of the cabin’s habitability.

Fortunately only the layers of clothes against the body gets grubby, so the only things that need to be washed on a regular basis are underclothes, gloves, socks and hats. Silk long underwear has much to recommend it as an inner layer, being comfortable and having less odour than polypropylene, but polypropylene is easier to wash and dry. A silk sleeping bag liner to protect the bedding is worthwhile and also saves a lot of washing. A coat dedicated for galley wear (or an apron) will protect other clothes from getting greasy and losing their insulation.

The length of the polar night depends on latitude. In most locations the sun will return before the coldest part of winter, which is usually in February. Despite this, with the return of the sun the hardest part of the winter is over. The joy the first sunlight brings is difficult to explain to anyone who has not spent a polar night isolated on a small vessel.

After sunrise, the days get quickly longer until the first drips of water on south facing rocks herald the approach of spring. Sometime in May it will be warm enough to clear the snow cover from the boat which shortly afterwards will float free of the ice with a narrow moat all around. The stern may still be held down because the rudder and perhaps the propeller are caught in the ice. This is hard on the rudder pintles and uncomfortable for living aboard. If the propeller is free of ice and can turn, running the engine in gear will send (relatively) warm water across the rudder and should eventually free it. If the propeller is not free or if it is likely to strike fast ice when the boat jumps up to float in its normal lines the ice will have to be broken away using a crowbar, pick and ice saw.

Once the boat is afloat, the toilet will pump out, the sink will drain and the water tanks can be refilled. As the hull warms up, the condensation frozen to the hull behind the linings and in the unheated bow and stern will begin to melt. The bilge pump suctions will still be frozen so there will be a period of several weeks during which this meltwater has to be bailed by hand. The amount will depend on the exhaust arrangements that were in place in the cabin and galley during the winter, but about 200 litres per person is likely.

Once the sea ice starts to puddle, the yacht needs to be converted back to being an ocean-going vessel in preparation for breaking out. The shore depot has to be brought aboard, sails bent on and hoisted, rigging checked, anchors and chains overhauled and machinery recommissioned.
 Sails dug out and hoisted to check them and the running gear prior to breakout.

Breaking out of the ice is potentially dangerous. Ideally the ice will melt around the boat and gently drift away as small, harmless pans. However a gale may send the ice out with a rush, buffeting the vessel on the way, or the bay ice may break out as a single large floe weighing thousands of tonnes with the boat still embedded in it in. Each situation will require a different solution and it is difficult to know in advance what it will be. All that can be done is have the dinghies ready to go, ice poles and spare lines to hand, anchors ready to run and the engine on standby.
Summer: this ice is rotten and about to break out.

The crew’s immune system will take a while to get working again after its winter-long germ-free holiday. Everyone will probably come down with a respiratory infection when they first make contact with the outside world. Not much can be done about that other than to allow a few days for recovery before continuing with the new season’s venture.