On sailing through ice

Sailing through ice in Greenland. Tricky ice soup to navigate
Polar sailing is no ordinary sailing. The area is subject to extreme weather, which calls for extreme caution and respect, and in addition to that there is the aspect of ice. The ice cover may break up, move about, come or disappear, become more or less dense - but any ice even theoretically present in the area means switching to ice navigation, which is arduous and tricky.

Ice conditions on our anchorage, Greenland's East coast: icebergs large as cars or houses. If these move around during the night, they easily rip the ship off the anchor and set loose into the sea.
In ice-free waters, the helmsman keeps a constant lookout but may allow a short pause for a minute of practicalities. While sailing across the Pacific in 2011, I would do a 360 degree search every 10 minutes (myself doing 5-7 knots, other vessels doing max 22 knots, normal visibility 12 nM = a worst case of 24 minutes from a cargo ship being behind the horizon to a potential collision; 10 minute search frequency allows at least 2 chances to spot the obstacle). 10 minutes in between lookouts is an eon of time! You can read a book, sew a pair of beach pants, clean a fish, cook a meal, take a nap… But when navigating ice, you need to be there, present, alert, at all times. You do not let go of the rudder. You do not see the ice floe until it’s very close to the water – only a tiny bit is seen above the water, so with the tiniest of the waves you will not see it until it’s right in front if the boat.

Typical ice navigation. One person at the fore, another steering manually, and one person up the mast or at least the boom. Works during shorter trips, but not when sailing long distances with few crew.
Depending on the wind and the condition, the waters can be scattered with ice large as A4 papers, as sofa tables, as cars, or even the size of a helicopter landing pad – or even a large island.

This is how icebergs are born. A glacier calves huge ice chunks into the sea. Off they go!
There are different dangers depending on the size of ice chunks. The large icebergs can suddenly turn over (they melt easier in the water, causing the above-water-part to become too large). Imagine a three-storey house suddenly fall over and turn around in the water! That creates dangerous waves, and can definitely sink a boat if too close. Large icebergs can also give birth to smaller chunks that fall off, once again dangerous because of their weight and the splash they create. Even the smallest ice chunks, the size of a sofa table, can damage the boat if they are hit right on.

A beautiful piece of blue ice.
There is also the risk of black ice. That’s the ice born deep inside of the glaciers, compressed by the immense weight to become denser than regular ice. It is in fact black, it’s like staring into the infinity itself. And it’s heavier than usual ice, so it is hard to spot it in the water. From the tiny bit sticking out, you might think that it’s just a tiny floe – but do not get too close, it may be as large as a truck, lurking there beneath the waves. There is even a risk of hitting a Manhattan-sized rogue glacier that happens to fall off (read about it here)

The boat, on anchor behind chunks of white, blue, and black ice.
This means that whenever ice is present, the boat has to be navigated not only relative the route and the wind, but also the ice. This often requires at least two crew. If there are only 2 crew on board, then things start getting tricky – when should they rest? You cannot just anchor in the middle of the Arctic seas.

Sun is going down - but the ice is still there...
When the ice cover is higher, it may become tricky to move forth altogether. A pilot has to climb up to the boom or the mast, and figure out a way through – giving instructions to the helmsman on the fly, something that is tricky enough when it’s calm, ice-free, and not freezing cold. In June, it’s light enough to do this both day and night, but nights in August were too dark to navigate - at least in Greenland where I was sailing ice-covered waters last summer. And it becomes even trickier in case there is fog, which will be more of a rule than exception in the Russian Arctic regions.

Sailing through morning fog across a fjord with icebergs, summer 2016

Luckily, the low sun in the morning allowed to see the iceberg silhouettes. Next time we may not be as lucky
In case the pilot does not find a way out of the ice, the boat may get stuck. Some get stuck for days, others until the next year. This is not a situation I want to find myself in, so proper ice piloting is a must.

Why don’t you just follow an ice-breaker, you might ask. That will solve it all?

Not quite. The ice-breakers move much faster than a sailing boat, we would never be able to keep up – and the ice cover would close by the time we would be there. And even if we would want to follow right behind an ice-breaker, it would not be possible for such small craft – the turbulence behind it is immense, and we do not want all those huge ice chunks to swirl around and bump into the tiny boat. Yes, 50 ft is quite tiny in relation to other vessels that frequent these waters.

This photo is taken from a few hundred meters above ground, on Greenland's East coast. Suddenly, this huge ice chunk came floating by. It was perfectly flat, large as a small airport, and resembled Styrofoam rather than ice.
Also note the hilarious beaver-shaped island!
So the only way to go is to work hard, withstand the cold, stand long passes, stay alert - and take on the risks with proper knowledge and preparation. On the coming trip through the North Trading Route, we will have sticks on board to push off the ice. We will monitorthe ice conditions closely. We will analyse the weather, currents, and experiences of boats having made similar passages. And we will also avoid other dangers – polar bears will be an issue, I wrote here about how to handlethe bears, after being subject to polar bear attack on board the very same boat.

As we left the coat of Greenland, ice would be present for a long time - some summers it can be found almost all the way to Iceland. Here, a huge ice arch.
Insanely beautiful, yet seriously dangerous.
All photos: Lena Padukova