Sailing for science: three months within modern day exploration


Preparing a polar expedition with Under The Pole

WHY dans fjord
The WHY in a fjord near Maniitsoq ©Louise Ras

As one can imagine, launching a three-year expedition requires colossal preparation. Under The Pole – with a staff of 8 and the help of 4 civic service youth – had only one year to prepare. From finding sufficient funding to equipping their 20-metre schooner and coordinating with the scientists there was no time to lose!

Three months before launching the expedition, endeavour was at an all-time high: a small army of volunteers arrived to help the team finalize just about everything. This is where I stepped in. Their head of science and education needed extra hands to write outreach material for their site, help fill in forms for scientific permits and animate the local primary school’s visits.

Two weeks before the departure everyone was requisitioned to work on the Why, their schooner. Even the office staff. Every reminder of the months of labour was to be removed and every corner – deck to bilges – scoured. Herds of curious people were coming to visit the schooner.

Visits intensified the week of the departure. One of the on-board scientists was there to show the eager crowd flasks of bioluminescent plankton in the foreword cabin. The team – permanent staff and volunteers alike – organized the visits and responded to questions concerning the up-coming expedition. All this came in addition to their regular workload. Preparing an expedition does indeed take a great deal of time and energy.

Why the schooner?

Deep-diving, especially in polar regions and even more so with professional cameras, requires a lot of equipment that needs to be lugged to and from dive sites. The divers, as well as the rest of the team, all need to eat, sleep, and dress warmly, which all takes space. The WHY, Under The Pole’s 20-meter schooner reveals to be an exceptional base camp for their expeditions: being a complete centreboarder, it can be sailed to the most remote fjords and lagoons with crew and heavy equipment on board.

On board the WHY with Under The Pole

I was then lucky enough to embark on the WHY with 7 others to deliver the boat in Ilulissat, Greenland. A month and a half to bring the schooner from Concarneau to Greenland – plenty of time left to stop and visit along the way, or to adapt our journey to the infamous North Atlantic depression cycle.

As the departure date was scheduled months ahead and a few small things still needed finishing, we stopped in the ports of Camaret and Brest. There we waited for the last orders to arrive and made final preparations before heading towards our next stop, the United Kingdom.

From Brest, we sailed directly to Bangor, near Belfast (Northern Ireland). During our crossing, the oven door broke. This might not seem that important but food is a key element on board if you wish to avoid mutiny. We thus set out to seek for a quick and efficient solution. With the help of a hairdresser, her many friends and some Irish luck, our oven door was fixed and ready for the great North within just a few days.

Before undertaking the Atlantic crossing to Greenland, which takes about two weeks, we had to wait for the right weather window as several depressions were making their way up the Atlantic on our route. Sailing imposes certain constraints, that bigger motor boats generally do not face. The WHY being heavily loaded, our maximum average speed was around 7 knots – not so fast for a 20-metre schooner. While sailing, one ideally goes downwind, making the sail both more comfortable, faster, and generally more direct. Energy and water are limited on board, impacting the crew’s day to day life.

Weather forecast on departure from Bangor – a perfect breeze. Blue line approximately representing our route to Arsuk, Greenland

May 31st – Departure

Oven fixed, we are leaving Bangor Northern Ireland. Two of the crew put a fishing line out and caught a mackerel that we marinated as an appetizer. Under 20 to 30 knots of wind, we set course on Greenland, quickly losing sight of the rolling Scottish hills.

June 8th, World Oceans Day

After an exhausting week slaloming through squalls, the WHY finally hit a dead calm. To avoid the worst of a succession of depressions that will cross our path, we motor on, starting to head south again as to pass 200 nautical miles south of Cape Farewell and avert the cape’s infamous currents, winds and drifting ice pans.

Fully aware the calm weather will not last, we make the most of the situation by preparing the boat and crew for the seas and winds to come. After a thorough scrubbing, it was time to ensure that nothing would move, fall from shelves or catapult into someone or something during the foul weather, knowing of course our objective would not be reached. Once we had done our best, it was time to take care of ourselves a bit. 10°C, sun, an ocean around us: what better conditions to shower on deck and do laundry? I certainly did not want to miss the chance for what would be our only shower during the 14-day crossing.

The Atlantic appears to be celebrating World Oceans Day alongside us: all day whale sightings, or at least whale blows, made our spirits soar, always hoping to be the first to spot the next one. With the image of the whale blow still fresh in mind, we would run to the board’s whale identification book: a very tall slim blow, without a doubt, it’s a blue whale! Debates would then follow, animating our watches. The show went on, culminating during our evening aperitif when a rorqual came up to breathe just metres away from the boat.

June 11th – in the heat of the storm

Dark skies, wind and cold piercing your eyes like daggers, 5 metre waves dancing diabolically around you while the WHY pursues its course across a white sea. There is now a risk of crossing icebergs and growlers, so we spend our watch eyes peeled on the lookout for anything that could be ice. We have gone from 3 to 2 hour watches, to be able to withstand the cold. The WHY hit a record speed of 15 knots with for only sail what was left of the forestaysail: the heavy swell pushing us faster than we ever could have sailed.

Inside the boat was perhaps worse than out: books flying off shelves, buckets of water streaming in through not quite watertight portholes. More water put the stove out temporarily, so our meals consisted uniquely of cold canned food eaten directly from the tin while struggling to bring the fork to the mouth without losing it all.

I pulled out my wool long underwear, but despite all the clothes I have on, I am still constantly frozen. The second hour of the watch is by far the longest. We tap our fingers together, desperately trying to warm them up, which only truly happened once we had passed the depression. As soon as the following watch takes over, we rush down below, mentally blocking the loud noises coming from the hull while physically blocking our body into a somewhat sturdy position, to try to get some rest.

passage cercle polaire
Crossing the Arctic Circle in t-shirts ©Louise Ras

June 13th – Land ahoy!

At around 4 AM, under a glowing red sunrise, the first summits of Greenland pierce their way through the clouds. As we sail closer, the WHY approaches the expedition’s first icebergs. Our goal is now Arsuk, a few nautical miles within a peaceful fjord. We have until the 29th to bring the WHY to Ilulissat, where the diving, filming and scientific crew will embark. Till then, we will slowly sail North, visiting and taking advantage of the wild landscapes that cross our route.

June 28th – the end, for me

Ilulissat, or “icebergs” in Greenlandic. What a fitting name! Ilulissat is home to the most productive glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. There are even icebergs leisurely floating around in the port, making it somewhat difficult to enter. Tourism capital of Greenland, Ilulissat was a change of pace for all of us, who felt it was indeed time to pack our bags and return home.

Louise Ras


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