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A Q&A with Peter and Ginger Niemann on winning the CCA's 2021 Blue Water Medal

by David Schmidt 5 Apr 08:00 PDT April 5, 2022
Irene in the Northwest Passage © Jan Wangaard

The world could stand to learn some lessons in patience from Peter and Ginger Niemann. The couple—both highly experienced offshore sailors—found themselves cruising Turkey (by way of the Northwest Passage) aboard their 50-foot ketch Irene when the pandemic began unfurling. But rather than sailing back home across the Atlantic, the Niemann’s pressed Irene forward, across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

Their negotiated plan was to make landfall in Batam, Indonesia, but, upon making landfall some 6,000 nautical miles later, the couple learned that the welcome had been rolled up due to the pandemic. Singapore also refused to let them come ashore, so the couple spent the next five months living (read: quarantining) aboard Irene at Singapore’s Changi Sailing Club.

When they finally arrived in Japan, they had racked up nearly 300 days aboard Irene since leaving Turkey.

And they still had to cross the North Pacific, pass the Aleutian Islands, and then make landfall back in Washington State.

While this would have deep-sixed plenty of couples, the Niemanns were prepared for what world cruising can deliver. Sharp readers will have caught that they arrived in Turkey via the Northwest Passage, becoming the 30th U.S.-flagged vessel to have plied these fabled waters.

It’s fair to say that this was anything but simple sailing.

But this four-year circumnavigation was actually their second lap of the planet. In 2006, the couple left Seattle aboard Marcy, a 47-foot sloop. When they arrived back in Washington State in 2010 after completing their west-about circumnavigation, they had logged almost 50,000 nautical miles. This included rounding both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn.

For readers who are unfamiliar, the CCA’s Blue Water Medal (established 1923) is awarded annually to “reward meritorious seamanship and adventure upon the sea displayed by amateur sailors of all nationalities, that might otherwise go unrecognized.”

To help put this in context, previous winners include Sir Francis Chichester, Skip Novak, Marvin Creamer, Eric Tabarly, and Scott Piper.

Sail-World checked in with the Niemanns to learn more about their adventures.

How long have you guys been sailing? Also, what’s been your impetus for high-latitude and adventure sailing? Did you guys grow up sailing, or did you gravitate to this lifestyle on your own?

We’ve been cruising together since 2004. We both grew up sailing – Peter racing and cruising in dinghies and open boats, Ginger aboard the family wooden sloop.

We also hiked and skied backcountry together for years, gaining skills for coping with cold and discomfort.

The high latitude ideas came as we cruised Patagonia and found that we enjoyed sailing beautiful and wild areas, and our skills and abilities well matched the challenges of those regions.

Can you please tell us about the biggest navigational challenges that you guys encountered in the Northwest Passage?

Ice was a challenge. Some people think that because of global warming the NWP is wide open, which is certainly not always true for smaller vessels like ours. Ironically, possibly because of global warming, massive floes of floating chunks of ice (broken up ice pack) are often on the move.

This ice can get blown and compressed into areas, such as Larsen Sound, blocking the way through. If a planned route is blocked, one must find another way or wait for a shift in weather to clear the blockage – but of course, waiting can be a risk too, as ice could fill in behind and block retreat.

Our biggest challenge of navigation (in the general sense of the word) in the NWP was enduring a severe gale at anchor in Tay Bay at Bylot Island. We were anchored close (too close!) to a shore that became a lee shore, enduring nasty steep waves developing over miles of fetch. As Irene plunged in the waves, she regularly broke snubbers. Each time that happened it required a cold dangerous trip on icy decks up to the bow to rerig one, and each time Irene was another 20 feet closer to the surf. Meanwhile, apex predators—polar bears—patrolled the beach behind us. The gale lasted for days. On the open ocean we have never been so worried for so long, or been so completely drained and exhausted at the end.

Our biggest challenge of navigation in the narrower sense was trying to keep a course in the Barrow Strait. Ferrous islands combined with a weak global magnetic field (at this point we were close to the magnetic north pole) confused our compass and the autopilot would disconnect, alarm beeping. Irene is steered by tiller, and when we hand-steer the helmsperson is fully exposed to the elements.

The weather was miserable at the time, and no one on board (neither of us!) volunteered to stand on deck and hand steer. We eventually solved the problem by setting the autopilot to steer to a waypoint, rather than to a heading. By experimenting, we found that our autopilot could reliably keep a course to a waypoint a few miles away. We simply followed a series of waypoints until we were past the region of difficulty. And we stayed snug in the doghouse the whole time!

What had the onboard alarm bells ringing more loudly—icepack in the NW Passage, or word of Covid-19 spreading around the world in February 2020?

In the NWP we were dealing with challenges that we expected. We had done research, and felt that we were prepared as well as we could be. The alarm bells rang loudly a few times but not for long duration.

COVID had such an impact on the cruising community—only in time of war have so many borders been closed so quickly in the past. Information was hard to get and seemed to be out of date as soon as it was published. We heard of many unpleasant incidents—boats refused provisions, skippers and crews thrown into jail. It was hard to know what to do, and the alarm bells never seemed to turn off.

Can you please walk us through your decision to sail home via Batam from Turkey?

We considered these factors:

Because our boat was our only home, and because bad things can happen to boats left unattended, we didn’t want to leave Irene and fly back to the states. We didn’t want to stay put either, as quarantines tightened and political tensions rose in the region.

Should we head east or west?

We were on the opposite side of the globe from home, so the mileage was the same heading west via the Panama Canal or heading east via the Suez. But Suez was close to us and open, and Panama was months away and although it was open at the time, had already been closed once for a number of weeks. And a trip around Cape Horn didn’t appeal to us, we had already sailed there. Suez was only a couple of days away, and after transiting the canal we could not be denied sailing on open ocean no matter what the state of borders.

Also, as a bonus the westbound route included interesting territory we had never sailed before, and we hoped that those countries would open borders as we progressed. At the time of our departure from Turkey, Southeast Asia’s COVID numbers were improving and we were optimistic we might arrive in a period of lower cases and more open borders.

Of course, as it turned out, the borders closed further. Anyway, westbound it was, and as another bonus, it completed a circumnavigation for us as well as bringing us home.

Was it difficult to provision the boat in Turkey ahead of heading out on the almost 6,000 nm sail?

It was very easy to provision in Turkey. Food was inexpensive and delicious there, and stores were only a short walk from the boat. We had spent months there already and had identified our favorite foods, and at the time Ginger (being under the Turkish mandatory quarantine age) was allowed off the boat for shopping once a week.

What about leaving Turkey or the Med? Did anyone challenge you guys, in light of the pandemic?

It was always very easy to depart any country during the COVID crisis. The hard part was arriving anywhere! Many countries completely refused entry to cruising vessels. Some boats were turned away at gunpoint.

Can you please tell us about the 300 days that you spent aboard in Batam? How did you stay sane? Also, were you able to bring fresh food onboard? If not, how did you survive?

Correction: Singapore was the place we spent the most time in one spot, five months on the same mooring. Batam, Indonesia, refused entry to us completely. We were told to depart immediately despite having advance communications and receiving assurances that we would be allowed a visa. We got a short reprieve and were allowed to attempt repairs and arrange for a spot to stay in Singapore.

This is a very good question, how did we survive? After all, we were confined to an area no bigger than many jail cells. We were not allowed ashore, unlike inmates in jail we had no exercise yard. We could swim, but the water was unpleasant, murky and dirty. We saw lizards and snakes swim by, and did not know what sharks or crocodiles lurked nearby. We were only a few miles from the equator and the weather was hot and squally. Things could have gone very badly…

But they didn’t.

Changi Sailing Club was welcoming and helpful, and club members passed us fresh fruit and bread as they passed by in our first days there. One factor that really helped was the fact that we had cell phones and internet connectivity. This allowed us to keep up with the news. We carefully watched to see if nearby countries re-opened their borders. We were able to correspond via email with Japanese officials to plan our arrival there.

We also had friends in the neighborhood, as two other international cruising yachts were on moorings nearby. Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander were there on Ganesh, who we had met in the South Pacific years before. They already had visas and were allowed ashore. They knew Singapore well and helped us settle in even bringing friends out to have dinner with us as visits were minimally restricted after our first 30 days of quarantine.

Another boat, English flagged, had a charming family aboard with three young children. Like us, they had no visas. Carolyn took our debit card to the cash machine for us. We could order food online, and row to a pontoon to pick it up. We easily slipped into a routine; watching the weekly race, getting water, laundry, washing the boat, social visits to and from our neighbors etc. Peter played the uke, Ginger prepared delicious meals. We were happy enough as the months passed, and we were very safe from COVID and weather.

Our almost 300 days on the boat, without freedom to land, started when we departed Turkey, includes our passage to Batam, the stay in Singapore, and the passage to Japan where we were finally allowed visas and freedom after completing quarantine.

What changed that allowed you to leave Singapore and sail for home?

Nothing really changed with the COVID situation, but eventually the season was right so that we could depart our mooring, sail non-stop to Japan, cruise there for the 90 days of our visa without overstaying, and depart Japan at the correct time (late May) to expect to encounter “good” weather in the Aleutian Islands and the North Pacific.

Bad weather in this part of the world is bad and seriously to be avoided, so we did not want to leave Singapore too early and thus be forced to sea in bad weather by expired visas.

Looking back on the voyage, what was the hardest challenge you guys faced? And how did you work together to overcome it?

Some of the challenges were gales, ice, confinement, lightning strike, equipment failure, extremes of heat and cold, and facing the unknown. They all seemed like the hardest challenge at the time, but it was all doable.

To overcome difficulties, we worked together—as we are a team of two. We consider the voyage a success, as we met the challenges and reached homeport with our marriage, our boat, and our sense of humor intact.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

Just that we are glad to be back in home waters again. We are so very grateful for all the help kind people gave us along the way.

We do have a blog: oceanswell.blogspot.com

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