Connemara Journal columnist Nick Kats sailed to Greenland in June. Like two others from the area who took on two similar voyages this year, he saw much that was beautiful, but also undeniable signs of climate change.
Last summer, three men with roots in Connemara sailed separately to Greenland: Jamie Young from Killary Harbour, Paddy Barry who keeps a holiday home at Ballyconneely, and myself, from near Clifden.
Jamie and Paddy sailed to the west coast of Greenland. The southwest coast is where most of the 60,000 Inuit live. This part of the coast is least exposed to ice and glaciers, and has fertile lands where domestic animals graze. Jamie and Paddy went along this stretch to Disco Island north of the Arctic Circle. I sailed to the east coast, a wilderness of mountains and glaciers, with 3500 Inuit on the entire east coast.
Jamie, 68, originally from Northern Ireland, moved to Killary in 1980, founded, ran and retired from Killary Adventure Company. His boat is a 1979 aluminium English-built racing sloop, 49 foot long, 16 tons, fin keel, heated.
On June 01, he left Killary with his crew, four Irish and two Dutch. The crossing to Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland, is 1200 nautical miles. Most of the wind was from the north: all hands struggled with the cold, especially at night. En route, a knockdown tore off a wooden kayak, a beauty crafted by Josie Conneely of Casla, and the kayak was lost. Possibly someone in Donegal or the Outer Hebrides found it washed up intact.
Few whales were seen: humpbacks, a fin, some pilots. Rounding Cape Farewell a strong following wind drove them to Nuuk, the capital.
Jamie’s farthest north was Ilulisat by Disko Island. On the return he met Paddy on the Ilen.
Jamie had sailed these waters in 2013, and he tells of many changes. Nuuk has far more construction. Outlying villages were smaller or emptied, due to the accelerating migration of country people to the towns and cities. With recent laying of optic fibre cables to Greenland the bilingual Inuit (Inuit and Danish) are rapidly learning English. The biggest change Jamie noted was signs of climate change: more on this later.
Jamie returned to Killary on August 14, after two and half months out.
Paddy, 76, was a Dublin engineer. He circumnavigated the North Pole with Jarlath Cunnane during the summers of 2001–2003. In 1973 he brought a Galway hooker, the St Patrick, rebuilt her, and sailed her on many long North Atlantic and Arctic trips, until she was wrecked in 2002.
His vessel for the Greenland sail was the Ilen, a 56 foot wooden ketch. Designed by Conor O’Brien, she was built in 1926 in west Cork, sailed to the Falklands, worked there for five decades transporting people, sheep and goods, retired and left derelict, purchased and shipped home, rebuilt at
Hegarty’s Boatyard (in the same barn where she was originally built), launched, finished by the Limerick School of Boatbuilding, and tried out. The trip to Greenland was her first.
With an Irish crew of nine, Paddy left Limerick Docks on June 30. The crossing around Cape Farewell to Nanortalik, took 10 days, mostly under power. The Ilen hopped up the coast – Qaqortoq, Paamiut, Nuuk, Sisimiut, Agto, Asiaat. Her farthest north was Ilulisat. Four dozen half bottles of Jameson and several crew talented in Irish music lubricated the way with harbour masters and sundry. Cod was taken, natural geothermal hot springs bathed in, mountains climbed, rivers fished.
On the return along the coast they stopped to check out the chapel ruins of Brattahlid and Igaliku, remnants left by the Vikings who lived in Greenland from 1000 AD til their mysterious disappearance around 1450. The Ilen passed through Prince Christian Sound, a passage of towering 1000m cliffs on both sides inside of Cape Farewell. The jump home took nine days, three under power and six under sail, and with the advancing night the Northern Lights were seen at sea. On September 04, the Ilen tied up at Kinsale, 65 days out.
This was Paddy’s fourth sail to Greenland. He notes more construction, far more tourism, with many cruise ships coming in, mining, fishing and shrimping. The Inuit, better connected to the world, are rapidly learning English. Depression and suicide remain high. Paddy was stunned by the change in the sea ice.
An American, I moved to Clifden in 2001, to the holiday home my parents brought in the 1960s. My boat, Danish built, is 12m long, 16 tons, steel hull, insulated and heated. On June 15 we left from Hegarty’s Boatyard, Skibbereen, where I had been working on my boat. We stopped at Inisvickillaun, and were promptly kicked off by the caretaker. To Clifden, then Inishkea North, Mayo, dropping in on the gregarious hermit Brian Sweeney who gave us dinner and tea in his primitive cabin. A week’s crossing to Iceland, up the Eastfjords and across the north coast. We enjoyed the saunas and heated pools at every Iceland town, catching cod and haddock aplenty, walking.
At the Westfjords a crew change: a Kiwi, a Spaniard, a Canadian and myself.
Online ice charts showed an ice-free chunk of the East Greenland coast. In the middle of this was Kangerlusuak Fjord, north of the Circle.
Crossing the Denmark Strait, the first icebergs mesmerised us. Approaching the mouth of Kangerlusuak the day was calm, the sky blue, the air super clear. The view of the jagged 2000m peaks ranging away 60 miles on both sides was incredible.
Within the fjord we anchored near an abandoned Inuit village, in a shallow bight to avoid big bergs. The first thing we did on landing on a beach was to strip down and run between the bergs into the sea… we had arrived!
Ascending the fjord, we anchored to a small berg for the night, adrift in total calm, surrounded by long glaciers descending between titanic peaks.
Much of the fjord was congested with brash (small ice). My steel boat had no trouble pounding through brash under 500 pounds. Going straight through saves time.
SW down the Greenland coast we stopped at Nordre Aputiteq island with an abandoned weather station. A tiny inlet between island and islet gave total protection from the ice – such a relief! We swam in a lake fed by meltwater from the snows and warmed by the 24 hour Arctic sun.
The skeleton of a polar bear lay nearby, but we never saw a living bear. We explored Bluie East 2, a WW2 US air base, one of 30 established in Greenland. Lots of rust brown trucks and jeeps with the curves of the 1940s.
The last week was in a 100 mile long coastal stretch of islands with Angmassaliik Island at the centre. This region is home to a cluster of Inuit communities. At the first village, I felt out of place, unwelcome, saw many drunk men, and sensed a frustration, a lack of opportunities – an atmosphere that probably did not exist before ‘civilisation’ came to Greenland. Tasiilaq town on Ammasaliik Island felt cosmopolitan, and I felt an openness, a sense of welcoming. We talked in English with a few Inuit.
At Tassilaq we tied up alongside the wood cutter Dagen Aase, formerly a fishing boat built in 1931, skippered by the professional sailor-explorer Arved Fuchs who has done many extraordinary voyages. We took Arctic char, rainbow trout, eider duck, and mussels. Vegetation was scanty to nonexistent.
Whales were abundant throughout the trip – a huge numbers of humpbacks, many fins, minkes, sperms, pilots. It helps to keep an eye out.
After dropping off a crew at SW Iceland, we returned to Clifden, 60 days out. Afterwards, Jamie, Paddy and I discussed the signs of global warming. We saw these signs in the sea ice and the glaciers.
Sea ice: The East Greenland current flows from the polar basin down the East Greenland coast. It rounds Cape Farewell and, turning north up the west coast, becomes the West Greenland current. Vast amounts of sea ice ride south on the East Greenland current. Bergs calving off from innumerable glaciers drift out and mix with the sea ice. At Cape Farewell much of the ice is dispersed out into the Atlantic. The rest is carried up on the West Greenland current.
Paddy, who has visited the southwest coast three times, saw with successive visits a drastic decline in the sea ice. In 1993 his southernmost landing was Nuuk at 64 degrees; in 2001 it was at Paamuit at 62N; and this year 60N.
For Jamie and me, this was our second visit to Greenland, seven years after our first. In this short time we both saw far less sea ice. In 20 years the east and SW coasts of Greenland have gone from being basically inaccessible to being fairly easy to access for a small boat.
Glaciers: The Greenland ice cap, several miles thick, is a curved dome, bulging at the top. Gravity and pressure push the cap’s fringes outwards to become glaciers descending the passes between the coastal mountains. Most of this ice calves into the sea.
Jamie and I saw plenty of fresh moraines, completely empty, or with glaciers retreated far back. Moraines are the masses of rock and gravel pushed downwards and aside by the descending glaciers. When the glacier melts or withdraws, what is left is the glacier bed which is outlined by the moraine. A few old moraines were evident – these were softened by erosion, and some had moss or other greenery growing within. Most empty moraines that we saw were sharp and fresh, and devoid of vegetation.
All glaciers showed varying signs of deterioration. Deeply fissured. Rotted, often severely. The surface discoloured with blooms, dark or black, which soaks up heat from the sun and accelerates melting. Decreasing thickness – I noticed moraine debris on a mountain cliff ledge 150 feet above a glacier. On the west coast Jamie noticed the same thing, estimating at one point a drop of 300 feet.
These are the signs of global warming at Greenland that we three sailors out of Connemara saw.