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Thunder Child II’s North Atlantic record run and Arctic Circle voyage

By Frank Kowalski, Thunder Child II’s designer and skipper.

Regrettably Covid 19 had put paid to our plans to undertake our Transatlantic record attempt last year, and due to the continuing Covid restrictions on travel it also resulted in making the Transatlantic run logistically too difficult to undertake this year as well. However with Thunder Child II crew of five:, Skipper Frank Kowalski, Navigator, Ciaran Monks, Drone pilot Carl Randalls, Logistics Mary Power and Engineer Robert Guzik all vaccinated, we decided to undertake a shortened, but still pretty extreme and challenging record run this summer. The new record attempt would be from Ireland to Iceland taking in the first and longest leg of the original UIM record route: Killybegs, Ireland to Reykjavik, Iceland. Living on the boat we then planned to continue voyaging to northern Iceland, then head North West, crossing the Arctic Circle line and on to the Greenland coast. We would then have achieved one of our longstanding ambitions, that being of voyaging beyond the Arctic Circle to see an iceberg in Thunder Child II.

We sailed Thunder Child II from Cork to Killybegs a week ahead of when we expected a likely looking weather window might appear looking at the long range forecast, this would save us a full days travel during the weather window, a day of which would still be necessary to bring the boat the 350nm up the exposed Irish West coast. The weather window did indeed materialise and on the 7th of July we drove up from Cork to board Thunder Child II that evening. After taking on food provisions locally, provisions that mostly consisted of microwavable meals, sandwiches and a fair selection of junk food enough to last 3 days, we prepared the boat for departure at 3am on the morning of the 8th. The departure time was set by the need to arrive at Castle Bay in the Outer Hebrides after the daily ferry had docked and departed, as the easiest berth for our refuelling was at the ferry’s dock. We had a great deal of logistic support and help from Ruaridh MacLean who arranged our fuel tanker and guided us in, indeed the support we received locally at the ports of call throughout our voyage proved invaluable, especially as a fast turnaround at the two refuelling stops was going to be essential in setting a good record time. The forecast had predicted winds dying down during the night of our departure, and indeed this proved to be the case. However the residual 1.5m swell was on the nose leaving Killybegs, and this made for tough going at over 30kts, especially during the night time passage. This leg was a distance of some 170nm, and once clearing Malin Head, the most Northwest tip of Ireland and turning more North Easterly conditions eased, and once gaining shelter from the Outer Hebrides islands and with a lightening fuel load we were able to run up to over 40kts for the final run to the island of Barra. It’s worth mentioning at this point the capabilities of Thunder Child II in respect of speed and range. Powered by four Caterpillar C8.7 650hp engines with France Helices surface drives, the unique ‘Monocat’ hull form has a Hysucraft hydrofoil between the Catamarans hull sections. The hydrofoil lifts the hull out of the water at speed, reducing drag and allowing for very fuel efficient high speed cruising. The caveat being that the boat has to be travelling at 30kts to sustain this. The ability to ‘get up on the foil’ is greatly dependant on the boats weight, or more specifically the fuel load carried. To ensure longevity and reliability from the engines I only run the boat at a maximum engine load of 80%, the power needed to run at 33kts with 7000 litres of fuel. The engines loads decrease to just 65% with a more normal 3,000 litres of fuel for this size of craft. The cut off point for being able to achieve 30kts cruise in calm seas is 7,500 litres, which gives a theoretical safe range of 700nm factoring an average fuel economy of .1nm per litre, which is very good for a 23m boat weighing around 25 tons light, and 32 tons loaded at speeds from 34kts right up to 50kts. However as with any boat the sea state can have a significant effect on range, and in a bit of weather this can reduce by as much as 20%, so this has to be factored into one’s range calculation. Almost uniquely Thunder Child II is more fuel efficient the faster you go, so being able to keep the speed above 30kts was critical in achieving the greatest range, and if forced to slow down because of weather our range was going to reduce, and this was going to produce a dilemma for us.

The first refuelling stop for Thunder Child II at Castle Bay in the Outer Hebrides before heading out 560nm across the North Atlantic to the coast of Iceland

We arrived at Castle Bay at around 8.45am, thankfully the fuel tanker was waiting for us at the pier and we had a very efficient refueling stop, with a good few of the local population of the Island turning out to watch Thunder Child II arrive and depart. The island was fairly shrouded in mist whilst we were there, but we could still admire the rugged landscape and of course the picturesque Castle atop a small island in the bay, from which the town gains its name. The aforementioned dilemma we faced was the amount of fuel to take on-board for the 562nm open ocean crossing across the North Atlantic to the coast of Iceland. Theoretically we should only have needed 5,500 litres, and my original plan was to take on 7,000 litres, which I felt gave a safe margin. However looking at the forecast, and considering the general sea state we encountered voyaging to Castle Bay, which was going to be pretty representative of the sea conditions we would face for at least the first 200nm of the crossing, that being light winds but with a residual head sea swell of 1.5m which did have a somewhat detrimental effect on our speed and range on the first leg. However the most uncertain element was the likely sea state we would face for the final 200nm, where freshening winds were forecast. Running out of fuel would obviously have been disastrous, so to be absolutely safe I put 8,500 litres of fuel in her, even though at this weight she would likely struggle with speed initially. It turned out to be the right decision. As we departed Castle Bay running through the calm waters around the islands we were able to run at 30kts with the engine load at just over 80%, which was pretty impressive, however once we cleared the bays shelter and pushed out into the North Atlantic we started running into the head sea swell. Punching into the swell and keeping the speed up over 30kts meant the engine loads were reaching 90%, so I made the decision to reduce speed down to 20kts, at which speed the load was just 70% and run for a couple of hours at this reduced speed just to cover distance and burn off fuel, lightening our load to the point where we could get back up on the foil again without over stressing the engines, as they were going to have to look after us for a few thousand miles as we journeyed to our final destination. After a couple of hours the seas calmed down a bit and our load lightened and we were again able to run at over 30kts.

Our path took us very close to the Islands of St Kilda. This is a place I had always wanted to visit, as over the years Safehaven Marine have built a few passenger craft that run out from the Outer Hebrides Island to St Kilda. It was only a short detour adding a few miles from the most direct path, so it was worth losing a little bit of time to pass close by, where we stopped briefly to check the engine rooms and at the same time fly our drone, capturing some lovely footage of Thunder Child as she passed by the Archipelago, which was pretty wild and foreboding in the mist that was there on the day we passed.

Above Thunder Child II stopped by St Kilda, an archipelago in the North Atlantic, the last landfall before Iceland.

We continued onwards and conditions improved to near perfect, with a mirror like sea, surely a rare occurrence in the North Atlantic, but made for a very enjoyable and comfortable few hours as we travelled North. Around 200nm from Iceland, almost exactly as predicted by the Windy forecasting app which proved incredibly accurate throughout the voyage the wind got up shifting to the South West and freshening. As we moved into the night, the wind and seas increased and it became quite dirty, by no means rough, but when you’re running at over 30kts a 1.5-2m head sea is tiring for such a long duration, no matter what boat you’re in and we got beat up a bit. Thankfully at this latitude it never became truly dark, pretty much remaining like dusk, which when travelling at over 30kts makes for a less stressful passage. Even though out in the Middle of the North Atlantic these not much to hit it’s still better to be able to sea ahead of you, rather than be relying solely on our radars and FLIR camera. We also started to burn more fuel than expected in keeping up the speed in these conditions. This led to quite an anxious few hours during the night when we became a bit concerned as to whether we would make it if we kept up this speed, as range was becoming tight by our continuing fuel burn calculations. Thankfully as morning came conditions moderated and we were able to run at around 38 kts for the remaining miles to the island of Vestmannaeyjabaer, which would be our final refuelling stop before crossing the finish line in Rejkavik.

We arrived at Vestmannaeyjabaer around 5.30am the next morning. Vestmannaeyjabaer has the most spectacular and intimidating harbour entrances I have seen. The entrance lies between steep sheer cliffs and is very narrow, I could only imagine how dangerous it must be for the many fishing boats that operate out of the harbour when returning to port to seek shelter during a storm. Once again our refuelling stop was efficient, with my Friend Óskar Hafnfjörð Auðunsson of Trefjar boat yard in Iceland arranging for refuelling there, its always a relief when you see the tanker on the pier waiting for you, and you know it’s all going to be straight forward and easy. At this point all the crew were pretty tired. Some had managed to get some sleep, but really on a fast boat travelling at speed in a bit of a seaway, even if relatively slight, sleep is difficult at best, all you can really hope for is powernaps, but amazingly this is all you need to keep going. I myself at this stage pretty much hadn’t slept for two days, running on stress and adrenaline, and was pretty knackered. Whilst refuelling we again had a chance to fly our drone, and Carl captured some cool video as we departed Vestmannaeyjabaer with its spectacular cliffs in the background.

Leaving Vestmannaeyjabaer through its spectacular entrance after refuelling heading for the finish line in Rejkavik

The final leg of our record run was some 130nm from Vestmannaeyjabaer to Reykjavik. For the first half of this leg as we headed West it was again pretty tough going, as with no worries about range now we were running Thunder Child pretty hard at up to 40kts as we rounded the Southern edge of Iceland before turning East to run across Reykjavik Bay towards the finish line. Luckily Thunder Child is fitted with military spec shock mitigation seating by SHOXS which certainly help with endurance. We crossed the finish line at Reykjavik at 50kts with Oskar there as the official timekeeper for UIM, setting a time of just under 32hrs to cover the 866nm we had travelled from Killybegs in Ireland to Iceland, with an average speed underway of just over 30kts. Crossing the finish line was a fabulous and memorable moment for all the crew, although it had been tough at times all that is forgotten in the sense of achievement one experiences during such endeavours. During the record run we pushed the boat pretty hard at times, but she never let us down and her Cat engines never missed a beat. One does need a special boat to do such a long distance relatively high speed open ocean voyage, but she was designed especially for this.

Once berthed in Reykjavik marina we were visited by customs and immigration officers. Apparently we had broken every rule in the book, and should have cleared customs in Vestmannaeyjabaer. Mistakenly we assumed that as we were not departing the boat, only refuelling, it was not necessary there and that customs clearance would be at our main destination of Reykjavik, but we were wrong. The customs officers were however very accommodating allowing us to officially clear customs there. Although all the crew had been fully vaccinated we were still a bit apprehensive about immigration, but after the immigration officer checked our Covid vaccination certs we were deemed free to enter Iceland and leave the boat. This was a relief as the thought of having to stay aboard during quarantine was pretty unappealing. Being able to go ashore for a meal and a beer in Reykjavik was wonderful. Iceland had just days before lifted all Covid restrictions, so it was great to be able to go to a restaurant and not have to wear a mask, something we had not been able to do in Ireland for almost twelve months.

Above, entering the Fjord to Isafjorour with its stunning scenery.

After a good check over of the boat that evening and a good night’s rest aboard, we departed for Isafjorour in North Western Iceland to begin the next stage of our voyage, which was to cross the Arctic Circle in Thunder Child II and see an iceberg. Before leaving we spoke with the local whale watching guides who operate out of Reykjavik taking sightseers out into Reykjavik Bay to see whales. Helpfully they shared with us the best spots in the Bay to see them as Carl was keen to get some drone footage of a Humpback whale, and we were all excited about seeing one too. Weather conditions were perfect as we departed and headed out to the Bay, and sure enough we were soon treated to the sight of Minkie Wales and later a solitary Humpback whale which Carl captured some cool drone footage of. We had a very enjoyable voyage up the West coast of Iceland with calm seas and slack winds, stopping regularly to enjoy the scenery along the coast, which was truly spectacular with mountain’s and black volcanic rock formations the like of which we had not seen along any other coastline. As we voyaged along the Northern part of Iceland we ran into fog which was pretty thick, although not bad enough to slow us down, but we were slightly concerned about entering the unfamiliar Fjord and port of Isafjorour in thick fog. Miraculously as we turned into the Fjord the fog began to lift and out of the fog the tops of the mountains that ran right down to the shore began to appear, As we entered the Fjord the fog completely cleared and we were treated to spectacular scenery as we entered Isafjorour. Isafjorour is a small town of some 2600 in population, and is situated between two tall mountains to the North and South. Here again our friend Oskar had arranged for berthing and refuelling for us with the help of his niece who lives there. After refuelling we headed into the small town and had a nice meal there before retuning aboard to turn in early and catch a bit of sleep, as we would be awakening early to head off on what for me was to be the most exciting part of our voyage. We cast off the lines at 5am the next morning, departing Isafjorour to head for the Blosseville Coast of East Greenland.

Above the large flat iceberg encountered calved from the Citronen Fjord, estimate as a quarter of a mile long and wide.

This part of our voyage was undoubtedly the most challenging, as at this time of the year sea ice had not cleared completely off the East Coast of Greenland. I had been studying the sea ice charts and satellite images of the region for weeks preceding and had observed that the ice concentration was retreating and thinning, but could see that sea ice still extended off the coast. Its concentration was mostly 1-3 according to the Egg Charts ice concentration scale, but still even this level was likely going to be too much for Thunder Child to attempt to navigate through with her FRP hull and exposed surface drive props. However there was a break in the sea ice between Scoresby Sund and Kap Barclay that extended right up to the Blosseville Coast. The difficulty was firstly translating the actual coordinates of the sea ice edge from the ice chart into a waypoint on our plotter, and secondly taking into consideration the fact that the most recent ice chart was 3 days old. To reach this break in the sea ice we would have to travel North for some 100nm and then turn West, and head for the coast. This seemed a reasonable and achievable plan at the time, however things would conspire against us.

Above. The largest iceberg encountered in the Denmark Strait, of a beautiful shape and colour, 30m high

Knowing that there would be no possible chance of refuelling in Greenland, as the Blosseville Coast is completely uninhabited we took on a full fuel load, enough for us to make the Greenland coast and return, a voyage of some 450nm. We left the Fjords at Isafjorour and headed out into the Denmark Strait in calm seas with a long sea swell on our beam. After a couple of hours we ran into the first bank of sea fog. Sea fog is pretty prevalent in the Denmark Strait at this time of year so we were expecting it. We continued on, running North at our most economical speed around 30kts, faster than was ideal in the conditions. But with all eyes vigilantly peering ahead and a close watch on our two radars, one set at long range and the other at short range, we made good albeit stressful progress towards the point on our plotter where the sea ice edge was predicted to be. As none of us had ever navigated in these waters we really didn’t know what to expect regarding icebergs, and at what point out into the Denmark Strait from Iceland we would encounter them, so we all watched the radar and seas ahead with bated breath for our first encounter. Around 70 miles from the Greenland Coast we crossed the Arctic Circle. Suddenly the fog cleared, it had been patchy mostly, but this was the first real clearing with good visibility. The temperature also suddenly dropped, it had been around 8 degrees Celsius as we departed the Iceland coast but in a very short period of time it dropped to just 2 degrees, we guessed that this was because we had run into the Arctic Current. On the long range radar we begin to see targets appear, and from around 12 miles we saw our first sight of an iceberg to much excitement aboard. As we headed towards the target we realised that it was a massive flat piece of what must have once been the ice pack, it was about a quarter of a mile long and much the same wide and about 3m high above the water. It was simply awesome to see and so completely alien to us. Needless to say Carl immediately launched the drone and flew overhead as we circled the iceberg, capturing some amazing footage that showed the scale of the iceberg making Thunder Child II look insignificant in size by comparison. We later discovered that this was most likely calved from the Citronen Fjord, which is most known for producing such large square icebergs.

Above the crew toasting with a glass of Jameson’s whiskey cooled by ice from an iceberg.

Above Our drone piloted by Carl Randalls was invaluable for recording the spectacular moments during the voyage.

As we studied the radar we could see that there was another fairly large target showing around 12 miles away that we could actually see quite clearly on the horizon. We figured that this would have to be a pretty big iceberg to be seen from such a distance, so immediately head in its direction. As we came closer we could see that it was indeed a huge iceberg. We guessed about 30m high, of a classic jagged iceberg in shape and of a wonderfully white blue colour. This presented us the perfect opportunity to break out the bottle of Jameson’s whisky we had bought from Ireland and toast our voyage with a glass of Jameson’s cooled by a piece of ice from an iceberg. We fished a small piece of ice from the sea that was floating around the large iceberg with our landing net, and proceeded to break up some ice from it for our toast.

We then continued on our route north heading for where we expected the edge of the sea ice to be. As we neared the vicinity we hit very thick fog, pretty much pee soup with less than 50m visibility, which is in effect zero visibility. This forced us to slow right down to 10kts as we know that we were in close proximity to the sea ice pack edge, and one would need to be travelling slowly at this speed in order to have time to alter course for a growler that might appear suddenly ahead of us out of the fog. We always anticipated that our encounter with the sea ice would be fraught with danger, however we had not factored combining that moment with heavy fog, which made it doubly dangerous and pretty stressful. We had figured that when we encountered the ice edge we would be able to skirt the outskirt of it to find the break in it that would allow us to reach the Blosseville Coast. This plan of course depended on good visibility to see far ahead, not be in zero visibility which was the case at that moment. Sure enough eventually we ran into the edge of the sea ice finger that was predicted by the ice chart to be extending off the coast. It must be said that there was absolutely no way we could enter the ice pack, even though by my estimation it was only around 1-2 according to the density scale on the egg chart. Without being able to see far ahead to try and pick a course through it, it was simply impossible, as it would not be possible to turn Thunder Child quickly enough to avoid the small pieces that could damage a prop, let alone the larger growlers, and impacts with smaller pieces of ice would be inevitable. So we decided to head north again shadowing our past track on the plotter to clear water running at slow speed. As we continued ahead of us out of the fog appeared a large iceberg, it had intermittently shown up on our radar, but nowhere near the size that it turned out to be.

Above. A large icebergs eerily appears out of the fog ahead of Thunder Child II, one can clearly see how much of the iceberg is invisible under the water. Below growlers along the edge of the ice pack, impacting with one of these would have been disastrous.

This is one of the problems with depending on radar to spot icebergs, as depending on their shape they can be very hard to spot on radar, and growlers would often not show up to any significant degree. This was a pretty spectacular iceberg, shrouded in fog it was ghostly in appearance and the encounter was quite eerie. Such was the moment that we had to fly the drone to try and record it for posterity, however after a short time flying the drone malfunctioned, and froze hovering around 3m above the water. I pretty much wrote the drone off, but Carl insisted on us trying to recover it by backing the boat down so the aft deck was under the drone and scooping the drone out of the air. Miraculously we were successful in this and saved the drone, and almost as importantly the wonderful footage it had recorded. Possibly the cold and the fog had caused the malfunction.

After this we had to make a decision as whether to continue trying to reach the coast or not. We had to factor a few things. Firstly the danger from trying to continue to do so in the fog. Secondly the likelihood and probability that the fog continued right up to the coast, and after spending what would be several hours at slow speed reaching the coast we would not actually be able to see the coast upon arrival, and the disappointment in that. Lastly we were burning up fuel in our endeavours and we had to be very mindful of our ultimate range capability to make it back to Isafjorour. In the end we made the sensible decision to abandon the attempt to reach the Greenland Coast and head back to Iceland. On the way we were lucky enough to encounter several other fabulously shaped large icebergs on our course, the fog cleared and the sun came out and it was one of the most magical sea voyages I have ever made.

Above and below, a few of the cool icebergs encountered as the crew returned from attempting to reach the coast of Greenland as we travelled back across the Denmark Strait to Iceland

What I thought was really interesting though was the disorientation as to distance one could experience, the edge of the fog banks in the distance created what was like a false horizon, where it appeared as a white band above the sea forming a second horizon which was most disorientating. At one point having a disagreement as to the distance away from us an iceberg was. To me it appeared a small piece of ice maybe 3-400m away, when it was in fact a pretty large iceberg 10 miles away from us, which only became believable to me as we motored towards it and it did not get any bigger. It was indeed 10 miles away from us. This iceberg was one of the most beautiful we encountered, being fully blue in colour, it was an upside down iceberg that had capsized.

The journey back to the coast of Iceland and Isafjorour was wonderful, calm seas, little fog and thankfully a midnight sun at this latitude and at this time of year it never got dark, rather like a dull day at home, which made arriving back in Isafjorour at 2.30am an easy task in daylight rather than night. So although we hadn’t quite made it to Greenland, (we actually got to some 30nm from the coast), it was a fabulous experience and we captured the most amazing photos and video of Thunder Child II floating shimmering like a block of gold against the awesome back drop of an iceberg. What a sight that was! The voyage described here and back to Reykjavik where Thunder Child II was left awaiting its return voyage to Ireland later the next month was some 2,000nm.

Video of the Arctic Circle Voyage



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