Northwest Passage – Half Way Home

They had planned to sail the entire length of the Northwest Passage in a small open boat. But when Kevin Oliver and Tony Lancashire of the British Royal Marines pulled their 17ft 6in craft out of the water for the last time in early September they had sailed, rowed and pulled their tiny craft across 1,400 miles of the waters of the Arctic Archipelago. But instead of reaching Baffin Bay on the Atlantic side they reached Gjoa Haven, a settlement that lies about mid way between their starting point on the Beaufort Sea in the west and Baffin Bay on the Atlantic side. Ironically Gjoa Haven is the same harbor where, in 1903, legendary explorer Roald Amundsen spent two winters trapped in the ice aboard his steel seal hunting craft Gjoa during his successful attempt to be the first expedition to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by way of the Northwest Passage.

Although Oliver, 41, and Lancashire, 35, are both survival specialists and have spent a lot of time in the Arctic, many observers considered their timetable to be very ambitious for the size of the boat they were planning to use; they had hoped to average 35 miles a day, or 250 miles a week, for seven weeks. Their adventure began on July 24, when they set out in their modified NorseBoat from Inuvik, a settlement that lies just east of the Yukon Territory. But they quickly ran into headwinds and heavy seas that not only slowed them down it badly skewed their projected timetable and they never were able to make up the lost mileage. It was only a matter of time before they had to alter their plans and finish their attempt at Gjoa Haven.

“We are ready to go home,” wrote Oliver and Lancashire in one of their last e-mails to supporters, “but we’ve had an awesome experience in the Arctic from the perspective of a small boat, in swells, on a beach or on the ice.” That observation, quite aside from the courage and skill shown by the two adventurers, was one that everyone who had followed their progress though the unforgiving Arctic wilderness understand completely.

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