All That Ice!
69º40.284' N, 141º14.560' W
This is not to point the finger at anyone in particular but the truth is that the member of the crew who was supposed to be on Ice Watch fell asleep. The gale on roller coaster seas with very little sleep had clearly taken its toll. So, at around midnight after passing Point Barrow, we woke to a hellish bang and hideous scratching sound that came from the sides of the boat. We had run into ICE! We were up on deck in a fraction of a second, and Pekka managed to turn the boat just as she was about to crash against a block of ice. We had thought that the ice was much, much further north but obviously we were wrong.
Later the same day, the other crew member who was supposed to be on Ice Watch was playing with the computer when there was a horrible bang at the bow and Sarema came to a halt. This time it was less dramatic, though, only one not-so-big ice block that was split in two as a result of the collision. The strange thing about this incident was that we had the radar on but the ice block did not show on the screen. It was only after we had hit the ice that we could see it on the radar. We have now learned our lesson(s) and will never ever again underestimate the importance of ice watch!
After the close encounter at night, we had decided to sail closer to the shore in order to avoid the pack ice. However, there was still plenty of floe ice floating around the boat and keeping us busy at the helm but as there was ample space to manoeuvre, we actually enjoyed the zigzagging.
It was a lovely and somewhat peculiar day in many respects. The skies were blue and the sun was shining which was just wonderful after so many grey days. We cherished the light and the warmth which also gave us additional pleasure in the form of mirages. We had read about the Novaya Zemlya Effect but had no idea how magnificent and fascinating this phenomenon could be: on the horizon, we could see a white wall of ice reaching the skies, objects that were actually behind the horizon were floating in the sky above us, ice blocks growing into gigantic proportions with their mirror image hanging above them. The Arctic is a truly magical place and since that day, we have had the privilege of enjoying this magic almost on a daily basis.
It was plain sailing till we arrived at Prudehoe Bay and saw, in front of us, a wall of pack ice that looked absolutely impenetrable. The captain of a tugboat that was motoring close by called us on the radio and told that he had been trying to get through the ice for the last eight hours, that he would give it one more try and if he didn't get through, he would continue trying the following morning. He recommended that we should try the shallow passage between the shore and a chain of small islands that was ice-free. We watched as he tried in vain to penetrate into the mass of ice. After a while, he gave up and returned to the open water. It was clear that we should follow his advice, and for the next twelve hours or so we motored along the inside passage to its last entrance (Mary Sachs) that was deep enough for Sarema to exit.
On our port side, the wall of pack ice as high as a skyscraper (Novaya Zemlya Effect) continued haunting us all the way to the entrance and beyond. Near the entrance, we saw a helicopter hovering above an oil drilling platform. Pekka contacted its pilot via VHF because the view from the helicopter was far better than from where we were. The pilot told that there was a few miles wide stretch between the pack ice and the shore and, though it was filled with floe ice, she thought it could be navigable and that after Barter Island, the waters were practically ice-free.
We managed to get through the maybe a little too shallow Mary Sachs Entrance without major difficulties (only one grounding). After leaving the protected passage, we used all our time and energy trying to avoid hitting the ice blocks floating around the boat. For hours and hours, we navigated through floe ice and growlers which required quick reactions and concentration. This was quite tiring and gradually, we began to feel a bit oppressed amidst all that ice that stretched away as far as the eye could see. We spent a total of 46 exhausting hours navigating through the field of ice but fortunately what the helicopter pilot had said was true and, as we approached Barter Island, there was no more ice in front of us, and we were finally free!
Because the weather forecast was 25 knots east i.e. headwind and since we really had a lot of catching up to do sleep-wise, we headed for Demarcation Bay, about five miles off the Canadian border. This was the first time we anchored since Nome, and we are going to stay here for the next two days doing some necessary maintenance work on the boat, relaxing and also celebrating the excellent progress we have made so far in the Northwest Passage!