The Expedition that Founded Secret Atlas
A voyage exploring the depths of Greenland onboard a small ship became the expedition that founded Secret Atlas. Discover the captivating story of passion and perseverance as co-founders Andy Marsh and Michele D’Agostino recount the tale of how their journey began…
Michele’s most accurate description of Greenland’s most isolated fjord, Scoreby Sund is, “It’s nature but amplified x10.” Little did Andy and Michele know at the time that their chance meeting, whilst sailing to Scoresby Sund would steer their lives in an entirely new direction and mark the beginning of Secret Atlas. They certainly weren’t expecting an interview and a write-up on their encounter five years later.
Andy and Michele led vastly different lives, they didn’t know each other and didn’t yet know they both shared a passion for exploration. Andy ran a video production company specialising in travel and was a passionate explorer of remote places with previous trips including sailing to South Georgia and Antarctica. Meanwhile, Michele, who was Italian/British living in London, worked as an executive in online advertising. He had previously worked in sports marketing, event management, and used to be a professional sailor competing in race courses around the world and delivering boats across oceans.
But the pair shared a profound commonality – they yearned to explore the world’s most remote locations.
Those of you who have followed adventure stories from past great explorers will likely have heard of Bill Tilman – a Major in the Army and avid explorer. After reading Tilman’s many valiant attempts to reach Scoresby Sund in Greenland, a seed of curiosity was planted in twelve-year-old Michele’s head and over the years his interest in high latitudes increased. He was sure he’d too reach Scoreby Sund one day – one of Greenland’s most isolated destinations.
Andy had already scratched the surface of his Arctic adventures, completing a voyage on board a tall ship to Antarctica and South Georgia, but upon his return, struggled to adjust back to everyday life in the UK. The heightened experience that the Arctic delivered set the precedent and normality left a void, feeling dulled by the mediocre existence his home now offered.
These two strangers simultaneously searched for an opportunity to explore Greenland, to fill the void and as fate would have it, their paths crossed when they stumbled across a sailing yacht looking for crew. Neither wasted any time in committing to the adventure that lay before them.
Scoresby Sund is about as remote as it gets, and the exigent urge to explore the harder-to-reach, more isolated locations adds that little bit more danger and excitement, fueling their desires further. Aware that once they left the safety of civilisation and entered the true wilderness, they would be reliant entirely upon themselves.
Andy says, an experienced sailor, “It’s always been a sort of fantasy destination for all seafarers.”
This secluded spot is rarely accessible, and reaching it is an achievement in itself. The Denmark Straits, which one must navigate to reach Scoreby Sund, is renowned for its notoriously harsh conditions which many have become a victim to in the past. Despite the technology available today, the waters still pose a serious threat to those who venture into them. It’s largely due to the unforgiving low depression systems that regularly hit the region. To add to matters, the icecap forms colossal glaciers, which often dump enormous chunks of ice into the strong currents which travel through Scoresby Sund, making navigation particularly treacherous.
It’s fair to say, meticulous planning and a considerable amount of patience are required to reach such a destination, as even some of the most experienced have failed the battle against nature here.
The Voyage to Greenland Begins…
Andy and Michele eagerly departed the Isle of Wight and set course for East Greenland. It had been a long time coming for them both and the 40-day voyage would see them stop at the Faroe Islands and Iceland before reaching their final destination. The 54ft sailing yacht was home for now, and the pair barely fit in the cramped cabin. The low ceiling and pipe cot bunks made it hard to manoeuvre and what little floor space was occupied by drones, cameras, ice picks and other material necessary for the voyage. This confinement was without a doubt, sure to test their endurance and patience.
After a long period of time at sea with no incidents to report, Andy and Michele were surprised to bump into avid sailor Mike Henderson who was moored up on the same dock as them in Iceland – he too was planning to reach Scoresby Sund.
Mike had written a cruising guide to Greenland and if they were to take advice from anyone, he was a solid choice.
“Guys, you’re lucky! We have the best conditions this year to reach Scoreby Sund.”
Many explorers exhaust weeks, months or even years of their lives trying to reach Scoreby Sund and yet, by chance, they had it timed perfectly. The weather looked promising, there wasn’t a lot of wind forecast and the ice charts were in their favour. Cautious not to lose their window, they set sail for Scoresby Sund. “It was finally happening,” said Andy.
Gazing over the stern of the yacht, they watched as Iceland merged into one with the sea and sky until finally disappearing entirely. It was this moment that made it all real.
The voyage was smooth, there were no howling winds, or treacherous seas to describe of… Quite pleasant in fact despite a heavy fog which lay with them for hours, blinding their route onward. “It was the kind of fog where you can’t see past the end of the boat.” Recalls Andy.
Tubular icebergs, the size of football stadiums revealed themselves as the fog lifted. Unlike other landscapes, the uninterrupted vastness of Greenland can be incredibly deceptive leading one to believe things are much closer and smaller than they really are. Andy explains,
“Everything’s so big, you’ve got no frame of reference; the mountains are so high but you’ve got no buildings to compare it to, so your sense of perspective is distorted.”
Around one hundred miles from Greenland, the vast landmass came into sight. It was the middle of the night by the time they docked but the ever-present sunlight meant there was no darkness. Days and time had no place.
“It was too easy. We didn’t deserve it.” said Michele. The voyage was a true testament to the diverse conditions nature provides. After a lifetime of reading stories of tragic tales and treacherous endeavours, their uneventful voyage left mixed feelings of disappointment, gratitude, relief and excitement for what lay ahead for the exploration had only just begun.
The serene stillness of the glass-like water was irresistible. They paddled quietly out on their kayaks, so as not to disturb the silence that was strangely deafening, making sure to only add to the environment as another slice of the landscape.
Andy says, “When I got that close to the icebergs, I really felt like I was absorbed into nature. It’s an area of outstanding natural beauty; there’s very dramatic scenery – from the sheer cliffs standing thousands of metres high to the vastness of the fjords.”
“We only really started to experience Greenland fully when we stepped ashore,” says Michele. They first visited the truly tiny settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit. Wooden-coloured houses dotted the coastline and the local people (all 350 approximately) are well known to wholeheartedly welcome pioneering travellers – often they are as equally inquisitive of the visitors for they don’t see many which is understandable, as the town is encapsulated by ice for around nine months of the year. The town has the basics, a small shop, a church and a pub which opens one night a week. Goods are delivered just twice a year, once in July and once in August.
It could be argued that there is little to do here for the villagers but the people live a different way of life in comparison to many communities. Intertwined with the seasons, they lead a slower life at one with nature in their surroundings – something very few of us experience today or even know how to.
Michele says: “Culturally, it’s one of the most interesting encounters with other people in my life. The locals are fascinated by who you are and why you’ve come. They don’t get many visitors, not like other parts of Greenland where there are airports.”
The distant snow-capped peaks were calling for Andy and Michele. It didn’t look too far to reach, maybe a couple of hours, or so they thought. But the rolling hilltops and undulating terrain seemed to stretch on for eternity. Each crest revealed yet another ascent and another, and another…
“We headed towards a peak that overlooks the glaciers and we were having bets about how long it would take to get to the top of it. I bet two hours, the other guys said four but it took almost 10 hours to get to the top.” recalls Andy.
Each corner surfaced a new view, something different. They’d been walking for hours over boggy ground when reaching the top of a ridge the texture underfoot changed. Aghast, they touched the ground beneath them for they needed to confirm what they were seeing was true. At a staggering elevation of eight hundred meters, they stood on top of a ridge, gazing down upon what could only be described as a sandy Caribbean beach.
Michele describes this moment, “That’s when you realise not a lot of people come here. I took a moment to listen, to breathe and can describe it as a very freeing feeling.”
Greenland is a testament to the relationships humanity can achieve with the wilderness and living in such a harsh environment demands respect for the resilience of its inhabitants. Its beauty and complexity are a constant reminder of the importance of diversity in our ecosystem; for those lucky enough to embrace this experience will only understand such a raw connection to the wilderness.
Like a flash, it was over. Their journey was relived through storytelling to family and friends back home but this wasn’t enough. Andy found himself vacant, for his mind was elsewhere; his first encounter with a polar bear was playing over and over in his head.
“I’d spotted him swimming across the fjord, which is probably forty miles wide. He was not fully grown yet, but he was quite far out, around fifteen miles off the coast. It was remarkable. I have a very blurry phone photo but this is something I will never forget.”
Tormented by incessant thoughts running through their minds they soon realised that Secret Atlas was the natural evolution from the expedition.
“I think after that type of trip, you can’t go back to normality.” Says Andy.
Bonded by a 40-day, sharing a matchbox-size cabin with little to no privacy built a solid platform for these two business partners. This could quite possibly be the best compatibility test – don’t you think?
Michele says: “We spent three months in the same cabin, which was basically the size of the bunk and there was no other room because the floor was full of kit – shotguns, drones, ice axes, you name it! And we never once fought, we didn’t even come close despite not having any personal space.”
Andy and Michele’s unquestionable passion, relentless grit and determination have been the driving force behind the launch of one of today’s most successful small-ship expeditions available. Andy explains,
“We wanted our Secret Atlas trips to be different. We want people to share the same experiences we’ve had.”
From the very start, they had set intentions to keep their expeditions small. They recognised the impact of their travels extended beyond environmental aspects and in order for them to achieve an intimate, immersive and sustainable experience they had to prioritise small groups. Michele explains,
“The only way to achieve this is to explore in a small group using local guides. It gives you much more flexibility too. A cruise ship taking 300 – 500 people on an expedition is going to be very fixed with a scheduled itinerary. But when you go with us in a group size of 12, you open up many opportunities and an entirely different experience.”
Andy says, “A big part of what makes Scoresby Sund interesting is the people that live there – they are the spirit of the place and I have deep admiration for anyone who inhabits such a tough environment.”
Their commitment to contributing to the local economy and enriching the community distinguishes them from other travel operators. By consciously choosing to work with locals they prioritise not only the present but also the future of exploration. Such a stance is not merely important, but imperative.
But their vision goes beyond just business. They have committed themselves to creating meaningful connections, particularly in the realm of education, to provide new prospects for the community. Their focus is on making conscious decisions and valuing integrity over profit margins.
When real people make real progress, working towards better travel experiences that benefit the environment, community and wildlife means we can all be excited for the future.