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.

Thursday, 12 March 2015


Iron Bark and I arrived in St Anthony in the north of Newfoundland on 27 July 2013 after spending the previous winter in Greenland. St Anthony is a small, friendly place where slightly odd behaviour is accepted without comment, which was fortunate as it took me a day or two get used to being back amongst people after a year alone. 

After ten days spent provisioning and making minor repairs, I sailed south along Newfoundland’s east coast bound for Fogo. It was a lovely morning with a fair wind, humpback and minke whales blowing in the distance and enough icebergs to be interesting without being a nuisance. That night the wind headed us and faltered and fog rolled in. The number of icebergs and fishing boats meant keeping a constant watch so I used the engine intermittently to avoid a second sleepless nights at sea. The fog cleared as I approached Fogo making finding its narrow, rocky entrance straightforward. I anchored off the government dock at 1530, having taken 32 hours to sail 102 nautical miles and motor a further 24 nautical miles from St Anthony. This was the usual length of each leg as we made our way to Nova Scotia, being a compromise between making decent progress and needing to stop for sleep.

Fogo is a typical Newfoundland outport. Its population has shrunk and got older with the demise of the cod fishery, but the people left are friendly and outgoing. The harbour, which in more prosperous times held dozens of fishing schooners and later big draggers, now has only a few inshore fishing boats and small motorboats.

Strong headwinds kept me in Fogo for six days. There was plenty to do as the town was humming with its annual ‘come from away’ festival when former residents return for a visit, mostly from ‘the west’ (the Alberta oilfields) and the ‘Boston states’ (eastern USA). Each day there was music and traditional Newfoundland food in different locations around town. Newfoundland food relies heavily on corned beef, pork fatback, turnips, salt cod and pootine. I am omnivorous but out of deference to my arteries try to avoid the latter, which is deep fried potato with gravy pored over, topped with melted pork fatback.

The next leg from Fogo to Pudding Bag Cove (what a lovely name) was similar to the one before and those that followed.  I departed at 0600 with a fair wind that later headed us, topsail up then down, reefs in and out and motor on whenever the speed dropped below one knot. It took 31 hours to make 120 nautical miles, 20 nautical miles of that using the engine. The next stop was Catalina. I needed fuel, not have bought any since leaving Greenland. Only untaxed diesel, prohibited to all except fishing boats, was locally available, so Bob the harbour master drove me 30km to Bonavista to fill my jerry cans. The pumps there were not working due to a power cut and it took two further trips totalling 180km before we could buy fuel. Bob refused any contribution towards the cost of his petrol, but instead took me home to meet his wife and have dinner. This sort of hospitality is one reason that I return to Newfoundland.

From Catalina, I could just fetch close-hauled across Trinity Bay to Baccalieu Tickle and on across the mouth of Conception Bay to Cape St Francis. It would take a month to properly explore Conception and Trinity bays, which I passed in a day. From Cape St Francis, it was a long beat down the east coast of the Avon Peninsula to Fermeuse where I anchored for a night’s sleep.

Another 137 nautical miles took us from Fermeuse around Cape Race to Little Lawrence where I spent a night before continuing on for 103 miles to the abandoned outport of Pink Bottom. I spent a couple of days anchored under the spectacular pink cliff that gives the place its name then motored 15 nautical miles to McCallum to visit friends. There is no road along most of the south coast of Newfoundland and McCallum’s 100 or so inhabitants are connected to the outside world by a small ferry, weather permitting. Visitors are rare and welcome. From McCallum, I continued west, poking first into Facheux Bay for a night, then Hare Bay where I waited out a minor blow, and on to Doctors Harbour, an old favourite. Most of these ‘bays’ are fjords and nearly all have abandoned outports clinging to their shores.

Iron Bark was showing signs of needing a mechanical refit. A weld on the exhaust manifold water jacket cracked and leaked coolant, then a wire on the alternator shorted and blew a diode, leaving me without electricity. Repairs needed electric power for welding and more parts than I had aboard so I sailed for Baddeck on Cape Breton Island. The wind died early in the passage and I motored most the way across Cabot Strait, topping up the cooling system with water every 20 minutes for 36 hours.

I spent ten days in Baddeck refitting and visiting friends. Henry Fuller of the Cape Breton Boat Yard was as generous and helpful as ever, arranging for the alternator to be repaired and the manifold welded, besides providing me with a mooring and taking me out to dinner regularly.

The wind was light and foul when I left Baddeck so I motored south through the Bras d’Or Lakes to St Peters Canal and on to River Bourgeois. At least now the batteries were being charged and the cooling water header tank stayed full. I stopped at River Bourgeois to visit Bob and Kathy Groves who own Easy Go, a Badger class junk-rigged dory. We discussed the passage from Cape Breton south to the Caribbean, which we have both done a number of times, and agreed the best time to leave is the last week of October, hoping this to be after the last hurricane and before the first bad winter storm. We both regarded the alternative of motoring down the Intra Coastal Waterway as unattractive for both economic and aesthetic reasons.

Later I learned Bob sailed from River Bourgeois in late October and was caught by a prolonged northeast gale in the Gulf Stream. After several days being bashed by wind against current seas, Easy Go had a variety of gear problems and leaks, none of them catastrophic but cumulatively serious especially as Bob was by then battered and tired. Bob send out a mayday via his Spot satellite reporting device and a freighter picked him up the following day. The transfer was done in six metre seas and 40 knot winds by dragging Bob up the side of the vessel in a life ring after attempts to use a cargo net failed.  It sounds as if he was lucky to survive the transfer. Ten months later when I next saw Bob, he had not fully recovered.

This was all in the future as I continued down the coast of Nova Scotia to the attractive, uninhabited anchorage of Port Howe. After a day waiting for a cold front to pass, I carried on to Halifax, where I spent very social week, then continued towards Maine. Halfway there a gale warning sent me scuttling into Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. I sheltered there for two days then, in calm conditions, motored most of the way across the Bay of Fundy to Falmouth, Maine, where I spent a week socialising. This was becoming less of a cruise than sea-borne soiree with an excessive amount of motoring.

On 19 October I sailed for the Caribbean via Bermuda. It is only 750 nautical miles from Maine to Bermuda but it took 13 days and I sailed 1140 nautical miles to get there. For much of the passage the fair winds were light, the headwinds strong (I spent 62 hours hove-to) and the Gulf Stream against us. It was never dangerous or even difficult, but was often tedious.

After a week bottled up in Bermuda by strong south-easterlies, a forecast of moderate fair winds sent Iron Bark and a dozen other boats to sea on 8 November. For two days the wind held fair and Iron Bark made 230 nautical miles. This was followed by ten days of light airs and headwinds during which I sailed about 900 nautical miles to make good a paltry 650 nautical miles. Eventually, in latitude 19°N, we found the trades and romped in to anchor in Martinique on 23 November 2013, 15 days out from Bermuda.

From Martinique I coasted south to Trinidad to buy paint and see the dentist, then back to Carriacou to chip and paint (the joys of a steel boat) and drink rum with various old and new acquaintances. After a trip back to Trinidad for more dental work and paint, I sailed slowly north up the island chain, stopping along the way to do a bit of maintenance and socialising, and eventually arrived in Dominica in early March. I spent a month there as I needed internet access and a courier service to sort out some personal affairs in Australia. Dominica is a good place for that as everything is within walking distance of a pleasant anchorage.

While in Dominica I spent some time with Charlotte Watters and Dan Johnson of Hestur. Hestur is a simple, practical Bagder class junk that actually sails most places rather than motoring and a refreshing exception to the gadget-laden motor-sailors that are now the norm in the Caribbean. Perhaps this was what decided me go to Scotland and use their homeport of Ullapool as a base for the coming winter.

 On 16 April, a month later than I had hoped, I sailed north from Dominica for the Chesapeake Bay. An old and valued friend, Rob Caldwell, lives there, but the diversion adds about a month to the voyage to Nova Scotia (two extra weeks at sea and two weeks partying), so do not do it as often as I would like. For the first five days out from Dominica we made good progress in steady trade winds before losing them in 25°N. It took two weeks to make the next 850 nautical miles to Norfolk, Virginia at an average of 60 nautical miles/day made good, which is less than half that claimed by most yachts in these latitudes. Although Iron Bark is no light airs flyer especially to windward, I suspect the difference in performance between Iron Bark and her bermudian sisters has more to do with engine size and usage than details of the rig.

Working to windward in light airs

After clearing customs in Norfolk, I sailed north up the Chesapeake Bay. The exhaust manifold had failed again, in a different spot from last time. Without an engine it took three days in light airs to drift to the Caldwell’s house on the Patuxent River. Rob and his wife Phyllis were having a week long gathering of four generations of their extended family, which I enjoyed, but it must have been a strain on Phyllis. An Amish welder, who refreshingly charged what he thought the job was worth rather that what the market would bear, fixed my exhaust manifold for $20.

The passage from the Chesapeake Bay to Nova Scotia can be wearisome, and so it was this year. I sailed from the Chesapeake on 23 May and the first five days were pleasant but slow in light, fair winds. On 28 May a front brought rain, lightning and strong to occasionally gale force headwinds that persisted for five days. When the wind was below near gale (force 7) we plugged into it and hove-to whenever it was stronger. On 2 June, about 150 nautical miles southeast of Nantucket, we were slogging slowly and wetly close hauled into NE force 6/7 when a large trimaran blasted by west-bound on a broad reach under a main reefed to half size and a tiny blade jib. According to the AIS she was Spindrift 2 and was averaging over 25 knots with a top speed of 32 knots. It is hard to imagine two sailing vessels more different than Iron Bark and Spindrift 2. One is the nautical equivalent of a Toyota Landcruiser fitted out for off road work, the other a Formula 1 race car. Both are sail boats well adapted for their tasks, but  almost the only other common ground is that that they both float and use sails for propulsion.

By 4 June we were about 100 miles off the Nova Scotian coast and within range of Canadian VHF weather forecasts. These promised a day of light airs followed by several days of strong to gale force headwinds. I was thoroughly tired of thrashing around in those conditions so started the engine and motored through the calm for nearly 24 hours  to anchor off Shelburne just as the wind picked up and the rain set in.

I have been visiting Nova Scotia regularly for ten years and have friends all along the coast and spent the next month sailing east in easy stages visiting them. The result was that I did not arrive in Baddeck until the beginning of July. I picked up a mooring at the Cape Breton Boat Yard and once more took advantage of Henry Fuller’s hospitality. When Hurricane Arthur loomed I moved to the Washabuck River, a superb hurricane hole that I have used before. Tucked in among the trees the protection was so good that the wind, which caused mayhem elsewhere in Nova Scotia, hardly disturbed the mosquitoes. 

This delay cost a week that I could ill afford if I hoped to make it to Greenland on the way to Scotland. After a brief stop back in Baddeck to say goodbye everyone, I sailed to Otter Harbour and anchored to wait for a fair tide to carry me through Great Bras d’Or. The following morning while hauling the anchor the windlass gave a clunk and stopped. I re-anchored and I stripped the windlass down to find its gearbox was damaged beyond repair. The option of continuing on and hauling the anchor by hand as I did before I had a windlass was unattractive. Greenland anchorages are generally deep, I am seven years older than when I last hauled the anchor by hand and the anchor now weighs 60lb, not 45lb as it did then. So back to Baddeck; Henry must have groaned when I sailed in and picked up one of his moorings.

The North American agent for Maxwell had no gearbox parts but Henry Fuller located them in New Zealand and had them air freighted to Canada. I was ready to go again on 24 July, except that in an excess of frugality I had not hauled and antifouled Iron Bark in the Caribbean but had merely scrubbed her, expecting to be back in cold water by mid June. Delays in warm water meant her bottom was now foul and she needed careening.

Careened for scrubbing in Culotte Cove

After waiting for two days for a fair wind, I sailed 140 nautical miles across the Cabot Strait to Culotte Cove on Newfoundland’s south coast. Culotte Cove is an old favourite, being well protected, uninhabited and having good walks in addition to a sand beach for careening. Strong winds prevented me from beaching Iron Bark for two days, so it was not until 31 July that I had both sides scrubbed, water topped off, rig inspected and ready for sea. It was now too late in the year to get to Greenland and have enough time to do anything useful, but a diversion to Iceland on the way to Scotland seemed feasible.

On 2 August I set off in thick fog with a light, fair wind. The following day when south of Miquelon, still in light airs and thick fog, Hurricane Bertha’s presence was announced on the forecast. Bertha’s track and Iron Bark’s course looked like converging on the Grand Banks so I turned north and drifted in to anchor in Little St Lawrence. Little St Lawrence not in the same class as Washabuck River as a hurricane hole but it is protected from the sea if not the wind, the holding is good and there are only a few skiffs in the harbour to drag into you.

Hurricane Bertha crossed the Grand Banks on 7 August and I sailed from Little St Lawrence two days later on the first fair wind. That breeze died after six hours and when the wind returned it was a headwind that persisted for eight days. Beating to windward in a small gaff cutter is a slow business and with the Labrador Current was against us, it took a week to get clear of the Grand Banks. In that time we sailed 487 nautical miles to make good a derisory 131 nautical miles. That is not the worst week’s run I have made (17 miles drifting becalmed in the Mediterranean has that distinction) but it is the worst for quite a long time. Once clear of the Grand Banks the Gulf Stream gave us a shove, but headwinds and light airs meant it remained slow going.

On 22 August, when about 500 nautical miles west of Newfoundland, I heard a Canadian Broadcasting Service AM transmission from St Johns that mentioned a hurricane forming in the Caribbean was expected to affect Newfoundland in about a week. Those hurricanes that make landfall in North America dissipate quickly and are not a problem for a vessel well out in the Atlantic. Most of the rest recurve to travel east across the Atlantic between 40° and 50°N. If the hurricane, now named Cristobal, followed that path, my safest option was to be to head north. This would put me well north of its centre and in the navigable semicircle and thus blown clear of the hurricane's path.

Whenever the wind permitted I pushed north but this was interrupted by a northwest gale that briefly reached storm force. After this blew over I continued sailing north. On 29 August in 54°N 29°W I spoke via VHF to a passing tanker that told me that Cristobal was now a post-tropical storm centred 570 nautical miles southwest of our position and moving northeast very rapidly. It had hurricane force winds in the southeast and western sectors. I carried on north with all the sail Barky could carry.

In the next 24 hours the wind slowly increased and backed from southwest force 4 to east force 6 with a gradually falling barometer, consistent with us being in the navigable semicircle of a distant hurricane. I gave a very provisional sigh of relief, retracted at 1300 on 30 August when the barometer started to fall rapidly and the wind veered to near gale, southeast force 7. There was little I could do except curse Hughie and continue north under storm jib alone. At 1700 with the wind still in the southeast but now severe gale force 9 and the barometer a depressingly low 980mb and still falling, I took in the storm jib and continued running north under bare poles. The seas were only four or five metres but were breaking aboard heavily at times. I made a final round on deck, doubled the lashings on the sails and dinghy and set up both running back stays.

Four hours later the wind became gusty and variable in direction and the barometer was down to 975mb. The swell was confused but did not seem dangerous. Presumably this was the centre of the storm and we were far enough north to have avoided the dangerous southeast sector. The relatively small seas were probably because Cristobal was moving so fast that it had outpaced the swell it was generating. This happens when the center of the storm is moving at greater than about 30 knots, which is about the maximum forward speed of a wave train. Unfortunately it also meant the wind and seas on the far side of the eye were likely to be extremely unpleasant.

At 2245, in near total darkness, the wall of the eye passed over us. In a few seconds, the wind increased to a shriek and laid Iron Bark over 40°. It was too dark to see the sea state and I do not have wind speed instruments so my estimate of the wind’s strength is tentative, but I logged it as hurricane force, west north west force 12. The Aries wind vane could still steer us so I set it to run southeast on a broad reach. The sea built up very quickly and broke over us often and heavily, but never seemed likely to knock us down completely. I expected the dinghy to be crushed in its chocks or a sail to blow out of its gaskets, but could do nothing about either. Any attempt to work on deck in these conditions would be dangerous or fatal; if the sea did not wash me overboard, the wind would blow me there.

By dawn the shriek of the wind in the rigging had decreased slightly and the sea state was commensurate with severe storm force 11, so my estimate of force 12 earlier was probably not far off. Two hours later the wind was storm force 10 and only reaching hurricane force in squalls, the barometer, which had been rising at 3mb/hour, was now rising at 1.2mb/hour and although conditions were unpleasant, they did not seem to be getting any worse.
Post-tropical hurricane Cristobal from NASA’s Aqua satellite, 31 August 2014 

And nor did they. At noon, although the wind was severe gale SW9, gusting storm force 10 with a vile cross sea, conditions were mild compared to a few hours earlier. We continued running southeast under bare poles at four knots.  At 1700, 18 hours after crossing the eye wall, the wind was down to near gale WSW force 7 gusting gale force 8. I set the storm jib and ran through the night under that sail. By dawn on 1 September even the gusts were not reaching gale force. I set the working lowers with mainsail deep-reefed and bore up for the Scotland.

The rest of the passage to Scotland, which took a further six days, was straightforward with fair winds that never exceeded near gale force 7. We rounded the Butt of Lewis just after midnight on 7 September and ran down the Minch, through the Summer Isles and into Loch Broom to anchor off Ullapool at noon, 29 days out from Newfoundland.

Running before a fresh breeze, just before shaking out a reef

In retrospect, I chose the wrong direction to sidestep Cristobal, which atypically tracked northeast instead of recurving east. If I had turned south instead of north or had beaten back to the west when I first heard of the hurricane’s existence I may have got far enough from its centre to avoid the worst weather. I played the odds as I understood them and lost.

Chance plays a big role in really bad weather and in sustained winds of storm force or higher I think there is a real prospect a vessel of Iron Bark’s size being knocked down. Keeping the vessel end-on to the dominant wave train helps but does not guarantee anything. A religious person might try praying or perhaps sacrifice a virgin if he had one to hand. I just kept pumping. Although I believe it was purely fortuitous that Iron Bark was not knocked down, I also believe her strong hull and hatches would give her a good chance of surviving a capsize. It is even possible her short, stout, well-stayed rig would come up largely intact, perhaps minus expendable spars like topmast and bowsprit.

Working on deck was not feasible for about ten hours, emphasising the importance preparation, most of it done months or years earlier. Below deck all Iron Bark’s lockers are positively secured and nothing came adrift. Anything carried on deck is likely to be lost in this sort of weather and the fact that Iron Bark’s dinghy survived was merely chance. It is a substantial clinker-built plywood affair carried inverted on heavy chocks, but one strake was stove in and another wave in the right place would have reduced the dinghy to splinters. If a sail had shaken loose from its lashings it would have been shredded instantly. To cover these eventualities I have a spare set of lower sails and an inflatable dinghy stowed below deck.

Iron Bark does not have a bimini, dodger, arches with solar panels and aerials and similar erections found on most cruising boats. This is just as well as I think that much windage aft would have prevented her running off, at least until they were washed overboard, and increased the chance of a knockdown. As it was the windage of her long boom was enough to make it difficult to get her to run dead down wind. Drogues may have helped but I never felt they were necessary. However if I had had a series drogue I would have used it and have since bought one. 

It is unusual for me to achieve everything I set out to do on a cruise, but I generally manage to do better than I did this year. Although my plans were fairly modest, I never even made it to Greenland despite sailing 11,139 nautical miles and motoring another annoying and expensive 1195 miles, and getting kicked around by the weather along the way.  Perhaps next year will be better.