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A Kid’s Take on the Northwest Passage

Going North—and West

The family put some serious ocean miles on their modified Open 60

The family put some serious ocean miles on their modified Open 60

Crack! Crunch! I woke with a start to the sound of ice scraping the hull of our 60ft sailboat, Dogbark. In a drowsy daze, I hobbled out of the small cabin I was sharing with my little sister. As I emerged into the cockpit, I swiveled my head, searching for the ice making those awful noises.

It was a cold and foggy August morning. The 15-knot breeze whipped my hair across my face. Every breath I took in felt frozen. My mom was on the bow using a long metal pole to push away a car-sized growler that was trying to run over our anchor chain. I looked up and scanned Cross Island, which we were anchored in the lee of, to see if there were any polar bears lumbering on shore. Not today.

My parents Janna and Graeme, my 9-year-old sister, Savai, our friends John and Becca Guillote and I had left Seattle on June 2. We’d scrambled up the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, racing to get to the start of the Northwest Passage so we could get through before the water started to refreeze. Because of global warming, the passage from Alaska to Greenland has only been open about 12 years—since around the same time I was born. Ever since my mom and dad sailed across the Pacific on their honeymoon, they’d also known they wanted to cruise with kids, too. So as soon as we were old enough, they decided it was time to go, which is how I found myself sailing the Northwest Passage now.

The author takes her turn at the helm

The author takes her turn at the helm

We chose Dogbark because she is stout, fast and was owned by our friend Al Hughes, who raced her in three singlehanded Transpacs. She is an Open 60 raceboat, built in Australia in 1990. When we first saw her she needed a lot of work. She had a layer of green on her decks that was half an inch thick. She also had only one cabin, a bare cockpit and no bathroom door. She was built for a singlehander to race around the world, not for a family of four to cruise. Over the course of a year, we power-washed, chop-sawed, sanded, fiberglassed, varnished, painted and reupholstered. Finally, in spring 2018, she was ready to go.

Cruising in the Arctic is an experience unlike any other. It is barren, cold and strangely beautiful. Bowhead and Beluga whales rule the sea and polar bears rule the land. The islands offer many surprises, such as red rock beaches, wild reindeer and rows of whale skulls lined up on the shores. The ice forms labyrinths for boaters to navigate with lots of zig-zagging and U-turns. On night watches the sun does a touch-and-go with the horizon, making the sunset and sunrise run back-to-back.

To navigate through an ice field, one crewmember stands on the bow giving hand signals to the person at the helm. One of my proudest moments came one night at 0200 when I stood on the bow and spotted the exit to a huge ice labyrinth, then guided the boat through it. I was awarded a steaming cup of hot cocoa, which is a joy when it’s 30 degrees F outside, and you’ve been on the bow for three hours.

As we neared the day we might have to turn around because the ice wasn’t leaving, a Ping! sounded from my dad’s iPad, connected to our IridiumGo. The message was from our ice advisor, who we called “Victor the Predictor” because he always gave us great updates on ice and weather. He had forwarded an e-mail from the Canadian Coast Guard, which said that because of the heavy ice conditions at 70 degrees north of latitude, Canadian icebreakers could not safely aid pleasure boats attempting the passage. Any sailors who wanted to transit the passage must be prepared to spend the winter icebound.

This did not sound ideal, and after mulling it over we decided to turn around, realizing it wouldn’t be safe for us to attempt a transit. Later, we would learn a boat sank because an ice floe punctured its hull. Still, there were tears and long hugs after making our decision, because we all had really wanted to get to Greenland. It was crushing to work so hard toward a goal like this, but not succeed.

That night over dinner, I suggested going to Hawai’i, after which we had a long discussion about all the perks.

“It’s warm!”

“Fresh tropical fruits!”

“Snorkeling!”

“We can make sushi out of all the fish we catch!”

The end result was we decided to leave Cross Island early the next morning, headed west.

The crew, raring to go at the outset of their Northwest Passage bid

The crew, raring to go at the outset of their Northwest Passage bid

Before leaving Alaska, we did some more provisioning, making sure we had all the ingredients for cookies along with other essentials, such as fuel, water and cheese—LOTS of cheese. From Cross Island, we traveled 3,800 miles to Hawai’i. The last leg from Dutch Harbor to Kaneohe, Oahu, took 12 long and exhausting days. The wind ranged from a mere 3 knots to a howling 32 knots. Hand-steering through a squall with the wind blowing 32 and the boat surfing at 15 is quite an experience. At times the wind was pretty shifty, which meant we had to pull the jib, genoa and spinnaker in and out, in and out. Highlights from the passage were:

1. Stars—we studied them, pointed them out to each other, and just sat and stared at them.

2. Fishing off the stern—we caught albacore, skipjack and six mahi-mahi. The sushi was amazing!

3. The color of the water—it was the deepest, richest and most wonderful blue we’d ever seen.

Landfall was spectacular. Huge green mountains and cliffs greeted us as we entered Kaneohe Bay, which was a great contrast to the low scruffy tundra that we had gotten used to in Alaska. From the Arctic to the tropics, we’d experienced challenges, life lessons, laughter and wonder—a voyage none of us on Dogbark would ever forget. But for now it was time to leap into the sparkling aqua water. SPLASH! 

Talia Cawrse Esarey and her family live and cruise on their modified Open 60 expedition boat, Dogbark

Photos by John Guillote

March 2019

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