Iqualuktuuttiaq to Nuuk – a Bloody Long Way

Here’s the second part of AWBF Boat Manager Cathy Hawkins’ epic account of her journey across the NorthWest Passage from west to east.  Part Three will appear in the December issue.

A bitter Arctic northerly is whirring and howling through the rigging. It’s not often, when you’re in your bunk, that you want the wind to blow harder and the whirring to go up an octave. We need a gale with grunt to reshuffle the ice, crack it up and get it moving to create passable leads north so we can get to, and through, skinny Bellot Strait that separates Boothia Peninsular and Somerset Island.

We are sheltering in an unnamed bay south of Gloster Point in the James Ross Strait on the Bootha Peninsular. We have been forced to retreat. Nothing is quite as demoralising as loosing ‘ground’ to a nautical destination – all those hard earned miles needing to be ‘renavigated’ on yet another day.

Just after the sea temperature dropped from nine to four degrees, we were in ice. There “starteth” Abel Tasman’s nudging, wriggling, squirming, reversing and throttling through 3/10ths ice – the limit of ice percentages, despite her robust 10mm steel hull, she is able to tackle.

After 11nm of writhing and fuel guzzling we progressed a trifling 3nm off Cape Frances that day in late August. Our track on the plotter is like the contorted footprint of a dismembered worm.

In ice, it’s quite a work out on the helm – spinning that 1100mm diameter wheel to port and starboard trying to steer Abel Tasman’s 23m hull into cracks and gaps that may lead us out of icy puzzlement. Hot times in the cockpit followed by chilling stints on the bow pointing to possible leads – signing thumbs-up or thumbs-down back to the cockpit to relay progress pass a pack.

Just another watch above the Arctic Circle

All this ice hypnosis sends your mind into a biosphere of rumination until a Polar Bear stealthily leaps onto an iceberg, water deluging from its buttery pelt, black nose targeted aloft while nimbly rotating to find stability on a listing berg barely able to support its heftiness. We saw two more bears on that ice-bashing day and a couple of seal pups wearily taking quick breaths between fractures in the ice.

The idea, in this clogged-up predicament, in a relatively small yacht in light airs, is to hug the barren brown coast and find an open lane along the shore. Abel Tasman’s draught is 2.8m so we weren’t as close to the shore as we wanted to be. In the temptation to find open water, we lightly scraped the undulating bottom urging us to steer further offshore.

The problem with ice, and the mirages of the Arctic, is that they give the impression that open water is just beyond the radius of your private entrapment. Tantalisingly, just over there, or so it would seem, is the freedom to be on course unobstructed.

In the James Ross Strait we were hoping for a nor-easterly gale to push the ice pack south west and off the eastern shore to create a northern runaway of deliverance. This didn’t happen.

Ice bashing is a daylight light-air pursuit so, as soon as the last bit of light dissolved, we hove to in the pack and kept watch on three essentials: our distance from shore, an increase in wind strength and boarding Polar Bears.

Most boats carry a gun to scare off Polar Bears. Instead of a gun we had a Bear Banger – a hand held spring-loaded device that shoots a flare. The cartridge detonates just past your hand and the ‘not very directional’ projectile arcs through the air to “poof” into a flare. I imagined the cartridge blowing my hand off, the bear not registering the bang and disinterestedly tracing the flare through the air, shrugging its shoulders and returning to the business of landing me for lunch minus one hand.

At 0315hrs – the wind started to blow and that moveable feast of rotating, flexing, cracking ice got on the go. As soon as a gap opened to our south (from where we had come) it was time to retreat 32nm before its agitation beset us and did more damage to Abel Tasman’s already twisted propeller blades.

So, here we sit in an unnamed bay willing more wind while we each find our ‘project’ space. Hours, then days slip by in our hushed library-like hull. It is getting late in the season and our ‘window’ for getting through the Northwest Passage is shrinking.

Back to telling you about our stay in Cambridge Bay/Iqualuktuuttiaq (where I left off in my last email) and the hundreds of dead snow geese (not ducks) floating belly-up on our approach. Two theories – a recent oil spill off the coast or, perhaps, the chemical used on Cambridge Bay (CB) roads to dampen the dust. People were surprised to hear about the deaths – “it’s not unheard of but it is uncommon”.

CB was a mixed 1,800-bod community of Inuits, scientists and public servants at all levels of government. Over the past 5,000 years this site has been chosen as a place to live for its location and resources – Iqualuktuuttiaq means, roughly, a place of many fish.

I will remember Cambridge Bay, not for its dusty roads and busy populace, but being witness to “what’s possible” with tenacity and passion. I’m talking about the Maud Returns Home project that conceived and implemented the raising of Roald Amundsen’s Maud by a Norwegian artist, taxi driver, general tradesman and boat yard owner.

These self-effacing friends have achieved a feat as much about art and bringing an innate relic to life, as it is about history and the expression of cunning amateur engineering devoid of repressive intervention by bureaucrats and regulators. A group with a vision to refloat Maud from its 80-year submersion, strap it to a barge and tow it home to Norway from where it started its Polar exploration 100 years ago.

Like Amundsen, the team is one of dreams and action. The terrestrial age of discovery may be over but a project like this gives hope that occasionally, with spirit, it’s possible to transcend our regulatory western world that thwarts, disheartens and erects hurdles in the path of inspired (and inspiring) notions.

All the model making, the complex what-if and how-to tête-à-têtes, the resolve to solve compounding problems, the countless year-round freezing dives on the wreck to figure out Maud’s ascent and collect an abundance of relics buried in knee deep mud.

Always with a mind to the aesthetic, it is a project so ambitious that the naysayers and poo-pooers would have been out in force at idea’s conception but now, with Norway just over the horizon, comes its new set of popularity challenges.

Resurrected, Maud is now exposed and perched on a rusting ex-oilrig barge ready to be towed through the Northwest Passage to Greenland to ready her for the celebrated 2018 homecoming.

Three Norwegian brothers who have harmoniously been in business since their youth are the sole and vital funders of the project. Without any ado and notoriety they purchased the Tanberg Polar tug, barge and have covered the costs to get Maud home.

With the prospect of ice ahead, and lots of it, we said our goodbyes and good luck to the Maud crew and departed CB in mirror calm conditions to cross Queen Maud Gulf and Simpson Strait where Muskox grazed on flat tundra through a labyrinth of shoals, currents and deceptive horizon mirages born from the extreme flatness of the land.

Immersed in Amundsen, we detoured and anchored overnight in “Amundsen’s Gjøa spot” at Gjøa Haven in a natural harbour on King William Island where he wintered for two seasons and named the harbour after his first expedition boat, Gjøa.

The great thing about Amundsen, in my mind, was his desire to learn the art of polar survival from the local Netsilik Eskimos. He was unusual among polar explorers in , sensibly grasping that the Eskimos weren’t savages but highly adapted to their surroundings, with much to teach him.

After Gjøa Haven we headed further north into the ice. (Part Two in December)



A Century On, a Tradition Continues

This article is reprinted with the permission of the author and the Bellerive Yacht Club.

Gypsy’s Centenary Opening Day – 7 October 2017

Opening Day has been a feature of the yachting season in Hobart for many decades, but this year I was very proud to be part of a centenary celebration, which I believe to be unique in the history of yachting on the River Derwent.

2017 marked the 100th consecutive year that Gypsy has participated in Opening Day manoeuvres to celebrate the beginning of the yachting season.  In my time, I can recall just three occasions when manoeuvres were cancelled due to extreme weather, but Gypsy was still on the river to mark the day, so I count those years in the centenary!

As Gypsy approached her 100th birthday in 2014, I decided to embark on a project to write her history, a task which I hope to complete soon.  I discovered during this process that the first reference to Gypsy (which was erroneously spelt “Gipsy”) in the Mercury Newspaper, was on Monday, 16 December 1918.  The story that day was about the manoeuvers to open the yachting season for that year.


“When arrangements were being made to welcome the Anzacs, and to give them a good time during their furlough, the yachtsmen at once offered to assist… A meeting of boat owners was called, and it was soon seen that the good spirit which prompted the yachtsmen to give up their annual Opening Day for the last three years, and to take out returned soldiers instead, still existed, and a ready response was made.  A committee… issued invitations to all returned soldiers, who were also asked to bring lady friends, and the result was a most unusual scene at the wharf, near the Bellerive Ferry, on Saturday afternoon.  There must have been at least 250 waiting to embark, and as each yacht and motor boat arrived it was allotted its quota…. … It was an animated scene in the harbour as the yachts manoeuvred for the start, although the weather was dull and somewhat threatening.  A smart N.W. breeze prevailed, and as the yachts stood away on the port tack towards Government House the sight was a very pretty one.”

The report indicates that the Rosny shore of Bellerive Bay was chosen as the rendezvous because of the conditions, with over 45 boats counted at anchor.  This fascinating lengthy report of the day’s events included the following, in describing some of the yachts that took part;

“A new yacht in Messes. Knight Bros. ‘Gipsy’ is a welcome addition, and looked very well under yawl rig.”

Gypsy was built at Tarrana, on the Tasman Peninsula, in 1914.  She was launched, unfinished and unnamed, before being purchased by my two great uncles, Sydney Knight, and Jack Knight in 1918.  They were both owners of the racing yacht Zonia, but it seems that around the time that Jack returned from World War I, a decision was made to sell Zonia, and to buy the yacht that they named Gypsy; according to my grandfather, Doug Knight, the younger brother in the family, she was given this name because they were “a bunch of blokes who wanted to go wandering”.

My theory is that the family may have thought that acquiring a yacht to go cruising would assist Jack in his recuperation following his return from the war, where he had served in the artillery corps first at Gallipoli and then on the Western front in Europe, where he was made up to an officer in the field.  He was wounded on the Western front, and subsequently developed shell shock, and like so many of his comrades, no doubt longed to come home and to enjoy the beauty and peace of Tasmania.

So, it is timely, perhaps, to reflect on the impact that the war had not only on the local community then, but on yachting specifically.  Initially, press reports heralded the departure of brave recruits; and then yachting notes in the press indicated that yacht racing struggled because of the loss of such large numbers of crewmen, who had joined the services to fight in the war.  Then, the initial enthusiasm quickly gave way to ongoing reports of the inevitable causalities, and the wounded returning home.

It appears from press reports at the time that this led to many “soldier’s picnics” being held throughout Australia, to support the returned servicemen.  Yachtsmen in Hobart decided to replace the traditional Opening Day in 1916 with a soldier’s picnic on the river, to welcome returned servicemen and those in leave, and to thank them; and this event then opened the yachting season for the next three years.  Press reports indicate that following manoeuvres, dinghy races were held for the soldiers, and for nursing staff, and many went ashore to “boil the billy”.  Indeed, the manoeuvres in 1917 resulted in landing at Montagu Bay, where it was determined by the returned servicemen that they would form the first Tasmanian branch of the Returned Services League.

So, in 1918, there began a family and crew tradition for the Gypsy, which has remained unbroken.  I remember, as a child, that it was a day that we always regarded with respect, keen anticipation, and unbridled enthusiasm for a bit of fun!  That continues, and I honestly hope that it is a tradition that continues indefinitely – not only for Gypsy, but for yachting in Hobart.  It is a wonderful way to mark the beginning of the new yachting season, and to enjoy the company of the great friends that are the crew of the Gypsy, without whom she would not be what she is.

I would like to dedicate Gypsy’s centenary Opening Day to her crew, with my thanks and those of my forebears over the preceding three generations. Please give us a wave when you next see us on the water!

steve knight chairman

Steve Knight


Results Are In for the AWBF Survey

Results Are In for the AWBF Survey

We mentioned in our June update that the results were in for the post-festival survey completed by 786 festival-goers, answering an extensive questionnaire so that we can better understand who comes to the festival, where they are from, how long they stay and what they value most about the event. This kind of data is essential for us to plan the festival’s future and to demonstrate to our partners, sponsors and supporters the value of the largest wooden boat gathering in the Southern Hemisphere.

There are some interesting trends emerging, since we first began the survey with the 2013 event. Estimated attendance (215,000) is steady, with fluctuations mostly attributable to weather, and the number of boats (490) and volunteers (435) stable over the last three festivals. What has changed is the percentage of our audience travelling from interstate and overseas to attend the event. Continue reading “Results Are In for the AWBF Survey”