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Breaking through

Jun 25, 2014

A Northwest Passage trip is a near-run thing until fate lends a hand

(page 3 of 3)

Canadian yacht Acalephe and Swiss cat Libellule head for Willis Bay.

Less than three miles to go

We were hopeful, but as the tidal flow turned we remained an impassable two and a half miles from the exit. The headlands at the end of the strait were right there, but they might as well have been on another planet.

During the slow return to our new truly ice-free anchorage in a bay west of Brands Island, we resolved to do the whole thing again at the next tide after perhaps three hours of sleep.

This repeat effort was an exercise in futility. The wind had shifted to the west and, surrounded by snow squalls, we reached the ice barrier right at Halfway Island as the turn of the tide approached. This was discouragingly short of our previous day’s mark.

On the 22nd there was a big west wind — obviously a no-go for the strait. But then we needed a rest, the engine needed an oil change and we wanted to go for a walk on the northern-most part of the North American mainland. And so another day of our fast-diminishing summer vanished.

That was the day the northern exit to Prince Regent Inlet started to block with ice. Most of us anchored around Bellot Strait were beginning to contemplate how we would winter over at Fort Ross — a geographic location with no settlement. The Dutch boat Tooluka and the British Arctic Tern succumbed to these thoughts and headed back north to return to Greenland. The rest of us just wondered what our personal date was for turning around. How long could we sit at Bellot waiting and still make it back to a port in Greenland before winter seriously set in.

A strong easterly forecast on the morning of the 23rd presented our penultimate opportunity to get to the west. So Acalephe and Traversay III set forth one more time in the middle of the night. These attempts were actually using very little of our precious and dwindling supply of diesel fuel. We headed west on a fair current and, if we failed to get through, we returned back to the anchorage with a considerable east-setting current after the turn of the tide.

This time we were blocked by ice with only half a mile to the western exit. As we pointed back east into the current with the ice wall behind us, our instruments showed us still moving west at nearly a knot. The ice blockage kept moving west as the last hours of west-going tide played themselves out. The Swiss catamaran Libellule joined us in our early morning vigil. In the end, perhaps 150 feet of ice separated us from freedom. In calm waters, we would have tried to push through, but in the swirling tidal currents, it would have been very dodgy. The ice was seven feet thick. There was even a large polar bear standing on it.
 

Ice blockage in Franklin Strait.

The route to Cambridge Bay opened up on Aug. 25.

A trump card

But we had a trump card that day. In the distance to the east we could see the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Henry Larsen steaming westbound through the strait. Behind, in line astern, were the icebreaker’s two charges: a cruise ship and the superyacht Lady M II.

After its primary duty was done, Henry Larsen came back and cut a short path through the ice just for us. Larsen’s 65,000-hp on tap slid it through the seven-foot-thick pack as if flowing through water.

Larsen was only just through into the clear water on our side when we all advanced our throttles and charged into the rapidly closing gap. Acalephe was first and had an easy time of it; we were second and slalomed around a few Volkswagen-sized pieces of ice. All the while I could hear Libellule behind me yelling “Faster, faster!” The ice was closing back in. Some large chunks bounced off Libellule’s stainless-sheathed bows, but it could not be helped; we were already going as fast as we could. And suddenly we were through.

But what had we done?

As the blue-sky day wore on, we explored the entire 20-mile width of Franklin Strait and found no gap, no obvious crack, in the white sheet to the south. Henry Larsen offered encouragement and helpful advice about routes, but thin ice to an icebreaker was not thin ice to us. Additionally, a northwesterly gale was coming and we needed a place to hide. It had to be on the west side of Peel Sound or Franklin Strait because anyone on the east side was going to be crushed by gale-driven ice or, if the hiding place was very good, merely be frozen into it.

Just as the wind started to blow, we dashed into Willis Bay — on the east shore of Prince of Wales Island — and anchored. We used too little chain, anchored in too-deep water and failed to keep an anchor watch expecting the anchor alarm to do the job for us.

At this point, because sometimes there is only one solution to a problem, there were five boats arrayed around the windward shore of the bay: Canadians Acalephe and Traversay III, French Isatis, Austrian Belle Epoque and Swiss Libellule. Isatis and Belle Epoque transited Bellot the tide after us and after a very cursory search for the non-existent route south, came into the same bay to hide from the coming gale. They had needed no help from an icebreaker and reported that Bellot had cleared out completely.

The wind blew, as gales do, and made a lot of noise. No one aboard heard our anchor alarm; it is much softer than the one we used to have. But, bless his heart, Nick on Acalephe was standing watch and called on the radio in a loud persistent voice that we were not where we once were, but halfway across the bay.

The waves were very large in the gale winds that far off the shore, and reanchoring in the cold wind and snow was a bit of a trial. This time we anchored close to the shore in shallow water and used all our chain. We even set an anchor watch.
 

Late in the season

The calendar had reached Aug. 24 and the way south was still blocked, the route north through Peel Sound was also blocked and Prince Regent back through Bellot Strait was nearly so. We still had faith, but wondered whether the boats heading back toward Greenland were perhaps the clever ones. Every day we were keeping warm with diesel out of the same tanks needed for propulsion. Some of the boats were beginning to hint at unhappiness with their remaining supplies. The nearest fuel was 300 miles away at Cambridge, Gjoa or Taloyoak, all on the other side of the ice.

By mid-afternoon on the 25th it was still blowing a gale as one by one the boats received the latest ice maps from their various sources. Libellule had fleet broadband; the rest of us relied on e-mails of compressed images sent by various friends. The maps, though, really all showed the same picture. Victoria Strait, the shortcut toward Cambridge Bay to the west of King William Island, displayed a usable path through the ice.

Finally it was time to go.

Thirty-six hours later we were still broad-reaching towards Cambridge Bay at more than seven knots. The ice was all behind. The watches were now inside, crew peering warmly through the windows. The sailing winds had banished all fuel worries. Nome was still many miles ahead at the far end of the continent, but we would be tying up there in a few short weeks. We didn’t know it at the time, but all five boats had made it through the worst of the ice!

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Laurence Roberts and Mary Anne Unrau have sailed more than 90,000 miles in Traversay III, a Waterline 43 designed by Ed Rutherford and built of steel at Sidney, British Columbia, in 2000. They have crossed every meridian and reached latitudes from 65° S on the Antarctic Peninsula to 80° N at the northwest tip of Spitsbergen.
 

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