Patience, friends and cranes in Cambridge Bay

How we hauled an 18-ton boat in the Canadian Arctic.

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As you know, Empiricus sits on the hard in Cambridge Bay, awaiting the 2014 exploration of the North. But how did she get there? The book on Arctic logistics is thin at best. In those waters, you just make do with what you have.

Personally, I never feel more alive than when faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Now, I don’t want to portray hauling Empiricus as such a grand obstacle, but it was a good chore none the less. And we were shooting from the hip to get it done.

The first thing I looked into in Cambridge Bay was who had a crane that could haul us out. Information was fuzzy on the issue. But it soon became apparent that there was only one crane in town. It was an 80-ton Grove, an off-road crane that looked fairly new. However, there was an issue. It was broken…

Now, if there is one thing I can say about the Arctic, it is this: you can throw your watch, and your calendar, in the trash. She and her people move at their own pace. Generally a slow, cold pace. These are a patient people. They must be. For they are forced to live from barge to barge for supplies. Flight to flight for parts and people. There is no road to a big city full of answers.

The transition came easily to me. I enjoyed being around people who accepted their situation as it was. I dare say that if you visited the Arctic and did not receive a lesson in patience, then you did not visit the Arctic. You were a passerby, a spectator at best.

The Etch A Scetch is good for practicing patience!
The Etch A Scetch is good for practicing patience!

The Arctic does what she wants, when she wants. As do her people.

One afternoon I found myself in the grocery store, while a German adventure cruise ship was moored in the bay. They had lightered in passengers to see the town and a presentation by the locals. It had all been pre-arranged for the honored guests… The aisles in the store clambered with “Adventurous” humans.

I had already made my selection. A single, one gallon jug of purified water for the battery bank cells. It was the best I could do, as there was no distilled water available. $8.95 was apparently a steal and I was glad to get the precious nectar.

A woman up ahead of me was elderly, I’ll guess 75 years old. She was well-dressed, under her brightly colored jacket, which, bearing the ship’s emblem, marked her as a tourist in the most professional way I’ve ever seen.

She was next in line to check out. The woman in front of her was recounting her purchases or something. I did not pay too close attention as I was fascinated by this elderly woman “On deck” to make her purchase.

She had a few Canadian dollars crushed in her thick bony hand. Her other hand was gripping the counter edge like a jack-line in a gale, the color squeezed out of it. Her feet planted to the ground in a wide stance. with Her shoulders bunched up as tight as a drum. Her face was bent in anger, mouth turned about in a series of shifting torments, as her eyes roamed the room for an ally in her rage anger.

There she stood, in self-imposed torment, for about 5 minutes. I speculate that in her mind it was 45. She almost sold me with her convincing act, that this wait was an absolute travesty. Then her turn came! She drug herself front and center to the kind young clerk and asked for the price of a calling card (No, most cell phones do not work in the Arctic). The polite clerk-girl, who had been glared at for a while now by this woman, replied very politely with her own question, as to the brand of calling card the customer preferred.

This was simply too much for the elderly woman, who furiously demanded to know if the payphone took coins. The clerk said “Yes” and the woman replied with a demand of said coins, in exchange for her bills. The clerk agreed to give her change, but needed to make a transaction in order to get the change. So she invited the person next in line to checkout. A reasonable solution, yes?

I thought the old woman’s head was going to explode. She quivered and shook her head from side to side with all the drama of a staged reality show actor.

The clerk quickly made the sale and exchanged the bills for coins. The woman snatched her precious ingots and made her way to the door.

The clerk seemed a little put out by the woman’s behavior but remained professional and pleasant none the less. She even thanked me for my patience, which fascinated me…

As I made my way out the doors to the arctic entry (a double-door entry that controls heat loss) I saw the payphone on my right. A man was camped out on it, with bags open, pen in hand and carrying on with whoever held the other end. On my left was the elderly woman. Getting a lesson in Arctic Patience. She was taking it pretty hard…

I tell that story because I’ve been that old woman before. I don’t know when I began to accept delays as a part of life. But I was very glad that I have. I was also sad for the woman, who had lived so many years with so much scorn in her heart. What good is having the money for a $25,000 cruise through the Arctic, if you can’t enjoy a simple shopping experience?

For the next two weeks, I waited for the crane to be repaired. I offered to fix it myself, which was appreciated but denied, as the mechanic on site was quite possessive.

However. The foreman thought the lift was possible, however. So after providing measurements and such for clearance purposes, I backed away and went about enjoying the Arctic: the history, the adventures to be had and the people who I enjoyed so much.

The crane af the lift site.  Waiting for Empiricus
The crane af the lift site. Waiting for Empiricus

Quite frankly, by the time the crane was repaired, I had fallen in love with this place and its people. I had made many friends, had many meals in many homes and just as many aboard our boat, which day after day took a beating against the sheet pile steel dock.

Friends in Cambridge Bay made us feel at home.  We helped them paint and do projects.  They opened up their home.  We had a great time and became good friends.
Friends in Cambridge Bay made us feel at home. We helped them paint and do projects. They opened up their home. We had a great time and became good friends.
Jason doing some drywall for our friends.
Jason doing some drywall for our friends.

But the deed must be done so we went about setting things in place for the lift. Jason and I prepared Empiricus and surveyed the site. There was a deep water area near the barge landing, where the water comes up abruptly. Just 20 feet offshore the water is 85 feet deep and a gravel beach, somewhat level, sits only a few feet above waterline. The tides are minimal there so this is not a worry.

Samantha and Jason playing cards with our new friends at the kids table.
Samantha and Jason playing cards with our new friends at the kids table.

The construction company bulldozed a level site at my request. They knew I was on a budget and agreed to let me rig the lift and do all the blocking, in order to save money. But the sight of heavy equipment made my stomach turn a little. It just looked expensive.

By the next day the crane was on site. We set a time for the following day to haul Empiricus. But the Arctic had another plan. A heavy gale blew in from the southeast and punished us against the dock for two days. At times the stern would rise and fall 5 feet, submerging the stern, something I have never seen her do at sea. We were taking a pounding against the dock, and like a block of cheese against the grater, we peeled gelcoat and paint.

Taking a beating
Taking a beating

Jason and I took three trips to the dump, recovering old ATV tires which ultimately became the best fenders I’ve ever used. One boat ahead of us used them too. We all spent nauseating hours dealing with chafe and pounding. We could not have left the dock if we tried. Motoring away would have grounded us on the beach, just 30 feet to leeward of the pier in shallow water.

Empiricus headed for the crane site.
Empiricus headed for the crane site.

But like all gales, this one broke too, and after two and a half weeks of waiting, Empiricus approached the crane under acceptable conditions.

Straps in place
Straps in place

Jason met me at the site and our wide eyes met, as I slowly nosed the bow into the rocks near the crane. Jason stepped from land to the bowsprit and helped me set the slings in place. We were being blown aground while doing so, of course. So I pulled her off the rocks and returned to the basin near the crane to do our work.

The stern strap was tricky. I was worried about the prop catching it as it would barely sink below the rudder. We took a 20-foot section of chain and tied it to the middle of the strap, then hand-lowered it and swung it into place.

Swinging her over
Swinging her over

Then it was back to the rocks with the bow… and easy as it goes, so the chain and prop would avoid each other.

I mashed the bow into the rocks again, closer to the crane this time and set the helm to hold her in place against the wind.

The next half-hour was challenging. Hauling boats is rare in the Arctic and the rigger was more like a helper, so there was lots of sorting out to do. I won’t bad-mouth them because they were trying their best but it was challenging to convince them that a single 10-foot spreader bar won’t clear 40 feet of mast and pick a 50-foot boat. Not at all…

Rigging the spreaders
Rigging the spreaders

But they were pretty agreeable, all in all, to suggestions. Which landed responsibility squarely on my shoulders. And so it goes in the Arctic. “Let’s get it done,” I thought. So Jason and I wrestled the 3000 pounds of bars and wires around the mast and rigging. We climbed the ratlines and swung cables around, feebly, as we sorted out the big, heavy puzzle.

Then after some adjusting, she was all set. I could not believe it. We didn’t even break the windex.

Ready to heave
Ready to heave

Jason jumped off the bowsprit and I gave the signal. Empiricus rose from the water like a basket of fruit from a wash bin, water dripping from her keel after a few magical moments of hydraulic wonderment.

Shes up!
Shes up!

I raced below and shut the engine down, feeling her swing in the air, under my feet. Returning to the cockpit, I looked about and took hold of the roll cage. If we dropped from here, I would be in for a ride. My stomach turned again. But just moments later we were over our freshly carved site. I slid down a sheet and signaled her into home base.

Back on the ground to block her up.
Back on the ground to block her up.
Setting her down
Setting her down

Jason and I drug timbers and drums into place, shoring her up well and cut the straps loose just a short time later.

Hauling timbers and blocking.
Hauling timbers and blocking.

There she was. On the hard, safe and sound. We did it! We hauled the heaviest boat ever hauled in Cambridge Bay.

Empi propped up by drums and timbers
Empi propped up by drums and timbers

I looked her over. Paint rubbed to glass in multiple places, tire marks in her topsides. But not a mark otherwise. We had bumped plenty of ice along the way and touched bottom multiple times in the Mackenzie Delta. But not a mark. She’s a good little ship, Empiricus, built like no other boat I’ve seen. She will need some love in the spring, and she will get it.

In the following days, while waiting for our flight and the next leg of our adventure home, my mind relaxed a little. I removed the parts I needed to rebuild and/or fabricate and packed them in my bags. We covered the windows and stowed the sails. Even the helm was taken inside.

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In the spring, I plan on returning to Empiricus. After making repairs, we’ll sail on, eastward. I have no idea where we will end up next year. Whether it’s Greenland, Iceland or Ireland, or for that matter, Cambridge Bay, I care not. I do know that wherever we sail, patience will be our guide.

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8 thoughts on “Patience, friends and cranes in Cambridge Bay

  1. You must begin to write a book. The narrative you have displayed is a best seller. Next installment, Spring. Counting the days! Thank you!

  2. Sure would be nice to see more photos,i.e. closeups of EMPIRICUS on her stands on the hard. Also a cost would be informative for future NWP boats requiring a haul-out. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank YOU Jesse, even though she is definitely yours, a part of me lives on with where she goes and what she does! She was indeed built for adventure!

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