Sebastian Barrett and Xiara Scott shared a memorable expedition exploring the mountains of and sailing to Greenland aboard a Gunboat 68
It’s hard to imagine what life is like beyond the borders of our imagination. Sometimes, when you’re lucky enough, life presents itself with opportunities that take you into the realm of the unknown. That’s what our voyage to Greenland was.
The trip came about through the combination of one man’s imagination, a crew hungry for adventure, and a remarkable boat to take them there. Sea Tilt’s owner had a dream to explore the wilderness of Greenland, and we – skipper Sebastian and chef/crew Xiara – were excited to make it happen.
The first things that come to mind when thinking of Greenland are impenetrable ice sheets, towering mountains and the vast unknown. To this day parts of Greenland’s borders remain undefined due to constant shifts along its fluid coastline.
In order for us to even begin planning for this endeavour, Sebastian began cross-referencing navigation charts with ice charts from previous years, looking for correlating patterns of ice-flow in June and July, so we could get a sense of what to expect.
With little available in the ways of traditional cruising guides we had to get inventive, and our most valuable information came from getting in touch with people who’d made similar trips before, and hearing their first-hand experiences. As well as sharing practical information that wasn’t available elsewhere, they reassured us that it wasn’t as daunting as it seemed.
We originally considered the east coast of Greenland, but soon came to the realisation that a 68ft carbon hull versus the volume of ice in those waters would not be a good match. Eyebrows were raised, plans were changed, but everyone involved was happy to discuss what would be both possible and safest for boat, crew and guests.
We set off from Halifax, Nova Scotia, then sailed to Newfoundland. Gradually the landscapes became more remote, and the temperatures started to drop.
We made our final preparations before departing for Greenland from the city of St John’s in Newfoundland. Sea Tilt’s sleek lines made quite the impression in this large commercial port, moored up on industrial docks alongside massive offshore support and rescue vessels.
We were warmly welcomed by the St John’s community, the locals helping us prepare for our trip. They took us cod fishing, where we hauled seven large cod that became a key element of our supplies, and even gave us different cuts of a moose they’d hunted the season before.
We enjoyed great sailing along the southern coast of Newfoundland, with its constantly changing scenery and dramatic fjords. From Nova Scotia up to Conception Bay there were broad reaching conditions with varying winds, including light air days under the A2 and full main, and a few heavier days where we were having to slow the boat down.
Along the way, we immersed ourselves in the quaint little towns that dotted the shore, and agreed we could have easily spent the summer circumnavigating Newfoundland alone. But the north was beckoning.
At the beginning of August we made the 850-mile passage across the Labrador Sea, where timing was critical. Though weather windows were short, broad reaching conditions gave us perfect angles for the Gunboat and plenty of options for passage planning with potential average boat speeds of 15-18 knots. We found ourselves a weather window that took us through a fair amount of fog initially, over long, grey, rainy days, and short, cold nights, with darkness only from 2200-0430.
Despite the poor visibility, we had close to perfect sailing conditions in a fresh southerly. We left in 20-25 knots of breeze at 130° TWA on port gybe, sailing at sporting speeds of 20-22 knots initially, then slowing down for the first evening to sail with two reefs in the main. Alternating between the J2 and J0, we initially headed further east, to avoid potential icebergs off the Labrador coast, but as the breeze went lighter and forward we headed north once about 150 miles offshore.
We spotted our first icebergs around 65 miles off the coast of Greenland and were reassured to see they showed up clearly on our radar. As we approached Greenlandic waters we were also in contact with the Danish naval authorities. You’re requested to check in with them once within 200 miles of Greenland, and then every six hours thereafter until your safe arrival. They ask you to share observations, such as iceberg sightings and weather conditions.
We’d moderated our boat speed to be sure we’d approach Greenland in daylight, and were prepared to motor the final 100 miles. However, on the final day of the passage the breeze died down, the sun broke through the clouds and we were able to sail much of the way in on a glassy sea.
The new day in this new world welcomed us with an incredible blue sky and a faint view of the mountains in the far distance, colossal icebergs scattered along the horizon. We had no idea what to expect when entering our first fjord, but were immediately greeted with a plethora of bergs. All eyes were peeled for ice.
Spectacular though they were, it was not the icebergs that were our main concern, but ice that had broken off – bergy bits, growlers, and brash ice. At that time of year temperatures are relatively warm, so the bergs are melting and breaking apart.
Our first port of call was Qaqortoq, in the Julianehabsfjord. Qaqortoq is fairly developed by Greenlandic measures as the largest town in the south-west. Most towns here have a supermarket, a school, a church and a community building, but little else. It’s a long way from cruising the French Riviera.
Supermarkets usually stock Danish foodstuffs, and though fresh goods are hard to come by, we enjoyed freshly caught fish such as Arctic Char, bought from local fishermen. Housekeeping duties changed from beautifully making up beds, to rolling up sub-Arctic sleeping bags. But luxury wasn’t what Greenland was about. This was an expedition into the wild unknown.
After a few days of adjusting to the cooler temperatures and incredibly long days we made our way to Narssasaq. While we made a slow, careful journey through the fjords, one crew took it upon himself to test the freezing waters and went wakeboarding behind the tender, weaving through the icebergs – an entertaining sight, but no audience other than us to enjoy the spectacle.
Comings and goings
There’s only one major airport in the south of Greenland, where an eclectic variety of characters come and go. Here, our delivery crew left and Sea Tilt’s owner, his family, and Raphy, their mountain guide for hiking expeditions, arrived. Their first night in Greenland couldn’t have been more perfect, the sky painted in pastel hues with one solitary iceberg nestled nearby under the full moon.
Shortly after boarding they jumped in the tender and took a cruise in search of fresh iceberg ice to have with evening cocktails. If you’ve ever been up close to an iceberg you’ll have heard its constant crackles and pops, and if you place a small piece in your mouth you feel the sensation of a thousand tiny air bubbles bursting on your tongue.
We spent the first 10 days cruising the south-western coast, exploring awe-inspiring fjords in search of safe anchorages. This proved to be the trickiest part of our expedition as the charts would often be plain blue, with no contours at all. Some previous cruisers had added information in Navionics, but often we were sailing blind. We knew the waters were deep for the most part, but there were also deltas where two or three rivers would flow into the head of the fjord, creating sudden shallow patches and sand banks.
Working with guide Raphy, we instead used some of his topographical maps for the mountains in the area to see where the fjord walls did not plunge so steeply, and where we might be able to anchor.
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Sometimes it worked, but other times we’d spend hours motoring around, meandering through fjords testing depths. We’d sound each bay ourselves, going in bow first with both the rudders and daggerboards raised. Often we couldn’t use marked anchorages because they were primarily for large ships – if we dropped anchor in 20m of water in one wind direction, we’d be sitting in either 2m or 100m of water in another thanks to the steep shoreline. We also flew the drone to check out possible spots ahead of motoring in.
Aside from the challenges of finding spots shallow enough to drop anchor, we found the process of navigating Greenland’s icy waters relatively easy and manageable. It was important to stay vigilant, but inside the fjords you are incredibly protected from the wind and the sea state is beautifully calm.
Wherever we anchored we’d have icebergs in sight but, because we were usually anchored in 20m of water or less, the biggest bergs would have run aground before they could reach the boat. Usually the icebergs seemed docile, though sometimes we could hear the explosive sound of chunks breaking off, while the edges shimmered, making the icebergs appear almost animated. The larger pieces float to the leeward side of the bergs, so when passing them we kept to windward, occasionally fending off smaller pieces with a pole.
Sailing to the sumit
For the owner and his family, the real lure of the trip was climbing Greenland’s rugged mountains. Under Raphy’s guidance they summited challenging peaks of 1,000m-plus straight out of the fjords. Many were unnamed, with no hiking references. Each hike usually started below the cloudline, but as we gained altitude we’d pop through the cloud bank and each time were greeted with amazing views.
Some days we’d accompany them, others we’d stay aboard. Together we hiked the Sermerunerit Glacier in Prince Christiansen Sound, a calving iceberg which moves as much as 5m every day. Elsewhere we saw clear signs of climate change, with rock recently bared to the elements by melting ice. On these barren lands we had little in the way of wildlife sightings – one Arctic fox, a seal and a couple of minke whales. We also saw only one other yacht.
While waiting for a weather window we spent three days in the most southern village in Greenland, Aappilattoq, which is only accessible by boat. The village has a rough dock, just 4m long, where essential supplies are dropped off fortnightly. we tucked next to the Amel 50 Essence. Strong bonds were forged between the crews in those few days, but we also met many of the community of just 80 people who live in the brightly coloured single-storey houses nestled on the hillside. We got to know a little of how they live, and played a memorable game of football with the children.
There were limited opportunities to hoist sails. It would have been unwise to sail through a fjord with the potential to suddenly encounter ice, and winds were also very light, but there was one stand-out day when we sailed down the huge, clear fjord of Soendre Sermilik towards a glacier, spinnaker flying, even attracting the attention of a helicopter flying overhead.
Our time in Greenland, however, was coming to an end, and before the end of August we were looking for a weather window to leave. We motored out for the first 20 hours to clear the iceberg zone, barely clearing the protection of the mountains before being tossed about in a sea state left over from a recently passed storm. Then it was a nice broad reach with the A3 flying, making 15-knot boat speeds in 13 knots of wind.
Coming around the south-east coast of Newfoundland we were briefly greeted with 30-40 knots on the nose and had to slow the boat to reduce slamming, before the breeze died and we had a busy morning shaking out reefs and changing headsails.
After rounding the bottom of the Avalon peninsula, it was a great beat in 10 knots of breeze, making 10-11 knots under full main and J1 while tacking through 90° in a smooth sea state to St Pierre, where guests and crew disembarked. For the final 800 miles south to Newfoundland, the owner and Sebastian went for a double-handed blast. After a first night close reaching, once past Nova Scotia, they were able to crack the sheets and send Sea Tilt on a fast sail under A3 to Nantucket.
We all have a new taste for the ice, and while Sea Tilt now heads south to the Bahamas, Cuba, Belize, and the Galapagos, there’s talk of visiting Alaska. Like the ever-changing landscape, Greenland has shifted the limits on what we think is possible.
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