An Arctic Adventure with Jimmy Cornell

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In the history of maritime exploration, no other part of the world has proved to be more difficult and has taken longer to conquer than the Northwest Passage. Since Roald Amundsen’s successful transit of the Northwest Passage between 1903 and 1906, only 89 sailing vessels have been able to follow his example. To put this number in perspective: for every person who has sailed the Northwest Passage, 10 people have summitted the highest mountain in the world.

The reason is quite simple; in spite of all the advances in boat design, technology and means of navigation, the challenges faced by those sailing in the High Arctic have remained basically the same. Climate change, whose effects are more obvious in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, has certainly played a role in making conditions for a successful transit somewhat easier. But as I found out myself last summer, however well prepared you may be, Mother Nature always has the last word.

Compared to other high-latitude destinations where I have sailed in the past, whether Antarctica, Spitsbergen or Alaska, the challenge posed by the Northwest Passage is entirely different. Whereas in the former places, the success of a voyage depends primarily on the experience of the skipper and crew, as well as the suitability of the vessel—in other words, on objective criteria—in the case of the Northwest Passage, there is one major factor that is entirely out of your control: ice.

Centuries of failed expeditions have resulted in a well-defined strategy for a transit of the Northwest Passage, but one is still entirely at the mercy of ice conditions. During the short summer season, the sea ice, which has formed over the long winter, as well as the old ice left over from previous winters, melts to a greater or lesser extent. The ice usually retreats from west to east (Pacific to Atlantic), which means that in most years the central sector of the Northwest Passage is the last to become free of ice. When planning an east-to-west passage, as I did last year, the way to deal with this phenomenon is to arrive in the eastern approaches in the second half of July and be prepared to wait until the ice has retreated to such an extent that a transit of the central section of the Northwest Passage may be safely attempted.

A transit starting from the Pacific is somewhat easier to plan, as in most years the western approaches to the Northwest Passage become free of ice by late July or early August, making it possible to follow the retreating ice eastward. The strategically located port of Dutch Harbor is the favorite place to wait for the ice to start easing its grip along the challenging 3,000-mile route that lies ahead.

In recent years, the main hurdle has been Peel Sound, the symbolic exit gate for those coming from the west, and the gateway to the Northwest Passage for boats coming from the east. This potential choke-point has been entirely blocked by ice during the last two summers, although some boats have managed to bypass it using Bellot Strait. Swept by fierce tidal currents and rarely free of ice for more than a few hours, this fortuitous shortcut has opened late in the season in recent years. This was also the case last year when four westbound boats managed to get through and proceed on their way, although none were able to continue into the Pacific. Unfortunately Aventura was not among them, as I had decided earlier to abandon my attempt and turn around. Due to the lateness of the season I realized that even if I could get past that point, we would have to overwinter somewhere in Arctic Canada or Alaska. The prospect of a 10-month-long virtual imprisonment was something I was not prepared to accept.

The disappointment of having failed to reach the Pacific by this historic route was more than made up for by the rich experience of two months spent in the High Arctic. We were fortunate in seeing more wildlife than expected, from polar bears to walrus, musk oxen to sperm whales. The weather was also generally favorable, although we did have a few exciting moments. While waiting with other boats anchored in Dundas Harbour off Lancaster Sound for the ice situation to improve, we were caught by a storm with gusts of 60 knots. The storm lasted 22 hours, and although our anchor held for most of that time we had to motor into the wind to keep clear of a neighbouring boat that was swinging wildly, often getting dangerously close to us.

We survived that storm unscathed, but we had another adrenalinized experience while sailing to Arctic Bay, a small Inuit settlement set in Admiralty Inlet, where we intended to buy fuel and fresh provisions. Before leaving, I checked the ice chart issued daily by the Canadian Ice Service, and the approaches to Arctic Bay looked clear of ice. We had a fast sail across 50-mile-wide Lancaster Sound, but before we had reached the mouth of Admiralty Inlet, we encountered the first ice floes. For a while the floes were well spread out, and we could easily find a way through. But as the ice concentration became gradually higher, however much we zigzagged and slalomed, we were getting nowhere. Soon we could no longer move at all as the ice held us firmly in its grip. We were trapped.

What’s worse, the chartplotter showed that we were drifting with the pack at a rate of 0.6 knots, not in the direction of the open sea, but toward the coastline, some 5 miles distant. I decided that we had no option but to force our way out. Ice concentration on the charts is graded on a scale from 1 to 10. A concentration of 1, shown as 1/10, represents approximately 10-percent ice and 90-percent open water. Any concentration between 1/10 and 3/10 is acceptable; passing through an area between 3/10 and 5/10 is difficult but may still be possible, preferably with a metal hull. Any concentration higher than 6/10 is considered dangerous and should not be tackled by a small boat. By my reckoning we were stranded in an area with a concentration of 7/10 to 8/10.
Still firmly trapped by the surrounding floes, I rammed Aventura’s bow into a narrow gap and revved up. Slowly the floes drifted apart, and we crept forward. We continued forcing our way through with the help of the engine and bow-thruster. The crew pushed floes out of the way with two long carbon-fiber poles, and Aventura brutally rammed those that refused to yield. The worst was the older, blue-colored ice, which had broken off of larger icebergs and was denser. These floes extended underwater both sideways and downward, and several times we ended up stranded with one rudder balanced dangerously on a protruding ledge.

Although we were attempting to move in the direction of the open sea, several times we passed floes marked by our green antifouling paint, showing that we had been there before. Eventually we reached an area with less ice concentration, finding open leads became easier, and soon we were out into open water. The ordeal had lasted some 14 hours in all, and the tortuous route depicted on the chartplotter showed clearly just what a challenge it had been to escape the grip of the ice.

Once we decided to abandon our attempt to transit the Northwest Passage, we turned east, bound for Greenland. With no wind and a forecast of a 40-knot easterly gale for the following day, we were motoring fast toward the open sea. Suddenly there was a loud noise from the propeller, the engine stalled, and I realised that we had picked up something. We attached the GoPro camera in its underwater housing to an ice pole and lowered it over the side. A thick black rope was now firmly wound around the propeller shaft, with its end trailing behind. Worse yet, at the engine end the four, 10mm steel bolts connecting the propeller shaft to the transmission had sheared. Here we were, 1,000 miles from the nearest boatyard, and the worst thing that can happen to any boat in the Arctic had happened to me. I had always ensured my self-sufficiency by carrying all essential tools and spares … but not those special bolts! Fortunately, I found some longer 10mm bolts and managed to cut them down to size with the electric grinder. I found the sheared-off bolts in the bilge and recovered their nuts. After a few hours hanging upside down over the back of the engine, I managed to reconnect the propeller shaft to the transmission.

It was now time to deal with the remains of the rope. Although I was able to turn the propeller shaft by hand, I dared not put the engine in gear, so I donned my dry diving suit, kitted myself out with all the gear needed for a dive in ice cold water and went over the side. Attached to the boat with a rope, I managed to get close to the propeller and ascertained that it was indeed free. But getting onto the boarding ladder weighed down by the extra weight, with the boat bouncing violently in the rough swell, proved to be impossible. As an experienced diver, I knew that I was in a critical situation and had to find a solution before serious hypothermia set in. I could feel the cold getting to my head and realized I was close to the point where I would no longer be able to act rationally. It was the sight of my daughter Doina standing helplessly above me that gave me the strength to lie on my back and lift my feet out of the water one by one so that she could reach down and pull off my large fins. I managed to put my foot on the lowest rung of the ladder and was helped up the rest of the way.

The decision to turn around was painfully disappointing—in spite of being perfectly prepared and having the best boat for the purpose, I only managed to complete half the transit. But what I learned from the example of Roald Amundsen, and the many Arctic explorers who preceded him, is that challenges are there to be overcome and that the success of any expedition depends not only on good preparation but also on perseverance.

Jimmy Cornell and Aventura are currently engaged in their second attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage. Read about their adventures in the October issue of SAIL, and keep up with Aventura’s progress on sailfeed.com

September 2015

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