I have three words for you today, boys and girls. Wind. Chill. Factor. Put them together and what do you get? You get Lukey freezing his little ass off in the middle of @#%#$% nowhere.
We arrived at the anchorage off the old meteorological station on the north coast of Jan Mayen around 10am. The landing area is a black-sand beach that rises steeply out of deep water. It lies at the base of the Beerenberg volcano which, upon our arrival, was hidden in the clouds. And that’s when the first real adventuring of this summer of adventure sailing took place.
The forecast called for north winds around 10 knots. When we arrived, the wind was north around 15 knots and rising. By the time the climbers had gathered their gear and we bus drivers were ready to shuttle them to the beach, the seas were rising too.
Boogie was the first into the dinghy, and with the way it was getting bounced around by the waves, it was easy to see that he was tense…which made Marlies nervous, too.
I was next. I donned a surplus immersion suit — an orange Gumby suit of thick neoprene that is used in emergencies by oil-rig workers, Alaska fisherman and others who work on low-temperature ocean waters. The suit keeps you dry and warm, and also adds flotation, all of which is supposed to save your life if the shit hits the fan in the Gulf of Alaska or, say, the Norwegian Sea.
By now, Polar Bear was rising and falling in semi-steady rhythm on the short, steep waves driven by the wind. The dinghy, tied along the starboard side, was bouncing around at the end of its painter line before every little ripple, gust and wave like a kid with A.D.D. having an epilectic fit. Getting into the dinghy meant timing a jump from the railing of Polar Bear down into the dinghy just right.
In truth, it wasn’t as hard as it sounds but it was still nerve-wracking. The cold water and roiling seas meant a steep price for any misstep, regardless of the immersion suit.
I timed my leap and fell a few feet to land with a thud in the bottom of the inflatable. Then Boogie and I prepared for our first shuttle run to Jan Mayen. First up: three climbers whose seasickness had returned in the hour that we’d been at anchor in the ever-building waves: winds were now in the high teens with wave height increasing by the minute.
Not surprisingly, Jarl was among the three who joined Boogie and me in the dinghy in the first run for the beach. The trick in landing on the black sand was to time our approach so we could ride in at speed on one of the lesser waves. The problem was that we didn’t know how far out deep water extended and thus, how long we could run the engine to provide propulsion.
With that in mind, Boogie killed the engine just outside the impact zone, the spot where the waves were breaking onto the beach. First miscalculation. I was in the bow and immediately started paddling toward shore. The dinghy rode in on a wave and I jumped over the side, expecting to find the bottom quickly. Second miscalculation: the water was almost chest deep. And right behind the wave that was big enough to push us to shore were three others in a set. Third miscalculation.
The dinghy got swamped by the second wave and the guys all floundered out as though they’d been electrocuted. The truth was: the immersion suits did keep you dry — all except your feet, which were soaked and, well, immersed in cold water. Wool socks were a good idea; barefoot would have been better as the neoprene was insulation enough. Warm? No. But not terribly cold either. My feet have been colder surfing in Southern California in the wintertime.
Boogie and I grabbed the dinghy and pulled it as far up the beach as we could — but not enough before the third wave completely filled the boat. The flotation provided by that third wave enabled us to pull the boat largely out of reach of the remaining, lesser waves and up onto the black-sand beach — really: black gravel since it was ground-up lava, a clear reminder of the volcanic origins of the island; the other reminder, the volcano looming above us, was out of sight, still hidden in the clouds.
Three sickies safely if not stylishly deposited on the island, Boogie and I bailed the boat as best we could with only two paddles and started dragging the waterlogged beast back toward the surfline. Despite our efforts, two more waves filled the boat before we could get clear of the breakers, at which point I paddled like mad until Boogie could get the engine going.
On our way back to Polar Bear, we sat, submerged to our waists in the now-filled inflatable dinghy. What else could we do? And what was the big deal? Yeah, it was a stupid way to do things — we should have landed on the south side of the island where seas were calm, but then the clients would have had to hoof their gear seven miles to this starting point of their climb.
And yeah, it wasn’t actually the most comfortable of experiences. But hey, we’d come this far north for adventure…and now we’d gotten it: we were at 71 degrees north latitude sitting in an inflatable dinghy in waist-deep water that was probably in the low 40s to high 30s, the air temperature was an even 32 Farenheit with wind-chill factors in the teens, the seas were building by the minute, and we were off-loading mountain climbers who were en route to scale a volcano 500-plus miles from the nearest continent. To prove the point, the three other boats present when we arrived departed the anchorage while we were running our shuttles, indicating that conditions were deteriorating — but that only upped the challenge, right?
We rode back to the mother ship, got some buckets and bailed the inflatable out, and then we took on several bags and one passenger. This time, our arrival on the beach was better timed. Knowing the depths involved, Boogie could keep the engine going longer and I knew when to leap for the beach and start pulling. Follow-up waves still dumped some water in the boat, but not nearly as much. And a couple of waves still dumped more water in the boat on the way out, but again, not as much. And we had remembered to bring the buckets with us, so on the way out I bailed while Boogie drove. The launch was mostly cleared by the time we arrived at Polar Bear.
Two more trips to the beach that got better and better — the landings in particular were timed well — and we had put the entire climbing party and their pile of equipment ashore. Mission completed, we reversed the earlier comedy of dinghy-and-mother ship and got the inflatable back on the davits at the stern of the vessel. We crawled out of our monkey suits, surprised to find things still mostly dry: soaked with seawater from the knees down, wet with sweat from the waist up, and only a little cold. Once on deck and out of the neoprene, however, the wind-chill factor took over, and it was a race below to get into warm clothes and get the boat’s heater fired up. A late lunch of eggs, bacon and toast completed the process of regaining normal body temperature.
That was earlier today. We’re now motoring southeast along the north coast of Jan Mayen, the anchorage having become untenable. The other boats had been right; we saw two of the three in a more protected spot halfway down this coast a short while ago. We’re headed for the south coast, over near the base that passes for a settlement here. The base commander told Boogie that there was no swell in the bay there so we’ll go hole up there for a couple of days, until the climbers finish what they’re doing, and then go retrieve the lot wherever it’s safest. In the meantime, Boogie, Marlies and I will clean and repair what needs fixing on Polar Bear, and I’d also like to get back to where we put the climbers ashore: while we were doing our shuttles, several antennas appeared on the bluff by the defunct met station. The rumors of a ham-radio expedition were apparently true and, as I wrote earlier, being the nerd (and licensed amateur-radio operator) that I am, I’d love to check out what they’re doing, help out however I may and maybe even operate a radio or two for a bit.