Arctic voyager determined to finish
Posted on 08 January 2009
Written by David W. Shaw
Gary Ramos is in the midst of a solo circumnavigation around the top of the world
California native Gary Ramos is attempting to circumnavigate the globe — ordinarily not an earthshaking endeavor, except that he’s going alone around the top, circling the North Pole in a 39-foot steel cutter named Arctic Wanderer. If he makes it, he’ll possibly earn a mention in the record books as being the first solo sailor to accomplish the feat.
At least two solo sailors have circumnavigated Antarctica, and many crews have circled the Southern Ocean in racing or cruising mode. Brazilian Amyr Klink sailed around the frozen continent aboard the custom-built 50-foot aluminum sloop Paratii in a mostly non-stop passage from Brazil and back at 50 degrees south latitude. It took him 141 days to complete the 14,000-mile voyage in 1999.
Russian sailor and adventurer Fedor Konyukhov set a solo speed record in 2008 when he circumnavigated Antarctica aboard the 85-foot racer Trading Network Alye Parusa. The non-stop dash of 16,000 miles from Australia and back took 102 days.
Such romps are impossible in the largely frozen Arctic Ocean. Channels appear in the sea ice for only about two months, August and September, and the ice moves, opening and closing passages like jaws that can trap and crush boats. In spite of the difficulties, Ramos is giving it a try.
“I love the cold,” says Ramos, 56, who spoke to Soundings in the fall via satellite phone from Sisimiut, Greenland, about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. “I feel at home in the Arctic. Sailing around the North Pole just seemed like something I wanted to do.”
Sailing on a shoestring budget and skippering a boat built in 1983, which is equipped with a cantankerous 27.5-hp Yanmar, Ramos left Seward, Alaska, in May 2005, hoping to make a west-to-east transit of the fabled Northwest Passage in one season. He sailed north through the Bering Strait and turned east, crossing the Chukchi Sea along Alaska’s North Slope and the Beaufort Sea, entering Canada’s Northwest Territories.
By late August, he had navigated a little more than 1,000 miles of the 3,400-mile Northwest Passage, a maze of islands and channels in the Canadian Archipelago within the Arctic Circle. Then Murphy’s Law intervened and ultimately sent him tumbling down a bureaucratic rabbit hole.
It all began with engine trouble that stranded Ramos in Cambridge Bay, a town of 1,500 residents 170 miles above the Arctic Circle. Before he could make repairs and continue east, the ice returned and froze the boat in place at the dock. The sun set Nov. 28 and didn’t rise again until Jan. 12, plunging the town into darkness. Temperatures dropped to more than 50 degrees below zero, and winds sometimes reached hurricane force.
“I had a Dickinson cabin heater, and kept it going all the time,” Ramos says, adding that it was toasty inside the boat at 60 F, except when the heater ran out of diesel in the middle of the night. “I’d have to go outside and dig the jerry jugs out of a snow bank on deck.”
As the ice pressed against the hull, the boat took on a 15-degree list to starboard. Ramos huddled below, as if he were sailing close-hauled. He did enjoy some respites ashore when people away on vacation let him housesit for them.
“It was the first time I’d spent a winter in the Arctic. It was cold, but I loved it, though. The sun was just below the horizon, and you’d get twilight during the day,” he says, noting that the stark beauty of the Arctic is hard to describe. “If you haven’t seen it yourself, you really can’t imagine it.”
Ramos spent several months on the boat, but he eventually left it under the watchful eyes of friends he had made in Cambridge Bay and flew to the United States to visit family. When he tried to return to the boat in the spring of 2006, he didn’t get far. Canadian authorities deported him, saying it had been illegal for him to remain in Canada for so long the previous winter. Arctic Wanderer froze in at Cambridge Bay.
In 2007, having cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape, Ramos returned to the boat. However, it was late in the season. He left anyway, but he didn’t make it. Once again, he was forced to leave the boat in Cambridge Bay over the winter, for a third time.
Ramos finally was liberated in August. On Sept. 20, he reached Greenland after a passage of 1,900 miles, dodging pack ice, weathering gales, and dealing with boat fixes.
“I was elated to get to Greenland,” he says. “Next year I’m sailing to Norway.”
Ramos plans to resume his circumnavigation in the spring. For more on the voyage, check out Ramos’ Web site, www.arcticwandering.com.
This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.