Skip Novak on board Pelagic Australis has set out on a bid to sail through the North West Passage

In late July Yachting World contributor Skip Novak set out from Greenland to attempt the North West Passage in the 74ft Pelagic Australis. Here is the first of his accounts. We will be following his progress on a regular basis.

On Saturday July 23rd, our crew of nine including Skip Novak (USA), Mariacristina Rapisardi (Italy), Giovanni Cristofori (Italy), Michele di Giorgio (Italy), Augusto Vevey (Italy), Michele Maggioni (Italy), Henk Haazen (Netherlands), Chuck Gates (USA) and signing off skipper Dion Poncet (Falkland Islands) left Aasiaat in Disko Bay Greenland for Baffin Bay.

At this time of year the pack ice can reach right across from Baffin Island to Greenland and this was the case one week ago while studying the Canadian Ice Service ice charts that are updated daily by satellite images and ground truthing operations from ships and planes. Only a few days before our departure a lead had opened in Melville Bay (called the North Water by the whalers) which is a bight in the Greenland coast above 75 degrees north. We motored for three days at the edge of the 10/10ths consolidated (stuck together) pack ice, at times back tracking east and even south of east as we met ice tongues of pack, in view of testing the accuracy of the ice reports which were indeed spot on.

We had hoped to be able to visit Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, but reports showed that the channel between Baffin and Bylot Island was still blocked with 10/10ths ice. As a guide, we can navigate through more or less 3/10th ice safely. Dion was scheduled to fly out of Pond on the 27th, but we had to move his itinerary to Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island for Saturday the 30th. This gave us ample time to reach Resolute which was showing clear water. Reaching the
top of the pack at an ultima Thule of 75 20 North we turned west for Lancaster Sound and at 0400 on the 27th navigating by radar in the fog, dropped a hook in Dundas Harbour on Devon Island. We hoisted the Canadian courtesy flag, but there was no one around to see it. When the fog had cleared later that morning a very stark landscape was revealed.

This is the high Arctic and at first glance from a distance it appears nothing more than a gravel pit with hills and small peaks generally with rounded or sheared off summits of sedimentary rock. The crew went ashore and trekked up a 600 meter scree slope and had a fine view south across the sound of the ice cap on Bylot Island that Bill Tilman and his crew on the Bristol Channel pilot cutter Mischief had crossed in 1963 (Mostly Mischief).

At close glance pale yellow arctic flowers are abloom, patches of mossy ground exist and from the ‘sign’ it was evident caribou and muskox were around in plenty. Later that day we found a family of walrus on an outlying rock only 50 meters from the shore. Behind us an arctic fox in his summer coat bolted for the high ground. This is polar bear country and whenever we go ashore, no matter for how long, we carry a high powered rifle and a flare pistol with reporting cartridges for our own safety. The theory is if you have a bear getting overly curious, you fire the flare (which explodes with a bang) in front of the bear, but he must be more than 100 meters away which is the range of the shot – if you over shoot he may run towards you! If he gets to close for comfort and starts wagging his head back and forth then you are advised to shoot to kill.

Leaving early the next morning we continued under high pressure sunny skies motoring along the coast of Devon Island bound for the outpost of Resolute. We passed Beechey Island late that evening, which we had hoped to return to after dropping Dion off. Lancaster Sound, a wide, often open waterway early in the season, was the favoured gateway for the elusive quest for the Northwest Passage during the 19th century. The ill fated Franklin expedition of 1845 spent their first winter on Beechey and the southern anchorage is called Erebus and Terror Bay after the two ships involved.

We arrived in Resolute Bay at 0700 of the 29th and tried to push our way through the slushy sea ice that more or less filled the bay. It was still too thick and sticky so we backed out and dropped a hook near its edge inside the shallow moraine close to the beach on the western shore.

Two hours later we had to up anchor in a hurry and go outside of the moraine as the light westerly wind combined with an ebb tide had sheared the ice off the shore and the whole lot was on the move out through the bay – by 1100 the bay was completely empty and we anchored in the northwest corner in 10 meters. Things can change quickly for the better, or for the worse in these parts.

Resolute is an Inuit hamlet of 250 people that serves as a high artic base for forward field operations including mineral exploration, biological science and adventure tourism. Punters skiing and sledding to the north magnetic pole (82 N 114 W) via the sea ice start from Resolute and some north geographic pole adventurers use it as a stepping stone and fly further north to the top of Ellesmere Island to begin their bid.

These activities take place in the early spring when the sea ice is firm and land is covered by snow, possibly the best time to see Resolute. In its summer dress it is a somewhat forlorn jumble of houses, various pieces of machinery, abandoned vehicles and many snow mobiles left at random where they were when the snow melted.

We are now in Nunavit, which in 1999 became a separate territory of Canada and is largely populated by the Inuit, albeit the total population numbers only 28,000 spread out among 28 small communities. Certain rights and traditions were recently recognized by the Canadian government and on first appearance, if Resolute is a model it looks like an interesting future lies ahead for better or for worse as investment seems to be flooding for mineral
exploration and exploitation. More on these issues later as we visit more communities.

Dion made his plane on the 30th and with the help of some very kind people in Resolute we began to understand the ways of the far north. An aside – the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer (one of two in Resolute) had been there two years and we were the only sailing vessel he has seen. There is no jetty in Resolute and virtually no services and $30 per kilo for some frozen sirloin (including the $6 per kilo for air freight) set the scene for prices to come. Surprisingly no bush meat was available in spite of the fresh Musk Ox heads, various hides of bear, seal and caribou that hung as a decorative feature on almost every dwelling.

Skip Novak