On a cold and misty day Aventura passed through the Bering Strait, which separates North America and Asia, Alaska and Siberia. That dreaded name of frozen wastes and murderous labor camps floods me with distant memories of a child growing up under a communist regime, the son of a political prisoner, with no prospect of ever escaping that iron cage except by dreaming. And here I am, sailing on my own boat through what I once considered to be the very end of the world. This is, above all, what I love about sailing—the absolute freedom that it gives me to go to places that I would have never even dreamt of going to.
Soon we crossed another milestone, the Arctic Circle, almost exactly to the day that Aventura had crossed it in the Davis Strait the year before. Once again we were in the Northwest Passage, whose extent is defined by those two straits, the Bering and Davis. A successful transit is only confirmed when the Arctic Circle is recrossed from north to south.
By now we had entered the Chukchi Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean, and as we passed Point Hope the favorable winds that had given us such as fast ride since we had left Dutch Harbor turned to the northeast and began blowing strongly from the direction we intended to go—Point Barrow at the northwest extremity of Alaska. Before deciding on which tack to sail, I consulted the ice chart and, as the area to the south and west of Point Barrow looked clear of ice, decided to go on the more favorable starboard tack. The air and water temperatures, which are the first indication of the presence of ice, were well above the critical level, and we continued sailing blissfully along, unaware of what lay ahead of us.
Only as I came on watch at midnight and started filling the log, did I suddenly notice that the air temperature had plummeted to 32 F and the sea temperature had dropped to 39 F. Ice! I rushed into the cockpit and through the swirling mist I could make out the menacing shapes of large gray blocks of ice barely a few boatlengths away. I called the crew, we dropped the sails and started looking for a way out. We attempted to steer a course into the direction of the coast, hoping this was just an isolated patch that could be easily bypassed. But it was to no avail as the ice concentration only started getting higher, even as the situation behind us soon looked just as bad.
Within minutes we were trapped, and I estimated the concentration to be 8/10. Ice concentration is expressed in tenths: 1/10 is scattered ice, and a small boat can normally negotiate concentrations of 3/10 or possibly 4/10. Higher values are not easily dealt with, although a metal boat—either aluminum or steel—does have an advantage, as it is less at risk when having to force its way through the pack to reach an open lead.
My main concern was that the ice surrounding us appeared to be old, as the floes were larger and thicker than those I had come across in the Eastern Arctic. I could therefore only presume that it had broken off the polar ice pack and had been pushed our way by the northeast winds. Floes of new ice are relatively thin and usually easier to push out of the way with ice poles, but the ice surrounding us was solid, dense and hard as concrete.
It soon became clear that it would only yield to the more ruthless treatment of finding a gap between two floes and brutally ramming Aventura through that narrow space. It usually worked, and we managed to make some progress, only to be caught again and repeat the procedure. On a few occasions we reached a dead end and had to backtrack. Turning in a tight space proved even more difficult than simply pushing ahead, but with the help of the bow thruster and careful maneuvering we got out of some really tight corners, although I shuddered to think what those repeated collisions with solid ice might be doing to our hull. The most worrying were the underwater ledges that extended sideways from some of the largest floes and could not be easily seen or avoided. I knew that if one hit one of the rudders or, worse still, the propeller, we would be in serious trouble. And indeed, at one point as I attempted to make a hard turn in one narrow space, we hit a submerged ledge sideways, and the crunching shock knocked me off my feet. Luckily, there was no damage, and although it took us over eight hours to escape that icy maze, we eventually reached open water 27 miles from the point where the pack had taken us captive.
Later that same evening we reached Point Barrow and were finally able turn east and into the Northwest Passage proper. Although we could see dense ice pack close to the north of our course, there was a narrow gap along the Alaskan coast where the ice concentration was lower, due both to the relatively warm water in the vicinity of land and the fact that the larger ice blocks were grounded in deeper water. By staying in shallow water and sailing a parallel course to the coast, we could make headway at a reasonable pace, although every now and again we still had to fight our way through.
The drama of the previous day was soon forgotten as we motored and occasionally sailed through fields of new ice, the floes being reasonably spaced out to allow us to slalom between them. At 71 degrees north we had 24 hours of daylight, and we passed our time photographing the phantasmagoric shapes sculpted by the sun and wind: a crowned Neptune on his throne, a pouncing crocodile, a brooding Mayan deity—it felt like walking through the gallery of a crazy sculptor.
We continued making unexpectedly fast progress, but I knew that this wasn’t going to last as the ice chart showed a solid choke point barring our course ahead of us where a wide tongue of drift ice appeared to merge with the coastline. Sure enough, before long the ice concentration became higher, the free leads more difficult to find and our course more erratic. After a few dead ends forced us to turn back, I realized that we had reached that choke point and the only alternative was to divert south and attempt to bypass it by gaining the lee of the Maguire Islands. This group of three low sandy cays fronted a shallow lagoon that was entirely free of ice, and we soon found out why as the depths depicted on both the paper and electronic charts were entirely wrong.
Several times we touched the ground—Aventura draws 9ft with the centerboard down—where the chart showed twice that depth. Therefore, because our forward-looking sonar was out of action, I reverted to the old tried and tested method of “sounding with the board,” in which we would edge slowly forward until the board touched the bottom, and then lift it enough to move ahead into slightly deeper water. It was slow, but it worked, and it showed the advantage of having a boat with variable draft as, at a touch of a button, the electric centerboard winch would reduce Aventura’s draft to 4ft.
By now we were all exhausted, so I suggested we drop the anchor where we were and catch up on some sleep, so that we’d be rested when we came to the area that was still blocked by ice. We reached that area in the morning, but by staying in shallow water close to the shoreline, we managed to keep out of the worst of it. At long last we found open water ahead and were soon sailing fast with a following westerly wind. We were further helped by an east-setting current, the circumpolar current that sets through the Northwest Passage at rates of up to 1 knot.
As we crossed the demarcation line between United States and Canada, Alaska and Yukon, the undulating snow-clad mountains were bathed in pastel colors by the midnight sun. It was a magic moment that lifted our spirits as we all knew we had achieved almost the impossible by having come so far long before the end of July. It was a moment of quiet celebration, and nothing could have better conveyed the beauty of the Arctic than that dream-like image.
On a more mundane level, it was also a source of satisfaction that in the four weeks since Aventura had left Seattle, we had sailed over 3,000 miles. This included a three-day stop in Victoria, British Columbia, and four days in Dutch Harbor.
We made our first Canadian landfall at Herschel Island, and to properly celebrate our arrival I treated the crew of our French-built boat to a special French meal. Maitre d’ Jacques described to the distinguished guests the dish of the day as “canard confi, petits-pois et carrots a l’étuvée avec mousseline a la crème et noix de muscade” or marinated duck, accompanied by green peas and carrots, also mashed potatoes in cream flavored by muscatel nuts. All freshly loaded onboard Aventura before we left Cherbourg, France, in May of last year.
We could not have picked a better place of arrival in the Arctic than Herschel Island, as this place is rarely visited by boats like ours and has a rich and fascinating history behind it. Once a busy whaling station, the cluster of old buildings have been preserved as a relic of times gone by and is now part of the Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park. When the whalers arrived here in the late 19th century, Thetis Bay was crowded with bowhead and beluga wales. They were “thick as sardines” in the words of Peyton Lenny, one of two native Inuvialuit rangers stationed on the island. Among the well-preserved historic buildings, the original Pacific Steam Whaling Company house built in 1893 has been converted into a museum, while the Anglican Church Mission is now a protected nesting place for black guillemots.
Just as the Arctic has been described as the canary in the coal mine for global warming conditions, so Herschel Island is regarded as a symbol of the Arctic, because what happens in this microcosm of Arctic flora and fauna may point to the possible consequences of climate changes in other similar environments. For example, on a vaster scale the fate of this island may be the fate awaiting the Siberian tundra, where the accelerating instability of its permafrost may signal catastrophic consequences for the entire planet. Therefore a large group of scientists on Herschel Island is involved in various research projects, from the depletion of the permafrost and resulting massive leaks of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, to the “greening of the Arctic” and the possible effects of climate change on the endemic flora and fauna.
For we Arctic mariners, the stop at Herschel Island also had special significance as it coincided with the 110th anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s successful transit of the Northwest Passage in 1905. That summer, his 70ft, 48-ton sloop Gjoa became the first vessel to overcome the vicissitudes of this mythical waterway, which had been the grave of countless sailors and ships since Martin Frobisher’s first expedition in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1576.
Having left Norway in 1903, Amundsen spent the next two winters on the southeast coast of King William Island, where his crew of 13 men shared their winter quarters with the local Netsiliks community while waiting for favorable conditions to continue their westbound voyage. In the summer of 1905 the ice conditions showed a marked improvement and Gjoa was on the move again. She successfully negotiated the 1,000 mile-long central section of the Northwest Passage and reached the Beaufort Sea. But the season was too far advanced and new ice started blocking their progress. On September 9, they could go no farther and were forced to stop for yet another Arctic winter, this time in the company of a dozen whalers overwintering in the vicinity of Herschel Island.
Keen to bring news of his triumph to the outside world, Amundsen teamed up with William Mogg, the captain of the schooner Bonanza, and set off for the nearest telegraph post at Eagle, Alaska, on the Yukon River, 500 miles to the south. Accompanied for a while by a team of Eskimos and their dogsleds, Amundsen and Mogg completed the epic journey on their own, arriving at Eagle on December 5, 1905, with the thermometer showing negative 60 F. The message was sent and Amundsen became the most celebrated explorer of his age. After more than four centuries of failed attempts, this taciturn Norwegian, who dressed, traveled and lived like the natives of the Arctic, had shown the way to overcome the challenges of the once unconquerable Northwest Passage.
Adventurer and ocean sailor Jimmy Cornell, 76, is the founder of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) and is a renowned cruising sailor. Stay tuned next month for the final installment of his attempt at the Northwest Passage
Read about Jimmy Cornell's journey from the beginning