One of the many things I love about living on Block Island, at the mouth of Long Island Sound in New England, is seeing the interesting boats come into the harbor. Almost everyone in the boating world eventually sails into Great Salt Pond, and by keeping an eye on the anchorage I’ve met a lot of fascinating people. Thus it was, early last spring, that I spotted a big sexy trimaran at anchor. Naturally, I hopped into my dinghy and went for a visit.
I recognized the boat right away as a Chris White design and over coffee in the cockpit made the acquaintance of her owner and skipper, John Barry. He had purchased Avalanche, a 1986 Hammerhead 54, in San Francisco to sail a circumnavigation of indefinite route and duration. We had lots to talk about, as we were both confirmed multihull sailors, and after an hour I reluctantly got back in my dinghy to head ashore. As I was leaving, John mentioned that he needed some experienced offshore crew for his upcoming leg to Greenland. Was I interested?
This was a surprising proposal. I went straight home, got out my atlas and my copy of Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes, spent a few minutes thinking about it and called John to sign on. I had wanted some offshore trimaran experience, and when would I ever get another offer to sail to Greenland? My wife, Kerri, who is smarter than I am, said something like, “Are you nuts? Have a good time!”
So at the end of June, I flew to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to join Avalanche. The other crew were Matthew Church, an old sailing friend of mine, and Marjorie Cole, an old sailing friend of John’s. Our passage would take us from St. John’s, at 47 degrees north latitude, 1,400 miles across the Labrador Sea to Nuuk, Greenland, just shy of the Arctic Circle. We had a lot of bluewater miles between us, but none of us had ever sailed so far north.
After a day provisioning, bending on a new mainsail and checking over the boat, we set sail from St. John’s in a brisk southwest wind. Leaving through the famous Narrows between the rocky windswept hills of Newfoundland, it was hard to imagine the place as the bustling harbor it had been during the war years and in the heyday of the vanished cod fishery. We felt as though we were leaving a remote outpost of civilization, bound for the edge of the world.
The standard routing strategy for this passage is to head east for several hundred miles out of St. John’s to avoid the cold south-setting current that carries ice along the coast of Labrador and then turn north, catching the slightly warmer north-setting current along the west coast of Greenland. It is recommended to give Cape Farvel, at the southern tip of Greenland, at least 100 miles clearance, again to avoid ice and the possibility of getting trapped on an inhospitable lee shore. A Canadian navy captain we met in St. John’s painted us a grim picture of our chances if we got into trouble out there. He said we would have about nine hours in survival suits, perhaps a day if we made it into our liferaft, all well beyond reach of his country’s lifesaving capabilities.
Our first 24 hours we had glorious sailing, broad-reaching effortlessly with boatspeeds in the mid-teens and occasionally surging over 20 knots. We made our turning point and hardened up, slowing down as multihulls often do, not because we couldn’t go faster, but intentionally to make things more comfortable for the crew. The Labrador Sea, even in mid-summer, is very volatile, and shortly after we turned north, the barometer started dropping, and the wind clocked into the northwest and blew harder. Within a few hours, we were pounding into sustained winds of over 40 knots, and things started going awry. Avalanche was sailing well, but we had started the diesel to generate some heat and power, and sharp-eyed Marjorie noticed that our charging amps had dropped to zero. This led us to discover a flooded engine compartment, where the water level had already reached the alternator. I volunteered to climb down into the cave under the cockpit, bail and pump out the knee-deep steaming oily water, and then crawl forward over the engine to repair the broken bilge-pump hose. Mission accomplished, I crawled back on deck and promptly got seasick for the first time in many miles, joining Matt who was already suffering stoically.
At this point we were still left with no charging capability other than the wind generator, which was feathering itself in the storm and couldn’t even keep up with the demand of the autopilot. Luckily, we had a few thousand miles of sea room, so we hove-to and tackled the job. Of course, the spare alternator had the incorrect pulley, and we had no puller for the pulley on the damaged one. After a few hours in the cockpit with various tools, we finally made the switch and were back in business by the time the storm blew out.
After that had a one-day respite of lighter winds before another compact little low-pressure center appeared on the weather fax, and a few hours later we had headwinds of over 50 knots. Our working jib had exploded in the first storm, so John and Matt had gotten the ATN storm jib on and proactively rigged the third reef in the main. Instead of heaving-to, we sheeted in tight and fore-reached, making a few knots to the northwest into massive seas that occasionally broke over our bows. Avalanche handled the conditions without complaint, and by this time we were all feeling much better, eating a wonderfully hot fish curry that Matt had put together before the conditions got bad. The second storm passed over us fairly quickly, leaving us in the merciful grip of a big high-pressure system that gave us lighter conditions for the rest of our eight-day passage.
We began seeing ice about halfway through the passage, first an occasional majestic berg gliding along, and later more frequent and lesser bergs, often accompanied by smaller chunks known as growlers, bergy bits and brash ice. These ranged from car- and truck-sized chunks of ice down to snowball- and cocktail-sized ones. At this latitude in summer it never gets dark, just a bit grayer in the wee hours, so the ice was easy to see. We kept a constant watch, as we could envision an ama tearing off or a hole in the main hull, and such images weren’t pretty. Air temperatures ranged from the 30s at night to around 50 degrees Fahrenheit at midday when the sun poked through the overcast, and of course the water temperature was just above freezing. We wore our foulies all the time, even inside the boat. At night we would trade off outside watches every hour or two to stay warm.
We made landfall at a place called Ravn Storo, on the southwest coast of Greenland a few hundred miles south of our eventual destination, Nuuk. Our first anchorage was an abandoned fishing camp on a small bay. Looking at the cold preserved remains of the primitive shacks in this desolate place made us all very thankful for the ease and bounty of our lives. We spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the tundra and rock while John climbed the nearby mountain. For the next few days, we hopped north up the coast, sailing in the light wind and sometimes motoring, stopping in deserted coves where we could find water shallow enough to anchor in. In one small fishing village we were able to fill our tanks with diesel and buy some groceries (reindeer, whale blubber, yak and bread, but no vegetables!). As we neared Nuuk, Greenland’s capital (population 15,000), we began seeing occasional fishing boats and seal-hunting skiffs, but the landscape was still bleak, barren and inhospitable. Finally, 12 days out from St. John’s, we tied up to a crowded pier amid a handful of other sailboats, a couple of trawlers and a few hundred local and commercial boats, all overlooked by snow-covered peaks that surrounded the harbor.
Coming home from Greenland wasn’t much easier than getting there, though it was considerably more comfortable. I flew first from Nuuk to Reykjavik, Iceland, in a small propeller-driven plane across the vast expanse of the Greenland Ice Cap. I marveled at the ice-choked fjords on the east coast and enjoyed a too-short stay in spectacularly beautiful and friendly Iceland before flying home via Boston to get back to work. Meanwhile, Avalanche continued east with assorted crews, sailing to Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland and, finally, Ireland, where John Barry planned to rejoin her in the spring for further adventures.
Avalanche handled everything the Labrador Sea threw at us with grace and aplomb. It is amazing to me how Chris nailed this design 30 years ago. In terms of pure all-around sailing ability, she is the best boat I’ve ever sailed, bar none, although in terms of high-latitude comfort, maybe not so much! Matt and I called our forward cabin “the ice cave.” Shared by two men in full foul weather gear, it was small with poor ventilation, uninsulated and unheated, with every surface dripping wet. As for our forward head, the toilet was jammed into the bow just behind the anchor locker, and words cannot begin to describe the acrobatics required to get undressed and plant your behind on that thing in a storm! We suspected John and Marjorie were much more comfortable with their aft cabin and head.
In the end, I got the offshore trimaran experience I wanted, and then some. I also got a good taste of high-latitude sailing. I can see the appeal of these wild waters and places, although I’m not sure they’ll draw me back in the future. All in all, it was a great adventure, and I’m glad to have done it.
John Spier is a builder by trade and a multihull sailor by avocation. He sailed his Outremer 45 Aldora around the world with his wife and children, and is now restoring an older Outremer 43 to go again when his youngest finishes college.