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Breaking through

Jun 25, 2014

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

(page 2 of 3)

A polar bear on the ice at Bellot Strait.

The only route west

With the northern entrance to Peel Sound remaining stubbornly red, Bellot Strait was obvious even to us as the only route west. To get there we had to negotiate a 10-mile band of “green” — one to three-tenths of ice — at the northwest corner of Prince Regent Inlet. This ice first became visible as an “ice blink” when it was still beyond the horizon and then as a thin line of white as we approached the cliffs of Prince Leopold Island. As we passed, birds beyond number screamed and wheeled and dove.

As the ice got closer, it took a great deal of imagination to see any gaps. We doubled the watch on deck. With only three crew — me, my wife Mary Anne and friend Claude — there wasn’t much rest, but we needed one person to hand-steer around the nearby chunks and another to scan with the binoculars and plan a strategic route through the grander maze of ice. Arctic Tern favored a route farther from the land, while Libellule, also ahead of us, figured the answer was to close the coast at or slightly south of Cape Clarence. I opted for the Libellule route; he was a bit farther ahead, said the worst seemed to be behind and was seeing clear water ahead.

It was not really a walk in the park, but after a couple of hours we had passed three fairly solid bands through gaps not much wider than our 13-foot beam and could revert to having only one crew freezing on the deck. We continued south between the Somerset Island coast and a very solid nine-tenths ice a few miles offshore.

Bellot Strait blocked by ice.

Eighteen hours after leaving Radstock Bay, I blogged that it seemed warmer. After less than two degrees of latitude! What was I thinking? Well, the water temperature was up two degrees and I could see a few patches of green on the shore. But back to reality … we were heading for Fort Ross to await the opening of a blocked Bellot Strait. The venerable Hudson’s Bay Company (founded in 1670) closed its trading post at Fort Ross in 1948 because of the impossibility of keeping it supplied through the same ice-choked Bellot Strait. And they used real ships!

Something close to darkness replaced the midnight twilight we had experienced farther north in Lancaster Sound. More southerly latitudes and the advance of August had put an end to anything bordering on “midnight sun,” but we could still see the ice. In the early morning with Arctic Tern a mile or two ahead, we both entered Brentford Bay and headed toward the anchorage below Fort Ross.

Too vulnerable

Austrian boat Belle Epoque invited us by VHF to share their spot in an unnamed passage south of Brands Island. We declined, thinking their location was too vulnerable to drifting ice and picked a nearby cove. In the end, their only problem with ice was the young polar bear hitchhiker it nearly brought aboard their boat. Our only problem with ice was the large floe that drifted upon us too quickly for us to get the anchor up. The snubber was already removed. We stopped winding in. Ice pulled on chain; chain pulled on windlass; windlass support exploded; and windlass shaft ended up choked in multiple turns of battery cable and chain as the entire windlass motor rotated around its shaft. Not a good day!

The Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker Henry Larsen at work.

Fortunately Claude is a retired mechanical engineering professor who used to design turboprop aircraft engines. This was just his sort of work. So Mary Anne drove our un-anchorable boat around in gentle circles while Claude and I ran back and forth from bow to workroom fashioning and installing bits of wood to support the windlass motor and resist its torque. By dinnertime we found a mercifully ice-free place to anchor and were happy with our work. We could not know it at the time, but two months and many anchorings later the jury-rigged windlass would still be working.

At 2300 on Aug. 20, Acalephe and Traversay III retrieved anchors and headed into Bellot Strait. We felt some trepidation. There were rumors that strong turbulent tidal currents could push unwary boats into walls of ice jammed stationary across the strait. It turned out better than we had expected. The swirling currents did present rapidly opening and closing leads seeming to allow passage and then trapping anyone inattentive enough to be caught … but with effort the pitfalls could be avoided. We negotiated a lot of ice only to find ourselves blocked at Halfway Island, which is, as you guessed, halfway along the 13-mile strait.

While we hovered out of reach of the slabs of ice drifting by in the current, Claude offered the thought that if we waited, perhaps all the ice would pass us by. Repeatedly we backtracked to ensure an escape route was still open behind and then advanced back to the ice barrier. At each iteration, the water behind became clearer while the ice ahead receded with the tide to permit further advance down the strait.

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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