When imagining early on the two poleward legs required to complete a Figure 8–the long Southern Ocean loop and the Northwest Passage–it was the latter that gave me fits. The maze of remote waterways, some without soundings, all with the likelihood of pack ice, was enough to freeze my courage.
So, when it arose, I took an opportunity to explore the high north as crew before making my own solo attempt. In 2014, I joined Les and Ali Parsons on their 43-foot steel cutter, Arctic Tern, for what turned out to be a 65-day passage from Nuuk, Greenland to Nome, Alaska.
One takeaway: the 5,000-plus mile Northwest Passage is an exercise in mostly motoring. The entire region sits squarely under the polar high-pressure zone, and though lows do roam the Arctic and can bring vicious gales, in summer, calms are the norm with contrary winds seeming to be what fills the gaps between.
Moreover, one does not have the luxury of waiting for the breeze he favors. Short is summer and long is the way ahead; thus, if the going is good, one must press on under power and damn the purists. Fuel stops are to be expected.
Another takeaway: though ice has been retreating from the larger Arctic region for many years, this fact does nothing to predict the actual ice concentrations in the northern sea routes that will be encountered in any particular year. During the brief window allowed for summer, the passage may clear at the extremities while remaining blocked at some point or points within the Canadian archipelago. And while a yacht waits for the archipelago to clear, each day’s delay adds to the risk of reforming ice at the margins or, at least, difficult late-season weather.
By way of illustration, ice in the Northwest Passage in 2014 was such that of the thirty yachts to make the attempt, only seven completed the route. In the summer of 2018, only one boat made it through. A warming globe does not guarantee an easy time in the Arctic.
But I am getting ahead of the argument.
Is the sheer distance of a Figure 8 Voyage too great for a non-stop?
Take the Golden Globe Race, for example. This non-stop course from France, around the bottom, and back to France, is some 25,000 miles. But compare the Figure 8’s nearly 40,000 miles—a 50% increase. Is it reasonable to think that a small yacht could sail that distance in one go?
Jon Sanders answers this pretty handily.
In May of 1986, Sanders departed Freemantle, Australia, on a solo, non-stop triple circumnavigation of the globe via the Southern Ocean. The route took him three times under the Great Capes, over Saint Peter and Saint Paul Rocks just above the equatorial Atlantic, and then back to the Capes, all in his 44-ft sloop, Parry Endeavor. Among the many firsts in this voyage were a) longest distance continuously sailed by any yacht: 71,023 nautical miles, and b) longest period alone at sea during a continuous voyage: 657 days. (Sources: Wikipedia and Jon Sanders).
This was not Sanders’ first rodeo either. In 1981-82 he completed a first-ever, solo and non-stop double circumnavigation of 48,510 miles in 419 days. Simply put, Sanders is a bad-ass. (As of this writing, Sanders has just departed on his 11th circumnavigation. Source: Ocean Cruising Club.)
Clearly, a small boat can make the miles required to complete a Figure 8 without an interim port of call, but the length of the voyage is really but one half of the Figure 8 equation. The other half is timing, and this brings us back to the Arctic.
Can the Northwest Passage be transited non-stop in a small boat?
The light winds, short season, and motoring required in a typical year make a non-stop of the north a tricky business, but it has been done.
In 2011, Matt Rutherford and his 27-foot sloop, St. Brendan, set out from Annapolis, Maryland on what became a 314-day, 27,077-mile circumnavigation of North and South America, solo and non-stop. What appears to have made the difference for Matt was not just the luck of a somewhat lighter than normal ice year, but also stronger winds at either end of the course and judicious motorsailing through the central pack.
As a result, Matt was not only the first to solo the American continents non-stop, he also holds the record for the smallest vessel to solo the Northwest Passage. (Sources: Albin Vega and Cruising World.)
Can the Northwest Passage be sailed?
On this question, the jury appears to be out. To my knowledge, a Northwest Passage completed purely under sail has not been accomplished, though it has been attempted at least twice in recent years.
During Moli’s Arctic passage in 2019, a French daughter and father team made an east-to-west attempt in a production fiberglass boat named Sedna, but they were unable to penetrate past Pond Inlet due to a lack of wind. (I am unable to find anything about their voyage online.)
Putting it All Together
As the above suggests, the Arctic is the main gating item to a non-stop Figure 8, and the factors there are the timing of one’s arrival and the configuration of ice and wind in the year of the attempt.
Early on, Matt Rutherford encouraged me to make my own Figure 8 attempt from Boston rather than San Francisco. An east coast departure, he argued, would allow one to attack the Northwest Passage first, to optimize one’s entry for northern summer, following which the Southern Ocean leg could be approached without concern for Arctic timing. (Referring back to Sanders for a moment, another result of his 657-day, triple circumnavigation is the demonstration that, unlike the Arctic, the Southern Ocean is passable in any season.)
Moving Mo across country for what, at the time, seemed an abstract advantage was beyond the pale, and so I forged ahead with my west coast plan. But Matt was right. I had timed my departure to optimize the Southern Ocean loop. My safe arrival in Halifax after an eight-month non-stop from San Francisco was a full month and more too early for entry into the Arctic. My options then were to heave to for an extended period or come into port.
As to the wind and ice one will encounter above the Arctic Circle, this is a matter of chance and will remain one of the unpredictable risks of a non-stop Figure 8 Voyage.
So then, with conscientious planning and a bit of good fortune, a solo and non-stop circumnavigation of the Americas and Antarctica is very possible, especially if the departure point is the Atlantic and the sailor first heads north for the Arctic.
The final question is, then, who will do it first?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a solo, non-stop Figure 8 is, and has been, in the works for some time. Norbert Sedlacek Koch of Ant-Arctic Labs has twice made the attempt in his super-speedy, purpose-built Open 60. His route takes him from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France toward the Arctic and from there down the Pacific and to the Southern Ocean, but gear failure has thus far kept him from breaking out of the Atlantic. His next attempt is scheduled for the summer of 2020 and should be fun to watch.