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Mischief in Greenland – H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman’s Sailing Adventures

25th May 2016
H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman among loose floes on Mischief in Greenland H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman among loose floes on Mischief in Greenland

H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman’s mountain travel philosophy, rooted in Africa and the Himalaya and further developed in his early sailing adventures in the southern hemisphere, was honed to perfection with his discovery of Greenland as the perfect sailing destination. His Arctic voyages in the pilot cutter Mischief proved no less challenging than his earlier southern voyages. The shorter elapsed time made it rather easier to find a crew but the absence of warm tropical passages meant that similar levels of hardship were simply compressed into a shorter timescale.

First published fifty years before political correctness became an accepted rule, Mischief in Greenland is a treasure trove of Tilman’s observational wit. In this account of his first two West Greenland voyages, he pulls no punches with regard to the occasional failings, leaving the reader to seek out and discover the numerous achievements of these voyages.

This extract is taken from Chapter X11: To Godthaab and Evighedsfjord, which sees Mischief sailing through pack-ice en route to Cape Farewell.

Cape Farewell, so named by John Davis, is the southern extremity of an island 2700 feet high. Surrounded as it is by high mountains it does not stand out prominently, but like most capes that mark the culminating point of large masses of land it is noted for stormy weather. In addition much ice accumulates round it, sometimes extending as far as 150 miles seaward. But the average distance is seventy miles in April, decreasing in August to thirty miles. For our part we could not have rounded it in fairer conditions. Sailing west-northwest parallel to the coast, mountains glistening all along our starboard hand, we romped along at five knots over a sparkling blue sea on a day of brilliant sunshine. And what fascination there is in the sight of this Greenland coast; how bracing the austere beauty of sea, snow mountains, and ice! In the morning we sighted only one big solitary berg and in the afternoon passed another close enough for us to take photographs. In order to have the best light we passed it on the wrong side, that is to leeward, where we had to dodge a number of bergy bits or growlers which had broken off. A German stern-trawler from Kiel altered course to have a closer look at us and greeted us with three blasts of his siren. The air temperature that day was 36° F. and the sea 42° F.

greenland

Kangamiut (left) and Evinghedsfjord

Next day we lay becalmed. It was an equally brilliant day and the few icebergs scattered about were curiously distorted by mirage. On this account, too, we could not make out whether a white bank all along the horizon to starboard was fog or ice. At the same time we were much puzzled by a low, rumbling noise. Some thought there must be a fishing boat about, others an aeroplane. True we had a bottle-nosed whale close aboard at the time but we could not hold him responsible for a noise like that. When a breeze sprang up we closed with this white bank and found it to be heavily congested pack-ice so distorted by mirage as to appear twice its height. It was this pack-ice that in spite of the perfectly smooth sea maintained the low menacing growl which we had heard from miles away. In similar circumstances John Davis and his company had been confounded by the noise of the pack: ‘Here we heard a mighty great roaring of the sea, as if it had been the breach of some shoare, the ayr being so foggie that we could not see one ship from the other. Then coming near to the breach, we met many islands of yce floating, and did perceive that all the roaring that we heard was caused only by the rowling of this yce together.’ We sailed to within a hundred yards of the pack to take photographs before standing out to sea. From so low a viewpoint as our deck photographs of pack-ice proved singularly unimpressive. In the vicinity of the pack the sea temperature was down to 34° F.
All next day as we drifted and sailed up the coast we had the pack in sight, for apparently it filled the whole of the Julianehaab Bight as far north as Cape Desolation. Ghosting along all night we tacked once to avoid a raft of small floes covering a mile of sea. The morning broke clear and sunny and again we found ourselves surrounded by floes with just enough steerage way to avoid them. A seal lay basking on a floe but when we tried to edge close the whisper of wind failed altogether and when we started the engine he dived into the sea. In the afternoon we ran into fog. The air temperature fell to 36° F. and the moisture on the ropes froze. By evening, the fog still persisting, we found our way barred by a narrow belt of pack-ice. Although the water beyond appeared to be clear of ice we hesitated to break through and coasted westwards alongside the ice searching for an opening. For four hours we motored at four knots, dodging loose floes, and still having the more solid ice about fifty yards away on our starboard hand. At length at ten o’clock, tired of dodging stray floes and thinking I saw an opening, I turned her head towards the ice. We were nearly through when in making a tight turn to avoid a floe on the port side we suffered a frightening blow below the water-line from a tongue of ice projecting from a floe on the starboard side. Those who were below were more than a little startled. As one man they rushed on deck to see what had hit us such a sickening thud. Assuming a calm which I was far from feeling I told them we had just grazed a bit of ice, that the ship appeared not to be sinking, and that at least we were through the ice and able to resume our proper course.

The book can be purchased directly from Afloat's Marine Market at €15.67 here

Published in Cruising

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