Sailing for Greenland

Polar Sun, a Stevens 47, enroute to Greenland

For nearly a year before this trip began, neither Mark nor I could bring ourselves to tell people of the plan.  Whether from a reluctance to seem too cocky, or a superstitious fear of jinxing the precarious structure of circumstances that all had to come together for the venture to even get started, we forbore from telling anyone who didn’t need to know what we were about.  “Sailing to Greenland,” was all we could commit to—and after all, that’s big enough!

I admit to being skeptical when Mark first called to float the idea past me of taking his 1980s-vintage Stevens 47 sloop through the Northwest Passage—or rather, just into it halfway and then back, as the original thought went.  I mean, it’s a decent boat, but it would take a gargantuan amount of work to get it fitted out for a voyage like that.  If it had been anyone else, I would have mumbled something noncommittal and left it there, but this was Mark Synnott.  If I’ve learned anything in our twenty-five-year acquaintance, it’s that Mark gets things done.  One way or another, by hook or by crook, he cooks up these crazy adventure schemes and pulls them off.  If anyone could get a plan like this off the ground it would be him.

A team effort that paid off….

“Count me in,” I said before he’d finished talking.  “I’ll tell my wife we’re going.”

During the months that followed, even though much time was spent laying groundwork and amassing gear, it didn’t really seem like a real plan.  A new obstacle would rear its head each week, and no sooner was that hurdle cleared than the next would slosh into our path.  Not only did the boat itself need a full refit, but the intangible demons of permissions, insurance, red tape, and logistics had to be appeased. I’m fully persuaded that only the singlemided determination that Mark brings to every problem was what got this journey underway.  My reckless encouragement, born of an irresponsible overconfidence that’s served my own schemes pretty well till now, may have been just what he needed to egg him on.  Call it a team effort.

Heading down the Saco River

Even when we were stowing several vanloads of food and supplies into Polar Sun’s lockers the day before departure, our minds numb with lists, spreadsheets, schedules, details, and contingencies, it didn’t seem like we could possibly be going.  It only began to seem real when we were chugging down the Saco River at last, bound for Lunenburg, with the remains of a hurried breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon to clean up. 

And there was the feeling at last—washing dishes on an outbound boat, surrounded by so many provisions there wasn’t anywhere to sit.  Everything on top and nothing handy, just the way nearly every one of my trips has begun.  It was finally real, and every so often as we crossed the Gulf of Maine to Nova Scotia Mark would catch my eye and we’d shake our heads in wonder, each thinking the exact same thing: I can’t believe we’re finally heading for the Arctic on this boat!

Polar Sun’s galley and cabin, with lentil stew for six simmering on the stove.

While uneventful in itself, no doubt due to the meticulous preparations and upgrades done during the refit, the crossing was full of interest.  We were six people packed in, not only among food and clothes enough for four months in remote places, but with a dozen-odd cameras, both still and video; cases of lenses; multiple tripods; a drone or two; and all the charging and support equipment necessary for a documentary film.  It was the way Mark has supported most of his adventures—by receiving support from sponsors in exchange for exposure and media coverage.  I suppose I’ve been doing it as well on a smaller scale ever since I first wrote for Cruising World Magazine eighteen years ago.  Without all that, the expedition wouldn’t have gotten off the dock.

Mark on the aft deck, wearing one of my Knotless Swamis you’re read about before.

All that to say that the crossing was micro-documented, from aloft, from alow, with time-lapse cameras, video cameras, telephotos, fish eyes, and drones.  If I picked up a pencil to make a note, my fingers were photographed; if I explained a nuance of navigation to the crew, a microphone would appear.  Small price for getting to go on a trip like this, and the camera guys are part of the crew, after all.

We’ve been on the trip for over a week as I write, and while we’re settling into the day to day routine of boat life, the breathtaking scope of what we’re trying to do occasionally catches up and makes us wonder what we think we’re doing.  It’s one thing to theorize about ice; it’s another altogether to contemplate finding it up close and personal in less than a fortnight’s time.  To know on paper that we can reef down and safely sail through a northern gale is not the same as doing it in the cold and wet and dark, in a boat untried with an untested crew.  Still, whatever happens must be met as it arrives, and for now all we’re doing is what we told everyone before—sailing for Greenland, and seeing how things go from there.

Approaching Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
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