To the ice and beyond

By Graeme Kendall

At the age of 63 Kiwi sailor Graeme Kendall, in his yacht the Astral Express, conquered the “Everest of sailing” — the first solo journey through the Northwest passage, a treacherous Arctic sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In this extract from a new book, Kendall reveals the moment the adventure almost claimed him.
Kiwi yachtsman Graeme Kendall sails into Auckland's Viaduct Harbour. Photo / Richard Robinson
Kiwi yachtsman Graeme Kendall sails into Auckland's Viaduct Harbour. Photo / Richard Robinson

With the wind freshening in the afternoon I set the alarms to take a nap.

I woke with my heart in my mouth, another tremendous bang echoing through the boat from below. Bells were ringing. What the hell! Waking up with a sound like that is horrific. You hear this noise and you don't know if you're dreaming it or if it's actually happened.

What could it be? I knew there was no ice in the area (Queen Maud Gulf). I must have run aground. Again I rushed on deck to survey the situation. Sure enough - hard aground.

I immediately dropped all sails and walked around the deck looking down to see what I had run aground on. The water was crystal clear, about two metres deep, but I could see that I had run aground on a boulder bank, the boulders small, smooth and slippery with lichen. The incredible noise came from the lead bulb on the bottom keel grinding over these rocks.

I was acutely aware of how remote I was out there. This was potentially a dire situation.

Increasing my difficulty was that because I'd already been sailing with the keel up, I didn't have the option of raising it to float off the rocks.

In ordinary life there's always someone to call in an emergency - a friend, a doctor, a policeman. Something, someone. Not here.

I did have a credit card with me, my thinking being that if I needed to call for a helicopter in a disaster I could, although where that was going to come from, who knows. Under that scenario I would have to abandon the boat and maybe go back next season to see if it was still there. That was such an awful scenario I could scarcely even consider it.

If I got iced in and stayed, the practicalities of trying to live for six months in the dark, with everything frozen up around me, were not attractive. I would soon run out of battery power, although I could run the engine occasionally. But the toilet wouldn't work. And there would be no certainty that when summer rolled around I could get off. Ice doesn't always melt from one year to another, and I'd still be grounded.

Far better to solve this problem.

Think it through!

After checking the depth again, I could see that the shoal seemed to fall away on the starboard side. With the wind coming from the port side, the headsail might swing the boat to starboard and off this shoal. Also, I could raise the keel a few more centimetres if I could remove the huge stainless steel pin that usually held it up. So I did this using the hydraulic pump, then quickly unfurled the headsail, sheeting it in tight as Astral Express turned in the desired direction and began to move.

As I eased the headsail she picked up speed and the keel moved clear. Then crunch again. Lifting the keel that far meant the rudder was hanging down below the keel and now it was hitting the rocks. But with a few bumps the rudder popped the pin holding it in its casing and slid up about 200 millimetres. We were free and off. Phew!

I didn't need any more of these shocks. I got the sails up again, and I carried on, jittery with relief.

Afterwards people asked me why I didn't use the motor. It was always there as an option - it wasn't like a yacht race where you couldn't use it. But I preferred not to use it if I didn't need to. Partly it was a point of pride. And in this instance I knew that I'd turn the boat faster by putting the headsail up. The headsail was like having a motor in the front. It turned the boat, twisted it on the keel and then moved it forward.

The shoal was on the charts but it might have been slightly bigger than when it was mapped, or the charts could have been off. Although they're quite accurate they can be out a few metres or a few hundred metres. It means you can't rely on GPS and have to be vigilant with radar and sight.

It was a huge relief to be able to spin the boat and sail out. But I was feeling pretty spooked. I was a bit sleep-deprived, but these near misses exacerbated the feeling I had about this part of the world - I had no desire to hang around here. It felt like a hot potato. Let's get the hell out of here. I had that feeling all the time. Keep moving.

I had the feeling that I was in - not forbidden territory exactly - but an area of the world that really wasn't designed for humans. Not for me, anyway. It's inhospitable.

I know people do live there - they fish, live off the land, dress for the weather. But I suppose I'm expressing my personal response to its remoteness and its harshness.

I was on my own. I had been on my own for months when I sailed from Auckland up to this region and it hadn't bothered me, nor struck me particularly. But up here I felt it. I was totally on my own. If I can't do it myself, no-one else is going to do it for me.

Intrepid journey

• Graeme Kendall sailed solo from Auckland to Auckland covering 28,000 miles and 32 oceans and seaways.

• The journey was eight years in the planning and took 193 days in 2010.

• Its central point was the Northwest Passage - a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean, and along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

• The passage is sealed by ice for more than 10 months of the year.

• Between the end of the 15th century and the 20th century, explorers searched for a route through the treacherous waters.

• In 1845, 129 men from two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, disappeared and over the centuries other ships disappeared or were "crushed like a nut on the shoals and buried in the ice".

• It was conquered in 1906, by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

• On September 14, 2007, the European Space Agency said that, based on satellite images, ice loss had opened up the passage for the first time since records began in 1978.

To the Ice and Beyond: Sailing Solo Across 32 Oceans and Seaways is available in bookshops from Monday, RRP $45.

- NZ Herald

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