Ice Navigation in the North Atlantic

Bonavista is one of the oldest towns in Newfoundland and home of the Atlantic Puffin. Before spotting the vibrant  orange and yellow parrot-like beak, I quickly mistook it for a penguin diving beneath the water in search of fish. They are quite a treat to watch, they lift off from the water resembling what can only be described as a wind up toy. These amusing seabirds only inhabit the North Atlantic and therefore have been proclaimed the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador.

I spent the day soaking up the history of Newfoundland which all began in this quaint little fishing community. The North Atlantic is rich in fishing history, predominantly cod fish, which the Newfie’s refer to only as ‘fish’ and everything is the ocean as ‘everything else.’ Captain John Cabot discovered the eastern coastline of Newfoundland in 1497. He had hoped to discover a passage to Asia, however, returned to England with news of New found land that was highly overpopulated with fish. It wasn’t long before the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese came annually to fish the waters and permanent settlement of  Newfoundland was established. Cod ruled the fishing industry, it consumed the lives of Newfoundlanders and wars were fought over it. By the 1900’s, the impact of commercial fishing caused such a significant decline in fish stocks, that the atlantic commercial fishing industry nearly collapsed. The federal government had no choice but to impose a moratoria, putting an end to over 500 years of northern atlantic cod fishing and in turn, over 40,000 jobs. The practice of overfishing shaped the lives and communities of Newfoundlanders because after all, it is known as the land of cod and as the cod became scarce, so did the communities.

Over 40,000 icebergs break away form glaciers in Greenland and Baffin Island each year, the Labrador current draws them south along the east coast of Newfoundland to what is known as Iceberg Alley. Departing Boavista at dusk, we headed north and officially entered the notorious Iceberg Alley. In the Northern Atlantic, ice is the dominating navigational hazard, it is unpredictable and often unstable. What is most daunting is that only one 1/8th of the iceberg is visible above the surface. Consider dropping an ice cube into a glass of water, majority of the ice sits below the waterline. But now put that in perspective, that ice cube is on average 30m high and 204K tonnes, this is what we are up against. However, it is not necessarily the initial iceberg, known as a ‘growler’ that proves to be the hazard as they are generally picked up by the radar. The ice that breaks away from the berg, known as ‘bergy bits’ are what are most dangerous to cruising yachts as they are difficult to see and often can be mistaken for white wash. Navigation through fog and at night seriously reduces visibility and requires two crew members communicating wth each other on watch at all times. One crew at the bow keeping watch for ice and one at the helm ready to alter course in order to efficiently dodge any ice. Although the crew have experience navigating in iceberg frequented waters in the Southern latitudes, the north does not even begin to compare. With a significantly higher concentration of ice, iceberg alley officially introduced us to ice navigation in the North Atlantic.