Old School Exploration

Old School Exploration

The open polar sea seems like such a crazy theory at this point in history.  Before satellites and airplanes people had no idea what the northern Polar Regions were really like.  Many people thought that “deep water can’t freeze” or “24 hour sunlight in the summer would not just melt the ice, it would also be a tropical climate”.   Some people went so far as to believe that there was land at the North Pole inhabited by a technology advanced people (basically Arctic Atlantis).  Better yet, there is a hole at the pole that leads to an underground paradise.  That theory was the inspiration for Jules Vern’s “journey to the center of the earth”.  However silly all of this sounds in the 19th and early 20th century people took this theory not just seriously, but as scientific fact.  Many died because of it. They thought that there was a ring of ice surrounding the Arctic, but if you could only break through that ring of ice you would enter an open polar sea.

In all the Polar Regions north and south the area we have been sailing through over the last couple of weeks has seen the most U.S. lead polar expeditions.  The reason for many of these expeditions was to find the open polar sea.  Starting with Elisha Kent Kane and ending with Peary Northwest Greenland was America’s contribution to polar exploration.

Unlike Shackleton, I can’t say “I wish I’d been there with them”.  Kane was incredibly arrogant and was universally despised by his crew. Charles Francis Hall traveled the Arctic for years on his own living with the Inuit truly respecting their culture.  Unfortunately he was a terrible leader of men and was found to be so insufferable by his crew that he was poisoned to death by his own ships doctor. Cook was a fraud. Peary only cared for fame and named practically everything he saw after himself, even places that didn’t exist. More than likely the last 100 miles of Peary’s journey to the North Pole was fabricated.  He still deserves to be called the first man to reach the North Pole, like horseshoes and hand grenades he got close enough to count.  George DeLong was by far the most likable and honorable of all the American expedition leaders.  He too was looking for the open polar sea (although in a different part of the Arctic).  He was a man worthy of his crew’s respect, but his boat was crushed in the ice and he died along with 2/3rds of his men.

The great Arctic and Antarctic explorers all deserve respect regardless of their personal quirks.  These men endured great mental and physical hardship often without concern or complaint.  They lived in a time when polar geography was truly unknown, a time of legends and myths.  Men with hearts full of courage, braver than any explorer in the modern era. Compared to them we are nothing but a shadow. They are the ones who taught me what it is to be a man.

Today few places on earth are still uncharted, some of these last bastions of exploration are here in Greenland. The area where we conducted the majority of our research in the High Arctic was one of those regions. NASA scientists gave us a map that showed all of the data collected by all counties throughout history, within this map there was a large triangular shaped blank north of Qaanaaq. To be able to collect truly virgin data these days is about as rare as a leprechaun riding a unicorn, it was a chance we weren’t going to let slip by.

It’s very interesting to compare what is supposed to be there verses what really is.  North of Cape Alexander we would see an island here on the chart and there on the chart that simply didn’t exist in reality. When going into a fjord to do a CTD cast we didn’t have a chart with soundings to say its 100 feet deep over here and 20 feet over there, or don’t go over there rocks are hiding just below the surface. We had to use a combination of observations and sailor intuition.  As you can imagine my Inner-Shackleton is pumped up like Barry Bonds on steroids. It’s so nice to be back in the Arctic.

We left Qaanaaq and sailed down to Melville Bay to conduct a 150 mile preliminary survey from Cape York to the Devils Thumb. Peary (the guy who went to the North Pole) was in this area when he noticed the local Inuit had tools and weapons made of a very strange rock.  The Inuit told Peary the rock was sacred.  Peary convinced one of the Inuit to show him the source of this sacred rock.  Peary’s suspicions were right, the tools and weapons weren’t made of normal Greenlandic rock, they were made from a meteor (two meteors to be precise). Apparently, the Inuit of the Qaanaaq region have been using these meteors to make tools and weapons for hundreds of years.  In one of his more fiendish acts, Peary then stole both of these sacred meteors and brought them back to the United States, denying the Inuit the materials they desperately needed to survive.  In a sad twist of irony there is a monument to Peary on top of Cape York overlooking Savissivik, the old site of the sacred meteors.  If I was from Savissivik id knock that monument down and drag it back to the old scared site so it could be turned into a latrine, but then again I don’t like Peary.

Melville Bay is the land of a million icebergs, I mean literally a million.  In the last week we have seen more icebergs than we have over the entire time we have been sailing in Greenland, multiplied. After passing Cape York we entered Meteor Bay to do a CTD cast. Meteor Bay probably had 500 large monstrous icebergs in it (possibly twice that number).  From each berg came an assortment of growlers and bergy bits. I’d never seen anything like it.  The icebergs were so thick we had to look for leads between these monsters as if they were pack ice, and that was just one fjord!

From Meteor Bay we skirted the edge of the Melville Nature reserve.  You can’t do research in the nature reserve without a permit hence the “preliminary” part of our 150 mile survey. There’s always next year. Once south of the reserve we headed back towards land in an attempt to get to Hayes glacier to do more CTD casts. Hayes glacier is simply massive and constantly calving like crazy. About 15 miles from land you notice what looks like an impenetrable wall of icebergs as far as the eye can see.  It’s like a bumper to bumper traffic jam of large icebergs.  As you get closer you start to see leads but they don’t look like they go anywhere.  Closer still you encounter fields of densely packed small ice between the size of a baseball to the size of a washing machine. There is no way to go around these fields of densely packed smaller ice, you can only go right through.  Nikki calls these areas “the crunch” as that’s the sound the ice makes off your haul as you slowly pass through. Unfazed you press on and upon approaching this seemingly impenetrable wall of icebergs you realize there are some spaces between the bergs, so you enter this labyrinth of icebergs.  It’s very slow going, Nikki covers the port side and I cover the starboard pointing out the smaller car sized bergs that litter the passageways between the monsters. (We had a three days forecast with no wind when entering the ice, had there been any wind in the forecast we would have stayed the hell away.)

We had been underway for several days since Qaanaaq, dodging ice and hardly sleeping.  Now that we were navigating heavy ice sleeping was impossible.  Sleep deprivation was catching up to me and I was starting to hear things that weren’t there.  We needed to drop anchor and sleep, but where, we are completely surrounded by ice?  An old grey bearded sailor once told me “any man can sail, but only a sailor can anchor”.  For a guy who has spent so much time at sea non-stop I’ve gotten quite good at finding safe anchorages. There were several small uncharted lumps of rock that I guess you could call islands a few miles away.  On one of these rocky outcroppings I found a current shadow, a place the current passes in such a way that the ice doesn’t get pressed up against that side of the island.  So we dropped anchor there and slept.  In the morning we got an email from Dr Fenty at NASA saying that Hayas was too iced up and we can try again earlier in the season next year when conditions will be more favorable. So we pulled anchor and started working our way through the ice to the Devils Thumb. (I’ve added some pictures of the impenetrable wall of ice but they don’t even come close to showing what it’s like)

We are currently on anchor near the Devils Thumb a place with so many bergs that we have to keep an ice watch when we sleep so we can quickly pull anchor and move before a 100,000 pound iceberg runs us down. Luckily they move very slowly.

What we have been doing here in Greenland is about as close to old school exploration as you can get these days.  Venturing into uncharted waters colleting important scientific data in places where no one in human history has collected such data before.  And this is only the beginning for Ocean Research Project.

(We have added some pictures of the research we have been doing.  The blue line represents where we collected pCO2 (ocean acidification) data, thermosalinograph data and bathymetric data.  The white circles represent CTD casts.)

Fortitudine Vincinumus

Matt Rutherford

 bigbergland bergjumble blueballhole tallboy Matt4 bigberglead matt3 matt2 matt1


Etah is not a village, there are three small hunting cabins but two of them are dilapidated beyond use. As I was writing my last blog a rather alarming amount of pack ice was drifting to the end of Foulke fjord where we were anchored.  Halfway down Foulke fjord is an island that blocks most of the pack ice from getting to the end of the fjord where Etah is, for every piece that you can see at the end there are hundreds on the other side of the island. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get out and sail south.

Once past the island we were in thick of it, ice everywhere.  Pack ice is very different then icebergs or bergy bits.  Pack ice is not very high off the water, often only two or three feet of ice is showing above the surface but one piece can go on for several hundred yards.  It becomes a jumble of slow moving pack ice mixed with icebergs of all sizes. Pieces drift this way and that, leads open and close.  I’ve added two pictures but a camera gives the pack ice no justice. When looking at the pictures imagine being surrounded by the pack ice in all directions as far as the eye can see.

We slowly worked our way through the ice looking for one lead after another.  Sometimes there was no lead so we would aim our boat at the smallest chunk of ice and slowly (and gently) push it out of our way.  And so it went for several hours until some eight miles later we popped out of the pack ice just south of Cape Alexander. This all sounds rather dramatic but it wasn’t that dangerous.  We had a reliable forecast (Predictwind) with nothing but light winds and flat calm conditions. Had there been wind we would have stayed in Etah until it subsided. Our hull is also made of steel which makes a big difference.  In 2013 when trying to drag an abandoned 48 foot sailboat to Bermuda things got out of control and we were rammed hard by all 38,000 pounds of it and we hardly got a dent. So we weren’t too worried about the pack ice (at least the smaller stuff), we spent most of our time eating cookies and joking around. In these types of situations it’s much safer to remain calm and clear headed, freaking out is counterproductive.

Research can be broken into two categories.  On one side you have the act of collecting the data, whether it’s lowering a CTD or dragging a trawl. On the other side you have managing the data, which is hugely time consuming.  Nikki has seven different science logs as we are conducting five different types of research some of which simultaneously.  We were out of the pack ice and on anchor but instead of relaxing Nikki had hours of different data that had to be moved to various excel spreadsheets along with a typed description of each corresponding event.  This whole organization wouldn’t exist without Nicole. I don’t know anything about how to properly manage scientific data, work scientific software, etc.  Nikki spent five years working on NOAA research vessels and that’s how she learned. I plan the expeditions and captain the ship but as far as the research goes Nikki deserves all the credit. It works out well as we both have something important that we are in charge of.

We went further offshore to do some deep water CTD casts and again found the pack ice.  By this point we were well south of Cape Alexander which seems to usually be the southern edge of the pack ice.  Nikki wanted us to get to an underwater ledge where it drops off to 2,300 feet deep to deploy the CTD and look for the warmer saltier water column. We followed a solid chuck of pack ice for a more than a mile until the fog came.  This never ending chunk of pack ice was surrounded by a field of jumbled pack ice that went on for a good many miles. We got close to the underwater ledge but once the fog rolled in you can’t really tell where the leads in the ice go, so we did a cast in 1,900 feet and retraced our step back to ice free water.
We are currently in a very interesting anchorage off Qaanaaq a town of 700 (with fuel). We are at the mouth of a large fjord that goes back over 45 miles and it is an iceberg making machine.  We have an incredible number of icebergs behind us, some of them are monsters.  Icebergs have a very deep draft in proportion to the freeboard (so to speak) and since we are anchored in fairly shallow water we are protected from 95% of the icebergs.   Once and a while a small berg comes and you have to push it away with your whisker pole but usually they are no bigger than a refrigerator.

We will to wrap up our research objectives up in the High Arctic and head back south soon.  Lots more to do down there.

Fortitudine Vincinius
Matt Rutherford




evil CapeAlex goblin lead rivine

Etah (78 North)

It’s so beautiful up here.  It really feels like we sailed to the Arctic.  Fore instance we don’t get rain we get snow.  Last week we were snowed on a half dozen times, although it never sticks for long.  You’re probably thinking, “Man that sounds cold” but it’s not.  We have seen no fog, blue skies almost every day and when the wind dies it can get up to 55-60 degrees.  It doesn’t even get close to getting dark up here, the sun just goes round and round, never getting high in the sky and never getting low.  We lose complete track of so called night and day and time loses all relevance.  The only reason we know what day it is, is because we are constantly logging for our research.
The reason we sailed this far north is to collect data for NASA’s OMG (Oceans Melting Greenland) program.  NASA scientists believe there is a warmer saltier water column that is coming up from the Atlantic and eating the glaciers from underneath.  This warmer saltier water column can be found around 800-2,000 feet down. What we are doing is deploying a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) probe off the back of Ault searching for this warmer water.  We will go into a fjord, deploy the CTD at the glacier, then half way down the fjord, then at the mouth of the fjord and so on.  Sometimes we head offshore a ways and deploy the CTD down to 1,750 feet, we have to use a waterman’s pot puller (which I have bolted to the back of our boat) to get the CTD back up again.  We will be conducting research for NASA’s OMG program for about a month before we switch gears to marine plastics research.
Conducting this research with only two people is a huge amount of work, and it’s not uncommon for us to work for 24 hours straight.  Having constant sunlight helps as you don’t get tired like you normally would.  On the flip side, we get to go into some incredibly beautiful fjords.  When we were at the end of Robertson fjord where Verhoeff glacier terminates Nikki told me “this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen”.  Huge dramatic cliffs with multi -colored rocks, mosses, lichen and birds everywhere.  Some of these glaciers, like Morris Jessup (my favorite glacier name) is packed full of ice.   There was only one lead through the jumble of ice in and out.  Even once you’re through the lead you often zig zag your way between ice bergs that are separated by little more than the width of our vessel.  We had a little berg the size of a cow roll and somehow get underneath of us, but we smashed it with our steel bow and kept rolling.
It’s important to keep in mind that we are only entering these ice packed fjords in flat calm conditions.  Although there is tons of ice everywhere with no wind and waves it’s not that dangerous.  In the larger fjords when the wind does pick up it gets funneled by the mountainous cliffs and the wind can really come screaming down the length of the fjord.  We had to spend 24 hours hiding behind a little out cropping in Robertson fjord waiting for the wind to die so we could get back to work. The nice thing was that on this out cropping was the little village of Siorapaluk.
According to the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation Siorapaluk is the world’s most northern indigenous community with a population of 70. I’d be surprised if there is even that many people there.  This gave Nikki and I a good chance to take a walk and look around.  As we were walking my heart sank a little as I watched a small cruise ship (still 300-400 feet long) come in and drop anchor next to Ault.  There was a flurry of activity as they launched several black ribs into the water each filled with eager eco tourists. They came in waves and were all wearing matching yellow jackets that gave them more the impression of an army than of individuals.  Eventually there were more eco tourists than there were villagers, many armed with cameras taking pictures of the Inuit like they were monkeys in a zoo.  All the people we talked to who worked for this company were good hearted and very friendly and who am I to say what business can or can’t operate their cruise ships in the far corners of our planet?  It was just very strange to be standing on the hillside next to Nicole overlooking this beautiful remote fjord watching what can only be described as the eco tourist version of the landings on Normandy.
Etah is just incredible.   Etah was also used by many of the Arctic explorers, Perry for one used Etah to repair his boat which was sinking out from underneath him.   This place almost doesn’t fit in up here.  It’s very green and lush with fresh water glacial streams and abundant wildlife.  Birds are nesting on the sides of the mountainous cliffs by the millions, or at least it looks that way.  The birds are so thick in the sky that they look more like a swarm of insects.   The birds bring in other predators like the Arctic fox.  You can see ten Arctic foxes in one day, I had one pop out twenty feet away when we were walking around, but it disappeared before I could get to the camera.  All the greenery brings in Musk Ox which are often grazing in the distance.  Musk Ox brings in Polar Bears so when you walk around you’re armed to the teeth.
As much as I’d like to stay here, like climbing a mountain you don’t spend much time at the summit.  That said, the ice in Smith Sound looks like it may have shifted east, if so we may have to wait a day or two for it to shift back west as it could be blocking us in.  It’s too hard to tell from where we are anchored, we will find out soon enough as we are going to try to leave in six hours.
Etah will be our furthest North.  The Humboldt glacier is dumping off so much ice that you can’t get much further north.  We have done all the research we can do up here for now so we might as well turn back south for greener pastures (new research areas).  I added a satellite picture showing our potion in relation to the impenetrable ice.  This picture is a couple days old and the ice in Smith Sound changes day to day, but it gives you a good idea of how far north we have made it.
Fortitudine Vincinimous

Arctichare smithsoundiceflow etah bones us snow capeyork potpulling diebitsch etah2

Ocean Acidification

Ocean Acidification

What causes ocean acidification is climate changes smoking gun.  Around the world we are burning various fossil fuels for our vehicles, our power, our heat, ect.  When burned all of these fossil fuels admit carbon into our atmosphere.  Before the industrial revolution there was 280ppm (parts per million) of carbon in our atmosphere, today we have 400ppm.  That’s an increase of nearly 50%.  Last time the amount of carbon in our atmosphere increased by 50% it took 10,000 years, we have managed to pull it off in 200.  Throughout earth’s history the climate has been constantly fluctuating.  A warm spell here, an ice age there, but it changes very slowly over many millennia. A 50% increase in atmospheric carbon in 200 years is unprecedented and undisputable.

Our oceans acts a large carbon sink absorbing 25% of the carbon released into our atmosphere.  You might think “well that’s good, at least something is reducing the amount carbon in our atmosphere”.  Unfortunately as the ocean absorbs the carbon it changes the waters pH level.  Now if this happened over 10,000 years the creatures living in the ocean would evolve to deal with this threat, but it’s happening way to quickly for evolution to keep up.  The first things effected are shell fish and pretty much everything else that grows a calcium carbonate shell (including coral reefs).  If the levels of pH continue to get thrown off balance the results could be devastating to our already struggling oceans.

If that isn’t bad enough the entire issue of climate change has been completely entangled in the volatile world of politics. Al Gore was the one who got it completely entangled to begin with in the early 2000’s but it was totally on accident.  I’m sure everyone has heard of his documentary “inconvenient truth”.  I really wish that it wasn’t Al Gore in that film, had it been John McCain or even better a resurrected Ronald Regan we wouldn’t have conservative climate change deniers. We live in a very strange time in politics where some politicians spend more time and energy trying to make the other party look bad instead of working together for the good of our country.  This happens on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s not just the politicians who have adopted this attitude, it’s also spread to their constituency.  I understand that people want to support their political party but this is what I don’t understand when it comes to climate change.  So the scientists at the Smithsonian are wrong about climate change, the scientists at NASA are wrong about climate change, and the conservative politicians are right about climate change? That doesn’t make any sense.

I’m certainly not jumping on Al Gore’s band wagon.  He talks all this and that about reducing your carbon footprint yet has a huge house with a huge property and is creating a large carbon footprint.  He could have a nice house completely off the grid with solar panels and wind generators galore.  He could have a plot of land where he grew his own vegetables and a barn with pigs and chickens.  He wouldn’t need to tend to his crops of raise his own livestock, he’s rich, he could pay people to do it for him.  I’m not trying to beat up on Al Gore and I’m glad he said something to begin with.  It’s just if you champion a cause you should live it and breathe it, not just talk about it. It’s important to remember that at some level or another hypocrisy lives within us all. I know how sensitive people get about politics so I’ll just leave it at that.

So ocean acidification is caused by burning fossil fuels and collecting ocean acidification data is a big part of our 2015 Greenland Climate Project.  We are working with Dr. Miller at Smithsonian’s environmental research center collecting pCO2 data (pCO2=carbon in the water).  Usually when doing ocean acidification research people measure the waters pH but Dr. Miller is looking directly for the carbon itself.  He built a device (check picture) that normally would be mounted on a dock and has tried to convert it to work on an ever moving sailboat.  This is a bit of a test for this device as it’s never been used on a boat before and we are modifying it as necessary to keep it running.  We hope to work out any bugs in the system so this device can be installed on other sailboats.  We are trying to become a marine related citizen science hub for the Smithsonian’s environmental research center. This is one of two projects we hope to integrate into a citizen science platform.  If you want to collect ocean acidification data from your boat contact us next year and hopefully we will have the funding to get people like you involved.

Since my last blog we have had very little fog and tons of icebergs.  I bet I saw 100 of them in one day near Uummannaq.  We stopped in Upernavik which was a nice and very quiet little town.  It’s a good place to get fuel, water and fresh food.  From here we head north, as far north as humanly possible.  From this “furthest north position” we will start our deep water CTD casts, I’ll talk about that later. Well the wind is picking up, should have 20-25kts out of the south by this evening. Next stop Santa’s house, hope he has a dock.

Fortitudine Vincinimus

Matt Rutherford

Upernavik Nikkiberg pCO2maitenance 3kingsberg anchored

The Arctic

The fog has finally lifted enough to sit done and write this blog.  Well, I’m not sitting, I’m standing in the pilot house scanning the horizon for icebergs while trying to write.  We spend our watches staring out into the fog prepared to dodge whenever little berg may pop out in front of the boat.  The radar doesn’t see the little bergs which are the size of a school bus (or larger).  It’s a bit like sailing blindfolded through waters that are teeming with freight containers.  When you finish your five hour watch (we do five hours on five hours off) all you want to do is crawl into the warm sleeping bag and rest.  Since there are only two of us on board one person is always alone for five hours trying to deal with fog, ice, winds etc.  It’s not always foggy up here, but when it is you better pay close attention to the foggy little world around you.

We stayed an extra day in Nuuk so I could install the diesel heater I traded a salted pig for.  It would have been fairly straight forward installation back in the states.  For instance you need to make a five inch hole through the steel deck for the chimney.  No problem, go to the hardware store and buy a five inch hole saw, problem solved.  That’s not so easy in Nuuk so I tried to cut the hole with my grinder, but it broke my only large invertor (I have used it 100 times before with my large invertor, but it chose this moment to die).  Then my jig saw broke.  I ended up spending hours cutting a five inch hole through my steel deck using a pair of vise grips that were holding a broken hack saw blade.  I felt like I was trying to break out of prison with a nail file.  And so it went for the next 14 hours until finally the installation was complete, or as complete as its going to be under the circumstances.

We left Nuuk with good southerly winds and a couple days later we pulled into Sisimut, Greenland second largest city with a bustling population of 5,000. Pulling into these little harbors in Greenland is such a crazy experience.  There are little boats tied off everywhere in the most chaotic fashion.  Boats tied to boats tied to boats until you have 20 or 30 small powerboats tied off in an incredible jumble.  If I was still sailing my old Pearson 323 id just join the jumble but at 42 feet of steel plus a bow sprit I’m way too big to join the pack.  Seawalls can be sketchy, not just because they are a combination of broken wood and jagged metal but because the tides can range 15-20 feet.  If you tie off to a seawall underestimating the tide thinking “hmmm this is a nice place to stop” the tide drops, the water leaves, your boat falls over on its side, the tide comes back in and floods your boat, bye bye boat.  It sounds like a headache but I find these harbors quite fun and amusing.

The whole reason we stopped in Sisimut was to find a guy named Bent who runs the local boatyard, old fishing boats mostly.  We have decided it would be best to leave the boat in Greenland this winter.  We plan on doing more research up here next summer and sailing 3,000 miles back to Annapolis then another 3,000 back to Greenland seems a bit ridiculous.  Also by keeping the boat in Greenland for the winter we can double the amount of research that we can do this summer.  The down side is the boat is also our home, so we will be homeless for 9 months (fall, winter, spring).  You may be thinking “well heck, why don’t you just stay on the boat and spend the winter in Greenland?” We have a hard enough time running our non-profit organization from Annapolis, let alone Greenland. Plus I need to find work this winter and unless I want to shovel snow for a living ill need to get back state side.  In the end Bent said he “could” pull our boat and put it on the hard for the winter but for some reason he needs a couple weeks to decide if he wants to and will do it.  So everything is still up in the air.

While in Sisimut we met a 27 year old French guy who is about to single hand the Northwest Passage.  He had crew but they left and took their sat phone with them leaving him with no communication.  I let him borrow our spare sat phone under orders to mail it back to me from Alaska.  This way he will have ice info which can save your life in the Northwest Passage.  I wouldn’t normally give a stranger a $1,000 piece of equipment but there are very few sailboats up here so when we meet we treat each other like family.  That’s the way it should be everywhere, one big sailing family.

Ocean Research Project wouldn’t exist without help.  Many people reading this blog have helped us over and over again throughout the last three years.  Without your help there would be no research organization, we exist because of you.  I can’t thank you enough. Like usual we did this Greenland Climate project with only 20% of the funding we needed.  It’s only because I have such a long history doing expeditions on a shoe string budget that we left the dock and went anywhere.  Any size donation makes a big difference and 100% of the funding goes to research and education (check out Nicole’s education blog!).  You can donate via the donate button on the website and it’s all tax deductible.  I feel very fortunate to have had your help. Thank You.

Fortitudine Vincinimus

Matt Rutherford

mattberg towny helm jumbles