Ocean Passaging—Turning Back Is Hard To Do


A better place to be than Denmark Strait when it's angry.

Some 20 years ago we were exploring the remote and largely uninhabited southeast coast of Greenland. Due to violent sunspot activity that year, we were not able to receive weatherfax charts to plan our passage across Denmark Strait, bound for Iceland, or even make a radio patch call to Commander's Weather, our preferred weather router.

Rather, I was reduced to observing the sky and barometer to pick a time to leave, neither of which are terribly useful on that coast since the ice cap creates a permanent stationary high pressure area, resulting in generally different weather than what's out in the Strait.

We were about 18 hours out when the sunspots finally relented enough for me to get a very blurry 48-hour prognosis chart that just showed the faintest hint of a low off Cape Farewell (the southern tip of Greenland).

This concerned me since lows in that position can often turn hard north around the ice cap high and rapidly intensify as they accelerate.

Thankfully, I was also able to make a radio patch call to Commander's Weather to ask them to take a look. And 30 minutes later to call them back for a prognosis.

The first words from the meteorologist on duty George Caras were:

John, do you have an alternative?

Not exactly what you want to hear at any time from a weather router, never mind when out in Denmark Strait.

George, often interrupted by bursts of static and with many requests from me to repeat—I don't miss those days before satellite phones when we were totally reliant on SSB—went on to share that the low would rapidly intensify (bomb) and track just ahead of our course, subjecting us to storm force winds for at least two days and, worse still, push us back toward the pack-ice-encumbered Greenland coast—lee shores are scary, pack ice as a lee shore is downright terrifying.

So what did we do?

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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 twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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