Towards a New North

Several days offshore of ocean ocean ocean have swiftly passed under our keel. Far astern is the small island off the coast of South America where we discovered, launched, and re-commissioned the vessel that is becoming known as the “s/v ArcticEarth.” Ahead is Maine, our own little corner of the northwest Atlantic, a gateway into the Arctic of Canada and Greenland. Maine is where we will spend a few months getting this specially designed expedition boat fully certified under a new flag and ready for commercial high latitude operations. Then we winter in Maine, and head for the Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay next spring.

I hope the clear weather and steady wind will continue for the next several days. We are in a remarkable place, the Gulf Stream. It is a fast moving river within an ocean, with surprisingly steep sea temperature gradients. In the course of just a couple of hours today, we will travel from the 25°C Gulf Stream into the 10°C Gulf of Maine. That will likely be our farewell to the 50-75 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (tursiops truncates) that swam with us all morning in the bright blue vestiges of a sub-tropical sea. This Atlantic species rarely swims north of 45° N. But their future range may extend further northward with increasing numbers of warm water events.

Pod of Bottlenose dolphins swimming alongside s/v ArcticEarth

Delivery crew member Eric Meyer socializes with playful tursiops.

So far, our passage has been almost completely wind-powered, via prevailing westerlies. It has also been star-directed. By day, we steer by our electronic navigation aids and our compasses. By night, however, our steering is directed by the North Star. Some have falsely claimed this little speck of light is the brightest star in the sky. In fact, it is the 46th brightest. The star is a much easier visual target than one of 360 hashmarks on the compass, now swinging wildly with an unsteady sea surface, dimly lit by a compass light. As we move through the darker hours, we are viscerally reminded that all the other stars in the sky also move -or perhaps more accurately stated- appear to move (apparent celestial movement, like apparent wind, is partly the product of our own kinetics, at a larger scale). The nearby Big Dipper and Great Bear constellations start the evening in one part of the sky. The storied assemblages ends their long jaunt elsewhere. Everything shifts at night. Except for the North Star. It is the only star in the sky that appears fixed, remaining almost as motionless in the night sky today as it was for the ancient Greeks who referred to the furthest lands and oceans that this star marked as “arktikos,” meaning “near the Bear, northern.”  Stability. Predictability. A fixedness that not only reliably indicates where we go, but as most celestial navigators realize deep in the bones, that we go. This celestial existential affirmation has certainly comforted me at times.

The reliability of the North Star, also called Polaris (polar star) and Niqirtsuituq (by Inuit astronomers), does not carry over to the other navigational reference points for determining direction in the most northerly region of arktikos. The magnetic compass is quite un-reliable.  It really goes belly up in the northern Arctic. Evidence – perhaps- of what happens when you start to arrive at the place that your most trustworthy instrument has always pointed you towards. Instead of indicating a direction on that horizon beyond horizons, the navigational aid in front of you labors sluggishly. Then sticks. Then stops, an exasperated ally. What’s wrong? I ask. If the compass could reply, it might offer two gimpy yet useful final observations:

1). I can’t help you.

2). you’re here!”

The flag of Nunavut features an inuksuk (a directional stone cairn) and the North Star (also affiliated with the elder leadership within a community).

Among other musings of late, en route north… I’ve found myself thinking “where does the Arctic actually begin?” Some say the Arctic Circle, two-thirds of the distance between the equator and the North Pole, at 60° north latitude. Physical geographers say where the permafrost begins. Natural Resources Canada says 55° N latitude. Others say the zone where the Taiga or boreal forests disappear. In Greenland and Nunavut, some say it is where the Inuit live or where the southern habitat of the polar bear begins.

Regardless of where the region formally begins, the Arctic and its residents of today are in a very different world than that of the past. Each year, the Arctic Ocean is revealing more and more of its surface to the sun and sky above. I heard a new descriptive phrase, recently. The Arctic Ocean is becoming Atlanticized: migrant creatures from the south that are arriving each year include new phytoplankton, mackerel, and halibut. As seen throughout the global ocean, existing seabird populations are trending decline in the Atlantic and Arctic, although they are increasing in the Davis-Baffin area. The most comprehensive monitoring of Arctic flora and fauna is coordinated by the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Programme, endorsed by the UN Convention on Biodiversity, the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network, and the Arctic Council.

The s/v ArcticEarth in Camden Harbor

The s/v ArcticEarth in Camden Harbor, June 2021

The Arctic Council -and the planet- can celebrate a milestone this month. June 25th marks the official beginning of 16 years of agreed-upon NO COMMERCIAL FISHING in high seas of the Arctic Ocean. This is an area of approximately 2.8 million square kilometers – the same size as the Mediterranean Sea. This is an extremely positive example of international restraint in the global high seas fishery. Like other aspects of the Arctic Council, perhaps it can serve as a model.

Through July, August, and September our focus will be readying the vessel in Camden, Maine. Stop by if you are in the area!

By David Conover

Passing the Mic

Magnus Day knows high-latitude wind-powered vessels. He has logged over 200,000 ocean miles as captain, and worked multiple years as captain of Skip Novak’s expedition boats Pelagic and Pelagic Australis in Antarctica and the deep south, interspersed with 7 northern summers in the Arctic, with 5 in Greenland.  I called upon him and his wife Julia Prinselaar to get the s/v ArcticEarth commissioned, certified, and ready for operations. The first two months went so well, I asked them to run the boat going forward (more on Captain Magnus and Mate Julia here). Magnus’s conversation below was with Compass Light Producer Eli Kao (and has been edited).

Can you tell us a bit about the vessel ArcticEarth? A 56-foot aluminum monohull sailboat with a swing keel design. She’s a little bit unusual, with this swing rudder and keel, which retracts right into a well. With our keel and rudder up, we have a draft of about one meter. We can sit on the beach or navigate very shallow waters.  Sitting on the beach is handy to effect repairs. Or just have a barbecue on the beach!  We can go into shallow anchorages that only have 4-5 feet of water, an advantage in the higher latitudes and being able to escape the icebergs. Icebergs, which you probably know, are 90% below the water. An iceberg that only has 4-5 feet below the surface is actually quite small and not very menacing. So yes, we can go into little nooks and hide from icebergs. ArcticEarth is also unusual because she has what we call a pilot house, which is like sort of the living room if you like is above deck in a special room of its own a house. And there, we can navigate and keep working completely indoors, no matter the weather outside. If we have to, we can take a bearing from the dining table. We can keep warm and dry while we navigate, and also while we are at anchor.  If people are just resting -as we sail along- you always have the view. We can have that wonderful sunset while at dinner in the evenings, without missing out on the view as you do on many other boats. The whole boat, the whole boat is really cool. It’s really, really well designed. The designer Ed Joy did a fantastic job. And on top of everything else, the boat sails beautifully!    

What do you feel is unique about the ArcticEarth approach? I think what’s unique here …this is an initiative by a documentary production company to provide vessel services to clients in remote area. You know, very often there’s a need to communicate the aims of an expedition to the public.  Or to a professional world, for instance, to gain further support and funding. An expedition that is directly under the umbrella of a production company makes that all the more possible and efficient. This is a platform for  expedition AND for film production. I think this is an absolute genius idea to combine the two. And the concept of staying in one particular region on a multi-year basis, with the same vessel and the same team investigating environmental change is really the crux of this.

What attracted you to the ArcticEarth team? The storytelling strengths and depth of experience behind Compass Light Productions is just fantastic. It’s actually really what interested Julia (mate) and I, to start with. We’re very lucky in that we are at a point in our careers where we have many opportunities to work with many boats, on many kinds of expeditions. But this, this ArcticEarth project was immediately interesting. I’d say that for me… in over 15 years so that’s 30 seasons if we count Antarctica and the Arctic of high-latitude sailing… This is the most exciting project I’ve been involved with.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share? It’s a never-ending journey of evolution of learning and developing the boat and its systems and its crew, continually improving our performance as an overall package at providing expedition services and being a production platform. And we won’t stop learning and ArcticEarth won’t stop evolving. And our knowledge of the areas and people we’re visiting and how we can best use the vessel as a learning platform will not stop evolving.

Discoveries of the Month

Arctic Circle Podcast. You can listen to speeches and full sessions from the Arctic Circle Assemblies and Forums. There are 3 total seasons but their latest episode was released on June 3rd titled “How can Renewable Energy Save the Arctic.” 

Greenland Foreign Policy. H.E. Pele Broberg (Greenland’s Minister of Industry, Trade, Foreign Affairs, and Climate) discusses foreign policy and takes questions from the audience- you can watch the entire forum (1hour) via their web page or on YouTube:

The University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute & Maine youth. Educators have new tools, models, and videos, to help youths’ understand why climate change matters and its relationship to people.

Daniel Frost’s children’s book about Greenland, The Children and the Whale:  Read an interview by Visit Greenland about how this award-winning illustrator travels in Greenland inspired him to write and illustrate “The Children and the Whale is a bedtime story, a magical journey and reminder to enjoy the adventurous moments we create in the world.”

Aka Høegh exhibit at Nuuk Art Museum. Visit OR read a new book about this Greenlandic artist’s life and art.