Exercise Arctic Express

Written By and Pictures From: MAcr Dex Mann RWOETU & SH StanEval

Definition of Adventure Training: “Challenging outdoor training for Service personnel in specified adventurous activities, involving controlled exposure to risk, in order to develop leadership, teamwork, physical fitness, moral and physical courage, among other personal attributes and skills vital to Operational capability.”

So how can three weeks sailing in and the around the Fjords of NW Iceland and across the Denmark Straits to the Ice fields of Greenland be summed up?

Exciting, exhilarating, mentally and physically exhausting, a once in a lifetime event.

It fulfils all the points in the Definition of AT; it was certainly challenging, and back in April when I helped to load equipment onto the boat, what highlighted this was the 2 body bags, just in case! Risk; there was plenty of that! Negotiating a safe route through the ice; if the skipper misjudges we could easily hole the yacht and start to take in ice-cold water. Leadership; we had on-board a number of DTUS students, one as a Watch Leader. Here you have to show strong leadership to ensure that your Watch is up on time, that whilst in rough seas you can inspire your team to carry on; to cook, clean and keep a clear head when all starts to go wrong. Teamwork; as a crew the only way to sail a boat successfully is by teamwork, ensuring that when asked to do something when cold wet and hungry your team completes the task safely. Physical fitness; strength and stamina is required. The main sail alone weighs about 500kg and takes 5-6 crew to hoist.

The foredeck sails weigh between 100kg to 200kg. As you can see, off shore sailing fits in perfectly with the definition of Adventure Training.

I was lucky enough to be selected to take part in this ‘Once in a Lifetime’ sailing Exped up to the Arctic waters. As a crew we had not known each other, but by the end of 3 weeks in close proximity we had got to know ourselves and others really well. We met up at LGW then flew up to Reykjavik to meet the Skipper, Chris Summer and the yacht HMSTV ADVENTURE. Here we loaded our kit on-board, found our bunk for the next 3 weeks, and were told who was in what Watch and what other duties one had to do. My main duty was twofold, Watch Leader and Purser. The second part of this was to come up with 3 meals per day for 18 days for 15 personnel, a balanced and varied meal list being required! My first supermarket bill was for just over £2500!

Once the food was stowed and all drills completed, it became a waiting game, waiting for a weather window and ice reports from Greenland; storms were raging on the Southern Cape of Greenland and thick ice all along the East Coast. After 3 nights in Reykjavik we head out, north to the NE Fjords of Iceland, to await the ice reports again, a 322Km sail. After completing all the mandated drills we soon settle into the Watch Routine, one Watch on Mother, who cook and clean for all, the other two are on a 4 hours on 4 hours off routine; all change every 24 hours. Very quickly Puffins and Fulmars are ignored, but we are all keen to spot Whales and Dolphins, and after a few hours the cry from the duty Watch of “WHALES” is heard and all scramble topside to see – “Orcas off the Starboard Bow”, just fantastic!

Sailing alongside the massive cliffs (2500ft) of the NE coast line of Iceland is just incredible, words just can’t do it justice, and nor can the many photographs we take. After two days sail we arrive in the Hesteyifjord where we anchor up for the night. So still and quiet, not a breath of air, surrounded on three sides by steep slopes that tower up for about 900ft. Five waterfalls can be heard in the distance and the sea, is alive with jellyfish, no swimming today! A run ashore for two Watches and our Watch remain to prepare evening meal and clean. Food on-board is varied, we have pasta dishes, rice dishes and very occasionally a potato dish. Tonight is Irish stew with potatoes, dedicated to the 4 chaps from the Irish Rangers.

We spend 5 days around the NE Iceland Fjords visiting different anchorages, a glacier and spending one night at Sudavik, which is a small fishing village. Back in 1995 it was badly hit by an avalanche killing 12 people. We visit Isafjordur, to restock on fresh bread and milk, and to have a look at this “frontier town”. We spend 2 days here waiting for a clearance in the ice around the East Coast of Greenland. There are a number of plans; Plan A is to sail around the southern Cape and up the West Coast; scrapped due to storms. Plan B is to sail north to Ittoqqortoomiit Greenland; scrapped, too much ice. We revert to Plan C, which is to sail due west to Tasiilaq and explore the local coastal villages and Fjords, whilst still waiting on the ice reports.

Monday 24th July; the weather and ice is good for Plan C, to head west to land on East Greenland, distance of 665km, about 3 – 4 days sail; wind is light but fair. We all prep to sail, stowing all kit and ensuring all is secured below, before up anchor and set sail with the engine on. Soon we are engulfed in fog which stays with us for some time. With the fog, the cold sets in chewing its way to your bones, but morale is high and expectations are higher.

We all soon settle back into our Watch Routine. Waking up at midnight for the graveyard shift is really hard.

The boat is leaning over, smashing up and down. You try really hard to don your many layers of clothing, make a wet (cup of tea) then eventually put on your final safety kit and head up to day light! Its midnight and it’s still bright; no night sailing hours for me. The other Watch then head back down below, freezing cold and equally tired; we will see them soon; too soon for them but not us. The wind picks up sails are changed, reefs put in and soon we are bombing along at 11Kts; this could be a quick passage.

We are on watch and at 3.15am we spot an Iceberg, the first, and shortly after land, Greenland. Yes, we are almost there. By the time the next Watch arrives the iceberg and land still doesn’t look any closer. We head to our bunks and after a very quick 4 hours we are back on watch and wow, icebergs and growlers (small 5ft to 20ft icebergs) are everywhere and the massive mountains of Greenland tower in front. This is going to be an exhilarating watch. We are close now to our port, and the ice flow is thick, we pick our way through, looking for safe passage.

Slowly we edge forward, power off, nudge the ice away, turn full port, full reverse, turn starboard, forward power, slowly creeping through the ice. Our watch is over, but no way am I heading below, this is AT at its very best! The skipper is concerned. He doesn’t think we will find a way through. We head along another possible channel between the ice sheets; about 1km behind us is a small cruise ship also weaving its way through. Clear water is just 20m away, but we can see no way through; then we spot a possible route, we head for it, desperate to get past the ice. We nudge and pole our way through the final 20m, a grinding noise can be heard as the ice scraps past us. And then we are free, power on and head straight for the harbour. We are in Greenland, I have just experienced one of my top four life changing events.

We spend 2 days exploring a wonderful small town, some of us become members of the East Greenland Kayaking Club, and spend an afternoon canoeing around the Fjord – absolutely outstanding! On day 3 we set off up the adjacent fjord to a very small village called Kalaallit, only 20km away but with the amount of ice, it did take 13 hours. After one night we head back out to sea heading north up to the Arctic Circle, 66°34’.029N, before head back to Iceland. Arriving back at Reykjavik on Thursday. We have seen orca, minke and pilot whales, dolphins and porpoises, puffins, fulmars, arctic terns and many other wonderful wildlife.

So is AT worth it? Yes, it certainly is. This Sailing Exped fulfilled all the requirements stated in the definition above and has left me with a life changing experience; a must for all to do.

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