The experiences of last summer’s Northwest Passage and especially our adventures at Fury Beach (encountering polar bears, being torn off our anchor by ice flow, finding barrel staves from the 1800s) have left me more curious than ever about the Arctic, its explorers, its people.
Especially fascinating are the strategies for survival in a supremely survival-challenged area of the planet, the problems presented and the novel solutions that arise.
Here’s but one example…
Among the many books now beside the chair is Fury Beach by Ray Edinger, a chronicle of the unlucky but eventually successful 1829 – 1833 British expedition of Captain John Ross, whose crew wintered near and then on Fury Beach four years running. Here they survived, in part, due to the supplies left by Captain William Edward Parry in 1825 when his ship, Fury, foundered.
Given the repeated strandings, Ross and company had plenty of opportunity to befriend and learn from local Inuits and thoroughly explore the surroundings.
The below paragraph is a snippet from a foray up the Neitchillee River, then thought to be a strait. This overland/overice trek was lead by Ross’s nephew, Commander James Clark Ross, whose party are currently hunkered down in an impromptu igloo waiting out a blizzard:
The four dead-tired men had just fallen asleep when a ruckus bolted them wide awake. Outside, the sledge dogs had broken loose and were fighting among themselves over Awack’s sledge. His sledge, like many Inuit wintertime sledges, had been constructed entirely of frozen fish and deer [emphasis mine]. To build it, Awack had formed the two seven-foot-long runners from narrow cylinders of salmon wrapped in skins and tied with thongs. He then plated the surface of the runners with a two-inch-thick layer of mossy earth and water, which he polished to a slick finish with a bearskin rag moistened with water and saliva. The crossbars were constructed from loins of deer. The method provided a wonderfully efficient way to carry emergency provisions…and made a tempting feast for the dogs. Fortunately, the men awoke in time to stop the dogs, and Awack was able to salvage his edible sledge.*
What is so lovely about this solution is that it’s emblematic of survival in the north, which requires a paradigm shift for southerners. In a perpetually frozen land without trees and where food is scarce an edible sledge is startlingly obvious … once imagined at all.
*Fury Beach, The Four-Year Odyssey of Captain John Ross and the Victory, Ray Edinger, Berkley Books, New York, 2003, P. 96.
The holidays. Five airports, four families, three American states, two babies but oodles of kiddos, dogs and cats and hikes and boomerang lessons and Shrek reruns and bike rides and obligatory feasting, and one all-out good time.
A nice break from planning an expedition.
But am now back at my desk. The rain that pummeled the bay area most of December has moved on. The sky is blue and the today is such an imitation of summer that I’ve opened the doors and windows while I write. Varied thrushes are passing through the neighborhood. In the garden, a misguided rosebush attempts a bloom.
During our holiday tour, I made but one water-directed sidetrip. Specifically, I spent an afternoon in Marina Del Rey, California, aboard Lola, a renovated Sparkman and Stephens ketch in steel being offered for sale.
What a classic yacht is Lola! Her lines, lithe and understated, her overhangs, long, her sheer, graceful, and all evocative of the wooden yacht whose age was fast closing when she was welded-up in 1972. Though she has become an “antique” (if you believe the classification on YachtWorld.com), she presents beautifully as a serious cruiser.
Actually, I call her Sparkman and Stephens out of convenience, as her lineage is complicated. It goes something like this: her original owner, during a business trip to New York, requested that Messrs. Sparkman and Stephens design for him a sturdy cruising yacht, but as they were too busy, he took plans for one of their racers back with him to his Holland home. There he had yacht architect D. Koopmans rework her lines, adding a deeper keel, skeg hung rudder, etc., after which Maasdam-Deckker welded the hull and the builders at the Royal Huisman yard did the rest.
And it could be that she has already been to the Antarctic. In her records is retained a 1985 project plan titled “The Voyage of Hero, II,” which was to be a recreation of Captain Nathaniel Palmer’s southern ocean sealing expedition of 1820. Hero, Palmer’s 40 ton sloop, was pushing toward unexplored seal rookeries south of Cape Horn that summer when the skipper picked out ahead the faint loom of coastline and thus became the first American ever to sight Antarctica.
Quoting from the project plan:
The entries from Captain Palmer’s log of this voyage, which are on file in the United States Library of Congress, provide the basis for the United States’ claim to have discovered Antarctica. While this claim has been contested by Russia and England, it certainly serves to preserve the international status of this global frontier.
In addition to retracing Hero’s track, the crew of Ariane (Lola’s name then) wished to plot their course according to the daily dead-reckoning records left by the Palmer. No log of Ariane’s southern voyage has been found.
Lola’s current owner has been busy nonetheless, and in recent years has had the boat entirely rebuilt–masts, rigging, sails, deck hardware, interior configuration, galley, tankage, electronics, wiring, battery pack and gallons of sparkling paint have been added to Lola such that the only original items remaining are her hull and beefy Perkins, and even that has been overhauled.
Steel, center cockpit ketch, round bilged, extended fin keel with skeg-hung rudder.
LOA: 48; LWL 34.4 (due to overhangs); Beam: 13; Draft: 7.2.
Displacement: 34,400 lbs; Ballast: 12,000 lbs; Sail Area: 1,350 sq. ft. (racing configuration = 1,717 sq. ft.).
Displacement to Length Ratio: 377 (overstated due to overhangs). Ballast to Displacement Ratio (after personal increment): 30%. Sail Area to Displacement Ratio: 20.5. Capsize Ratio: 1.6.
Sails: foresail furling; staysail hank on; main and mizzen fully battened with nice roach, cruising spinnaker.
Plating: keel, 8 mm (5/16th”) and 6 mm (1/4″); hull under water, 5 mm (3/16″); hull above water and deck 4 mm (5/32″).
Tankage: 100 gallons fuel in two stainless steel tanks in the bilge; 100 gallons black water (?) in two stainless steel tanks in the bilge; 50 gallons water in plastic tanks.
Insulation: 40 mm (1.5″) glass wool mat, laid against hull from deck to waterline.
Engine: 85 hp (ratio to displacement in tons: 4.94). Other stats show engine at 72 hp.
Steering: wheel to quadrant.
Power: eight 6 volt, wet cell batteries for 800 amps in the house bank.
Positives from the Figure 8 Perspective
- If I’m reading the stats correctly, Lola is both a heavy boat and quite a goer. At a displacement to length ratio of 377, she’s heavy indeed, but that number is exaggerated by her long overhangs, especially aft. If, for example, we assume an underway waterline of 39 feet, the ratio drops to a respectable 258, making her a moderate displacement boat at anything like speed. When you factor in her sail area to displacement ratio of 20.5 (and this is her smaller “cruising rig”) and a slippery bum, Lola begins to look both tough and fast. What’s exciting is that with a ballast to displacement ratio of 30% (and this after adding in my personal increment of some 6,000 pounds) she could also be quite stiff. The only other boat with similar numbers has been the recently inspected Brewer, also a ketch, with a D/L ratio of 235, SA/D ratio of 20, and B/D ratio after PI of 26%. One key difference is that the Brewer, though only two feet longer, feels positively massive. She carries an inordinate amount of her sail area in a very large main, a sail I can’t even reach over, and too little in a tiny mizzen. Compared to her Lola has a sensible distribution of sail area between main and mizzen and feels much more manageable.
- Lola has a large, comfortable cockpit easily accessed from either cabin. Because she is missing a pilot house, she would need to have some portion of this cockpit covered with a hard dodger, but the cockpit size suggests such a dodger would also be roomy.
- Lola’s engine room, amidships and entered via a watertight door, is reminiscent of a ship. Not only can one give the Big Bertha Perkins a bear hug, but access to the two inch (!) diameter shaft and packing gland is … well, right there. Other systems and hoses in the engine room are logically laid-out, easily cared for and mostly new.
- Though her engine is now quite old, the Perkins horsepower to displacement ratio of 4.94 indicates she’d have good push for the Arctic bash-and-dash.
- Her current fuel capacity of 100 gallons is too small for the Northwest Passage, but the black water tanks could be converted to fuel and black water moved elsewhere.
- The aft cabin could function ideally as a shop.
- Her aft locker could easily be retrofitted to hold the required four 20# propane tanks.
Concerns from the Figure 8 Perspective
- Lola’s hull is over 40 years old. Though it appears to have been very well constructed and has received extraordinary care, one should expect surprises.
- Her insulation is minimal and of an unusual material.
- Though the current rebuild has been done to a high degree of quality, the aim has been to return Lola to her yachting form, along the lines of those imagined by her original owner, rather than that of an expedition boat.
- And too, I worry about the wisdom of her stern configuration in extreme seas. Does she present to a breaking wave far too much reserve buoyancy in her long aft overhangs? Or is her rather narrow entry (compare the blunt buoyancy of most sterns nowadays) fine enough to allow the wave to pass over?
That said, Lola is an extraordinarily beautiful piece of work.
Then the unexpected happened. A steel yacht came for sale in my neighborhood, which is to say, Sausalito.
From the beginning, serious contenders for the Figure 8 have been in short supply, and even extending my scope to the entirety of North America’s western coast has netted only the boats discussed here. Not a large field and none nearby. So, to have a prospect appear forty-five minutes from the house got my attention.
Better still, being a chronic dock walker, I was familiar with this yacht, a beefy, all-business, workhorse of a ketch by the (fitting to my project) name of Reliance.
On Tuesday I met the owner, Sven, for a tour. Sven is a retired building engineer, tall, gray, and pale; affable and army-tough, but suffering from cancer and its barrage of medications this last decade. “I’d never sell if it wasn’t for the damned … problem,” he says, opening his palms to the sky. Signs of his condition were only telltale: he perspired heavily as we poked inside lockers and raised the great lids that hid the engine; sometimes he leaned against a bulkhead to rest. But even during pauses he talked, spinning-out stories of Reliance and her adventures, and one could hear in these the power of the younger man.
A power that would have been necessary, for Reliance, which he built in the then bustling San Francisco dockyards south of the Bay Bridge, is a big boat. She’s based on the Brewer design adopted by Kanter Marine and marketed by them as the Atlantic 45. But Sven wanted a cruiser capacious enough for his growing family of girls, and so he had the hull stretched to 50 feet. For the seven years prior to her 1989 launch, his pattern was to have a quick bite of supper after work and then spend the night constructing his go-anywhere vessel.
Here are some of her features. Two 75 pound anchors on half inch chain extend from hawse pipes at the bows. These are operated by a massive hydraulic windlass. The keel stepped, aluminum mainmast is the diameter of a respectably ancient tree, extends over 60 feet off the deck and carries in its one sail more square feet than all of Murre’s combined. Turnbuckles are green bronze and the size of Coke bottles; thick stainless makes the bulwarks; custom-built bits are of stainless and the teak decks are as thick as my thumb. Below, the low doghouse is rimmed with heavy ABS opening ports and heavy teak panelling; there are three private cabins; amidships is a galley reminiscent of an industrial kitchen, and in the bows is a full shop. All of which lend to one’s first impression of this as a serious boat.
After a time, Sven and I sit in the main cabin as he works through every page of the Reliance photo album. Pictures of the hull in construction, the water tanks being laid into the bilge, the stainless bar welded around every port hole and hatch opening (“You’ll find no corrosion there.”); the two steering rams; the 100 horsepower engine going in, the deck going on.
And the stories keep coming. “That teak,” he says, pointing to a bulkhead, “that’s all from Bank of America.” For a time Sven was the chief building engineer for the Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco’s tallest skyscraper; then he moved to manage the much larger, if nominally shorter, Bank of America building. One winter the teak lobby of the latter was ripped out and replaced with white marble. After some cajoling, the job foreman allowed Sven to recycle the wood if he could “make it disappear after hours.” So, for several nights running, Sven double parked by the lobby doors, hazard lights flashing, and filled his car to capacity with free and typically expensive wood, wood that found its way aboard Reliance as paneling, the inlay for the cabin sole, even the deck.
What happened after the build-out is a little murky. Sven and family did go cruising, made it as far as the Galapagos and explored several tropical rivers to their source. But how long Reliance had been back in her slip was unclear. The blackened decks and mouldy lines suggested it had been many years.
Launched 1989 (seven years in build).
Steel, pilothouse ketch, round bilged, extended fin keel with skeg-hung rudder, captive propeller.
LOA: 50; LWL: 43 (estimated); Beam: 13.9; Draft: 6.3.
Displacement: 42,000 lbs; Ballast: 12,187 lbs; Sail Area: 1,517 (including a very large genoa).
Displacement to Length Ratio: 235. Ballast to Displacement (after personal increment): 26% . Sail Area to Displacement Ratio: 20. Capsize Ratio: 1.6.
Sails: two headsails on Profurl; main and mizzen hank on. Main and mizzen by Sutter Sails and estimated at 11 ounces weight.
Plating: hull, 3/16ths inch welded steel plate; 1/4 to 1/2 inch keel face plating; doghouse is 10 gauge. Hull welded up by Kanter Marine.
Tankage: 380 gallons in three mild steel tanks integral to the hull; 300 gallons water in seven stainless tanks in the bilges below the cabin sole.
Insulation: 2 inch styrofoam from waterline to deck and 1 1/2 inch foam under deck. Foam fits into spaces between framing.
Engine: 100 hp (ratio to displacement in tons: 2.5); with 5.5kW diesel auxiliary generator.
Steering: hydraulic. Inside and outside steering operated by separate rams.
Power: six Lifeline 12v AGM house batteries at 225 amp hours each for a total of 1350 amp hours.
Underbody work done in 2010 included cutting out and replacing section of rudder and sandblasting the hull.
Positives from the Figure 8 perspective:
- Robustly built yacht in all ways and in all areas. Owner’s remarks: “I wanted a strong boat that I only had to build once.” One example, the anchor hawse pipes were cut and shaped so that a standard size PVC pipe would fit snuggly inside. When the chain has worn away the PVC, simply slide it out and slide in another.
- Pulpit and lifeline stanchions are bolted to the rail rather than welded so that if damaged, they can be easily removed and replaced.
- Wheel placement just behind the mizzen means that all sail controls are within reach of the helmsman save the main halyard.
- Spool of line at the stern rail allows for easily sending warps ashore.
- Wide, clean, unobstructed decks.
- ABS opening hatches of half inch glass surround the doghouse.
- Visibility forward and to either side good if standing.
- Bench in doghouse could serve as cot.
- Full shop in the bows.
- Open engine, generator, shaft and gland access with floorboards removed.
- Open access to stern post and steering rams through crawl space aft.
- Open access to inside of hull and underside of deck by removing foam panels.
- Ample fuel and water tankage.
- Ample battery power.
The week after my visit with Sven I spent an hour aboard with a surveyor famous locally for his scepticism and love of facts. I had called upon him to inject a dose of reality into what had become, over the previous week, my infatuation with Reliance.
“Put to one side the boat’s actual condition,” said the surveyor after an inspection during which he noted every flaw I had ignored, “and consider this. You and I are of similar builds, but I’m stronger than you are. I’m a rock climber and I’ve singlehanded and this boat scares me. Can you really handle that mainsail? Imagine you’re in a southern ocean gale. Imagine it’s your fifth such gale in two weeks. Can you take the punishment? Add to that the maintenance of a number of big, complicated systems. Can you master them such that you could repair this boat anywhere in the world?”
Just so, concerns for this boat from a Figure 8 perspective come back to its size. In truth, I think I can handle the very large main and already have a couple approaches to taming its wildness on the high seas, and in truth, I think I can master the boat’s systems in time for next fall’s departure. And that the boat is here gives the added advantage of being able to start work on both issues now.
But “can” and “should” do not necessarily follow. With size and complexity come risk I must add to an already risky venture. Moreover the boat’s age likely hides issues (under the teak decks, inside the integral fuel tanks, for example) that await her next owner.
The sum up: I haven’t bought this boat.
“When will you be done with those boring boat reviews?” asked my wife over Thanksgiving dinner.
Not yet…is the short answer. But clearly a diversion is in order.
Thus this intermission: a few shots of the trip from Friday Harbor back to Seattle on a De Havilland Otter Seaplane. The passenger windows bubbled out, allowing my iPhone a super view of the float and the water below.
A refreshing change from boat bilges is flying, like jumping from the sauna into the cold pool, a fittingly romantic end to a week dedicated to exploring water transport.
Kenmore Air says if its De Havilland Otter:
Following the success of the de Havilland Beaver, the Turbine Single ten-passenger de Havilland Otter is one of the most versatile and dependable seaplanes operating today. Originally designated the “King Beaver”, this aircraft eventually became known as the DHC-3 Otter as it’s bigger in every dimension than its older sibling. The single engine de Havilland Turbine Otter is the largest, most powerful aircraft in our fleet with a range of 500 miles at a normal cruise speed of 134 mph.
The description fails to capture any of the cool smoothness of going airborne or the effortless descent. I’ll let the images handle that.
Taking off from the Friday Harbor Marina
Landing in Seattle’s Lake Union (Note Space Needle stays in frame–excellent planning on the part of the cinematographer.)
The hero of our adventure…
Back to serious business next post.
After a lovely evening with Chris and Rani, I caught the next-day ferry to Friday Harbor, here to see an actual Amazon 44.
I first became aware of this Amazon, named Nomadness, while researching the Fastwater, and once found, I was taken in by her subtle lines and the vast amount I could learn about her without leaving my office. Typically, getting more than surface detail of a boat on offer is difficult. Online blurbs, even the good ones, only go so far; brokers are reticent to release surveys to yahoos like me before a face-to-face meeting, and if, by chance, some previous owner kept a blog, it is likely long on the glory of adventure and short on the kind of information the next owner might wish to know. Not so Nomadness, for whom the present owner has spared no words, all of which are available online and most of which are technical.
Meet Steven K. Roberts, a self-described gonzo engineer who has successfully blended his passion for technology and travel since the early 80s. A struggling freelancer then, living a suburban lifestyle and hating it, Steven decided to make a change. He listed the things he loved, ranked their importance and pondered the possibilities, and then “abandoning all rational thought” he lept to the obvious solution: “to equip a recumbent bicycle with ham radio and computer gear, establish a virtual home in the nascent online networks, and travel full-time while writing and consulting for a living.”
This was 1983. Over the next eleven years, Steven criss-crossed the continent, riding 17,000 miles on three increasingly geeked-out bikes (Winnebiko I, Winnebiko II and BEHEMOTH). He became a media sensation, appearing on networks ranging from CNN to the BBC and in publications like USA Today and Wired Magazine. And he authored a popular book, Computing Across America, all while happily pioneering what he called the “technomadic lifestyle.”
As the year’s progressed, Steven’s passion for wheeled transport waned and was replaced with dreams of waterborne adventure. Thus came to be the intricate and engaging solar, sail and pedal-powered, amphibian micro-trimaran, Microship and the solar-paneled, location-tracking kayak, Bubba. But what if one really wants to go places? To explore the ocean requires a vessel with some heft.
Which brings us back to Nomadness, the Amazon 44, that Steven acquired in 2007 and has been kitting-out and documenting with his usual thoroughness on the Nomadness site and in the 196 page (and counting) Nomadness Report.
Built 1987; extensive refit, 2002.
Steel, pilothouse sloop (staysail-ready), round bilged, extended fin keel with skeg-hung rudder.
Head sail on Harken Furler; Hood Stowaway in-mast furling main.
LOA: 44; LWL: 36.75; Beam: 13.08; Draft: 6.
Displacement: 30,600 lbs; Ballast: 9,300 lbs (estimated). Sail Area: 899.
Displacement to Length Ratio: 275. Ballast to Displacement (after personal increment): 25% . Sail Area to Displacement Ratio: 15. Capsize Ratio: 1.75.
Plating: hull, 3/16ths inch welded steel plate; 3/8ths inch keel face plating and 3/4 inch keel bottom and top plating; superstructure, 3/16ths inch.
Tankage: 285 gallons fuel in three stainless steel tanks; 90 gallons water in two stainless steel tanks.
Insulation: spray foam to waterline, thickness unknown (in lockers, foam is covered with a layer of molded fiberglass, presumably to protect the insulation from what is put in the locker).
Engine: 77 hp with 7.5kW diesel auxiliary generator.
Major items from the 2002 refit include: new Awlgrip on hull, new treadmaster on deck, engine removal and servicing, mast and boom removed and painted, two Bomar hatches installed, hydraulic steering serviced, Websto heating installed, Lighthouse 1501 electric windlass installed, bottom stripped to base layer or bare metal and painted (2005), new batteries (8, AGM) installed (2009), and all electronics updated.
Though from the same pen as the Fastwater 44, the Amazon 44 is strikingly different, and where the former looked and felt like a brute of a boat, the latter impresses as being an elegant workhorse. She too is strongly built, but her moderate freeboard with nearly no sheer, slight overhangs and lower pilothouse make her proportionally understated. Even 27 years on she has a modern, spare, no-nonsense feel about her suggestive of the kind of boat Hemingway might have designed if he’d followed in the footsteps of Tillman.
Positives from the Figure 8 perspective:
- Small but adequate anchor locker forward with watertight bulkhead aft of it.
- Open, uncluttered deck, but secure passage to the mast via stanchions and handrails on the pilothouse.
- Folding mast steps to the truck.
- Double pane pilothouse windows (!) with a large exterior lip onto which one could customize storm windows.
- A large but secure cockpit (slightly less open aft than the other two Shannon boats) with a wheel in easy reach of the winches and ample passage around it.
- Aft cockpit locker large enough for four propane tanks (though that would use all the space).
- Massively strong aft rack for radar and solar panels.
- Galley, pilot station, and navigation station on main salon level. The area is also large enough to rig a pilot berth if needed.
- Simply superb visibility forward and to the sides from anywhere in the main salon. Good visibility when seated at the starboard side pilot station.
- Sensibly laid out galley whose counters have nice high fiddle rails (it surprises me how often this is not the case).
- Easy access to engine and generator, transmission and packing gland, all under main salon sole. (Dual Racor fuel filters also available here, each with its own pressure gauge, one of many details that indicate a well thought out boat).
- Ample fuel tankage, at last!
- All access hatches in the cabin sole secured in place with bronze dogs–someone has already thought “inverted.”
- 690 amp house bank, well secured in place, plus a dedicated start battery for main engine and another for the generator.
- Beautifully laid-out and easily accessible electrics control panel.
- Sit-down navigation station large enough for a full-sized chart also serves as the second lid to a deeply insulated freezer.
The above fails to capture some of what Steven has added during his tenure, like
- Updated electronics such as the Vesper WatchMate AIS transponder; Simrad AP24 autopilot with wireless remote; Maretron DSM250 multifunction color displays.
- A complete power management system by Outback, including inverter/charger, the FLEXmax Solar charge controller (this unit logs system performance for up to 128 days and can be remotely programmed), and the Outback Mate3 system display and controller mounted at pilot station.
- A Little Cod Wood Stove.
Steven’s layering on of electronics and his focus on the boat’s electronics backbone has been headed toward the realization of an idea he calls Datawake. Imagine the usefulness of an onboard database that could collect information about Nomadness’ many systems, from compass heading to fuel tank levels to the temperature of the refrigerator and the amount of water in the bilge, and make that information readily available to the skipper from the con while building an overall status history, a “wake of data streaming behind the boat.”
Nomadness has been a grand project, interrupted by what Steven calls his passage to “the Dark Side,” and now this strong, well-outfitted boat is looking for a new adventure. It could be that adventure is the Figure 8 Voyage.
The day after viewing the Amazon 39 saw me early aboard the Clipper Ferry for Victoria. Rain and heavy wind in Puget Sound. The purser urged us to expect “strong motion” as we entered the Straits of Juan de Fuca. “Sea sickness tablets are available at the counter,” she said, “25 cents a packet.” For me these waters have never been anything but a lake. I looked forward to a pounding hull and water over the bow, but our powerful cat outran the gale in an hour. We entered the strait to find warm sun and flat water.
This day’s target, a Fastwater 44, sat in Oak Bay, just blocks from the stately Empress Hotel.
It should be noted that I had expected what was advertised, an Amazon 44, but what I got was a Fastwater. Prior to the trip I reached out to the designer, Graham Shannon, with some questions about his boat’s appropriateness for the Figure 8. He responded, “I don’t know why they’re calling it an Amazon.” All the Amazons, he stated, were built of steel at the SP Metalcraft yard and were round bilged. This aluminum, hard chined hull was done by Fastwater Marine. “I did design it though,” wrote Shannon, “It’s a well-made origami hull, and it should be suitable for your voyage.”
Once on the dock, first impressions of this boat went something like this: “Big boat, wow, great hull paint, nice open decks, new treadmaster nonskid, BIG!, looks brand new, BIG, beefy, strong, wow–BIG boat.” From stem to stern her size and sense of strength were most impressive.
Aluminum, cutter-rigged sloop, pilot house, hard chine below the waterline, extended fin keel with skeg-hung rudder.
Head sails on Harken furlers; Leisure boom-furling, fully battened main.
LOA: 44; LWL: 36.75; Beam: 13.66; Draft: 6.
Displacement: 27,000lb; Ballast: 9300. Sail Area: 899.
Displacement to Length Ratio: 243. Ballast to Displacement: 34% . Sail Area to Displacement Ratio: 16. Capsize Ratio: 1.82.
Hull Plating: 1/4 inch aluminum for the “bottom, topsides and superstructure,” per the survey. 3/16ths inch on deck.
Tankage: 100 gallons fuel in 1 tank; 120 gallons water in 2 tanks. All aluminum and integrated into the hull.
Engine: 77 hp.
Joining me on this inspection was my friend Chris Bennet, an experienced sailor who, with his wife Rani, has cruised a Coast 34 named Ladybug from BC to New Zealand via all the beautiful spots in between. Neither of us are big boat sailors, so it took us several minutes to get the lay of the land. And while I gravitated toward the fancy furling boom and the great forward locker, Chris stood to ponder the vast pilothouse windows. “Think inverted in the Southern Ocean,” he kept saying. I would point to the bull-nosing ready made for storm windows, but he just shook his head.
Positives from the Figure 8 perspective:
- The large cockpit felt exposed aft but had the advantage of draining well if pooped. There was a huge locker under the starboard settee and another purpose-built for two propane tanks. Lifting a seat cover behind the wheel gave easy access to the rudder post in case of emergency.
- The boat sported a watertight companionway hatch made of aluminum and complete with inside/outside dogs.
- New sails on quality furlers and the first boat I’ve seen with the inner headsail already rigged.
- Large windows bull nosed with aluminum ready for storm windows.
- Large forward anchor locker with bulkhead aft.
- Beefy anchor roller and chock integrated into the hull.
- Well installed nonskid everywhere on deck.
- Upper salon complete with galley, pilot station, and berth meant all major functions were as near as possible to the cockpit.
- For a guy used to low boats with no forward-facing windows, the view from the salon/pilot station was extraordinary. One could look straight out without any sense of straining to see over the bow.
- Ample insulation had been sprayed on and well below waterline.
- Engine could be easily accessed below salon sole, and the area was still fairly roomy.
Digging around inside lockers and bilges revealed a boat of immense strength. That combined with her very light use, new rig, simple layout, and well protected pilot house suggested her fitness for the Figure 8 voyage. My concerns included a lack of familiarity with in-boom furling and its fitness for long distance cruising (granted this device could likely be removed and replaced with a standard hank on sail), worry regarding the safety of such large windows, even with storm protection, and a general discomfort with the interior design, the quality of carpentry and system installation.
What defines an able high latitude boat varies by what one defines as his high latitude area. A vessel that is ideal for Alaska’s Inside Passage might not be what one would choose upon departing the Falklands for South Georgia. Such is the case with the beautiful, sturdy and capable Amazon 39 I inspected in Port Townsend.
Built in 1985, this Graham Shannon-designed sloop was entirely rebuilt in 2000 under the direction of the current owners. Such phrases as “entirely rebuilt” can be misleading; so to be clear, she was gutted, taken down to a hull bare even of insulation and then professionally refitted with entirely new systems and furnishings. Fourteen years later, she still looks brand new.
Steel sloop, full cabin and pilot house, hard chined, extended fin keel with skeg-hung rudder.
LOA: 39; LWL: 36 (estimated); Beam: 12.5; Draft: 7.5.
Displacement: 33,000lb; Ballast: unknown. Sail Area: unknown.
Displacement to Length Ratio: 316. Ballast to Displacement: unknown. Sail Area to Displacement Ratio: unknown. Capsize Ratio: 1.64.
Hull Plating: Not available.
Tankage: 120 gallons fuel in 2 tank; 90 gallons water in 2 tanks.
Engine: 30 hp.
From inside, this Amazon feels like a newly remodeled loft. Her open, airy salon includes a chart table to port of the inside steering station and a dining table and settee to starboard. Forward and down one step is the new galley and a small guest berth that converts into a large desk. In the bows is storage and an open chain locker. Sleeping quarters are but one queen berth aft, and the one head is adjacent, but the space to port of the berth is a large pathway to the stern systems, including the hydraulic steering gear. The engine lives beneath the cockpit sole and is easily accessible from the top and both sides.
The cockpit is small with high combings to each side but feels scarily unprotected aft. Note the steering column looks to be a section of recycled aluminum mast (clever). Also note the unique Monitor wind vane install (see photos). Decks are uncluttered and the high raised cabin provides great hand-holds while making a run forward.
I won’t get into the pros and cons of the Amazon 39 as a Figure 8 vessel; in my view, such a passage is beyond her design parameters. She’s too high sided and too heavy to be a smart sailor, underpowered for the Northwest Passage, and below she’s far too open to be a safe place to live in a seaway. That said, this vessel is beautifully detailed and well maintained and if my adventure took me only to Alaska’s Inside Passage, or similar high latitude environments, she would be a strong contender.
Next day saw me on the Bainbridge Ferry again, this time with a car headed for Poulsbo to see a Waterline 38.
One word describes first impressions of this boat: unremarkable. To my eye, her lines were common, thick and high-sided as if drawn with a dull pencil (sorry Ed).
But first impressions are unreliable, and the more I tore into this boat, the more logical and thoroughly considered her design appeared to be.
Steel, cutter-rigged sloop (inner forestay not rigged), full deck-house, round chined, extended fin keel with skeg-hung rudder.
LOA: 38; LWL: 29.8; Beam: 11.5; Draft: 5.
Displacement: 22,000lb; Ballast: unknown. Sail Area: unknown.
Displacement to Length Ratio: 371 (!). Ballast to Displacement: unknown. Sail Area to Displacement Ratio: unknown. Capsize Ratio: 1.64.
Hull Plating: Not available.
Tankage: 100 gallons fuel in 1 tank; 105 gallons water in 3 tanks.
Engine: 44 hp.
One of the older yachts on the list, this Waterline showed her age, and the to-do list would be quite long. However, below the surface she was quite a well thought-out, well-built boat.
Positives from the Figure 8 perspective:
- The small, high-railed cockpit felt safe. It allowed for easy movement around the wheel and easy reach of the winches.
- Ample deck lockers were located fore and aft. In the cockpit, a smallish locker under the stern seat was ventilated and ready for propane. A huge anchor locker forward was backed by a watertight bulkhead and had space enough for extra rode and several large fenders.
- “Sissy bars” surrounded the mast and the three winches there were self-tailing and ran cleanly.
- Strong stainless gallows cradled the boom and a rack aft, for communications and solar panels, was integrated into the aft rail system.
- Though numerous, portlights were small and fixed (a positive in high latitudes).
- The layout of living accommodations was thoroughly traditional and efficient. The U-shaped galley was close to the cockpit and countertops boasted 2 inch fiddles! The head was just to starboard; immediately to port there was a cozy quarter berth.
- Center-island galley sinks covered the engine, allowing access from either side.
- Locker covers were battens (breathable), hinged and could be secured in place (important in a boat that could go inverted). Spaces under the port and starboard settee were vacant, squarish and could take extra tankage without much customization.
- House Batteries, two 8-Ds, were located forward of the galley, amidships and below the waterline but above the cabin sole.
- The boat’s electrical infrastructure, wiring, switch box location and accessibility, was all quality work.
Concerns for this boat included:
- Her published displacement of 22,000 pounds (dry?) gives here a heavy displacement ratio of 371 before I move aboard and suggests the boat would be slow. (Sail area statistics were unavailable).
- The depth of refit required–topsides paint and hull, re-rigging, new sails, hard dodger, all-new electronics, etc.–was not insignificant given my current time frame.
- Lack of inside watch station (remedied with hard dodger or sight bubble).
- Minimal horsepower of existing, potentially tired engine.
All told this Waterline 38 was solid, an intelligently designed and a well-built boat, but could be too small for my needs and take too much time to ready.
Last week I flew north to inspect potential Figure 8 boats. Over four days I saw five steel and aluminum boats in yards that took me to Seattle, Poulsbo, Port Townsend, Victoria and Friday Harbor.
If I’d had the good sense to live nearer the Netherlands, I could have conducted this entire search without ever leaving the sales docks of De Valk, and fortune would have smiled similarly if I lived in France. But on the west coast of North America, metal boats are downright rare, except for one tiny pocket of manufacturing madness near Victoria, British Columbia. Here are (or were) the shops of Waterline Yachts, SP Metal Craft and Fastwater Marine, and all the boats I saw could be traced to one of these.
The next few posts will contain a quick review of the boats seen this trip, their basic specifications, brief thoughts on their suitability for the Figure 8 Voyage and some photos.
By way of reminder, in the previous post I defined the characteristics of “the right boat” as:
- Bullet-proof hull (i.e. steel or aluminum).
- About 40 feet in length.
- Capacious enough for a year’s supplies.
- Simply laid out and rigged for singlehanding (or easily made so).
One could argue that these parameters are so general as to be unhelpful. So, to be a little more specific, I was also looking for boats with:
- Good sailing characteristics (sensible sail area to displacement ratios).
- A pilot house or some kind of raised cabin that would allow for standing watch from below.
- Watertight bulkheads forward.
- Ample hull insulation above the waterline. (One metal boat owner friend of mine argues for it below waterline as well. Still thinking that one through).
- A strong power plant.
- Tankage for 200 gallons of fuel or room to add that in tankage below-deck.
- Serviceable electrical wiring and switchboxes.
- A history of (or evidence of) good upkeep such that a total, tear-it-to-the-bone refit is not required.
Simple as it may sound, the above represents a tall order when the field is so sparsely populated, and in the end my target boats for this trip comprised what was available rather than what fit the criteria.
The first boat inspected, the SK-42, was in Bainbridge, a pleasant 20 minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle.
Steel pilot-house sloop, nearly flush deck, extended fin keel with skeg hung rudder.
LOA: 42; LWL: 36; Beam: 12.5; Draft: 6.5.
Displacement: 26,000lb; Ballast: 8,000lbs. Sail Area: 900 sq ft.
Displacement to Length Ratio: 250. Ballast to Displacement (after personal increment of 5,500lbs): 25%. Sail Area to Displacement Ratio: 16. Capsize Ratio: 1.69.
Tankage: 115 gallons fuel; 105 water.
Engine: 70 hp.
Neither in photos nor in person does this boat impress as being a high latitude work-horse. This is largely due to her deeply transverse transom and overlarge cockpit, which give her a racey feel. That said, her lower freeboard and robust construction suggest a boat that can charge on in may weathers. Add to this her newness and, upon inspection, immaculate upkeep–cleaner bilges I have never seen–made her a boat worth consideration.
Positives where the Figure 8 are concerned:
- Big wheel in the big cockpit allowed easy access to winches while steering.
- Open, uncluttered foredeck.
- Ample storage locker forward with watertight bulkhead
- Stainless chainplates and standing rigging in good condition.
- Fairly low profile house for added safety at sea.
- Inner forestay could easily be rigged.
- A well designed chart table and bench allowed for good, all-around view while seated, even though the windows were narrow. Bench hooked around for comfort in rougher weather.
- Super-well maintained systems if cleanliness is an indicator, and her electronics, though not new, were all appropriate to my needs.
- High quality hardware. Stainless Steel through-hull valves, for example.
- Her lower house and freeboard also reduced the boat’s internal volume, but this made her cozy for a singlehander and safe (handholds were always but an arm’s length away).
Though a solid contender, concerns included a lack of below decks storage for such a long passage as the Figure 8 and no obvious locker-space for additional diesel tankage. The boat also felt too lightly ballasted and too powerfully rigged for a circuit of the Southern Ocean. Still, she showed extremely well, was strongly built and clearly blue-water able, having made two transits to Hilo and back with her current owner.
Next up, a Waterline 38…
In a few hours I fly to the Pacific Northwest to inspect five prospective Figure 8 Voyage boats. This article describes the search to date, including how my thoughts have evolved since this summer’s Northwest Passage.
“The best boat is the one you have,” is often quoted to illustrate a basic truth about voyaging: as vital as dreams are to adventure, too much dreaming, planning, revising, and perfecting can kill a cruise. At some point improvement is nothing but delay, and one must get going or risk not going at all.
In my case, however, the old saw is wrong. I have a boat, a much adored, 31 foot, full-keel ketch, named Murre. She has proven her abilities by safely transporting me over large reaches of the open Pacific (see Murre and the Pacific, one boat, one guy, two years on a big ocean). But the differences between a mostly middle latitude voyage of 15,000 miles and a 40,000 mile voyage that will spend half its time in high latitudes is vast. Compare the physical requirements on a plane flying from San Francisco to New York to a space ship’s flight to the moon. Both are technically difficult feats, but one is orders of magnitude more so. Murre is the jumbo jet in this analogy; she’s just not designed for the rigors of the Figure 8 course.
Much of my focus in recent months has been on defining the characteristics of the right boat.
And what are those?
Succinctly put, the vessel must be:
- Fast: able to maintain enough speed to get me around the Figure 8 course in one season.
- Capacious: have carrying capacity for a year’s supplies and lots of fuel.
- Simple: laid-out and rigged so as to be handled easily by one person.
- Maximally Seaworthy: capable of weathering extreme ocean and ice environments.
While these are interrelated requirements, the last is far and away the most important and has been the cause of the much recent contemplation.
Here are two visual examples of the extremes a Figure 8 boat must survive:
And how I’ve thought about these characteristics has changed dramatically of late. It may be helpful to know that the idea for the Figure 8 came to me while reading of Matt Rutherford’s solo of the Americas in 2011. His impressive passage was accomplished in an unlikely vessel, an old, fiberglass Albin Vega that survived both the Arctic and the Horn. Murre is also made of fiberglass; it’s a material I’ve worked with extensively during her restoration. Thus, until recently, my Figure 8 focus has been on a range of vintage, heavy-displacement, fiberglass boats, like the Westsail 32.
This is a design I’ve admired for years. Built throughout the 1970s in Costa Mesa, California, Westsails are legendary for their heft, their robustness and ability to survive even the most ridiculous of dirty weather. One now famous example is that of Sartori, the boat caught in The Perfect Storm of 1991 (you’ve probably seen the movie or read the book), which survived being rolled and abandoned only to wash up on a New Jersey beach intact.
And boats like this are not unheard of in the Arctic. Cloud Nine, Fiona, Saint Brenden, Belzebub, Dodo, and Gitana are different boats of different sizes but have two things in common: they’ve all completed the Northwest Passage since 2009, and they are all made of fiberglass.
So, during the spring of this year I researched a number of stout fiberglass designs. I combed marinas in my area, flew to San Diego and Florida, and inspected vessels like the Westsail 32, 39 and 42; the Valiant 40, the Corbin 39, the Lafitte 44, the Noresman 447.
This search was interrupted by the summer’s Northwest Passage adventure with Les and Ali on Arctic Tern, and here I learned first-hand that one year in the Arctic is not like the other. In 2011, when Matt Rutherford completed his Northwest Passage, ice extents along the route were at historic minimums, and this allowed Matt to work through with relative ease. Ditto for yachts in 2012. But in 2013 the course was choked with ice much of the season, and all fiberglass yachts starting in 2014 turned back, their skippers judging conditions to be too dangerous for their vessels’ design.
Seeing the Arctic in person and feeling the immense force of ice against hull convinced me to shift gears. Since my return, I’ve been exploring only boats with hulls of steel or aluminum.
But how big? Of what design?
Let’s go back and explore the four requirements.
To complete the Figure 8 course in one season will require that I maintain an average speed of 115 miles a day. (More on the course and mileages here.) This may not seem fast to you (it is, after all, only 4.79 miles an hour), but it does to me. Keeping up solid daily runs over time can be hard work. By way of comparison, Murre has made three, month-long Pacific crossings, and her average speed over the total of those 8,000 miles was 110 miles a day. The emphasis here is on average speed over weeks and months, as with wind-ships one day is rarely like the next.
For keel boats, speed’s limiting factor is boat size. Given similar conditions of wind and wave, larger boats can go faster than smaller ones, and size, where speed is concerned, is usually expressed as the boat’s length at the water line. This isn’t the place to get into the calculation, so let me jump to the result: the Figure 8 needs a boat whose minimum waterline is 33 feet, plus or minus, and this equates to a boat of about 40 feet in length overall.
We’re not talking cupboard space here, but rather the balance between the overall weight of provisions (the payload) and the boat’s ability to safely carry weight (carrying capacity).
These numbers add up quickly. For ship’s stores (food, beverage, galley supplies, etc.), I’ve used Niger Calder’s “Personal Increment” calculation (See Cruising Handbook, p. 13), which provides, among other things, an estimation of the weight of supplies one person requires per day of voyaging. This number, plus 100 gallons of water and 300 gallons of fuel (a range of 1000 miles under power in the Northwest Passage is not unreasonable), brings my payload to around 5,500 pounds for a year’s voyaging.
It’s not just any boat that can carry so much weight and be safe on the high seas. Again, I’ll forgo the details of ballast, displacement and their ratios and say here that this payload requires a moderate to heavy displacement boat of around 40 feet overall, and bigger would be better.
Though smaller boats are often easier to manage, simplicity is more a function of how the boat is arranged and outfitted. Here are just a few examples:
- The rig must be designed or adaptable to singlehanding. This does not mean she must be a ketch, though I have a preference for that rig, but it does mean that the larger sails of a cutter or sloop must be engineered for solo work. Headsails will be roller furling, for example, as could be the main.
- Line arrangements (sheet, halyard, reefing) should be as short as possible. Halyards and reefing lines should stay at the mast rather than be run to the cockpit.
- Cockpit winches must be within reach of the wheel or be movable to such a position.
Below decks, the layout must allow for comfortable and efficient living. Where soloing is concerned, these two terms are almost synonymous and, for me, include features like:
- The ability to stand watch from below via a cupola or raised cabin.
- Easy access to the galley and a pilot berth from the cockpit (galleys well forward and king sized beds make for a poor experience at sea).
Mechanical systems must be easy to access and reparable anywhere. This excludes boats with devices like saildrives and dedicated hydraulic steering.
This is a can of worms. Don’t believe me? Then I’d recommend you retrieve from your local library Seaworthiness, The Forgotten Factor by C. A. Marchaj. It’s a serious work, as indicated by the header quote to Chapter 1, “The Nature of the Problem.”
“I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account there of in the day of judgement. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by they words thou shalt be condemned.”
This book is 372 pages of no foolin’ around, but before Marachaj gets into the mind-boggling math, he lays out the definition simply and clearly:
“Seaworthiness–strong durable and watertight construction, structurally sound rig, good survival characteristics in extreme weather conditions.”
Given my destination (see graphics at the top of this article), this means two specific things:
1. Stays upright: the ballast, displacement, and capsize ratios yield a boat with maximum stability in large seas. If capsize occurs (far from impossible), the boat does not stay inverted. Why is this important? Here’s a good reason.
2. Survives collision: hull construction must withstand heavy ice impacts and severe groundings; better if it has watertight bulkheads fore and aft. Overhangs should be minimal; bow sprits and aft hung rudders (easily damaged by ice) are to be avoided.
Clearly there’s much more to seaworthiness, but for the Figure 8, these are the core design characteristics.
So, to summarize, the Figure 8 boat will be of steel or aluminum, about 40 feet long, medium to heavy displacement, bullet-proof, simply laid out and rigged for single handing.
Well that was easy.
Except for one thing.
In the States, the market for boats like this is small. Relative to production glass boats, few are made, and fewer still are available used. Thus far my internet research has taken me to such disparate places as Malaysia and the Netherlands, Cape Town and Turkey. I’ve looked into designs with names like Amazon, Atlantis, Boreal, Damien, Dix, Garcia, Koopmans, Kanter, Offshore, and Van de Stadt.
The cluster of boats to be inspected next week in Washington and British Columbia are the nearest to home I’ve found and include two Amazon 44s, a Waterline 38, and a Kanter.
Wish me luck!
Here are two of my favorite designs to date:
The Amazon 44
Forgive me, but I’ve always thought of UGGs as girlie boots. Where I’m from they are a fashion statement preferred by teens at the mall, and consequently nine tenths of the downtown UGG shop is dedicated to such pink and frilly footware that a high latitude adventurer would be embarrassed to enter.
Knowing that, I was amazed when Les and Ali of Arctic Tern recommended them. Because my time to Northwest Passage departure was too short to allow any research at all, I simply swallowed my pride, went to the above mentioned shop, and bought the only pair of men’s boots I could find, the UGG Classic Short.
The UGG Classic Short is a sheepskin boot whose leather shell and wool lining are a single piece of material. The shell is a light-weight suede of medium height with a lining is 17mm grade “A” Twinface sheepskin to which is attached a sole of flexible, molded foam. According to UGG, sheepskin is a naturally thermostatic material and will regulate foot temperature to body temperature in a range between -30 Fahrenheit and 80 Fahrenheit, which is quite a claim. Though “naturally high tech,” nothing about the boot feels the least bit rugged or outdoorsy. In fact, its sensation going on is more that of a bedroom slipper.
- Surprisingly warm: for the most part I reserved these boots for the cabin and as something comforting to change into after a watch in cold, clammy rubber boots. For this purpose they worked extremely well. Donning these boots when coming below quickly produced warm feet. On dry days I’d sometimes wear the UGGs on deck for a watch and found that in these conditions they could be warmer than the Xtratufs (though feet still got cold after extended periods for reasons having more to do with inactivity than insulation).
- Supremely comfortable: the plush sheepskin bootie and fully lined calf was a little bit of luxury (like a hot tub for the feet) and so thick that I never wore socks with UGGs.
- Breathable: Even after hours of wear, and even in a warm cabin where boots like this were not required, the UGG never became perceptibly damp.
- Not for walking: while great for huffing around the boat (I even climbed the mast in them), the few times I wore the UGG on hikes to the grocery store or coffee shop it failed to keep its shape or provide much support.
- Not waterproof: OK, this UGG is not designed to be, so such is hardly a fair criticism. That said, summer in the arctic is often slushy, and any time the weather turned convincingly wet, these boots were put away.
- Sole crushing: with time, the sheepskin in the soles became compressed and lost some of its insulative properties.
- Difficult to dry: because the shell and lining are all of a piece, the lining would have been very difficult to dry if soaked by rain or sea water.
Two points in defense of UGGs
1) During the passage it struck me how similar these UGGs are to traditional Eskimo Muk Luks, which are made of soft sealskin. Like Muk Luks, the UGG is much more suited to the very cold (i.e. dry) conditions of an Arctic winter than the more typically muddy summer conditions.
2) The UGGs my hosts wore were not the Classic Short, but rather a much more rugged boot similar to the UGG Polson. Given their tougher shell and sole, they were more versatile than my boot by far and could take wet days on deck and muddy days on shore with ease. Still, they suffered from having a boot top just that much too short (jumping from the dinghy to the beach had to be done with care) and the permanent liner whose insulation couldn’t be dried properly once wet.
In the final analysis the UGG boot’s warmth meant it had potential, and a common refrain aboard Arctic Tern was that we wished UGG made sea boots.
The previous post lays out a few options for hand protection while on a boat plying northern waters. Now, on to feet.
And I must admit up front that I didn’t quite solve the riddle of keeping feet warm and dry. I knew I wasn’t alone. Take, for example, Mike Johnson. Mike is an explorer who has sailed his large schooner, Gitana, to most places a boat can go on this globe, including Cambridge Bay, where she overwintered on the hard last year. During a visit to our house prior to this year’s Northwest Passage, Mike laconically summarized his polar gear’s successes and failures with one sentence: “It’s all ok, except I get cold feet.”
And no wonder. On a high latitude boat making stops in the Arctic, one’s feet must be prepared for three environments: the extreme cold and wet on deck, the relative comfort of life below, and tromps ashore in mud and ice.
It may be that one boot could handle all this, but I didn’t find that one boot. Instead I chose three very different solutions:
1. Xtratuf Insulated boots for on deck.
2. The Ugg Classic Short for below.
3. Columbia Bugaboot for trekking ashore.
Here I’ll review the Xtratuf boot, and move on to the others in subsequent posts.
Xtratufs for On Deck
These brown rubber boots are the de rigeur footwear in Southeast Alaska. Developed in the 1960s for west coast commercial fishermen, they are the brand-standard for anyone on the water in a region where everyone is on the water. Loyalty to this boot is such that Xtratufs have gone beyond that of work boot and can now be found at weddings, donning the feet of toddlers too young to walk, and hanging as ornaments from the boughs of Christmas trees.
Compare these two images to get a sense of how this boot’s popularity has radiated:
Pretty photos (and an outsourcing problem that has been remedied, according to locals) to one side, these boots just work. Several styles are available, but for this year’s Northwest Passage I chose the Xtratuf Legacy Insulated boot for maximum protection. The shell of this boot is made from a tripple-dipped, seamless neoprene that is both strong and flexible down to subfreezing temperatures. The high cut helps keep water out even in the sloshiest of environments, and the chevron-patterned sole provides ample traction on a wide range of surfaces. For heat retention, a layer of foam insulation surrounds the foot of the boot (top and bottom, but not the calf). Note: much like the Atlas gloves in the previous post, this boot is designed to take inserts in the form of warming insoles and “Sokkets.” I used the Servus 3/8ths inch felt insole (see “Layering Options” below).
Cost: Boot-$120.00. Insole-$7.00
- Tough as advertised: The shell is highly puncture resistant and durable, and unlike other materials, doesn’t break down (get sticky) in the sun or when stored for long periods in a boat locker. I have a well-used pair (uninsulated) bought in Hawaii in 2011 that have seen heavy use since, and the only sign of wear is a split in the rubber between the cuff and boot, easily repaired using several methods.
- Unquestionably waterproof: the seamless neoprene construction is simple and a reassuringly “no fail” solution. With foul weather gear pulled down over the high tops, I found my feet stayed dry in even the wettest weather.
- Layering Options: I bought boots a full size larger than my normal footware. This allowed me to put in not just one but two insoles or to double up on thick socks when conditions were especially cold. Additionally, insoles and socks that had become damp and clammy could be easily changed for a fresh, dry pair. I took three pairs of insoles and six pair of Smartwool Mountaineering socks.
- Not warm: that “rubber” boots are not warm is a common lament among high latitude sailors, but I’m not sure this is entirely the fault of the boot. Granted, the neoprene always “feels” cold going on, but I think the main culprit is our inactivity. Much of standing watch is just that, standing, and with little to keep the blood circulating, it’s no wonder our feet freeze. To be fair, I attempted to get blood moving by shifting my stance and walking in place while on watch but with little success. And it’s important to note that my feet got cold in other boots too.
- Not breathable: again, this is a qualified criticism as the boot makes no pretense toward breathability. That said, because boots are worn for such long periods, moisture does tend to build up inside and lend to the feeling of cold.
- Not good for walking: all that insulation (including the insoles and thick socks) make this boot too chunky (and hot!) for anything but short walks ashore, but that’s a function of this boot. I’ve hiked many a Southeast Alaskan town in uninsulated Xtratufs in relative comfort.
What I Opted Against
- Bama Sokkets (by Honeywell for Xtratuf): these are removable, insulated boot liners made to wick moisture from the feet to the boot wall. Great idea, but in my experience they are a fiddle to get on and off, and my feet exit the Sokket after a long watch as damp as ever.
- Permanent “sheep skin” linings: the Viking Trysil with pile liner is one of several brands I chose against because of the difficulty of drying the insides once wet.
- Gore-Tex insulated boots: the Durbarry of Ireland line is the hot, new thing in sailing boots, but in addition to a gob-smacking price tag ($399 a pair), I’m hard pressed to see how Gore-Tex could wick moisture out of a non breathable, leather shell. Also, feedback I’ve received from other Arctic sailors suggests they are not a warm boot for the north.
Though the Xtratuf Legacy Insulated boot failed to keep my feet toasty-warm, the boot’s durable, seamless, high-top construction, its good grip, and options for layering in extra warmth make it a superior boot for high latitude deck work.
Up next: boots for inside the boat…
The breadth of selection is mind-boggling. Take, for example, the types of gloves available to cold-weather commercial fishermen. Even in this market subset, the sheer number of options and materials warrants its own junior college introductory course. Add to this the mountaineering brands, the sailing brands, and trying to find the best piece of kit can appear a futilely complex exercise.
I chose to try two very different glove solutions for deck work in the Arctic, low-tech commercial fishermen’s “rubber” gloves and high-tech Sealskinz. Also noteworthy are the NRS Titanium kayaker’s gloves mentioned below.
Fishermen’s Rubber Gloves
For deck work I primarily used the orange “rubber” gloves so ubiquitous among commercial fishermen, specifically, the Atlas 465 gloves with separate liner. The Atlas outer glove is a double-dipped PVC material that is cut and puncture resistant and remains flexible down to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) and has a roughened grip for handling slippery objects. The yellow liner is made of a seamless, plush acrylic.
In preparation for very cold work, I bought the extra-large size in these gloves and then purchased two sets of liners, large and medium–one to go inside the other, with the intention of having three layers of protection.
Cost: $16.00 for the glove; $7.00 for the liner.
- Worry-free waterproof-ness: unlike my seamed, high-tech mitts or the below mentioned high-tech gloves, their ability to protect was not in question.
- Easy-dry liner: though I only took one set of outer gloves, I brought multiples of inserts (5 sets), which meant I could quickly trade wet for dry, and wet liners dried quickly.
- Active warmth: because I wore these only for active jobs like handling anchor chain, dock lines, tacking, reefing, etc., I never found I needed more than one insert. As long as I was using my hands, they stayed warm in this protection. (These were not warm gloves for low-exertion tasks like steering and just standing watch, nor did I wear them for that purpose.)
- Triple layer protection: the idea of putting on two sets of inserts inside the rubber shell never became reality. It was too time consuming, and because I reserved this glove for active work, unnecessary in the kind of cold I experienced on the Northwest Passage this year.
- A size too big: because I was using only the one insert, the extra-large out glove size was too big for “fine” work. When reefing or tacking, the fingers frequently got caught in the line or made the work of finishing a knot or cleating a sheet too cumbersome.
- Difficult to put on quickly: having two layers (shell and liner) made these gloves a fiddle to get on, especially if one’s hands were damp or sticky. I experimented with leaving the liner inside the glove (as with the Alti Mitt) but found fingers rarely made it in without bunching up the liner material. Typically the liner and glove had to be donned separately.
- Cuff size: the cuff was of medium length but too short and narrow to fit over foul weather gear and too large to fit under. I suspect the cuff is designed to go under the large sleeve of a commercial fisherman’s “rubber” jacket, like those made by Grunden.
The Atlas 465 gloves are a low tech, no-nonsense, cheap, and nearly indestructible solution. Even if one opts for carrying a more cutting edge solution, having a pair or two of these gloves in the locker as backup is enthusiastically recommended.
What I Opted Against
- Permanently insulated gloves, like the Atlas 460 series or the Atlas 282 Temres series. I’ve used the 460s on ocean passages and find that though this glove solves the problem caused by having separate pieces, it can be difficult to dry if the attached liner gets wet (and it will get wet) because it’s surprisingly tough to turn fully inside out.
- Partially “rubberized” gloves, like the Atlas Fit series. I find they get wet too easily and are slow to dry.
I also brought a pair of Sealskinz Ultra Grip. These are designed to be close-fitting and are advertised as waterproof, windproof and breathable. The out shell is mostly Nylon with a “hydrophilic” membrane and an inner liner of merino wool. Dotted palms assist with grip.
- Great for fine work: because the Sealkinz were so close-fitting, they were excellent for jobs that required tying knots, cleating-off lines, handling tools, etc. With some practice, I found I could accomplish tasks in these gloves almost as quickly as if I were working with bare hands.
- Delaying cold: these gloves slowed the invasion of cold that can come from handling cold objects, and in this way were far superior to working with bare hands. However, unlike my experience of Atlas gloves, hands in Sealskinz never felt warm. It could be that I bought a size too small and that there was simply too much pressure on my fingers to allow ample circulation. Delaying cold is not a bad trade for the ability to do fine work on deck.
- Quick-drying: The glove dried rapidly when hung over the stove.
- Not entirely waterproof: either they weren’t waterproof or they weren’t breathable. Either way my hands often came out of these gloves feeling wet.
- Not entirely warm: delaying the onset of real cold is a good thing, but not the same as having warm hands.
This high-tech solution bought me more time to do “fine” tasks on deck than bare hands, but did not effectively keep hands warm or dry.
What Didn’t Get Tested
I brought but failed to try the NRS Maverick Glove with Hydrocuff. This is a cold-water kayaker’s solution made of 2mm neoprene. It has liquid sealed seams and an arm-gripping cuff, so its warmth should compete with that of Sealskinz while being entirely waterproof (and non-breathable). The fingers aren’t as close-fitting, so dexterity may be minimally reduced. The pair I have (size: large) are very tight going on, especially with already-wet hands, and it’s this difficulty which left them in the bottom of my duffel bag for the year’s Northwest Passage.
Remembering the three basic criteria, that the item must be 1) waterproof; 2) easy to don; 3) easy to dry, the clear winner in this post is the simple and rugged Atlas 465. These have the additional advantage of allowing working hands to be feel warm in very cold conditions for about half the price of the competition.
In a sense, I got lucky. A mere nine shopping days separated my landing the berth on Arctic Tern and my expected arrival in Nuuk. Time was short, investigations rushed. I just happened to be passing through Seattle on the way home from a Vancouver delivery and took that opportunity to visit the world’s largest REI and the Outdoor Research factory store. In June, I found, only Outdoor Research had anything like a selection of Arctic-ready mittens.
I chose the Outdoor Research Alti Mitt for when needed warmth trumped that of dexterity. According to the manufacturer this mitt is “built for 8,000 meter peaks and Arctic expeditions,” and though I wouldn’t know about the former, it served well in the latter.
The Alti Mitt is actually two in one, an outer shell with an inner liner. The shell is made of a waterproof Gore-Tex with a leather palm. It has Prima Loft One insulation on top with fleece on the underside. Large, long cuffs allow easy fit over the sleeves of foul weather gear and gaskets can be cinched to reduce the intrusion of wet stuff. The liner mitt employs the same insulation strategy as the shell, but there’s more of it. The two pieces can be worn separately or together.
- I have a hand of average size but bought the large mitt to ensure ample room inside to trap warm air and reduce any pressure from material on the skin (pressure reduces circulation). I could comfortably put the thumb in with the other fingers and even make a fist of my hand, all within the mitt. This, combined with the insulation, made the mitt very warm under most circumstances.
- The long, large cuff extended easily and without much fuss over the sleeve of my foul weather gear. The lengthy overlap between foulie cuff and that of the mitt ensured “seamless” warmth between hand and arm.
- Even though the cuffs fit over the foul weather gear, I found that rain did not easily make its way inside. On two occasions I stood a rainy watch at the wheel in these mitts and in neither case did the liner get wet. (I can’t explain this.)
- The leather palm remained waterproof, even in the wettest weather. (See below re Gore-Tex palms.)
- A velcro tab attaches the liner to the shell, securing one to the other and making the mitt easy to get in and out of.
- Even after weeks of use, the mitt had a plush, warm, luxurious feeling, and was a joy to put on.
- The fleece insulation on the palm-side of the mitt (both shell and liner) was insufficient to block the intrusion of cold when gripping cold surfaces for long periods. This is the Alti Mitt’s single biggest drawback.
- With rough use, the liner slid around inside of the shell. The two Velcro tabs at the base of the liner were not enough to stop this.
- Outdoor Research would not sell additional liners. This meant I had to be extra careful not to wet or lose the one pair I had. That liners are not sold separately seems a miss-step on the part of the company.
- The liner felt too lightly built to be worn on its own, and because I had only the one pair, I chose never to do this.
- With prolonged wetting, the grip of the leather palm became slick and slippery (though it remained waterproof). This result was not unexpected and was preferable to Gore-Tex (see below) while being far from ideal.
The Outdoor Research Alti Mitt is an excellent piece of kit for light duty work in cold temperatures but could do with extra insulation in the palms and a more secure connection between the shell and the liner. I intended to experiment with inserting another, light fleece mitten inside the liner for added warmth, but never found such an item for sale in the Arctic hamlets we visited.
What I Opted Against
- Mitts with Gore-Tex palms. In my experience water can be forced through Gore-Tex given the right amount of pressure (after a few rainy sits, the seats of Gore-Tex foul weather bibs, for example, seem to leave me with a damp bum).
- Mitts with a separated index finger. The reduction of space in the mitt’s main compartment make for cramped quarters when all four or five attempt to snuggle together and seemed a poor trade for minimal added dexterity.
- Glove Liners. A few manufacturers and one salesperson recommended a glove liner to go inside the mitt shell. Such seemed to defeat the purpose of a mitt, which is to create a single warm compartment where naked fingers can warm themselves.
Looking back now I can’t imagine attacking the Arctic without a large, waterproof, well insulated, long-cuffed mitt and was amazed at the number of cruisers in the north who only had gloves.
Next, Fishermen’s “rubber” gloves vs a High Tech solution…
Joining Les and Ali on Arctic Tern for the this year’s Northwest Passage ticked several Figure 8 boxes, one being the testing of high latitude gear for my own solo attempt. In the next several articles I’ll review the gear I carried, what worked and didn’t work, and what I learned, starting with mittens and gloves…
Keeping hands warm and functional in high latitudes is a challenge; hands do too many things and the weather varies too much for there to be a one-size-fits-all solution. At best one gets a compromise, some middle point between comfort and usefulness, and even that requires experimentation.
First, to set the stage:
This Year’s Conditions
Average temperatures during the two months of the passage above the Arctic Circle were 3 – 6 degrees Celsius (37 – 42 degrees Fahrenheit) with many days at zero degrees and below. The lowest temperature measured was -8C (17F). It rained frequently and snowed or hailed on several occasions, usually when winds were strongest. Winds averaged 10 to 25 knots on deck with many days of calms and several of 35 knots plus. See this article for more on general conditions. Given what I’ve read and heard from others, I’d rate the summer weather we experienced as fairly mild.
The crew of Arctic Tern stood 3 hour watches. If the weather was particularly rough or particularly cold, the person on deck would be given a short break after an hour or so. Still, it was not unusual to be on deck for the entirety of one’s watch.
I found that in the colder weather no piece of kit, be it hat, boot, or glove, would keep me warm indefinitely, and under most circumstances, life on deck was within a range most would define as convincingly chilly. Very crudely the perception of being cold in the body’s extremities passed through three stages: 1) simple cold; 2) aching cold; 3) numbing cold. The first was a natural state of working in the Arctic; the second, a frequent result of spending time on deck, but the third was to be avoided at all costs. After some weeks, I began to judge a piece of kit’s ability to keep me warm by how long I could be on deck during a single watch without passing into stage three coldness.
Mittens vs. Gloves
Much of one’s time on deck is inactive, where hands are concerned; for example, holding on while standing watch, gripping the wheel, etc., requires too little energy to pump much warm blood to the extremities. Under such circumstances gloves can be cold comfort as, in my experience, separating digits into their own compartments makes them incapable of warming themselves. For such times nothing beats a pair of loose fitting mittens. Conversely, I found active hands can be kept warm in gloves even in very cold situations, like working with freezing anchor chain or reefing an icy sail.
An acquaintance of mine who has gone twice through the Northwest Passage told me he uses bare hands when working on deck. He is a skilled photographer, among many other things, and gloves make operating small equipment difficult. I worked the foredeck with bare hands in very cold conditions many times, but found that unless my excursions from the cockpit were short, my fingers soon became too cold to be useful. On one occasion I returned to the cockpit after muscling a reef into the main barehanded only to find that my fingers were too “brittle” to undo the clip on my safety harness. I had to be helped out of my own gear! So, unless the situation demanded urgent action, I usually opted for gloves.
Each piece of kit I took, whether a mitt or a glove, had to be
- Easy to put on/take off.
- Easily dried, especially inside.
The first of these is a base-line requirement as wetness, on a high latitude boat, is everywhere. Precipitation, spray, condensation, wet material like lines and sails mean that a porous mitt or glove will lead to wet, and thus cold, hands much sooner than later. The second is driven by the many requirements of hands. Mittens may be great for steering, but what happens when one jumps forward to make a sail change or below for a cup of coffee? Being able to get into and out of hand coverings without thinking about it is a premium quality. The third requirement is a result of the first two. No matter the care that is taken, the insides will get wet eventually and must be of a material that is easy to disassemble and open to the air. In this way, gloves and mittens whose inner insulation is a separate piece are preferred.
Given those requirements, my assessments of the mitts and gloves I used on this year’s Northwest Passage are in the next few posts…
In a recent post (here) I sketched out 2014 Northwest Passage Stats and where I thought Arctic Tern fit in.
Here are a few more data points, this time focused on our particular experience. (What follows is from my log and is presented here for interest’s sake only.)
Mileages and Days
- 4167: Miles Arctic Tern sailed between Nuuk, Greenland and Nome, Alaska.
- 1866 / 2301: Miles from Nuuk to Bellot Strait (note side trips) / Miles from Bellot Strait to Nome.
- 45 / 20: Days to make Bellot Strait from Nuuk / Days to make Nome from Bellot Strait.
- 65: Days between Nuuk and Nome.
The course through the Northwest Passage is remarkably long, especially if one considers the miles to the Arctic Circle from home waters and the additional miles to “safe” water below it. Add another 2500 miles to Arctic Tern’s season from her start in Lewisport, Newfoundland to her projected winter quarters in SE Alaska, and you can see that in distance alone–not counting the difficulties of weather, pilotage, shortness of season–the passage requires a high degree of commitment.
Though Bellot is not the actual midpoint of the course, it acted, for us, as a threshold such that we tended to think of our passage as before Bellot and after Bellot. For example, almost all our ice encounters in 2014 were at and before Bellot, as was all the time we spent waiting for ice to clear.
In hindsight the time we spent up close and personal with pack-ice seems quite small. According to my records we had 10 specific ice encounters, which I define here as contact with floe or floe whose proximity required evasive action. I have not tallied work with icebergs in Greenland as they could be approached more or less on our terms, and they were only of any density in Disko Bay and near Upernavik.
In order of appearance:
- August 8: Arctic Tern works her way out of an ice plug covering the entrance to Cumming Inlet. Though the plug is not very wide, it is 7 /10ths on the western edge thinning to 3/10ths at the eastern edge. Given the heave of swell, it takes time to find a clean way out.
- August 9: We pass through loose pack entering Admiralty Inlet.
- August 17/18: We move through 1 – 3/10ths ice exiting Admiralty and working around Cape Crawford. Density requires numerous course adjustments but little reduction in speed. Water-top covered in nilas.
- August 22: Loose pack must be avoided upon entering Port Leopold but requires only occasional poling. Light W wind clears the anchorage by morning.
- August 23: While attempting a leap from Port Leopold to Fort Ross, Arctic Tern encounters the pack around Prince Regent Inlet’s Creswell Bay and is turned back. After several hours of working 1 – 3/10ths ice, we come upon a patch of what appears to be 7/10ths. From the spreaders we can see leads, but none are long and we are unable to connect more than one or two leads together before coming to a dead end. The ice is not moving, and we can expect little near-term change. Instead of wasting precious fuel and in order to manage a coming southerly, we back-track to Fury Beach and anchor behind a small spit on the north side of Fury Creek.
- August 23/24: Overnight Arctic Tern is swept out of her Fury Beach anchorage when the current makes a sudden 180 degree shift in direction and accelerates. A larger piece of floe that has been slowly retreating is quickly upon us. All hands! The ice impacts our starboard bow and anchor chain. Shore lines are cut loose; anchor chain is paid out while two of us pole furiously to free the chain. Too much pressure. Bow is being dragged down. We are preparing to buoy the last of the chain when the anchor is plucked up. Arctic Tern is swept narrowly past the ice piled up on Fury Beach spit and then the shoal at the creek entrance. With sea room and a decelerating current, we are able to disengage from the ice.
- August 26: Ice invades our Fort Ross anchorage just after breakfast of our first morning. We depart without issue, but Novara’s anchor is briefly impacted. Brands Island anchorage is full of ice. We move to Levesque.
- August 26: By late evening, the ice pack is invading Levesque, so we again weigh anchor and move to escape. This time both Novara and Arctic Tern must push their way out, leaving a fair bit of bottom paint behind.
- August 29: Arctic Tern attempts to pass Bellot Strait. Two ice plugs within the strait give us pause when viewed from a distance, one extending southward toward Zenith Point and another extending northward toward Halfway Island. Upon approach, both have near-shore gaps we pass through easily. A larger plug covers the entirety of the western entrance to the strait, but current action creates significant ice movement. Novara squeezes through the northern band, and with patience we are able to “wedge and pole” our way out.
- August 30/31: From Franklin Strait’s Tasmania Islands to Cape Victoria, Arctic Tern hugs the coast closely and can usually see ice to starboard but must negotiate loose pack only twice.
- Though pack ice is often “near” (as we pass Ice Breaker Channel, round Bathurst, round Barrow) we do not see it again the remainder of our passage.
- 5C: Departing Nuuk
- 3.5C: Lowest temperature while crossing Baffin Bay; wind from NW.
- 0C: While maneuvering in ice upon departing Arctic Bay.
- -1C: With snow and 30 knot winds in Lancaster between Rigby and Graham Harbors (with wind chill, -8C).
- 8 – 10C: In Simpson Strait.
- 0 – 3C: Cambridge Bay to Cape Bathurst and 2 – 6C: Bathurst to Barrow.
- 7C: below Barrow.
- 3C to 6C: Range of temperature on most days between Lancaster and Barrow.
- 7.78C: Day after departure from Nuuk.
- -1.05C: Upon our encounter with the ice pack south of Creswell Bay and one of the coldest seas we recorded.
- 8.18C: Temp at Cape Lisburne.
- 10.21C: Temp just outside Nome.
- 2.5C to 4.5C: Average range of sea temperatures between Lancaster and Point Barrow when not in the company of ice.
- 1021mb: Highest reading.
- 994mb: Lowest reading.
- 1000mb – 1015mb: typical range.
- 11: days with readings of 999mb or below.
Wind Force (wind blew from every conceivable direction except up; direction is not summarized here).
- On 18 days we recorded winds of Force 0 – 1.
- We had winds to Force 5 – 6 on 6 days.
- Force 7 was recorded on 3 days.
- Force 8 on one day (anchored in Cumming Inlet).
- The rest of days were Force 2 – 4.
Given the generally light or contrary winds and the requirement to make miles when we could, we motor-sailed or motored 70+% of the time and replenished fuel supplies in:
- Arctic Bay
- Cambridge Bay
The longest legs were Arctic Bay to Cambridge Bay (677 miles) and Tuk to Nome (1061 miles). We had our best winds between Tuk and Nome, motored the least during this leg, and arrived in Nome with much of our fuel aboard.
A request in the comments of a recent post, “What’s it like to be back?” resulted in a response worthy of its on post.
The requests from Douglas Pohl, who authors Northwest Passage 2014:
“1) Please detail your NWP expenses. 2) If you were to go again – what would you seek out to make the experience better for you a second time? 3) Less than half of the yachts attempting a NWP made goal. What items/events/preparations/decisions made the difference between success and failure?”
First, a caveat. I’d never been to the high latitude north before this year and went there specifically to learn the weather, pilotage, and endurance challenges associated with my own upcoming attempt. I just got lucky to land a crew spot with Les and Ali on Arctic Tern, who brought a tough boat and an anchor locker full of experience to the problem. It is they who should be answering these questions.
Understanding that…starting from back to front…
3) What items/events/preparations/decisions made the difference between success and failure?
I think the main challenge of any expedition, beyond exploring deeply, is to return home with vessel and crew in one piece. So, I have nothing but respect for the skippers who, after spending weeks on the NWP, decided the risks were too great to continue. We go to rugged places to see life in the raw and to choose for ourselves how to solve their problems. Deciding to retreat from the arctic is no cakewalk given late season weather in Baffin and Davis and can be an adventure in itself. So cudos to all who attempted and got out safely.
Given that, my responses are as follows (not necessarily in this order):
a. A Metal Boat. Many have demonstrated that a metal boat is not a requisite hull material for the NWP. Cloud Nine, Fiona, Saint Brenden, Belzebub, Dodo, Gitana, just to name a few made in glass. While in Nome I met Roland, who manages the yard where you will haul out on your way south, if such is your choice. He went through the NWP in a wooden Bristol Channel Cutter in 2009, demonstrating again that pretty much any boat can do pretty much anything.
That said, having the reserve strength of metal in the hull gives your NWP crew the confidence to take the risks an ice passage can require. Arctic Tern was swept off her anchor by heavy ice at Fury Beach and punched through ice plugs in Bellot, Depot and Levesque. We had many concerns during these events—holing the boat was not one of them.
b. Access to Ice Reports. One boat’s crew we knew turned back because they didn’t have daily access to Environment Canada Ice Reports. Arctic Tern benefited from the help of a shore-based monitor, not an arctic expert, rather a computer-handy friend who could clip those portions of the ice reports we needed and compress them for daily send over SSB/Pactor. Other boats with Iridium technology got better, prettier pictures (at sometimes much greater cost), but our snippets were plenty to allow us to make the decisions we needed.
c. Good at Playing Poker. Success at the NWP in 2014 required waiting, almost endlessly, for the right moments and aggressively taking the opportunities when they came. I got to learn from Les here, who pushed Arctic Tern to the edge of the pack (from Graham to Port Leopold then to Fury and Fort Ross, for example) so that when ice did shift we were in position to take advantage of it.
d. Confidence of Experience (but not overconfidence). Les and Ali had the advantage of significant high latitude experience and the lessons from their 2013 attempt, making them, in my book, the best bet in the 2014 field. That said, Les spent hours with the ice charts, forecasts and the Arctic Pilot. Reading, thinking, reassessing his plan. Always reassessing his plan! This gave us a huge advantage.
2) If you were to go again – what would you seek out to make the experience better for you a second time?
a. Delay a Baffin Crossing. We crossed over too early. We knew this and did it on purpose because early ice charts showed considerable clearing in Pond and further on. There was, we thought, the chance for a repeat of blue-water years like 2012. This turned out not to be, and so we got to fully explore Devon and Arctic Bay in exchange for Greenland north of Upernavik. Not the worst of exchanges, but … OH Greenland … how we missed you!
b. Beyond that, it’s a tough question. We had good food, fresh bread, a heated cabin, arctic streams to drink from, heavy ground tackle, a solid boat, a strong engine, a big gun, two inflatable dinghies, good companions, access to weather and ice reports, and the ability to communicate with home. All on a 43 foot boat!
1) Please detail your NWP expenses.
Again, I was one of several crew, so did not have access to the boat’s overall expedition expenses. From my observations, the biggest expenses on the NWP are a) fuel and b) food.
By my estimation, we motored or motor-sailed some 70% of the time, and we refueled in Nuuk (Arctic Tern began her attempt from Newfoundland), Upernavik, Arctic Bay, Cambridge Bay and Tuk. Given the distances and fickle winds, a sail-only passage was not an option and carrying large fuel supplies, 1000 liters, added greatly to our ability to efficiently get through.
Food in the Arctic is expensive and the selection is poor. Stocking up early, say, in Nuuk, is recommended. I found cans of stew in Arctic Bay that were $12.89. Overall prices for grocery store items appeared to be twice that of “normal” stateside and fresh vegetables often appeared way past “sell by” dates.
For crew traveling to meet a boat, plane flight expenses were considerable. Getting to Nuuk from my home in California was several thousands of dollars.
Other expenses were nominal: no marina fees, no expensive dinners in restaurants and bars, both of which are in short supply in the arctic, etc.
The most frequent questions I get now that I’m home from the Northwest Passage are:
- What’s it like to be back?
- Would you go again?
The answer to the second of these is unequivocal, but the first is nuanced and requires some explaining.
The Northwest Passage was a domestic affair, from a certain perspective. Apart from a short sojourn in Greenland, the entirety of the voyage occurred within my “home” waters of Canada and Alaska.
That said, I’ve never traveled to a place more foreign. The sensation was of breaking our orbit to awaken on the shores of some other planet. From the discombobulation of 24-hour daylight to the invasive, grinding ice and its inescapable cold to the deep quiet of desert mountainscapes barren of trees and largely free of humans, the Arctic was decidedly not mother earth. So, returning from two months in the far north has been a stranger re-entry than my two years alone in the tropics.
On the one hand, I feel a certain pride associated with being part of a team that succeeded at a complicated, risky venture. No, not every moment was dangerous or even difficult. On Arctic Tern we baked bread several times a week; we read books in a heated cabin; we posed for pictures; we drank red wine with dinner. But the challenges of the next day, the next ice choke, the next gale, the next two thousand miles to Barrow, were always in the back of the minds. We knew we were on our own and had to rely on ourselves to get through.
Some of the self-reliant activity was quite exciting. I won’t quickly forget our piloting Arctic Tern through the ghostly pack, giant chess pieces askew, the loose frazil tinkling like chandelier tips, or standing watch in 30 knot winds of zero degrees and snow or reefing sail with hands so cold they ached as if from intense heat. After one such experience I returned to the cockpit only to find my fingers were too “brittle” to operate the life-line clip. I had to ask for help getting out of my own gear. We poled-off bergy bits in Port Leopold; we were swept by ice off Fury Beach; we cleaved it with the ship’s bow in Bellot. These were the moments one goes to the Arctic to find.
Far more usual and wearing, however, was constant decision-making and reassessment of the plan. The Northwest Passage is a maze scattered with ice doors that open and close during one’s transit, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. Each of our hard-won advances into the maze—to Port Leopold, Fort Ross, through Bellot, around Bathurst—came with the danger of removing our ability to retreat if further advance became impossible. Intricate weather and ice reports, whose receipt was often delayed, had to be weighed against our own, local experiences. Should we take the opportunity of a possible clearing of the ice in Prince Regent Inlet or wait for a similar opportunity in Peel Sound? If we pushed on another thousand miles, could we retreat at all? What if we became embayed?
So, satisfaction at our success nestles next to a relief at having escaped.
And under that is disappointment, a gentle sadness that the adventure is now in the past and that I have left a place, so rich in interest and history, largely unexplored. Each strait, each cape and point is named for explorers from ages past, yet it still feels like virgin territory. On Fury Beach we found barrel staves from Parry’s expedition of the 1825. Here HMS Fury was wrecked, her supplies offloaded and cached, coming later to the aid of John Ross’s expedition of 1829, and here, while searching for fresh water to replenish Arctic Tern’s stores, I found the tracks of arctic fox and musk ox and came face-to-face with a polar bear. Every landing had moments like this.
Yet I can count our visits ashore on two hands. How often skipper reminded us that the Northwest Passage is not a pleasure cruise! Even on fine days one knows that the region, this bay, this peak, everything that one can see, will soon be frozen or whipped by winds that drop temperatures to inconceivable depths. Everywhere Arctic Tern sailed from Upernavik, Greenland to Nome, Alaska—that entire 3,000 mile voyage—is solid ice most of the year. Thus attendant on wonder was a sense of urgency. One must keep moving or risk not getting out. Hikes were brief; we did not dally at anchorages. Painfully, we were pulled away too soon.
Balancing all this is the sweetness of returning home, to the company and friendship of my wife, the smell of trees, the song of titmice in the back yard, to the familiar warmth of Indian summer in California.
So, what’s it like to be back? It’s a mixed bag, a jumble of related sensations all present at once and currently unsettled. I’m guessing this is pretty normal.
And would I go again?
Yes. In a heartbeat.
What follows are some of my favorite photos of Arctic Tern’s 2014 Northwest Passage:
It’s a funny thing about habits: they’re environment-specific.
Take bananas for example. When at home, I eat a banana each morning. I’ve convinced myself that eating fruit every day is healthy. But many fruits are temperamental—are delicate or seasonal, difficult to peal or too strong in flavor to eat regularly and next to which a bananas is as reliable and accessible as tap water.
My banana eating habit even extends to land-based travel. When on a trip I don’t just buy my coffee at Starbucks, I get a banana there too. Or if Starbucks is out, I’ll walk several blocks from my hotel in search of a banana. If I don’t find one, I’m upset. I feel constitutionally out of whack. I worry I must be short of potassium or fiber or whatever it is bananas contain that I’ve decided is key to my well-being.
But at sea bananas are precious scarce after a few days. Even if they are provisioned, they’re unlikely to last. Once while exploring the Marquesas Islands on Murre, I thought I’d be smart. (Who is Murre?) I bought an entire stalk of bananas from a local farmer, all as green as go and hard as rocks. My idea was that they would ripen slowly, and I could eat them, all 50 of them, over the next couple months. As it turned out I was wrong on all counts; in the tropical heat they ripened quickly and all at once. Within a week I was out of bananas again, having had to throw most of the stalk over the side.
On Arctic Tern’s Northwest Passage, there were no bananas. There weren’t any from the start. And after the first couple days of my banana fast, which I must admit did not include cold sweats but did include some surreptitious searches in cupboards and drawers, I found I stopped longing for them. Now, to be fair, this could be because the skipper’s favorite meal was a thick, hot porridge heaped with re-hydrated prunes. Skipper was always the first to rise and took this to mean that the choice of crew’s breakfast was his. He chose porridge. Every day. And what I learned by eating porridge every day was that the only thing one longs for afterward is to never eat again. Anything. Not even a banana.
So, one of the essential lessons of my Northwest Passage: my happiness does not depend on bananas.
And how long did this last? I have been home from the Northwest Passage for three days. Yesterday I did a grocer run. I bought bananas.
I just ate a banana for breakfast. It’s good to be home.
By way of setting some context for Arctic Tern’s accomplishment, below are a few statistics regarding her 2014 attempt and the Northwest Passage generally. (See also Northwest Passage Statistics, II)
A Hint at the Difficulty of the Northwest Passage
- 1497: The year John Cabot, at the behest of King Henry VII, sets out on the first recorded attempt to find the Northwest Passage. Unsuccessful!
- 1851: Northwest Passage discovered by Captain Robert McClure and crew of HMS Investigator.
- 1906: The first successful attempt to sail the Northwest Passage. Roald Amundsen in Gjoa completes the route (Route 6, see below) in three seasons, spending three winters in the arctic.
- 1977: The first small yacht completes the passage; Willie de Roos in Williwaw.
Northwest Passage Results for 2014
- 30 vessels started.
- 27 continued north of the Arctic Circle.
- 9 completed the passage from Arctic Circle to Arctic Circle (2 from west to east; 7 from east to west).
- 5 reported being beset in ice during their attempt.
- 2 had to be icebreaker rescued. The particulars of the two rescued were: 36 feet aluminum/25hp singlehanded and 40 feet aluminum/46hp two persons.
- 2014 was a near repeat of 2013 with ice choke-points requiring vessels to wait for weather and late melt season conditions to navigate in near to open ice waters. A Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker and a cruise ship were both beset for three days in heavy ice but luckily were able to self-escape after a storm moved through the area.
(Source for above: Northwest Passage 2014)
Arctic Tern’s Place in History
- One of 9 vessels to complete the Northwest Passage in 2014.
- Possibly the 22nd yacht to complete Route 6 (via Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Bellot Strait, Rae Strait, Simpson Straits, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait. Simpson Straits is only 6.4 meters deep, and complex currents run in Bellot Strait and Simpson Straits.)
- Possibly the 100th yacht to ever complete the passage.
(Source for last two points: official passage records are kept by R.K. Headland at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. For a PDF of the report through 2010, go to RCC Pilotage Foundation, Pg. 36.)
It was a great privileged to be a part of Les and Ali Parson’s successful crossing of the Northwest Passage.
We had not seen land since Tuk.
For two weeks Arctic Tern pushed west, making her way over Canada, passing Herschel Island and Demarcation Point; then over Alaska to Point Barrow and south, and all the while we saw only gray water and gray sky accented by nothing but the very occasional white gull. We knew the horizon hid a low and dangerous coast to port and that to starboard churned the polar ice field. Once we thought a brighter section of cloud to the north revealed ice blink. Here the water temperature dropped from four degrees to two. But we saw nothing. It was just as well. The coast offered no protection and the ice, if it approached, no mercy.
At Cape Lisburne we got our first glimpse of Alaska. The cloud lifted from the water like the eyelid of some giant sleeper and we saw massive cliffs, tilted as if falling back into the sea, and black mountains of impossible weight. Suddenly birds surrounded the boat. Seals stared as we passed. The wind began to increase from the north and then the lid closed so that we crossed the Arctic Circle in gray and Diomedes (our closest approach to Russia) in the dark. Arctic Tern surfed along in a large and growing swell.
The morning of our last day held promise. We had seen stars overnight, and by dawn, sun. Our strong northerly wind became stronger, the swell sharper and continually breaking and we boomed along under a partially reefed jib.
By noon and our approach to Sledge Island the sky had opened completely. Now winds often touched 40 knots and they fell from Alaska’s infinity of ranges where a great wave of bleached cloud hung over the peaks but did not approach. We hand steered, partly to relieve the struggling autopilot and partly for the thrill. Winds had been favorable since Cape Bathurst, some 1200 miles east, but never like this; never had we had the opportunity to crash along at such maximums of speed.
If the passage over the top had been dull and eventless, compounding our impatience and making us crabby, now our mood lightened as Arctic Tern happily plowed the waves. We were almost giddy. Hell, we were almost there; we had almost done it. And we were finishing with an exclamation point of wind and wild sea.
Briefly I wondered what might go wrong. Surely there must be some final impediment. A sheet would part; we would run aground in the Sledge Island channel. Our entire Northwest Passage had been an exercise in checked progress, backtracking and restarting. Weather held us at anchor here; ice blocked our way there or invaded our anchorage or pushed us into shallows. We broke free of the pack only to face days of headwinds. Each milestone gave way to yet another hurdle: the hard won victory of clearing Bellot back on August 30th had only qualified us for the test of getting the 2,000 miles to Cape Barrow before winter put us on the beach.
But the freedom of Arctic Tern’s gate was the real deal, and for hours we sailed and not a single thing went wrong.
Then the gold dredgers of Nome began to dot the sandy beach of coast; and then the breakwater of the harbor hove into view. Here the wind slackened; the swell moderated, blanked by the east trending shore. And under a golden sunset we made our way into Nome’s inner harbor where Ding, a crewman from Novara, stood by to catch our lines.
We had done it. We had accomplished the goal. We had sailed the frigid and forbidding 5,000 mile Northwest Passage in one season.
Arctic Tern arrived Nome, Alaska, at 7PM local, September 18, thus completing her 2014 Northwest Passage.
There before us was our traveling companion, Novara, and after quick greetings we escorted each other to the nearest (there are several, we hear) establishment for a celebratory dinner generously lubricated with honest, unapologetic American beer! None of us can quite recall how things ended up last night, but if they ended as well as the cruise, then we have no complaints.
Wind: NE 10-15
Sea: 1 meter
Sky: occluded, high ceiling, light rain occasional
Temp: Air, 5C; Sea, 2.7 to 4.5 to 7.5C as we head south
Bar: 1001 – 998
Approaching Point Hope, the most northerly position achieved by Captain Cook.
190 miles to the Arctic Circle
280 miles to the Diomedes Islands
350 miles to Nome
“We’ve got to be nearly somewhere now.” Nick Carter (Arctic Tern crewmember)
No days pass more slowly than the last few days of a long voyage. At some unremarkable point, the journey transitions from one whose end is distant, indeterminate and not worth considering to one that is quite possibly imminent without being tomorrow. Gone is the joy of living life on passage; gone is the dream of making the attempt; gone is the thrill of the fight. In one’s mind, the deed has been done, and there is nothing left but to wait on the conveyance to make its station.
Patience, the most requisite of sailing skills, evaporates. A week ago Nikki began tracking distances (to Barrow, the Diomedes, the circle, Nome) on a white board in the main cabin. Initially we took little interest; the numbers were four digits, the math impossible. But our eagerness has increased as we approach. Now we are upset if Nikki hasn’t refreshed her data before breakfast, and once while she slept off watch (such laziness!), I took the liberty of amending the distances myself, only to be chided later for calculations that were incorrect; my numbers were too big.
Several times each watch one pair of us unfurls the Yankee to catch some of this zephyrous northeasterly. Finding the sail fills, we reduce throttle. Our speed decreases. Someone aboard, most usually the skipper, barks discontentedly at our slowness. Consequently, the sail is furled and the engine re-revved. Slowness is not an option.
We can plan our arrival to the hour. According to the chart plotter that hour will be 2 days and 3 hours or 2 days and 11 hours in the future, depending on what side of a wave Arctic Tern is surfing. Over dinner (tonight Ali made Chicken Curry, a crew favorite) we discuss what we will do in port. The contenders are showers, laundry, drinks, *not* in that order, and we know the name and location of each establishment required to fill these needs. Even so, each evening someone reads aloud from the Alaska travel book. We want to see Nome’s nameplate, a gold pan the size of a billboard; we wonder if the streets are paved; what do the 3,000 residents do; are they more like Canadians or more like Texans?
Jokes that we’ve told uncountable times and which ceased to be funny before the first ice encounter are funny again. Banal conversation, unbearable 300 miles back, is now interesting. After a morning of talking, I become aware that I am describing in detail the constituents, pattern and color of the ancient stucco that covers my house in California, and my audience is listening; they are asking questions ? about stucco!
We smile inexplicably. We hum. We tidy our personal belongings or spend a little more time cleaning the galley, the cabin sole. Nick allows himself an extra cigarette every 15 miles now that rationing has been cancelled. Only one of us, it should be noted, has been required to do some preliminary laundry *before* being allowed to represent Arctic Tern ashore. He has been given soap and a bucket and asked to wash those pants that have been his second skin since Graham Harbor.
The American Flag is raised at the starboard spreader. A cruising guide to the Aleutians is dug from a deep locker. Someone starts a shopping list.
And now each of us thinks of our journey’s next leg. Les and Ali are corresponding with towns in Southeast Alaska where Arctic Tern could over-winter; Nick and Nikki consider flights to tropical destinations, and I contemplate where to make the jump for home, wife and family.
But for the time being each wave produces another, and the gray, horizonless drizzle and low gray birdless sea promise what they’ve always promised, miles and more miles.