The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Q&A: Atlantic Crossing, East To West, Via The Arctic

Question: We are toying with the idea of sailing the northern route [to North America from Scotland] with stops in Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. Is that nuts? I know you have done it at least once if not more times. Our boats are sound, an Alden 48 and a Shannon 43, and we want to end up on the east coast rather than the Caribbean.

Answer: The northern route east to west is a challenge, even more so than west to east, because:

  1. You are likely to have at least one gale a week and, since the lows originate in North America, you will be heading into the weather instead of away from it.
  2. Lows often track up Denmark Strait (between Iceland and Greenland), potentially making the icy east coast of Greenland a lee shore on your approach in the event that the weather deteriorates during the 600-mile passage from Iceland.
  3. Your first exposure to ice (I’m assuming that you haven’t sailed in icy waters before) will be the seriously ice-choked and poorly charted southeast coast of Greenland on your approach to Prins Christians Sund (the passage through the southern tip of Greenland).
  4. The east entrance to Prins Christians Sund (PCS) usually doesn’t open up until, at the earliest, mid-July and sometimes much later than that. If you have to wait too long in Iceland for it to open, you could be late in the season for heading for Newfoundland (you really don’t want to leave West Greenland later than mid-August, if at all possible).
  5. If PCS doesn’t open, you will have to round Cape Farewell and this has some significant issues (see this post).
  6. Once you leave West Greenland, you still have the challenge ahead of crossing Davis Strait and the Labrador Sea and working your way down the Labrador Coast if you don’t manage a straight passage to Newfoundland. This is never a picnic, especially later in the season.

On the positive side, you have good boats, it sounds like you have a lot of sailing experience, and the fact that there will be two of you traveling together provides a safety factor in case of an emergency.

Our usual recommendation is that your first exposure to the high latitudes be a cruise in Svalbard or else the west to east northern route, which is less challenging than east to west since you start out with the more benign west coast of Greenland, you can wait there for PCS to open and, if it doesn’t, turn back to North America or round Cape Farewell well offshore with a favourable wind. Then, if you get through PCS, you can leave Greenland on a solid forecast and get good offing in case a low does track up Denmark Strait.

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