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Here Be Dragons

Finding the Blank Spaces in a Well-Mapped World

A couloir in the deserted Westfjords of Iceland, a few fjords over from Captain Sigurdur Jonsson's winter anchor. (Lois Parshley)

On a quiet summer evening, the Aurora, a sixty-foot cutter-rigged sloop, approaches the craggy shore of eastern Greenland, along what’s known as the Forbidden Coast. Its captain, Sigurdur Jonsson, a sturdy man in his fifties, stands carefully watching his charts. The waters he is entering have been described in navigation books as among “the most difficult in Greenland; the mountains rise almost vertically from the sea to form a narrow bulwark, with rifts through which active glaciers discharge quantities of ice, while numerous off-lying islets and rocks make navigation hazardous.” The sloop is single-masted, painted a cheery, cherry red. Icebergs float in ominous silence. 

Where Jonsson, who goes by Captain Siggi, sails, he’s one of few to have ever gone. Because the splintered fjords create thousands of miles of uninhabited coastline, there’s been little effort to map this region. “It’s practically uncharted,” he says. “You are almost in the same position as you were 1,000 years ago.” 

A naval architect turned explorer, Siggi navigates by scanning aerial photos and uploading them into a plotter, the ship’s electronic navigation system. Sometimes he uses satellite images, sometimes shots taken by Danish geologists from an open-cockpit plane in the 1930s, on one of the only comprehensive surveys of the coast. Siggi sails by comparing what he sees on the shore to these rough outlines. “Of course, then you don’t have any soundings,” he says, referring to charts of ocean depths that sailors normally rely on to navigate and avoid running aground. “I’ve had some close calls.” Over the years, he’s gotten better at reading the landscape to look for clues: He looks for river mouths, for example, where silt deposits might create shallow places to anchor, so that icebergs will go to ground before they crush the boat. In the age of GPS and Google Maps, it’s rare to meet someone who still entrusts his life to such analog navigation. 


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