Crossing the Atlantic on a Elling E6

Crossing the Atlantic on a Elling E6

Photos by Nakomis Nelson

Our 4,200-nautical-mile North Atlantic odyssey included becoming the first Elling E6 to cross the Atlantic on her own bottom.

It was the sort of darkness where it’s hard to discern the boundary between ocean and sky. The fog didn’t help. It condensed on everything, requiring the intermittent hum of the wipers, a metronome for monotony.

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Daylight was coming, but so was the ice. We had seen a few larger icebergs on the radar. Just a day earlier, the area we were now traversing appeared to be impassable on the Danish ice charts. Sea ice from farther north up the Greenland coast was breaking apart and being sucked south in near-solid floes by the East Greenland Current.

We had departed Iceland two days back, making use of a narrow weather window in July between Greenland and Iceland. The weeklong stretch of fog and cloud cover had made all the recent satellite photos useless, and we were banking on a dying northerly gale to have opened up the sea ice near the east entrance to Prince Christian Sound, an interconnected fjord system that forms an inland passage across the bottom of Greenland. If we couldn’t find a way through, we’d be forced to travel an extra 250 nautical miles to round Cape Farewell on the bottom of Greenland, a place where fog, ice, currents and gales often create the world’s most dangerous patches of ocean.

As I scanned the radar and FLIR thermal imaging on the multifunction display, my heart skipped a beat—or maybe three. I reached for the throttle, threw it into reverse to stop motion, and then neutral for fear of ice jamming between the hull and propeller blades. Bright white swirls filled the FLIR display, which didn’t have the range of our radar, but it could spot ice, giving us ample time to alter course. It proved its worth many times over on our 4,200-nautical-mile odyssey across the North Atlantic and through some of the most remote waters on Earth.

Choosing a Vessel

The list of powerboats under 70 feet that are good fits for high-latitude adventure cruising is small, and it’s even smaller when you also want the boat to serve as a weekender in her home waters of Maine. In November 2022, we settled on an Elling E6. It’s a 65-foot, semi-displacement, self-righting yacht with a transom garage for a jet tender; a spare engine with its own shaft and prop; the ability to cruise at 16-plus knots if needed; and a Kevlar-reinforced hull. Plus, the yard was willing to work with us on a laundry list of modifications for our summer 2023 departure to the Arctic.

We wanted to bring the boat home across the Atlantic to Maine on its own bottom, and we hoped to do so through Arctic waters following the Viking route, via Iceland and Greenland after leaving the manufacturing facility in Holland. Services on this route are sparse at best, and a high degree of self-sufficiency is crucial. Thus, one of the major changes we requested was removing two TV satellite domes and designing a new electronics mast for crucial gear, including the Starlink satellite dish, FLIR thermal camera and Perko Solar Ray searchlight. We also added a second windlass (an electric model, to accompany the hydraulic one), a watermaker and a fuel-polishing system. I oversaw the process as captain, which meant numerous trips through the fall and winter to the Netherlands.

A few days before our departure, the Elling yard added bookshelves in the salon, and on July 3, we christened Archimedes and lowered her from the Travelift into the Mass River, where we’d connect to the Rhine River and cruise to the North Sea.

The Journey Begins

After a celebratory dinner about 20 minutes from the shipyard in the walled city of Heusden, we awoke the next morning and departed for the North Sea via Rotterdam. The miles and hours ticked along, and our attention became more focused on a developing low-pressure system in the English Channel. Instead of enjoying a leisurely night in The Hague, we set off into the gathering darkness ahead of what would become the strongest summer gale on record in the Netherlands. I pointed our bow toward Lowestoft, England, and used all 900 horses of our Volvo D-13 to make short work of the 100 or so nautical miles, cruising at a steady 15 to 16 knots. In the wee hours as we approached Lowestoft, we were flanked by angry breakers, lashing rain and gale force winds. We had made the right call.

Another quick trip brought us up the U.K.’s eastern coast to the River Tyne, where we tucked in for what would be a predawn departure, to make 250 nautical miles to the Orkney Islands before losing daylight. The cruising speed of the Elling was a real advantage, and we made landfall just as the near solstice sun set. On our second day in the Orkney Islands, while on a long walk to the revered whiskey distillery at Scapa, I proposed to my partner, Haley, who has a good measure of Scottish blood in her veins. We celebrated and then, the next day, departed for the Faroe Islands, starting another long day that would put us into the open ocean for the first time.

Archimedes travels under the cliffs off Vágar in the Faroes.

The Faroe Islands

The Faroes are a remarkable archipelago with dramatic cliffs and waterfalls set amid emerald-green mountains and pastures that fall hundreds of feet into storm-tossed seas. The tides are not too significant, but the currents are, running multiple knots in both directions. They create whirlpools and standing waves that are not to be underestimated.

Our landfall was at Tórshavn, the capital. It’s a modern little city stuck between two steep hills, the pressure of modern European influences and the old Norse ways of life. We enjoyed the near-endless daylight, but I imagined how different things must be when the winter gales come knocking and the sun barely pokes above the horizon.

Tórshavn is also home to one of the best art museums I have ever been fortunate enough to visit. It’s not overly large, but it’s wonderfully curated with Faroes art, a real testament to the strength and vibrancy of the local culture. After a few rainy days of nice meals and stretching our legs on the paved city streets, we were still waiting for a weather window to cross to Iceland, so we explored a little more by boat.

With a stiff northerly wind, the run to the island of Vágar was well-protected, and we found a concrete wharf to lay alongside in the harbor of Miðvágur. The hike to Sørvágsvatn Lake was beautiful. Sheep rambled about the grassy ground cover around the crescent-moon-shaped lake. Here and there, tufts of wool rolled around like tumbleweeds, blown by winds having crossed thousands of miles of open ocean before bumping into this tiny archipelago. Further on, oceanside cliffs revealed a landscape seemingly untouched by human hands.

Back in Tórshavn, we arranged for diesel to be delivered, topped off our freshwater tanks and had our last bites of shore food before the nearly 400-mile run to Iceland.

Heading to Iceland

Our original plan had been to run north of Iceland, but, like many of our weather windows on this trip, the one we were departing into was small. It would be better to get into the lee of Iceland as quickly as possible, rather than fighting our way north into a developing northerly. So, we aimed to seek shelter below Iceland and run west to Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago off its southwest coast.

Our last view of the Faroes was the light tower at Mykines, the island chain’s westernmost point. Despite its beauty, we became immediately preoccupied by the approaching line of standing waves curling across our path and then vanishing toward the horizon in both directions. Once through the steep, short tide rips, an uncomfortable 6- to 8-foot ocean swell took precedence. Fortunately, the winds were dissipating, and we figured correctly that the seas would lay down as the night wore on.

We settled on a cruise speed of 12 knots for this crossing, a 32-hour nonstop voyage. The Elling proved herself every bit a sea boat, sliding comfortably down the backs of waves. Even the autopilot was adept at holding a course in confused conditions­—a real testament to Elling and the Dutch design firm Vripack, which drew her hull. Her optional Seakeeper gyrostabilizer also helped to keep the crew comfortable.

Still miles from Vestmannaeyjar, a pod of pilot whales popped up alongside us. Not long after that, while staring off toward the horizon, we realized that above the clouds, we were actually seeing the mountains and glaciers that formed Iceland’s southern ice cap. Now, 1,000 nautical miles into our trip, this landfall gave the crew a collective feeling of accomplishment. The boat and crew had been challenged, and together we were now watching giant ice-capped mountains build into the sky off our starboard bow.

Our time in Iceland was brief, but special. Sadly, work constraints forced the yacht’s owners and their son to return to the United States, with Greenland just one weather window away. Tears were shed and hugs were exchanged as we scrambled to get a third crewman. A longtime friend and past shipmate agreed to join us, all as we made final preparations: fuel, sundries and one last trip to the thermal lagoon. I spent endless hours watching trends in ice charts and weather models. The ice charts weren’t promising, but they were trending in the right direction.

Land of the Midnight Sun

We turned our bow westward, and, for the first time since leaving the Netherlands, our course had an element of south in it. Our wishes had come true, the pack ice had broken, and we had a clear path to the eastern entrance of Prince Christian Sound. Hand-steering Archimedes through the floe, we felt a huge degree of relief knowing we would make it into the protection of the sound before nightfall.

Sliding into an old concrete wharf at an abandoned weather station, we made fast lines to rusting pins and bollards from long ago. The setting sun shone through the petals of arctic flowers, and the decaying creations of humanity told stories of days past. Once secure, we poured a little Scapa whiskey into our glasses, added ice from the sea, and clinked with a tear and a smile. Greenland held us softly in her arms. Apart from the background worry of an errant curious polar bear knocking in the night, we settled into our beds.

Soon after, the shining links of our stainless-steel anchor chain rattled over the bow roller and slipped into the gin-clear water of Aappilattoq’s harbor. This tiny village is inaccessible by land, tucked into a bight at the bottom of a mountain at a bend in the sound, and the intersection of two fjords that connect two seas at the bottom of the landmass. Small houses cling to the ledges and rocky ground, often held in place with cables, bolts and chains.

We were warmly welcomed as visitors. At the dock, a skiff pulled in with two men, two fish and a seal. Up a dirt path, an old man watched a group of kids kick a battered soccer ball. Nearer to the water, a small fish plant gave reason to the village’s existence. Between the houses, a well-maintained church stood guard over the village and a small cemetery. Here, diesel is the lifeblood. It runs the generators, the lights in the fish packing plant, the cash register at the government-subsidized store.

Back in Prince Christian Sound, we pressed on eastward to Nanortalik, a fishing village that is also disconnected by land from the rest of Greenland. Nanortalik is home to a lovely museum (the best we found in Greenland), and provisions and diesel were available. Dock space existed, but was designed for commercial vessels, a good place for adequate fenders.

After a day of sun and a day of fog, we were ready to venture on. From the beginning of the route-planning, I had been captivated by Unartoq, a small, uninhabited island with a series of hot springs once used by Viking settlers. The pools are about 3 feet deep with sand bottoms and stone walls. Water bubbles come from deep underground, warmed not by volcanic heat, but instead by the friction from layers of Earth’s crust rubbing together.

The approach is a combination of tricky and straightforward. My best advice for navigating Greenland is to use caution, always. With not many soundings and charts, one needs to keep a sharp eye on the depth sounder and a lookout for places where the sea surface looks disturbed. If in any doubt, go slow.

We poked our way into a little bight on the northwest shore of the island. A shoal protected our anchorage, diverting the larger icebergs north by the prevailing southerlies into the fjord. A beautiful, crescent sand beach hooked seaward, with sea-strewn boulders piled high. It was a nice place to walk barefoot. We swam off the stern of the boat with icebergs and mountains as a backdrop.

The loom of a large, gray warship pierced the fog skyward. We later learned that its mission was reconnaissance: charting the depths, finding the hazards. New charts will follow with ledges and shoals marked, perhaps making this land more accessible to other intrepid voyagers.

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This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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