A voyage of three halves

A voyage of three halves

Words - Jesse Johnston-Hill // Photos - Chris Rubens 

We opened the email at 5:30 a.m. on a February morning, when checking the avalanche forecast for our local mountains in Revelstoke, BC. The email read of a sailing trip consisting of three legs: from the Orkneys of Scotland to Greenland, along the west coast of Greenland, and through the Northwest Passage to British Columbia.

“Would you like to join a leg?” inquired Alun Hubbard, a Welsh glaciologist & mountaineer known for his high-risk tolerance in the most remote and harsh regions of the planet where he conducts research on climate change. For adventure enthusiasts like us, it took Chris (a professional skier) and me (a veteran tree planter) a very short time to reply with an enthusiastic yes!

In a matter of months, we found ourselves stepping aboard “Gambo” in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands, Iceland. She is a steel 48 ft Ketch, or was, as we were surprised to see her rigged without the mizzen mast, lending her odd proportions. Her hull had recently been given a banana yellow coat of paint and someone’s ‘best guess’ at a water-line. The crew was somewhere on-shore, busy with a shoemaker in lieu of a sailmaker, trying to mend the blown-out clew of the headsail.

We promptly began the five-day crossing to Southern Greenland, managing a broad reach all the way to the entrance of Prince Christian Sound, our passage through to Western Greenland. With 24-hours of daylight, we managed a very loose schedule on watches and meals, checking the GPS all too often for progress, considering the slow pace of the steel boat.

When we entered the fjord network that makes up the Sound we were in reverence of the stunning scenery for the next 100 km;  1200+ metre peaks rose high above us as we navigated the passage, which at times is a mere 500 m in width. This was where we felt and heard the first ice hit the hull, an unsettling sound that we anticipated never getting used to. Little did we know then, the Gambo would be used to move ice up to ½ her size further along the coast at the Store Glacier.

Alun is a busy man constantly in touch with filmmakers and the BBC who are looking to document new discoveries on and even inside the Greenland Ice Sheet with him. As we were experiencing an unusually hot spring, Alun disembarked with short notice to document the rapid heating occurring inland. Our now four-person crew was left to transport Gambo up the west coast without her captain.

The moment he left our sight, the systems on the Gambo began “acting up” as if she knew he had stepped off. It took an hour of trouble-shooting to get the engine started to leave port, at which point the depth sounder ceased working along with the radar that had allowed us to navigate icebergs during our 1-2 hours of darkness at this southern latitude. Luckily, we could still rely on our GPS. 

Almost daily we were visited by humpback whales and just enough wind to put the sails up and enjoy some quiet travel, calmness typical for July in West Greenland. We maintained our pace, only stopping every 4-5 days when we needed diesel and food, at which point we would raft the bright yellow sailboat in with the fishing boats where she looked right at home.

During these pit stops, we savoured stretching our legs by hiking through the isolated settlements of candy-coloured houses and up to the highest points to take in the spectacular views of blue ocean and icebergs; seemingly stationary in time. 

The further north we got, the bigger and more frequent the icebergs became. We collected Alun in the ice field that is Disco Bay and ventured still further north to Uummannaq.

Our final leg of the voyage took us to the Store Glacier where we witnessed incredible calving and thundering from the active outlet glacier. Alun collected data from his time-lapse cameras set to capture ice activity over time and Gambo plowed between and over ice; demonstrating exactly why it was worth lugging her steel hull and putting up with her temperamental quirks all the way there.

Back home in Revelstoke, we are so grateful for this amazing experience. It’s fun to revisit the memories and share the images we captured with you here, thanks Mustang Survival.