To see Arctic Tern’s daily progress through the Northwest Passage, go to
(NOTE: if linking from the above does not work, cut and paste the link into a new window.)
How am I doing this?
During Arctic Tern’s 2014 attempt at the Northwest Passage, she will be transiting one of the remotest areas on the planet. Nunavut Territory alone, where I just spent an impromptu weekend, is about one third the area of the continental US and has a total population of 31,000. By comparison, the typical big-city baseball park can accommodate 45,000 on any given Sunday.
One result of there being so few humans in the Arctic is that two technologies we’ve grown to think of as commonplace, even essential, are in short supply; those being cell towers and WIFI networks.
While on passage, I may be able to update this website occasionally over ham radio (much the way I did during Murre’s 2010 – 2012 cruise) but these transmissions will be sporadic, largely due to propagation issues usual in very high latitudes.
To supplement my communications and to ensure I can pilot myself if separated from the boat, I’ve added the Delorme inReach SE to my kit.
The inReach is about the size of a large cell phone (can fit in my back pocket) and is built for three main tasks: the relay of GPS coordinates, two-way texting, and the transmission of SOS messages via satellite. Text messages have a maximum length of 160 characters per send. The device cannot transmit pictures or attachments; nor is it a phone .
Unlike other, similar technologies, inReach uses the Iridium satellite network, which is reported to be the only network that is truly global. Others can have spotty coverage in the remote ocean or at the earth’s poles. Either is problematic for my purposes.
Another important feature is the inReach App (free download), which connects the unit with any IOS or Android mobile device. This is a big plus because while all the inReach functionality is available via the unit itself, the small screen and three-button interface makes some of the processes, e.g. texting, difficult. Mirroring these functions in the inReach App removes this difficulty and allows for the layering-on of other useful features, like the ability to see one’s location and track on a downloadable map or chart, also free via the inReach website.
What this means is that while on passage I will be able to send location and text updates to this site via the Twitter feed you see in the right-hand sidebar. These updates will only include that day’s location and may not be posted every day.
HOWEVER, those interested in daily updates on Arctic Tern’s progress and the ability to see how the journey progresses, please visit the site referenced at the top of this post.
This article contains a summary of the clothing strategy and clothing items I am employing for this Northwest Passage.
There are many reasons to take a practice run at the Arctic before attempting it solo. First there’s the difficulty of pilotage. Much of the passage is shallow and uncharted. Because the magnetic field moves vertically toward the center of the earth as it approaches the poles, magnetic compasses are useless. And, as if the first two weren’t enough, the presence of ice, ranging in size from shoe boxes to container ships, add floating rocks to the problem.
Then there’s the weather. On any normal summer day temperatures may range from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 10 below freezing, with rain or snow depending. The ambient temperature of sea water in this region at this time of year is from 17 to 20 degrees, which means an unheated sail boat’s cabin (fuel heaters often do not function if a boat is at heel) can be chilly at best. Thus for comfort, not to mention safety, appropriate clothing is required.
I was already on passage when the invitation to join Arctic Tern came in. Thus I had just under a week to research and acquire the my gear. I’m thankful for the timely advice of several experienced arctic sailors, including David Thoreson, Mike Johnson, and Eric Forsythe. Additionally Kelton Rhoads, an ultralight backpacking enthusiast, offered much useful information regarding the quality and warmth of several synthetic materials and some of the new downs on the market.
The basic strategy is simple—
1. Plan on layering.
2. Take at least two of everything.
3. Use mostly synthetics.
Because the temperature can vary so widely, it is important to be able to quickly add on layers if the temperature drops or peel them off if it rises. Sailing a boat requires mostly hanging on with short, intense bursts to reef sail and the like; so, keeping core body temperature up is the big challenge, with overheating precautions coming in a distant, though noteworthy, second.
Additionally, I have brought at least two of every layer, the exception being the extremities (hands, feet, head), which have warranted a third or fourth. The reasons for this may be obvious: 1) if the first set gets wet I always have another; 2) if the going gets really bad, I have lots of reserve warmth.
Most of my layers are synthetics, a mix of heavy, Grunden fleeces, the type found at commercial fishermen’s stores, and both heavy Polartec and lighter-weight fleeces and base layers from outdoor stores like The North Face and REI. Also included in this mix are two vests, one of Thermoball and the other of Primaloft fill.
It is a nautical truism that down has no place on a boat, this due to its tendency to absorb and hold onto moisture. That said, I used a down sleeping bag on my boat, Murre, throughout her 2010 – 2012 Pacific run with satisfaction. So, some of my middle layering is down, and I have brought two, North Face down bags for this passage, one rated to 15 degrees, the other to 25 (both older).
Additionally, I’ve brought a GoLite 850 Downtek jacket with hood, whose down is treated with a water resistant coating. I have used this jacket in wet weather on a couple occasions now. Once, while sailing off Vancouver Island, I wore the jacket for several hours in light rain; then I put on a foul weather jacket over the top and wore it for several more hours, during which it seemed to me to retain the vast majority of its loft.
Finally, my outer-body layer is the Gill OS1 foul weather jacket and bib.
I’ve brought numerous hats, but am relying primarily on two fleece balaclavas, both by Seirus. One is tight-fitting and has “windblock”; the other is loose-fitting, thicker and has an adjustable mouth/chin strap. They can be worn together if need be.
My hand protection regime includes a set of NRS Titanium neoprene gloves for “fine” deck work, extra-large fisherman’s rubber gloves with three sets of doubled inserts for standard deckwork, and heavily-lined Goretex mittens by Outdoor Research for when it’s very cold and I’m just standing around.
As to boots, I have three pair: Insulated Extratuffs for deckwork whose size is large enough for felt inserts and doubled-up, thick socks. For inside the cabin I have a set of high-sided Uggs, and for off the boat, insulated Omni Heat hiking boots by Columbia.
The full list looks like this:
Base Layer, Top: short sleeve shirt, synthetic, 3
Base Layer, Top: long sleeve shirt, Smartwool, 3
Mid Layer, Top: pull over, 100 weight fleece, 2
Mid Layer, Top: Polartec jacket, 300 weight, 2
Mid Layer, Top: Vest, Primaloft/Thermoball, 2
Mid Layer, Top: GoLite Downtek jacket with hood, 1
Outer Layer, Top: Gill OS1 Foul Weather Jacket, 1 (plus one light waterproof jacket as backup)
Base Layer, Bottom: thin skins long john, tight-fitting, synthetic, 2
Base Layer, Bottom: light weight long john, medium tight fit, Smartwool, 2
Mid Layer, Bottom: 200 weight long john, loose, synthetic, 2
Mid Layer, Bottom: 300+ weight long john, loose, synthetic, 2
Outer Layer, Bottom: Gill OS1 Foul Weather Bib (plus one light waterproof pant as backup)
Head Protection, one each: wool sock cap; tight-fitting fleece cap; “windblock” fleece cap with ear flaps; tight-fitting fleece balaclava with “windblock”; loose-fitting fleece balaclava.
NRS Titanium neoprene gloves, 1
Extra Large Fishermen’s gloves, 1
Inserts for Fishermen’s gloves, 6 (3 doubled sets)
Heavy Gortex mittens with heavy inserts by Outdoor Research, 1 (wanted extra inserts, but not available)
Insulated Xtratuffs with three sets of flannel sole inserts
Uggs sheep-skin insulated boots
Columbia insulated, cold-weather hiking boots.
Smartwool Hiking sock, 3
Smartwool Mountaineering sock (fit higher up the calf), 2
Liner Sock, 3
I’m making this a matter of record now so we can come back to this later and judge the success of both strategy and items .
“Cancelled?” I ask, as if hearing the word for the first time.
The plane came down hard on the tarmac in Iqaluit, bouncing once. From the window I had seen ice in the bay and ice in flat, white chunks beached at the high tide line like driftwood. But when the doors open, the day comes in warm with a rush. I walk comfortably to the yellow igloo, the Iqaluit terminal, without a jacket.
“Cancelled.” she says flatly.
Inside, the terminal is abuzz. White workmen in bibs and hard hats talking on cell phones. Inuit mothers pushing strollers with other children in tow. Inuit men along the wall. Queues of tourists in fancy boots.
She stands in front of the ticket counter as if guarding it. “Mechanical issues. Next plane Monday.” (It’s Friday.) “Were you making a connection in Nuuk?”
This baffles me, the idea of flying from tiny Iqaluit to tiny Nuuk in order to connect by plane to somewhere else.
“No,” I say. Then, “Yes. A boat. I’m catching a boat in Nuuk. I’m sailing to Nome. Is there another way?”
Now she is confused. Her eyes turn for the first time, searching the help of a colleague.
“Another way across the ocean?” she says as if thinking to herself. “No. There is still only one plane. It’s in Nuuk. We’re putting people up at the Frobisher. We pay for everything except alcohol. It’s a long time to stay in Iqaluit, I know. Come back Monday.”
The plane had departed Ottawa at 9AM, shooting straight north. All the way to the horizon, a lush forest unevenly perforated with flashes of silver, a fortune of water caught in bog, had slowly given way to scrabbled hills of rock still white at the shoulders but otherwise bare. Lakes, reduced in number, were frozen at their centers, serpentine in color, and rimmed with ice. The aspect was that of a high mountain dessert.
“How many people live here?” I ask the taxi driver.
“Seven thousand,” he says. “And it’s the same winter too. Good work here. When it’s sixty below zero, nobody wants to walk. They call the taxis. I make plenty money. I make good cash in taxi; I work in bar for cash. I have good house for free. It’s all cash work—so much money here. I call my brother. He lives in the South.”
“The South?” I ask.
“Yes. In Seattle. He cries to me. HE CRIES. He cannot find work. You have no jobs in America. I say, come north. But he will not.”
“Where are you from?” I ask. The man is African.
“Calgary,” he says. “You are visiting?” I explain my situation. “Oh, that is a long time to stay in Iqaluit.”
Iqaluit comes out of the hillside as if it were a village on Mars. Narrow paved roads are blown over with sand and lined with modular public buildings that look orbit-worthy. Homes, also modular, are raised off the ground and brightly painted; they have tin roofs, small windows. A large diesel tank decorates every front yard. There are no garages, no lawns, no fences. I am walking. Dogs bark as I pass. Each is tied to a stake near its own house of crudely cut plywood. Snowmobiles are scattered about, left where they sat when the snow melted.
Trash gathers in the corners of the land and in the streams that run through town. Cigarette butts, soda cans, candy wrappers, a plastic water gun, an old shirt. A broken bicycle clogs the conduit beneath a dirt bridge.
Cars and trucks and taxis (one in three vehicles is a taxi) and ATVs fill the streets with dust. There’s the noise of traffic. Frequently the roar of a jet from the airstrip just below. A helicopter lifts off with a large satchel hung low and flies north. Everywhere the sense of bustle overmatches the size of this place.
At the beach, ice blocks, askew at the tide line, drip frantically in the heat of the day. A man and woman are laying out a gill net at low water. “Arctic char,” he says when I inquire of their catch. “Pretty much all we have up here besides cod.”
The woman asks where I’m headed. “Not here?” I ask. “Not likely,” she says. I explain my situation. “Oh, that’s a long time to stay in Iqaluit.”
Above the beach, sand and rock give way to tundra and a riot of wild flowers only a few inches high. I am stooping to inspect a carpet of purple when a voice asks, “Do you know what those are?” Across the stream a young woman holds an armful of flowers. “That is Purple Saxifrage, but we call it fire weed. You can eat it.” She stoops, picks a flower and eats. So do I. She explains the Yellow Arctic Poppy, the Arctic Cotton; that the bunches in her arms are Labrador Tea. The wind dies. We are mobbed by mosquitos as large as house flies and I move on.
Iqaluit began as Frobisher Bay, named for the European, Sir Martin Frobisher, who first explored this region in the late 1500s while searching for the Northwest Passage. He discovered gold here, which turned out to be pyrite, and what he thought to be his “strait to Asia” turned out to be but a moderately deep bay. There were whaling operations here until the 1900s and a US Airforce base in the 1940s. Iqaluit’s current claim to fame is as the capital city of the newly independent Nunavut Territory, which separated from Canada’s larger Northwest Territories in 1999.
If it is not clear how a town of 7,000 residents could be called a city, note this from the hotel’s pamphlet:
“Iqaluit is the largest city in the territory of Nunavut, whose total population is 31,000. Our largest neighboring city is the capital of Greenland, Nuuk (population 15,000).”
The bar attached to the hotel is a local’s hangout. It is Friday night. At 9PM the sun rides well above the horizon and traffic at the bar is light. I order a beer in a can because the bar’s entire selection is cans with the most expensive being $9 and the least, $7. The bartenders are two white males; the bouncers, of which there are several already, are African. Between the bar’s two entrance doors is a coat check, manned by my taxi driver from earlier in the day.
By 10PM the bar is beginning to fill; now there is music, the crack of billiards on the mezzanine. My taxi driver busily takes coats from the flood of young Inuits, mostly women, who make up the majority of new-comers.
“Plenty money, these Inuits,” he says to me privately. “Many they get $28,000. Spend it quick. In three years I go back to Calgary and buy a house.”
The bar stools fill with white men just off work. A neat line, again mostly Inuits, forms to one side of the bar and orders are placed one-by-one. The standard order is two cans of beer. The standard Inuit is short, head and neck barely breaching counter top. They take their beer politely and with smiles, as if receiving a gift. The few whites in the mix order shots, served in plastic medicine cups. Twenty dollar bills burst from the till.
An hour later the music is louder still; dancing begins. Two older Inuits are drunk. The old woman has snuck into line and has a beer in both hands before being spied by the bouncers. Two of them escort her, weaving, to a table where she is allowed to enjoy her prize. The old man is not so lucky. A bouncer stands between him and his goal. The old man raises a hand in objection, leans way forward as if battling a stiff wind. The bouncer does not move; does not speak. The old man is gently handed his coat and he departs.
Now the two white bartenders are joined by a third. The new bartender is a young Inuit woman, though paler than most. She is six feet tall and has a bust the size of Texas. Talking at the bar quites as the men concentrate on their beers.
I choose this moment to order the Muskox Burger, the length of day here having fooled me into forgetting my dinner.
“It’s made of Bison, you know.” says the woman.
“Why would be called Muskox, then?” I ask.
“It’s a new menu,” she says. “Not from here are you?” I explain. “Oh, that’s a long time to be in Iqaluit.”
Outside the sun has finally dropped below the horizon, and the night appears to be early evening. The clouds above Iqaluit are lit crimson from below, and they stay crimson until dawn.
What I haven’t told you about the Northwest Passage: I’m going.
This Thursday, to be precise.
All rather sudden.
Here’s the back-story:
Many who have commented on my Figure 8 Voyage slated for 2015 think the attempt downright daft; some say I underrate the difficulty, while an interesting few have remarked, “that sounds like fun! Do you need crew?”
But all agree that any singlehanded challenger of the Northwest Passage would benefit from some prior experience of life above 66.56 degrees north latitude (the arctic circle). As Joanna (amazingly supportive wife) suggests, the wisdom gained from such an exploit could be an insurance policy against my expedition’s future success–especially as no actual insurance company is likely to underwrite it.
For months now I’ve been searching for a berth on a boat attempting the Northwest Passage this summer. What I found was that most who declared arctic intentions already had their crews or were having second thoughts altogether. Last year marked the coldest summer the Arctic had seen in several. Areas that were ice-free in August of 2010, 2011, 2012 were not in 2013. Choke points along the route either closed early or failed to open at all. Some boats became trapped. This gave the 2014 “fleet” pause for thought, and when I reached out in the spring, many were waiting to see what developed before committing.
By June I’d given up finding a berth.
Then just before I boarded the plane for the Vancouver Island Training Run, a note came across from the owners of Arctic Tern, then in Lewisporte, Newfoundland. After much consideration, they had decided to make a second attempt at the Northwest Passage this year. Would I like to join as crew? I accepted immediately.
Is such a venture all that unusual?
By way of comparison:
- 4000: approximate number of people who have climbed Mount Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
- 300: approximate number solo circumnavigations via the Southern Ocean since Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s completion aboard Suhaili in 1969.
- 85: approximate number of private yachts to complete the Northwest Passage since Raold Amundsen aboard Gjoa in 1906.
Arctic Tern is a 50 foot, steel cutter designed by Bruce Roberts and owned by Les and Ali Parsons, both RYA Yachtmaster Instructors, based principally out of the Menai Strait, United Kingdom. In 2013 they and three crew members completed nearly half of the Northwest Passage, but were turned back just outside Cambridge Bay due to unremitting ice ahead. They and crew returned to Newfoundland. Now it’s time to give it another try.
The Vancouver Island Training Run concluded in Canoe Cove, Sidney, BC a couple days early, and with Kurt’s permission, I quickly abandoned ship for Seattle, where I spent two days nosing around the various commercial fisherman’s stores searching for the appropriate cold weather gear.
Now home, last minute preparations continue even as the gear-pile in the living room grows out of all proportion. My Thursday departure quickly approaches.
As for Arctic Tern, she has waited-out Hurricane Arthur in Lewisporte and has just departed for Nuuk, Greenland, where I meet her and crew sometime after July 11.
June 27 – 30
Rain overnight and heavy wind, but the gale we hide from at Effingham stays well to the north. Rain in the morning. We do chores below decks. Kurt swaps out the primary fuel filter and wonders if we will ever solve the engine problems. He rebuilt it, an old Mercedes, over the winter. It starts with the least effort and runs with a confident, brassy beat … until it doesn’t. It must be starved for fuel. But how?
By afternoon wind has filled-in from the southeast, and we decide to wait tomorrow’s forecast. We row ashore and hike the trail across Effingham to the remains of an Indian village. The trail is a wet tangle of wood and fern consistently marked with hanging fishnet buoys and string and without which we would have been lost five steps from the beach. The remains are mere mounds when we find them, but in the detritus of the beach, we spy a plastic gas can with Kanji markings, likely debris from the Japanese Tsunami of 2011.
Another boat is anchored in Effingham. On the row back to RAVEN we meet Mike and Sue of WINDBORNE and are invited aboard for “sundowners,” a word coined by tropical cruisers for happy hour and strikingly unsuited as a description of such festivities in the chronically overcast Pacific Northwest. We learn Mike and Sue are also transiting the west side of Vancouver Island to Sidney.
Over the course of the evening Mike and Kurt convince each other to make the long, 70 mile leap to Sooke Harbor next day. The forecast calls for clearing and sailable northwesterlies to 20 knots. The two boats depart together at 5AM and are anchors down in the mud of Sooke by 7PM, having motored in winds from the south and east turning in the afternoon to dead calm.
Once we enter Juan de Fuca, the cruise is essentially over. Forty miles separate us from Sidney, but the constant traffic in the strait made up of ships and tugs and ferries and commercial fishermen remove any sense of wilderness. Kurt talks of putting RAVEN away for the summer, and I am thinking of nothing but my upcoming Northwest Passage.
In the early morning we are underway again, now for Roche Harbor (to repatriate RAVEN before her return to Canada) and then Canoe Cove. By noon we’ve rounded Trial Island on a screaming flood, and with this Kurt and I realize we’ve each closed a loop. In 2012 MURRE and I passed this rock from the east, bound for Victoria on a southward transit of the inside passage, and Kurt had done the same aboard RAVEN in 2011.
With this second passage around Trial, this time from the west, we have completed a circumnavigation our Vancouver Island.
I entered Tofino Harbor for the first time in August of 2005. Night. A dense fog covered the sea. The boat on which I crewed had departed Hanalei Bay 23 days earlier, overshooting its goal, the Straits of Juan de Fuca, due to a gale from the south. We were out of fuel and water supplies were low. Our radar had failed. We had no Canadian charts.
The departing gale took away the wind and for two days we drifted toward Vancouver Island on a slow current and zephyrs. Five miles off and well after midnight we finally hove to. The skipper rang up the coast guard, whose cutter didn’t arrive an hour later so much as bodily materialize out of the undifferentiated dark just a few feet from our bows. It delivered five gallons of fuel and instructions to follow closely behind its bright lights to the docks. From the helm I followed with a will as our guide turned and turned and turned again. Fog so thick it would have been easier to pilot the entrails of a down pillow. Occasionally the boom of breakers unseen. Once an island of rock loomed close enough to touch, then faded quickly away.
Compare today. Today we depart Tofino Harbor on the ebb under full sun. Our course, a maze of hash-lines on the chart, seeks to pinball toward the open sea without ever touching the bumpers of Deadman Islets, the sand shoal north of Felice Island, the rocks off Stubbs and Wickaninnish; Surprise Reef, Nob Rock, Lennard Island, Frank Island. That these hazards are fully visible makes this a game without danger, until the engine stalls. Count: five, four, three, two, one. Kurt glows the plug; turns the key. The engine sounds. We continue.
In the north, summery skies are associated with windless, calm seas, and today is no exception. We motor on the flat south of Wickaninnish Bay and past Amphitrite Point before lowering cloud brings wind enough to sail, again and always from the southeast. One long tack out to sea for fun; RAVEN sails herself close-hauled and we sit, watching with deep satisfaction; then one long tack into Imperial Channel. Rain begins as we tuck behind Effingham Island.
Now it’s just the two of us, Kurt and me, and without our instigator (our puckish veterinarian photographer), we fall into long periods of silence punctuated by laconic bursts, mostly about boats, boats we admire, work we’ve done on boats, places we’ve been on boats, places we’d like to go.
Dinner of stew and bread and a glass of red wine. I clear the table, but discover we’ve run out of dish soap. I substitute a bar from the head, which clogs the galley sponge with a thick, white, oily substance whose cleansing qualities rival that of lard.
Rain overnight and low fog in the morning, but by the time we’d had coffee and eggs, a light breeze flowed down Matilda’s narrow flanks. We raised the main and then the hook and silently departed this hush of an anchorage. To our amazement, the breeze followed us into the channel and persisted from a direction not entirely unhelpful.
Jay, our photographer, announced he had two wishes for this passage: one, a shot of a Bald Eagle and two, a shot of a Raven. He had the former and now only needed the latter to feel utterly satisfied. “But Ravens are everywhere,” I protested. “No, the RAVEN,” he answered.
We lowered him into the dinghy and cut him loose and Kurt and I tacked RAVEN up and down Millar Channel as smartly as ever we could while Jay worked his big camera. After an hour we lifted him back aboard panting and happy.
The wind persisted and now we continued sailing for the sheer joy of it. On up the channel we tacked toward our cut into Tofino, and only as the fog lifted in the early afternoon and the islands on the chart began to appear as solid beings on our horizon did were realize we’d sailed with intention and great care many miles past our turn. How this could happen on a boat with a large electronic chart plotter, a plotted course to follow, and three seemingly observant humans baffled us, but our bafflement failed to reduce our exuberance for the day. We put RAVEN wing and wing before the wind. The warming sun slowly melted the breeze away, but a flood tide filled in and we drifted with contentment the last miles to our goal.
Tofino is a brightly painted village built on the northern slopes of the Estowista Peninsula. It has a marina (mostly dedicated to the fishing fleet), a float plane dock, a coast guard station, restaurants, a grocery, a few small hotels. It is the largest town on west Vancouver Island.
At the head of the ramp we were greeted by Ben, the harbor master, a man so short and wide as to appear round. We asked for a place to dine. “Do you like good food?” he asked. We avoided as much. “Well, I always recommend SoSo then eh. You’re gonna think it weird, maybe. They have a tofu sushi wrap that is just whoa!” Ben rolls back like he’s been knocked between the eyes with a two by four. “But whoever thought of that, eh? Tofu and seaweed. I dunno.” We are briefly silent, in part because Ben is a shockingly loud talker. I have moved back a few steps. “Once I went there for lunch, eh, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna have a turkey sandwich today,’ and the girl asked if I wanted lettuce or green apple. And I said, ‘green apple?’, and she said, ‘sure, lettuce is so dull’ eh. And whoa! she was right. I mean the apple highlighted the flavor of the mustard, the turkey, the bread. Just crazy, eh? So now I keep a green apple in the kitchen for when I make turkey sandwiches. Be sure to get the cookbook.”
We had plank salmon and grilled squab and toasted the completion of our voyage’s first leg.
Next morning we said goodbye to Jay, who had to return home for a family engagement. Then Kurt and I got on with what cruisers do when they reach civilization after a hard slog. We dug out our laundry, grabbed our computers and made for the WIFI-enabled laundromat, where we have been feverishly typing and folding clothes these last two hours. Next is a run to the grocery store.
Tomorrow begins phase two of a cruise whose eventual destination is the city of Victoria, but that great constellation of islands in Barkely Sound may need exploring along the way.
I woke to grey skies and Kurt’s clanking away at the engine. Over dinner we had worked through the engine’s steaming-up, the most logical source of which was, we reasoned, a broken raw water impeller. On marine engines the importance of this item, of any item, is indicated by the difficulty of reaching it. In this case, a hatch at the back of the quarter berth must be removed and a human body stretched almost to breaking in order to lay the pinky and thumb of one’s non-dominant hand upon a seized nut for which no wrench has yet been forged.
Uncovering the impeller with some effort showed it in perfect working order. So we cleaned the raw water strainer, changed the fuel filters again for good luck and were off. The engine wavered again within the mile, but without the exhaust steam. We slowed; the engine steadied; we pressed on.
Again sun predominated without the predicted northwesterlies and our anchor found the bottom of Hot Springs Cove in the early afternoon. Here lay three other sailboats, the only other cruisers on Vancouver’s west side we had yet encountered.
Low fog next morning and the whine of the entrance buoy. We hiked slowly through the tangled rainforest along a mile of meticulous boardwalk, numerous planks of which were carved with the boat names and greetings of those who’d come before. Soon the smell of sulfur. We stripped and crawled over slick rock into the warm water. We were not alone. Power boats and float planes brought tourists from Tofino, to whom we described our rough passage to this same spot, soaking up the attributed glory of our small adventure.
Next day we made a short hop to Matilda Inlet housing the village of Ahousat. Jay and I had thoughts of another restaurant meal, but as we slowed past the clog of derelict boats at the dock below the two buildings comprising downtown, the sign “Restaurant” that hung askew from the sign “General Store” suggest it not worth the row.
Near our anchorage, a double-ended ketch whose grey hull and white masts impressed as both well used and tidy. Her name, FIREWATER of Ketchikan (an Ingrid 38). With a start I realize I’d seen this yacht in a small bay outside La Paz three years earlier. Here the owner and wife, both elderly, had rowed over to MURRE for a gam. They were about to get underway, they said, were headed north to Hawaii; Mexico had gotten too expensive, too crowded. The man looked like a logger, pale, his flannel shirt and bill cap out of place in the Mexican heat. He was gregarious with a braying laugh and evidently tough, while his Inuit wife, a mere crumple of a woman, could barely manage a whisper. They departed that afternoon. The old man lifted the old woman aboard as if lifting a child from a wheelchair. She hobbled to the cockpit. He sailed FIREWATER off anchor alone and over the horizon.
Now Kurt slowed RAVEN. On FIREWATER a figure swabbed decks. He wore green foulies; held a white bucket. I reintroduced myself, reminded of our meeting in Mexico. “I remember you,” he said as we passed. “I lost my wife in Hawaii, you know. Brought her ashes back here; FIREWATER and I just arrived two days ago. She’s from this village, my wife.” I express condolences. “But I’m not swallowing the anchor. I’m not done.” I asked where he was bound. He raised both arms as if to say where was not important. And then RAVEN had drifted past.
Having got below Brooks Peninsula, we felt we could relax a bit, if not too much. We took the reward of a long night’s sleep without alarm and a leisurely breakfast of fried potatoes and eggs before suiting up and departing through Gay Passage to the south. Soon we were in the open ocean.
It is known to all that the weather improves markedly below Brooks, all but Environment Canada. The forecast called for southerlies building to gale force late in the day. In the morning winds were light and the sea state subdued. We took a route inside the reefs and by Spring Island the sky had cleared. We had sun for the first time since arrival at Port Hardy.
At Tatchu Point Jay spotted a fin to stern, then three. A Humpback greeting, I presumed, but Kurt said Orcas. They didn’t approach. Murres, Puffins, Sooty Shearwaters–birds of shore and sea mixed it up in this zone.
Turning into Esperanza Inlet, we ran before the breeze and in the warmth of sun soon stripped off our layers of protection. We intended to take Nootka Island’s inside passage. The day continued to open as the mountains of Vancouver rose around us; the sea became a lake and emboldened by evident summer, we agreed to go all the way to the fishing village, Tahsis.
In Hecate Channel Kurt spied a whiteness within the monotony of green trees, a bald eagle at his perch. We diverted course; Jay unearthed from his duffle a bazooka telephoto lens and began firing as I edged the boat in close. Here we learned Jay can whistle. With tongue doubled back, create a donut with thumb and forefinger. Insert in mouth and exhale with force. The sound produced pierced such that I felt a blade enter my brain from both ears. But the eagle didn’t stir where stirring was the intent. We wanted him on film in flight. Minutes of haloowing and clapping finally lifted him, though more from resignation than fear.
Immediately after, the engine began to hesitate. We had already had some issues and had renewed fuel filters. Now steam poured from the exhaust pipe. We limped through tight Tahsis Narrows, so deep they are unaffected by tide, and up the runway-straight entrance to Tahsis, docking in the late evening under iron peaks still covered in snow.
Before dinner, before beer even, showers, paid for by Kurt. Then Vancouver Island beer and Lamb tenderloins at a dockside restaurant and to bed.
Wind increased as the morning wore on, swinging SE and upchannel. By noon we had clocked several gusts to 45 knots with average windspeeds to 30. Sometimes came a gust to turn RAVEN’S head, then with her broadside to the wind, another lay her over, almost but not quite to her rail. White streaked water and spume. Salt spray formed into great clouds that flew up from the channel and far into the mountain. The rigging roared as did the trees. The bald eagle of yesterday, the loon and the two grebes, had abandoned the fjord.
At each gust we looked up to the shoreline. Will the anchor hold; will it hold again?
We sat in the cockpit photographing the day in the machine-gun rain and the chain ground away in its chock.
Jay, who had not been through an event like this, began to feel the pressure of such a tenuous existence, “So, do we leave tomorrow?” Kurt shook his head. “Depends on the wind. We could be here for days.”
In the early afternoon the sky cleared and RAVEN sat in calm water. We smiled with the feeling of a successful escape. But an hour later the sky lowered and the southerly filled in again with the same violence as before.
By nightfall our radio propagation improved such that I was able to pull a much anticipated weather forecast. It said:
West Coast Vancouver Island North.
Storm warning in effect.
Wind southeast 35 to 45 knots except southeast 50 near the headlands.
Wind becoming northwest 40 to 50.
This was a markedly stronger forecast than earlier and felt as though Environment Canada (weather bureau) had cheated by predicting the present moment.
It went to on say 55 knot winds were being recorded at Cape Cook, a mere 10 miles west.
The previous day I had resented our giving up on the Brooks. If I’d been alone, I thought, I’d have pressed on. But now I was contrite and as grateful as the newly saved for this heavenly anchorage.
We put out a braided rope snubber on the chain to defeat the infernal cranking and grinding. I wrapped it in fire-hose chafe guard. Within two hours it chewed through and the snubber parted at the chock as if it were a piece of string. I made another with a chafe guard of reinforced heater hose. This one held.
Kurt cooked a dinner of spaghetti with ground buffalo and tomato sauce, steamed broccoli and a salad, again, deeply satisfying. We thought, once, the wind diminished. We looked up and gave it a moment of silence, but then it cranked down again. Always strong, always from the south, and our talk continued until 11PM.
By 4AM, quiet. We motored out at 5AM on a lake but yet without birds, slinking through the narrow pass not sure of our offing. I looked to the horizon expecting a dark line, the 50 knot northwestelies.
We passed quickly around Solander Island. A windless morning, but in a sea still so upset from the night before it threw us against the railings like to brake our arms and legs.
“So, will we sail today?” asked Jay. Kurt and I were tight-lipped, focused only on getting below the Brooks before the next gale.
A light wind from the south by late morning and we did sail the leg into Bunsby Islands. We were early. We’d made it. We sailed back and forth in Ououkinish Inlet for an hour simply for the pleasure of it. Another 35 miles of southing.
At anchor in a horseshoe lagoon and under the perfect protection of north Bunsby. Cheese sandwiches. I suggest chocolate Sundays for desert. Kurt says that by way of celebration he just baked brownies and hands me a chocolate bar. We each have a piece. Just one. They nap. I go for a row and fall asleep on the rocky beach.
Our third member arrived at 8PM and we immediately disembarked Port Hardy for Bull Harbor on Hope Island, this so as to stage our run around Cape Scott with the tide. Here we dropped anchor at midnight. Glassy black water. Two fishing boats; cabins dark. Steady drizzle.
Up at five and underway before coffee, a worrisome practice if it continues. Motored around the horseshoe cove opposite Bull and inside Tatnall Reefs, so as to avoid dangerous Nahwitti Bar. Unnecessary given the calm sea, but interesting. Weather still and rounding of Cape, eventless. Low cloud kept us from seeing it or anything except sea and birds. Murres, Sooty Terns, the occasional seagull.
The forecast called for light southerlies turning to the northwest in the late morning. Given that the forecast continued on to describe a southerly gale coming in Thursday afternoon, we opted to make a long leap around Brooks Peninsula, the other difficult feature of this coast.
As the afternoon wore on, the southerly wind increased. Not much. 10 – 15 knots only, but the chop reduced our speed to 3 and 4 knots, and pushed our arrival at planned anchorage to after midnight, so we turned hard to port just north of Brooks and put into a deep fjord called Klaskish Inlet, where we dropped anchor in the basin at 7PM. 72 miles.
Dinner immediately. Kurt cooked spaghetti with ground buffalo in tomato sauce; heavy, hot, thoroughly satisfying. Hit the bunk by 9PM with intention of departing well before dawn in an attempt, again, to get below Brooks before the low arrived in the afternoon.
Gusts began in the night and laid the boat over. At 4AM I asked Kurt, “So, what to you think?” All he said was “NO.” We both crawled back in our bags.
We drug sometime between then and 9AM. And drug again before coffee (a pattern is developing). Took an hour to reset. Williwaws to 35 knots off the high walls of the Fjord spin the boat. Rain sideways.
So we are here today. Fried eggs for breakfast and Kurt and Jay sawing away at their stories while I type. For a man of my temperament, a crew of three is the perfect number as long as the other two can talk and I can disappear into the corner. Torrential rain. Cozy cabin and it appears the hook is hooked.
I need to keep my skills up.
To that end I agreed some time back to help a friend deliver his cruising sailboat, a fast and sturdy Westsail 39 named RAVEN, down the coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. We’ll start in Port Hardy, on the island’s northeastern tip, transit up and over the top, through the treacherous slop of Nahwitti Bar, around notorious Cape Scott and on down into the rugged cruising grounds of windward, western Vancouver. Though all coastal sailing, all if it will be exposed to the Pacific swell and weather.
And we’ll start tonight. I’m writing this from Vancouver Airport’s South Terminal. Small and separated from the commercial hub by a ten minute bus ride, the terminal is situated on an estuary abuzz and serves the float planes and other propellored craft that ferry passengers to the unknown north.
The blue of fir trees all around. Snowy peaks to the east barely visible through the deck of cloud, but west the sky is clear. The soft wind is warm and humid. I am in a t-shirt. Most locals are in shorts, and their alabaster legs suggest the rarity of days like this, suggest I may not have, in fact, over packed.
It took till 1AM to clear the gear cluttering the living room these last days into one large duffle and one small pack, 30lbs in all and mostly clothing. My packing list included heavy foul weather gear, lighter waterproof jackets and pants, light, medium and heavy weight thermals, three pairs of wool-tech socks, heavy rubber boots with wool liners, rubber fisherman’s gloves and four pair of woolen inserts, a light and medium weight fleece hat, and one fleece “helmut” resembling the cold-weather hood worn by Shackleton in the Antarctic. Could be this is taking preparedness to an extreme. But I remember being cold in Alaskan waters in August.
And some of this is gear experimentation. The Shackleton hoody, for example, is a recent acquisition whose genius is that it not only covers the head and ears completely, but it also protects the neck. It might be a design well sooted for my high latitude year. The same goes for a GoLite down jacket whose treated feathers are said to be highly water resistant. Early tests in San Francisco Bay drizzle suggest this is the case, but real rain here is likely, providing a much better test.
The captain’s name is Kurt. We first met in Mexico in 2010 where he was cruising the Sea of Cortez on RAVEN, this when I was there on MURRE, and we have recently become reacquainted as I explored the Westsail 39 as a potential Figure 8 boat. The last two months have been all boat search with this boat being but one of about ten great candidates. But Kurt was quick to disqualify the W39. “Too many windows,” he said. “You’re going south. Think inverted. What the f*ck if one of those pops out. In fact, you wouldn’t catch me down there in anything but those fat, French aluminum tanks.” Such comments to one side, the W39 is a solid Robert Perry design, nimble, stiff, sure-of-foot, and I’m excited to see how she does out in the open.
The cruise is designed to last until July 4th and terminates in Victoria. During that time my communications will be much the same as those during my ocean passages on Murre, that is frequent but all text. There are few towns along western Vancouver and less internet. So, I’ll be using RAVEN’s SSB to send messages to this site.
Note: this is a follow-up to my Murre and the Pacific cruise of French Polynesia.
In 2011 I explored French Polynesia on Murre and was only a month departed from the Marquesan Island of Nuku Hiva when I learned a recent tragedy there had been attributed to cannibalism.
Murre rode her anchor in Opunohu Bay off Moorea by this time, an island some 1000 miles further west, where I met a couple named Hannas and Christine aboard Pukuri. They had made Moorea before me, but suddenly returned by air to Nuku Hiva. Returning to Moorea a week later, they told me of the terrible fate of their friend Stephan Ramin.
Like Hannas and Christine, Stephan and his girlfriend were slowly island hopping through French Polynesia on Baju, but were behind Pukuri’s track. The two couples became friends in Mexico but had soon separated, each choosing to take different and wandering paths through the Pacific islands. Baju was enjoying Nuku Hiva while Pukuri and crew explored Moorea.
One day Stephan hired a local on Nuku Hiva to take him on a private goat hunt. Wild goats are common on the islands, and they are frequently hunted for food. Stephan and his guide took off for the forest in the morning.
That evening the guide returned to Baju alone and with an urgent message for Stephan’s girlfriend. Stephan had been injured in the mountains and the guide needed her assistance. The girlfriend found this story suspicious; she refused to go. The guide tied her up, threatened her, and then left. After some time she freed herself and ran to the Gendarmes.
A search for Stephan began. Based on the girlfriend’s description of the guide, the Gendarmes had a suspect. They visited the suspect’s farm, and though they did not find him, in an outdoor oven they found the charred remains of a human body, later identified as Stephan. Cannibalism was suspected.
The story exploded. Overnight it hit the European tabloids.
Stretches of Marquesan history are violent in the extreme. Severe overpopulation prior to Cook’s arrival in the 18th century caused competition for food and land, and cannibalism during this period was apparently common among the warrior and ruling classes.
But European contact all but eliminated the practice. Western diseases like syphilis and influenza decimated the Marquesans; those that remained were aggressively Christianized by white settlers. Cannibalism vanished.
Slowly rebounding contemporary populations are under the control of a benevolent though strict French socialism. In the outer islands, there are few jobs, but welfare supplies the money and the islands supply the rest. An odd effect of this is that a surprising number of Marquesans can drive Range Rovers, but access to bullets (for goat hunting) is tightly controlled by the Gendarmes. The result is that crime, real crime, is unheard of. The cruiser passing through simply does not worry about things like theft, assault, piracy … cannibalism.
Hannas and Christine flew back to assist with the terrible aftermath of Stephan’s murder, comforting the girlfriend and the parents who had flown out, cooking meals, dealing with the boat. They were wiped out and heart-sick when I met up with them, deeply saddened by the loss of their friend and for a conception of paradise that had been shattered.
What actually happened may never be known, but within days the idea that Stephan had been cannibalized matured into a full-blown rumor that went something like this:
In recent years, native island councils have begun to resurrect their ancient traditions by way of connecting with their past and instilling a sense of pride in a decidedly listless younger generations. Young male islanders, it was said, had taken this a step further by secretly reverting to cannibalism as an initiation rite. The victims were not locals, but cruisers. Every once in a while a visiting yacht that had been at anchor here or there went missing, later to be washed up on a reef; its crew, also missing, assumed drowned. The events were written off as mishap, but not now. For the French government this murder had gone from unusually serious crime to public relations disaster. Investigators from both France and Germany soon arrived. The islands were abuzz.
But I soon sailed on, leaving the story behind, and am only returning to it now because, nearly three years after Stephan’s death, the case has finally achieved closure. Surprisingly, the suspect, a 33-year-old male by the name of ArihanoHaiti, eluded capture for 50 days, quite a feat on such a small island whose population struggles toward 2,000. At his trial he asserted that he shot Stephan because Stephan had sexually assaulted him and that he later assaulted the girlfriend out of revenge. The court did not buy this story and just yesterday sentenced Haiti to 28 years on jail.
Interestingly, the court also found that investigators were unable to prove cannibalism had occurred.
Meet Jerry Borucki, a fluid-dynamicist retired from NASA’s Ames Research Center, resident of Mountain View, California and extreme sailor. His goal, one he has chased for many summers since 2006, has been to reach the North Pole in a small boat.
Most people would think Borucki is going at things in reverse. Sailing exploits during his younger years were to more relaxed and tropical destinations like Hawaii. In fact, he says that when he departed San Francisco in his Freya 39 in 2005, just after leaving NASA, “I started out for Hawaii and, 26 days later, wound up in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.”*
The beauty captivated him and that was that.
The next summer he set out to reach the Aleutians, and the summer after that, the Arctic Circle. A year later he was searching for the western pack ice, which he found at 76 degrees north latitude, 500 miles above his venture of the previous summer.
Each time all he wanted was “to see how far north I could get.”
Jerry built his Freya from a bare hull, adding heavier-than-normal bulkheads and other strengthening measures to bring the boat, as he says, “to Lloyd’s Class 1 standards for my assault.”
And for good reason.
In 2007 he, and now aptly named Arctic Alpha Wulf, were rocked by a full storm and two gales while holed up in uninhabited Nash Harbor on Nunivak Island. Here he waited at anchor sixteen long days for a weather window that would allow his sprint south. He began to run short of food and fuel, and was assisted with both by a tug and barge also waiting. Once below the Aleutians he experienced a gale every three days and a severe knockdown that held the boat on her side for a full five minutes. Surprisingly, damage was minimal–a canvas dodger blown clean off and a swamped stove due to the flu being underwater so long. “It was (rough) enough to knock the sugar out of the coffee,” he said.
He thought 2010 to be the perfect year for achieving the North Pole, but by the time he reached Dutch Harbor in August, it was clear winter was already on the way. He retreated to Icy Bay to anchor and explore a while, but first he was trapped under a month-long, deluging rain storm–waterfalls cannoning off cliffs and deck leaks soaking his clothes and gear. Then ice began to form, blocking his exit. Days were growing shorter and by this time (late October) night lasted for eighteen hours. The cold began to take over the boat. Everything he touched burned with cold. “I shivered in the heated cabin…I had the feeling that nature was taking me apart…There is a lot to think about in the darkness.”**
Again he was waiting for the weather to moderate and allow a departure for home, but each day he waited saw the ice around Arctic Alpha Wulf grow thicker. He began to wonder if escape was possible.
Finally on November 14 he decided to make a break for it regardless of the conditions in the Gulf of Alaska. After warming the engine and raising anchor he began to move.
Lurching forward the boat hit the ice and came to an abrupt stop. The ice didn’t even crack…I backed up 20 feet and then rammed the ice at full throttle until the bow lifted three feet in the air…The keel shrieked and moaned as it took the hit. I flew into a wild rage: ‘Shitty ice! This is for Shackleton!’ I shouted as I rammed the iron-hard ice at full throttle…the consequences if I failed were too awful to contemplate…There was a huge jolt as (again) the boat stopped dead and the bow hung suspended at a hellish angle over the ice…A long, dreadful silence ensued.Then a salvo of gunfire erupted; rifle shot after rifle shot rang out as the ice shattered. Twisting and grinding, the bow came crashing down into open water.**
A storm in the Gulf blew out his main and he put into Yakutat for repairs, but at last he was free of the Arctic winter, and free to plan his next year’s assault.
Voyage Ends, David F. Smydra Jr., Half Moon Bay Review, October 24, 2007.
*The Iceman Cometh, LaDonna Bubak, Latitude 38, February 2008, p. 114.
Bound for the Pole, Ladonna Bubak, ‘Lectronic Latitude, Latitude 38, August 8, 2008.
**Jerry Borucki, Jerry Borucki, Latitude 38, February 2011, p. 88.
Here we consider the first of several big issues impacting the success of the Figure 8: Mileage and Timing.
The Figure 8 Voyage consists of two distinct segments, a longish ocean cruise through the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic Oceans, and a tight, harbor pilot’s squeeze through the very constricted waters of the Northwest Passage. Strategies for these two are so different that I’ve considered them separately.
Using OpenCPN (free, online chartplotting) I’ve worked up both routes to a high degree of accuracy and the total distance for the Figure 8 comes out to … drum roll please … roughly 40,000 nautical miles. Think San Francisco to New York; now repeat nearly ten times. Compare the circumference of the earth at the equator: a mere 26,000 miles.
Those two routes are captured in the following graphics.
The first is all “blue water” sailing. From San Francisco I shape a course south through the Pacific, jogging a bit east above the line so as to gain some purchase against the southeasterly trades below. Having rounded the Horn, I quickly climb back to the 40th parallel where weather should be less severe and where I will attempt to spend the majority of the Southern Ocean passage. Having rounded the Horn for the second time, I begin to work up the Atlantic, staying west of both the south and north Atlantic high pressure systems before entering the arctic circle to the west of Greenland at 66.5 degrees north latitude. This routing is based entirely on prevailing wind patterns in particular quadrants of ocean at particular times of year (more below).
If the above is concerned with navigating large weather patterns over huge stretches of ocean, the Northwest Passage is an exercise in pilotage. Here wind patterns matter little if rocks get in the way, and so I have based this segment entirely on what is now called the Amundsen Route, named for the previously-mentioned explorer who first completed it. In fact, this is only one of several possible waterways through the arctic, but for planning purposes it is a worthy place holder because it is the longest route, and it is, historically, the most likely to be passable in any given year.
This approach hugs the Greenland coast to about 75 degrees north latitude due to extrusions of ice from Baffin Island in summer before passing into Lancaster Sound and then Barrow Strait. Here the course moves sharply south into Peele Sound and then Franklin and James Ross Straits before resuming a westerly course in the very restricted waters just above mainland Canada and then the potentially more open waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea, exit Aleutians near Unimak Island.
The distance of the Figure 8 is precisely known. My careful plotting of these two segments sums to exactly 37,726 nautical miles. But I have used the word “roughly” above because though try as I may for conceptual precision, the watery world will most certainly intervene.
One example among many: surface winds upon the larger ocean, winds a sailboat requires for its daily motivation, blow in grand, mostly predictable patterns of direction and velocity. Since the 19th century these winds have been observed, recorded, catalogued and published in wonderfully intricate, absolutely beautiful documents called Pilot Charts (I’ve used Cornell’s Ocean Atlas, by Jimmy Cornell).
These charts are summaries of wind and current behavior over every quadrant of every ocean for every month of the year. They are the brain child of Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury of the U.S. Navy who realized, in 1842, that decades of ship’s logs stored in Navy archives contained valuable information on ocean weather that could be compiled into weather charts. More recently cruiser and regatta organizer Jimmy Cornell has put these charts to extensive revision using satellite weather data.
As good as these charts are (they are the Holy Grail of route planning), wind where you are at any given moment can blow from anywhere. To their credit, the Pilot Charts attempt to account for this, but sailor’s logs from time immemorial are filled with diatribes against the blasted charts for winds behaving badly and blowing them off course. Upshot: even a carefully planned course planned is not necessarily that will eventually be sailed.
I have sought to anticipate these vagaries of wind (and current and wave and rig failure and captain error, etc.) by modeling several possible results. What if my mileage is 5% under plan or 10% over; or 20% over?
The result looks like this.
Of course, if the distance traveled varies, so will the time required to travel it.
One unique feature of this voyage is the need to arrive at the entrance to the Northwest Passage (in this case, the eastern end of Lancaster Sound) at a particular time. The northern summer is intense but short. In a typical year, ice thaws into leads and then clear water, if at all, for as little as a month. The wise cruiser attempting an east to west transit of the Arctic will want to be in position by the beginning of August and hope the passage opens by mid-month because ice will begin to reform at these latitudes as early as mid-September.
That’s in a typical year, of which there is no guarantee. In 2011 and 2012 conditions were right for a passage of this kind, but in 2013, the arctic ice did not thaw uniformly, and in key places it failed to melt at all or refroze early. As many as 20 yachts transiting the Northwest Passage were trapped in the ice.
Another timing I will want to pay close attention to is that demanded by the heavy weather in the Southern Ocean, specifically as the route requires two roundings of dangerous Cape Horn. Looked at from the South Pole, the Southern Ocean is a big, watery donut surrounding Antarctica and bordered to the north by South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Its reputation for storms and massive waves (not to mention cold and the occasional iceberg) is nothing short of legend. Small boats passing through these waters should position their arrival and departure for the height of summer (November/December/January) when gales are at a minimum.
Given the difficulties of predicting day-to-day wind and weather at sea, it is highly unusual for sailors to plan an ocean passage with the idea of arriving at a particular place at a particular time. In fact, for many, it’s the open-endedness of such journeys that provide much of the charm. All this means that for the Figure 8 I will need to pay close attention to the boat, not only its sea-keeping abilities, but also its speed. These are considered in some detail in the next post.
It is commonly held that excitement is the goal of adventuring. But in truth, excitement is adventure’s potentially enjoyable but often unwieldy result, too much of which can be the death of you.
Professionals know this as a matter of course. The sentiment reflected in the title of this post is an aphorism widely attributed to Roald Amundsen, first explorer to sail the entirety of the Northwest Passage in 1905 and 1906. He is often compared to Captain James Cook, not just for his unprecedented successes but also his famously thorough preparations.
Sadly, two clues suggest the remark is apocryphal: 1) no citations attend its many instances online; 2) Amundsen’s prose, though clean and energetic, did not easily submit to such concision.
But the thought is reflective of his philosophy. By way of illustration, the following quote from his book, The South Pole, which carries the same meaning within a more typically capacious vessel:
“I may say that this is the greatest factor — the way in which the expedition is equipped — the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”
Point being, the only way to play the many variables of any big adventure is to have a good plan.
I have been going at Figure 8 planning for some time now, ranking not only what must be researched, learned, resolved; bought, tested, and abandoned; relearned, rebought, retested, etc., but also its order in time prior to departure. The Project Plan is up to eleven pages; supporting documents extend as long as my arm and promise to grow by many fold as things progress.
Two big-ticket items have absorbed my focus of late:
- Route Planning: Mileages, Waypoints and Seasonal Timings
- Boat Requirements: Strength, Speed and Payload
There are several reasons to consider these two together. For one, it has been important to prove to myself the expedition is, in fact, possible. Remember the goal: to circumnavigate the Americas and Antarctica solo and in one season. How far is that really? Can a sailboat go fast enough? Can I time the passages so as to be in the dangerous high latitude areas at the best times?
Apart from proof of concept, these items are related because the route, its timing requirements, and the extremes of demand upon the boat (stormy open ocean vs stormy rocky, icy ocean) all work to define the type of boat I’ll need.
In the next two posts, I’ll explore these items in more detail.
At the recent Strictly Sail show in Oakland, an experienced blue-water sailor and I got into conversation about the Figure 8. I described the loop in the Southern Ocean followed by the Northwest Passage and said I thought the latter was technically the more difficult.
His expression darkened. “Down south it will be heavy going,” he said. “Cold. Huge waves and gales on you in a minute day or night, no safety, no pause.”
“Sure,” I said. “But that’s only sailing.”
I am prone to gaffes of this kind and so recognized his responsive look immediately. It said bluntly, “You’re an idiot.”
But if what I said was wide of the mark, what I meant was accurate.
One could argue that ocean voyaging is conceptually similar to trekking long distances over land, the Appalachian Trail, for example. In both cases a plan must seek to balance survival requirements against what can reasonably be carried; where and when one wishes to arrive against how fast can be safely traveled given weather, surroundings and the limits of endurance. Here, steady progress over weeks and months is the measure of success.
But my arctic route will be more like climbing a mountain, where focus is minute-to-minute and precision in the placing of hands and feet is needed to master the next ledge and the next after that. For this section of the journey my navigation will switch to pilotage, and I will trade the wide ocean for constricted, rocky, shoally, fog-bound reaches and the negotiation of ice in all its guises. Much of this transit will be made good under power due to a lack of wind or room to maneuver. Instead of thousands of miles between waypoints, I will judge my progress in the tens of miles; some days there will be no progress at all.
In this way the Northwest Passage is the more technical of the two routes comprising the Figure 8.
And adding to its difficulty is the research, for though there is a vast amount of online resource, there is no single cruising guide for the frozen high latitudes.
One book that comes close is the instructive and thrilling read by David Scott Cowper, Northwest Passage Solo.
Cowper is the quintessential English adventurer, tough, daring, unflappable, understated. By the time he came to attempt the northern route in 1986, he had already set the speed record for soloing the world in both directions under sail. Against this a singlehanded circumnavigation via the arctic, also a first, seemed nothing more than the logical next step.
But the arctic posed unique challenges for which this dedicated sailor chose a retired motor-lifeboat named Mabel E. Holland, whose 42 feet in length was so taken up with engine and fuel and equipment there was scarcely space for his bunk.
The book is full of misadventure. Mabel E. Holland is ice-bound, rescued by Icebreaker, abandoned by Icebreaker, holed, sunk, and beached for repairs for two winters at Fort Ross on Somerset Island before her escape via the Bering Straits.
Yet what the book provides is the first complete, contemporary summary* I’ve encountered of what the route demands in terms of preparation and endurance, not to mention luck.**
It is with the reading of Cowper that I feel my Northwest Passage research has begun.
*Roald Amundsen’s account in The North-West Passage (ebook) summarizes his expedition in Gjoa in 1905-06 and is far more detailed regarding arctic survival techniques and ethnography, but lacks the kind of contemporary and turn-by-turn detail useful to those planning similar adventures.
**Another great advantage of the book is the detailed (nearly 50 pages) summary of Northwest Passage History.
Archimedes lay in his bath, Newton pondered beneath a tree, and Einstein pushed a stroller along the busy sidewalks of Berne–surprisingly mundane activities for the birthing of big ideas. So I take it as fortuitous that my idea came into being while I washed dishes.
Maybe water swirling in the sink suggested that a figure eight sailing route around the world, by way of the five capes and the Northwest Passage, held elements of promise. More likely, however, the source was my discovery earlier that day of Matt Rutherford’s story.
One could argue that singlehanding is unusual by definition, but even among the odd community that is solo sailors there are those who seek to go one step further. Take Dr. David Lewis or Webb Chiles or David Scott Cowper as three interestingly different examples in a field where difference is the norm.
Finding a unique enterprise in such company can be difficult, not to mention the completing of it once discovered.
Just so for Matt, who departed Boston in June of 2011 and headed north for a first-ever solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the Americas. Among his challenges were that his boat, a 27 foot Albin Vega he named St Brendan, was too small for such an undertaking (everyone’s opinion but his own). A short waterline made her slow, pushing the time required for the 23,000 mile loop to 11 long, solitary months. Her lack of storage below allowed only dehydrated foods and a hand-pump watermaker. Matt carried no heater because there wasn’t room for it or the fuel it needed. There was almost no safety equipment. Ship’s lifeboats are far larger and better equipped, yet in this tiny capsule Matt successfully took on Cape Horn and transited the frozen north.
How he came to his idea I don’t know, but even this radical venture had precedent. Since 1968 and the first non-stop, singlehanded round the world race, 300 solo sailors have left Cape Horn to port or starboard in small boats, conquering what is now often called “the Everest of sailing.” And like Everest, it’s getting crowded down there.
But that arctic transit is something else.
A hundred years fill the time between Roald Amundsen’s historic crossing of the Northwest Passage in Gjoa in 1905 and the first American yacht’s via the same route because this passage is almost always unpassable. What’s now known as the Amundsen Route is well above the arctic circle, at times a stone’s throw from the magnetic north pole, and shoally or rocky or ice-strewn in those few short weeks of summer when it’s not busy being solid ice. By any reasonable measure it’s a sailor’s nightmare. So, when Roger Swanson and team in Cloud Nine finally pushed through in 2007, he could be forgiven if it took him three tries.
But that first began the caravan. Six yachts under 30 meters made the transit in 2008; ten yachts in 2009; another six in 2010. The word was out.
So it was in this context that Matt, while looking around for an interesting, unusual adventure, put two and two together and came up with a loop.
Similarly my idea, for I am simply going one step further in knitting together the Northwest Passage with a circuit of the Southern Ocean.
Of course, the idea is the easy part.
The hard part is convincing the wife.
After washing up I presented dessert (I am the cook) and the proposition. “I could be the first to sail around the Americas and Antarctica in one season,” I said. I hadn’t practiced a pitch; in fact the idea had just occurred, and my expectations of her receptivity were low. How could they be anything else? Joanna thought for a moment. “If you really want to do that, I think you should,” she said. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t try. What else is there but to take on the challenge of your own passions?”
This response should not have surprised me. In 2011 and mid-stride of a one-year cruise of the Pacific in my small ketch Murre I had popped a similar question, extending that cruise of Mexico and Hawaii to include Tahiti and Alaska, doubling my sea miles and time away. Much to the flabbergast of everyone, especially me, Joanna approved instantly.
So now the idea is out there and the pursuit has begun. All that remains is everything else.