Since my partner, Edvin Buregren, and I started planning to sail the Northwest Passage this summer aboard our 31-foot fiberglass sloop Belzebub II—on a shoestring budget, no less—we have realized that a polar voyage is unlike any other.
Route Planning: Picking a route through the Northwest Passage requires methodical planning. The majority of charted Arctic waters were surveyed with obsolete technology dating from the 1800s. In addition, because the sea ice is retreating so dramatically as a result of global warning, there is plenty of navigable water that has never been surveyed. A joint U.S.-Canada mapping mission estimates it will take more than 25 years just to map the prioritized areas of the Arctic seafloor.
Ice and Timing: Timing is everything when sailing among ice floes. Arriving a few days, or even hours, too early or too late can mean getting trapped in pack ice indefinitely or having to wait weeks for another opening to appear. Worst-case scenario: you must turn around and try again next year.
Winds and Shelter: High-latitude sailing undoubtedly means heavy weather and isolated conditions where self-sustainability is paramount. Katabatic winds blow forcefully and create acceleration zones over ice-covered surfaces. In these uncharted waters full of ice, unidentified rocks, sand bars and low islands that provide little sanctuary, heavy weather tactics must be planned in advance. Anchoring in fjords, with their deep waters and steep sides, in particular, requires a boat to move close to land and run lines ashore in order to be secure against the intense winds. In every anchorage, it’s important to always plan for a quick escape in the event pack ice begins to encroach.
Boat Preparation: Most of the yachts that have sailed to the Arctic have been made of heavy wood or steel. Increasingly, though, smaller fiberglass boats like Belzebub II are taking on the challenge. All boats must be appropriately insulated, heated, reinforced against ice, and fitted with large fuel and food stores. Winter survival gear and a reliable engine to maneuver through the ice floes are a must. Ice-sailing equipment includes long poles with tapered ends to push small bergy bits away from the boat; grappling hooks and ice-climbing screws so you can latch on to and drift with the pack ice; spotlights and the best binoculars you can afford.
Peissel and Buregren plan to depart Malm, Sweden, this June and hope to arrive in Vancouver, British Columbia, this October. To learn more about the expedition, visit belzebub2.com.