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Help for Heroes Arctic Sailing Update

Lt N Woodroffe wrote to us with another update from the Help for Heroes Arctic sailing expedition where seven injured servicemen and seven support staff sailed by yacht into the Arctic Circle.  They sailed from Iceland to Greenland, stood on icebergs, had a few gales, lots of fog and icebergs as big as blocks of flats and visited the most remote settlement in the Western Hemisphere on Greenland, a place which is locked by ice for 10 months of the year, and where every home has a Husky dog sled team.

Back in 2011, the proposal for a sailing expedition to the Arctic Circle with some battle injured service personnel from the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre Headley Court was approved by the Joint Services Adventure Sail Training Centre, (JSASTC) based in Gosport. As with any expedition, a huge amount of preparation and support is needed and with great support from Headley Court, charities Help for Heroes, Battleback and sponsorship from MUSTO, the wheels were in motion for a two week sailing expedition from Iceland to Greenland through the iceberg territory on an ex-BT global Challenge 67 yacht.

RAF Doctor Wing Commander Nick Carter, Rehabilitation Consultant at Headley Court took the lead as Chief Medic. A detailed risk assessment coupled with medical criteria to determine suitability for those wishing to apply for a berth was established. For example, Nick insisted applicants should have two hands, one for themselves and one for the boat. Nick considered the applications and with a crew compliment of fourteen needed for the 67ft Challenge yacht, a maximum limit of 50% of crew to be injured servicemen was set.’

The crew in MUSTO jackets

‘With myself MCA medically qualified and Nick as ‘mates’ we were keen the project could support the injured crew sufficiently. We would be sailing offshore through ice with limited stops and the prospect of little external help, but also in areas of high remoteness. The desirable afterguard needed to double as sailors and medics, able to buddy the crew as and when needed. Watch Leaders, RAF Squadron Leader Doctor Jo Rimmer and Flight Lieutenant Physiotherapist Jo Anderson, both experienced sailors in their own right, seemed the perfect accompaniment. They were joined by Army Corporal Nurse Sara Kane also from Headley Court and Senior Air Craftsman Administration Coordinator Lizzie Mackenzie-Williams.

The majority of the injured crew who volunteer sustained their battle injuries from serving in Afghanistan and were novice sailors. These included three amputees with one, Private Josh Campbell from the Pioneers regiment, being a double amputee, above the knee. Josh came with boundless energy and enthusiasm and was keen to be the first double amputee to sail into the Arctic Circle, stand on an iceberg and see a Polar Bear if possible!

The JSASTC training in the Solent provided a great chance to assess suitability and see how we as a crew would cope with the practicalities of sailing on a non-adapted yacht. We were likely to be going to areas with no alongside mooring, so the emphasis was on how crew would get on and off the boat safely and into a tender.

With plenty of bodies around we could use a “buddy-buddy” system helping people around and on and off the boat. With an expected 2-3 metre tidal range and high freeboard, we experimented with using a halyard in two ways. The first was by the crew clipping on to a halyard to help lower down with control from the winch. The second was to fix the halyard to a strong point in the tender and use it as a vertical strong point to guide and grab. We also used the more simple measure of a lifejacket harness of appropriate length on to the jackstay. We found wedging a fender across ways in the tender could act as an extra seat, wedging device or as a stability cushion. This seemed to work well for those who needed this help, although interestingly as the crew became more confident we became less dependent on equipment and more on each other.

With the concern of two anchors trapping ice between them, once access into the tender was confident, we then practiced using one anchor and deploying 100m mooring warps via a floating line in the tender to act as stern lines. Naturally clipping on came earlier in the process and extra time was given to the sail evolutions. Everyone found their feet around the yacht including our novice sailors Nurse Corporal Sara Kane and Admin Lizzie Mackenzie Williams! Josh requested some less slippery surfaces, so we tied some rope around companion way rails to provide some grip for him to support his body weight up and down the steps. With some challenging MOB drills to tick the safety box we were nearly ready to go sailing!

Before we left, Major Chris Sumner Project Officer to Arctic Express provided some MUSTO HPX dry suits to account for crew who would, due to the nature of their injury, feel the cold more than normal. MUSTO supported the project by kindly sponsoring some fleece base layers and soft shell jackets. Under Nick’s watchful eye, Josh took the opportunity to use the Headley Court Help for Heroes swimming pool to test his buoyancy wearing an offshore lifejacket with and without his prosthetic legs. No adjustments needed to be made either way.

In consultation with JSASTC Challenge Skipper Vaughan Marsh, we decided to divide the crew of fourteen into two watches instead of the usual three. This would provide two large enough watches to perform the Yankee sail changes and reefing safely. This would also help maintain rest levels of another watch who otherwise may be woken to help provide enough hands. The mates could act as back up and oversee manoeuvres. One or two from each watch could act as mother as and when was needed, providing more rest when they took their turn every few days.

Iceland is stark, exciting, green and beautiful with rivers famous for salmon and impressive waterfalls. We flew into Reykjavik to meet the yacht. We set sail with the Irminger current and with one stop in the North West of Iceland we then entered the Arctic Circle at 660 33’. We then hoped to head onto the East coast of Greenland, reporting our position as required to the Greenland authorities every six hours to where we hoped to experience descendants of the Intuits.

The day before the departure from Reykjavik the latest ice report from the Danish Meteorological Institute showed ice concentrations were to be less than the critical two or three tenths for safe passage. A concentration a steel hulled yacht could manage. With an excited crew we were off!

Crew worked within their own limits and were very aware of how and where they could contribute and where they may struggle.  Some wanted to naturally be at the front where the action occurred. Importantly, the crew self selected themselves into positions where they could operate safely. Highlander Jason Barbour who suffered stability issues due to a brain injury worked in the cockpit where, as an ex 400m Champion, he could put his strength to good use on the hauling in the main and Yankee sheets. Below knee amputee Lance Corporal Peter Bowker found his forte on the bow where his height and strength was a natural advantage to sail drops and spinnaker pole maneuvers.

During the trip, Josh would scamper about the boat, sometimes with and sometimes without his legs, happy to experiment with some interesting grinding positions in the cockpit. Josh didn’t limit himself to the cockpit, as his confidence grew he knew he was also happy to be on the foredeck in flat seas clipped on. One issue he found was he unable to sit in the navigation seat due to space between the seat and the navigation station being too narrow for his prosthetic legs. So we pulled the removable cushion off and without a life jacket on he could quiet easily sit and do the hourly log and the GPS plots on the Chart.

We talked about installing some flip down stalls to help provide some stability for dressing for watch. Instead, those needing to put their ‘legs on’ just asked to be woken five to ten minutes before their normal watch call. This was with the exception of Lance Corporal Bowker, who insisted he needed five minutes less than everyone else as he only had one shoe lace to tie (typical Army banter) – interesting though that he was wearing sea boots!

The amputees were in different cabins to allow more room to get dressed at watch time. They slept in the port and starboard aft cabins which offered more room to get ready. The inboard ‘coffin bunks’ also made it easier for some to get in and of bed and more stability when at sea.

In terms of an adventure we certainly all had our fill.

We enjoyed some sunny days and some amazing scenery including the ice capped Snaefellsjokull volcano and wildlife; whales, dolphins and puffins and 24 hour day light. We endured cold, icebergs, a full gale and lots of fog as expected. In the gales we all experienced steering in big waves where the wind was confident at 35 knots true.

Different categories of ice include ‘pack ice’: heavy concentrations, ‘fast ice’ is attached to the sea and ‘drift ice’ is used to describe any sea ice bar pack ice. Within 3 miles the radar was excellent at spotting within growlers, bergy bits and icebergs. For those new to ice navigation, icebergs move with currents as they are deep bilged whereas bergy bits tend to lie down wind from icebergs so pass to windward. It was a great team activity navigating and keeping look out through the foggy conditions.

We successfully made it to Greenland where the sea temp never rises above 4 degrees. We successfully made it to ScoresbySund, known as the biggest Fjord in the world. In 1822 Scoresby sound was discovered by a Scotsman William Scoresby and by 1925 it was inhabited.

Ittoqqortoormiit is arguably the most remote western hemisphere settlement, where hunting polar bears and seal are still a way of life today. Anchoring at 1am to the sound of Huskies sled teams was a first. No roads exist to join this settlement to any other, it’s either by ship or helicopter.

We tendered into the small harbour and saw a dead seal tied to the dock, possible Polar bear bait. We decided to take off sunglasses when meeting the locals as ambivalence to visitors had been previously noted. None of it and Jo Anderson shakes hands with the locals in the dock who look at us as if we are from the moon though with open, smiling faces.

I go back to the boat for more of the crew and when are ashore we start to get a feeling for the place. Polar bear skins and walrus skins were out to dry. Water pipes above land that only last for 2 months of the year before they are freeze. All supplies are only brought in twice a year by Royal Arctic Containers when the ice allows, one in July and one in August. The shop shelves were empty; no milk, no butter, no coffee, no oats.

Also hoping to make it to the great ice bound ScoresbySund after an unsuccessful attempt 30 years ago was Tom Cunliffe. We were in radio contact with him near Iceland and wish to know if he made it aboard ‘Eleanor’ a Fisher 37 – Tom, we hope you had a great trip!

Over the two weeks we covered just under 1000 miles. JSASTC managed to pass all the eight novices with their RYA Competent Crew qualification and some of the crew have an expressed an interest to continue gaining sailing experience and qualifications.

Josh was particularly achieved chuffed he achieved two out of three ambitions, to sail into the Arctic and stand on an iceberg (see photo).

This trip wouldn’t have been possible without so much support and we would like to thank JSASTC, Help for Heroes, Battleback Headley Court and Musto for making such an adventure possible for all of us.

Whilst the goal of the expedition was principally about giving the opportunity for our deserving, injured service personnel to experience something new, remote and adventurous, the trip has highlighted to adventurous training outfits the possibilities for future projects. With some planning even the most injured sailors are able to take part fully in sailing expeditions in non-adapted yachts. Thought should be given to evaluating objectively the impact of these programs on the confidence and abilities in crew with disabilities. We have undertaken a small research project looking at these aspects and the results are awaited.’

If you wish to donate to the charity Help for Heroes to enable similar opportunities for injured servicemen and women, visit bmycharity.com/arcticexped.

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