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Braving the Northwest Passage

Apr 26, 2010

Editor’s note: In the summer of 2009, multiple circumnavigator and Cruising Club of America Blue Water Medal winner Eric Forsyth sailed his Westsail 42 Fiona through the Northwest Passage.

Before even starting this cruise there was a great deal of preparatory work to be done, including a review of all the reports, literature and videos of previous trips that I could find. I was lucky enough to get the videos made by Roger Swanson and Gaynelle Templin of their attempts on the passage made by Cloud Nine, which was ultimately successful in 2007.

I had to get special equipment, such as a sturdy 10-foot-long pole with spike for fending off ice. I bought many spares including a propeller and laid in a six-month supply of basic food.

The trip up the coast from Long Island to the Davis Strait and Greenland went without serious incident, although we tore the jib off Cape Sable, it was repaired at North Sails in Lunenburg. From there it was a straight shot to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I replaced the food consumed en route; further north it would be expensive. I had to replace an elbow in the exhaust system and repair the steering chain, but then our minor maintenance problems ceased for a while.

The Canadian coast guard gave me ice charts showing the usual iceberg build-up off the coast of Labrador. We headed due east for a spell to clear the field before heading directly north for Nuuk in Greenland. We saw no more ‘bergs until we entered the approach to Nuuk where we encountered small ‘bergs and bergy bits coming down the fjord.


A broken rib
Nuuk’s inner harbor was the same scene of chaos I had experienced in 2008 with dozens of fishing boats and small freighters rafted half-a-dozen deep. We tied up to a steel barge which turned out to be an unfortunate choice; the narrow catwalk around the empty hold was littered with wire rope and rusty shackles. Once when returning to the boat I lost my footing and took a nasty tumble into the barge’s hold. I broke a rib on the steel strakes. It had happened to me before, and my philosophy was to press on, I wasn’t coughing up blood so my lungs were okay, though sleeping was difficult.

We had mostly windless but foggy conditions heading north; we crossed the Arctic Circle and popped into Sisimiut for a night to refuel. Our next and last stop in Greenland was Upernavik, a whaling port for a couple of centuries and now a fairly large Inuit village.

By now we were downloading ice charts issued by Environment Canada via the Iridium satellite phone. Our immediate destination was Resolute, we hugged the south coast of Devon Island in Lancaster Sound to stay clear of the pack ice. Just before arriving at Resolute, we dropped anchor at desolate Beechey Island. The famous Franklin expedition wintered over in 1845/6. Two ships of the most modern design, Erebus and Terror, were equipped with early steam engines. Much of the route had already been explored. It was felt only a few hundred unknown miles separated these two areas and it was thought Sir John Franklin, with his ice-strengthened ships, would have no difficulty completing the passage.

There were three graves on the shore. These belonged to two sailors and a marine from Franklin’s ships that died during that first winter. They had been buried in permafrost, thus the bodies were well preserved.


Blocking ice
We encountered pack ice of about 3/10ths density, according to the ice chart, that blocked the entrance to Resolute Bay. We anchored south of the hamlet of Resolute and proceeded to wait for the ice in Peel Sound to the south to open, if it was going to. We refueled from a truck on the beach, explored the local area and were entertained by a polar bear that floated by on a floe.

One morning we found pack ice moving into the bay at an astonishing rate. We raised the anchor and sought clear areas, but these got smaller and smaller until finally we were forced right against the shore, unfortunately it was high tide. By the afternoon, Fiona was hard aground with her port bilge resting on the sea bottom. With her long straight keel and generous beam, Fiona can take that sort of treatment without damage if the sea is calm, unlike many more modern boats with skeg keels. We floated off at the next high tide and pushed our way through the floes to deeper water.

Each evening we talked on shortwave to Peter Semotiuk, a resident of Cambridge Bay who runs a radio net for cruising boats. He kept us up to date on ice conditions south and west of us and, of course, we had our own ice charts. Finally, after 10 days of waiting, it appeared the ice was clearing in Peel Sound and Franklin Strait and a narrow lead existed on the east side.

We left Resolute Bay as heavy pack ice was once again moving into the area. We had started on the heart of the Northwest Passage, and likely to be the most difficult section. For more than a day we powered south with only a light wind. In fact, we experienced only light winds throughout most of the time we were in the middle portion of the passage.

Late on the second day after leaving Resolute we entered the ice field that lay north of the Tasmania Islands, an archipelago lying off the east coast of the Boothia Peninsula. Despite fairly thick ice, we were able to negotiate a way through the islands in a few hours using a spotter perched in the ratlines. By noon, south of the Tasmanias, the ice really thickened, in the fog we could see very few leads of clear water and these usually tapered out with little progress. The radar was deceptive as it only picked up the larger floes and apparent leads turned out to be choked with smaller floes as we got closer.


Stuck in the ice
We pushed on for nearly 12 hours before we had to admit we were stuck. We tied ourselves to an iceberg just before midnight, although the light from a watery sun illuminated the fog and the gloomy scene around us. I was awakened by a crash and the sudden tilting of my bunk. We all rushed on deck; a berg had collided with our own icy haven, it had rotated and the underwater mass had lifted Fiona’s bow clear of the surface. With the stern still in deep water I started the engine, put the transmission in reverse and we slid back into the sea as though we were on ways.

We found another floe to attach ourselves to on the lee side using the dinghy anchor; one piece of equipment I had omitted to bring was a four-pronged grapnel. The fog started to lift and soon the shore of the Boothia Peninsula was visible just less than half a mile to the east. It looked rocky and very bleak. A check of our position on the GPS showed that we were moving north with the ice field. We were still in a clear pool of water, but it was shrinking. By lunchtime clear water had virtually disappeared and we were surrounded by ice, some of which was obviously old ice with thick pieces tilted up on edge. After lunch I checked our progress north in the field, we were heading back towards the Tasmanias at about seven nautical miles a day. The chart showed a promontory and bay on the coast just before the islands, I was concerned the ice may push us into them.

I decided to call the Canadian coast guard to advise them of our position and see if there was an ice breaker in the vicinity. I told them we were not in immediate danger and they advised getting the inflatable ready so that we could reach the shore of the Boothia Peninsula if Fiona was crushed and sank. They also recommended putting survival gear and important personal possessions in handy bags. They said a breaker could be there in one or two days if needed. As we blew up the dinghy on the foredeck we could hear the song of Beluga whales coming through the hull, they must have been under the boat which was in about 170 feet of water. Their tune sounded like someone playing a saw with a violin bow. All afternoon we fended off floes with the 10-foot pole and spike, paying particular attention to the rudder.

The next day was much the same with ice now forming virtually 100 percent coverage. Every six hours I checked in with the coast guard as they had requested, but they said an ice-breaker would not be heading our way as we were not in immediate danger. By then we had moved 14 miles north and the cape and Tasmania Islands were clearly visible. As we maneuvered to avoid being crushed using the engine and the poles I was again very concerned about the vulnerability of the rudder, the top of which stuck out of the water by an inch or two at the stern and clearly would not survive an impact from a rampaging heavy floe.


A clearing wind
By the third day a northeast wind developed and almost imperceptibly the clear areas between the floes began to widen. From the spreader a clear lead extending to the south about a mile away was visible. We began to push floes out of the way and generally make our way in that direction. It looked like we were going to break out after all. After a couple of hours we made it to the lead, which by then, of course, had changed its character and developed tributaries. We worked our way generally south and edged away from the coast. The value of having four on board was apparent; we split into two watches of two men, one spotting from the ratlines and one hand-steering. I called the coast guard to let them know we were on our way again. When we found a clear patch a few hundred yards in extent we anchored to a floe in the evening, the nights were now getting noticeably darker. Within a few hours the patch shrank and we had to re-anchor by sailing up to another substantial floe and tossing our dinghy anchor onto it until it wedged firmly on a protuberance. We were now headed for the James Ross Strait, east of King William Island.

We began to slowly work our way east and south, again with two men on watch, one in the rigging spotting the best route through the ice. A hazard we learned to avoid while zigzagging between the floes were underwater projections extending well beyond the surface contour. We called them “horns.” The ice reports were right; close to the coast was a fairly clear channel with patches of heavier ice concentration. Six days after leaving Resolute we anchored in the bay at Gjoa Haven. We had been luckier than Roald Amundsen on his transit of the Northwest Passage. He went hard aground in this part of the Passage and lost some of his keel, although we did have a near miss with a rocky island. I wondered about that until I saw a small note on the margin of the chart: “Horizontal datum not determined.”

There was a hotel, a market and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police station. Residents zipped about on ATVs and snowmobiles lay around, waiting for winter. The nondescript houses looked exactly like those at Resolute — somewhat depressing. I arranged for a fuel delivery by truck.


A meeting with Ocean Watch
We knew from radio chatter with Peter that Ocean Watch, a 64-foot sailboat which had left Seattle in May was making a west-to-east transit of the Northwest Passage. We spotted its lights just before midnight and called on VHF to arrange to meet for brunch the next day at the snack bar in the hotel. The captain, Mark Schrader, was also a member of the Cruising Club of America so it was fitting that our two cruises should cross paths at Gjoa Haven.

We left in the afternoon as we had a fair wind to carry us to the south end of King William Island. As we rounded the point and hung a right up to the Simpson Strait, the boisterous wind was then dead on the nose and I did not fancy tacking up the rock-strewn water. A cozy-looking bay lay on the right on the shore of King William and we headed for that. When we had a lee we dropped the anchor in 20 feet and settled down for the night.

It took another day for the wind to drop, and then we negotiated the tricky Simpson Strait under power. Halfway through we passed the cruise ship Hanseatic which was heading east. The passengers lined the rail and waved enthusiastically. Fiona must have looked very small to them and they probably wondered what those crazy New Yorkers were doing so far north. We anchored each night on the way to Cambridge Bay because of the dangerous rock-strewn channels, although there was little ice. We arrived only three days later than the date I had chosen to decide if it would be prudent to return to the Atlantic before the Passage closed due to winter ice. According to Peter we had seen the worst ice and the route along the Arctic coast of the Canadian mainland and in the Beaufort Sea would be largely free of ice if we hurried. Even though we were running a little late I decided to push on to Alaska and California. San Francisco was more than 4,000 nm away.


Expensive water
Ashore I was able to arrange for a fuel delivery to top off the tanks and to have fresh water delivered, the first we had taken aboard since Nuuk. Both were expensive, but I was surprised at the cost of water; 35 cent/gal, after all, numerous lakes abounded north of the village. I asked the truck driver why and discovered the water was stored in a heated building so it was available all winter. Such are the complexities of living so far north. Cambridge Bay was a notch above the villages we had visited previously, it had a couple of supermarkets, one of which featured a Pizza Hut in the foyer — western civilization was creeping in. We were able to get showers at the Visitor Centre and Peter came down to the dock for a drink at Happy Hour.

When we left we aimed for our last port in Canada, Tuktoyaktuk, on the western side of the Mackenzie River delta and about 600 nm away. We encountered only scattered ice. Many of the geographical features had names reflecting the intense interest in the region during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Lady Franklin, Bathurst, Dease, Union and Dolphin. The Northern Lights laid on a show. Our next port was Nome, on the other side of the Bering Strait. We had a tedious sail along the north coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, occasionally we could see the edge of the pack ice on the starboard horizon, but we had no serious problems with ice. It was 500 nm to Point Barrow, the most northern extremity of Alaska and then we turned south in the Chukchi Sea.

Two days later, in heavy seas roiling up from astern, the roller chain of the steering system broke. We hove-to for a while to rig the emergency tiller and then resumed our course to Nome, hand-steering during two-hour watches. It was strenuous, cold duty for the two and a half days it took us to raise Nome, 10 days and more than 1,100 nm out of Tuktoyaktuk. We crossed the Arctic Circle thus completing the Northwest Passage transit. From crossing the circle heading north, to crossing heading south took 49 days, some 34 sailing days (including the time trapped) and we logged 3,440 nm. Peter sent me an e-mail to say he believed 11 private vessels had made the passage this year. The day before our arrival, we surfed through the Bering Strait with Russia just a few miles on our starboard. We were surprisingly far west; not far from the international date line, further west even than Hawaii.

We arrived at Nome just before midnight and tied up to the rather forbidding 10-foot-high dock wall, in the morning we were cleared back into the U.S. by a very pleasant border control officer. I was disappointed to discover Nome charged a stiff nightly fee for dockage, I had got used to the free dockage in Canada.


Replacing the broken chain
I replaced the broken steering chain and in the afternoon we topped off the tanks from a fuel truck. My two remaining crew decided that the pleasures of Nome far outweighed a possibly rough passage further south and they both left the cruise. The Bering Sea to Dutch Harbor and the Gulf of Alaska to California have a bad reputation for heavy weather and winter was approaching. I decided to single-hand to Dutch Harbor where I felt I could sign up more crew. The boat was underway within minutes of the crew unloading their gear.

I was exceptionally lucky with the weather. The wind remained on the stern at moderate strength and I sailed or motor sailed without much difficulty. Only as I neared Dutch Harbor did the forecast begin to look ominous with gale force winds, but fortunately from the northwest, not on the nose. I arrived in the vicinity of Dutch Harbor near midnight; I had picked out a spot on the chart to anchor that provided a good lee from the gale. I had made the leg in four and a half days from Nome. In the morning I sailed into the secluded inner boat harbor and tied up next to a Swedish motor-sailer that had just completed the Northeast Passage from Sweden via the Russian and Siberian coast to Alaska.

I was able to recruit two new crew via my Web site and after nine days we left with a gap between the passing low pressure cells and transited the Unalga Pass on the ebb, without problems.

Soon it was time to plan our arrival in San Francisco. The pilot recommended entering San Francisco Bay with the flood tide. By estimating our arrival date within a couple days when we had still about 500 miles to go, I was able to look up the tide table and discover the tide turned at about 0500. This was perfect; we could enter the Golden Gate as the sun rose. We might even see the bridge if it wasn’t foggy. Unfortunately a thick fog enveloped the famous bridge as we approached, but it lifted a little and we could see portions of the span. An old shipmate had arranged a slip reservation for us at Emeryville on the east side of the bay and we tied up, 8,873 nm out from Long Island, the hard way.

Read more about Eric Forsyth’s adventures with Fiona at www.yachtfiona.com.

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