An Extreme Passage
“I am at the entrance to Dease Strait, and last night I tied up to a large piece of ice using rope and an ice axe. I managed to get a good five hours of sleep.”
Graeme Kendall, September 1, 2010
Challenges like this were par for the course during Graeme Kendall’s recent transit of the Northwest Passage. On September 9, 2010, the Kiwi sailor became the first person to sail solo and nonstop through the passage, doing it in record time, even compared to crewed boats.
The Northwest Passage is usually only navigable in September, and until recently, few boats even tried completing it. Kendall first attempted the passage in 2005, but had to turn back after encountering thick pack ice. Since then the combination of improved satellite technology and warmer temperatures has made the journey more plausible. Just this summer, a Russian team circumnavigated the North Pole in the 60-foot monohull Peter I, as did two Norwegians on the Corsair 31UC trimaran Northern Passage. Kendall, in his 41-foot steel cutter, Astral Express, remains the only sailor to complete the passage singlehanded.
On October 29, Kendall returned home to Auckland, New Zealand. SAIL checked in to get a firsthand account of the voyage.
SAIL: How does it feel to be the only sailor to complete the Northwest Passage solo, nonstop and in record timing?
GK: After not being able to complete it in 2005, I feel elated and relieved, especially after returning unscathed.
SAIL: Throughout the 12-day passage, you had some treacherous days. Were you ever worried about the safety of yourself or your boat?
GK: Yes, and both times I was resting. Once, I hit ice and it sounded like the front of the boat was coming off, though I upon inspection, I didn’t see any marks. Another time, I went aground on an unmarked shoal and was only able to free myself by raising the keel a further 300mm and the rudder 200mm. It was lucky that I had this extra height available, as the keel was already up.”
SAIL: What features on Astral Express allowed her to complete this passage successfully and safely?
GK: The cased rudder and retractable keel were key for the shoal drafts. The boat’s construction was also important: the hull is Kevlar with Kevlar inside up to the mast, extra Kevlar on the bow cap and nine watertight compartments. Also, the saloon had good visibility, and I could control everything from within it.”
SAIL:What were some tricks you used to provision and ration properly?
GK: The second part of the journey began in Nuuk, which made for just over a two-month voyage. I was able to keep things like meat and eggs fresh for the first three weeks, then I relied on tinned food, freeze-dried food and rainwater.
SAIL: In the middle of your journey, you encountered Matheiu Bonnier, a Frenchman attempting to row through the Passage. It must have been interesting to interact with another human being in that setting.
GK: It was very interesting, and we became good friends quickly. He was quite fatigued when I found him, and interestingly, I didn’t have to stop to get him on board. I offered him a glass of red wine and a steak dinner and let him rest for about an hour before taking him close to shore where he was able to take his dog on land. We have communicated regularly ever since.
SAIL: What was it like navigating through the ice in an uninhabited part of the world?
GK: There was a feeling of remoteness sailing through such a barren and remote landscape. The history of the area shows boats getting stuck in the ice for seasons, so there was also a fear of getting trapped. I always knew that the Canadian coast guard was there to assist, but the aim of my adventure was to complete the journey unassisted, so I tried to think of that only as an extreme backup.
SAIL: In your blog, you talk about staying entertained with an 8,000-song playlist. Which songs gave you the most inspiration?
GK: Sting, Fields of Gold, Bob Dylan, and—don’t tell my friends—Elvis Presley.
SAIL: How did the journey affect you physically?
GK: As the journey progressed, I stepped it up and got more fit, especially in my upper body. I was aware that my age could impose limitations and that an injury could be disastrous, but I was always able to cope. Apart from a little bruising, I remained fit and well for the whole trip.”
SAIL: What was it like to return after such an intrepid journey?
GK: Slightly nerve-wracking at first, but that faded as I got closer. I cleared customs, had two TV interviews and finally got to enjoy dinner with family and friends. Now that I’ve been back a few days, the feeling of calm and satisfaction is beginning to sink in.
SAIL: What do you plan to do with the knowledge and experience you gained? Will you do another passage?
GK: No, I won’t do another; this one ticked the box for me. I would, however, like to write a book. I think my story is an interesting one.