Arctic Spirit
Yachting World|February 2022
Battling severe weather in an ice field, the crew are floored when the schooner Bowdoin dives beneath a freezing wave
By Tom Cunliffe, Photography by Library of Congress/Corbis/Getty Images

Today, the auxiliary schooner Bowdoin operates under the flag of the Maine Maritime Academy, making training runs to Labrador and Greenland.

Launched in 1921, the 66-ton Bowdoin was the brainchild of Donald (Mac) MacMillan, an explorer of the far north. Specifically built for the Arctic at 88ft x 21ft, she is double-planked and double-framed in oak, beefed up at the waterline with a 5ft belt of 1½in greenheart. Her rudder is extra-large for manoeuvring in ice, her propeller is super-deep and the hull sections are rounded to rise up when nipped in ice.

Mac knew exactly what he was about, but for most of us he might have remained obscure but for the book his wife wrote in the 1930s about voyaging with him and his crew to north-west Greenland. Miriam MacMillan's I married an Explorer is long out of print but well worth chasing down. In this extract, she describes how Mac works the Bowdoin through a potentially disastrous ice situation to see the ship safely home.

"When we left the village behind, a dozen Eskimos (sic) escorted us out of the harbour in their kayaks, their silver wakes speckled with sunlight as they skimmed gracefully over a perfectly calm sea. Unable at last to keep up with our gathering speed, they ceased their efforts and, resting on their paddles, waved and shouted until we were well on our course. We watched these swarthy hunters of the North as they turned about and slowly paddled away. After they had turned toward home they never looked back. I thought of Mac sailing away from me in the Thebaud before we were married. He never looked back, either. Was this a habit bred by some mysterious influence of the north, I wondered?

Seafarer and author, Miriam MacMillan

The following morning, a chilly outlook greeted me when I stepped on deck although it was the middle of August. The cause lay directly ahead – an ice field of tremendous proportions. Mac estimated that it reached out from Baffin Land for at least a hundred miles, completely blocking our route home.

For hours we zigzagged in search of a good lead. If this wind hauls to the east, said Mac drily, it'll divide the pack in two. I knew what that meant. We could easily be caught between the two great sections and carried off wherever Old Torngak, the Evil Spirit of the North, cared to take us. Hundreds of ships had been destroyed there in September and October gales.

With no radio, lighthouses or fog-horns for hundreds of miles around, and only a few seals and two huge finback whales to entertain us, we felt awfully alone. That whale is as long as the Bowdoin, said Don, when a tremendous black body bulged out of water. The second time it came up it was close enough to the ship for us to see that it was nearly as long as the Bowdoin, 70 feet at least.

But the ice field concerned us more than any whale. Like a great octopus, those icy arms tightened round, holding us firmly. Ice pans large enough to carry our crew down through Baffin Bay jostled us on all sides. For flatness, size, and smoothness we could have our choice.

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