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Trawler Life in the Land of Bergs and Fjords

Climbing a few rungs of latitude on a Nordhavn 46 to where Vikings once roamed proves to be an endeavor to write home about.

 Years ago, after returning to the United States from a circumnavigation, my wife Mary and I took time off from long-distance voyaging to enjoy some coastal cruising from South Florida to Newfoundland. We arrived back in Florida in the fall and decided it was time for a new adventure, something different and exciting. We were headed for high latitudes—the land of bergs and fjords—aboard our Nordhavn 46 Egret

Egret is a 2001 46-foot Nordhavn flybridge trawler. She carries 1,000 U.S. gallons of fuel, has a single 130hp Lugger main engine, a 12kW Northern Lights generator and a 27hp Yanmar get-home engine with a V-drive and a folding prop. Her happy little Lugger has 12,845.6 hours on it and has never missed a beat. She is a proper little ship and at the time had been our only home for the previous 12 years.

Departing our former hometown of Fort Lauderdale, we aimed offshore for a direct shot to Nantucket, a quick trip riding the Gulf Stream north. But Mother Nature intervened, and we were forced inside to the safety of the Intracoastal Waterway south of Beaufort, North Carolina. From here we spent long days moving north to Norfolk, and then offshore to Block Island, Nantucket and Boston, where we picked up our good friend Dick from New Zealand. From Boston it was an easy three-day trip in good weather to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where the story really begins.

Lunenburg is one of our favorite stops. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a waterfront of blazing, bright-red buildings from the 1800s, when fishing boats returning in the fog kept a sharp lookout for the vividly colored structures. From Lunenburg it was a quick march northeast up the coast to Baddeck in Bras d’Or Lake, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

In Baddeck, we rented a car to show Dick the rebuilt French Fortress of Louisbourg on the east coast. The original settlement of Louisbourg, founded in 1713, was besieged twice by the British before being destroyed in the 1760s. Today it is restored to how it might have looked in the early 18th century, with locals taking on the personae of folks of the period in native dress.

After exiting Bras d’Or Lake, it was a single overnighter to the first stop on Newfoundland’s west coast.

Before we move along, we should mention that Egret has no specific schedule. We move in good weather and stay tucked in during not-so-good weather. Mary and I have done this for years, and as a result, the times we’ve cruised in uncomfortable weather have been minimal.

"Baby" Bergs

Ever since the 1500s, Nova Scotia’s, Newfoundland’s and Labrador’s coastal villages were built on cod fishing and, later, relatively minor whaling. These small, protected harbors along the different provinces’ coasts were Egret’s stops along the way. Most harbor villages on Newfoundland’s west coast are connected by roads; in Labrador, only a few harbor villages are connected by roads.

Since the demise of the cod industry, the Canadian government has been paying “out-village” residents to relocate to more populated areas along the coast and inland where basic government services are available. For us, the abandoned out-villages were the big draw along the Labrador coast, and the place where we saw our first whales and “big ice.”

Ever since arriving in Lunenburg, Egret had brought summer with her. There was little fog or rain, the usual way of life until later in the season. The weather was wonderful, but if there was a downside to warm, sunny days, it was the activation of the coastal provinces’ “air forces.” Yep—mosquitoes, and what we call “flying teeth.” Flying teeth not only want blood, they also want meat, which makes bug suits or hats mandatory unless it is very cold or windy.

So up the west coast of Newfoundland we went, on day-hops. In more interesting places we stayed a couple days; in others, just a single night. As always, Egret opened doors. People along the way were super friendly. Some drove us around; others loaned us a car for inland exploring.

Our two favorite stops on the west coast of Newfoundland were Pleasant Cove near Corner Brook, Bay of Islands and Norris Point in Bonne Bay. In addition to hiking locally in Norris Point for two days, we took a day trip in a loaner car north up the coastal highway, hoping to see a moose in the wild. We didn’t see any moose, but we did see free-range caribou grazing in a treeless area with high coastal winds—they knew how to keep the bugs away.

After waiting on weather for a couple days at Norris Point, we decided to make a single overnighter up the section of Newfoundland’s west coast we hadn’t yet explored and then cross the Strait of Belle Isle to Red Bay in Labrador.

Red Bay was magic. The village of Red Bay was recently awarded World Heritage Site status for having been a Basque whaling station during the 1500s and because it is home to a nearly intact recovered Basque whaling ship that sunk in 1537 off Saddle Island. Our trip to Penny Island, within Red Bay, marked our first visit to an abandoned fishing village. So again we hiked, visited the edifying local museum and met a number of locals.

Before reaching the entrance to Red Bay, the Egret crew was introduced to their first icebergs. We thought they were huge. Little did we know they were baby bergs. Well, perhaps toddlers.

Running in Daylight

 Abandoned fishing boats in Labrador. A number of out villages with no road access along the Labrador coast have been abandoned leaving their boats, nets and other gear.

Abandoned fishing boats in Labrador. A number of out villages with no road access along the Labrador coast have been abandoned leaving their boats, nets and other gear.

The next stop north, Chateau Bay, was Egret’s favorite in Labrador. Within Chateau Bay are quite a number of islands, among them Henley Island and Stage Island, both of which give weather protection to a small government wharf on the latter. Egret tied to the crumbling government wharf for two days of delicious silence except for the wind and birds. There was no one within miles.

We saw about 50 abandoned homes, a fish house and a church with no windows. Some houses were flattened, and others were on their way. Three of the houses are still used seasonally by fishermen and are kept in good repair, but no one was home when we visited.

It is sad to see a community that served families for years fall into ruin. These folks abandoned not only their homes but their way of life. Overturned boats lay rotting on the banks; fishing nets and grapnel anchors used to secure the nets were scattered here and there. Some homes still had silverware in drawers and plates in the cupboards, as if the owners planned to return someday. Others had stoves, and nearly all had abandoned bed frames and furniture that had been left to decay.

Of course, the cod were gone as well—less than 1 percent of the stock remains. They were wiped out years ago. We visited a few fishing communities that are hanging on, but these, too, will likely be abandoned in a few years.

And so Egret marched up the Labrador coast marveling at the big ice, and before long, the first whales began to show. The first were small minke whales and very large fin whales. “A whale a day” became our mantra; one whale became 20 whales when pods of humpbacks moved into the larger bays to feed on caplin, a small baitfish. At times there were six to eight spouts within sight at any one moment. It was wonderful.

Up next was Battle Harbour, a small anchorage between an offshore island and the mainland. In the late 1700s an entrepreneur set up a salt fish business that turned the small anchorage into the unofficial capital of Labrador. At times there were up to 90 sailing schooners rafted in the tiny bay, offloading fish and buying supplies. Today, Battle Harbour is owned in part by a preservation trust that has restored a number of buildings and is making its way by renting restored homes to adventure tourists who arrive by ferry from the mainland.

 Humpback whales feeding on small baitfish called caplin. Some large bays in Labrador were so filled with feeding humpbacks we had to be very careful under way.

Humpback whales feeding on small baitfish called caplin. Some large bays in Labrador were so filled with feeding humpbacks we had to be very careful under way.

After a couple more stops, Egret staged for the three-and-a-half-day run to southwest Greenland. We were concerned about ice at sea—not the large icebergs, but the smaller bergy bits that don’t show up on radar. Fortunately, while in Lunenburg we had met John Harries from S/V Morgan’s Cloud, who has cruised the Labrador, Greenland, Iceland and Norway area for years and has tons of experience.

We had excellent Canadian ice charts from the Internet that showed the Labrador ice, but we didn’t have accurate ice information for the Greenland coast. John’s sage advice was to travel the final 75 nm, or even 100 nm, in daylight. We timed our departure so that we would arrive 100 nm off the coast of Greenland in early daylight. Given the long summer days this far north, making landfall with plenty of light wasn’t an issue.

After setting a course to miss the heaviest berg areas and then turn northeast toward southwest Greenland, Egret set off at 0330, just after daylight. There was big ice close to the coast, but offshore it was scattered and wasn’t an issue. The trip across was a calm-weather affair simply because we waited for settled weather; two days before, the wind had raged offshore. Because of our inexperience with ice, you can imagine how we fine-tuned both radars, one set at 6nm and the other at 3nm, and kept a 100 percent visual watch day and night. At night we stood at the pilothouse windows to totally eliminate any glare. Fortunately, at these latitudes there is a glow most all night, so we had a chance if a car-size piece of ice popped up. In the end, all went well and we saw no ice.

We spotted the first icebergs 36 nm from the Greenland coast. At 26nm there were more bergs, and most of these were trailing ice that was easy to see in the daylight. We were surprised what did not show up on radar. One very large piece of ice that didn’t have a tall “sail” on top did not show up on radar. However, ice that trailed bergs in quantity did show as clutter.

Fjord Land

Egret landed at the small southwest Greenland fishing village of Nanortalik. From a distance it appeared the entrance we had chosen was blocked by icebergs, but as we got closer we discovered it wasn’t, and we hand-steered our way into the harbor. Once inside we were waved to the dock by locals. After a short walk up the hill to the police station, the Egret crew was cleared into Greenland. We returned home to celebrate our arrival with a touch of rum and Coke—with glacier ice, of course.

 Mary looks on from Egret’s bow as we inch our way through icy waters.

Mary looks on from Egret’s bow as we inch our way through icy waters.

For the most part, southwest Greenland is inland cruising through glacier-carved fjords. The water is deep, the charting is reasonable and the anchorages or town docks are not far apart. The per-day cruising is as good as or better than anywhere in Egret’s travels. However, there is a downside. The ice had cleared Nanortalik’s harbor entrance only a week before our arrival.

The same was true of Prince Christian Sound, the fjord cut above the southern tip of Greenland that allows safe travel to and from the coast, bypassing super-dangerous Cape Farwell at Greenland’s southern tip. The cruising season in Greenland is very short, and it’s a big mileage commitment traveling from or to Europe or North America—unless you winter in Iceland, where Egret was heading as I typed these words.

Then again, there is an upside that makes a Greenland trip more reasonable. Big ice moves down the east coast of Greenland, riding the east Greenland current, sweeps around Cape Farwell and travels north up the west coast, blocking the lower southwest coast. In recent years, this lower ice has been clearing by July 15 or Aug. 1. Experienced Greenland cruisers head north first, as far as Disko Bay, then travel south as the ice clears. This maximizes cruising until mid-August, when it is time to head somewhere safe before the September weather arrives.

Our stay in Nanortalik was great fun. We met a number of locals and visited the excellent museums, each with its own theme, such as fishing, clothing, whaling and so on. David, a local Inuit, was our guide, and he was a hoot. It was a great afternoon.

 This Inuit fisherman set up shop just for us along a trail to the village. We were out of Greenlandic Kroner otherwise we would have bought a filet of fresh caught wolf fish.

This Inuit fisherman set up shop just for us along a trail to the village. We were out of Greenlandic Kroner otherwise we would have bought a filet of fresh caught wolf fish.

As we learned later, the Inuit residents hunt and fish from small outboard boats 16 to 18 feet in length. Most carry rusty rifles on board. The Inuits have moved from a subsistence of primarily hunting to a life of hunting and fishing. With the ice diminishing because of increasing temperatures, it is becoming harder for them to hunt their mainstay of polar bears and seals. One person said it well: “Polar bears are their cattle, seals are their sheep and fish are their chickens.”

The Inuits are allowed a small quota of whales, and during our visit, we saw someone capture a minke whale. Within minutes of landing, whale meat was available at the local fisherman’s shack.

Food is very expensive in Greenland. Meat as westerners know it is prohibitive on most Inuits’ tiny income, so they survive on what they catch or kill. I will say that, because of global warming, there are now sheep farms in southwest Greenland and farmers growing silage for the winters.

The Inuit fishing villages and the fjords are the big draw to Greenland. It is hard to describe the beauty of the fjords in words. They are the rawest of the raw. The earth was ripped apart, scoured and shredded by glacier ice over the years, and nowhere is it more graphic than here. In some places there are moraine fields on top of mountains. In Prince Christian Sound, holes nearly 1,500 feet deep were gouged out of hard rock by ice. How many miles high does the ice have to be to exert that kind of pressure? We certainly don’t have a clue.

Egret traveled 33 nm to the end of Tasermiut Fjord to view the Greenland Ice Sheet for the first time. We were fortunate to arrive early enough to see the ice cap shrouded in bands of multicolored fog. We anchored off a nearby moraine field with a line ashore; after a wind and current shift, Egret spent part of the night sitting on her keel with the swim platform 1-1/2 feet out of the water and the bow in 60 feet. That was different.

Chorus of Crickets

Returning to Nanortalik for provisions and a quick Internet check, we received an email from a Swiss sailboater we had met previously who said he was in the “tiny, romantic fishing village of Augpilagtoq.” So we went.

Along the way we spotted two waterfalls along a sheer rock face. After cruising by slowly to make sure there were no underwater rocks, Mary and Dick linked all six of Egret’s big inflatable fenders together and floated them along the waterline on the starboard side. Bumping in and out of gear, we laid Egret gently against the rock wall.

We tossed a small grapnel from the dinghy into the rocks with a breast line to hold Egret tight to the rocks. Carrying a water hose and a small funnel, Dick climbed the smaller of the two waterfalls. A short time later, Egret’s water tank was topped off with crystal clear glacier melt. Did we need water? Sort of. Mainly, we did it because we could.

Our friend Rolf’s description of Augpilagtoq as “tiny” was correct—there was one space at the one dock, so we rafted off Rolf’s boat and took a stern line to the back of the dock to keep the pressure off his docklines. Rolf and an Austrian friend, Harald, are climbers. They left in the morning, heading toward east Greenland for some climbing.

Augpilagtoq is one of those special spots we cruisers dream about. It is very isolated, seldom visited by yachties and is home to about 100 friendly folks who are happy you are there. The Inuit locals are true hunters and fishermen. The village consists of a store, a school with one teacher and a church. Mary, Dick and I wandered the village for two days. During the evenings, a parade of local residents stopped by Egret simply out of curiosity and to try their English.

The crown jewel of southwest Greenland cruising is Prince Christian Sound. The length of this sound has to be one of the most ruggedly spectacular places on earth. We passed two connecting fjords before entering the sound itself, hand-steering around icebergs the entire way into the sound. Once in the sound, there were fewer bergs, but we still hand-steered.

Remnants of massive glaciers sit in high pockets along the shore; one small area had nine pockets of glacier ice. In a few places there are narrow cuts into the rock with glaciers in the ends; wide blue snouts reach down to the water, with the ice cap overhead. It was magic. We crept along at 4 to 5 knots, trying to absorb as much as we could.

Eventually we came to the east end of Prince Christian Sound and the meteorological station dock for the night. We called the station on VHF 9, asking permission to dock and if we might come up and meet the staff—yes and yes. The cruising guide is very specific as to which single dock has safe depths and no rocks. There are range markers for the narrow approach, and we learned quickly to have patience before turning toward the dock. The water is clear, and there were rocks everywhere. It was a bow-in, starboard side-tie, and no other options. Later this proved to be good in an unexpected way.

 There is a path behind this large Icelandic waterfall. It was a one shot opportunity before the mist soaked the camera and lens.

There is a path behind this large Icelandic waterfall. It was a one shot opportunity before the mist soaked the camera and lens.

The station, originally built by Americans after World War II, has a crew of five. It is not a meteorological station per se, but a repeater station for aircraft and Greenlandic shipping information. They get between 11 and 16 cruising boats a year. We were surprised to hear that polar bears visit occasionally. They’d had four bears this year, one just a week before on Egret’s very dock. Yikes! If that weren’t enough, a house-size piece of ice moved in, and we had to stand ice watch all night.

In the morning while still tied to the dock, we used prop wash to move it away. Otherwise, we would have had to use the dinghy as a tug to push it away. After solving the ice issue, Egret departed for the rarely visited anchorage of Kuugarmiut, near the head of Lindenow Fjord on Greenland’s east coast. This region is usually shrouded in enough ice to make things dicey. The time of our visit was an exception, but at first, we didn’t think so.

There are two routes into Kuugarmiut; one is a longer, scenic route around a few islands, and the other a shorter, 3-mile, narrow, twisting route around the island itself. The first route appeared to be completely blocked by tabular ice. We checked and rechecked with binoculars, but it was an 8-mile gamble each way, so we decided to try the second option. This entrance, at first sight, seemed to be unnavigable as well.

We gave it a go by slowly bumping in and out of gear, moving around each berg and between bergs, sometimes quite close to shore with one foot on the beach, so to speak. When an iceberg melts, it fizzes from the air that’s trapped under pressure in the ice escaping. While navigating the waterway, it sounded like a chorus of crickets.

To navigate, all we had was a hand-drawn sketch in the guide; the chart plotter showed no soundings. The boat was traveling well ashore according to the plotter, and we weren’t quite sure where the anchorage was. It was the slowest, most exhilarating three miles in Egret’s travels. It was wild!

Finally, down went “TK,” Egret’s trusty bad-boy anchor, in 40 feet and all was well. We celebrated with more glacier ice and a splash of spirits. In the anchorage, there was only a single car-size piece of ice drifting around in the current. It was kid stuff compared to the drifting houses. We slept well, and Egret departed for Reykjavik, Iceland, the next morning at 0345, cruising out an ice-free third entrance with three minke whales spouting in the distance.

Iceland Bound

There wasn’t much big ice off the east coast of Greenland, but what there was super-size—city block size—and of course it was foggy. The good news was that not one of the icebergs trailed smaller ice like the west coast bergs. The ice was no biggie because it popped up on radar larger than a ship. By early afternoon there was no more ice, and the seas began to diminish to well-spaced swells.

The balance of the trip to Reykjavik was a downhill ride, with increasing winds the last day and then relative calm before our arrival.

Egret arrived in Reykjavik at 0500 Greenland time—0700 Iceland time. The trip took four days, one hour and 15 minutes, or 97.25 hours, with an average speed of 6.54 knots and mileage of 3.25nm per U.S. gallon. Egret berthed at Brokey Yacht Club in downtown Reykjavik, next to the Harpa Centre. We called port control on VHF 12, and they called customs, which came by the dock. After filling out a number of forms, we checked into Iceland for a year.

Reykjavik is a modern, bustling city, the capital of Iceland and “tourist central.” Iceland is no longer a secret. The word is out. You can’t imagine a more beautiful country.

 Iceland’s Niagara Falls is even more spectacular partially frozen in winter. Above: Mary enjoys a rum and coke chilled with tabular iceberg ice.

Iceland’s Niagara Falls is even more spectacular partially frozen in winter. Above: Mary enjoys a rum and coke chilled with tabular iceberg ice.

Soon after arriving, we got an email from Canadian friends we had first met in Tahiti aboard their Nordhavn 55, New Paige. Roger and Joan were in Germany and popped by for a visit. We rented a car together and toured both coasts of southern Iceland. It was spectacular. The west coast is wild, rugged and windswept, with waterfalls everywhere, including one that is a “wrong way” waterfall. The east coast is rugged as well, although less windy, with an ominous black volcanic sand shore backed by sheer basalt rock.

 A colorful village at water's edge.

A colorful village at water's edge.

Egret spent three weeks in Reykjavik and then moved on an overnighter to Isafjordur in the West Fjords, anticipating a stay of several days and then slowly moving around the fjords to her winter port in Akureyri. As soon as our docklines were secure in Isafjordur, several locals with sailboats began their hard sell. We listened, but as always, Egret’s safety is paramount, so we took the precaution of renting a car for two days and driving to Akureyri to check out their docks. We returned with our decision: Isafjordur it was.

What a great summer cruise it had been. Egret had traveled 4,176 nm on her latest personal voyage of discovery, the latter part among whales and ice. What could possibly make it better? When you get to do it.