Iceland to Greenland and Back: Rerouted by COVID-19

The ship’s mast creaked and groaned—its tremors traveled from the pole at the foot of my bed through my toes and into my incapacitated, seasick body. As the boat pitched and rolled, I tried to convince myself that it was a pleasant, soothing motion. I looked across the cabin to Julia’s bunk and saw her head pop up, spewing puke into a bucket. I slammed my head back against the pillow, not wanting to watch or smell any vomit for fear I would follow suit. 

Along with eight friends suffering varying degrees of seasickness, I was 12 hours into a four-day sailboat crossing from Iceland to Greenland, where we planned to spend two weeks skiing from our floating home and current hell: the Aurora Arktika. It was March 14. We’d left the harbor on Friday the 13th in stormy weather: 40-knot winds and driving snow, what our Polish deckhands Wojtek and Piotr called “sailable weather.” We quickly learned upon arriving in Iceland that weather options are limited when sailing in the North Sea in early March; the longterm forecast varied from extraordinarily stormy to slightly less stormy for the next three weeks.

[Photo] Mary McIntyre

When we’d started planning this trip last August, things like bad weather and seasickness had been the least of our worries. We were mostly concerned with securing funding and pulling together a group of capable skiers with the necessary skills to make our expedition as fun and successful as possible. We were planning to ski in the remote, mountainous country of Greenland months earlier than is typical, and we had no idea what conditions we might find. I was nervous about the crossing, but that would be a mere fraction of the trip; most of our days would be spent assessing the snowpack to figure out which of the many mountains and couloirs we could safely ski. 

As I left the U.S., people were just starting to take COVID-19 seriously. Under drizzly skies, as my flight descended into Seattle, the New York Times’ podcast The Daily informed me that the state of Washington had declared a state of emergency in response to coronavirus a few days earlier. My five-hour layover passed slowly as I avoided humans and applied hand-sanitizer like a maniac.

By the time our entire crew had assembled in a small town in Iceland’s West Fjords (which was no easy feat; three of our members got overnighted in a snowstorm and slept in an abandoned hotel before the roads were cleared), the spread of COVID-19 around the world was starting to seem like an imminent threat. As we scoured the forecast for a window of decent sailing weather, we began seeing reports of travel bans and the sweeping, hard-hitting spread of the virus in Italy and Spain. We realized that we were going to be returning to a very different world at the end of our trip. 

Right before I left for the trip, a news article published on March 12 suggested that Denmark might soon take measures that would close businesses in Greenland and stop any “unnecessary travel into the country.” It appeared that both the virus and the weather didn’t want us reaching our destination. But somehow, like much of the world that was slow to realize the significance of the virus, we still thought it was a good idea to proceed as planned.

We were happy to be heading into the wilderness on a boat stocked with three months of provisions; it was perhaps the best situation we could imagine while facing an imminent global pandemic. We would be on our own for nearly three weeks, effectively in self-quarantine, meaning that we wouldn’t be spreading any potential sickness to the people of Greenland. We would then get off the boat after several weeks of ski exploration and fly home. Our plan seemed safe and simple. 

On the day we departed from Iceland, it felt like the world was crumbling behind us. Countries in Europe were closing their borders, and everything was crashing all at once, including the stock market. The storm swell hit the bow as soon as we left the harbor, and I stumbled into my bunk to begin a bizarre 48-hour, twilight-zone experience.

As the boat crashed around in the storm, I struggled to do anything: a sip of water took several minutes to prepare for and recover from, a trip to the bathroom felt like the hardest physical effort I’d ever endured. I couldn’t sit up to don the necessary outerwear and lifejacket to go on deck, so I was stuck in cabin purgatory, where two of my boatmates were vomiting into pails. I had a bad dream that we hadn’t gone anywhere, that we’d gotten stuck in a maelstrom and were weathering it out in one of Iceland’s many fjords, but I finally checked my GPS and found that we were indeed afloat in the middle of the ocean. I felt terrified being so far from land. 

After 24 hours of rough seas, our captain, Hayat, called a team meeting. It was the first time many of us made it out of our bunks, and we sat nauseously around the table as she filled us in on the news: Greeland had officially closed its borders to sea and air travel. Siggi, the owner of the Aurora, had been in contact with Greenland’s Coast Guard, and they knew we were en route.

Hayat, however, had been in her bunk for hours and revealed that she thought she had pneumonia. She had a deep, phlegmy cough and could contribute very little to sailing the vessel, meaning the brunt of the work fell to our two deckhands, who were forced to stay awake for long hours in the cold, stormy weather. Hayat and Siggi had talked via satellite phone and deemed it unsafe to continue; we would pull a 180 and return to Iceland. 

Hayat had tears in her eyes as she told us it was over. We were all disappointed that this dream trip we’d been planning for months was getting shut down, but we knew she was right there with us. We thought we were going to the one place in the world where we might out run the virus sweeping across the globe, but we hadn’t been fast enough. The voyage to Greenland was over, and we still had 24 hours of brutal sailing to get back to safety. 

Our deckhands fought hard to backtrack through 60-knot gusting gales. Below deck, I slammed back and forth in my bunk while the boat careened through the steep-walled fjord funneling the winds against us. We made it to Iceland in the early hours of the morning, and it sounded like the hull was ripping in half as we broke through sea-ice to reach town.

The following morning, I was relieved to wake from my dream-like state to the boat gently rocking in the harbor. We’d returned to a snowpocalypse; many streets in the small town of Ísafjörður were blocked by 15-foot piles of snow, but at least we were on solid ground. 

Finally en route home, albeit weeks earlier than planned, we had indeed returned to a very different world than we’d left behind. It felt like weeks had passed in the few days we were out of service.

By the time we left Iceland on March 19, the country had just more than 100 infections, and flights were changing and being cancelled by the minute. As our departure kept getting pushed back, I worried we would be stuck in Reykjavík, but we finally boarded the plane and took off in a blizzard. We were on one of three flights to leave Iceland that day; all others were cancelled.

We landed JFK, New York, and quickly learned via the podcast The Daily that we were in the epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. Our flight was met by medical workers wearing masks. They took my temperature and asked if I had shown any flu symptoms in the past 14 days. I passed their test then ran through the deserted ghost-town of JFK. No lines, no waiting—in normal circumstances it would’ve been a dream, but it was actually a virus-driven nightmare. I missed my flight to Salt Lake by minutes, but at least I was in the U.S. and on my way home.

I was faring better than many people around the world—the privilege of returning to a healthy family felt immense compared to what communities were going through in Italy, Spain and Iran. As the virus continues to spread, I’m increasingly grateful we left when we did and am more than happy to isolate at home. Greenland will still be there, ready for our next attempt, and for now, we have bigger things to worry about.

Editors’ Note: Hayat, the boat’s captain, was checked out by an epidemiologist in Iceland and tested negative for coronavirus and pneumonia. She was suffering from a bad case of the seasonal flu and has since made a full recovery.

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  1. I found this blog post to be very interesting. Its too bad CoVid-19 had such a negative effect on this expedition. I have been having issues participating in winter sports too. Keep posting this great content Will.

  2. I did not know you were having so much trouble in Iceland and
    Greenland. We are having the worst time in The US. according to the news here. I hope it gets better all over. We have an experimental vaccine here but it may take until January of 2021 before it’s safe to use. I hope we can speed that up. Yours Karen

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