The Arctic Pilot says that with the rounding of Point Barrow east to west, a vessel transiting these waters completes the Northwest Passage. We aboard Arctic Tern are not sure why this would be, as it’s commonly held that the passage is at least Arctic Circle to Arctic Circle, if not Atlantic to Pacific.
Still, it’s a big moment for us. We are currently four miles from making Point Barrow, where we will turn finally and definitively south for Nome and our Pacific exit.
Compared to others, our passage over the top of Alaska has been a breeze. Quite literally. After our fight with headwinds in Coronation, Dolphin and Union and Amundsen Gulf, the wind has become forcefully favorable. For three days now we’ve been following a brisk and building easterly under headsails only. Winds came on to 30 knots yesterday; touched 40 overnight and are still in the high 20s as I write. Seas have been bombing along at 3 and 4 meters, breaking heavily, and requiring us to hold on with two hands while cooking and three while pouring out the coffee. Cups and bowls unattended go flying, as does the odd crewmember who misses his or her grab as the boat goes by.
What’s more, ice conditions have been perfect, which is to say there hasn’t been any. Reports tell us that from roughly Demarcation Point and west, the ice pack has receded to 73N while our course line climbs through 70 and 71N, and at Barrow, the pack has pulled back a full 110 miles toward the pole. This has allowed Les to set a great circle route between Cape Bathurst and Point Barrow that has needed no adjustment.
This is markedly different from many experiences, notably those we aboard have been reading of these last weeks. Willie De Roos, in *North-West Passage* describes a harrowing run along Alaska. The pack ice that year (1977) pushed well in toward the coast and forced him onto a course that nearly grounded his Williwaw on north Alaska’s endless shoals. Jarlath Cunnane describes similar experiences atop Alaska in *Northabout* (2000), and David Scott Cowper’s first crossing was similarly distressed. Shakleton once quipped that he hated adventures that went too smoothly, but we on Arctic Tern are not complaining.
(These perfect conditions have prompted one reader to ask why we are in such a hurry. The answer is two-fold: one, if ice were to become an issue on this leg, its most likely point of contact would be Point Barrow itself. If we met ice there, the likelihood of spending the winter of the beach would jump exponentially. Two, ice is not our only worry. Winter weather between Point Barrow and Southeast Alaska, Arctic Tern’s final destination, has already commenced in the form of blasting gales. Simply put, it’s time to get out of the north.)
Our friends on Drina, currently 150 miles east of us, have not had such an easy run of it. Their second auto pilot gave out last night, forcing their three crew from 4-on 8-off watches into 2-on 4-off and hand steering. Having had a similar experience on my first North Pacific crossing, I can report that two hours at the helm never felt longer than when the weather is cold. And ours still hovers between 2 and 3C. A few hours later Drina reported that their main sail had split. They may search out an anchorage on the west side of Barrow so as to effect a repair.
Worried as we are for the Drinas, spirits continue to be high among the Ternies. When not sailing, we are talking of Alaska and what to expect in Nome, still days away. Les has promised shore leave of a duration longer than one hour (all that was allowed in Tuk and a few other stops). So now we are dreaming of simple things. Hot showers. The fresh scent of clean laundry. And the equally beguiling smells (not to mention tastes) available to patrons of rank and frothy frontier bars.