Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

Voyage to Ungava 13 – When success means turning for home

How quickly the weather can change in Labrador – note the blue sky

Success, it seems, can come in many different forms. So perhaps I am not turning logic completely on its head when I consider turning back from my voyage north in Labrador this summer as at least a partial success.  Knowing WHEN to back down, when to withdraw  – and not just blindly pushing ahead no matter the problems and fears is, in my estimation, an essential part of good seamanship and maturity. Call this a failure of nerve, or a recognition that the odds have tipped against you. Either way, there can come a moment, and perhaps many of them, when one needs to realistically re-assess a situation and be willing to change plans. Not doing so has led to many tragedies that could have been avoided.

Either way, it’s a painful experience to head away from one’s goal. In my case, to be honest, disappointment was mixed with a great deal of relief.

Shortly before sunrise in Cartwright

The turnaround for me – literally – came on a spectacularly clear and clear Sunday morning as I was motoring north from the small community of Cartwright, about 300 miles up the coast of Labrador. Perhaps if the day had not been quite so serene then the sound of something rubbing/grinding in the engine room would not have seemed so loud, nor to be increasing in intensity.

This was not the first problem on the voyage north from Newfoundland this summer. I’d installed a new transmission in the boat myself and installed four new engine mounts and aligned the engine myself, having never done any of these jobs before. So I was unsure exactly how well I’d actually done any of them.

Also, I’d been unable to change the packing in the stuffing box (where the prop shaft goes out through the hull to the propeller) because of a rush to re-launch the boat in late May.  This job had not been done for many years, and should be done at least every two years. This was yet another case of not wanting to tackle another new mechanical job and of hoping, like many sailors, that all would be well. Mea culpa. The result was a constant rubbing noise that was gradually getting louder.

Just a mile after leaving St. Anthony harbour, on my first day into the Atlantic this summer, there was a tremendous BANG from the engine room/under the boat. At the time I thought maybe something on the transmission (I’d just installed) had failed. But I could find nothing wrong. So I presumed we’d hit something in the water and pressed on. But the memory of that bang and the unseen damage it might have done lingered in my mind. I was never quite sure if everything was okay or about to fail. In addition to the constant rubbing sound, a new, sudden banging sound had started. It came only occasionally but was so loud that I immediately had to go out of gear; clearly not a good situation if motoring through a narrow channel. I investigated but was unable to discover the cause. It always went away when I went back into gear.

Salvaged 2×4 makes a temporary tiller to steer the boat

As I’ve written in a previous post (Voyage to Ungava 12), the tiller broke while at sea one gloriously sunny, windy and cold day. No big deal. But repairs added a week’s delay and  something to my unease. Various other mechanical problems arose; each of them minor in itself, but the cumulative effect was a growing sense of disquiet and never being able to relax. Clearly I was relying too much on the engine – Kuan Yin is a sailboat after all. However, along such a foggy and rocky coastline as Labrador, with sudden gales and summer storms, I judge it essential to have a reliable motor. To me, that means testing every component and teasing out all the problems, from engine,  transmission, connector, prop shaft, stuffing box to propeller, until one can be fairly sure the motor propulsion is going to work when needed.  It may not – and that would have to be dealt with at the time – but to go into a vast, remote region knowing the mechanical system is not working right and with no local repairs available, seems to me to be asking for real trouble.

Added to these rational concerns, was my sense of DREAD whenever the weather turned nasty. True, you don’t need to leave an anchorage if the weather is awful in the morning. But sailing into Cartwright with a forecast of a “blow” approaching from the north-east, I can still see, in my mind’s eye, a wall of the fog, like thick grey smoke, engulfing all the islands, rocks, and reefs behind me as conditions deteriorated. I kept looking back, shivering and just hoping we’d make it to Cartwright before being overtaken by the wind, rain and fog.  (As it was, I was tying up in the harbour as the rain began.)

Maybe if I’d been sailing with a companion we could have talked our way out of these debilitating fears. But I was alone, by choice, so they swirled around in my mind and body (as stress) even while I enjoyed meeting people in Cartwright and waited for the bad weather to clear.

North of Cartwright there are no facilities. In the 700 miles north to Cape Chidley, there are just four communities, each with a few hundred people only, no haulout or repair facilities and any parts would have to be airlifted or shipped in. As I was going north on that gloriously sunny and calm day, all these thoughts and anxieties were parading through my mind and body.

“What am I doing here?” is a question people ask themselves in a great many situations. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone What I wanted to avoid at all costs was to get myself and Kuan Yin into any kind of catastrophic situation . As I write this, many weeks later, news has just reached me that a steel yacht has gone on the rocks near Cartwright in 60 knot winds and is reported to be a total wreck. No word on the people aboard her.

I was abeam Horse Chops Island when I decided to turn around and head south. Though very disappointed (after years of preparations and spending a lot of money) I was sure, given my circumstances, that it was the right decision. Confirmation came a few hours later when I was motoring into strong headwinds through a narrow channel.  There were rocks and shoals everywhere, leaving no room to turn back. The rubbing /grinding from the prop shaft was loud, even over the sound of the wind in the rigging. The boat speed slipped slowly down and down until we were barely making headway.  I expected to lose all engine power any moment. How fast could I run forward and drop the anchor?  Or would I be able to unfurl some headsail and bear off into a small bay (without knowing if the water there was deep enough)?

There was nothing to do but keep going, despite the fear, and be prepared to deal with whatever might happen. Frankly, I was so nervous all I could do was hang on and start chanting!

Safely at anchor shortly after turning south

Eventually we made it through the channel and, a few miles later, into an anchorage.  A few days later when I tried to leave, the loud banging started as soon as I put the motor in gear. That was when I discovered a potentially catastrophic oil leak – 2 out of 5 litres were in the bilge!  In the end, the source proved to be a minor drip that was soon repaired.  By then I was tied up once more in Cartwright harbour, after being towed back by a local CoastGuard Auxiliary vessel.

I was ready to give up completely – sell the boat and fly far, far away. Clearly it was time to get off the boat for a while and to relax.

When all seemed dark, this beautiful sunset

Clearly, I wasn’t the only person having problems in Cartwright. We eventually re-floated this motorboat


7 comments on “Voyage to Ungava 13 – When success means turning for home

  1. Hans
    October 25, 2012

    Hi Dennison,
    i’m relieved to finally hear that you are safe, the tracking device didn’t seem to work.
    Funny, i just finished reading your book about the India adventure, which deeply impressed me.
    It seems to me that you had a bit more than a normal share of mechanical problems on your voyage, i was far more fortunate on my boat travels so far. And still i turned back south in 2011, when i originally wanted to follow Greenland’s west coast as far as Disko Bay. But having reached Nuuk i experienced the same mixed feelings as you describe them. Being always overalert and feeling a certain hostility in an otherwise magnificent nature, constantly worrying about the boat, her systems, her safety at anchor and a growing sense of being alone in the wilderness and even more so in abandoned villages eventually wore me down or rather slowly ate away at my confidence. So i took the same decision as you and headed back south. Where i met you in Englee/NFL. Just as you i’m sure that it was the right decision and i do not regret it even after a year has passed. And also just as you i came to the conclusion that these waters like Greenland and Labrador are not really suited for singlehanders. It probably is quite a different story when you have a cheerful companion who reminds you of what a fantastic adventure you are in. Then the question of “What am i doing here ?” just wouldn’t appear. Of course it should be a companion with some knowledge and power of judgement. Such a person isn’t easy to find, but i haven’t given up yet. If you’re still dreaming about the Ungava-trip, do give it another try, but with a companion. I wish you a relaxing winter and congratulations on a wise decision !
    Hans of SV Snowball


  2. Howard Peer
    November 22, 2012

    I just found this post of yours. Good to hear all is well. I guess you, Hans, and I are three of a kind. As you know I turned back at Battle Harbor after making my way there from Delaware and having my own mechanical issues. You and Hans both express better than I the feelings and emotions that we all shared. On this trip I often thought of Hans last summer when I asked him why he turned back and he simply said ” too much ice, don’t go alone”. (Hans, we met in Lewisporte where we have our other boat, the steel cutter Chouette.)

    I finished my trip and settled for a circumnavigation of Newfoundland, meeting wonderful folks along the way. I spent about a week in St Pierre and got caught up on some gourmet food. My Wife met me in Halifax and helped bring the boat back to Delaware.

    Now I have to plan my next adventure, surely it will involve a warmer clime somewhere.

    What are your future plans?


  3. Lionel Cormier
    December 4, 2012

    Surely a wise decision.Read a lot lately on the sinking of the Bounty.Which lead me to After the Storm by John Rousmanière.



  4. Horatio Marteleira
    December 5, 2012

    Hello Dennison,

    As they say, true courage is making the right decision in the face of adversity, having the courage to see a situation for what it really is.
    I have a sailboat (also from Canada) crossed an ocean and all that stuff but, on reading this post, what really got me thinking was, “I wish I’d had the courage to back down from endeavours that weren’t meant to be or, even more important, the courage to pursue what I was destined for.”
    Good luck on your next project.
    Horatio Marteleira


  5. Michele Pippen
    December 8, 2012

    Hi Dennison – usually I get an auto post in my emails as to adventures and log updates – somehow nothing came and I was thinking no news is good news. You’re so often in my thoughts. I just skimmed your log entry and realize that the tables turned – you certainly made the most wise decision, excellent seamanship! Many are driven on by ego and all the wrong reasons – thank goodness you’re so grounded!
    Look forward to hearing all about it and where you are right now – also to some morning cups of tea with fruit cake! Warmest to you, Michele


  6. Lionel Cormier
    December 11, 2012

    Around this time sailboat Taravana (see website) was lost at the dock in Cartwright harbour.104 knt winds.


  7. Brian Lumley
    July 15, 2013


    A smart man knows when to cut his losses and back out. What part of the world are you in now?



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This entry was posted on October 17, 2012 by in Kuan Yin, Labrador, Sailing, Voyages.
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