August 4, 2014
On our final approach to Greenland, the sea was calmer than we could ever have imagined – it was like being on a giant lake. As we approached the entrance to the town of Sisimiut, we encountered the National Geographic Explorer, a small adventure-cruise ship. It seemed to be circling around so we contacted the captain by radio and learned that they were watching some humpback whales. As they moved on, we moved closer and were treated to a very nice whale show. We also saw plentiful seals poking their heads up and icebergs dotted the horizon. It was a true National Geographic moment!
Despite its beauty, Greenland is not visited by tons of cruising yachts, so the cruising guides are at best sketchy. As we headed into Sisimiut, we slowly cruised around several potential anchoring sites, but had great difficulty finding a suitable spot. The shores drops off very quickly, often resulting in depths of 40-50 meters (120-150 ft) just off the shore – too deep for us to anchor. Shallower waters are often too close to shore to be comfortable. We finally found a spot where we were able to drop our anchor in 20 meters (60 feet) and get a reasonable hold, but not one that inspired great confidence if the wind were to kick up, as it was forecasted to do. Migration launched their tender and we went ashore for a bit of exploration.
It was immediately clear that we were in a different world. The inner harbor was crowded with small boats and as we secured the tender and made our way up the dock, our senses were overwhelmed with the sights and smells of fresh seal carcasses. Greenland’s population of 50,000 is made up mostly of people born in Greenland – Inuits – who still rely heavily on hunting seals and whales. Unlike the hunting that occurred Canada in the 1980’s, where baby seals were clubbed to death for their fur, Greenlanders hunt only for subsistence, using all parts of the animals they take. The seal and whale population here is plentiful, much healthier than say, the cod fish population in northern Canada or the shellfish population on the east coast. Seals here are hunted with rifles much the way Americans hunt deer, though often with silencers on.
Sisimiut, Greenland’s second largest town, has a population of 6000 and has two large grocery stores, a bakery, post office, museum, and some good hiking. The towns in Greenland are not connected by roads – there are local roads only – but transportation between towns is by air, ferry, dogsled, or snowmobile. Given this, we were surprised at the number of cars in town – there were many nice, new models, including many SUVs. Unlike in Labrador, where there was quite a variety of dogs, in Greenland the only dogs permitted are sled dogs. These dogs are not pets – they are working dogs, bred to pull sleds and happiest in the winter months when they are doing so. We saw many sled dogs, chained in their owners yards or kept in pens outside of town. They are taking the summer off, quite content to rest and watch the world pass by until the winter arrives.
Once ashore, we learned that we could tie up to the large commercial dock, so we moved both boats the following morning, so that we were much more secure for the coming weather. These commercial docks are quite rough – not like cushy marina slips. They are huge, imposing structures, often presenting quite a challenge to get on and off your boat once you are tied up to them. With tidal ranges of 10 feet or more, sometimes the dock is way above you and sometimes far below!
Sisimiut is a very pretty town, with buildings in good repair and painted in bright, vibrant colors. We visited the local butcher shop, where we procured small portions of reindeer and whale meat plus some musk ox meat from the local grocery store. We did not get any seal meat because it is much more difficult to cook. Chef Bradley took charge of cooking the meats, while Marci prepared some shrimp and I contributed a fresh salad. We all agreed – the reindeer was the best, with the whale meat a close second and much better than we had thought it would be. I thought it tasted more like beef than fish, but Bradley thought that while it looked like beef and had a beefy texture, it had a very subtle but pleasant fish taste. The musk ox was fine too, though indistinguishable from beef.
The locals are quite curious, though hesitant to engage in conversation. The primary languages here are Danish and Greenlandic, and few people speak fluent English, though many know enough to get by. A steady stream of people walked or drove to the dock to look at the boats and would smile and wave at us, but conversation was minimal. There were a few locals who were very helpful though. One couple took Bradley on a driving tour, pointing out to him the best local restaurant, though we ultimately did not get a chance visit it on this visit. A local boat captain went over local charts and provided us with some wonderful guidance based on his years of driving up and down the coast –extremely valuable help in these less than well-traveled waters. Another fellow took us to his office to allow us to download weather information on his internet connection, saving us both time and money as local internet access is expensive and slow. And the local shrimp boat asked “do you like shrimp”? This boat catches small Greenlandic shrimp and processes them onboard – they are accumulated in a holding tank before being cooked whole and frozen. The had several 1-pound boxes that were torn and could not be sold, so we were given one and Migration got another. Someone it seem that the further we travel, the fuller our freezers are getting!
Our cruising guide said that the local harbormaster can “assist you with clearing in”. When arriving at your first port in a foreign country, it is necessary to check in with customs and immigration, who then grant you permission to enter the country. We found the local harbormaster, who was a bit unclear about what needed to be done. She advised us to come back in an hour after she had time to speak to the office in Nuuk, the capital. We went on to the Post Office to buy local phone and internet cards and were helped by a very nice woman there. Marci and I set off to shop while Bradley and George went back to the harbormaster’s office. It seems that three government employees had been summoned to be taken aboard our boat for an inspection. One of these was the woman who worked at the post office! They boarded the tender with Bradley and George and conducted an inspection of both boats, ensuring that we had no illegal drugs, excessive alcohol, firearms, or other items of concern. They were a bit concerned about the thyme and rosemary they found in the freezer and some of the personal prescription medication we carry, but were finally convinced it was only herbs and proper medicine respectively! After joining us for a cup of tea, we gained official permission to visit Greenland.
Our next destination was Aasiaat, a trip of 123 miles. It was another early morning departure at 3:30am, putting us into Aasiaat at 8:30pm after a 17.5 hour cruise in mostly settled seas and a 10-20 knot breeze from behind us. We made great time because the West Greenland current was also pushing us along. As we approached Sisimiut we decided there was a lovely bay on the NW coast of Iginarfik, just outside town, that we could anchor in rather than head into the commercial docks. Unfortunately we were not successful as the depth was 60 meters seemingly right up to the shore line and there was not room for both boats anyway, So we ended up having to go to the commercial dock in Aasiaat, which come Saturday evening was a blessing. Fortunately the days are very long here with only a couple hours of darkish twilight, so except when there is fog (which is often!) there is plentiful daylight.
As we approached the commercial dock, there was a crowd of maybe 20 people watching. None of them seemed familiar with boats, however, so they did not offer any help with docking lines. Just as we pulled close, an SUV sped onto the dock and a very helpful man appeared, showing us where to go and grabbing some of our lines. He had a beer in one hand and a big grin as he proudly announced how drunk he was! It was, after all, a Friday night! Soon Migration was in place behind us and we breathed a sigh of relief as we were secure again.
The weather was not great during our stay with rains and wind kicking up. We managed a nice walk around town to explore between rain storms, finding the local grocery stores, meeting some sled dog puppies (very cute), and meandering through neighborhoods checking out the challenges of construction in this rocky and frigid terrain. With winds and rain expected to intensify on Saturday, we planned a movie afternoon aboard Migration. We brought the popcorn and enjoyed “The Internship” and “Jobs”, then decided to stay for a quick dinner. The winds continued to build, reaching over 40 knots and presenting us a real problem –how to get off of Migration and back on to Shear Madness! The winds were blowing both boats well off the docks, requiring George to fire up his engines so that he could engage his stern thruster to get us close enough to the dock to disembark. But with nobody aboard Shear Madness, someone had to get on first. That was Bradley, who managed to get the boat close enough for a jump/scramble into the cockpit. He was then able to use our electric winch at the stern to get the boat close enough for me and Matt to board. This was all with freezing cold, driving rain and strong winds – not the time to make a miss-step and end up in the near freezing water! But all’s well that ends well, and it was a great adventure.