Category: Archive

Yachtsmen to tackle Arctic challenge

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — A group of Irish adventurers are hoping to become the first yachtsmen to sail a small boat through arctic waters to the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land.

The crew, led by experienced polar sailor John Gore-Grimes, left Dublin’s Howth Harbor on Friday, July 21. They hope summer breaks in the ice cover will allow them unique access to the territory.

They run the risk of ice floes crushing the hull of their 44-foot yacht, Arctic Fern, and the menace of polar bears that hunt seals on the ice.

"To get there will be a first," Gore-Grimes said. "The ice map indicates we would not get there at the moment, but we hope there will be a unique opportunity when we reach the area in mid-August."

A 58-year-old lawyer, Gore-Grimes has previously voyaged to the Norwegian Jan Mayen Island and the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, Greenland, Iceland, Siberia, Alaska and the Antarctic Peninsula.

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He has been awarded the Royal Cruising Club’s Challenge Cup and the Cruising Club of America’s Bluewater Medal for his achievements. So far, getting to Franz Joseph Land has eluded him.

He attempted to reach it two years ago on a 4,500-mile voyage. On that occasion, he turned back about 110 miles from his destination after the yacht was trapped in ice for six days and was in danger of being crushed.

In 1989, an attempt in a 31-foot yacht also failed about 150 miles south when the way was blocked by ice.

On both occasions polar bears were a problem. They came within yards of the yacht.

In 1989, Gore-Grimes pointed a high-powered rifle at one threatening the crew but said he hadn’t the heart to pull the trigger.

Two years ago, the crew had no guns but initially managed to frighten them off by firing flares.

"When the bears got used to the flares, we left them caches of food," Gore-Grimes said. "They are masters of disguise. They cover their black noses with snow when they are hunting."

Joining Gore-Grimes on the expedition are Nicholas Healy, 56; Robert Pendleton, 35; Reggie Reville, 62, and Peter Culliton, 36.

A sixth member of the crew, Kieran Jameson, 43, has just gotten married and will meet the yacht in Lerwick, Scotland, when he returns from his Greek honeymoon.

The Swedish-built Artic Fern is specially reinforced to withstand ice. It carries state-of-the-art computer systems that allow checking of satellite photographs of the ice cover in the area.

It also carries a satellite phone, fax, e-mail and global positioning equipment. A desalinator converts sea water into drinking water.

Franz Joseph Land was discovered by an Austro-Hungarian expedition in 1873 and was annexed by the USSR in 1926.

More than 100 observation stations were subsequently established. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they are no longer staffed. The 191 islands are now inhabited only by wildlife.

"One of the main attractions of sailing in high latitudes is seeing nature untouched by man. There is something very fresh and special about it," Gore-Grimes said.

If the expedition gets into serious difficulties, arranging a rescue will present problems.

"We don’t envisage we will need to be rescued, but if the worst comes to the worst, we would be relying on a helicopter from a ship in Norwegian waters," Gore-Grimes said. "We have life suits that can withstand freezing temperatures and have plenty of food on board."

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