The beauty of the Arctic: interview with Chris and Jess Bray

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Chris Bray and Jess Taunton bought an old 29 ft. sailboat in Halifax, Canada in 2009, rebuilt her and sailed through the Northwest Passage to Alaska.

Already professional photographers and adventurers (check out their website), they reached many fans on the Internet thanks to a popular Youtube series of their voyage.

They are also currently working on the production a feature-length documentary on the voyage and will soon launch a Kickstarter campaign to gather the necessary funds to get a top quality product.

Inspired by their adventure I reached out to them with some questions about their trip and their life.

Here is what we talked about:

FB: First I want to ask you what made you decide to buy Teleport and how did you get to the point to sail the Northwest Passage. 

Chris: I just finished doing some arctic expedition and I wasn’t in a great hurry to go back to the Arctic. After coming back I was broke, actually I owed some money still. I just met up with Jess and we went for a cycling adventure in Tasmania for a couple of weeks. While we were there we stopped by a friend’s place, who is a bit of an adventurer as well, and he previously bought Teleport sight unseen to participate to the Jester Challenge. When he realized he wasn’t able to participate to the challenge he put the boat back on the market. He was listing Teleport while we were there and he asked us if we wanted to buy it for half price. We told him we had no money so he gave it to us in a interest free loan.

We thought it was a great opportunity, the boat was in Halifax, the other side of the world, it seemed like a pretty cool boat for two people and it was close to the Northwest Passage. While we were cycling around, barely known each other for two months, and we thought “well, it may be a good idea”. So we got the boat.

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FB: I am sure the so-called experts gave you a hard time about your decision to go that route on your boat. How did you fend off criticism and found the determination to go your own way?

Chris: I think that doing other difficult expeditions where people already told me I was going to die, and that was not possible, was a great help. As long as you convince yourself that the risk are brought down to a reasonably safe point, you stop listening to the negative people and focus only to the positive encouragement instead.

I thought I was a more confident and capable sailor than I actually was because I grew up on a sailboat for five years.  I was a kid and I did not retain much skills.  I also had two months of sailing experience in the Southern Ocean, in the Antarctic Island on a big metal sailboat. So I had experience in sailing but I had never been in charge of my own vessel before. I remember my dad always saying you never buy an old wooden boat. So I thought I would have an hard time to convince him it was a right choice but amazingly he was supportive, as long as I was making sure to be prepared.

Jess: I grew up with my family in a farm with chicken, cows, dogs and absolutely no experience in sailing. I was only going out with Chris for a couple of months, and when I told my dad we were buying an old wooden sailboat he was in shock and did not really know what to say. The day after he came to talk about it with me a little more, and then he went out and bought “The encyclopedia of sailing” and read it entirely the same night and started to ask me questions I did not know how to answer. In a way I think it was better that they didn’t know anything about sailing and the Northwest Passage.

FB: After you did it what did you think changed from what you expected?

Chris: We went through a huge amount of learning. In the hindsight it was a lot harder and a lot riskier than we thought  when we set off. It was the first time that I was in charge of a boat myself, and it’s an awful lot more responsibilities. I also had never been in an expedition or an adventure with my girlfriend. All the other times I was with other guys, more or less by myself really, and all of the sudden I was with this girl I love, and I had to deal with stress and look after Jess and reassure her.

I never really knew about maintenance and diesel engine, but every time it broke I had to take it apart and put it back together. Quickly I started to learn every part of the boat. I also had never sailed a junk rigged boat before and Jess had not even been on a sailboat, so we had a lot to figure out.

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FB: What was the most difficult situation?

Chris: Weather was a constant issue. Particularly the worst weather we had was halfway between Canada and Greenland in the Labrador Sea, the first real ocean passage. We had an unusual storm coming from an angle we didn’t expect and then was joined by another storm that sat on us for two days, so we had bad and confused seas. The boat was making creaking noises and we didn’t know if it was the normal noises of wooden timber or the boat was cracking apart.

Jess was incredibly seasick to the point of dehydration, the whole boat was stinking of vomit for several days. Our water tank had a rupture so we lost most of our fresh water supply and we relied on 50 liters to complete the trip. When we spot a British Luxury Cruise Ship I called the skipper on VHF to ask where it was ice free, and they say you have to go to Nuuk, the capitol of Greenland, another five days further. They asked us if we where out in that storm and they seemed impressed because they measured force 12 winds and 12 meters waves.

That storm was the most difficult challenge. I was trying to stay positive and Jess was looking to me to get a hint if we were to die, but inside of me I was worried. The fact that it was a wooden boat a little scared me, because I didn’t know if the boat was about to crack. So I was busy checking our rubber dinghy lashed on deck, and the grab bag and or the equipment, and I kept being busy and alert

FB: How did you adapt to live together on a small boat?

Jess: A lot of my friends had the same questions and I was a little worry about it myself, but since we set sail we were not really spending a lot time together. On longer passages, when you set watches you are up and the other one rests, and actually I was starting to miss Chris because the only time together we were chatting about the weather or navigation and then we were quickly apart again. So after a month or two in the passage, we decided to spend an hour together everyday where we would talk about podcast or anything that was not boat related. Even during day passages we were busy, while one was on watch, the other was fixing stuff, cooking, writing or making videos. Strange enough, we actually had to create time for ourselves.

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FB: Did you have time where you felt stuck in the trip, and the things were not going as you wanted to?

Chris: When we got to Greenland after the storm people would write to us offering emotional support, thinking we would quit after the scary experience. We never even considered quitting, we felt we just survived a hard part and there was a lot to start to look forward to: beautiful scenery, wildlife and untouched communities.

In a way we did change our plan. Overall we had the initial goal to bring the boat all the way to Australia but after the North West Passage and the West Coast of Alaska, we started to enjoy it less and less because there were too many people, less wildlife, and that changed our mind on the overall goal to go back to Australia. Right up in the Arctic there were communities we were invited to be in because we were maybe the second sailboat they have ever seen. The few sailors we met there were also quite interesting. But then coming down to Alaska we started to meet people less and less interesting and the community was not so open. We felt more alone even if there were more people around us. So we though about changing the plans and do more arctic sailing, perhaps with a better, bigger sailboat.

FB: How that trip changed you? What did you learn something about yourself during the trip? 

Chris: Having done a couple of different adventures previously I realized that of all the different ways to be outdoor sailing is the best way to experience the world as you can bring your house with you. You can still access some of the most remote parts of the world and do it with a little comfort too. So we are trying to find a way to work that into a future plan. The reason why we could do that is because we have our own business. We are trying to to grow in a direction that allows us to go sailing full time way. We think about bringing tourists to Iceland, Greenland and Alaska, beautiful places out of the way and get people there in comfort. On a shorter term we are working on running a lodge safari on a tropical island to provide a little income to then go sailing, maybe on a 40 ft aluminum junk rig sailboat.

Jess: We also want to make a little documentary film of our Teleport experience. We have a lot of great content that we are sitting on right now. It’s becoming an old story and we want to turn it into a docu-story, so we finally decided to put it on Kickstarter to look for help from people and maybe get a small production company involved to get more of a professional job.

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FB: What is the hardest thing to communicate?

Chris: I really miss not having a drone back there to capture great footage, or GoPros to leave in certain spots ashore to record wildlife. We always think about going back and doing it again, with better equipment and get better footage with more up to date technology.

But the hardest thing still to communicate is bad weather. It is incredibly hard to make a wave look as big as it is. You are telling your story and then you show your film and people think you are in a pond. When they get to a certain point you don’t want to be out there filming either. Maybe that can be fixed with a security camera back out on deck that works in automatic, we tried to make things self powered and protected from water but it’s a really big challenge.

FB: How did you convince commercial brand to become your sponsors?

Chris: A lot of the sponsors came onboard from previous trips I made. We had also a lot of good media contacts already, from our business, and that enabled a lot of sponsors contacts. The key thing is to offer a good marketing platform.  We contacted most of these channel media with quite a business plan and we had specific requests in terms of funds or equipment. Sometimes when your offer is interesting and competitive with other media exposure you can convince brands to sponsor you, because in a way you can offer more affordable exposure.  It certainly doesn’t happen from one day to another, it requires a lot of work and contacts that we already had even before the trip on Teleport.

FB: How is life on land compared to life on the boat. What’s the difference?

Chris: It is definitely more stressful on land! On a sailboat there is a lot of high stress involved, like the weather that you can’t control, dragging anchor, dealing with all the different things that can go quickly wrong. But then back at home it seems there are even more things to work on, the business, the daily life struggles. Overall stress level is less on the boat, as you have to simplify, you have to go from point A to point B as safely as possible. While at home you have to time manage all the things and they add one to the other, so strangely everything seems more stressful on land.

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FB: Most useful peace of equipment, most useless?

Jess: The most useless one was our anchor windlass. It was installed not quite in the right spot as it didn’t lead the chain into the anchor locker, so Chris had to pull chain and anchor by hand, so in the end it was utterly useless.  It looked good on the bow and people would say “oh lucky you”, but we were not really! For me, one of the most useful equipment was a wind speed meter, because we really didn’t know how fast the wind was blowing and I had no experience or point of reference and I would easily get worried. Installing that actually helped me to decide when to reef, or if paying out more anchor. It became easier to judge the situation and It was also reassuring, especially at night when I could decide if waking up Chris or not.

Chris: We had an oversize Rocna anchor which never dragged and that was a peace of mind, and even if I had to pull it by hand every time I was glad of that extra weight.

I was also particularly happy with our junk rig. It looks lovely in photos, but more practically is so great that we would want another boat with a junk rig. There are so many benefits in it, the ease of reefing with no deck work involved for instance. You can let the sail out to ninety degrees when running down wind as there are no stays. We could sail faster downwind than bigger sailboats. It doesn’t point quite as high to the wind though. Another advantage is that if there’s a tear on the sail there is no risk of it spreading to the rest of the sail, and also the construction makes it was easy to fix. It was probably the best thing about our boat.

 

 

 

One thought on “The beauty of the Arctic: interview with Chris and Jess Bray

  1. Ellen says:

    Great interview, Chris and Jess! Can definitely relate to lots of your comments – how it’s impossible to get realistic footage/photos of waves, making time to be together on passage, the peace of mind that a good anchor gives, the work involved in sponsorship, how land life can actually be a lot more stressful than boat life, and regretting not having had better photo/video equipment – that’s our biggest regret of our circumnavigation. Well, that and not having stopped at Christmas Island! We’ll have to come see you there once you get the eco-lodge up and running! Maybe we’ll come by sailboat!
    Hope you’re well! Cheers,
    Ellen

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