Saturday, 26 July 2008

The strait story - by Pat Hahn from Nome

The sailors do not line up to go through the Bering Strait. Not many have been through to tell its tail of icing, harrowing seas, converging currents and screaming winds. Generally when a few are caught in a violent storm with a pitch pole or two, we don't see another for several years as word does get around. Willie pitch poled lengthwise 3 times in the late 80's or early 90's and it was years before we saw another sailboat.

The narrow passage between continents is one of the most special places on earth. There are two oceans, two continents, two days, two islands, two super powers, and as if to follow the political correctiveness, two colors of ocean streaming through to the north. There is a spot I have stood on, that put me into all these 'twos' at the same time. (It was winter, out in the middle on the ice. I wanted to do it Dec 31, 1999/Jan1, 2000 to add two years, two centuries and two millennium, but Alas, it is two dark and two mid winter in the worst weather and ice on earth) It makes your hair stand on end to even think about it.

To understand the summer Bering Strait weather one needs to look at a map and think to oneself, what will happen if the wind changes a few degrees? There is very high heat in the interiors of both the US and Russia. There is almost always ice in the arctic ocean and there is always a heavy blanket of cold moisture in the Pacific. All these within a couple hundred miles. Add a pressure system or two... or three, stir it all up with a big stick and it becomes impossible to predict, extremely volatile, and violent. I once crossed the strait from the Russian side in full blue skies and dead calm seas. In a total of two hours we first had huge swills, a small cloud appeared over Diomede(s), It grew fast enough it looked like a really bad sickening horror movie, and then we bounced ashore at little Diomede in a gale.(I don't speak 'sailor'- I hope 'gale' doesn't mean anything more than a storm).

There are not many places outside a few long fjords at a full moon that it is possible for a standing wave in the ocean. Diomede has standing waves. To stand on the tiny island and stare at the enormity of the ocean going by at the speed of a river with standing waves... I wonder how the tiny Eskimo umiaks ever made it. I did it once and I still wonder.

Today the tiny ship Berrimilla is in a storm, heading north in the middle of the Bering Strait. My prayers are with them and my hat is off.

Pat from Nome