Sailing Greenland: Upernavik - Disko Island - Aasiaat

Just follow the frozen compass!

After getting stuck in the Greenland town Illulisat, and covering a range of activities from hiking and iceberg watching to working in film industry, I headed to Upernavik. There, the boat would be waiting. Due to all the restrictions, it could not sail anywhere north of this point. Now, I would spend some time there together with the Dutch skipper, and one Swedish and one Norwegian crew.

Arctic Ocean, icebergs, snow and autumn skies were to be the view from the deck for the next coming week and a half. Worth all the money!

The plan was to undertake some polar sailing, enjoy and explore, and eventually reach Aasiaat - just a couple of day sails away from the boat's wintering spot in Sisimiut. The weather reports promised no Arctic storms this time, at least not on the West coast (South coast had 30-40 knots at times).

Some of the amazing sights that was waiting for us...

There would be variable weather, a bit of sun, and temperatures around freezing point - a maximum of couple of degrees above or below as daily and nightly variation. There would be a bit of rain, or maybe snow. Fair enough - I was ready! At home, early September hit with heavy rain and some gusty winds, but it was still above 20+C sometimes. Still, even coming from the summer, I was prepared - with my usual sailing gear with extra layers, some winter hiking gear, plus the Svalbard sweater, Russian Arctic rubber boots for -60 C, and a snow mask. All set!

Northwest Greenland can get slightly chilly in early to mid-September. This day, it was not too bad - only one hat, no balaclava, no snow mask! Practically summer...

At the moment of arriving, the skipper was busy working on board - we hardly got a hello for a while, until he could come out. Several things had to be fixed, including the generator, to which I had brought a spare part that was shipped to Sweden. Having a malfunctioning generator is not a fun thing in the high Arctic - electricity definitely makes life at ice-cold sea a bit easier, and the instruments have to be functioning, not mentioning the ship lantens (the Arctic day was over, and the nights were steadily getting longer and darker). It's possible, of course, to prepare coffee on the diesel stove, although it takes a lot of time. But I was not sure that the skipper would use the stove. During the previous sailing sessions in the high Arctic, almost every summer for me at some point, it had only been used once when I was there. "Economy" is very important on board this parcticular boat, and at times it definitely is done on the cost of basic needs or comfort. However, I was wrong about this! The diesel stove was used regularily. I do not suffer too much from the cold anymore, not after numerous Arctic and winter trips, but it sure makes being down below nicer. But otherwise, you don't need a stove to sail the Arctic, given that everyone on board are fine with the cold. No, the biggest challenge is the ice.

A beautiful iceberg, medium-sized. You can see the foot protruding under water, also connecting the two bergs together. Maximum 10% of the iceberg is visible over the surface, sometimes close to 0%.

There was a bit of moving around the different docks in Upernavik just as we got there. The skipper needed time for setting things up, but the big cargo ship would arrive and needed us out of the way. They actually shoot out their mooring lines with cannons, which was a delight to watch, particularly from a dock in a safe distance. The skipper decided to stay at the fuel dock instead and take som time for repairs, which of course was not popular because many boats needed to come in and take fuel - the locals use the boats for working, fishing, and everyday errands, and naturally expect nobody to hog the place. Then we lay aside a large fishing boat for a while. Finally, finally, we cast off.

Finally onboard! Hilde, a polar sailing veteran, still looking a bit shell-shocked

People vs ice at Aappilattorq

We had a lookaround north of Upernavik, and sailed past a small settlement Aappilattorq, that had a beautiful iceberg right in front of their boat jetty for the moment. Then, we anchored at a small bay, a very protected natural harbour. We, being the crew, were very happy to be sailing at last. Sergey had lost 10 days of sailing because of cancelled flights, repairs etc. Me and Hilde only got to wait for 2 extra days, but that's long enough when you're in Greenland for the sailing! We all were excited to do some proper Arctic expedition sailing, and to experience and explore these remote faraway places. Also, it's always fun to meet new crew and to get used to the life on board. Little did we know that the timeline and sailing plans were crammed to the maximum and we'd start longing for getting into harbour. That day for example, dinner was cancelled because the skipper needed to complete the repairs, and did not want anyone else to cook.

At least we are finally in Greenland, and we are on the way! Icebergs and clouds are welcoming us.

Some funny iceberg shapes - is this a Mumin Troll or an Arctic Loch Ness monster? 

Greenland is vast, and it's so forbidding and beautiful.

The next day was great. We sailed to Upernavik Iceflow, and had the whole afternoon to ourselves exploring the views, taking photos, even bathing in a glacier waterfalls (for the bravest). The iceflow gives birth to immense amount of icebergs, and they were a delight to sail through. Navigating, sometimes in zigzag, was very fun this day. 

Close contact with ice, most of the time

The glacier end near the Iceflow. Lots to explore and take photos of!

The boat, at anchor.

However, the anchorage had to be redone in the evening, as the anchor was dragging, so we did not sleep too well.

It also turned out that a very early morning was awaiting us all. The skipper made a point about having everyone wake up at the same time, and hour before departure, have breakfast, ease anchor and sail off. We did not have set watches during the day, although we asked him for it, so that resulted in everyone getting pretty tired. The following days were about getting up at around 4-5 in the morning, motorsailing the whole day, getting to an anchorage at night, reanchoring two or three times, and getting to sleep very late - just to repeat again. We had to keep anchor watches too, so those days we did not get much more sleep than maybe two hours at a time.

Sailing through ice requires constant attention, early morning through late night.

After a few of such days, the crew was tired. We never got any time to rest, because the skipper had apparently made a plan and wanted us to keep it. At last, we got to know at least what legs were planned for every day and how long they were in nautical miles, but the weather reports, possible anchorage spots and other considerations were at the discretion of the skipper. The lack of information did not add to the motivation on board. Different people tackle that kind of things differently, and there is no right and wrong - however, there are better ways (direct communication, questions, suggestions) and of course less costructive ways, like swearing. Also, therw are of course differnt approaches to being a skipper, running a business and treating people in general.

I've done an interview for Ocean Sailing Podcast about leadership on board, if you want my fair opinion then it's there (Episode 52, but do listen to the rest of David's podcast, it's full of insights and exciting takes on sailing).

Are you as a skipper leaving a clean wake, or heavy skies behind you? It's all up to you.

After an iffy night on anchor in front of the Illorsuit settlement, with the risk to be blown on shore, we headed off across the Uummannaq bay towards Disko Island. By this time, the legs were getting a bit shorter. Also, we refused to get up all at the same time, and had two people lifting the anchor and two continuing to sleep, which allowed for a longer resting period. During one of the nights, I took all the anchor watches to let the rest of the crew sleep, and then be able to have a rest myself. So things were getting a bit better. 

Maybe even a bit of sunshine!

However now we were beating against the wind, and had some very slow going which threatened with another late night arrival, reanchoring and frustration. We were also surprised that the quite hefty sum that we paid to join (to cover food, water, fuel, berthing, Covid support, and arctic boat maintenance, plus payment to the skipper for his work) did not cover much at all. We were forbidden to take food on own initiative, but rather relied on the skipper's cooking, with an agreed lunch at 13, snack at 17 and dinner at 19. In reality, we had a cold breakfast at around 5 am, and then had to wait until lunch which some days was served at 15. The "5 o'clock snack" was most often forgotten by the cook, or rescheduled to as late as 19. Finally, the evening meal was sometimes not ready until very late at night, long after we've anchored, even after reminding a few times and asking if we could help in some way. Once I was sleeping, so I did not get a lunch at all. Tired, cold and hungry is not a great combo. 

A crew member warming some tea water on the diesel stove, and roasting the stale bread that was on board. Myself, I do not eat bread, so I had to skip a lot of meals and improvise with own snacks.

Not only the timing, but the choice of the food was also surprizing. A lunch could be a "make it yourself-sandwich" of cold canned fish on a stale piece of bread - or some instant noodles. It may be excellent for a snack, but not as a main meal. On the other hand, I'll be fair - there was always a possibility for me to take some old canned soup I left on board in 2018, as I was preparing for an Arctic circumnavigation on this boat, and did not want to have instant noodles every day. The noodles are actually from the same time period, most of the food is well past "best before date" on board. Usually, foods can actually be eaten past "best before date", as long as they do not look, smell or taste foul. But here, the art of "saving on every little thing" is taken to a next level, as veggies are not eaten until they start to rot or mold, and therefore are "ready and ripe" - not before then. It's been like this all years I've sailed with this skipper, and I don't think I ever complained too much - after all, I was brought up in the Soviet and we were taught how not to waste food. However, not all crew members support this approach, and I do understand them. Would you agree to eat yoghurt that is 3 months past "best before date", if you knew there was lots of other, fresh yoghurt on board? That you personally brought after being asked by the skipper? Well, I think most people understand the situation. It was not an emergency, after all. It was a commercial trip, with possibility to provision fresh food every week.

Dinner's served!

Even with scarce provisions on board it's possible to take good care of the crew, like it was during the Tasman crossing, with only the Tasman Sea stretching between us and Antarctica, the island of Norfolk behind us. Multiple failures lead us to spend much more time at sea than planned, thus we were running out food onboard. Even then, we got hot breakfast, meals served exactly at agreed times, and even some freshly baked cake. Also, with every year, I've met more and more Arctic sailing boats and realized that naturally they do not have the same conditions on board as there are on this particular Arctic boat I now was sailing Greenland with. On the other boats, it's been clean, always warm as soon as the crew is freezing, and there has been the most amazing food, in abundance. Once I was served the freshest newly baked apple cake in the middle of the Barents Sea, with a sea state that would make some question food preparation altogether. Or a piping hot cheese fondue, upon arriving to Kirkenes in Arctic Norway - how about that? An excellent grilled dinner north of Lofoten... now I have to stop because I'm getting hungry!

Another iceberg in the snowstorm

Lastly, there was the safety concern. A good practice is to always go through the safety procedures as soon as the new crew steps on board. Here, apart from being given lifejackets, there was none such. Apparently, there was a liferaft and emergency suits for everyone, but no briefing - and my suit was stuffed away in the skipper's bunk. No info about flares, medical kit, MOB procedures, satellite phone or EPIRB. Of course, most of these things are fairly straightforward, and as arctic sailors we are trained and experienced. But all crew need to know where the safety gear is located, how it works and whether it actually works. During a polar sailing like this, there is no cell phone coverage for long stretches. Not even all sat phones work in polar areas. There are few ships around to VHF for help, usually we saw none at all. And even if a Mayday is sent, the rescue attempt may take hours, even days. Survival time in cold water is very short, so everyone on board needs to know how to act correctly, immediately.

To sum this up: happy crew is the skipper's responsibility, and it's no black magic. You have to communicate the plan to them, so they know what's coming and why. You have to make sure they get meals at agreed times, preferably tasty, warm and healthy food. And you have to be positive and constructive. It's also good if you lead by example and participate in watches. And you have to care for the crew's safety. I think that the passage would be happier and easier on the crew if more of that was the case.

Even if the going gets tough, there are things to enjoy! The views are stunning.

We were still moving along the coast of Greenland, and the weather became colder, followed by heavy clouds. To lighten things up, the crew made sure to celebrate every anchorage, and to find some opportunities to enjoy. As the rain stopped and turned to heavy snow, we had a snowball war on deck! Then, a snowman was built. Sometimes, the snow stopped and gave way to brilliant sun! The coast was now coated in white, which added to the Greenland feeling - it's otherwise rather gray because the icecap starts further into the land, the coasts being bare rocks with a glacier or two reaching into the water at some places. We took photos after photos. Rainbows came after the snowfalls, they looked fantastic!

Merry Christmas! In September though, but nevertheless!

Gotta take care not to slip on this snowy ice rink.

Testing to snowboard! Or snowsurf? At least give everyone a smile!

White sails. After a snowstorm, just before a night anchoring.

Every snow cloud gave a squall, wind direction depending on which side the cloud was being passed on. Inside of them, ther was a full snow storm! We were singing Christmas songs and wearing ski masks as protection, as large flakes were thrown into our faces and everywhere else - onto the deck, onto the sails, into the water.

Snowstorm incoming! Just look at the airstreams.

A few smaller and medium-sized bergs are about to hide inside the cloud.

The downfall itself is beautiful, and resembles a watercolor painting.

As it hits, lumps of snow fly across the air, and visibility is cut to a hundred meters or less.

The visibility was down to less than a hundred meters at times. The snowstorms would block out the radar, so sometimes we'd discover that we are passing too close to an iceberg the height of a multi-storey house. It can be very dangerous, because of the foot of the iceberg being very far out under the water, and even sometimes risking to break off and break the boat from the underneath. Also, if a large iceberg would melt too much under, lose balanse and flip over, then a wave could knock the boat down. Or, actually, the iceberg itself. So we really struggled to avoid these monsters.

An example of a larger iceberg. These would emerge from the fog and snow, too close to the boat to be comfortable.

The land too was hidden as the snowstorms swept over. Luckily, it was at least charted! However, the charts were offset, sometimes up to 300 meters, so we had to sail by echosounder end eyeballing.

The heaps of snow stuck to the sails and the rigging. As we shook out reefs, we could shake out bucketwise of loose snow, brrr! The snow that was left could thaw a bit during the sunny moments, and then freeze up to ice chunks. As the seastate increased, some of the chunks came down onto the deck! It was not too bad at first, but then one of the ice chunks from the spreaders fell right into my face, hitting my left eye! Luckily, it did no other damage than momentary pain. I decided not to challenge fate, and grabbed a helmet to wear for the rest of my shift.

It isn't often I've used helmet during sailing. This time, the icebergs were apparently attacking from several angles, so I had to stay safe.

After each snow cloud the sails and rigging collected snow. Some of it could be easily shook off - some turned to ice and threatened falling down on the crew.

Snow shifted to sun, then back again, and once it was heavy hailing - like the icebergs tried to attack us! With the right gear, it was OK. Sometimes, the sunglasses went on, sometimes my favourite cat balaclava. A good winter sleeping bag I brought made sure I slept comfortably. Good gloves were a must - not regular sailing gloves because they freeze up in a second. I had the mitten liners that a friend knitted for me, and a water- and windproof shell mittens. Sometimes I changed to rubber gloves with a built-in warm lining, usually used by the fishing industry of the North. Perfect for handling wet gear.

Inside a snowstorm. Cat balaclava doing its work. Or maybe I just forgot to shave?

Finally we were anchored off Disko Island. I was always dreaming to come here for some Disco! Actually, the island is named that because of the disk shape, and there is only one larger settlement that has any party possibilities. We were anchored in a secluded bay on the other  side of the huge island, which by the way has its own icecaps and is good for weeks and weeks of hiking, dog sleighing and adventure. Secluded or not - a party is a must!

I took a round fender and clad it with aluminium foil. A perfect disco ball! Then, we used the different flashlights and head lamps (flashing, blinking, red or white) to make some disco lights. Bring out the rum! My attempt to make Pina Colada without coconut milk or pineapple failed miserably, but we all had a good laugh. Some music and everyone was dancing! Disko Island, what an awesome place!

Disco on board - upon anchoring off Disko Island!

The next day, we made for Qeqertarsuaq (Godthavn), the main settlement and port on the south coast. We came very late and nobody wanted to go ahore except for me. I was longing to experience the local vibes! And would you believe it, I found a disco. At the municipality house, there was a local discotheque - everyone welcome. The second floor had disco lights, and a stage where a Greenlandic band was playing. The bar was selling sodas, crisps and tea/coffee. I had a cup of tea, and then was adopted by some Greenlandic ladies who were there to dance and party. I got to sit with them, and gave the dancefloor a go several times! Finally, happy with my dream coming true, and not wanting to lose too much valuable sleep, I headed back to the boat, rowing the dinghy into the Arctic night. I was rewarded with an amazing sight from the deck, as the Northern Lights furled out their unreal show across the night horizon, painting the skies with glowing green fire.

Local disco at Disko Island! The inside of the municipal hall illuminated to resemble Aurora Borealis.

We were told to hurry up and keep the visit ashore short the next day, as the skipper decided to change plans and lift anchor a day earlier, ridding us of a rest day. But when we made ready to go, he decided once again that he'd go back to the previous plan. A bit surprised, we assembled the dinghy again and headed on shore once more. As we hurried through the sightseeing in the morning already, we now had a possibility to go for a long hike with a picnic. And a hot shower, the first one in days! It was amazing.

Visiting the black beach. Stranded icebergs make a great photo op!

We had a dinner in the only place in the settlement that served food and drink (Disko Hotel), and tumbled into the boat late at night. The party did not stop at that. Disko Island! Love this place.

Amazing sights of Disko Island

Feeling a bit less festive the day after, we headed for Aasiaat. There, the skipper decided to berth at the local dumpster, because it was a free spot that he normally uses. There is a regular dock near the city, but apparently he chose this because it was free. It was a bit disappointing to come there as the last stop on this sailing trip. We had to take care not to cut ourselves and get infected while berthing, and had to row all the way ashore to the Seamen's Home, without being able to walk straight into town. Of course the sight of the dumpster was aweful too, the rotting jetty towering above us, housing all kind of rubbish. At least we did not get pestered by seagulls or rats though, I guess it was too cold. But this is another example where excess saving on every little thing really spoils the experience. Too bad to have this as the last memory. I've recommended this boat previously, and have had a great timne on board, with the skipper who is a full-feathered adventurer, but after this trip I would be ashamed to invite any friend or colleague on board unless the conditions will get suibstantially better. Just the fact that the skipper washes his dishes and hands in our common toilet bowl, to save a few eurocents per liter of fresh water, is appalling.

The choice of berthing by the skipper of the boat - it was not an official dock for boat use, but was for free. Not a nice last memory.

View from the boat - the rest of the crew had to experience it for 2 more days. I love abandoned places, and nothing wrong with a dumpster, but not for living. And not if there is a perfectly good dock nearby.

I left the sailing boat with mixed feelings, as you probably understand from this post. I'm normally up to any challenge, any hardship - from sleeping in a snow cave to sailing the harshest passages or living the simplest self-sufficient life. However, there is a line where hygene standards are surpassed too far. The same with other basic standards, and the safety. Normally, I'm not even paying for passages - as a professional adventurer and sailor I charge money for sailing, guiding and other adventures. So when I need to pay what I otherwise would be charging, and I do it to support Arctic exploration that got some business damage from Corona pandemics, then there's a limit to what I can accept on board. I hope you do not get the wrong idea about Arctic sailing generally, because there definitely are alternatives.

I would have wanted to stay longer, I would have loved to explore more. But it's OK - I definitely will get back to Greenland. And I've had great time on this boat before, and I will always bear those memories with me!

(To be continued - I was still due to do a cool adventure in Illulisat. Stay tuned!)

Hold on to the good memories, and keep on smiling!

On the way to the airport, I visited a local fireman station! Just professional interest, had a look inside and it's nothing like in my station at home, but altogether the same really.