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26 June 2001, 11:07 am
Mission Completed
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Arctic Sailing Expedition

Gary Jobson and the crew of "80 Degrees North Under Sail" have reached their goal in the Arctic.
Roger Vaughan reports from on board:

Yesterday at 1 PM, we crossed 80 degrees north latitude. Reaching 80 degrees was a modest ambition compared to what those intrepid pilots had in mind as they launched lighter than air ships from Spitsbergen toward the North Pole in the early 20th Century. But unlike them, we made it. We did so by heeding the wisdom about adapting to the changing elements, laying low and being patient when the gale was howling, then making a bee line north at the first opportunity. Our reward was a perfect weather window. Without it, we would have come up short. When the wind dropped to a zephyr, our brain trust aboard Oystercatcher XXIV (owner Richard Matthews, skipper Steve Davies, and expedition leader Gary Jobson) put the pedal down on the iron stays'l. We flew across the frigid Norske Bank at more than eight knots.

On the way we diverted a few miles to visit a large iceberg that was glowing turquoise between the low ceiling of sooty cloud and the rolling, glassy sea. The bergs are more colourful here than in the Antarctic because the Arctic glaciers are compacted under such pressure. This berg (we named it Evan) was so garish it could have been a paper mache creation at Disney World. It rose 100 feet off the water, was twice as long, and its skin was deeply scored in tight parallel patterns by erosion. The length of its top was sculpted by the weather into an intricate dorsal skeleton. It looked like a vessel Captain Nemo could have commanded in Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath The Sea.

Gary, mate Claire Davies, cameraman George Johns, and I launched the rubber boat to photograph Oystercatcher next to the berg for the ESPN show. We motored quite a distance to accommodate George's long lens. And there we were, the four of us bobbing around in this hostile sea in the middle of nowhere. Fifty yards out, a whale made a cameo appearance. Ours was a sobering sensation of isolation when our mother ship was hidden behind the berg.

Then it was on to 80 North, with the GPS keeping track as we closed in on the imaginary line. As we crossed, Richard popped a bottle of champagne and did the honors with a toast. Just a mile further on is little Moffen Island (80 degrees 1.5' north / 14 degrees 30' east)), a narrow, pear-shaped ring of low-lying beach that encloses a small lagoon. It's illegal to set foot on Moffen because it harbors a protected colony of walruses. Just as we were thinking it would be nice if someone took notice of our modest accomplishment, here came the welcoming committee. As we dropped anchor, walruses began surfacing on all sides of the boat, snorting and puffing like a meeting of the overweight grandparents club. What a wonderful sight they were. All of them tipped the scales at well over 1,000 pounds. They dove in groups to feed on shellfish in the shallow water for a minute at a time. Then they'd pop up all at once for air, snorting clouds of water in each others' faces, and regarding us balefully with their little bloodshot eyes. The tusks on the older ones are a couple feet long, and their whiskers are thick as nails. Their breath smells like sardines. Denette Wilkinson's research indicates that walruses are the largest seal species. Where they spend the winter is not known, but 20% of the world's walrus population summers in the Arctic. And they are very sociable as we could tell by the beach scene that looked like Coney Island in August. A couple hundred of them were stretched out practically on top of one another.

We didn't linger at Moffen, and it was a good thing. It took us four hours to return under power to Spitsbergen's northwest corner. As we arrived, we stopped for a moment when Richard spotted two groups of Arctic reindeer walking up a vertical snowfield between rock ridges. How they manage to walk up such a steep incline is a mystery, and only they know why they bother. Surely our presence was equally puzzling to them, if they tooknotice.

Without warning, the wind picked up from the south. Soon it was blowing 20 to 30 knots on the nose under blue skies and bright sunshine. The clouds were striking. Jack King identified several rare lenticular clouds, lens- or flying saucer-shaped formations that form in the lee of mountains. And there was a narrow, sharp-edged band of altocumulus that stretched 100 degrees across the sky behind us like a rope. It was cold, in the low 20s with the wind chill factored in. We needed just another hour to get to an anchorage in Magdelene fjord (79 degrees 33' north / 11 degrees 2' east). Any more would have been very uncomfortable. It was rough enough for Gary to be making contingency plans in case we lost the engine as we negotiated narrow passages between islands. As he later observed, "It was just nasty enough long enough to remind us to be humble." Gratefully, we tucked behind a well-protected sand bar for the night. Once again, seals sung us to sleep.

Roger Vaughan
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