on
December 7, 2018

*This article appeared in the October publication of 48 North, and then I forgot to share it with you in November. So here it is, to answer the question I know you ponder daily — what is it like to be on watch above the arctic circle?*

My eyes are still squeezed tight, but I can feel the grey – the heavy grey sky holding back snow, the wispy grey fog that swirls and eludes, the dark grey sea dotted with ice. Someone is shaking my arm gently, but I’m reticent to emerge from my sleepy warmth. My arm shakes again and I squint my eyes open at the little girl standing by my bed, bundled in so many layers she looks like a mummy. “You’re up” she whispers, her muffled words barely escaping the layers of fleecy fabric swaddled around her.

I nod as I groan and stretch, and she disappears around the corner. I crawl out of my warm nest and start to add clothes in the dimness. A few layers of fleece, a puffy, two pairs of socks, gloves inside mittens, a big coat, a second hat for good measure. The form of Janna, veiled under an impossibly puffy and oversized outfit, emerges from the bow and I emit a sleepy chuckle. I must look just as marshmallow-y, because she chuckles back.

It’s 4am and the beginning of our watch. We clamor into the cockpit clumsily, still pulling on PFD’s, adjusting neck warmers and un-bunching socks. It’s not dark, but it’s not daylight either. The world is grey. I try to shake the sleep from my brain as I listen to Savai and Graeme give us the update from their watch. There’s lots of ice, it’s very foggy, the wind has calmed, and we need to trend our course to the south if the ice allows.

With the information disseminated, they head downstairs, clumsily pushing past our awkward marshmallow suits in the closed-in cockpit to get down the companionway. And then it’s just us and the ice and the heavy cold sky.

Before we rounded Point Barrow, our 2-person 3-hour watch schedule was straightforward and comfortable. Those on watch were expected to keep a look out for traffic and debris, make sail changes or course modifications, prepare meals for the crew and also accomplish small tasks to keep the boat tidy. With two people on watch together, one could pay attention to the course while the other organized a locker, cooked breakfast for everyone or cleaned up the cockpit. In the predominantly empty stretches of water, there was also plenty of leeway to read a book, eat a snack or make some tea.

That leeway evaporated as we entered the fields of ice east of Barrow. Being on watch in the arctic literally means watching. Not glancing up and around between the pages of a good book to check on traffic and wind speed; but staring ahead without respite for three hours, eyes trained forward. Sometimes looking for chunks of ice floating in the mostly open choppy sea, other times seeking narrow pathways of water that emerge and vanish among a quagmire of ice.

That is the type of watch we are beginning now – the watching kind. I head to the bow with binoculars and a compass. My job on the bow is to watch for ice in our immediate path and to try to untangle the deceptive mazes of water amid the bands of ice ahead. I communicate with Janna, now standing attentively behind the wheel, with exaggerated hand signals, indicating to her which direction to steer, how much and – sometimes most importantly – how quickly. The binoculars help me distinguish grey ice from grey water and the compass helps me keep my bearings in this fog-enshrouded world so I don’t send DogBark! in circles with my hand signals.

I stand at the bow, one arm draped around the furled-in jib, the other motioning almost constantly for course changes. Minutes evaporate in the raw beauty of the sculptures gliding by. They seem to pulse with vivacious shades of blue and white, these elegant statues of power and evanescence that morph and transform as we slip past. They are endlessly mesmerizing. The time flies by.

After an hour and a half, I wobble back to the cockpit on stiff legs and we switch places for the second half of our watch. Now behind the wheel, I am unnerved by the hindered view of the ice ahead, accustomed to the sweeping landscape I could see from the bow. I have to trust Janna entirely, as she trusted me, to guide DogBark! through the ice with her hand signals. My role now is to watch our course and depth on the chart, keeping us headed in the right direction and in deep enough water, and to react to Janna’s waving hands with quick turns of the wheel, sometimes threading between intimidating ice formations with inches to spare, other times zigging and zagging and making U-turns in cul-de-sacs of water bounded by ice.

The rest of our watch slips by on the long low sheets of ice expanding endlessly to our starboard. The intermittent rumble of icebergs splitting and rolling nearby melds with the growling drone of the diesel engine under my feet. The dark damp grey of pre-dawn has stretched into the softer grey of a foggy day, unfolding and spreading in every direction. By the end of our watch, the cold has reached through my toes and fingers, creeping into my core. My eyes water, fighting against the biting wind and straining to see the next chunk of ice in our path, weary from the exertion.

With the intensity of these watching watches, the rest of the crew picks up the slack in their downtime. After handing over the wheel to John and Talia and peeling off the many constraining layers of down and fleece, I scramble up some eggs and toast for the crew that is awake while Janna makes hot tea and coffee for John and Talia, then we fill in the log book and check the bilges for water intrusion. And then I climb back into bed to snuggle under the deep thick comforter. A shiver of delight and warmth runs through me. I love the intensity of these watches, the vivacity of the cold wind across my face, the strained staring and quick maneuvering, the beauty and intricacy of the ice sculptures around us, almost as much as I love the feeling of crawling back under the comforter and snuggling in for a warm cozy nap at the end of it.

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John and Becca Guillote

Becca is the writer. She tells vivid stories of authentic moments, highlighting the beautiful, dangerous, dramatic and hilarious with grammatically correct sentences and her tongue held firmly by her cheek.                                                                          
John is the photographer. He portrays the layers of history, emotion, spirit and culture in each moment through his application of light, perspective, and detail. He also takes pictures.

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Our Northwest Passage adventure is on a sailboat named DogBark with Talia (12 y/o) and Savai (9 y/o). They are wonderful writers, and this is their blog. Please follow them too!

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