October 13, 2011
The Payoff Published in Windcheck Magazine
This article originally appeared in Windcheck Magazine October 2011
This summer we set sail once again, but this voyage was a little different for two reasons. Firstly, this would be an extended voyage together aboard one boat. During our previous journey to the Bahamas, we each sailed solo, side-by-side, aboard two separate boats. Second, our destination this time was not a specific harbor. It wasn’t even a fixed location. Instead, we were on a quest to see something roving, something that’s location can only be described in one word: North. We wanted to see an iceberg and it didn’t matter how far North we needed to travel to do so. We were northbound, bound for…well…North.
We looked forward to departing Long Island. After all, the water is always bluer on the other side, and Long Island was experiencing a blistering heat wave. I (Teresa) was cranky from the heat and being steeped in my own sweat. On June 8th, replete with all the equipment necessary for making an independent film, a motley crew of four boarded Elizabeth, a 28’ Channel Cutter. Ben and I shared command of the vessel. Dory the cat kept our feet warm at night. Chris, the Director of Photography from Doctrine Creative, had never been sailing before, but his job was to document on film the truth about living aboard, voyaging on a small vessel, and the quest to find an iceberg. None of us could prognosticate what our summer would actually be like, but we were all ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
We waved goodbye to Huntington Harbor around noon and during that first night sailed right into the heart of a cold front with unfettered lightning striking everywhere around us. With each intense burst of light and sound, visions of disaster reverberated in my mind. All of us, huddled together in the cockpit, discussed the location of fire extinguishers, the dinghy launching procedure and the likely results of a direct strike, feeling that at any moment we could be dealing with a complete loss of electrical systems, a fire, or even an abandon ship situation the third night, a calm but cold rain set in, and from the next day on, the wind was on our nose and the cold was biting our skin. In stark contrast to just a few days before, we were all interminably wet and cold and longed for even just one day when the wintry weather would give way to summer. But it never did, the cold persevered, and we settled into a routine that included frequent hot beverages and belly warming comfort foods.
Ben and I maintained a watch rotation schedule of three hours on, three hours off throughout the day and night while underway. Chris didn’t stand a watch, but was awake at various times during both night and day to film the events of the moment or to share a meal together. In an attempt to stay warm, and being the only way to dry our wet clothes, we spent as much time in our bunks as possible. When we weren’t standing watch, filming, eating, or using the head, we were curled up under as many blankets as we could keep piled on top of our slippery sleeping bags. The person on watch was responsible for replacing the fallen blankets, that repeatedly made their way to the damp cabin sole.
Contrary to our expectations of warm and favorable summertime South Westerlies, most of what we saw were cold, clammy North Easterlies ― right on the nose. Front after front crossed the Canadian maritimes, passing from West to East, intersecting our path with regularity. As we charged through relentless wind and waves, we questioned our sanity and asked ourselves, “Is this really worth it?” Doubt about seeing the icebergs filled our minds during watch, as we tried to keep Elizabeth moving at best possible speed. Iceberg season peaks in early May, and this was mid June already. Time was also against us. But, despite our doubts, our commitment to the quest carried us onward.
As we made progress North, the water temperature dropped a few degrees each day, until it finally dipped below the freezing point ― a chilly thirty-one degrees. This caused condensation on the cabin sole and beneath the bunk cushions, which added to the damp discomfort already in full effect from the only weather options available this year: fog or rain.
The west coast of Newfoundland (which is pronounced so that it rhymes with understand) is striking, but also foreboding. It’s a long coastline of tall, jagged rock cliffs, and mountains with very few harbors. The Strait of Belle Isle, the narrow body of water between Newfoundland and Labrador, is feeding ground for Humpback and Wright Whales. The abundant marine mammal population kept us company on lonely night watches with their familiar and comforting exhales…and maybe we kept them company too. On day 20, which was a typically brisk and gusty day, under double reefed main and stays’l, we rounded the northern tip of Newfoundland, eased sheets and made way for St. Anthony, the ‘big city’ of northern Newfoundland.
2010 was one of the worst years on record for the iceberg tourism industry, and this year wasn’t showing much promise of improvement. In St. Anthony we spent some time catching up on showers, laundry, email, a few boat projects and some re-provisioning. The sun even managed to come out for a few hours. Further research and discussion about catching a glimpse of what we were now calling ‘the elusive iceberg’ led us to finally ask some fishermen, who had just returned from a few days out trawling for shrimp, where we might find some ‘bergs’. In thick ‘Newfie’ brogue, they asked us ‘why would you want to do that, we try to avoid them!’ Then went on to tell us of a huge iceberg that was flowing south in the Labrador Current, and wasn’t more than a few days North of St. Anthony. This report was confirmed in the next days’ newspaper, with a front page article “Too Big For One Photograph!” which featured a photo showing only part of this ‘once in a lifetime sized’ iceberg. This particular iceberg was part of the Peterman Ice Island, the largest chunk of glacier to break off in years, and it was headed right for us.
With the adrenaline flowing we spent the next day we preparing for the arrival of this giant iceberg. We charged the batteries to our cameras, cleared our SD cards, watched the weather and news reports to learn all we could about this massive chunk of ice. The papers claimed it was longer than several football fields, and stood over 5 stories tall.
We hauled anchor at 0830 the next morning with surprisingly clear skies above us. We could almost make out the shape of the sun! Upon clearing the rocky entrance to the harbor we immediately saw on the distant horizon a gleaming white chunk emerging majestically from the ocean. The weeks of rain, cold, and head-winds were immediately forgotten. Jumping up and down while hugging one another and cheering like we’d just won the lottery, we pointed the bow toward ‘our elusive iceberg’ and set full sail.
As we approached, we realized there were actually two icebergs. One was tabular, meaning flat on top and extending in a straight column down into the sea. This one we later learned, was so deep that it had ‘grounded-out’ on the sea floor in over 350′ of water, for what turned out to be a few weeks. The second one peaked on top, like a little snow-capped mountain. The ice was more blue than white, arranged in stratified colorful layers. It was glassy-hard in some places and snowy-soft in others. Surrounding the ice was a community of birds and seals that followed along as the ice drifted south. On top of one iceberg rested a pond with its own ecosystem and wildlife. The other berg featured a waterfall, pouring water over its edge and plunging loudly into the ocean.
Ben and I sailed around the icebergs several times. The view was absolutely stunning from the deck of Elizabeth, and surely it would be even more so from above. We quickly rigged our “kite-cam” with excitement, perhaps a little too much excitement, because Ben accidentally over stressed one of the struts, and broke it in two. “Oh no! Not now, when we finally get to see this once-in-a-lifetime iceberg!” I exclaimed. But, upon further diagnosing the problem, we realized the kite would fly just fine with the broken strut, so we carried on stretching out our 11’ wide kite and positioned it for a launch. The kite is actually wider than the boat and during lift off has to navigate the narrow opening between the main boom, the wind generator and the boom gallows in order to find clean air for flight. With a toss and a prayer the kite took off. Up she went about 40′, at which point we attached the camera box to the kite line, and let her fly even higher. With the camera rolling we circled the iceberg a few more times, dancing around one another as we tacked the jib, the stays’l and the kite! We wouldn’t be able to see the footage until later that evening, we could only guess that the iceberg and Elizabeth were in the frame together and that the exposure was set correctly. Primitive by some standards, but exciting by our standards, and unlike hiring a helicopter, the price of this ‘aerial footage’ was within our budget ― Free!
Ben and I collected a little bergy bit, heated it in a saucepan, and tasted it, “not even slightly salty” Ben noted whimsically. Several fishing boats surrounded the icebergs, harvesting the larger chunks that had broken off. They bottle and sell this iceberg water as drinking water or use in the manufacturing of Iceberg Vodka. Iceberg water is the purest water on the planet. It was formed long ago, before humans built cities and machines that polluted the air and soil. This pure ancient water, had been preserved in the northern glaciers for thousands of years but now as a result of climate change, is moving slowly south, melting away and assimilating with the rest of the world’s water supply.
What a priceless experience it is to see a piece of ancient history floating by, and to experience so close, the simple beauty of nature. We came a long way, through some of the most challenging sailing I have experienced. Unbearable cold, fifty knots of wind, storms, exhausting watches, all the while questioning our own goal. But as I watched the tour boats, with their guides pointing out the puffins, whales, and bergs, and tourists dressed comfortably in warm clothing and disposable ponchos, I came to understand that the payoff of seeing this natural wonder would not be worth even half as much without the journey.