|Wayfarer to Labrador
Challenging the Far North in an Open Dinghy
by Geoffrey Heath
photographs by the author
Small Boat Journal #44 Sept. 1985
Mugford Tickle. A funny name for a narrow foreboding channel walled on both sides by the sheer cliffs of two deserted islands on the coast of Labrador. There is no refuge here, no protection from the tidal current of the steel-colored sea, sprinkled thick with chunks of ice. Even now, the water temperature is about 36 degrees, not a place for a casual swim. Mugford Tickle would seem an awesome place from the deck of the Queen Mary. Looking up at the cliffs from a 16-foot open sailboat, the place hovers at the edge of terrifying.
If there had been a way, I would have bypassed it, just as I would have had a companion with me if luck hadn't run the other way. But I had decided to sail, and changes of plans and illness had left me with the choice of either a solo trip north along the coast of Labrador, or none at all. So there I was, alone in my Wayfarer dinghy, Wayward Drummer, with Mugford Tickle ahead of me. It was like sailing straight into the Grand Canyon. Wind does funny, unpredictable things around cliffs. I had been running with a 15-knot breeze dead on my stern when suddenly, with no warning, the wind was blowing 15 knots smack on the nose.
Since my Wayfarer is an unballasted centerboarder and relies on crew weight for stability, sudden shifts of wind can capsize it. Wayward Drummer has only tipped over twice, both times at the base of cliffs, where a slight hesitation in tending the sheet and tiller brought instant trouble. One capsizing took place in Somes Sound, at home in Maine. The other was on the east coast of Newfoundland, where Misha Kirk and I were killing time waiting for the freighter that would carry us and Wayward Drummer north to Nain, Labrador, its northernmost stop. Kirk and I had decided to get in some sailing practice, and close under a cliff with the mainsheet cleated down, we soon got our introduction to the frigid waters of the Far North. By the time we had righted the boat and emptied the bilges with a bucket we were wiser and meeker men.
Trip Takes Shape
As we first planned it, my friend Dave Getchell, Sr. and I were going to extend a trip we had taken north along the Labrador coast in an 18-foot aluminum motor boat (SBJ#17). On our second trip, we hoped to travel farther north, to Ramah Bay, where aerial photographs showed an impressive range of mountains and glaciers. The only topographical map of the region was practically blank, a strong appeal to our spirit of exploration. We planned a combined boating/mountaineering venture. However, fuel is not available north of Nain, 200 miles short of Ramah Bay, and hammering along under power lacked the sense of adventure we were seeking.
A sailboat seemed the most practical solution. The 1980 trip confirmed our belief that a small, shallow-draft boat made the most sense along the Labrador coast. Anchoring off in deep-water fjords under storm conditions is far more dangerous than beaching a boat and camping on shore. Also, the coast is only sketchily charted, and the inshore waters are sprinkled with "sunkers," the local term for rock ledges. Offshore only a few miles you run into "iceberg alley," with all the navigational unpleasantness the name implies. Frequent groundings, or even occasional brushes with the pack ice, were experiences we could do without.
Speed as well as seaworthiness were prerequisites in our new boat. Many of the headlands that we would have to round offer no shelter for many miles. The swifter the boat, the less time we would be exposed. The traditional dory and whaleboat were ruled out as a result. The boat had to be able to ride on a trailer behind my Datsun pickup, and it had to be reasonably cheap. Both Dave and I had read Frank Dye's book, Ocean Crossing Wayfarer, which recounts his offshore voyages from England to Iceland and Norway in his Wayfarer (for other Dye adventures, see The Wayfarer Logs, SBJ #36). The Wayfarer certainly wasn't the only small boat capable of making such a trip, but it was a proven design, and available in kit form, which meant we could have a new boat at a reasonable price.
Building and Outfitting
At the time I was working as a boat carpenter at Dan McCafferty's Clark Island Boat Works, where I was generously provided with a space to build the boat. The bits and pieces that would eventually become Wayward Drummer arrived from Wayland Marine, and with the help of one of the other boatbuilders, Mark Abb, we set about building the Wayfarer. We put in two hours every day after work, and at least one day each weekend. With Dave helping whenever he could find time, we finished the hull in three months.
The Wayfarer is a double-chined hull, built with Bruynzeel® mahogany plywood over longitudinal stringers and bulkheads. Her foredeck, stern sheets, and sidedecks add stiffness, and the entire structure is epoxy glued and screw fastened. It is an enormously strong boat.
Once the hull was completed, we diverged a bit from the recommended procedures and covered the hull and foredeck with polypropylene cloth and epoxy resin to add strength and abrasion resistance. The boat was painted inside and out with Interlux linear polyurethane paint, which was easy to put on and held up extremely well.
Sails were made by Gambell and Hunter of Camden, Maine, to their usual high standards and reasonable price. Grant Gambell sewed in three sets of reef points, and Dick Gardiner, a local machinist, fabricated the tack hooks and outhauls for a jiffy reef system, which I decided to use instead of the Wayfarer's standard roller reefing.
By mid-June, the boat was still untested, and many of the logistical details of the trip were still unattended to. I decided that if we were going to make our July 1 departure date, I needed to spend full time on getting the Wayward Drummer ready. The only logical thing to do was to quit my job. For me, work is what I do to raise money for the next trip.
Bad Luck and Good
Things were going along well when disaster struck. Dave Getchell suddenly found he couldn't make the trip. Circumstances beyond control. I understood, sympathized, and felt terrible. It looked as if the trip was off.
Hauled Up. Landing at high tide at the end of a long day on the water
and using a boat roller and block-and-tackle simplified the task of hauling up.
Where do you find a replacement for the irreplaceable? One friend (a fisherman) looked at me very oddly as I outlined the trip. "I don't mind being cold and wet and miserable and in fear of my life all the time," he told me, "but I tike to get paid about a thousand a week for that sort of thing."
Alas! The words of H. W. Tilman, the great English climber, sailor, and arctic explorer, came to mind: "Things and men are not as they used to be." It was Tilman who found crew for his arctic voyages by running an ad in the local papers. I was tempted to copy the exact wording of Tilman's ad: "CREW WANTED for extended voyage to northern waters. No frills, no pay."
Adventurer. Misha Kirk mans the helm of the stalwart Wayfarer dinghy.
Then Misha Kirk came on the scene. Misha is a mountaineering friend and ex-Green Beret medic who had sailed on the Pacific. He was a godsend. The preparations continued — Dave continued to help — and on the last day of June we launched the Wayward Drummer. The last week was spent testing the boat, changing small details of the rig, and laying in supplies.
On July 8, we left Rockport, Maine, and drove the thousand miles to Lewisport, Newfoundland. In Lewisport, we took our first sail together in northern waters, where our capsize taught us that high cliffs and cleated mains are a treacherous combination. We left the truck in Newfoundland, and pushed the trailer and boat on board the Canadian ferry bound for Goose Bay, Labrador. In Goose Bay, we left the trailer in a lot maintained by the steamship company, and Drummer was swayed up by the cargo tackle of the weather-scarred coastal steamer Bona Vista and lashed down on the forward cargo hatch.
When we eventually docked at the pier in Nain, we were overrun by a hundred Inuit children, who in a few minutes had penetrated to every corner of the ship. Amidst the pandemonium, Drummer was unloaded, and we went ashore.
Going It Alone
We stayed in Nain no longer than it took to file our itinerary with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and rig the boat. Then we pushed off, ending one journey to begin another under drizzly skies and 20 knots of wind — and sailed to a camping spot 7 miles out of town.
We camped on Hillsbury Island and climbed to the top of a granite dome from which we could see the northern shore of the island where thousand-foot-high sea cliffs dropped through low clouds straight into the ocean. Early the next morning, we sailed out in a light fog. The air was still and we could hear whales blowing all around us. Occasionally, we would see humpback whales surfacing. As we sailed along beneath high cliffs, we both were busy climbing with our eyes, following each crack system up, trying to gauge the difficulty and challenge of the various routes.
Then disaster struck, again. Misha said that he was feeling badly, and his face showed it. I knew that if Misha said he hurt, the pain must be excruciating. We landed and made camp, and during the night he diagnosed the problem as a kidney stone.
Misha felt even worse the next morning. and it was apparent that he was near the limit of his endurance. We decided to go for help. There is a fishing station at Black Island, 20 miles to the south, and we assumed because of its closeness to Nain that boats would be going back and forth between the two places quite often. The clinic in Nain was the only place nearby for Misha to get medical help.
We beat all morning against a rising southerly and by 2 p.m. we arrived at Black Island. As we sailed in, a boat was making ready to leave for Nain. Misha jumped aboard, and by the time I had tied up Wayward Drummer, the boat was gone.
Misha was taken to the clinic in Nain, and finally flown to the military hospital in Goose Bay. His diagnosis was correct, and I'm lucky for his great endurance. Almost anyone else would have been disabled by the pain. There I stood, alone on the fishing stage at Black Island. Even if I wanted to place an ad for "Crew, no frills, no pay," there wasn't a newspaper to print it. I was stuck without a companion to sail and climb with. After all the trouble I had gone to — buying the kit, building the boat, quitting my job, and travelling hundreds of miles — I wasn't about to turn back after only three days on the water. Better, to go ahead alone — and be careful.
I've spent a lot of time climbing alone, and have found the satisfaction of having my life in my own hands is enough to justify the risk. As I tacked Drummer out of the harbor, we were laid over by a sudden gust of wind and my hat blew overboard. I chose to interpret that as a good sign, a sacrifice to Neptune that would guarantee a safe passage.
The strong southerly wind that had hindered our return to Black Island was now a tail wind, and with whales breeching and spouting, and Drummer making a steady 7-1/2 knots, I headed for Cape Kiglapait, Mugford Tickle, and Ramah Bay. Around midnight, the wind vanished, and I mounted my 2-horsepower Mariner outboard auxiliary and motored in behind an island. The motor was able to push Drummer at about 3-1/2 knots, but since I had only 5 gallons of gas with me, I seldom used it.
I anchored in a sheltered cove and heated food on the tiny gimballed butane stove. The sky was perfectly clear, with northern lights blazing overhead. I was off again in the morning.
Desolate Shoreline. Labrador has miles of uninhabited coastline,
with impressive mountains and glaciers that appeal to venturesome spirits.
Beyond Cape Kiglapait, the trees disappeared, leaving a barren seashore backed by snow-covered mountains. I was alone in this deserted world, out of sight of man and his inventions. During this part of the trip, I went for 22 days without speaking to another person, but I was occupied by the daily challenges of moving a small boat through this vast space, among these mountainous islands and deep-carved fiords.
Rigging for Seaworthiness
As light dinghies go, Wayfarers are very stable and seaworthy. The fact that they are standard equipment for many sailing schools and are a popular class boat in Great Britain is testament to their good qualities. But no dinghy of these proportions can be considered forgiving. The Wayfarer demands good sailing to achieve true seaworthiness, and improperly handled in a sudden gust or squall, it will capsize with appalling speed.
Smart dinghy cruising means being adaptable to every change in sea and wind. I set certain limits to the conditions l will sail in and when I've decided to sail, I will reef when the wind comes up, and put up sail when it goes down. Sailing alone, I keep the mainsheet in hand and an eye on the weather.
The dinghy can be recovered from a capsizing if there is sea room and if conditions will allow 20 to 30 minutes to dry out the boat. But when the sea rages on and buries every attempt at salvage under a stifling blanket of foam, the game may be over, particularly if you capsize when single-handing.
Speed and caution are the dinghy sailor's saving graces. One's boat must be kept shipshape for quick response. Everything is lashed on or under the seats and in the buoyancy lockers. Three things are always tied to the boat: a bailing bucket, a jug of fresh water, and me. Everything I anticipate needing for the day is in a watertight plastic box within arm's reach of the helm. This kit includes food, sunglasses, camera, Chapstik, and other knick-knacks. With a day's sail in Labrador lasting as much as 24 hours, and the Wayfarer unable to sail herself, anything that I might need that was out of reach was a liability.
To leave the helm means heaving to. This is a safe and reliable technique, but ground is lost and time is spent, and if there is a lee shore nearby, it is risky. Organization and consistency prevent tripping overboard, losing things, or snarling halyards in a sail change. All the rigging for reefing is kept within arm's reach at the base of the mast so that I am able to make a jiffy reef in seconds. The jib is rigged with a downhaul and can be brought down in one swift movement. Such quick, reliable reefing arrangements add a solid measure of safety in a small unballasted boat (see "Tame Your Sail," SBJ #43 & 44).
The centerboard is trimmed regularly, and I never use a hold-down pin in it. The rudder has a hold-down pin, which is necessary when running, but the pin has a wire lanyard that allows removal in an instant. I use slippery cleat hitches on halyards to prevent jamming. Cam cleats are provided for all sheet ropes and for the jiffy reef clewlines. l use a Proctor lever boomvang and frequently rig a preventer to hold the boom steady in a rolling situation. This preventer is set up on a slip knot through a U-bolt on the foredeck. In case of a jibe or change of wind speed, I can release this preventer by pulling on the running end, which I hold in my hand.
Heavy ground tackle includes a 25-pound fisherman's anchor and chain lead. This is not only reassuring when on the hook for the night, but is also useful when set up in tandem with the small Danforth for hauling the boat clear of the water in lieu of an appropriately placed boulder.
With any sort of break on the time of day, I landed at or near high tide and camped ashore. This saved time with haul-up but committed me to launching on a high tide. Hauling up was made simple with the aid of a boat roller and a nine-to-one block and tackle.
Occasionally, single-handed dinghy cruising requires taking a calculated risk, but in general, conservative sailing is required to pull off a long cruise. Keeping the boat and gear in good repair, anticipating conditions and then adapting the rig to suit, seemed the safest policy. But there is no escaping the fact that a single-hander in remote regions must be willing to accept the consequences of going it alone. This is a condition that one must accept early in planning, and if the commitment seems more than one can face with a certain amount of confidence, then it's time to reconsider the whole idea of going off alone.Ramah Bay Adventures
In spite of the violent nature of the weather in high latitudes, I predicted changes reasonably well using a small altimeter as a barometer, and my logbook. As weather patterns revealed themselves, I constantly checked the barometer, and then recorded the reading with descriptions of cloud cover, wind, temperature, and any other significant feature in my log. I soon had a body of information that proved extremely useful in interpreting weather signs. If I was confused by a certain pattern of clouds or a sudden drop in the barometer, I would took back through the log for a similar set of indications, and usually found something to help make a forecast, or at least an informed guess. This admittedly rough system worked well enough under the circumstances, and I was never caught out by any of the several gales that came through while I was on the coast.
The fury of a sub-arctic gale is terrible to endure, but it is somehow less personal a threat than that posed by the polar bear, mighty "nanuk." A polar bear is a huge animal, superbly camouflaged, fast as a horse ashore or a seal in the water, fearless, ferocious, and magnificent. I carried no weapons, although my ice axe and flare gun might be confused as such, nor did I honestly imagine that I would be able to do more to a bear than make him mad enough to work up an appetite. When I was camping on shore, I tried to pitch my tent near a cliff, gambling that I'm probably a better rock climber than a polar bear. What he might do to my boat and gear was a question I wouldn't think about. There wasn't much to be done in any case and so there was nothing to lose sleep over. In fact, I never did see a polar bear, and I hope none saw me.
The most difficult part of the trip was the passage through Mugford Tickle, simply because the risk of capsizing was great, and the chance of recovery slight. In fact, it was something of an anti-climax. We didn't tip; there wasn't even anything you'd call a close call — nothing more than a very, very long ten minutes, with the cliffs soaring up on both sides, and the clouds hanging low overhead. Then we were through, and the Drummer was running fast for Ramah Bay, where the land-based side of the trip would begin.
On shore in Little Ramah Bay I set up my tent and hauled the Wayfarer up on the beach. I camped 30 feet from the collapsed sod house of a Dorset culture home, the Dorsets being an ancient race that lived in this area eons before the Inuit.
Once the Drummer was well secured, I loaded my pack and set off on a week-long trek around the Ramah Bay region. The weather was fine, clear, and warm, so warm that one day I watched a herd of caribou climb onto a glacier and lie down on the snow. Caribou don't seem to be able to recognize shapes; they respond only to motion. By standing perfectly still, you can remain quite close to a herd without frightening them in the least.
I climbed two 4,000-foot peaks in the Ramah Bay area, choosing one because of an interesting snow couloir, and the other on account of a beautiful rock buttress. On both peaks my altimeter read 1,000 feet higher than the height marked on the topographical maps.
After a week of hiking and climbing, I decided that I'd had enough of these warm days and the good exercise of hiking. It was time to get back to the frigid, humid air that lies over the water. By the time I had the boat ready to go, the wind was out of the south, so I headed north, reaching all the way to the mouth of Nachvak Fjord before the wind died. I was near a small iceberg, and as an experiment, I went in close to the leeward side and planted my ice axe for a mooring. I lay behind the iceberg for six hours before the breeze came up from the northwest. Then I recovered my axe and set sail for home. After a week ashore, it was fine to be sailing again before a fresh breeze. I passed through a small field of brash ice before coming back close to land.
The next day a storm developed that proved to be the worst of the summer. I spent three days on shore while my tent kept trying to tear loose and fly me home. The only diversion was a caribou herd that ranged close to camp.
When the weather finally cleared I set out south again, a little anxious to see people, but more than a bit sorry to give up the wild freedom that I had enjoyed. As the day wore on, the clouds and fog lifted enough to give me a view of the mountains, covered with a new layer of snow that had fallen during the storm. It was the first heavy snowfall of the season, and a sure sign that it was time for visitors from the south in small open boats to be gone.
The weather continued in good grace, and within a few days I was back in Nain, enjoying the dubious fruits of civilization. I continued sailing south until I met the Bona Vista in Hopedale, where the Drummer was once again swayed up on deck and made fast.
As I settled into the routine of life on the old packet, plans formed for next year. Two hundred miles north of Ramah Bay, north of Cape Chidley, lies Baffin Island, the site of one of the largest continuous rock walls in the world — Mount Asgaard. Think of that. It's been climbed, by a solo climber, no less. You'd have to winter over with the Inuit, but it's said that they're willing to have you.Baffin Island. The name of the place rolls well on a fella's tongue.