Hello Boys and Girls! Good to have you back again so soon! What with all the polar bears chewing things, crazy currents and winds, and not to mention a complete change of plans ahead, we figured another update was in order.
But before we get into all that, can we just say a big thank you to everyone who's been writing us messages online - we get them every day, and really enjoy reading them, and we're sorry that we haven't been able to reply to them for a while - a bit of a techie glitch in my website coding i'm afraid. I'll get it sorted and we'll go back and reply ASAP we promise! =) And for everyone who responded to my call-out for replacement engine sources - we were blown away with over 50 helpful leads, thanks! Unfortunately we have already missed the cutoff for the last cargo barge this season to Cambridge Bay, so what we're going to do is leave it for now, and while back in Oz over the Northern Winter, I'll organise a new head for the engine to be sent up here for us (still heavy, but light enough to fly-in) and we'll fit that when we return, which will certainly prolong the life of our engine, and free me up from the stress of knowing that the only thing between our engine flooding with water is that plug of glue! And then we'll organise for a refurbished engine to be sent by road to wherever our 2012 end-point will be (possibly Anchorage, Alaska, or Nome, or?) and replace it then.
So there we were - back in Port Leopold - wandering around the bizarre middens of whale bones, when through the binoculars we saw the big old polar bear leave the Beluga whale remains and lumber off into the distance. "I wonder if he'll be back to eat some more?" Jess thought aloud. A sly grin played over my lips as I formed a tantalising but slightly insane idea. "Imagine if we..." I ventured, already knowing this was stupid, "Imagine if we put a GoPro camera on the kill, and set it to take a pic, say every minute..." Jess's responsible, warning frown didn't look very convincing. "Imagine the pics we could get..." I pushed on, sheepishly, "Low down, looking up at the bear as he ate.. I've never seen a photo like it. I'd be awesome!" Jess's frown broke, and the undeniable excitement won over. "Do you think it'd work?" "Only one way to find out - we've got 2 cameras, we can afford to loose one, right?"
And so it was that I found myself, hair standing on end, gradually edging closer and closer to disconcertingly blood-smeared area of rocks surrounding the remains of the little whale, my whole body absolutely electric with nerves. Yes I had a shotgun with me (ideally to scare a bear off), a can of bear-spray tucked inside my pocket, Jess (flare gun in hand) keeping watch beside the dingy 50m away from me, outboard already purring, and the surrounding area only had limited places for a bear to be hiding, but still, I'll admit I was terrified. It was a pretty gross scene, reeking of whale. At last I stood beside it, and tore my gaze away from scanning my surroundings long enough to wedge the little GoPro camera beside the carcass, taking into account the lighting angle etc, weighed the edges of the mini bendable tripod legs down with some stones, turned it on, and hurried back to Jess, shaking with the adrenaline coursing through my system. "Quick, let's get outta here!" I mumbled.
Back onboard, the day drifted on without any sign of any bears returning. We did a few chores, downloaded the latest GRIB weather file through our GMN's xGate compressed Iridium system, and raised our eyebrows at the rather ferocious belt of wind (up to 30kn) roaring through Lancaster Sound from the east, explaining the increasing wind whipping up the water even in our anchorage behind what should have been a protective mountain. We were in just the lower part of the belt, but getting out of here would still involve a good 5hrs sail south through it before reaching calmer conditions. "Do we wait it out, or?" It was a tricky call. Languishing in indecision, I suddenly saw it - the telltale white blob in the distance back on what looked like the same spot as the kill. "It's back!" I shouted, already imagining the Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning images it was surely capturing. "Bet it ran out of battery or memory card space just as the bear walks towards it." I laughed, so excited I could barely contain myself.
As we waited, the wind picked up still further, the temp dropped, and it started to get dark beneath the monster cloud that was boiling up over the top of the mountain. Though only a couple of hundred meters from shore, the wind-chop / fetch was already dangerously high for being in a dingy, even without icy cold water, or polar bears waiting downwind. We decided it was too risky to recover the camera that night, and went to sleep. The next day the wind was worse, but motivated by just how dark it got that night (our days are getting shorter, which is a worry for ice sailing ahead), and the latest GRIB showing this wind not letting up for days and then worsening further south, we decided we had to bite the bullet and get outta here, make a break for the calmer conditions still lingering further south and onwards. But we still had to get the damn GoPro camera. A brief lull in the wind flattened the chop down to an acceptable level, and we donned our GoreTex drysuits, and put the gun etc in a waterproof bag. "What if the outboard fails?" I said, uncertain suddenly as I stepped into the dingy, "I couldn't row into this." "It's never let us down yet." Jess had a point - we are smugly proud of how reliable our start-first-pull-every-time outboard has been. "I guess we could always walk around the bay until we were upwind and then drift down onto Teleport." I agreed, and we launched our camera rescue mission, belting unsteadily across to the far shore, over and through the waves, learning fast about how to rev the outboard up and down to time various wave encounters... pausing to hastily pump-out whenever the dingy started to bog down and labour under the weight of the 50L-75L of freezing cold water we'd copped... we eventually got to the shore, and once convinced the area was bear-free, tottered over to.. to.. where was it? I couldn't find it. Nothing. Not even the kill. My lightening retrieval operation deteriorated into what felt like hours of wandering terrified and aimless in bear country (probably only 3 minutes), and just as I was about to give up, something caught my eye. It was the battery of the GoPro camera. Just sittin there. Badly chewed. Nearby I found the mangled camera, minus it's shockproof, waterproof (but evidently not bear-proof) housing, and one leg of the mini tripod. I scooped it all up and bailed back to Jess and the dingy, and we started slamming our way back through the icy waves towards Teleport, while I silently prayed that the memory card in the camera was sill OK. Suddenly about 1/2 way back to the boat, the outboard sputtered and died.
You can imagine the various scenes that flashed through my head in the two seconds it took me to turn, and pull starter cord. Thankfully, just like my heart, it started again instantly and we made it safely back. I pulled out the SD memory card which was dinged, and wet with a combination of water and leaked battery acid, dried it in front of the heater for the 5 minutes my patience allowed, and stuck it into my laptop. It worked! So excited! Opened up the folder full of pics, and skimmed hastily, then slowly, back through them. Devastatingly, there was not a single image of a bear. It got some wicked low angle shots of seagulls perched onto of the bloody mess, and that was about it. Then the tide came in (higher than I thought!) and submerged the camera (lots of weedy underwater shots), then it ran out of battery. Damnit! What a let-down! But still, no regrets, it was an exciting project.
The fog out to sea started to lift, and after we checked we could actually motor forward into the howling wind, we pulled up the anchor (by hand, as always) and left in a convenient lull around 7PM, swinging out towards the exit of the bay, past a big berg. "What are those things on the horizon?" Jess asked, "Those big lumpy things?" It was the swell. The gale, having blown for a day or so now, had heaved our once mirror-like Lancaster Sound into something faintly resembling the southern Greenland. They weren't angry waves (especially after we reached the calmer 10-15kn zone further south) but they were large enough to have us surfing down 1/2 of them, and with the wind at our back, we positively flew, even heavily reefed to our top triangles only. Better yet, we didn't need to run the engine at all, saving heaps of our carefully rationed diesel fuel, and all the wind whirling our AirBreeze wind turbine charged our batteries to the max!
We enjoyed an exceptionally fast passage from Port Lawrence to Fort Ross, covering the 140 miles in 24hrs. Jess apparently spotted a Beluga whale (AKA White Whale) that surfaced (apparently) right beside us while she was on night-watch, but it had (conveniently) vanished before her excited shouts had me, dazed, in the cockpit in my Icebreaker thermals. Sure. Whatever Jess. Where's the photo? Haha.
During the very roly-poly passage, our beloved ice-pole managed to escape it's bindings on deck and fall overboard, still with the GoPro attachment on it! Luckily (?), it didn't still have the camera on it, but only because that was the camera we'd undone to put on the polar bear kill. Either way, seems fate had decided we were going to lose that camera hey.
We at last dropped anchor in the evening at Fort Ross, a former Hudson's Bay Company trading post which was abandoned in 1948, when for two successive years, it's supply vessels had been unable to reach it due to ice. We had intended to take the next day off, explore the two huts ashore, and prepare ourselves to tackle the infamous 'Bellot Strait' the next day, however looking at the weather prognosis and timings for the all-critical tides that roar in and out of the strait, we decided it best (as always it seems, damnit) that we'd be better to depart at the crack of dawn. Though it was already 10PM, we didn't want to miss out on investigating the huts, so after dinner we promptly flipped the dingy in, popped the outboard on and zipped ashore. I should mention here that we carry a tiny backup dingy with us whenever we go ashore (one of those pathetic little 2-man, blow-up things where the paddle and all fit in a $20 box (except as we bought ours in Pond Inlet - the ends of the earth - it cost us $75) slightly larger than a shoebox. Why? Because apparently polar bears have a nasty habit of shredding inflatables left unguarded. I can't really blame them, it'd be like a dog's chewy-toy - it'd probably even squeak excitingly as it burst. But being then marooned onshore with a bear and water too cold to swim... hence the second dingy. Anyway, scattered around the huts were all sorts of old rusting paraphernalia (even the rusting head of several engines that embarrassingly looked tantalisingly like ours), and inside the main hut (completely boarded up against bears) was completely stocked as a shelter for travellers - full of everything from food, to shotgun bullets, traps, heaters, fuel, stoves, places to sleep, maps, and most importantly the ting we'd been told about (Thanks Peter) - the visitors book! We gently turned the pages, reading entries from even before Jess was born, of passing icebreakers, hydrographic charting vessels, winter sled expeditions, and more recently, various yachts too. I even found the entry from a friend of mine, Brent Boddy, when he sailed through aboard the historic Dagmar a few years back. Very cool. We added our blurb, and a pic of Teleport, sealed up the hut again and hurried back to the dingy. Thankfully, it was still inflated, and we were soon asleep, with our alarm clocks set to wake us in 5hrs.
Next morning unfolded precisely to our carefully orchestrated plan. We work at 6:00 AM, Breaky at 6:15 (porridge, no surpass there), hand-start the engine (no surprise there) and heave up anchor at 6:30 (arms certainly aching by now), hoist mainsail (oh my arms! No winches for this.), then 1hr to travel the 4 miles to the start of Bellot Strait, arriving bang on time (actually 2min late) at 7:50. This means we arrived exactly two hours before predicted 9:48 AM high-tide, so the current was still flowing out towards us as the tide continued to rise, but only weakly. We could see the current from the telltale ripples in the confused water, and the odd tiny standing wave, but we managed to easily motor into it at 4kn. The reason this was all so deadly serious is that the tides rip through here at 8-9kn (like twice as fast as we could motor against it), and has a habit of trying to suck unwary boats down onto a cunningly just-submerged 'Magpie Rock' in the middle of the entrance. As boats need to be moving through to the water they're in to be able to steer with their rudder, (not just merrily swept along with the water), it was critical we started off when we did. As we only draw 5 foot 6 deep, I decided to ignore the leading markers guiding us in, and instead basically just hugged as close to the northern side of the strait as I could, watching the depthsounder. It worked a charm, and we motored past well clear of the dreaded rock at 4kn, hoisted the sail as the current started to turn, switched engine off and flew out the other end of the 18 mile passage by 10:30. Phew!
We continued on South, arriving at last at Tasmania Islands just as the sun really went down, and it actually started to get dark (That's a first for months!). We nearly discovered Teleport Rock on the way in - a large area of breaking water over a slightly submerged rock platform just below the surface, completely unmarked on the chart, in about 200 feet of water! And the inlet we aimed for on the chart turned into two completely separate islands with a channel between them. (These charts leave HEAPS to be desired - much of the depth measurements up here comprise simply of one line of depth readings, evidently taken as a ship passed through, once. The rest of the empty white voids are left open to interpretation!). So we skipped that non-inlet, and continued on another hour to another one, which did actually exist, however the shallowest we could find to anchor was 40 feet, and we were only about 200 feet from the crumbling rocky walls of the inlet on each side (Remembering that you're supposed to put out about 7x the depth out in actor chain & rope (10x in windy times!), that means if we swung at night we'd smack into the sides of the inlet!). Being past midnight we were too tired to look any further, and the wind was light and wasn't predicted to swing, so we dropped anchor, only let out an embarrassingly short rode, and went to sleep, with the anchor-alarm set tight on our VesperMarine AIS Watchmate thing which has proved invaluable.
Despite planning to leave at 6AM with our alarm clock set, neither of us woke till MIDDAY! We must have been dog tired from the last few hectic days! So, having missed our scheduled departure, and being such a perfectly sunny, still day, and feeling wonderfully rested for the first time in ages, we decided to chill out for a couple of hours, I made pancakes for breaky, and when I finally popped my head outside, I locked eyes with a polar bear standing on the very closest point of land to us, staring right at me. Cool. Sorry dude, no chewy cameras today.
We also spent a few hours pouring over our charts with a pair of dividers stepping out distances, staring at our GRIB weather files, analysing the latest ice charts, and doing various fuel calculations on our now excess fuel, before we decided upon a change of plans for our route ahead! Normally, McClintock Channel (basically separating us from Victoria Island now) is absolutely jam packed solid with ice, year-round, extending pretty well right down to King William Island, forcing all but ice-breakers to take an annoying dogleg all the way around underneath King William Island (stopping at the town of Gjoa Haven there). In fact, the discovery that this route under King William Island does usually melt and open in mid-summer was the key to the discovery of a successful The Northwest Passage - Good ol Franklin tried to go direct, and well, we all know what happened to him (actually no one does exactly, but we all know that he, his two ships, and all his men perished). But anyway, this year, the ice is melting (or has already melted, actually) just about everywhere - the entire bottom part of McClintock Channel is basically completely ice free (well, less than 1/10th Ice, so the chart says), and so we're going to go direct from here to Victoria Island, shaving almost 200 clicks off our journey, and hopefully getting us in the lee of Vic Is before the next bout of cruel Westerly winds would otherwise pin us in Gjoa Haven. I'm not even sure if any vessel besides icebreakers have ever had this opportunity of this route before? Anyone?
So that's where we are at the moment, we've left Tasmania Islands, and are headed directly for the south east coast of Victoria Island, not that far from where Clark and I started our hauling expedition across that same island all those years ago. Interestingly, it is almost exactly 3 years ago to the day that Clark and I returned home having reached the far western side of Victoria Island, and therefore, three years to the day since I started going out with Jess! So it's our anniversary tomorrow. Pancakes again I do believe!
Guess what?! Jess is going to write the next update, so stay tuned for the real story! =)