Polar Sea 360°

Episode 02

Sailing Ice

Fear and Wonder Map it

By Richard Tegnér, Swedish architect and father of two daughters. After sailing a lengthy stretch of open water, Richard and his companions on the 9.5 meter sailboat, DAX, finally reach Greenland: the first stop of their Northwest Passage voyage.

July 17 - Nanortalik, Greenland

Nine days at sea without any land contact is more than I ever have experienced on a small vessel like the DAX, but now we are safely moored in the little Greenland village of Nanortalik. The colour of the houses here makes me think that they painted the village with whatever colours were available in the store at that moment. I look around and wonder why in the world anyone would want to settle here in this monumental wilderness, but I feel a lively, easygoing, and pleasant atmosphere to the place.

Our plan was to spend two days in Nanortalik but locals said the inlet could be blocked by massive ice and unless we want to spend weeks here we must leave immediately. We went quickly into the harbor, where Martin, Bengt and I did our own errands. There is more than enough socializing on board and it can be difficult to always be in a good mood when you are jammed together in the small space of the DAX, especially because a lot has happened in the past few days.


We reached a truly frightening storm as we rounded the southern tip of Greenland and now it is cold and damp in the cabin. The mood is not very positive. The cockpit filled up with water several times and large tall waves rocked the DAX back and forth. Everything that was not attached in the cabin was thrown about, including Martin’s computer. One of our cameras, which was tied to the mast, has also loosened and is now dangling by its cables. The wind tore up the jib and we’ve realized that we only have one working jib (the furling jib was destroyed earlier). A jib is one of the main types of headsail on a modern boat. It is a triangular sail, whose most crucial function is to increase performance and stability by reducing turbulence to the main sail.

“All the problems came to us at the same time. It was noisy and rough, it felt like we were in a tumbler. I thought to myself, ‘Is this the way it’s going to end?'”

Also, when we started the engine, there was a sinister burnt smell. The engine temperature was too high so we turned it off and realized that the oil was too low. We found that the circulation pump for the freshwater cooling was broken, so we installed Martin’s reserve one. At the same time, we found a great deal of oil in the coolant, which we cleaned out. All the problems came to us at the same time. It was noisy and rough, it felt like we were in a tumbler. I thought to myself, “Is this the way it’s going to end?” The wind continues to blow hard now and everyone is tired. I still feel very small and somewhat scared. It occurs to me that we could actually have so many problems that we might not be able to solve. One comfort, however, is our contact with Impulse. We mutually report our position, course and speed and make possible adjustments.

Although I am scared, I do like this way of travelling in general: stepping out of your comfort zone. I’m not the kind of person that enjoys sunny vacations with drinks on the beach. It’s not for me. I like mobility and the exploration of nature. If everything happens seamlessly and there are no problems, you won’t create any memories, things will pass right through you. Troubles give you friction so the experience sticks in your memory.

This post is also available in: French, German

Navigating the Arctic Map it

By Captain Patrick Marchesseau of the cruise ship, Le Boréal. He has been navigating the Arctic between Svalbard, Greenland and Baffin Bay for three years. He shares his knowledge of the ship’s tools, the risks involved with the trip, and how climate change is affecting the region.

Davis Strait, Greenland

My passion for the sea started at a young age. I grew up on a tiny island off of the Atlantic Coast in France and started sailing school when I was 6 years old. Little by little I got my taste for the sea. The polar region was definitely somewhere I wanted to discover because the navigation is interesting, there’s a challenge to it – you need to be extremely vigilant. It’s a place where cartography isn’t as precise as other places, so we’ve got to gather our own information and follow routes that we’ve deemed safe. I like to try navigating in the same spirit as the previous polar explorers. I search for new places to explore but with more navigation equipment.

“There’s definitely an explorer, adventurer aspect to this type of navigation”

There are only certain times in the year when the Northwest Passage (NWP) can be sailed. By end of August you have the possibility to sail for about a month; at the beginning of September it’s open and by the end of September it closes up with the coast. This average period of navigability has grown over the years because there is less sea ice and this is a direct consequence of climate change.

The effects of climate change here are clear. It’s a reality, not a fantasy. I recently went on a glacier hike on the western coast of Greenland and, even though I’ve only sailed with these Greenlandic cruises for three years, I noticed that this glacier had shrunk. It’s undeniable.


“We’re all aware that if something happened here, in a short time, we would have no means of rescue”

There’s an art to navigating in the ice. First and foremost it’s a visual navigation. You need to know your vessel: what are its capacities, its limitations? How does it manoeuvre and especially, what kind of ice can it actually push or run into? It means the more ice there is and the bigger the ice, the slower we go.

There are different types of icebergs. The big iceberg, generally a square or rectangular shape, called Tabular is literally an iceberg that has detached from the Arctic coast. Over time they disintegrate and create smaller icebergs that we call ‘bourgignon,’ around the size of a house, or ‘grollers,’ car sized. Then you have icebergs of different sizes and shapes that break off from the edge of glaciers (a process called calving). It’s really quite a show. The biggest Tabular iceberg that we’ve ever seen was last year in Antarctica. It was the size of Paris, approximately 25km by 15km. Very imposing.

Obviously everyone thinks about the story of the Titanic but we don’t consider icebergs dangerous because we always see them the radar. What we have to worry about are the midsize chunks of ice, the “grollers.’ If we were to hit them, it could cause a possible tear in the ship’s hull, and we’re all aware that if something happened here, in a short time, we would have no means of rescue. The sea temperature is 2 degrees Celsius so the odds of surviving if you were to be submerged would only be a couple of minutes. That said, we are always in contact with the coast guard. They make sure everything is going ok with us and the rest of the vessels travelling in and around Greenland and Canada.

“It’s really quite a show; nature does some extraordinary things with icebergs”

You sail using your eyes, they’re your best tool, but Le Boréal is equipped with a number of navigational tools for sailing in the Arctic waters. We use sea maps and GPS/Electronic maps as navigational aids, but not as our principal navigation as they include uncharted areas and sometimes lack precision. Radar and Sonar are very helpful navigation tools we use to measure the depth, either vertically from the ship or in front of it. But the most important for us is the radar because it is a lot more precise and ensures a certain amount of security. At night the ship is fitted with two very powerful searchlights in order to detect the ice head of us.

The Inuit do all their navigation by sight so they know where to pass each glacier, which areas are shallow, and where the current picks up. They don’t rely on maps, or require GPS; it’s all based on experience, local knowledge, and done by sight. It’s a whole other kind of navigation than what we do. We still have a lot to learn.

You really have to be humble when it comes to weather conditions and keep in mind that the weather will ultimately decide if you can or cannot stop. The ice, the wind, and the sea will always remind you of your limits. In this polar area you are alone and you can’t make a mistake.


This post is also available in: French, German

From Zurich to the Arctic

By Dr. Philipp Cottier, a Swiss investor, philanthropist and father of three. A passionate mountaineer and sailor who loves a challenge, Philipp and the Cottier family set records in 2013 by becoming the first cruising catamaran to complete the Northwest Passage.

We’re a family of five: Marielle, Philipp, Naïma (15), Line (12), Anissa (9). Marielle’s Swiss French and my Swiss German roots make us a bilingual family. Our lifestyle is similar to most other families, except that we spend most of our holidays sailing or ‘adventuring.’ We recently took time off for two Sabbatical years; in 2010 we spent 7 months sailing the Caribbean and 5 months travelling overland in Asia and Africa; and in 2013/14 we sailed the Northwest Passage and then lived, worked, and studied in Shanghai. In general we love the outdoors, adventure, and sports, but we also enjoy normal city life. We are a close-knit family, especially given the amount, quality, and intensity of the time spend together.

“The Arctic has always fascinated me. It is a very intensive and beautiful place where I feel very close to nature and to myself”

We bought our catamaran, Libellule, in 2008, after selling my hedge fund company, in order to pursue a lifelong dream of learning how to sail. Both Marielle and I are experienced mountaineers but land-locked Switzerland didn’t offer many seafaring opportunities. Once we started sailing, one voyage led to the next. From the Mediterranean (2009) through the Caribbean (2010) and up the US East Coast (2010). In 2011 we took Libellule back to the Mediterranean via Greenland and Iceland. This is when we developed the idea of attempting the Northwest Passage in 2013.

The Arctic has always fascinated me. It is a very intensive and beautiful place where I feel very close to nature and to myself. Before attempting the Northwest Passage I travelled Alaska, Yukon, Svalbard, and Greenland extensively; I have always loved the light and the atmosphere up north. But travelling to the Arctic on a sailing boat is a different, even better experience. The advantage of travelling by boat is that you can access a lot of otherwise inaccessible sites (while enjoying a little bit more comfort than sleeping in tents and fighting mosquitos…)

Wherever we went in the Arctic people were very nice and welcoming, but I noticed a big change in cultures from east to west. While Greenland still seemed to have a strong Inuit culture, the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic communities we visited did not look like we expected. People live in modern houses and there are fast food joints and satellite dishes. It was unexpected and I found it a bit sad, but of course the Arctic is not a museum and it would be unfair and inappropriate for us to expect or request people to live like Inuit in picture books.

“In Canada and Alaska the Arctic communities we visited did not look like we expected. People live in modern houses and there are fast food joints and satellite dishes”

Interestingly, we found many locals that seemed to be quite happy with increasing temperatures and more moderate winters, caused by climate change, because of the potential economic opportunities. After my trip I realized how complicated climate change really is. For example, there was 30% more ice coverage in the Arctic than the year before and some locals even told us they hadn’t seen this much ice for 20-30 years. However, this doesn’t mean that the trend is reversing; as a matter of fact, the quantity of pack ice in summer 2013 was a statistical outlier, most likely triggered by a cold winter, thin ice, and strong northwesterly winds in the summer. Climate change is a very real, very sad thing and we should do everything possible to mitigate it. The Arctic’s pristine environment is even more beautiful and extraordinary than I imagined and we really need to try and preserve it.

Our Northwest Passage trip taught us that it really is worthwhile pursuing one’s own dreams, even when it takes a lot of effort and there is a risk of failure. It was a great experience to do such an adventure as a family, which requires a bit more preparation and adds some pressure to the trip. We are lucky. Not many people have the opportunity to travel with their family like this.

I want to convey to my daughters the beauty of the outdoors and of nature; the spirit of adventure and endurance; the mindset of travelling and opening up to other cultures. They did great during the Northwest Passage; they never complained, proved very resilient against the cold, and really got into it. It was a once in a lifetime experience for all of us.


This post is also available in: French, German

Ice Music Map it

Known for his innovative and conceptual approach to music, Terje Isungset is a distinguished Norwegian musician, composer, and founder of the world's only Ice Music Festival. Polar Sea Online Director, Stephanie Weimar, interviews Terje to find out what makes ice so fascinatingly musical.

Upernavik, Greenland

How did you first realize that ice made a sound?

A: I was asked to compose music for Norway’s Frozen Waterfall Festival in 2000. I decided to use elements of the actual waterfall along with stones, scraps of wood, and sounds of the river. We combined it all with ordinary instruments and heard an amazing sound. The year after we decided to make the world’s first ice music recording.

“Ice sounds very different from other instruments. It’s extremely beautiful, like a new universe of sounds and music”

Q: How ice music is made? Does different ice have different sound?

A: Yes, Some very old glaciers from the Arctic have a lot of sound and others, like artificial ice, have no sound. Greenland icebergs have a distinctly different sound, which is what I’m working with on my new CD.

It’s really hard to describe through words why it sounds different but it has to do with the tones and vibrations; it’s the character of the sound. Glacier ice will sound different depending on where it comes from and how old it is. Generally, the deeper you go (the older it is and) the higher the pressure. This deep glacier ice is transparent, which gives it more resonance in the tones, although it is really hard to find. Air bubbles, dirt or other components in glacier ice make it sing less. So the ice says ‘bum’ instead of ‘buuummmm.’


“Creating ice music is a comment on climate change without saying anything”

The sound also changes depending on how water freezes into ice. Ice from the South Pole has never melted so it’s whiter in colour and has less resonance. If you take a flat piece of ice from the South Pole it goes ‘click’ and if you take a similar piece from the North it goes ‘cling!’ I am of course not an expert in how sound is created, I’m an expert on how ice sounds.

Q: Why do you think some pieces make sound and other pieces don’t?

A: This I cannot explain; it’s one of the mysteries of ice. In Russia recently we had 100 pieces of natural ice, equally cut and only 10 out of the 100 had sound. We heard nothing with the rest; it’s really hard to understand. And artificial ice, for example, looks totally perfect but has no sound. I’ve tried artificial ice from all over the world; it’s always the same. I believe it has something to do with the treatment of water.

Q: How did it feel to be playing with ice in Upernavik Greenland, which is from glaciers that are so old?

A: Ice music is a very deep experience for me because of the age of the ice and the earth, and how long human beings have been here. You can only imagine how very, very old the ice is. We don’t know the exact age of it but I know Danish scientists have drilled down into ice in Greenland that is at least 140 000 years old. I also like to work with elements or concepts that are deep, more conceptual. For example, finding the instruments in nature; building the venue and the instruments in nature; and playing in nature has a deeper meaning.


“Nature is stronger than us and yet it is so fragile; we have to treat it very gently”

I think it is also really important for human beings to feel small sometimes. Nature is stronger than us and yet it is so fragile; we have to treat it very gently. We have been on earth for a very, very short time and the water and ice have been on earth millions of years longer, so it allows us to see things in perspective.

Q: What other kinds of music do you play and compose and how does it compare to your ice music?

A: I am a drummer and percussionist. The main difference is that I know my other instruments in detail. I know 100% how they sound; I’ve played them since I was little. On the other hand ice is fragile, it breaks easily, and it melts. You never know if you have good sounding ice. Nature decides everything in ice music. It’s also complicated in terms of logistics and one hundred times more work. But the ice fits very well with other conceptual music of mine too. I have played concerts with food, wood, garbage, or industrial sounds as my instruments.

Q: Where will we be able to see you perform?

A: We are planning to visit Canada in late February or early March 2015, where we will perform from my new CD Meditations. We also have requests for shows in Siberia, Portugal, France, Japan, Australia, Denmark, and Sweden but we don’t know exact dates yet. You can find updated lists on the website, www.icemusic.no.

This post is also available in: French, German

The Northwest Through History

Once early European explorers realized the true size of North America, the idea of a Northwest Passage became a frozen grail of opportunity. From the 15th Century onwards the inhospitable Northwest Passage taunted explorers looking for a shorter route from Europe to Asia, swallowing many unprepared voyageurs along its path. That is until 1906 when the first voyage, led by Roald Amundsen, overcame the Arctic Archipelago’s many challenges, and successfully accomplished the passage from East to West.

This post is also available in: French, German

Amundsen, The Last Viking

By Stephen Bown, author of The Last Viking: the Life of Roald Amundsen

September 1903, after weeks sailing the Northwest Passage’s barren, ice-ravaged terrain Roald Amundsen’s ship, Gjoa struck a submerged rock in Rae Strait. A storm blew in and for two days large waves and furious winds “blew with unabated violence” against the small vessel. “On me rested every responsibility,” Amundsen recalled, “and the moment came when I had to make my choice – to abandon the Gjoa. . . or go to meet death with all souls on board.” In one final desperate effort, the men pitched great bales of cargo overboard to lighten the ship. On a large wave, the Gjoa was “lifted up high and flung bodily on to the bare rocks, bump, bump, bump – with terrific force . . .” The Gjoa, battered but free, slid off the rocks and into the choppy waters. It was not the first or the last near-disaster that Roald Amundsen and his crew of six survived while navigating the Northwest Passage between 1903-1906.

Although he is now known mostly as “that Norwegian guy who beat Scott to the South Pole,” in his era Amundsen was the most celebrated explorer of all-time and known as the Last of the Vikings. In a career spanning decades his daring and thrilling escapades, including surviving several airplane crashes and being mauled by a polar bear, pushed the frontiers of geographic knowledge and entertained millions.

“The moment came when I had to make my choice – to abandon the Gjoa or meet death with all souls on board” – Amundsen


Now consider that Amundsen did all of this a century ago, when the arctic regions were Terra Incognita. There were no local guides, no reliable communication, and no accessible emergency resupply outposts. The explorers were further challenged by primitive food preservation techniques and less advanced fabrics and clothing designs. By today’s standards the Polar Regions were inconceivably remote and dangerous.

Although for Amundsen, the true treasure of the Northwest Passage was the knowledge and technology of the local people and he spent many weeks in all seasons learning from the Netsilik visitors. The Inuit had knowledge that he knew he would need: hunting and food preparation, dog and sled handling, snow house construction, clothing design, and navigation techniques. Amundsen’s open-mindedness toward different peoples and new ideas contributed in no small measure to his ultimate success in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

“In his era Amundsen was the most celebrated explorer of all-time”

He accepted their culture on its own terms, without romanticizing the people themselves or their way of life, and he viewed them as cultural equals. “I must state as my firm conviction that the . . . Eskimo living absolutely isolated from civilization, are undoubtedly the happiest, healthiest, most honourable and most contented among them . . . My sincerest wish for our friends the Nechilli Eskimo is, that civilization may never find them.”

An enigmatic man, Amundsen succeeded because he was different from most other explorers of his era – he was irreverent, mocking of standard ideas, willing to learn from anyone, and a big dreamer. He was always looking to the future, refining and altering his techniques and technology over time. He moved from sailing ships to skis and dog sleds, from biplanes, to a dirigible, constantly reinvented himself, like an artist changing mediums.

“For Amundsen, the true treasure of the Northwest Passage was the knowledge and technology of the local Inuit”

He was a charming eccentric with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a natural storyteller. “I tried to work up a little poetry,” he wrote as he skied toward the South Pole, “the ever restless spirit of man, the mysterious, awe inspiring wilderness of ice – but it was no good; I suppose it was too early in the morning.” According to Ellsworth, who joined him on two polar adventures, Amundsen inherited “a heroic physical appetite that matched the strength of his restless spirit.” He seemed to thrive on a monotonous diet of pemmican and oat biscuits, but could eat almost anything and was never averse to hunting unfamiliar animals such as dolphins, seals and penguins, which he proclaimed tasted “not unlike beef.” He even ate his own sled dogs once. Never a heavy drinker, Amundsen nevertheless poured himself a glass of aquavit or other liquor at precisely 5pm every evening.

Amundsen should be remembered as one of the greatest technical explorers of all time. His expedition style, a rational and unromantic approach, proved successful where others had failed, in the harshest, most unforgiving places on earth where a single small mistake could result in failure or death. Amundsen’s military style execution, delivered with gusto and flamboyant self-promotion, changed forever the way the geographical world would be perceived and future expeditions planned.


This post is also available in: French, German

Appreciating Icebergs Map it

By Richard Tegnér, Swedish architect and father of two daughters. After sailing a lengthy stretch of open water Richard and his companions on the 9.5 meter sailboat, DAX, finally reach Greenland: the first stop of their Northwest Passage voyage.

July 22 - Disko Bay, Greenland

My shift from 04:00 – 08:00 has been full of icebergs and after hours on the waves it is difficult to differentiate between white caps and icebergs. Going through the ice fields is not scary but exciting and very beautiful. The shapes of the ice remind me of staring up to a clouds; sometimes I see alpine peaks, ships, and foam cars. It can be anything imaginable. Some seem to be resting completely still while others move violently against the waves. We are constantly concerned with the possibility of hitting an iceberg or small growler.

This post is also available in: French, German

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