Arctic Documentary Project: Calving Glacier

8/9/2011 3:50:00 PM

Arctic Documentary Project: Calving Glacier

Another morning of clear skies with the boat surrounded by mini icebergs floating in the surf. Bergy bits they're called in Alaska. All through the night the wind was howling. Captain said they reached 30 knots or more. Our night of anchorage in Aavatsmarkbreen - by the way, breen means glacier - was relatively calm though the winds did their best to shake things up. Thankfully, our protective harbor in the shadow of the glacier kept matters quite. That is until around 4:00am.

I was stretched out in my bunk just slightly awake when I felt the first rolling motion of the boat. It was small at first but seconds later one a bit larger followed. Then another, then another, and still another, each swell getting larger than the previous one. Last night Captain Mark explained we had to anchor a considerable distance from any glacier due to an accident that took place a couple of years ago. Apparently a reasonably sized ship anchored within a couple hundred yards of a beautiful, scenic glacier was hit in the middle of the night when the massive moving river of ice caved and dropped a chuck of ice the size of a large house. The wave it created swept over the boat, not enough to sink it, but was followed up by the mammoth-sized iceberg crashing into the ship's side. Numerous passengers were hurt but thankfully no one seriously.

Calving glacier in Svalbard archipelago

Aavatsmarkbreen Glacier lets go of a chunk of ice in a calving event that sounds like the crack of loud thunder.

So there I lay, one wave gone, two waves, three waves and each one getting larger and larger until I grabbed the boat's structural pipe above my bed to hold myself from being ejected to the floor. One more wave and I got out in fear something similar to the story the night before was happening. Then they stopped. All was well and I turned back over to get a bit more sleep.

Our goal today was to go further north. The winds were much more calm in the bay, but out in the straights the whitecaps were rolling. We leave our anchorage at 9:30pm and we clear the shallows just fine. Our original plan was to travel for about three hours to another bay but the captain says winds in the forecast will be high tomorrow so we need to keep moving. On into the arctic night we travel. I hit my bunk about 11:00 p.m. The travel is rough with swells ranging from 10-12 feet. The boats bow pitches from peak to trough with a roll to the side every other wave just for good measure. For some it's no fun; for me it's the equivalent of being rocked to sleep like a baby, and so it goes until 4:30 a.m when I awake to the realization we are STILL moving. Obviously the captain is intent on going as far north as possible. I get out of my rack to see what's up and there he stands at the helm in the cold, unprotected cockpit in the stern of the ship. Laura, his first mate and cook, is wrapped tightly in cold weather clothing. Both look tired yet awake, intent on making our destination.

I rise to the top of the stairs and call out, "Laura, can I get you a cup of coffee, cocoa, anything?" She replies in her beautiful Italian accent, "No thank you, I'm just fine." The captain drags out the dry bag full of red life jackets and pulls two out. He puts one on and Laura dons the other. Not sure what he is planning until I see him clip a lifeline onto the jacket then walk carefully towards the bow of the ship. He stops at the main sail mast and begins to work after clipping his lifeline to the boat. The sail begins to rise and I sit tucked behind the ship's weather shield taking pictures through the mist and water sprayed plastic. It is cold, wet, and they have to be tired to the bone.

Captain comes back and explains we have four more hours of sailing towards the north. The coming day will most likely be extremely windy so he wants to go as far as possible. It was certainly a job beyond what I would have expected. At 8:30 a.m. the next day we finally pull into a quiet bay near the island of Danskaya. There the captain drops the anchor. He announces they will sleep until 1:00 p.m. and requests to be awakened at that hour. We let them sleep until he rises on his own at 1:45 p.m. I suggest he still needs rest but he replies, "I'm fine, just a cup of coffee would be great." Captain Mark is working hard for all our benefit. I tell him so and offer him a thank you. Off we head for further north.

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