#19 Greenland – Part 1

We had arrived in Greenland, for better or for worse. We moored in the bustling metropolis of Nuuk, where the handful of shops didn’t bother to open for us, and where we were greeted by a few of the capital’s most dignified council representatives, blind drunk in a bar at eleven am, but courteous nonetheless. The town (ahem – ‘city’) is quaint and charming in parts, with its multicoloured houses and wooden churches, but it was peppered with large apartment blocks during the period of forced modernization in the sixties (nice one, Denmark), and suffers greatly from it.

Jonas works his magic with the locals in Nuuk
foredeck crew hard at work

We had made it from Antigua with just a couple of days spare before our charter, so we hastily tried to transform the boat into something presentable and classy. Decks were scrubbed, lines whipped, sails stitched, and crystal glasses and crockery were dug out from dark corners and placed nervously on the varnished saloon table. The crew scrabbled around manically, fighting over the least soiled clothes and making excuses not to shave. Dave, our Ozzie action hero, departed us for Iceland, and we had already lost our chum Sander in Canada, so we were down to four, plus our insane French chef and the owner and his girlfriend.

We completed our veneer of luxury just in the nick of time, Gino and I screwing together the last pieces of a new bed in the lazarette (with eleven people, the boat would be very full) as our four guests got out of their taxi.

We were all very relieved to find that Peter, his wife Gillian, and brothers Kit and Ian, were relaxed, kind, and interesting. As long as they were supplied with a steady intravenous supply of Earl Grey (with just a little milk), they really made very few demands of the crew. As the only English on board until that point, Jake and I had been ridiculed and bullied about our constant tea-drinking, but now we had a strong team of six slurpers, and could empty a china teapot between us in a matter of seconds. Crates of biscuits were heaved aboard, lines slipped, and we motored out of Nuuk and turned North, eager for ice and adventure.

We made our way into Evighedsfjord, which translates as the ‘everlasting fjord’, and which proved to be, if not eternal, then at least very long. In it, we found our first glacier, and nervously made our way towards it until the growlers (small chunks of ice) became too thick in the water, at which point we broadsided the thing with binoculars and cameras, and picked up a few chunks to make cocktails with. The whole ‘making-a-cocktail-out-of-an-iceberg’ thing is apparently a not-to-be-missed activity in Greenland, and we found ourselves spending an inordinate amount of time hanging various crew over the side of the boat with hammers and buckets, in order to satisfy this bizarre novelty. Personally, I think the icebergs are all wasted up in Greenland and really ought to head south to the Caribbean, where a cold drink is not a novelty but a necessity, and where they would find themselves far more appreciated.

Having ticked ‘glacier’ off our list, we dropped the anchor for the night in a very protected bay at the mouth of the fjord, and in the morning went ashore and walked up a hill, in true English fashion, just for the sake of getting to the top. The view was impressive, but not as impressive as the sheer quantity of mosquitoes that plagued us on the way up. There are few land mammals in Greenland, so I don’t know how the mosquitoes survive most of the time, but they certainly seemed to be thriving – unless maybe the news of our arrival had spread and we had attracted every insect within 500 miles.

the first pieces of cocktail ice
lonely anchorage
look at me and my boat hahah

Onwards we sailed – or rather, motored – into the calm seas and blue skies that are characteristic of Greenland in the summer, watching humpback whales surface all around the boat, spouting their watery trumpets of greeting and waving their enormous fluked tails before diving into the dark depths of the fjords. They were a breathtaking sight, every time.

As we continued North the nights got shorter and shorter, until we crossed the arctic circle with the midnight sun shining, a shot of local spirit in hand, and a toast to the Inuit spirits of the sea. From that point on the sun would not set at all.

We stopped in various tiny settlements, where we were always regarded with suspicion and surprise at first, and then usually with kindness and hospitality.

We encountered huskies and seals, polar bear skins and hundreds of fish hung to dry. Everywhere we went, Gino had to put up with the awe and hilarity of kids (and adults) who had never seen a black guy before, and who couldn’t resist trying to take have their photos taken next to him, with or without his compliance. The villages we visited varied in size from a hundred or less people up to a few thousand, but they were all equally isolated – the longest road in the whole of Greenland is about ten miles, so the only way to get from place to place is by boat, or occasionally by air. Few people have boats capable of the long distances involved, and so the lifeline to the outside world is through the ferry that goes up and down the coast twice a week. Wherever it arrives, the whole town comes to see who is coming and going, and kids come to watch the show and play football on the dock.

Tourists and yachts are rare, and we were often asked what on earth we were doing there, if not conducting some kind of scientific research… We were actually researching relentlessly, of course, and a day or two into the journey we knew every local beer (both of them! – and we could pronounce neither), how long a whale holds its breath for, the meaning of the Greenlandic flag, and the best way to kill a polar bear – which involves playing dead until it puts its jaws over your head, and then jumping up to surprise it with a tiny knife.

In one small town, after an evening of flinging the Frisbee around, we met a friendly psychopath called Casper – an ex seal (the fighting and killing kind, not the balancing-a-ball-on-the-nose kind), who impressed us all with his big talk and tree trunk arms until he tried to break Jonas’s neck, for a laugh. After a hasty escape, Gino, Jake and I followed the sound of some loud music, and found ourselves inside the local youth club, where we danced our whiteboy (apart from Gino) arses off with uncalled-for enthusiasm, to the absolute bewilderment of the several dozen Greenlandic ‘youths’ stood quietly around the edge of the dancefloor. They actually clapped as we left, although they may have just been celebrating our departure.

we found some cellophane
...and Gino found a polar bear
iceberg cooled beer
ice ice ice ice

Northwards we continued, via a short stop at every totally unsuitable and shaky fuel dock we could find, preferably with not enough depth and absolutely no space to maneuver. In between the towns we took inshore routes wherever possible, winding between beautiful islands and scenic fjords, avoiding an increasing number of icebergs and scratching our heads over our charts, on which there are many un-surveyed areas, and often just one narrow line of soundings to follow.

We became, through practice, very good at multi tasking. Whilst sailing through narrow passages and tricky currents, we were making and serving a constant stream of nibbles and drinks, pretending to be civilized and educated, and also fixing the many and various things that broke along the way. One of the heads (toilets), for instance, broke and blocked so many times that we dread to use it to this day, for the memory of it haunts us all. I remember vividly the owner of the boat whacking one of the blocked hoses as hard as he could with a lump hammer, to dislodge the blockage. It worked, in a sense, although it afterwards leaked in more places than you could count. After that he finally consented to the cost of a new hose, although the only one I could find in Greenland was transparent. Now you can open the locker behind the toilet and watch the progress of your poo as you pump it out. Who needs television on a boat?

On top of all this, we also had on our shoulders that grave responsibility that all sailors carry, of getting extremely drunk in every bar that we came across, and of fighting with, joking with, snogging or mortally offending every local in sight. We took this responsibility very seriously.

discouraging an small iceberg from sitting on our boat
psychedelic seas
victory pose

Finally we reached Disko Bay, 300 Nautical Miles north of the capital, which is home to the most productive ice-glacier in the world (I’m sure somebody, somewhere, is correcting me on this), and which is scattered with more icebergs than, well… anywhere else, really. They stretched across the horizon in an unbroken line, and we sailed straight into it, taking the advice of a small metal motorboat that told us we would find a route through without a problem. We meandered through the dense ice-field slowly with the dinghy ahead to find the best path, and couldn’t believe the incredible ice-scenery all around us. Who would have thought a load of frozen water could be so beautiful and awe-inspiring?

In Illulisat, the other side of Jacobsfjord, we played frisbee and football with the local kids, broke another inadequately moored fuel pontoon, and swapped an old dinghy for several enormous red fish.

From there, we motored to Disko Island, navigating around numerous rocks and icebergs to squeeze into the mouth of the harbour at Qeqertarsuaq (previously known as Gödhavn, for those unable to make a noise like an asphyxiated fish). This tiny town, once a (relatively) bustling whale-port, welcomed us gracefully with traditional beer-drinking and wife-swapping, and then sent us all up a bloody great mountain to go dog-sledding at the top. The huskies and the view of the icebergs out to sea and the sleds and all the snow and ice made us all a little bit awe-struck, so Jake and I got the frisbee out and flung it around again, just to have something normal to relate to.

look over there! …oh, its nothing
birds and ice innit’
unsuitable fuel dock #8
scouting around for clear ice paths
more ice ice ice
playing frisbee on a glacier
husky husky husky

In Gödhavn, our French chef decided to leave the boat, but amazingly, a girl called Kat (who we had met the previous evening, and who was about to start her journey back to Germany), in an admirable display of impulsiveness and kindness, gave the chef her ferry ticket (while the ferry was waiting on the dock) and came on board our ship as the new chef, and so the vacancy was filled in a matter of minutes.

Our guests had to be back in Nuuk for their flight, and so we started out on our return journey south. The weather turned a bit dreary, and on and on we motored, through day and night, fog and icebergs. More whales and seals, more tea and biscuits – camera lenses pointed out into the greyness of the eternal twilight, for endless pictures of a featureless ocean with a speck in the middle of the frame, which could be a seal or a bird or the middle finger of a passing fisherman.

My birthday started well on my midnight watch, with rum and 90s R&B and some extremely cheesy dancing on the aft deck, and continued well, apart from taking a running backstay block to the head pretty hard during an intentional, but not very well executed, gybe (yes, we did actually sail a little bit!).

We arrived back in Nuuk, and celebrated Peter’s birthday the day after mine, with all the cake and booze and cards and candles and tea that such an event requires. I wrote a silly little song for the guests about our adventure, and we all passed out, dog tired but unable to rest for long, for the next charter guests were to arrive only a couple of hours after Pater and his gang left.

Please change your course, there’s an iceberg on the bow,
We’re sailing north, to the only pub in town,
Polar bears are rare, and Inuit girls are fair,
And we’ll worry about the rest when we get there,

So don’t you come aboard, if you don’t know how,
To tell the difference between a musk ox and a cow,
And don’t you come aboard, if you cannot brew,
A perfect earl grey tea with a little milk for two,

Please use the bucket, because someone blocked the loo,
We’re taking on lots of water, but that is nothing new,
Lets hoist the bedsheets, ‘cos the sails are all torn,
And please please throw the chef overboard,

So don’t you come aboard, if you don’t know how,
To tell the difference between a musk ox and a cow,
And don’t you come aboard, if you cannot brew,
A perfect earl grey tea with a little milk for two,
And don’t you come aboard, if you cannot throw,
A Frisbee right across the river and the road,

Please put on your lifejacket, we might be going down,
Across the fjord, to the Inuit side of town,
Please tie up your shoelaces, and buckle up your belts,
We’re sailing south until the polar ice melts,

So don’t you come aboard, if you don’t know how,
To tell the difference between a musk ox and a cow,
And don’t you come aboard, if you cannot brew,
A perfect earl grey tea with a little milk for two,
And don’t you come aboard, if you cannot throw,
A Frisbee right across the river and the road,
And don’t you come aboard, if you cannot drink,
A Caribbean rum in the midnight arctic sun.
A Caribbean rum in the midnight arctic sun.

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