Seventh Journey - Chapter 1…
I’m edgy in this Arctic fog. Icebergs are drifting towards us and seabirds ghost through the rigging like sailors’ souls. The fog’s smothering whiteness has driven a pall of despair down the companionway to seep through our yacht’s dismal bowels and form sprays of hoar frost on the cabin walls.
Yesterday it was tolerably warm in the saloon as our engine thumped happily away, skating us across an unremarkable sea. Around mid-afternoon I heard the drooping sails whump out, suddenly full of a boastful wind intent on driving us towards shore and into East Greenland’s only port, Ammassalik. Just for some peace we killed the engine and in the quiet that followed, listened to the rhythm of waves sluicing over the bows. But as the coast approached, the wind died. And then our engine refused to start.
Jonno the mechanic tried every fix he knew, but nothing worked. In the absence of facts we speculated, as worried men do. And speculation was that the engine had blown a head gasket, fatal for an old beast like this because spare parts most likely don’t exist, or at least not here at world’s end.
So we languished in the polar current, drifting south. Evening turned yellow and for a moment the sail canvas was teased again by a ruffle of wind. Above the navigation table white spots on the radar screen showed where Kap Dan’s shoals waited in silence for us. Then, just in time, a good breeze lifted in and we swung rudder and booms across the current to point our yacht back out to sea. But unlike our turning bow, the helm compass sat inert, still locked by the power of the magnetic field we sailed through a week ago, on the Viking route west from Iceland.
Despite being so close to shore, the ship’s radio remains silent, compounding our sense of isolation. All of our calls to the coastal station have gone unanswered, meaning the radio is broken, like everything else aboard, or something strange has happened ashore. Alien landings, perhaps. Frustrated, I go upstairs to check conditions. But nothing has changed and for a few freezing minutes I absently watch the yacht’s deck disappearing like a garden path into the clouds.
Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the fog vanishes and we lie motionless in the twilight under the green pulse of the northern lights. Around us are the icebergs I feared. Great walls of deadpan white slashed with stripes of lilac, looking like squares of cardboard hung over a sea of black ink. In the distance I watch mesmerized as plumes of purple fog rise dreamlike off cathedral peaks of blue ice. The scene’s tranquility overwhelms me: my eyes glaze over and the tears begin.
They should be tears of delight with our successful arrival at this remote coast after such a long and difficult journey. But they’re not. They’re tears of utter exhaustion from ongoing financial crises, repeated equipment failure and the humiliation of three broken ribs when a crew member turned violent.
Since I last saw my family it’s been three months of constant travelling, two of them being hammered by North Atlantic storms. Time enough to feel ashamed for how I’ve treated my wife. As the costs of this enormous project increased, I buckled to the obligations I’d created and sold everything we owned, leaving her alone with very little money. Now this whole project seems doomed and beyond my ability to rescue it. Have I spent everything for nothing? I can feel the loneliness of leadership gnawing at my soul.
To the north, as if to echo my feelings, a shark’s maw of coastal peaks appears to rise up through the early morning light to chew at a sullen grey sky. Daylight has brought the wind back, sending us scrambling to harness it and weave through the shoals for the safety of the harbour. But it doesn’t last and so we drift again. At midday Graeme is lodged in his galley making bread for lunch when the handheld radio squawks into life. His floury finger hits the RECEIVE button to learn that our film crew is heading out from Ammassalik to search for us.
By mid-afternoon, in a thick silence, our seagoing steel yacht limps along behind a small wooden launch. Standing bolt upright in his blue boiler suit, a little Inuit man wearing an oily Russian hat peers over his windscreen. Past anchored launches that lie motionless in pale jade sea, he proudly drags us to a narrow wharf where ropes are soon made fast. From being a fair maiden in a wide sea, our vessel is suddenly the ugly sister in a raft of smart fishing boats with bright red hulls, freshly varnished cabins and short masts full of radio antennae which I’m sure all work better than ours. Next to them, her green paint torn off in slabs by weeks of violent seas, our dented steel yacht looks thoroughly dilapidated.
Below decks, bilge oil and diesel fumes have mixed with wet carpet to create the stink of a dead ship. Suspended above us is patched-up rigging that has failed four times, while on deck clumps of old sails are lashed down, their stitching probably half rotted.
With high hopes we came from Australia with our sea kayaks, looking for the fjord where a young English polar explorer mysteriously disappeared in the 1930’s. All that anyone recovered of Gino Watkins was his sealskin hunting kayak, adrift in the ice. A year before he vanished, Gino made a 600 mile journey down the East Greenland coast and our plan was to follow in his wake, heading south with the Polar current.
But with delays and equipment failure we are two months late and the short summer is over. In two more days it will officially be winter and we must soon expect ferocious storms called pitoraqs to explode from the icecap and roar down through the village. In two more months, most of the open sea will be frozen.
With no working engine, and no compass or radio, we’re trapped here. We can’t head back out to sea and south to somewhere warmer. And there’s another problem: we have no money. So we can’t abandon the yacht and fly home. Nor can we rent a warm house ashore, even if one was available.
There’s a lot to consider. While winter will soon impose itself, today the sky is still enticingly blue and the sea mostly ice free. I’m driven, believing we must try to achieve something, anything. We could kayak south, for a few weeks at least, until the sea begins to freeze over. Trouble is, we’d need the yacht to support us. And even if by a miracle the engine could be fixed, and some money for food and fuel could be sent from London, there is the issue of people. Will any sane member of the seakayak or yacht teams now risk travelling anywhere, relying on this dodgy old yacht? In fact, given the season’s end, will anyone want to leave the safety of this village at all, when local advice now shouts against it?
Before I can ask, winter’s first pitoraq belts down from the 10,000’ icecap, howling through empty streets at 140 knots. No ordinary wind, this one. It catapults 44 gallon fuel drums through the streets and strangles huskies, mid air, at the end of their chains. A few years ago it blew the entire high school away. As it hits, I am caught alone on the empty yacht and unable to get ashore. Its savage thundering roars through the little fleet for twelve hours, bashing the boats together, until a new dawn brings peace again.
As morning sun floods the village square, local hunters search the harbourside to count the cost - several boats smashed up and, rumour has it, a freighter lost at sea. The peace is short-lived. At midday the orange pitoraq warning lights flash again and the hunters disappear. With two big blows in two days everyone fears that this will be a very bad season.
Safely hunkered down ashore as the second blast arrives, I realise there’s no escape from the difficult position I’m in. I am the reason we’re here. I created the idea that became an expedition, cajoling people and conscripting resources to make it happen. My absolute belief that we’d succeed meant that I kept driving people hard, always insisting that major problems were merely road bumps. Now I’m not so sure.
The project has stalled badly and by tomorrow it may be out of my control altogether. I face watershed choices which will either polarise or galvanise people. And whatever I decide, the reverberations will be felt across the world; by our patron, the Prince of Wales, our supporters, including Lord Shackleton in Britain and the Prime Minister in Australia, dozens of film investors and sponsors, and our families who wait at home in hope.
In my library there are hundreds of old adventure books. Their many stories, told from every wild place on Earth, boil down to just one story with three characters: Blind Faith heads into the vast unknown with Scant Experience and Abundant Curiosity. And it seems that no matter what suffering occurs or obstacles appear, they just keep going doggedly on until they finally get through.
So bugger it then. Instead of this being the end for us, as it certainly looks, I’ve decided it’s just the beginning after all. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but we’re going south. As soon as possible.