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Breaking through

Jun 25, 2014

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

Traversay’s route through the middle of the Northwest Passage where shifting, ice-blocked passages suddenly opened up, forcing a mad dash to get through.

Traversay’s route through the middle of the Northwest Passage where shifting, ice-blocked passages suddenly opened up, forcing a mad dash to get through.

Alfred Wood/Ocean Navigator illustration

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Less than 200 vessels of all sizes from icebreakers on down have successfully sailed the Northwest Passage since Roald Amundsen’s Gjøa made the first transit early in the last century. Some have suggested that this is now an easy route from Atlantic to Pacific with more ice vanishing every year. For us, on our 45-foot steel sailboat Traversay III, it turned out not to be so simple.

Our March 30 departure from St. Katharine Docks in central London gave just enough time to be pinned down a week by weather in the Thames Estuary, for dives to clear away night-time crab trap encounters in Wales, to deal with gales and whisky in Scotland and to make a westbound North Atlantic passage to the west coast of Greenland.

The steel cutter Traversay III near Upernavik, Greenland.

All that was just to get us to the starting gate in Baffin Bay. The critical sections of the Northwest Passage only become navigable late in August and new ice often shuts the door again by mid-September. After arriving in Arctic Canada as summer was already waning, we felt the pressure to get moving. We only found out later that 2013 was the worst ice year since 2006. Before that there were no good ice years.

On Aug. 16 at 2300 snow obscured a lonely graveyard on the nearby rocky shore of Devon Island in Canada’s High Arctic. It was not dark outside; just gloomy. Through the deckhouse windows of Traversay III we could just make out the aluminium cutter Acalephe also pitching at anchor in the gale-driven waves. Small chunks of ice drifted about the bay. The staccato of a halyard occasionally beating against the mast punctuated the continual moan of the wind in the rig.

That lonely graveyard was a reminder of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition in 1845. His ships Erebus and Terror wintered in this bay and a number of crewmembers were laid to rest under this forlorn hillside before the spring came.

Forced out by ice

Yet another check of our e-mail added to the gloom and depleted our Iridium satphone account by a few more precious minutes. A new ice chart had just arrived and showed our tenuous hold on security in Erebus and Terror Bay to be short lived. Ice charts are color coded from green meaning “you’re going to have to slalom a bit to avoid the ice,” to red for “this is a lot like trying to sail across an island.” A large band of red showed that the wind was driving ice toward our anchorage.

Lonely graveyard at Erebus and Terror Bay where members of Franklin’s 1845 expedition are buried.

The VHF came alive confirming that Acalephe had just received the same chart. A few moments of conversation yielded the obvious: that we must leave this place. Nick on Acalephe had sailed this part of the world before having been on Belzebub the previous year. Belzebub cruised into the record books as the first sailing yacht ever to make it through McClure Strait. He felt that Peel Sound would not open in 2013 and that the only route west would lie through Prince Regent Inlet and Bellot Strait. We, in our less developed wisdom, still wanted to hedge our bets and keep both routes as “possibles.” We headed for Radstock Bay some five hours away in order to keep both Peel Sound and Prince Regent within reach.

We took turns on deck wearing every available bit of warmth under our windproof foul-weather gear. Our feet were nearly warm in thick Norwegian gift-socks and neoprene deck boots. The diesel-fired Espar heater kept it warm in the cabin, but someone had to avoid those semi-trailer sized chunks of ice floating all about. The temperature hovered just below freezing.

The levels of ice concentration are shown in different colors (orange is 8/10ths ice and red is 9/10ths). Note ice in Erebus and Terror Bay and the open route through Prince Regent Inlet.

Scallon Cove nestles in a corner of Radstock Bay near the southwest corner of Devon Island. It is one of those places sometimes described with the phrase “you can’t get there from here.” We picked an anchor spot between British boat Arctic Tern and Swiss Libellule. No anchor spot was really better than any other. Everyone had dragged at least once; everyone was using all their chain. For us, that was 270 feet. Anchoring was followed by yet more waiting.

Libellule’s professional skipper had already impressed us as a bit of a magician. He had managed to get over to Resolute Bay, some 90 miles distant, to replenish his food and fuel through ice that appeared to us impassable — and this in a fiberglass catamaran! We had only managed to deplete our fuel supplies by 20 gallons in a futile attempt at the same exercise.

Our wait was not long. Less than 18 hours after we arrived in Scallon Cove, a new ice map showed Erebus and Terror Bay full of ice. Good that we had left! Not only that — but the same band of heavy ice was threatening to arrive shortly at Radstock Bay. Just as in the previous anchorage, everyone left within minutes of receiving the ice news.

Edit Module

Aug 27, 2017 06:59 pm
 Posted by  Nwsailor

Congratulations and thank you for this wonderful account of your passage. We would like very much to do this passage west to east but not sure we have the verve. We have a aluminum Meta Dale 47 with very thick plate (12mm) but our skins are thin.

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