On Watch

Friday, July 18th  2030 EST  (64o 10’N, 51o 44’W): On Watch

Monday evening of the 14th the winds continued to blow at 20 knots out of the northwest, denying us a direct heading to Nuuk but providing good headway under a port tack towards the southwest coast of Greenland.  I relieved Dave at  9 pm and settled in for my evening watch. In crossing the Sea of Labrador, we had carefully monitored the number and location of icebergs using Canadian ice charts, downloaded via the SSB radio. These charts overlay a grid on the waters between Canada and Greenland and indicate the number of icebergs within each square. Working our way northeast from the coast of Labrador, we had picked the most direct route across the concentrated band of icebergs along the coast and during the hours of darkness, maintained a double watch schedule while in the field. Two hundred or so miles off the Labrador coast the ice field ended, marked on the chart by a thick line. That line had been crossed days before and since then we’d assumed a more relaxed watch protocol. Rather than standing at the helm, directly exposed to the wind, one option is to take advantage of the shelter of the dodger, a stretched canvas windscreen mounted forward of the cockpit. With the boat heeling to starboard, sitting underneath the dodger on the port side of the cockpit is quite comfortable, in that one leans back against the high side of the boat, protected from the wind, with legs outstretched and braced against the opposing side for support against the rocking of the boat.  It is considerably warmer than the exposed helmsman’s chair. The visibility forward is not as good, because the zodiac and life raft mounted amid ship obstruct the view immediately forward, but the radar can be set up on a “watchman” cycle that provides a sweep of the surrounding seas every 10 minutes to warn of any traffic. 

Most of my watch was spent in the above shelter.  However, despite the relative comfort, this particular watch moved forward at a glacial pace. Fighting the urge to sleep, I tried to pass the time by reading, but the penlight suspended from the rail overhead would rock with the boat, causing the beam to swing back and forth over the pages. Neither reading at each pass nor moving the book in synchronized motion was working as a solution, so I gave up on that distraction and settled into a ten minute routine of exercises and moving over to the helm station to check the chart plotter and autopilot every time the “watchman” did his sweep. Two and a half hours at 10 minutes intervals is 18 cycles.  I was eagerly counting the minutes until Chris was to relieve me at 11:30.  With about 20 minutes to go, I broke out of my routine and stood up in to get a view over the dodger. Approximately four boat lengths ahead, off the starboard bow, was a small ice berg perhaps 2 meters across on top, looking stark white as it emerged from the surrounding fog. It felt eerily expected, as if I had stood up expressly knowing it was there. Whether a premonition or blind luck, I was no less shocked and immediately sobered by the realization that we were doing 6 knots through a fog shrouded ice field. The immediate response was to scramble to the helm, reach down to disengage the autopilot on the way, and  head  the boat up into the wind enough to slow her down, while at the same time leaving our new found friend well to starboard. Chris had just gotten up in preparation for his watch, and I shouted down towards the hatch “we have ice!” In a comedy of mis-communication, he thought I said something to do with “northern nights”  and was trying to figure out why there would be northern lights at this latitude and twilight. Meanwhile, I reengaged the autopilot and began to coarsely reel in the large genoa sail at the front of the boat, to slow things down and make her more maneuverable. Repeating “we have ice!,” Chris heard me this time and voiced the same opinion I’d been thinking, “ There’s not supposed to be any ice!” I nodded and verbally agreed and then asked him to wake Pete to come on deck to help. Together, we further simplified our situation by starting the engine and dropping the mainsail and then turned our course north to head straight towards Nuuk. From then on, it was routine. Although these smaller icebergs are lost in the ground clutter of the radar, they are readily visible to the naked eye, even in the fog, and straightforward to avoid, especially under power. In fact, these “bergy bits” offered an entertaining variety of shapes and sizes. Having taking down the sails and started the engine, we conceded our attempt to beat our way up wind, and instead motored the rest of the way straight up to Nuuk, arriving around noon on the morning of the 16th.

In retrospect, it was foolish to assume there would not be ice as we neared the coast of Greenland. These bergs reportedly come from nearby glaciers on the southeast coast or have come from the east coast, after having first rounded the southern tip. Fortunate not to have learned the hard way, at these high latitudes we’ll now operate under the assumption that icebergs  could  appear anywhere.

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