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Aventura’s Crew Completes its Transit of the Northwest Passage

Having passed through the Western Arctic and its ice fields much earlier in the season than we’d hoped or expected, and with the ice situation still unfavorable in the Eastern Arctic, we could slow down and, for a while at least, turn our voyage into a more leisurely cruise. Our next stops were the Canadian settlements of Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok, typical of several urban centers that have been set up by the Canadian government to provide the native population with medical facilities, schools and airports.

We were warmly welcomed wherever we stopped, as the people wanted to know what had brought us there. At Tuktoyaktuk, mayor Darral Nasogaluake came to greet us. Upon seeing the Blue Planet Odyssey banner and UNESCO logo on our boom, he asked about the meaning of this world event. He then spoke at length about changes in the traditional Inuit way of life, now greatly influenced by the changing climate.

Similarly, at Ulukhaktok an old man explained that the place was so quiet because many families were at summer camps, hunting and fishing for winter supplies, and that they now had to travel much farther to reach them than in the past. He remarked that in recent years conditions were such that they were now seeing fish, birds and even bats they had never seen before. He could have added Aventura to that list too, as he told us that a sailing boat like ours had not been seen there for more years than he had fingers.

After that it was time to move on: the ice charts showed that the route to Cambridge Bay was no longer barred, so we rushed to get there. Due to its strategic location, Cambridge Bay has been described as the make-or-break point for anyone attempting a transit of the Northwest Passage. For those like us coming from the west and chasing the retreating ice, this is the place to pass a nail-biting time waiting and hoping that the ice will break up sufficiently in the Eastern Arctic to allow access to the Atlantic Ocean. For those heading west, getting to Cambridge Bay is a great relief, but still only a relatively short step toward a complete transit in the course of a single season. Often the only alternative is to spend the winter there and continue the voyage the following summer.

When we arrived, we met three yachts that had spent the winter in Cambridge Bay: the Australian-flagged Philos was heading east like us, while the Canadian vessels Gjoa and Wave were waiting impatiently to set off westward. Both had been hauled out by a shore crane the previous September and could not get back in the water, as there was no crane driver—or anyone who knew how to operate a crane—for miles. In fact, after waiting for three weeks, they had no choice but to fly a professional crane driver from South Canada at great expense to end their ordeal.

To take on fuel, we came alongside the Norwegian tug Tandberg Polar, which had also spent the winter in Cambridge Bay. I had met its crew the previous year in Greenland. They told me their voyage was part of an ambitious project to salvage the wreck of the Maud, Roald Amundsen’s last ship. After his successful transit of the Northwest Passage during 1903 to 1906 and the even more audacious voyage to the South Pole in 1911, this most famous of all polar explorers decided to build a special ship that would become deliberately captive in the polar ice cap and drift from the Bering Sea across to the North Pole. His mentor and predecessor, Fritjof Nansen, had attempted to do the same on the vessel Fram and had come within a few hundred miles of the North Pole, so Amundsen was determined to do better.

The 120ft-long Maud, named after the Queen of Norway, was one of the strongest wooden vessels ever built. She survived three seasons in the iron grip of the polar ice pack, but never managed to drift all the way to the North Pole. Amundsen ultimately abandoned the project and Maud was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company where she came to a sad end, a pitiful wreck in this remote Arctic harbor, sunk and abandoned in a shallow corner of Cambridge Bay.

With the centenary of Maud’s maiden voyage due in 2017, Jan Wanggaard, a Norwegian artist, writer, adventurer and former windsurfing world champion, decided that it was time for Maud to return home. In 2011 he formed a small team of friends, each with the essential skills for the job, and set in motion a project to raise the Maud and transport her back to Vollen, near Oslo, where she had been built. After four years of effort we watched as the last floating devices were attached to Maud, both underwater and on the surface. At press time, the raising operation was scheduled to be completed just before the onset of winter. In spite of having been ravaged by 85 years of winter storms and frozen in ice for months at a time, Maud’s 12in oak beams and 3in oak sheathing looked to be in remarkably good shape. Eventually, the plan is for the Tandberg Polar to begin towing Maud back home when the ice breaks up in 2016.

While ice is the main hurdle in the western part of the Northwest Passage, from the navigator’s point of view the most difficult stretch is between Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven. This is a poorly surveyed area of shallows and submerged rocks with many blank areas on the Canadian paper charts, where I was amused to read that “the magnetic compass is useless in this area.” Being very close to the magnetic north, the compass did indeed behave in an erratic manner and was entirely unreliable. Nor was the warning “positions on the chart may be in error by as much as 5 miles,” an exaggeration. At one point we found ourselves in very shallow water and suspected that we were about 6 miles off our presumed position. Having learned my navigation long before the days of GPS and electronic charts, I managed to work out a fix with the help of three conspicuous land features only to find that we had indeed strayed dangerously off course.

Gjoa Haven is the one place that no Arctic sailor should miss, as it was in this Netsilik settlement that Roald Amundsen spent the first two winters of his voyage. Amundsen and his crew put those two years to good use by learning from their hosts the art of survival in that harsh climate. Amundsen also conducted important scientific observations on earth magnetism and the North Magnetic Pole, being the first to establish that its location was not fixed but constantly moving.

The relationship between the Netsiliks and kabluna (strangers) was very amicable and locals still speak about Amundsen’s stay as if it happened 10, not 110, years ago. Among them was the artist Danny Aaluk, from whom I purchased a beautiful pen and ink drawing inspired by an Inuit saga. When Amundsen came up during our conversation, he shyly murmured. “I am, in fact, related to him…on my mother’s side.”

Taken aback, I looked at him and agreed that he did indeed have a certain resemblance to the great explorer. A faded photo on the local Amundsen memorial shows him holding a baby on his knee in the company of a Netsilik couple.

Our enjoyable stopover in Gjoa Haven had to be cut short when the ice charts forecast an imminent improvement in the conditions ahead of us. With more than 300 miles to the point that would give us access to the Atlantic, we set off immediately. This last section of the Northwest Passage proved to be the most difficult of the entire voyage, as we had to contend with both strong contrary winds and having our route blocked by several areas of large ice concentration. With the prospect of achieving our aim of completing a transit of the Northwest Passage almost within reach, we spared no effort to make good progress and carried on valiantly toward Bellot Strait and Peel Sound, the last obstacles on our way.

We timed our arrival at Bellot Strait carefully, as the 17-mile-long strait is renowned for its fierce currents and can only be negotiated on a favorable tide. Halfway through the strait we passed Zenith Point, which marks the northern extremity of continental America. Having sailed my former Aventura past Cape Horn, at the continent’s southern extremity, I now had reached its northernmost point. As we approached the eastern entrance of the strait, the current peaked at over 8 knots, and we completed the transit of the entire strait in only 90 minutes, exactly one month to the day since we had left Dutch Harbor.

After the excitement of having reached the Eastern Arctic, we were rewarded by a quiet night at anchor in Depot Bay, the site of Fort Ross, a former trading station of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Two of the original cabins have survived and are still in good order. One has been converted into an emergency shelter for visiting scientists or Canadian officials, but can be used by any visitor. We duly signed the souvenir book that records the names of all those who passed through on their way to or from the Northwest Passage. From a nearby hill we looked toward Bellot Strait, which we had passed less than one day after the yacht Philos, whom we had last met in Cambridge Bay. Apparently our transits through the strait were the earliest in the season ever recorded. That said, the euphoria of our achievement was soon dampened by the prospect of the remaining 1,200-mile passage to Nuuk. As I knew from the previous year, we could expect both strong winds and flat calms in the area ahead of us. In due course we had both.

Setting out, we had to fight our way out of Prince Regent Inlet against headwinds and enough ice to still to keep us alert, but as we reached Lancaster Sound, the wind dropped, the sky cleared and the sun came out. The chilly dampness was gone, and we enjoyed a sweltering 46-degree Arctic day while passing an ever-changing panorama of tall cliffs scoured by ancient glaciers, mountains covered by permanent ice and snowcaps.

With the calm predicted to continue, we made a detour to the nearest settlement at Pond Inlet to buy fuel. With no time to waste, the crew landed me on the nearby beach as soon as we had anchored. I stopped a passing truck with a couple in it and asked the way to the Co-op supermarket, where I needed to book the delivery of fuel.
“Oh, it’s a long way up that hill,” the driver said while opening the back door of the cab. “Get in, we’ll take you there.”

Although they were very curious about us they were more interested in the other Inuit settlements that we had visited in Arctic Canada than in the rest of the world.

The Co-op tanker duly arrived and Kevin, the helpful driver, started filling our jerry cans. That was the easy part. The much harder part was launching the heavily laden tender through the surf, rowing into deeper water, starting the outboard motor and getting to Aventura, where unloading the heavy jerry cans onto the rolling boat was quite a performance.

To reach the open sea from Pond Inlet we had to negotiate a narrow strait overlooked by breath-taking scenery. The enjoyment of the beauty surrounding us was marred by a strong wind being funneled through the strait—and right into our no longer smiling faces. It took us a whole night of tacking to get through, and as we finally reached the open sea, the wind dropped and on came the engine. We caught the south-setting West Greenland current that gave us a boost of 1 knot, but also brought with it a procession of icebergs it had picked up from calving glaciers along the way. Then the fog descended, visibility dropped to a boat’s length, and we had to be on high alert to avoid running into one of those glistening behemoths, floating silently by.

The attractive blue of an iceberg caught my attention, and knowing we might not have another chance at such a unique photo opportunity, I decided not to miss it. (I had promised the manufacturer of the Parasailor spinnaker to take some photos of this colorful sail in the Arctic, and this was definitely the last opportunity.) We hoisted the sail but kept it in its douser, and made for the lee of the iceberg. We came as close in as we dared to be out of the swell and wind, and launched the dinghy. Dunbar and Chris agreed to sail Aventura past the iceberg, while Martin and I boarded the dinghy to lay in wait. As we bounced up and down in the swell, waiting for Aventura to pass between the iceberg and us, Martin exclaimed: “I bet this is the first dinghy ever to brave the Davis Strait!”

Later that day we crossed the Arctic Circle and, in the view of those who only consider a transit of the Northwest Passage to be successful if one has crossed this symbolic gateway both on the way north and south, we had achieved our aim. Since we had passed the latter point 34 days earlier, we had sailed 3,728 miles. While working out that total, I also noticed that Aventura had clocked 20,000 miles since she had left Cherbourg in late May last year. What is remarkable is that we completed the transit with no breakages or any serious technical problems and arrived in Nuuk with all systems in perfect working order. If this challenging passage still counts as Aventura’s maiden voyage, this has been a very long honeymoon indeed.

Adventurer and ocean sailor Jimmy Cornell, 76, is the founder of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), the author of World Cruising Routes and a renowned cruising sailor

November 2015



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