Where to Start?

strictly sail

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 NWP

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.

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