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.