Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bellot Strait

Friday, August 29
What a difference a day makes. Just hours after posting yesterday about the anxious wait for ice movement, we got the latest ice chart and it showed a tiny, clear lead all the way from Bellot Strait to the top of King William Island! The three sailboats at Fort Ross sprung into immediate action. The VHF radios were humming with chatter about tide times and tide strategy. Five a.m. Friday, the anchors came up and our little three boat flotilla proceeded down Bellot Strait. Being the smallest and slowest boat we brought up the rear. The tide at the eastern end is fierce and we were travelling through at almost ten knots. There had been anxiety about an ice choke halfway down the Strait. There was ice, but, it was off to either side and it didn't present a problem. The western exit was a different story. There was a very heavy band of ice completely closing off the exit. It wasn't wide, but, the ice was old and gnarly with thick floes. The two boats in front plunged in and we followed. They got through, not without some difficulty, but they had larger engines and a larger crew. We didn't. The wind was blowing about 22 knots and as we entered a tiny lead the wind laid us over onto a floe. When we came back upright our long keel was standing completely on the floe's underwater ledge that protruded out from its bottom. Our engine couldn't move us forward, or, backward and that was it. We were beset. We watched the other two boats raise sail and head off into the open water as we stared helplessly after them. Nothing would budge us. We thought maybe kedging off would be an option, but, probably not, as we'd have to slide the entire weight of the boat off the ledge. Even if we got off the ledge, the pack had closed around us and the leads were gone. It seemed only a call to the Coast Guard, with a very long wait for an icebreaker, was the only option.

We then noticed that a Russian cruise ship, the Akademik S. Vavilov, was coming through the Strait right behind us. Maybe they could help. We radioed them and asked. First Mate said he'd ask the Captain and we were thrilled when they pointed their bow at us and we watched them slowly approach. The ship radioed and said: "Did you happen to see the polar bear just off on your starboard side?"! Just to add to the drama of being captive in the ice, a polar bear had decided to make an appearance. A mad scramble for the bear bangers ensued, but, fortunately they were not needed. We were downwind of him, he hung around but didn't come any nearer.

Everybody has seen the horror story videos of sailboats being towed by icebreakers etc., but, thanks to this very skilled Captain the process went very smoothly and he was able to extricate us very gently. They approached our beam and the turbulent water moved the floes around and broke a few. We tried to get into the wake of the ship, but, were wedged into a lead. They threw us a line and then, very slowly, they towed us behind. We were on a very short lead. A. was steering and G. was fending-off floes from the bow. One or two random floes hit us, but, it was fine. It was only a short tow, they cast us off and we were back on our way again. We gave all the people lining the deck a hearty thank you wave and there were cheers in return. Turns out, it was a boatload of Royal Canadian Geographical Society people. There was a lot of very professional photography gear pointed at us, so, our two hour ordeal was the morning's entertainment for them and I'm sure we'll be front page news on some newsletter or other.

We are now enroute to Gjoa Haven. Drina, the Australian boat is back in play and about 100 miles behind us.

Bellot Strait 29/8/2014 12:00 71°57.6'N 095°13.5'W

1 comment:

  1. Wow - What a great story, am on the edge of my seat and scratching my head over some of the terms but still enjoying the ride - feel like I am there with you! Looking forward to hearing how it was to come through the other side and where you are now :-)