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O’ Canada

Besides the powerful reoccurring cramp in my leg things are quite nice right now.  Nikki, Mike and I just ate fish and chips with fresh caught cod and a piece of pie made from a local berry I’ve never heard of before.  Life is good in southern Labrador Canada.

We spent ten days in Aasiaat, Greenland getting ready to make the crossing to Canada.  Every day I woke up, checked the weather, worked on the boat all day, checked the weather and went to bed.  The boat didn’t have any major problems, just little repairs here and there.  What was broke, like a door knob for the pilot house or the engine heater, I had Mike bring with him.  By the time we left Aasiaat I had fixed all the issues, replaced any broken parts and gave the engine a tune up.  The boat was ready; all we needed was a weather window.

Not just was I obsessing over weather patterns daily but I also paid a group of meteorologists to tell me when they thought we should make the passage across the Labrador Sea to Canada.  We had our window on the 18th, time to go south!

For the first five days the winds were very light and we had to motor nearly the entire time.  I get tired of hearing the engine but I’d rather have flat calm seas than giant waves.   We only saw two icebergs south of Aasiaat, one was a good mile away but the other we passed right by.  I wanted Mike to see an iceberg and I knew this would most likely be the last one we saw in the Arctic so we motored up to it so Mike could get a good look.  We also celebrated our final Arctic iceberg with a glass of whiskey; the ice for our drinks had just fallen off the berg.   Glacial ice cracks and pops in your glass releasing air that’s been trapped in the ice for 1,000 years.  It makes for an awesome drink!

It was cold enough that instead of rain we had sleet and snow showers, another sign that’s time to go south.  But because we had a new engine heater and the engine was on all the time we were warm and dry inside our pilot house.  The cold air also helped to increase the northern lights.  Every night for the first 400 miles we had an incredible display of the aura borealis.  One night there were ribbons of dancing light all around us, (for lack of better diction) it was trippy.  Although the light winds made it peaceful in the ocean, we needed some wind because we didn’t have enough fuel to motor 1,000 miles south to Canada.

The winds picked up 15-20kts out of the north for the last five days.  This is the epitome of fair winds and following seas.  The winds brought clouds and near constant light rain, the pilot house keeps us out of the elements so we hardly noticed the rain.  It was smooth sailing all the way to Cartwright, Canada.  Once we got to Cartwright the clouds left and we had 3 days of beautiful sunny weather.

Cartwright is a small town of 500 in Southern Labrador, it has everything you could ask for; a free seawall to tie off to, a grocery store, a fuel truck and a bar.  It also had free laundry a free shower and free wifi.  After Greenland where you have to pay a premium for everything it was like hitting the jackpot.

The people of Cartwright were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  Everyone waved and smiled, people would bend over backwards to help you.  One guy named Garfield drove us around in his truck up and down bumpy dirt roads so he we could “see the sights”.  “The sights” were a few overlooks on top of the hills where we could look out on the water, it was very pretty.  Even better were the trees! We haven’t seen a tree since May.  There is something about a big tree that I just love.  Greenland is so barren, its adds to its desolate beauty, but I miss trees.  The leaves on the birch trees had turned yellow, they were mixed in with the pines; it was so nice to see.

We left Cartwright and were making our way to Belle Strait (the strait just north of Newfoundland) when the engine started giving us trouble.  We couldn’t get more than 1,500 rpms (normally you can get 3,000) and black smoke was pouring out of the exhaust.  Only three things can do that to a diesel, bad fuel, bad injectors or a clogged air filter.  I thought it was the fuel or injectors, Nikki thought it was the air filter.  Nikki was right, I cleaned the air filter and now she runs like she’s brand new.  There are always new problems on a sailboat, it never ends.  Luckily this was an easy problem to fix.

We were nearly out of Belle Strait and into the Gulf of St Lawrence when the wind and current both turned on our nose.  The winds and current will switch to a favorable direction in 5-6 hours so we stopped at a small town of 80 people that had a dock and a restaurant with free wifi.  We just ate a nice meal and desert and in a few hours we will push off the dock and continue on our way.  Next stop Sydney Nova Scotia.

Fortitudine Vincinimus













Phase 2

Aasiaat is far from a metropolitan city but it feels like one at this point.  We have spent so much of our time in the far north that even basic luxuries seem extravagant.  For instance you can do laundry, which is something we haven’t done since May.  You can take a fresh water shower, it costs $6 but after 100 days of saltwater showers, who cares?  Best of all you can get a draft beer along with a burger and fries; it’s not cheap but we have worked hard for it.

We made it down Baffin Bay to Upernavik without much trouble.  We gave the local police the spare anchor the Danish Naval vessel had loaned us, as requested by the captain.  We also bought three more large grapple anchors to add to our Bruce Claw anchor rig.  That should hold us in a gale.  

We needed to get back down to Arrowhead Island to retrieve RBR’s “Solo” pressure sensors but we could no longer operate 24 hours a day.  By the third week of August summer ends rather abruptly with the sun beginning to set.  The sun doesn’t set completely until the end of the month but once it starts dipping low in the sky at night the seasons change quickly.  First off, you can say goodbye to blue skies as grey cloudy skies and near constant light rain becomes the norm.  Second, the temperature starts to drop to 30-40 degrees.  Last but certainly not least the weather deteriorates; although we had horrible weather in the high Arctic this summer, we haven’t seen anything nearly as bad down here in the low Arctic. The biggest problem of them all is the darkness.

From Upernavik we had to do day jumps from anchorage to anchorage.  Normally sailing at night is no different than sailing in the daytime but when you have uncharted rocks and icebergs roaming around at random you really need to see what’s ahead of you.  From Upernavik to Aasiaat there is a lot ice and uncharted rocks.  

Arrowhead Island (it’s really called Igdluluarssuit Island) was our last hurrah with heavy ice.  We were surprised to see just how much ice there was blocking the entrance to the fjord.  I decided that we should drop anchor early that day and wait for the wind to die than we could slowly motor through.  Luckily the wind died the next day and we were able to wind our way through the maze of ice back to Arrowhead.  

Things went well for the most part.   The mosquitoes were gone as it was now too cold for them.   We retrieved the pressure sensors without too much fuss.  Some of the sensors had disappeared, swept away by large icebergs but the rest were there.  There was more brash ice and mélange near the southern glacier than before, forcing us to push through very heavy ice.  At times we had to push Ault hard. I never thought we would get stuck but it was important to keep momentum in order to have steerage.  There wasn’t one square inch of open water for several miles, just ice, all shapes and sizes.

Disko Bay was also quite icy with lots of larger bergs, mixed with small pieces.  I steered the boat through that ice Greenlandic style, meaning at top speed.  Greenlandic people fly through the ice on little open fiberglass boats at 20+ knots.  If I tried to do that I would die in 5 minutes, all I can think is they must be ice ninjas. Our top speed is still very slow, but over time you get better at navigating ice.

Aasiaat was the last stop for Dana, who was the mate.   He flew out this morning and I have another sailor, Mike, flying in tomorrow.  Dana has type 1 diabetes, he has to shoot insulin 4 times a day or he goes into shock and dies.  Alexander has something called PKU, which means he can’t eat protein.  Basically protein turns into poison and eats his brain.  If he ate a normal diet for two weeks he would become permanently mentally handicapped and eventually turn into a vegetable.  Nikki has to inject B 12 as that’s the only way her body can absorb it. B12 is very important for memory, and of course she forgets to do it.  I have a minor form of turrets called ticks, which have been bad this year.  We all have our issues.


There really isn’t much of a fall season in the Arctic.  There are no trees to lose their leaves, but more importantly it gets too cold too quick.  We had ice on our boat this morning and before I could row Dana over to land so he could catch a taxi to the airport I had to scrape ice off the dingy.  Although it was a cold night we did have one surprise, we got to watch the Northern Lights dance above our vessel.  

It’s time to leave the Arctic.  However beautiful the Aurora Borealis is, winter is coming in a hurry.  We have to sail at least 900 miles to get to Canada, crossing the Labrador Sea.  Every week that passes the weather in the Labrador gets worse. It looks like we may have a good window to start the voyage south around Sept 17th.  Hopefully the passage itself will be uneventful.  900 miles south is the small town of Cartwright in southern Labrador.  I hope to make it even further, maybe St Johns before we have to stop. If we are real lucky we will be able to sail all the way back to the US without stopping, but that’s unlikely.  Chances are we will have to stop for fuel or to duck from a storm somewhere along the way.  It’s time to begin phase 2; our journey home.

Yesterday Alexander told me he was leaving the expedition and flying home.  All of us has some fear of crossing the Labrador Sea inside us, you would have to be crazy not to.  But you must learn to control fear or fear will control you.  Unfortunately Alexander has let his fear grow roots and consume him.  I wouldn’t have been so upset about the situation had he told me he was flying back two weeks ago when he first started thinking about it but instead he told me 24 hours before we were leaving on the largest ocean passage of the expedition, sailing from Greenland to Canada.  I have no time to fly in another camera man.  I had to spend several hours today running all over Aasiaat trying to buy an expensive camera and audio equipment so I can finish filming the expedition.  Even worse we are down one crew member. I’d much rather have a crew of four than three for the crossing, but I couldn’t talk Alex into staying.  We have a good weather window, I can’t wait here another 2 weeks trying to find someone and fly them in.  I don’t have the money either.  So we will leave tomorrow morning and Alex will fly out later this week.  It feels strange to have Dana and Alex leave and have a new crew member, Mike.  Phase 2 will have a new crew dynamic.

We will all be very happy when the Labrador Sea is behind us and the crossing is over.

Fortitudine Vincinimus

Matt Rutherford

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NASA, Etah and the Danish Navy

As I write this my hands are covered in oil and grime.  Nikki still has some oil on her face making her look more like a coal miner than a sailor.  We hardly notice after everything else we have been though.

Since my last blog we had a good weather window and spent 10 days straight working around the clock surveying Inglefield fjord for NASA’s OMG program.  We were running out of time and we desperately needed a long spell of good weather to complete our survey.  Especially in areas of heavy ice where you can only enter if it’s flat calm.

Considering all the bad weather and issues with our scientific equipment, we did a good job completing the survey.  It was a lot of work and it will provide NASA with important information about how ocean currents influence climate change that region of Northwest Greenland.

Etah or bust has been our motto since the boatyard in Sisimiut.  Etah is a fjord in the far north of Greenland roughly 700 miles from the North Pole that was used by various explorers during the great age of exploration.   It’s a beautiful area, very green, which is abnormal that far north.

Going to Etah was the prize for completing the survey on time.  If we didn’t complete the survey or if we didn’t get it done early enough we wouldn’t go.  “Etah or Bust” was our rally cry, our motivation; it’s what we all looked forward to.

Etah is only 80 miles north of Qaanaaq and Inglefield fjord so it wasn’t that much further north than we already were.  It only took us 24 hours to get there.  Unfortunately our timing coincided with an adventure tourist cruise ship.  I hate adventure tourism.

Imagine you were climbing a tall remote mountain and for two months you worked hard to reach the summit.  You dealt with hunger, sleep deprivation and daily hardships.  Finally the day you reach the top of the mountain as you climb the last crest you see a luxurious mega passenger helicopter sitting on the summit (mega passenger helicopters don’t exist so bear with me, it’s just an analogy).  You see around this helicopter (cruise ship) hundreds of adventure tourists all dressed in spotless matching red jackets with clean pressed pants walking around taking pictures of anything and everything. You on the other hand haven’t had a decent shower in two months; your clothes are dirty, your hair is a mess and you haven’t shaven in weeks.  As you get closer to the summit the happy adventure tourists notice you and start taking pictures of you like you’re some kind of mountain Neanderthal.  They approach you in groups asking silly questions like, “where do you do laundry?”, “how do you go to the bathroom”?  The glorious moment you have pictured in your mind for the last two months, summiting the mountain, has been completely dashed to pieces.  You slump down on a rock trying to get away from the hundreds of adventure tourists who are sharing the summit with you, but they are everywhere.  You overhear one of them, an older woman with big diamond earrings tell a man in perfectly pressed slacks, “we must be getting back on board, we don’t want to miss our champagne dinner” and the happy tourists start boarding the mega helicopter.  In a whirlwind dust and noise the helicopter takes off.  You sit there for a moment trying to find the glorious victory you had imagined for the last two months but the moment has been ruined.  You feel your stomach growl, time for another freeze dried meal and two more months of hiking back down the mountain.

That’s what it’s like to come across a group of adventure tourists at the ends of the earth.

We were only in Etah for 24 hours before heading back south to Qaanaaq.  We only stayed in Qaanaaq long enough to get the fuel, food and water we would need for our push south back down to Upernavik some 350 miles away.  We were in a hurry because there was another gale coming and we wanted to get to a protected area and drop anchor before the strong winds came.  When paying for the fuel I looked over a Danish weather forecast with the manager of the fuel depot.  It didn’t look that bad, he said “not much wind just rain”.  I figured it would be a gale but nothing worse, so off we went to drop anchor.

The winds picked up through the night and by morning they were a good 50kts.  We were anchored in a good location and the anchor was holding so all seemed ok.  This was our fourth storm on anchor and we were used to the situation.  You could say I was caught with my pants down as I was on the toilet when I heard Nikki yell “the anchor is dragging”!  

This has happened before so at first it didn’t seem to be a big deal.  Then the winds quickly increased to hurricane strength and the anchor line snapped twenty feet down from the bow.  Things were changing for the worse very quickly.  

The winds and rain were so strong that we were in white out conditions, much like a blizzard.  The winds were pushing the boat over so far that water was pouring into our pilot house.  Then we felt a strong bang.  As luck had it we had found a group of uncharted rocks and we were now banging up against them.  We were healed so far over and the waves were large enough that we were able to bounce our way over the rocks.  Once over the rocks I decided we should deploy the parachute sea.  Before we could get it deployed we must have drifted over an unmarked shoal because a large wave hit us knocking the boat down and putting its masts in the water.  

Once the parachute sea anchor (Para anchor) was deployed our boat slowed down and put its bow back up into the wind and waves.  For a moment things were much better. I still had to use the engine to slowly push the boat and Para anchor one direction or another to avoid large icebergs.  Problem is icebergs don’t drift at the same rate as you do on a parachute sea anchor, you could drift right down on one.

There was some excess line that didn’t get deployed properly when the Para anchor was deployed.  I had to stay at the helm during the deployment so I didn’t see what happened to it.  Twenty minutes later I looked down and I see a line under our boat.  I yelled to the mate “there is a line under our boat, we need to bring it up right now or it could wrap around the propeller”!  The winds we too strong to just walk up to the bow, you would have put on a harness and tether and crawl on your hands and knees with icy waves crashing over your head. My Mate had reached his limit, I couldn’t get him to go outside and bring in the line.  I would have done it myself but I was trying to maneuver the boat slowly between some uncharted rocks and an iceberg.  A few minutes later what I feared would happen happened, the line wrapped in our prop and the engine died.  Our situation went from bad yet under control to downright dangerous.  I decided then to make a distress call.

The Danish Navy keeps a boat at Thule air base about 100 miles from Qaanaaq.  Their boats are fast enough that it only takes them 6 hours to cover that distance.  While we were waiting for the navy ship to arrive we put on immersion suits and prepared the life raft.  The winds were still blowing hurricane force and we were getting knocked around quite a bit.  Alexander and Dana were both puking, the floor of the boat was covered with random stuff and everything was wet.  The biggest threat was that we would be slowly pushed into an iceberg; the boat would be dashed upon it like a cliff in a storm.  With the Para anchor in place the waves and wind were no longer a threat but icebergs were a different story.  We passed by one just a few hundred feet away.  It was still white out conditions, hard to see an iceberg, even our radar was struggling. We still had one more trick up our sleeves, if we had to I could cut the Para anchor free and we could out maneuver an iceberg under minimal sail.  That would also have been bad as we would have no good way to stabilize Ault against the unrelenting wind and seas, but it’s better than being dashed up against an iceberg.

The Danish Navy arrived before we drifted near another iceberg.  As they arrived the winds started to ease up.  They tossed us a tow line and proceeded to tow us behind an island to get protection from the waves.  The next day they helped us cut the lines off the propeller and gave us a hot meal on their ship. They also let us borrow an additional anchor to couple with our spare anchor which we will leave for them in Upernavik, where we can buy another spare.  The Danish Naval officers and crew were all very friendly and helpful.  

Once we were all sorted out we dropped anchor behind an island as another storm was coming.  This storm only blew 40-50kts.  We drug anchor a good half mile but there was no emergency.

We had a good weather window to go south and we were all ready to get the hell out of northern Greenland and back down where the storms are not nearly as bad.  The engine sounded fine at first but then the RPM’s became erratic.  We limped our way into a cove surrounded by icebergs and strong currents.  Before we left this year I bought a spare injector pump for our engine.  It cost $1,500 which was a hard pill to swallow for a spare but I was glad I did it.  It took twelve hours to replace the injector pump while on anchor in the middle of nowhere.  I’ve become a good enough mechanic that I was able to do the job although I lost a very important specialized injector screw and for two hours we searched for it and all got covered with oil.  Alexander was the one who found it, by then we thought we would never find it.

As I write this we are underway heading south.  The engine is running well, hopefully it remains that way.  I have a lot of spare parts and the skills to replace and repair many aspects of the engine but I hope I don’t have to work on it again.

We look forward to reaching Upernavik and tying off to a seawall for the first time in nearly two months.

Fortitudine Vincinimus.

Matt Rutherford


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NASA Survey ( Part 2)

The weather has been crazy this year. Normally Northwest Greenland has very little wind in the summer months. If there is strong wind it’s out of the north, but usually it doesn’t blow hard for long. This year its been one storm after another, with all of the winds out of the south. We have had three storms in two weeks that all blew at least 45-50kts. The last storm was so bad it washed away the road in Qaanaaq that leads to the airport; well airstrip is probably a better way to describe it. You know the weather has been bad when roads get washed away. We were only able to collect data for 10 of the first 24 days of our survey for NASA’s OMG program. If that wasn’t bad enough we have also had issues with our survey equipment.

Airmar is one of the largest transducer manufacturers in the world. A transducer is the part of a sonar system that is mounted to the hull that sends and receives the sonars pings. We got a bad transducer from Airmar that is operating at 3.6 ohms when it’s supposed to operate at 10 ohms. What this means is when the sonar tries to push its strong low frequency single through the transducer its motherboard overheats and burns out, killing the sonar in the process. We had $13,000 invested in a sonar system that we can’t use due to this bad transducer.   Luckily we do have a backup sonar system. It’s not nearly as good and the data is much more difficult to process afterword but it will map the fjord and get the job done. The whole situation has been very stressful. This region would be difficult enough to map out in prefect conditions, instead we have had storm after storm and faulty survey equipment. Oh well, it wouldn’t be an adventure if everything went as planned.

Our survey isn’t just about mapping the seafloor; it’s really more about finding the warmer Atlantic water that is eating away the edges of Greenland. NASA’s OMG (Ocean Melting Greenland) program is a five year program that is collecting a huge amount of data about the health of the Greenland icecap and its surrounding glaciers. There is a warmer saltier water column, deep in the water, some 200-300 meters down that is coming up from the Atlantic and eating Greenland’s glaciers from underneath. Our job is to map the seafloor so we can find the places where this warmer water might be, then drop a CTD probe to verify it’s there. The CTD can detect t the change of temperature and salinity as it descends towards the bottom. There is a line attached to the CTD, 3,300 feet of line to be exact, that we use to bring the CTD back to the boat. It can take an hour to do one CTD cast; we are doing 130 CTD casts over the course of the survey. The job is made easier by a watermen’s pot puller I mounted to the back of the boat. Usually a pot puller is used to bring crab and lobster pots up from the bottom, but it serves our purpose well.

I get so wrapped up in our issues and our research that I don’t always take the time to appreciate the beauty around me. We were on anchor last week waiting for a storm to begin. We had been there for several hours, I was busy stressing out over the weather and broken equipment when I looked up and realized how beautiful it was. We were anchored at the base of a 3,000 foot cliff with a glacier coming down its side. The cliff itself looked like the view you have looking up at the island in the sky district of Canyonlands National Park (one of my favorite places in the United States). I realized I need to stop stressing out so much and enjoy the scenery.

We have finally gotten a break in the weather a few days ago so we were able to get back to work.   We wanted to take full advantage of the light winds so we headed to the iciest part of our survey. A place you can only enter in absolutely calm conditions.

There are many glaciers that feed into Inglefield fjord but many of the largest and most active glaciers are located at the end of the fjord, with the majority of those on the northern side. To make things icier there is an island that is located near the northern side of the end of Inglefield fjord that prevents much of the ice from escaping exacerbating the already icy waters. It’s an iceberg traffic jam mix up, giant bergs, bergy bits, brash ice, you name it, if its ice, it’s there in force.  This island I speak of isn’t even supposed to be an island; our charts show that it’s a peninsula. Goes to show how accurate the charts are; it’s definitely an island with at least 1,000 feet of water on all sides of it. In some places you can weave through the ice, in other places there is so much ice that all you can do is push through it. Sometimes the ice is so heavy even pushing through it isn’t an option so you have to turn back unable to map that area.

We operate around the clock and don’t always get much sleep which doesn’t make things any easier. It’s very slow going as we can hardly go faster than 1mph. Since we are constantly pushing ice out of our way with our boat if we go too fast the ice could poke a hole in our steel hull, damage our rudder or break our underwater sensors. Poor Alexander sleeps forward in the V-berth; he can both hear and feel every piece of ice that we hit as we push along through the jumble.  Sometimes when we hit a large piece of ice the whole boat jerks hard to one side or the other which can make you lose your balance if you’re not careful. All of this sounds quite dangerous but at 1mph in flat calm conditions it’s no real threat. Just keep an eye on the glaciers so if they calve a large iceberg you’re ready for the ensuing wave and try not to get too close to any giant icebergs that look rotten and ready to roll over.

The worst of that northern area is now mapped out and behind us. We have many other glaciers and sub-fjords to map and will be hard at work for the next two or three weeks. On September 22nd the sun will set for the first time and we need to have the project wrapped up before that happens. Nature has given us a deadline and we still have a lot of work to do.

Fortitudine Vincimous

Matt Rutherford

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NASA survey (part 1)

Well, that was interesting. Anytime it blows 50kts when it’s forecasted to blow 25kts is always going to be that way.

Our survey for NASA’s OMG (Ocean Melting Greenland) program is our primary scientific objective this year. NASA’s OMG program believes a warmer saltier water column; deep in the water (some 200-300 meters deep) is coming up from the Atlantic and eating Greenland’s glaciers from underneath. This “eating away” of the glaciers speeds up their rate which is helping them melt faster.

Our job is to map the seafloor looking for deeper areas where this warmer water is hiding and lower a CTD probe to confirm this warmer water is there. Mapping the seafloor is a tedious endeavor. You get a line plan, ours is 1,300 miles long, and you have to follow within 20 feet of those lines. It’s very difficult to stay within 20 feet of a line as your boat gets blown around by the wind and pushed by the current. You need complete concentration focusing on the monitor mounted in front of you. Just a few seconds of daydreaming and you can find yourself drifting off course.

This would be hard enough in the Chesapeake Bay but in the high Arctic there is ice everywhere. The person driving the boat stares at the monitor, keeping course, while another person looks ahead for ice. We do five hour watches with two people on and the other two trying to rest. During the five hour watch we switch driving the boat every 30 minutes because trying to stay on a survey line is so strenuous that 30 minutes is all a person can take. If that wasn’t hard enough when the fog comes, as it often does, it’s nearly imposable to stay on the lines. In the fog you lose all sense of orientation as you have nothing on the horizon to use for reference. You end up throwing the wheel around so much that your wrists get sore.

Proper research vessels, the big ones, work around the clock. So we do the same. It isn’t like you get up and pull anchor, do eight hours of work, then drop anchor eat dinner and go back to bed. Its five hours on, five hours off, 24/7 until we run low on fuel, water or the weather deteriorates. In good conditions with fuel and water topped off we can collect scientific data for a week straight.

As I said we have 1,300 miles of survey lines we have to map. That’s like trying to map the seafloor from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to the Virgin Islands, except you’re in uncharted waters with rocks and ice all over the place. I don’t think words can possible convey how difficult it is to do this project. The good thing is we like a challenge!

You need good weather to map the seafloor; any winds over 15kts will create wave action that will screw up your data. Typically the winds in central and northern West Greenland are calm in the summer. This makes it hard to sail as you are often becalmed but its great weather for doing science. Unfortunately this year’s weather is anything but typical.

There has been a basic weather pattern for the last few weeks. The wind picks up on Monday, increases Tuesday and blows gale strength Wednesday; Thursday through Sunday the weather is calm, then the next system moves in. Last week it didn’t blow as hard as predicted, but today it blew the oysters off the rocks!

We knew bad weather was coming so we collected data as long as possible then hid in a fjord to wait out the gale. This time it was only supposed to blow 25-30kts, no big deal. Yesterday it was blowing 25-30kts; today it blew a good 50kts with much stronger gusts.

One surefire way to know its blowing like hell is when the wind gusts hit the water it instantly turns the water’s surface into a cloud of flying, swirling mist. You can see this mist flying across the surface of the water and when it hits your boat you better be holding on to something. Ault was healing over 25-30 degrees when being blasted by these winds. When the first powerful gust hit we had just finished doing our dishes. All of our plates crashed to the floor and broke. As the wind continued to build all I could think is “damn I hope the anchor holds” as the winds were becoming unmanageable for a vessel underway.  Next thing I know the anchor broke free.

We have sailed 20,000 miles on this boat and I can’t remember any time when we have been in stronger winds. As the winds hammered our hull we were dragged out into the fjord, the water became deep and our anchor dangled uselessly 130 feet below the boat. I threw the engine on and had it running wide open, some 3,000rpms; I never run the engine that hard. Even still we were going nowhere as the winds were too strong to get the bow of the boat back up into the wind.   Before we could get the anchor up one of our buckets with 1,700 feet of CTD line blew off our stern, the line was tangled in our now dangling anchor and trying to wrap around our propeller. Nikki and Dana ran out in pelting rain trying to retrieve the CTD line as I tried to get the boat back into shallower water where the anchor might hold again. The whole time the wind was healing the boat over as if we were under full sails, which of course we weren’t, our sails were lashed down.   Once the CTD line was back on board and no longer dragging behind the boat I was able to slowly make headway against the wind with the engine at full throttle. Finally we got the anchor to catch again and it has been holding ever since.

The winds have mostly died off at this point. The occasional strong gust hits our boat like the weakened blows from a dying monster. The storm is passing. Tomorrow morning we will get back to work as if nothing happened. It was just another day in the Arctic.

Fortitudine Vincinimus.

Matt Rutherford

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Baffin Bay

We were only planning on being in Upernavik for 24 hours but things don’t always go as planned.  During an expedition of this nature problems are going to occur.  It could be anything from something on the boat breaking unexpectedly, scientific equipment malfunctioning, sickness or injury, etc.  You prepare for an expedition the best you can and you play it safe as often as possible but unexpected things occur.  Then again, it wouldn’t be an adventure if you knew how it was going to end.

Our problem in Upernavik was financial.  We were told that we were going to get 5k from one of our partners on July 1st two months before we left.  On July 1st instead of receiving the funding we got an email saying “sorry for the inconvenience but we can’t give you the funding until September”.   Because of the “shoe string” nature of this year’s expedition this left us tied off to a seawall in the Arctic without the funding to continue.  It took four days to pull together the funding which involved a series of phone calls, some more painful than others.  Lynker Technologies also kicked in more funding which helped the situation. Once we had filled in the gap in our funding we could push off the dock and begin our micro plastics survey in Baffin Bay.   

Our micro plastics survey in Baffin Bay would involve a 500 mile offshore passage.  I wanted to make sure that everyone was well rested before we left so we prepared the vessel and went to bed early.  Just as I was starting to fall asleep I heard a thumping noise coming from somewhere deep on our boat.  Upernavik harbor has a good deal of ice in it and it isn’t uncommon for a chunk of ice the size of a vending machine to float by bouncing off the hull as it passes, but this was different.  I came out into the pilothouse and to my surprise there was a large berg a few feet from our haul.  It was high tide which allowed a large berg that would typically run aground at the mouth of the harbor to come drifting in. It was an oddly shaped iceberg that had an underwater ice shelf protruding a good 20 feet.  This underwater shelf was under our boat and bouncing off the bottom of our keel.  The fear was that if this roughly 50 ton berg decided to roll it would lift the boat in the process.  Although we were tied off, it still would have been bad.  I yelled for the crew and everyone came scrambling out in socks and bare feet grabbing poles and attempting to push away this large chunk of ice.  For the first five minutes it seemed like an impossible task but finally the berg slowly started to move away from the boat.  

The berg drifted 100 feet and ran aground.  I couldn’t go back to bed because we had another large berg approaching from behind that may or may not come crashing into our stern.  After 3 hours the tide went out enough that all the large icebergs in the harbor were safely aground so I tried to get back to sleep.   Just as I was nodding off I heard a loud crashing sound.  The berg that was bouncing off our keel had broken apart with enough force to send a chunk of ice the size of an SUV careening through the water at a good 5kts passing right behind our vessel.  The berg had broken into 1,000 pieces, several hundred of which had surrounded Ault and as we bounced up and down with the swell the small pieces of ice hit our steel hull making it sound like we were in a kettle drum.  It’s hard to sleep through that!

After a sleepless night we pushed out into Baffin Bay.  I knew it would be a relatively easy offshore run as our weather forecast showed very light winds for the entire passage.  

In 2013 we spent 70 days at sea doing micro plastics research in the so called “Atlantic Garbage Patch”.  We spent 64 days doing micro plastics research in the Pacific in 2014.  Last year we did some micro plastics trawls off Disko Island. This year it made sense it do trawls further offshore in the middle of Baffin Bay.  We don’t get any funding for this research, understanding how plastic trash is effecting our oceans has become a pet project of ours.  We will continue to collect micro plastics data on all future expeditions as plastic trash is a big problem for our oceans.  

It’s difficult to do this type off data collection in the Arctic because unlike the open ocean you have a lot of various things floating on the surface.  Last year we kept getting nets full of jelly fish and feathers.  This year we kept filling our trawl with zoo plankton.  It’s awfully difficult to find small pieces of plastics when they are hidden in five gallons of plankton.  It’s no surprise that we found so much plankton in the middle of Baffin Bay; the plankton is the reason why so many whales come up here.

No one has done trawls in the Arctic before and after the last two years I think we are starting to come to a basic conclusion.  Plastic trash (micro plastics) float on the surface of the water.  The ice that forms on the surface prevents micro plastics from getting too far north during at least the six to nine months of the year that it’s present.  The micro plastics that do come up from the Atlantic becomes locked in the ice and gets pushed south with the pack ice as it melts.   This means that the ice acts as a barrier in the winter and pushes the micro plastics that do accumulate in the gyre out in the spring.  To take this research to the next level we would have to take ice samples in the winter to see how much micro plastics are getting trapped within it.  

After sailing through Baffin Bay we turned towards our destination; Qaanaaq in Inglefield fjord.   This is where we will be mapping the seafloor and lowering a CTD probe for NASA’s OMG program.  We were a bit early in the season so when we arrived in Inglefield fjord it was still half full of pack ice floating around at random.  We pushed our way through large patties of rotten pack ice roughly six inches thick, ramming them with our bow and breaking them in half.  Finally we arrived at Qaanaaq; we dropped the anchor surrounded by heavy fog, refueled and began our hydrographic survey.

Fortitudine Vincinimus

Matt Rutherford
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Into the ice

It’s important to understand the rate (or speed) that a glacier travels. The faster a glacier is moving the more icebergs it will create. If a glacier is losing more ice than is being replenished it will thin out and recede.   So by understanding the rate of a glacier you can better understand the health of the glacier. Satellite imagery will only tell you so much, it’s important we try to find new ways to get a more detailed understanding of the rate a glaciers is moving.

We owe Dr. Clark Richards and RBR big time. If it wasn’t for their help and generosity we wouldn’t of had the CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth probe) needed to collect data for NASA; this year or last year. Professional grade scientific equipment is very expensive, especially if you want to lower it deep in the water. The deeper you want to lower a probe the stronger it has to be to handle the pressure, so the price increases. It’s the same with our sonar system, deeper = more expensive.   The fjords in Greenland can be thousands of feet deep; our equipment has to be capable of handling those depths.

Our latest scientific objective was Dr. Clark Richards’s brain child. Clark is working in collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Ocean Research Project is the third party in this equation who is deploying the sensors. RBR’s makes a pressure sensor called “Solo” that can detect minute differences of pressure in the water. His idea is to deploy these pressure sensors near glaciers and when a glacier calves off an iceberg it will create a wave. The wave creates a difference of pressure and the “Solo” sensor will record that difference. Basically it will count the amount of times a glacier calves off an iceberg. This is a new enough idea that Clark is still trying to prove that this can really be done and create a scientific method. The data will help scientists understand the glaciers rate.

Deploying the sensors is easier said than done.

We left Sisimiut and sailed north. During the first watch we didn’t see any ice, 12 hours later we could see 30 icebergs without even moving our heads.   When you start your expedition at the Arctic Circle it doesn’t take long to get into the ice.

We stopped briefly in Godhavn AKA Qeqertarsuaq, to celebrate Greenland day. We heard there was a party on the beach but our intel was wrong. After a quiet day on anchor working on the boat we pushed back out to sea heading to our sensor deployment site in NE Disko Bay.

We sailed into a fjord behind a large island that leads to many other fjords with random rocky islands strewn about. We saw islands on our charts that didn’t exist in reality and an island that did exist that wasn’t on our charts; charts for Greenland are often sketchy at best. (Our tracking device stopped working for a few days due to faulty wiring, my fault, so you can’t see where exactly we went via the tracking device on the website)

At the end of the fjord there are a series of glaciers so the deeper into the fjord we went the heavier the ice became. Our objective was an island near the glaciers we were calling Arrowhead Island due to its shape. The plan was to deploy half of our RBR “Solo” sensors along the eastern side of this island; the problem is the ice is so think along that side that we couldn’t get there with Ault. Lynker Technologies sponsored us with a Phantom 4 drone we could use for aerial reconnaissance (and cool cinenmatography).   Because the islands in Greenland are rocky, mountainous and lacking topographic maps this was a prefect opportunity to do some aerial recon. Nikki and Dana flew the drone several times along the east side of the island and found a route that they could take on foot to deploy the sensors. I had to stay with the vessel because large pieces of ice were drifting into the anchorage threating to trip our anchor leaving us shipwrecked on the rocky shore of an uninhabited island.

So Nikki, Dana and Alex left with backpacks full of line, weights to hold down the sensors, food and camera gear. The terrain makes for a unique hiking experience because it is mostly covered in a think peat like moss; your foot will sink a good six inches with every step. It’s like walking on a trampoline or an old mattress.   12 hours later after they hiked 15 miles including nearly 4,000 feet of elevation change without a trail they returned to the vessel. They were covered in blisters and they said the mosquitoes were so thick that they were inhaling them us they were trying to breath. The mosquitoes were able to bite Nikki through her pants; her legs were covered in bites.

I prepared a red Thai curry and scotch on the rocks (the rocks were from broken up icebergs) as they deserved a good meal and stiff drink.

We had to move anchor several times in the little cove we were in because large bergs kept coming in and threating the vessel. This is just a normal part of the routine when anchoring near heavy ice.

We left Arrowhead Island and tried to deploy the other half of the sensors near a glacier to the north but we found the way blocked by ice. It wasn’t just the ice that was the problem, there were several islands that were constricting and confusing the current. Icebergs were zooming around this way and that at 3-4kts, one of which came up from behind and nearly ran us over. Ault was also getting pushed around by the current so we turned tail and ran back the way we came.

Instead we deployed the rest of the sensors at a southern glacier that didn’t have any crazy currents but did have a large amount of ice. At times we were pushing through ice so think that there wasn’t one square foot of clean open water to be seen.   It’s a very slow process. One person stands on the bow with a long whisker pole in hand pushing large chunks of ice away as they give directions via a handheld VHF to whoever is steering the boat. When we got to a deployment site Nikki and Dana would jump in the dinghy, row to land, and deploy a sensor in roughly 6-15 feet of water. Twice they had to row through icy water that was more ice than water, but our dinghy held up just fine (it’s rather indestructible).  It took us 18 hours of navigating heavy ice before we had all of the sensors deployed and we were back in relatively ice free waters.

We continued north towards Upernavik having to stop once to drop anchor next to a 1,000 foot cliff due to heavy fog, but finally we arrived in Upernavik and tied off to a gnarly seawall. Tomorrow we will push out into Baffin Bay, head to a gyre within the bay and do some micro plastics trawls. It will be interesting to see the amount of micro plastics that are coming up from the Atlantic and accumulating within this gyre.

Fortitudine Vicinimus

Matt Rutherfordddeploymentsites

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It never ends

Boats need attention.  If you don’t give them the attention they think they deserve they get mad at you and start slowly committing suicide.  It’s amazing how you can winterize a perfectly functioning boat, leave it for the winter, and come spring it seems like everything is broken.  It’s understandable if your engine doesn’t start easily after sitting for months but when metal brackets on the engine crack in half it leaves you scratching your head.  Like a spoiled child, if you don’t show your boat enough attention it will have a hissy fit.  

Eight months is a long time to leave your boat.  Not that we had a choice, the winter lasts a long time in the Arctic, there is no reason to come back if the water is still frozen.   I knew we would come across numerous issues with our vessel, but there was no way to tell what would and wouldn’t be working when we got there.  Last year I had four months to prepare for our 2015 Greenland Climate Project, this year I only had two and a half weeks.

The first thing we had to do was install a $25,000 sonar system.  This would have been a difficult task in Annapolis let alone Greenland.  A sonar of this nature isn’t just a depth sounder, it’s an entire system.  The heart of this system is an Odom CV/200, Odom let us borrow a loner unit which was very nice of them considering a CV/200 costs $15,000.  We plan on buying this unit if we can raise enough money by the end of the expedition.  We also needed a DGPS, a transducer the size of a cinderblock and a new Panasonic Toughbook powerful enough run hydrography software.  The software we are using is Hypack, which is $8,000 for a one year license.  Hypack sponsored us this year but we will have to pay for it if we want to use the program again next year.   

When I say a transducer the size of a cinderblock, I kid you not.  Not just is it huge but it also weighs 40lbs.  Imagine bolting something that big to the bottom of your sailboat.  If the transducer is big the housing to protect it is colossal.  Lucky for us there was a good welder at the boatyard in Sisimiut who built a housing for our transducer of such quality that even the marine welders back in Annapolis would have a hard time matching it.  In the middle of building this for us he got into an argument with his boss and quit his job.  At first I was quite concerned but he told me that he will finish what he started and he did just that.  

There was a ton of little issues.  The batteries would no longer hold a charge, the water pressure pump wasn’t working nor was my fridge, the ships wiring had gone bad in serval places.  It never ends, every time you fix one thing, two more things break.  All you can do is try to keep up with the problems as they occur, but it’s hard to get ahead of the maintenance.

My trusty crew was up for the task.  Nicole, Dana and I worked 14 hour days while Alexander filmed like there was no tomorrow.  Although it was a lot of work we still found some time for play.  We did a talk at the local high school about our research and a Danish chemistry teacher named Neils evited us back to his apartment for dinner.  His apartment had the most incredible view overlooking the ocean.  He cooked musk ox stew and the red wine poured freely.  This became a bit of a routine; we would work all day in the boatyard then go over to Neils for stew, potatoes and wine.  We even went to a concert with Neils, the band had a Greenlandic lead singer, a drummer from Ghana, a guitar player from Togo, and a bassist and pianists from Denmark; it was epic.  

We finally put the boat back in the water, which was a nail biter.  Every time they moved Ault they broke something.  The first time it was my AIS antenna, the next time they broke four stantions, then they broke my Auto Helm windvane infrastructure.  They fixed everything they broke but it made me nervous every time they moved the boat.   They got the boat into the water without any issues, and then we became a fish sandwich.

They tied us off to a god knows how old, large wooden fishing vessel.  At 5am the next day I wake up to the sound of an engine chugging right next to our boat.  I come running out on deck in my socks just as this old fishing vessel slams into the one part of our boat that didn’t have fenders.  I scrabbled around moving fenders and helping them tie off their lines.  An hour later an even bigger old wooden fishing vessel ties off to that boat.  We were now sandwiched between three large wooden fishing vessels, hence a fish sandwich.  

It’s important to remember that this is their country and they are not set up to handle visiting sailboats.  There is not a single marina in all of Greenland.  These are work boats and the people on board are trying to make a living.  We are the ones who are in their way.  Everyone is very friendly about the situation as long as you smile and help them with their lines.   But you do have to be careful, you can tie your boat off to a seawall for 45 minutes to get some groceries and come back to see four little boats tied off to you, or even worse an old wooden fishing boat that weighs many times more than you do.  Greenland is not a place for fiberglass yachts with a beautiful paintjob and well varnished teak toe rails.  Our sailboat is a work boat, so a few scratches here and there don’t bother us much.

With Ault in the water, the engine tuned up, the problems fixed, the scientific equipment installed it’s time to begin the expedition!

Fortitudine Vincimus

Matt Rutherford

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Back to Greenland

It’s good to be back in Greenland. Last year we left Ault our 42 foot research schooner in Sisimiut which is just north of the Arctic Circle. Believe it or not with a population of 6,000 people Sisimiut is the second largest “city” in Greenland. Last year when we left Annapolis we weren’t planning on keeping our boat in the Arctic, but it takes a while to get to northern Greenland and then you have to do the research. By the time we wrapped up our research projects it was too late in the season to sail back south to Annapolis, so we had to find a place to haul out. When we first came to the boatyard in Sisimiut they told us they didn’t have any room to store our boat for the winter on land, they said “come back tomorrow”. When we came back they took a backhoe and used it to destroy an old 50 foot fishing boat, that’s how they made room for our vessel.
I don’t like being away from my boat for eight days let alone eight months. Not to mention there was no communication from the boat yard. Well there was a little, they sent me an email telling me how much money I owed them but once I paid them they went silent. I must have sent ten emails asking about my boat with no reply. When I saw Ault for the first time in eight months I would have hugged the entire vessel if my arms were long enough. Once the initial joy had passed it was time to assess the damage.
Water had gotten into my rudder somehow and during the extreme cold of the winter had expanded and popped part of my rudder off. The bracket that holds the alternator onto my engine block cracked in half (don’t know how that happened). My ship’s batteries were all shot (they weren’t in the best shape to begin with). All in all, damage was minimal.
On one hand this last winter was very nice. Nicole and I live on Ault, when we left our boat in Greenland we were basically homeless. Friends of ours, Pat and Amy Teeling, sailed to the Bahamas and let us stay in their house in Annapolis for free (as long as we covered the utilities). They really helped us out. On the other hand Ocean Research Project has been struggling.
Every single grant proposal we wrote we failed to get. Failing to get a grant is nothing new, it happens all the time, but normally we get at least one grant. This year we got nothing. I’ve never let a lack of funding stop me in the past, so why let it stop me now?
Part of the reason we have struggled with funding is because our primary research is geophysical data collection. Small non-profits don’t normally do geophysics; it’s usually done on large research vessels by PHDs. Their funding usually comes from the National Science Foundation or NOAA. NSF and NOAA doesn’t fund small non-profits, they fund universities and large institutes. Usually small non-profits do research related to a particular species, counting seal colonies, collecting polar bear droppings to be analyzed, etc. It’s not normal for a small non-profit to be doing this type of research. We can’t understand how climate change is affecting the Arctic without geophysical data. Sea level rise will affect a huge variety of marine species, but hydrography is still a hard sell.
On the up side, we now have a $25,000 sonar system that will allow us to map the sea floor down to 6,000 feet. We can lower our (RBR) CTD (salinity, temperature and depth probe) twice as deep, down to 3,000 feet and we have added another scientific project with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Even though we have struggled with funding we have seriously upgraded our ability to do professional climate change research. To hell with the funding, the research is what really matters.
We are doing four scientific projects in the Arctic this year:
1.) Our primary scientific objective is with NASA scientists who are part of the Ocean Melting Greenland program (NASA’S OMG). There is a warmer saltier water column, deep in the water, some 200-300 meters down, which is coming up from the Atlantic and eating Greenland’s Glaciers from underneath (last year we found this warmer water in a variety of locations). If you were to melt all of the glaciers on earth outside of Greenland and Antarctica you would add a half meter of sea level raise. If you melt Greenland you add 7 meters (21 feet) of sea level rise. Since the Arctic is melting faster than the Antarctic the Greenland Ice Cap will be the first thing that will seriously increase our sea levels. Sea level rise isn’t just about our tides rising higher, it will increase sea surge. It’s the increase of sea surge that will beat and batter our coastal cities. This project will happen way, way north near Qaanaaq (Inglefield Fjord), one of the last parts of West Greenland that hasn’t been detailed yet. It’s possible that this is where the majority of the warmer saltier water column terminates. We will find out soon.
2.) Our second project is with the Smithsonian’s Environmental Research Center. When researching ocean acidification most people look at the level of pH. As we burn fossil fuels it releases CO2 into our atmosphere. Around 30% of that CO2 gets absorbed by our oceans. The CO2, once in the water, becomes pCO2 (some call it xCO2). The CO2 in the water is lowering the pH making the water more acidic. Most scientists have looked at the pH instead of the amount of CO2 in the water because CO2 sensors are ungodly expensive. Our partner Dr. Miller at the Smithsonian has invented a CO2 sensor that is a fraction of the traditional cost. Not just are we collecting Arctic ocean acidification data and helping to trouble shoot this new device but next year we will be installing these CO2 sensors on citizen scientist’s sailboats.
3.) During our third project we will be deploying sensors built by RBR that can detect minute differences of pressure in the water. Every time a glacier calves an iceberg it makes a wave. These sensors can detect the waves and count them. This mean that RBR’s sensors will be able to count the amount of times a glacier calves over the period of time that the sensors are deployed. Typically if you wanted to understand how many times a glacier is calving you would have to stand there 24/7 and count it out as it happens. To be able to get an accurate idea of the rate of glacial calving is crucial to understanding the speed of its melt and ultimately the health of the glacier.
4.) There are five major gyres in our earth’s oceans. These gyres are where the “garbage patches” are, the accumulation zones where plastic trash gathers. Last year we did the first ever micro plastics trawls in Baffin Bay (or anywhere else in the Arctic). There is a small gyre (I believe) in the northern central region of Baffin Bay. We will trawl this accumulation zone to better understand the amount of micro plastics making its way up from the Atlantic into the Arctic Ocean. It should be interesting it see what we find.
Even though we have struggled with funding we still have put together one hell of a scientific research expedition. The obstacles we face only make us stronger. There is no limit to our determination. With the help of Nicole (the beautiful) and our crew (Dana and Alex) we will be successful. There is no stopping us. It’s by endurance we concur.
Fortitudine Vincinimus