When Henry Bomby was asked to sail to France from northwest Greenland, he jumped at the chance in anticipation of an incredible adventure. He soon discovered the dark side of Arctic sailing.
From Greenland to France: Henry Bombi's Arctic Journey
Arctic sailing - this is complete madness. The constant threat of hitting the iceberg - especially in the middle of the night, during thick fog. It is difficult to predict the weather here, two days is the maximum even for a reliable forecast.
There are no amenities here; You moor next to a local fishing boat or the harbor wall, very carefully. There are supermarkets, however, in larger cities. It is normal to replenish your supplies of fuel and water, there is only an opportunity if the city can boast of at least some kind of fishing fleet. You can even find a bar, restaurant or “hotel” if you're lucky. But the fact is that sailing in the Arctic is beyond all imaginable and unthinkable adventures, and it is the coldest place I have ever swam.
I was offered a skipper job together with Loic and Sara - two other crew members. I was told to take lots of warm clothes, a good camera and prepare for a hell of an adventure. It all seemed fantastic. After a long season of training and racing on Figaro solo, this is exactly what I needed to recharge.
Crew: Loic, Sara and Henry Bomby
I have booked a window seat for my connecting flight from Kangerlussuaq at Aasiaat and watched from above some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. I gazed very intently at the icy desert below, and finally realized what I was getting into.
A 40-foot sports cruiser was waiting for me. The boat had a heater, refrigerator, correct chart table and even a toilet was installed and working! The yacht underwent several modifications specifically for this arctic voyage, including reinforced Kevlar rudders to navigate the drifting ice.
On board were weapons for polar bears, sleeping bags that were good at anything down to -18 ° C, and hot water bottles that turned out to be lifesavers. There was also a watermaker, although we never used it, and a hydro generator which was absolutely fantastic - we never charged the engine.
Instead of waiting for perfect weather and heading straight for France and the "Titanic Territory" as we called it, we decided to get to know the boat a bit and headed south with short stops of about 200nm, stopping on the way to Maniitsoq and Paamiut.
These short rides allowed us to learn some nifty tricks that made life on board more comfortable, such as heating hot water bottles and strategically placing them between the middle layers of clothing.
Due to the cold, keeping the body hydrated was a real challenge, and for the first few days we suffered from headaches due to dehydration. Therefore, we made hot drinks as often as possible so as not to lose liquid.
During the night, I slept next to my clothes, with socks, a hat, etc., so that when the time came to pull them back on, they would be body temperature, not ice cold. Slowly but surely, we adapted to life in the Arctic.
In calm weather, we swam close to the icebergs to enjoy their amazing beauty, and enthusiastically invited each other on deck in the middle of the night to share the admiration for the northern lights. When the cold became unbearable, we put the heater on and crawled into our sleeping bags to warm up, holding the hot water bottle firmly in our hand.
After two weeks, we began to see signs everywhere that winter was coming. All the small boats around us were lifted out of the water before the ice was completely covered. And we realized that it was time to return to France. We sailed at the end of the summer season in mid-September, which meant more ice and more low pressure systems rolling off the American coast pretty much every other day.
We had a good weather window of two days, that's all we could predict, with ever-changing conditions, and if the long-term forecast could be trusted, the first week looked good. The boat was supplied with food, water and diesel, and we were absolutely ready too.
After two days of sailing, we were approaching the southern headland of Greenland, which meant we were entering the main ice fields. The east coast of Greenland is filled with ice and glaciers. During the summer months, chunks of ice break off and slowly make their way south, towards our path.
We needed to constantly monitor the situation, both from the deck and on the radar. At night we changed our surveillance system: one hour on deck, one hour on radar / standby and one hour rest. Previously, during the first two weeks, we used a simply luxurious surveillance system compared to the current one: two hours of observation, four hours of rest.
On our first night in the ice fields, the thick cloud meant there was no view from the deck, and visual observation of the ice blocks was almost impossible. Just after 1 am I went downstairs to observe. I dropped the kettle to warm up my hot water bottle and pressed myself against the fire to experience that unfamiliar feeling of warmth again. After about 30 minutes, Sarah yelled at me to come out on deck. Judging by the fear in her voice, I guessed what was happening, but I hoped it was not true.
What my eyes saw literally made my body go cold in a second. Four huge chunks of ice, the size of which were like cathedrals, were directly upwind, the largest one a mile away. The clouds disappeared and the moon came out, illuminating the sea.
In the dark, we completely unconsciously floated into an ice field. It was impressive. These were the largest chunks of ice we have seen in the entire trip, and they were irresistible. They lay silently, like sleeping giants, patiently awaiting the moment to unleash all their danger on an unsuspecting victim. Growlers and smaller icebergs floated in the water around us.
We were already too far from the leeward side to go over them, so we just took the most direct route to get through these obstacles as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the break in the clouds meant we had good visibility to get this route. Sarah took the boat off autopilot to start patrol, and I went back to follow the radar.
It was only five calm minutes before we spotted the nearest large iceberg on radar, and by then it was within less than a mile. The radar showed a size about three times that of any ship we saw throughout the entire voyage, which gave us some idea of its colossal scale.
Three hours later we walked around it on the other side, and after another hour the sky was overcast again.
The thought of how many more ice fields we will have to overcome without even knowing about them now made me worry over the next few days. We couldn't wait for the day when we would get out of there. From that day on, every white crest of the wave looked like a potential iceberg. The rest of the night seemed endless, and when the sun rose the next morning, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
In order to get a good view of the deck during the night, we now had to stick our head above the Dodger, which meant that the watch hours would become even colder, wetter, and uncomfortable. As an example, Aasiaat, from where we went to be at 68, southern tip of Greenland at 60, and Cape Horn at the 56th parallel of the south latitude.
The next night we were covered with imminent fog and visibility decreased to less than 500m. After the adventures of the previous night, we still felt morally heavy, so we took the third reef and slowed down a bit.
The wind was now over 30, with gusts of up to 40 knots. And it was rough, very rough, with very messy waves. We were reaching 90 ° TWA, which meant that the waves also broke regularly over the boat. Slowly but surely, the water began to absorb and chill us to the bone.
We were in a cauldron of tangled waves, thanks to the current wind and residual swell that merged as we rounded Cape Fairwell at the southern tip of Greenland. The forecast rose sharply, but this was to be expected. We had walked well up to this point, but we knew that ideal weather is quite variable here.
During the day, Loic got worse. He did not eat or drink anything, and the very thought of going downstairs made him even worse. During the fourth night, when we switched to our one-hour shift, he decided to stay on deck to avoid collision in the cabin while replacing his kit.
I doubted his decision to stay on deck was right; It was brutally cold, but that was his decision. Loic is an experienced yachtsman who has participated in the last two seasons on the Mini Transat circuit. I suggested that he might need to put on one of the dry emergency suits we had on board, which he did, gritting his teeth. He must have felt terrible at that moment.
At about three o'clock in the morning it was his turn to take over the deck. I tried to wake him up where he slept, near the gangway ten minutes before his shift, but he was off for the whole world. It was okay to get so tired, especially during seasickness. I decided I would just let him sleep while I feel good, and preferred that he rest and sleep if he finally managed to get to the sleepy realm.
Ten minutes later we were hit by the biggest wave of the night. When she collapsed on me, I was knocked off my feet by her might, but with the suit clamped tightly around my neck and wrists, I was not hurt. However, Loic received the brunt. The water was no more than 3 ° C, and I thought: it was a terribly freezing stream, no one would be able to sleep at the same time! I nudged him. Nothing. Then one more time. Nothing. After that, a gusty wind began, and at that moment we were overtaken by another squall of about 40 knots, which broke through the boat. I shouted and hit Loic hard. He only mumbled, but it didn't make any sense.
He started speaking French to me. We had an agreement, I spoke with him in French, and he with me in English, that's how we trained. I told him to try to get up, but he said he couldn't feel his legs. After a few seconds, he understood what he had said and repeated it over and over, each time more frightened. I grabbed his left leg and began to stretch it to disperse the blood. He made some encouraging sounds, so I tackled the other leg. After a few seconds, he knelt down and then got to his feet.
I called Sarah to get his sleeping bag ready and turn on the heater. When Sarah went upstairs to control what was happening from the deck, I pulled Loic out of his suit, which was soaked through and through. He barely climbed into his sleeping bag, completely naked, panting and delirious.
I tossed my hot water bottle between the middle layers of his sleeping bag, and Sarah made him take a seasickness pill and wash it down with water. We put a bucket next to him if he got really bad, and kept checking him every ten minutes for the first hour. As he became more consistent and talkative, we allowed him to get some sleep. Sarah and I spent the rest of the night taking turns at the radar and on deck until it finally dawned and the icebergs were easier to spot.
It scared me how quickly and how dangerous the situation had escalated in such a short time. This shows very accurately how ruthless the environment can be in the Arctic and in the sea in general. It took Loic about 12 hours to recover, long enough to get back to work, but for the next four days he was cold and struggling with illness, especially at night, but he pulled out.
It took him much longer because he had not eaten for three days and he was severely dehydrated. I think it was only after we ate the steak for the first time that the signs of color began to show on his cheeks again.
Arctic - a truly magical place compared to any other sailing I've ever done. But it also has a dark side. The cold, combined with humidity, makes the Arctic a harsh and potentially very dangerous environment. If you plan your trip very carefully, at the right time of the year and on the right boat, you can truly enjoy this amazing landscape in moderate comfort - confident that when the trip is over, you will quench your thirst for adventure. At least another year or two.
By Henry Bombie
After leaving school, at the age of 18, Henry Bombie embarked on a solo voyage across Britain, with the goal of one day racing world class and crossing oceans as a professional yachtsman. In 2012 he received a scholarship from Artemis Offshore Academy for a fully funded season in Figaro solo. Henry Bombie also one of the regular testers Yachting world.
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