Roger Taylor navigates his engineless 24ft Mingming II on a 4,000 mile nonstop voyage around the usually icebound waters of the Arctic
Small boat cruiser Roger Taylor shares his solo voyage into the uncharted Arctic
The breeze was by now fresh, the sea a dark indigo, and there we were, almost at the top of world, little more than 500 miles from the North Pole, sailing gaily east along 81°N.
It was a crazy concept to be running down our easting along such a line of latitude. I kept a good watch, but saw no hint of ice.
For years I had been itching to press further north and now that itch had been scratched.
In 2011 I had sailed my Corribee Mingming to 80°N to the north-west of Spitsbergen.
In 2014, in my rebuilt Achilles 24 Mingming II, we had reached 79°N to the east of Spitsbergen, before being stopped by ice.
These had both been immensely satisfying voyages.
They had shown me that it was possible for a tiny yacht, if well prepared, to reach such high latitudes without difficulty.
I had also learned a lot about the varying conditions in the Greenland and Barents Seas.
Now I had reached 81°N.
While planning the voyage two objectives had occupied my thinking.
The first was whether it would be possible to sail right round the top of the Svalbard Islands.
This would involve passing to the north of the most northerly group, the Seven Islands, in 80° 50’N.
These islands are usually icebound all year round, or until very late in the summer.
The second objective was to sail in the Queen Victoria Sea.
This is an oval-shaped sea situated to the north-west of the 191 islands that comprise Franz Josef Land.
It lies, therefore, between the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean.
Unlike the seas to the north and west of Svalbard, its waters are not warmed by the remnants of the Gulf Stream.
It is a haven for ice, which rarely clears. The charts of its waters are almost blank, as it is mostly unsounded.
I was contemplating, then, an impossible voyage.
Other priorities kept me away from the sea for three years, and that was just as well, as the ice would have made my route impassable.
In 2018 I was ready to sail again, if the ice allowed it.
I was lucky, for the ice receded much further and earlier than usual.
Every day I studied the ice charts as I made my preparations.
By the beginning of July my mind was made up: it was time to leave and see if the impossible could be made possible.
At 1415 on 2 July I left Whitehills Harbour, on Scotland’s Moray Firth, and headed north, bound straight for the north-west of Spitsbergen, a passage of about 1,200 miles.
As ever, my first objective was to get to 62°N, well clear of land, oil rigs, fishing boats and commercial traffic.
That took four days, by which time the wind had settled into the south-west, powering us north.
With just a few panels of Mingming II’s huge sail set and a soldier’s breeze on the port quarter, we were notching up runs of 90 to 100 miles noon-to-noon.
We were soon over the Arctic Circle, running on and on in weather that grew thicker and foggier as we made our northing.
The North Cape of Norway was soon a few hundred miles abeam, somewhere in the gloom to the east, then Bear Island, followed by the South Cape of Spitsbergen.
On Friday 20 July we started closing the land at Prins Karls Forland, the tall, narrow island that runs parallel with the north-west Spitsbergen coast, but could see nothing of it.
I had made landfall here in 2011, and so knew that behind the pall of mist and rain lay the most extraordinary landscape of close-packed, toothy peaks riven by endless glaciers.
We ran on north up the coast and I ate a slice of whisky fruitcake to celebrate our arrival.
Fin whale spouts fired off all around us and Brünnich’s guillemots whirred east and west.
We passed within a few miles of the northern tip of Prins Karls Forland and saw no sign of it.
The cloud cover was so thick and cloying that the cabin was dark.
I made a cup of hot bouillon to compensate.
At 0130 on the 22nd I woke to a mass of blue sky and the peaks of Albert 1 Land, Spitsbergen’s north-west arm, laid out in perfect clarity.
It was an unearthly sight: razor-sharp ridges jostling for air above fields of snow and ice.
A cruise ship passed by and I was glad I was not doing it the easy way.
At 1255 the same day we passed 80°N just a few miles from our 2011 position.
The mountains disappeared in the increasing mist astern, the wind fell away, and three fearless puffins paddled all around the boat.
I now turned to the north-east, heading for Ross Island, the most northerly rock in Western Europe.
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After a day or two of fitful winds the breeze settled into the south-east, the sky cleared to a brilliant azure, and on the afternoon of 25 July, 23 days out from Whitehills, we passed to the north of the squat doughnut that is Ross Island and its close companion just a short distance to the south, the great cathedral-like rock of Little Table Island.
It was a magical moment to look due south and see these islands, and beyond them the bigger monoliths of the Seven Islands, and beyond them the glaciers of the Nordaustlandet, Spitsbergen’s north-east arm.
By midnight on the 27 July we were due north of Victoria Island, the most westerly of the Franz Josef Land islands, and so were entering the Queen Victoria Sea.
This sea had taunted me since I had first noticed it on one of my Norwegian charts four years earlier.
Few have ever sailed in it.
It was surreal, liberating and intoxicating, therefore, to be there with my little, largely self-built boat, ploughing a wake through almost virgin water.
In the early morning of 29 July we closed the coast of Alexandra Land, one of the larger Franz Josef Islands, and I turned to the north-east to run parallel with the islands.
I made sure to keep comfortably beyond the 12-mile limit to avoid any complications with the Russians.
I was hoping, if possible, to reach Cape Fligely on Rudolph Island, the most northerly point in Eurasia.
It was not to be.
At midday on the 29 July, I took a noon position of 81° 15.3’N 46°26.3’E and at the same time realised we were being carried north-east by a current of about 2 knots.
If becalmed, we would be carried quickly towards the edge of the pack-ice.
It was too great a risk, and so I turned to the south-west to start the long journey home.
An hour or two later a massive bull walrus suddenly popped up astern with a great ‘woomph’ and stared at us in amazement before rolling back into the depths.
The wind freshened to a stiff and very cold west-north-westerly, forcing us hard onto the wind to weather Cape Mary Harmsworth, the western cape of Alexandra Land.
Over the winter I had read all the books of Franz Josef Land exploration, and so I knew that Mary Harmsworth was the wife of Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, sponsor of the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition of 1894-97.
It was odd to be close to all this Englishness in such a remote and now solidly Russian corner of the Arctic.
In uncomfortable conditions we weathered the Cape, just 18 miles off, but never saw it in the thick weather.
We sailed into the Barents Sea, from the north, which made me smile, and into a pall of fog.
We were now very close to White Island and Victoria Island – Norwegian and Russian respectively.
In 2014, I had got within 60 miles of these islands, but in that year they were still at the edge of the pack-ice, and therefore unreachable.
A headwind forced me to tack to the north-west between the two islands.
White Island is an almost totally glaciated dome, and as I approached I realised that a strange light patch in the cloud was the ice-glare of its glacier.
Beneath it I could make out a long whaleback of steely-grey ice rimmed by a pink line.
Victoria Island stayed hidden in the murk.
By now I had come to accept that, unlike my previous Arctic voyages, which had seen sunshine and clear conditions, the theme of this voyage would be thick weather and poor visibility.
We made our way south-west, revisiting the islands we had got to know in 2014: Kong Karls Land, Edge Island, Hopen and Bear Island, but only had miserly views in the misty, moisture-laden air.
Off Kong Karls Land we crossed our 2014 position in 79°N, and in doing so connected both previous voyages by means of this outrageous loop around the top.
In this way, sense was made of all three voyages.
On Tuesday, 7 August, our 36th day at sea, we took our departure from the South Cape of Bear Island and started the difficult last leg home.
We would have to run the gauntlet of the jet stream, as well as having to plug straight into the North Atlantic current.
Twenty days later, after three gales and several close encounters with large ships, we were home.
We had been at sea for 56 days and sailed close to 4,000 miles.
Apart from a few minor repairs, Mingming II was in as good a state as when we set sail.