Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage. Newsletter No 18

 

 

Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage Escape.
Position:  West Palm Beach, Florida, USA

Date: 10/02/2006

 

Somehow the disappearance of Fine Tolerance didn't have a huge impact on us. We still had enough on our immediate plate to be concerned about. Idlewild was now immobilized on a floe and so close to the shore of one of the Tasmanian Islands that we had more than our hands full as it was. Any thought of walking the 100 meters to shore and climbing the rocky hill was out of the question. The ice was still active, increasingly so, and to have climbed off the vessel could too easily mean that it would be impossible to get back to it later on. There was nothing to do but wait and see what happened. A few hours after dawn the ice pack started to accelerate and we were carried even closer to the island. It's quite something to be swept along at speeds of up to 2.2 knots in a boat stuck on top of a chunk of ice which at times was only a boat length away from the rocky headlands sticking out from the island. The current swept us around the western end of the island and into a channel that led to the north. As we progressed we could see that to the north of the Islands there was a large area of ice free water towards which we were being swept. While to the South of the islands the ice had been building up pressure, the cause of our present problems, to the north there existed this approximate 2 sq miles of open water. We were swept into it and soon were sitting alone in its centre. There was a southerly wind of around 15 kts blowing and with Idlewild's higher profile propelling the berg faster than those around her she soon cleared the pack and began sailing to up the northern edge of the open water. Looking back at the islands one of Idlewild's crew spotted a mast. It could only be Fine Tolerance. She was being swept through another channel between different islands but she too had made it through to the north of the islands. For a brief period there was even open water between both vessels but again, with the ice moving so rapidly, it was deemed too dangerous to dinghy the mile or so across to her. At least we could see that she was now upright, having at some time slipped safely back into the water from her perch on a berg. Unfortunately she was not swept out into the open water but seemed to be held against the end of one of the islands by a back eddy. Still she was afloat and was following us. Things were looking better.

About halfway across the open patch of water we had a call on the radio from the Sir Wilfred Laurier, the Canadian Coast Guard Ice Breaker saying that they were breaking through thick ice about 60 nm south of us and had just dispatched their helicopter to check on the ice conditions between them and us and to make a visual assessment of our situation. The helicopter hove into view twenty minutes later and via VHF radio was pointed in the direction of Fine Tolerance which she flew over and called back with the news that although she was very close to the island she looked fine. She then flew on towards Idlewild with directions from the Idlewild crew through the VHF radio. Even from 1 nm away she could not spot us which made us realize even more just how insignificant we really were in that landscape. After they had taken photos and received a report from us that we were all fine they flew off further north to check on the status of Jotun Arctic and Cloud Nine and the ice conditions ahead of us. Before long we were against the northern edge of the open water and were back with the ice all around us again. There was nothing much we could do but sit and wait for the Sir Wilfred Laurier to see if they could get Idlewild off the ice floe and get us back onto Fine Tolerance which had finally been swept clear of the islands but was on a north westerly course while Idlewild was on a more north easterly one. By the time the Sir Wilfred Laurier appeared around the western most island of the Tasmanian group just before dark there was no open water in view. By the time she had reached Idlewild it was dark and with the decision to try rescue operations in the morning stopped in the ice about 500 meters ways to wait for dawn.

Dawn broke without a breath of wind, nor a cloud in the sky, and the Sir Wilfred Laurier edge up to within 100 meters, to the far side of a large flow, and two of their crew walked over the ice to Idlewild. Then, leaving Liz and one of the crew members on Idlewild, the rest of us walked back over the ice to have a discussion with the Sir Wilfred Laurier's Captain on a plan of attack on how they planned to break Idlewild off the ice floe, get us back onto Fine Tolerance, and to get us up the remaining 30 nm of ice to open water on the other side of Bellot Strait. It was felt that the best way to go about things was to get Idlewild back into the water, then return us to Fine Tolerance and bring Fine Tolerance over to Idlewild. With us both together, and if ice conditions permitted we would then be able to follow behind the icebreaker north to where Jotun Arctic and Cloud Nine were, get them to also get in line behind and to break us all out to the other side of Bellot Strait. If the ice was too thick for us to follow then Canada's Largest Icebreaker, the Louis St Laurent, which was due in the area in the next few days would go first, breaking up the ice, followed by the Sir Wilfred Laurier helping to clear the ice away a bit more, followed by us four small vessels. So now we had a plan, quality help, and even a nice day to start with as well. Even then, it was to be seven days before we would say goodbye to the Sir Wilfred Laurier only 50 nm further northwards than where we now stood.

 

 

  

Idlewild, twenty minutes before she slid finally back into the water. (photo curtsey of 'Sir Wilfred Laurier)

 

Day One.

The first order of the day was to make Idlewild secure by sealing all the deck openings in the event that if, while getting her off the ice she rolled over, water would not pour down below. While the Idlewild crew and one of the Laurier's crew went about doing this the helicopter flew over, picked up Liz, and with Liz and I, the pilot, and one crew member, flew out to check Fine Tolerance and the ice surrounding us all. Fine Tolerance had once again disappeared during the night but the eagle eye of one of the crew spotted her emerging from between two islands while we were having our discussions. It appeared that she had drifted with the ice pack to the south side of the Islands with the tide and had once again been swept northward between the islands. Everything appeared alright with her as she sat in some loose pack ice with no pressure and we returned to the Sir Wilfred Laurier much relieved. By the time we returned Idlewild had been sealed and with no one aboard her the Sir Wilfred Laurier began to maneuver into position to attempt to knock her off the flow. It may sound easy but that it was not. With extreme precision the captain maneuvered alongside her and using the wash from the twin screws and the bow thruster began the delicate task of moving the ice out from under Idlewild while at the same time doing no damage to her prop or rudder. It was quite an amazing sight to observe the skill of the captain maneuvering a 5025 ton, 83 meter long icebreaker with millimeter precision. As Idlewild was hidden from view from the bridge all maneuvers were radioed to the bridge from directions called through a two way radio from the 1st mate standing on the forepeak of the Laurier. For safety reasons there was no one on Idlewild. Throughout the whole week the captain made the safety of personal the first requirement of any undertaking. It took until 3.00 pm before Idlewild slipped back into the water, undamaged to the cheers of all and an obviously relieved Idlewild skipper and crew. After the rest of the crew had returned to Idlewild, two had returned already and helped the final release by using the engine once the propeller was back in the water, we left them in the pack and headed over to Fine Tolerance to bring the both vessels together.

By 4.00 pm we had reached Fine Tolerance and I and Ben, one of the Laurier's crew, boarded Fine Tolerance to maneuver her in behind the icebreaker. It was no easy task. As you can see from the photo below the ice was quite heavy and maneuvering was difficult to say the least. However, with ice poles and engine we finally tucked in behind the transom of the Sir Wilfred Laurier. Following an icebreaker breaking through ice can best be described as a nightmare. Blocks of ice bigger than Fine Tolerance are thrown back by the wash of the icebreakers props, the twin screws which are used to steer the icebreaker when maneuvering through ice would suddenly throw Fine Tolerance to one side or the other as if she were a twig. The only way to remotely keep up with the icebreaker was to run under full power hard up against her transom. This way the larger blocks were avoided to some extent but twice it wasn't possible to hold here and she was swept sideways by ice. First there was a shuddering from the prop and we knew that something wasn't quite right. Quite a few times the engine had stopped dead as ice jammed up the propeller and we felt that there was a good chance that one of the propellers blades were damaged but at 9.00 pm with another clunk suddenly there was no drive left. Either the shaft had broken, a key had sheared or the blades had been broken off. As it was now pitch black and the islands were still very close it was decided to try and tow Fine Tolerance clear. For an hour we made progress through the ice but at 10.30 pm the tow rope broke and Fine Tolerance swung away into the ice and stopped dead. There was little else we could do in safety so the icebreaker steamed about 100 meters away from her to sit in the ice and wait until morning. As long as the current didn't take her into the islands we would be ready to resume at first light. Liz and I were given a cabin and we turned in for the night.

 

 

 

Attempting to manoeuvre Fine Tolerance into position behind the icebreaker.

 

Day Two

We were woken early, 3.00 am, the next morning by the sounds of the main engines working the icebreaker through the ice. It still being pitch black at that time of the morning it could only mean that the current had started to take the icebreaker into danger and she had had to abandon Fine Tolerance again and work her way out of danger. It should be pointed out that all this rescue work was done in uncharted waters which added even an extra hazard to the whole operation. We fitfully slept for the next few hours until I could stand it no longer and got up. Looking aft down the corridor I could see crew members on the aft deck and went to investigate. It was a wild looking scene. There under spotlights was Idlewild doing as we had done the previous night. Under full power they were sliding over, around and across house size blocks of ice, ramming into the back of the icebreakers transom. With two of the crew on the foredeck shouting instructions back to another crewman just outside the helmsman's window they were making a much better job of it than we had done the night before. They did have the advantage of not having a deep keel as we have and more power but there is no training for this sort of work and they were doing a magnificent job. Apparently, in the early hours of the morning, they had called up the icebreaker and said that they were being swept back in towards the Islands and the icebreaker had gone in to assist. Talking with the captain later he said it was the only time he thought that he would have to give up as they were so close to an island and the water was getting shallower and shallower. Idlewild's bow rail had been all bent and buckled from repeated hitting into the transom of the Laurier as Fine Tolerances had been the night before. The captain of the icebreaker had been at the helm since 3.00 am after also being there up until 11.00 pm the previous evening. It took until 10 am to work Idlewild out into a large patch of open water. The ice had opened up considerably since the previous day and had patch open parts as far as the eye could see so with instructions to the Idlewild crew for them to keep working northwards towards the other two boats attention was once again turned to Fine Tolerance. Once again she had disappeared during the night but then was finally spotted by one of the crew at around 9.00 pm through a small gap between two of the islands. She had drifted back through the islands again and was now once again to the south of them. The helicopter was again dispatched to find the easiest way through the ice to her. She had drifted 11 nm and was on the edge of an open patch of water although there was quite a bit of multi-year ice between her and the icebreaker. Cautiously the Laurier steamed towards her over the uncharted ground, reaching her in the early afternoon. By the time we had reached her the crew had already rigged and swaged a heavy wire towing strop to fit the forward bollard. When we built Fine Tolerance we put in very strong towing bollards. The forward towing bollard is a heavy walled 125 mm pipe that is one solid piece welded at the deck and extending down to the stem bar with extra reinforcing along the way. Now it was about to be put to the ultimate test. When we reached Fine Tolerance the work boat was deployed and I, with five of the Laurier's crew, went aboard to ready her for the tow. As soon as I touched the steering wheel it was obvious something was wrong. A quick investigation reveled that sometime during the tow of the previous night a block of ice had forced the rudder past her stops (these prevent the rudder from turning more than 35 degrees either side of the centerline) and had jumped the chain off of the cog at the wheel. The chain was quickly replaced onto the cog but for some reason we now had 60 degrees turn one way and only 10 degrees the other. At this point of time, as we were going to be towed, we just needed to lash the wheel with the rudder in the centerline position and then we could work out what had happened later. The helicopter and icemaster had advised us of the best route to take to get north of the islands once again. The first 10 miles would be through thick ice then the ice would be thinner with open patches. Through the thick ice Fine Tolerance was thrown from side to side with house size blocks of ice being thrown at her from the icebreakers wash. On occasions, as she was dragged over the ice by the thick wire cable she would lurch over so that her keel would show. Luckily she did not go far enough over for her mast to be ripped out. We did take some DVD footage of this but it was too grim a site to stay there and film. The scenarios were either tearing open a seam, as the Titanic had done, or be dragged under a large piece of ice. Even now, when looking at this footage, it's difficult to understand just how any vessel could stand up to the punishment that we dished out to her that day. After the 10 nm the ice did open up some and we worked our way northwards to where Joton Arctic and Cloud Nine had anchored in a small unnamed cove. We reached their position after dark and that night we remained in tow behind the Sir Wilfred Laurier as she slowly steamed in circles in a large open patch of water just off their anchored position. Idlewild had worked her way 5 nm further north before being blocked by impenetrable ice again. The plan was for next morning to have Joton Arctic and Cloud Nine come out and join us and for all of us to continue northwards, picking up Idlewild as we went, and make it through to the eastern end of Bellot Strait and ice free water.

 

Day Three

At first light there was a noticeable change in the weather, it was lightly snowing and the outside temperature was 1.5 C (37 F) degrees. The ice had also closed in along the shore trapping Joton Arctic and Cloud Nine. They had managed to get out of the small cove they had been in but couldn't get through the 200 meters of ice between them and us. Once more Fine Tolerance was cast adrift in the open patch of water that we had been in throughout the night and the Sir Wilfred Laurier began to nose her way in to free them. As we entered the ice there was a sudden crunch and bump. The icebreaker had hit the bottom. Immediately she was backed off and while a workboat was lowered the standard grounding procedures, such as checking each bilge compartment was undertaken. As many soundings as could be taken considering the ice coverage were taken by the workboat while all the checks were taking place and after some time once more the icebreaker was eased in towards the two vessels with crew on the forepeak with a lead line calling back continuously depths immediately ahead. Finally the reef was skirted and the two yachts reached and backing out on the exact route that we had entered on with the two yachts following under the bow they were extradited to open water. This was the first view we had had of Joton Arctic. We had been in contact with them throughout the year as they had failed the previous year to make to through on a east to west crossing as we had failed in or west to east. Last year we had only got to within 120 nm of each other. This year we had made it to within 30 nm. They were well set up with a sled on the dinghy davits and three huskies on board. Cloud Nine was a standard fiberglass Bowman 57, a beautiful yacht but not a yacht one would like to risk being caught in the ice in an Arctic winter in.

It took until 1.00 pm to ease them out into the open water and then it was off once again to get Fine Tolerance, who had this time drifted about four miles southward, with the other boats following. Now all boats were together as by this time Idlewild had worked her way back south and join us. There was a gale due for the next day and with Bellot Strait still plugged with a three mile long pack of ice three quarters of the way through it and with no safe shelter to the north of us it was felt that the safest place to weather the storm was in Wrottesley Inlet, a large bay with a fiord leading in from the north eastern corner where the smaller boats could take shelter. This inlet was only a few miles north of the Tasmanian Islands and as we made our way southwards we were joined by the Louis St Laurent that had steamed up from the south. She now lead the way, followed by the Sir Wilfred Laurier with Fine Tolerance in tow, followed by Cloud Nine, Joton Arctic and Idlewild. It was pitch black when we reached Wrottesley Inlet and as Fine Tolerance was kept in tow behind the Laurier, the Louis St Laurent steamed 5 nm out into Peel Sound to spend the night lying in ice while the other vessels proceeded up into the fiord. With conditions worsening the Sir Wilfred Laurier was set into a holding pattern for the night in the largely ice free bay.

 

Day Four

By morning the wind was blowing close to 40 kts and at the entrance to the inlet, where there had been little ice the previous night. there was now full ice cover. All this day it blew at around 40 kts with the Sir Wilfred Laurier slowly drifting with the wind until it got near the ice and then motoring back to where it started from. All day, as well as all throughout the evening before, a crew man was stationed at the stern to keep an eye on Fine Tolerance. We offered to take over this position as besides blowing hard it was also snowing heavily at times and the mercury had dropped to -12 C (10 F) but we were refused. This was because at every turn the winch holding the tow cable had to be let out and then hauled in again when the haul was completed. Once this was not done correctly and Fine Tolerance suffered a few more dents in her railing and a few small tears in the solarguard material covering the furler as she ran under the transom of the icebreaker and the forestay hit part of the superstructure. This was with trained crew operating the machinery and we can only guess what damage we could have done to Fine Tolerance if we were in charge of the winch. We did go out periodically to keep the watchperson company. Being alone on the back deck of an icebreaker in these conditions is not that much fun. The conditions lasted all day and as the wind kept blowing the ice kept slowly filling up Wrottesley Inlet, leaving the icebreaker less and less space to maneuver in.

 

 

 

 The two icebreakers rafted together on the edge of the ice pack. The green container in the picture was slung across as were many other items.(photo curtsey of Sir Wilfred Laurier)

 

Day Five

Still the wind blew but not with quite the force. By midday it had started to lighten up considerable and the sea conditions had improved enough for Fine Tolerance to be bought up along side where Alvin, the icebreakers small video taking robot, could  be put into the water to check the prop on Fine Tolerance and also the state of the stem where the icebreaker had nudged the reef. The stem of the icebreaker had a small dent in it and freshly scrapped off paint. When the robot was motored over to Fine Tolerance it was immediately obvious why she had no forward motion. Both blades of the prop had sheared off. At least we now knew for sure it was not the shaft or a key and we could make plans. Later that afternoon the Louis St Laurent came back into the inlet and came alongside the Sir Wilfred Laurier and unloaded a container of scientific equipment, along with a scientist, who had been gathering data in the area. The Canadian icebreakers are one of the sole means by which data can be gathered in this part of the world and it really is great to see the co-operation that the Canadian Coast Guard give to the various scientific organizations. In all our time in the Arctic we've heard only praise for the Canadian Coast Guard and rightly so. Our gratitude to them for the help they gave us is impossible to express fully in words. It's not only what they do but the willingness of the personal to undertake anything with such a great spirit. That night with conditions calmer still the Sir Wilfred Laurier hosted a party onboard for all the boats. Idlewild, Joton Arctic and Cloud Nine motored out of the fiord and rafted up alongside. It was the first time that many of us had met personally and everyone had a jolly evening. Afterwards they all decided to return to the fiord to anchor for the night.

 

 

 

All four small vessels rafted up alongside the Sir Wilfred Laurier. From the bottom; Cloud Nine...USA,  Joton Arctic...Norway, Idlewild...Canada, a workboat from the Sir Wilfred Laurier, and Fine Tolerance...Australia.

 

Day Six

Early the next day the Louis St Laurent came back into the inlet from where she had spent the night again out in Peel Sound. This time she lay along the other side of the Laurier and transferred more equipment that was due to be taken back to the Pacific side of Canada. The ice had started to fill in, in the corner where the fiord led out and after unloading the Louis St Laurent steamed over to see if the other boats needed help to get out and join us while Fine Tolerance was once again placed in tow behind the Laurier. They all managed to get out without much difficulty and with the Louis St Laurent leading, the Sir Wilfred Laurier behind followed by the four smaller boats we once again all headed north towards Bellot Strait. We had already observed on the satellite images received by the icebreaker that the large plug of ice wedged in Bellot Strait had been blown out as had nearly all of the ice in Peel Sound. Where two days ago had been thick ice there was now nothing and with no ice to worry about the sail up Peel Sound went without incident. It was dusk when we entered Bellot Strait, an 18 nm narrow, current ridden stretch of water that runs between Peel Sound and  Prince Regent Inlet. By the time we reached the other end it was again black. Idlewild elected to continue on into the night while Cloud Nine and Joton Arctic elected to anchor off Fort Ross, an abandoned Hudson Bay outpost.

 

 

 

All four small vessels rafted up alongside the Sir Wilfred Laurier. From the bottom; Cloud Nine...USA, Joton Arctic...Norway, Idlewild...Canada, a workboat from the Sir Wilfred Laurier, and Fine Tolerance...Australia.

 

Day Seven

Early the next day the Louis St Laurent came back into the inlet from where she had spent the night again out in Peel Sound. This time she lay along the other side of the Laurier and transferred more equipment that was due to be taken back to the Pacific side of Canada. The ice had started to fill in, in the corner where the fiord led out and after unloading the Louis St Laurent steamed over to see if the other boats needed help to get out and join us while Fine Tolerance was once again placed in tow behind the Laurier. They all managed to get out without much difficulty and with the Louis St Laurent leading, the Sir Wilfred Laurier behind followed by the four smaller boats we once again all headed north towards Bellot Strait. We had already observed on the satellite images received by the icebreaker that the large plug of ice wedged in Bellot Strait had been blown out as had nearly all of the ice in Peel Sound. Where two days ago had been thick ice there was now nothing and with no ice to worry about the sail up Peel Sound went without incident. It was dusk when we entered Bellot Strait, an 18 nm narrow, current ridden stretch of water that runs between Peel Sound and Prince Regent Inlet. By the time we reached the other end it was again black. Idlewild elected to continue on into the night while Cloud Nine and Joton Arctic elected to anchor off Fort Ross, an abandoned Hudson Bay outpost.

 

  

 

Removing the bottom bearing. Note the clothing, one of the reasons that everything takes twice as long to do in the Arctic than in more temperate climates

 

 

 

Removing the rudder. Note all that remains of the propeller which is still attached at this stage to the propeller shaft.

 

By now it was early afternoon and the wind had begun to strengthen. Fine Tolerance rode the small wavelets well in her perched position as the shaft was taken to the machinery room. By a stroke of good fortune one of the engineers was also a master machinist. By the time the shaft had been machined to accept the new propeller it was too late with the rougher conditions to put it back into Fine Tolerance. Also the press aboard the Sir Winfred Laurier did not have the power to straighten the rudder shaft so heat had  to been applied. This had to be left to cool naturally to retain its strength so it was decided to leave it until the morning to put Fine Tolerance back together again. The two holes for the rudder shaft and propeller shaft were sealed with wooden plugs in case she slipped out of the slings or had to be let down over night.

That night the Royal Arctic Yacht Club had it's annual SoirĂ©e. During the six week shift that the crew does in the arctic some of the crew and officers build model boats which are judged on this one night. The models are then required to race each other for 30 meters in an open patch of water. The winner receives a trophy which this year had been made by one of the engineers. the rules were only that the vessel had to be made from cardboard. A pleasant night was had by all. Unfortunately we did not see how they sailed as everyone was kept too busy fixing Fine Tolerance and the race was postponed until time could be afforded but the models were very impressive and we are sure there would have been some close racing in the two classes, sail and power.

 

 

 

 

 

Two off the models on display, made of cardboard during the crewmembers off watch period.

 

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