Magical Passages – Sailing Greenland’s Challenging Waters

    By Krystina Scheller

    Qeqertaq Village. © Krystina Scheller and Frances Brann (2)

    Travelling by boat is my favourite way to experience Greenland, a place where the highway is the water. Just getting there is an adventure in itself and I have had magical passages I wished would never end. On this trip, Snow Dragon II, the boat I sail, pounded and clawed her way into angry seas and headwinds. However, something about the way the jagged, teeth-shaped mountains rise out of the water makes the first sight of Greenland erase any memory of hardship.

    Of course that does not mean the rest of the trip is on flat water. There are still frequent gales to avoid and taking the occasional beating when there is nowhere to hide, not to mention the beautiful but constant navigational hazards that icebergs and sea ice bring. Add the fact that nav charts are scarce, dull moments sailing in Greenlandic waters are few and far between.

    Heading north from Nuuk took patience, seasickness remedies and inventing an anchorage in uncharted waters to get protection from a southerly gale. Constant weather checks meant that sometimes instead of settling in for the night, it was time to get under way again in hope of outrunning the next gale, this time a northerly that would have delayed us by three days. The thought of a full night’s sleep consumed me as I untied the dock lines at Maniitsoq harbour. “Couldn’t the gale just wait another eight hours?”

    On the way to Ilullisat, I had just finished steering between a rock and the remains of a wreck when I heard the familiar sound of a whale breathing. Next thing I knew three humpback whales were swimming underneath the bow, raising their barnacle covered heads out of the water to have a closer look. The humpbacks made several passes and then all three fluked in a line, one right after the other. It was only four in the morning and, in my opinion, “not a bad way to start the day.”

    Navigation became more complicated on the approach to Ilullisat Harbour. At first glance the wall of icebergs filling the east side of Disko Bay looked impenetrable and it took time to find a viable lead. While slowly conning our way between towering bergs, it was amazing to watch the local boats navigate the ice maze at high-speed.

    The harbour itself is full of fishing boats. Visiting boats tie up wherever they can, and eventually get used to being bumped by boats trying to enter and exit the harbour without slowing down. Snow Dragon ended up rafted to Bagheera, a friend’s distinctive black and yellow sailboat that happened to be in port at the same time, squeezed in between fish boats and the fuel dock.

    To see for myself why tourists from around the world come to Ilulissat. I walked along the main road through town, past sled dogs chained for the summer and children playing in the sun, to the pristine board walk leading the way to Ilulissat Icefjord, a Unesco World Heritage site.

    Sled Dogs, Ilulissat.
    Sled Dogs, Ilulissat.

    I have seen thousands of icebergs and countless glaciers but nothing like the Icefjord. Once on the lookout platform I could only think about getting closer to the memorizing icebergs trapped by their size behind the terminal moraine and ditched the smooth boards for the uneven granite. Each piece of ice appeared to be a different shade of white, some glistening brightly in the sun and others more subdued in their tone. There is no question; Ilulissat Icefjord is an incredible display of nature.

    During a stop at Kangerluk, a settlement on Disko Island, I had to restrain myself from taking home a black, mischievous puppy that quickly endeared himself to me. While the adult sled dogs are required to be chained, the puppies are free to roam and play. The residents of Kangerluk welcomed us with smiles and questions about our plans for the rest of the trip. They also understood why I was so taken by the young furry creatures that were trying to assert their authority with their mothers looking on, reminding them when needed who was in charge.

    The only other visitor was a woman from Qeqertarsuaq, a community further south on Disko Island, who told me she had come to Kangerluk to take advantage of the summer weather and do some walking in the area. I could see why: the sun was out, the grass green and abundant with flowers. It was the perfect summer day. In many ways Disko Island is a smaller version of Greenland, complete with icecap, fjords, glaciers and delicate vegetation.

    A humpback whale comes alongside for a closer look.
    A humpback whale comes
    alongside for a closer look.

    Another place that intrigued me was Qeqertaq, an island tucked away in the northeast corner of Disko Bay. What I had thought would be a mellow pre-dinner walk, turned into a mini expedition when Frances whom I sail with, smiled mischievously and asked, “Is it really an island?”

    Of course I knew from the chart that Qeqertaq is an island but there was something about the granite hills feeding into the mountains on the headland that made me want to double check. And without hesitating, I responded, “I don’t know, let’s find out.”

    As I walked along the handle of the mirror-shaped island, I could see icebergs on both sides, including one that was gloriously blue under the water with a discreet white fan of ice above. The hard granite that formed the island was easy walking, encouraging us to continue even with our stomachs telling us it is time for dinner.

    Before turning around, just short of the summit. I climbed up onto a giant, rectangular, chunk of granite to take in the view along the spine of the island back towards the blue, red and yellow houses of the town. Sitting in the hot evening sun with laughter filling the air from the natural lake swimming pool below, I realized, I was doing exactly what the inhabitants of Qeqertaq were doing, enjoying the island.

    Crowded is not normally the term that comes to mind when I think of Greenland but when I saw the number of sailboats squeezed into Upernavik Harbour that is exactly what I thought. When sharing an anchorage is a rare occurrence and normally only seeing one to two other foreign boats in larger ports, six boats sitting in Upernavik was a surprise. Most of them were just breezing through on their way to tick the Northwest Passage off their bucket list and head back to warmer waters.

    There were a few boats that were just as passionate about Greenland as I was and prepared to work through any obstacles they encountered with a smile. At one point during our stay in Upernavik, I helped Erik on Bagheera replace the fuel pump on his engine. Normally I claim no mechanical skills whatsoever but when there is no other option, it is amazing what you can do with determination and a manual. Though, I think I was really only qualified to supply the nail polish needed to mark the timing mechanism, tighten a few bolts and drink a celebratory beer once the job was completed.

    At the small settlement of Kullorsuaq, otherwise known as Devil’s thumb for its distinctive granite tower, we once again saw Bagheera. Erik suggested we follow him towards Melville Bay and help him spot creatures, as he had wildlife photographers on board hoping to find polar bears and narwhals that favour being around sea ice.

    Though I have spent countless hours in ice, it was a new experience to shut the engine off and drift for an extended period rafted to another boat. At first it was unnerving but after having a cup of tea on deck with Erik taking in the glacier lined mountains and the intricacies of the ice surrounding us, I was even able to sleep as the ice occasionally brushed along Snow Dragon’s hull.

    Before parting ways and continuing north, we took advantage of collecting ice to melt for drinking water from the berg that had snuggled up to Bagheera. Luckily the berg did not seem to mind Erik taking a few swings at it with an axe or Frances climbing on top in her waterproof suit to collect the chunks of broken ice.

    Apart from the odd seal there was no sign of animal life. The narwhals and other whales normally expected in the area appeared to have been delayed by the slow change in seasons after last winter. It seemed like a late arrival of spring and summer to us but according to a hunter in Kullorsuaq, it was much closer to the winters he remembers growing up.

    One of the fascinating and at times frustrating parts of sailing in Arctic waters is that plans can suddenly change at short notice even when the weather is ideal. A few minutes after arriving at Pituffik Glacier, a sizeable chunk of glacier ice started violently pounding against the hull. The message to leave now could not have been clearer with each bang and we left as soon as we could wrestle our anchor and chain away from the small iceberg that was clearly stronger than us.

    I scanned the shore for wildlife as we left the bay. At first glance the ridge seemed to be lined with freestanding boulders only to realize it was a herd of muskox. Half the herd was high up on the rocks and the other half sunbathing by the beach. I saw no point in going to shore and disturbing them just to get a few close-up photos and enjoyed watching the more energetic ones scramble up the rocky slope with surefooted determination from the boat.

    Leaving Greenland is always hard for me and departing from Carey Oer was particularly difficult. I was too enchanted watching a sleeping polar bear blissfully dreaming on the grassy slope below the bird cliff on Isbjorneo to even want to think about leaving.

    While I watched the bear, I thought to myself how amazing it is that a small out of the way place like Carey Oer makes getting to Greenland by boat well worth the effort. On a chart, the islands located between the Greenlandic mainland and Ellesmere Island are easily missed and give no hint to the incredible bird and animal life on the mini uninhabited archipelago.

    Krystina’s adventures can be followed at and twitter @SnowDragonII.