Our last update had us about to depart from Barrow on the return passage to Dutch Harbor. We rounded Point Barrow, the northermost point of America, on August 1st after a rough passage from Point Hope. The weather on the North Slope is quite volatile normally, but El Nino magnified the effects this year with low pressure after low pressure sweeping over the Beaufort Sea from Siberian waters. Nonetheless, we were able to take advantage of 12- and 24-hour windows between lows to explore the area. Our furthest north at 71° 42’N took us among large and small floes along the edge of the polar pack-ice. Our furthest east at Cape Simpson (about 50 miles E of Barrow) revealed large bergs and the tongue of ice that was the western choke point until recently.
Ashore, we were fortunate to get to know a renowned bowhead whale biologist and his wife, who very nicely lent us their four-wheelers to move around the vast tundra. We particularly enjoyed watching huge flocks of eiders, long-tailed ducks, and white-fronted geese gathering to migrate south. Not long after our arrival, most had morphed into their winter plumage, which of course gives one pause. . . . A bird biologist we met showed us the nesting black guillemots he’s been studying for 40 years on an island east of Barrow, and last but not least, we enjoyed running with a local dog team!
Despite the great experiences we were having, both of us were a bit worried about getting a weather window for the return trip before Seth needs to be back at work. Fortunately, we finally got a decent forecast on August 14. We had 24 hours of 10-knot westerlies followed by 36 hours of 35-knot NE winds. Then conditions moderated again and we passed through the notorious Bering Strait without trouble. The following day, strong southerlies caused us to heave-to for about 15 hours but afterwards we were able to continue to Nunivak Island (just off the Yukon River delta).
After 8 days sailing, we dropped anchor off Nunivak’s northern shore in preparation for a SW gale. Just as our weather files predicted, the winds blew between 30 and 40 knots for four days. Treeless, flat Nunivak didn’t protect us much from the wind, but saved us from the 15-20ft seas outside the anchorage. It wasn’t a particularly restful stop, but once again our Mantus anchor proved her mettle!
Strong NW winds followed the gale, which made our anchorage (exposed to the N) untenable, so we decided to continue on our passage south despite a 15-hour SW gale forecast the following day. Not conditions we would normally set out into, but much safer than staying on a lee shore! Our tactic was to sail due W as long as we could and then run SE with the WSW gale, which proved effective if less than comfortable. The wind then shifted into the N with almost equal strength, adding chop from another direction which gave Celeste a corkscrew motion. Fortunately our last 24 hours approaching Dutch Harbor were lovely sailing. We sailed off the continental shelf into deep water (which significantly reduced the chop); the wind moderated; the sun came out; and we were surrounded by birds and a pod of huge fin whales!
We tied up to the Dutch Harbor docks on August 31, our first step ashore in 21 days! This summer’s voyage has left us both with a huge sense of accomplishment. We’ve sailed over 3,000 miles in some of the world’s toughest waters, and we’ve visited places very few sailboats have ever been. Our best moments have certainly been spending time in these unique places and getting to know them and their inhabitants, human and otherwise! We have truly followed in the wake of the whalers and great explorers of the past!
Since we weren’t able to send photographs with our earlier updates from the satellite email, I’m including a bunch here:
- Musk Ox: We were so excited to glimpse these unique Arctic creatures in the country around Nome! Their fur is the warmest wool around, maybe thanks to having survived the last ice age. They only exist today in a few small pockets of their former range.
- Wing’n’Wing: The most gorgeous day of the whole voyage! The last day of our passage to Point Hope allowed us to set our sails for a beautiful downwind run, although the open hatch just shows how acclimated we’d grown: the temperature wasn’t more than 55°!
- Whalebone iglu: Point Hope is the oldest continuously inhabited place in North America, and this sod and whalebone iglu was lived in until 1975!
- Drying salmon: Traditional culture is still strong in Point Hope and fishing, whaling, and hunting are the predominant way of life.
- Ellen drives the four-wheeler: People all over the North Slope get around on ATVs, so one day we rented one from our new Inupiaq friends to see more of the tundra around Point Hope than we could on foot.
- Snowy Owl: The snowy owl is high on all Arctic wildlife observers’ wish lists so we were super excited to see this beautiful male perched on an old whale jawbone.
- Welcome to Barrow: Excited to have reached America’s northernmost tip!
- Celeste navigates the sea ice: Weaving through floes at 71° 42’N.
- Celeste at Ice Edge: Much of the ice lies below the surface, as this under/over shot shows!
- Dingy and Ice: Seth rows off in the dingy to take pictures of Celeste.
- Dog team: One of the highlights of our time in Barrow was running with this dog team.
- Anchored at Point Barrow: The two of us with Celeste anchored just off America’s top!
- Breaking wave: Steep seas on our passage south down the Chukchi Sea.
- Cold sailing: Not very warm sailing in the Arctic!
- Sailing Fast: After leaving Nunivak we has 35 knots from ahead — fast but rough!
- Fin whales: Excited to see these huge cetaceans quite close to Celeste on our last day out of Dutch Harbor.
Thank you all once again for your support, and all the best,
Ellen and Seth
If you would like to follow up more on Ellen and Seths Journey, be sure to check out their blog at www.gonefloatabout.com