Into the Denmark Strait
Ocean Navigator|November - December 2020
A bristlingly cold gale whipped across the silvery North Atlantic and up the narrow fjord.
MARY MCINTYRE

The wind rattled against Aurora, a 60-foot bright red sailing yacht, as it chugged slowly out of the Ísafjörður harbor. Aurora was scheduled to be my home for the next three weeks on a passage from Iceland to Greenland. When we arrived in Greenland, we planned to spend two and a half weeks of exploratory skiing along Greenland’s remote west coast. It would be an expedition with some of my best friends and ski partners.

The ship bobbed and rolled comfortably over the first swell it had felt in months. The waves gained power quickly, however, and seasickness began to set in. I haven’t fared poorly on past sailing excursions, but I had been diagnosed with mononucleosis a few weeks earlier and the strong antiviral medication made me woozy even on solid ground.

From the early stages of planning this trip, I experienced trepidation regarding the open-water crossing from Iceland to Greenland. Most sailors — and humans in general — avoid the world’s northern oceans in early March. The weather is notoriously cold and stormy. But in my mind, the crossing was a means to getting to the wild areas in Greenland where we planned to ski.

We started preparing for this expedition in the fall of 2019. We had eight spots to fill on the boat and wanted a group that would not only have fun while sharing tight quarters for weeks on end, but also bring a variety of skills and knowledge to our off-the-grid adventure. Decisions about snowpack safety and route choice would be ours alone to make, and we needed to get things right. If an accident happened in the mountains of Greenland, we would be on our own to render aid and evacuate any serious injuries. That was the part I was familiar with. As a skier, runner, climber, and mountain biker living in Utah, listening to the mountains is second nature. The ocean … not so much. That felt like a big, scary unknown. The idea of being on open water between Iceland and Greenland for four days terrified me.

The days leading up to the boat’s departure were filled with uncertainty and stress. Our group — hailing from the U.S., Switzerland, France, and Greenland — worked the stress out of our systems by backcountry skiing in the mountains surrounding the town of Ísafjörður. Nestled against the edge of the dark sea, this small hub of Iceland’s West Fjords region was picturesque and charming. Fishing boats bobbed in a half-frozen harbor, the eaves of colorful houses were draped with icicles, and 2,000-foot-high rock walls rising above town were painted white with months of snow. It was a beautiful place to wait for the weather to improve.

We practiced avalanche scenarios, simulated pulling someone back to the boat on a rescue sled, and honed our skills as a team. The weather was terrible; blizzards, strong winds and low visibility were forecasted for the two weeks ahead. Our chances of leaving the harbor anywhere close to on-schedule looked bleak. Captain Hayat, a Frenchwoman well-practiced in Arctic sailing, and two Polish crew members, Pitur and Voychek, constantly checked and analyzed the weather. Finally, over a dinner of local Arctic char and buttery potatoes, they told us a weather window had opened for us to make it out of Iceland and around the southern tip of Greenland with favorable winds. It was time to pack the boat.

Discussing the plan

After we settled in and stowed our gear in the boat’s many storage compartments, we sat down to discuss the plan. It turned out that the “sailable weather” was 40-knot winds and a 5-meter (16-foot) swell. It wasn’t ideal, but these practiced Arctic sailors seemed unphased, so I tried to calm my nerves. Due to the wind, we would arc north to avoid a depression directly off the Icelandic coast before turning south down Greenland’s east coast, which was chock-full of winter sea ice and offered no chance of boat landing. Rounding the southern tip of Greenland would be the crux: winds meet from opposite directions and often cause wild waves to mix with massive icebergs breaking loose from the tongue of ice curling down along the coast. We would sail further south to avoid these house-sized chunks of ice before turning north to enter the relative calm of the western fjords.

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