David Cowper's latest polar feat ranks alongside those of Franklin, McClure, Amundsen, Nansen and Bellot

A two-line email today to a handful of recipients announced one of the most pioneering maritime achievements in the last century by one of the greatest adventurers of the modern era.

It read: ‘Today Polar Bound, solo skippered by David Scott Cowper (GBR) traversed Cape Prince Alfred, closing McClure Strait westbound.’

This succinct message, suitably redolent of a long-ago naval signal, is entirely appropriate. David Scott Cowper is a modest and retiring man. He communicates from his long voyages rarely and I don’t remember ever receiving a press release about him.

For sheer scope of adventure, I believe that David Scott Cowper is the most famous and important sailor of our times. I’ll explain why.

But first that little email. With receding ice the North West Passage is becoming easier to transit. Indeed, this is Cowper’s 5th crossing. But to go through the McClure Strait?

This is most northerly navigable route of the Canadian Northwest Passage and no sailor has ever managed to navigate through it before. It was named after Captain Robert McClure of the HMS Investigator, who discovered the potential route in 1851 when he sailed in search of John Franklin’s missing expedition and his ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

In 1969 the US oil tanker Manhattan attempted to get through the McClure Strait, but failed even though assisted by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker and three US Coast Guard icebreakers. I should add that at 306m LOA and with 46,000hp of engine power, SS Manhattan was then the largest and most powerful merchant ship and icebreaker in the world.  

No one had managed to get through until yesterday, when David Cowper, a 70-year-old retired charter surveyor from Newcastle, inveigled his way in his 45ft aluminium boat Polar Bound (single screw, engine a Gardner 8LXB 150hp).


But to give you a full flavour of the stature of this supreme modern explorer, we need to go back a bit. What follows is, believe me, only the scantiest outline of Cowper’s long roll call of feats.

If Cowper carries on round the world, as he did last time in 2009-2011 (then making an unprecedented double transit of the NW Passage) this will make it his seventh solo circumnavigation.

He began cruising in the north-east and Scotland and later took part in the 1974 Round Britain and Ireland Race and the 1976 OSTAR. His appetite for long-distance solo voyaging whetted, in 1980 he sailed alone round the world in his 41ft S&S sloop Ocean Bound, beating Sir Francis Chichester’s time by one day.

Two years later he sailed alone round the world non-stop in the other direction, breaking Chay Blyth’s record and becoming the first person to sail alone round the world both ways.

He was the first to go alone round the world non-stop in a motorboat in the 42ft converted Watson lifeboat Mabel E. Holland, and the first to transit the North West Passage alone. That was in 1989, when the Arctic ice was much less prone to melting and the crossing took him four years and three winters.

On his last lone circumnavigation between 2009 and 2011 he left his home port in Cumbria, went through the North West Passage in Polar Bound, continued down to Chile, the Antarctic, across to South Georgia, Cape Town, to Australia, Fiji, Hawaii and back through the North West Passage to return to the UK. This made him the first person to make a round the world voyage with a double transit through the Arctic.

So why don’t we know more about him?

Simple. Cowper is an old-style adventurer, privately funded – private in general – quiet, polite and unconcerned about making a noise. His achievements have by no means gone unnoticed, but inevitably they are drowned out by sponsored voyages and the growing tendency to dice up ever smaller and less consequential gradations of ‘world record’.

Nonetheless, Cowper’s feats are written in history and his unassuming dominion over inaccessible, godless tracts of our seas is as legendary as the history of Franklin’s polar voyages. I’d go to far as to say that his only true peers are in the past, and his record should be framed among those of Franklin, McClure, Amundsen, Nansen, Bellot and Ross.