Q&A: Circumnavigating Greenland

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Question: I am wondering if you know whether anyone has circumnavigated Greenland in a sailboat. Do you think it’s possible? My guess is that global warming has changed things up there and it may now be possible.

Answer: As far as I know, Greenland has never been circumnavigated in any vessel. If memory serves, the Russians tried it a few years ago with their huge nuclear powered ice breaker—the one that regularly takes people to the North Pole—as a tourist trip. They got stuck in the ice and it took the combined efforts of two Canadian icebreakers to get them out.

Even with global warming, the polar pack is a hostile place. In the summer of 2002 we penetrated just six miles past the main pack edge at 80.5N, just north of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, and that is about as far as I would want to go into the main pack, and then only in a flat calm and with a good forecast.

You can generally get quite far north in a yacht on the west coast of Greenland. We reached Uummannaq Fjord, just north of Disko Island at 71N in 1995 without seeing any pack at all, and yachts have got as far as Thule in good years. However, the east coast is a very different proposition. A few yachts have reached Scoresby Sund at about 68N, but even that is hard to do.

Update, August 2010:

Nares Strait, the passage between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, is now usually navigable by icebreakers in August/September.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for 25 years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 20 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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brian black

After several voyages to East Greenland in recent years, my impression is that the pack ice is not coming as far south in the big concentrations that were once the accepted pattern. It’s all very speculative because the pack is highly volatile and it only takes a steady wind to change the situation dramatically. However on my last voyage to the area in July 2009 we had no problems with ice in Scoresby Sund, in fact we were told in Ittoqqortoormiit that there had been no pack of serious proportions that year at all. On that trip we marked out a number of anchorages along Liverpool Land and finally circumnavigated Warming Island – if you are interested, John and Phyllis may have a copy of my account of the voyage. Another feature that is perhaps becoming a trend is the on-set of heavy weather earlier than expected. I stress that this is all speculation because much more observation is needed to confirm these impressions but on each of our return passages – 2005, 2007, 2009 – we have had the sort of winds one normally associates with the Autumn storms. As for a circumnavigation of Greenland, I don’t think so, not for a long time anyway.