A Tale from the Dark Side

Lead Line — November 2001
By Richard Thiel

A Tale from the Dark Side
Sailors are masochists!
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• Sverdrup, Otto - Expedition History

We all know sailors are different from us. In fact, about the only thing they have in common with us is water. When people ask me to explain the difference between sailors and powerboaters, I often say that the principal allure of boating for us is the destination; for them it's the process. This is not to suggest that we don't like passagemaking, but that we value it second to the discovery or rediscovery of some port or anchorage. Sailors can be content simply tacking around all day getting nowhere.

But my explanation falls short, for sailors are divided from us by another dichotomy: We like comfort and protection from inhospitable environments; they revel in testing their tolerance for discomfort, if not pain. (William F. Buckley, a lifelong sailor, once wrote that ocean sailboat racing is "like standing under a cold shower tearing up hundred-dollar bills.") Actually, let me be frank: Sailors are masochists. They enjoy discomfort. No hot shower? No drinking water? No air conditioning? Not even a multimedia system? Bring it on!

This is why I consider Greg Landreth the Alpha Sailor. Like most boaters, he likes to cruise to new places, but not just any place. And not just cruise. Landreth recently decided to re-create the voyage of Otto Sverdrup, another daft sailor who a century ago sailed from Norway to Canada's Ellesmere Island, which is so far north (about 76ºN), it's literally off the chart. Sverdrup's impetus was mapping terra incognita. Landreth's was--well, read on.

Landreth tells the story of his voyage in the September/October issue of Ocean Navigator, a fine publication that frequently chronicles crazy treks by crazy sailors and from which I shall quote liberally. The plan was to trace Sverdrup's voyage aboard Landreth's 54-foot steel ketch with a crew of six adults, two huskies (to warn them of polar bears), and a two-year-old daughter of two crew members. (Landreth reveals that "several...crew were not toilet-trained.") A bit crowded, especially when you learn that the plan included "freezing [the boat] into the ice for the winter," which up there lasts roughly 46 weeks. All this was for a cause. Three of the crew were scientists (I assume toilet-trained) who intended to "study the conduction of acoustic waves over snow [and] microscopic arctic mites."

So the intrepid metal sailboat with its crew of men and beasts makes it to Ellesmere, anchors, and hunkers down for a yearlong stay that would include a "four-month dark period...a time to take stock, to enjoy some sort of unique dreamlike existence and crystalline cold [somewhere around -50ºF] few people have ever had the privilege to know." Sometime during that dreamlike existence, the child and her parents depart for a hut on the beach, leaving the remaining crew to "enjoy our splendid isolation."

Almost immediately the bottom falls out of the thermostat--and nearly the boat. The ketch is clamped in ice like a pipe in a vise, and the ice starts sucking her into it until she is in danger of sinking. The remaining crew abandons ship for an igloo they've built and begins trying to chop the boat free, a task hampered by the fact that they forgot to bring an ice chisel. They did, however, bring a chainsaw, but when the chain hits salt water, the spray kills the engine forever. (Hey, he's a sailor, not a lumberjack.) The boat continues to sink, and Landreth reports, "the rest of the crew has all but abandoned the effort."

Just when things look darkest (no pun intended), some "locals" (from 100 miles away) happen along in a snowmobile with a proper ice chisel, and by hacking away every day for a month, Landreth manages to break his boat free of the ice and eventually escapes.

See what happens when sailors enjoy the destination?


This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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