Jarlath Cunnane recounts a fraught attempt to navigate the ice-strewn North East Passage to save a stricken yacht

Jarlath Cunnane’s book Northabout is a must for anyone dreaming of ice navigation or who is fascinated by the history of the extraordinary people who have voyaged to the high Arctic.

In 2018, Great Seamanship featured So Far, So Good, the autobiography of the Irish sailor, Paddy Barry. In it, Paddy led us quickly through a journey around the roof of the world. This outstanding voyage was skippered by Jarlath Cunnane, who owned Northabout, the aluminium yacht he built with a group of friends and crew. Jarlath’s book tells the story in much greater detail.

They start with the North West Passage then, with true Irish inspiration, decide that returning from the Bering Strait via the Pacific and the Caribbean would be too ordinary. Instead, after a trip down the Pacific Canadian shore, these redoubtable adventurers steer north once more to press on through the North East Passage and home via Norway.

For this extract I chose a rescue job the Irishmen undertook in one of the world’s bleakest spots. It shows courage, resourcefulness, camaraderie and, above all, great seamanship.

From Northabout by Jarlath Cunnane

Northabout was not the only yacht attempting the North East Passage in 2004. The Dutchman Henk de Velde had started from the Bering Strait in 2003 in Campina and got as far as Tiksi. Because of reports of heavy ice ahead he decided to overwinter in Siberia’s Tiksi harbour and was completing his last-minute preparations when we sailed in.

Henk described being frozen in for ten months, 300m from shore. As the ice solidified and started to squeeze the hull, he cut a pressure-relieving channel around Campina with a chainsaw. Later, as ice re-formed from the bottom up, Campina was pushed upwards out of its icy prison.

Henk had spent a cold, lonely winter living aboard in freezing conditions. Like us, he was anxious to be on his way and he put to sea a couple of hours ahead of Northabout on 20 August 2004.

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It is interesting to note that Gilbert Caroff designed both Northabout and Campina. While there is a family resemblance, both vessels are quite different. The larger Campina is 17m long, displaces 26 tons, has a centreboard and twin rudders, Northabout is smaller, at 15m long, displaces 16 tons and draws 1.4m with centreboard raised.

A shallow keel protects the single rudder and propeller. Northabout’s most distinctive feature is its raised ice-breaker-style bow. Polar travel in small craft involves much sailing in shallow water; the lifting centreboard keeps the draught to the minimum. (Mr Caroff was adamant that twin rudders are vulnerable and should never be used in ice, as indeed was later proved correct.)

Northabout was fully crewed by seven hardy Irishmen and Slava our ice pilot, in contrast to Campina, which was sailed just by Henk and his pilot, Boris. Both ice pilots were provided by the Murmansk Shipping Company, a mandatory requirement for sailing in Russian waters.


Northabout’s Russian ice pilot Slava (right)

Boris, a sprightly 72-year-old retired ice pilot, was clearly not happy with his short-handed vessel. Henk was determined to do this voyage single-handed, as in his previous voyages. But we considered that one has to be prepared to keep pushing on at every opportunity and so a big crew would be a necessity.

As we made our way up the Taymyr peninsula, we made radio contact with the patrolling ice-breaker Vaigach, 100 miles south. We learned from them that Campina had reported a problem with her steering mechanism. Vaigach engineers assisted with the repairs.

By Tuesday 31 August we could make no further progress north, due to heavy ice. We re-anchored as the wind changed, constantly dodging the drifting ice floes.


Northabout by Jarlath Cunnane is published by Collins Press, RRP £20

Eventually Campina made direct radio contact with us. She had moored 25 miles south of our position. The engineers from Vaigach had rebuilt her cooling-water pump and their divers had repaired the ice-damaged steering mechanism. We spoke with Vaigach as it made its way to assist a convoy.

We had hoped to travel behind them but they told us that the polar pack ahead was too heavy for small craft. They instructed us to wait and stay in contact. In the meantime, Campina planned to come to our position and we would both join the next north-going convoy.

During the next two days we moved several times to avoid drifting ice as the wind changed. A solid band of polar pack ice was still preventing northward progress. We settled down to await the break-up of the pack, which historically occurs here in the first weeks of September.

On Saturday 4 September we received a radio call from Campina. Henk announced with regret that his journey was over. As he lay moored to an iceberg, a drifting floe had irreparably damaged his rudders. Fortunately, he was in no immediate danger. Arrangements had been made by radio with his sponsor who was organising a sealift for Henk and Campina on a Russian freighter.

Vaigach requested we tow Campina to deeper water. The ice-breaker operates in a minimum depth of 14m and could not reach Campina’s shallow-water location. We agreed readily and prepared to go to her assistance in the early morning, when the wind was forecast to ease. Unfortunately there was no improvement.

On Sunday, as we lay anchored off Yushnyy Island, the weather took a turn for the worse, the temperature dropping to -7°C. A freezing north-west wind with snow flurries made the deck dangerous to walk on. Already the first signs of new sea ice were becoming visible with the development of small needle-like crystals known as frazil ice. This gives the sea an oily appearance.


Polar bear for company

The next stage, which followed quickly, was the formation of grease ice. As its name suggests, this forms a greasy, soupy layer giving the sea a matte appearance. By 0300 our rudder was jammed with ice. The anchor chain, too, was coated in a thick layer of ice. We freed the rudder by chipping the ice within our reach and by using the propeller wash to clear the rest. Raising the anchor by hand was a struggle.

Grease ice 100mm thick slowed our progress as we motored south to Campina, bringing our speed down to less than 3 knots. Henk agreed that we should tow him two miles to deeper water where the cargo ship could pick him up. By 0700 Campina was in sight but a band of heavy ice thwarted our approach from the north. We retreated and tried to find a route further offshore.

By 1015, approaching from the east, we were again within sight of Campina but yet another band of heavy ice 400m wide lay between us. No amount of pushing floes and strenuous poling would allow us through. We consulted with Vaigach and were instructed to wait as they were on the way to assist.


Walrus right at home in the icy waters

The icebreaker appeared later that evening. What an awesome sight – over 151m long, 44,000hp and displacing 21,000 tonnes. Her 171MW nuclear reactor was silent; Vaigach was without the usual ship’s smoke plume.

We fell in behind her as she made short work of the ice, proceeding slowly as far as she dared go into shallower water. With the all-seeing thermal imaging technology on her high bridge, her skipper directed us to a lead.

When we reached Campina she’d been squeezed by ice crushing her against the floe to which she was moored. Her vulnerable twin rudders were both bent and jammed against the hull and the hydraulic steering mechanism was also damaged. Campina was virtually uncontrollable. Darkness was closing in, so we lost no time in passing a towrope.


Jarlath Cunnane is an experienced high latitudes skipper

Cautiously, Northabout took the strain with the heavier Campina sheering uncontrollably to port. By adjusting the towing bridle, some semblance of control was established, though our speed was a mere 2 knots.

At this stage Slava sprang a rather unpleasant surprise. He had been in radio contact with Vaigach, which had now moved north again, and he had agreed to their instruction that we should tow Campina south to a position off Psov Island, a distance of nearly 30 miles.

In normal ice-free waters this would have been a reasonable request but the prospect of attempting a long tow in the ice-strewn conditions was daunting, to say the least. We were annoyed that we hadn’t been consulted.

Slava didn’t take kindly to our questioning his judgement. Not for the first time we found communications trying in Russia!


Northabout’s crew of seven was ideally suited to pressing on when necessary to outrun the ice

In the darkness we moored both boats for the night to a large floe. We invited Henk and Boris aboard for dinner, with the intention of resuming the tow at 0700. The night was calm with a beautiful sunset, the sea reasonably clear, the grease ice all behind us, and our earlier annoyance dissipated, helped by the good dinner and some of our remaining beers.

An impromptu music session followed in honour of our guests — Mike on fiddle, Paddy, Rory and Gary on vocals and guitar and yours truly on harmonica. Henk gave his unrecognisable interpretation of some U2 classics and everyone joined in a very raucous chorus. The Arctic never witnessed a more incongruous concert!

I visited the deck at 0300 and was alarmed to find that thick new ice had formed all around. Even the toilet had frozen! Slava, who was also up, was very agitated. All hands got a rude awakening and, after a quick coffee, a frenzy of activity got us underway.


Crewman Rory Casey entertains

At full revs the engine was barely able to move us at 1 knot, as we ploughed a furrow through the soft ice. We broke out after a mile or so into better conditions – areas of grease ice interspersed with drifting floes. Later in the morning pancake ice started to form. The prospect of overwintering in the ice did not appeal to any of us. It was definitely time to be out of there.

[Crew Rory Casey now continues…]

We made our way slowly to the rendezvous and moored onto one of the larger grounded icebergs. We used separate mooring lines from Northabout and Campina for added security, then waited.

About five hours later we noticed a very strong beam of light in the northern sky like a spotlight advertising a nightclub. Gradually, the beam came down until eventually the rescue vessel Archenesky appeared on the horizon and the beam turned out to be its searchlight.


Collecting ice for a G&T

It was about another three hours until the rescue ship reached us at 0300. The wind had strengthened to Force 5 and the temperature had dropped to about -20°C.

As I went over the bow of Northabout to retrieve the ice anchors, the thought crossed my mind that I really should be wearing crampons! After my feet slipped on the sea-washed iceberg the first time, I also had the thought that I should have a rope around my waist. Unfortunately, I had neither.

I released Campina’s ice anchor first, and as I made my way across the iceberg to retrieve it in semi-darkness, I felt the shake of the berg as it was hit by another passing berg. The seas were now throwing ice-cold water over the berg and it was not a great place to be. With the ice pick giving me some grip, I made my way on my knees to the ice anchor and dug it out. I threw it towards Campina, and they hauled it in.


Campina under tow

Now only Northabout’s ice anchor remained. I moved steadily, but the shaking of the iceberg had increased and it was with a sick feeling in my stomach that I realised our berg was actually breaking up. I felt like a cartoon character, and just hoped that I would end up on the right part.

I dug out Northabout’s anchor and carried it towards the boat — if anything was going to happen, at least I could hold on to it. A few minutes later I was back on board – shaken, but not stirred.

In darkness, the 30,000-ton freighter Archenesky had arrived and anchored 400m off, showing great skill in positioning the ship to give us a lee.

With luck and some tricky manoeuvring Campina was positioned under the ship’s crane. Once Campina was secure we lost no time in getting away from our very hazardous position. Our mast was in great danger of getting entangled in the ship’s gear and lifeboats. Very soon, in a remarkable display of cargo handling, Campina, with mast stepped, was craned aboard Archenesky.

The navigation season for small craft was well and truly over. Cape Chelyuskin had proved an impassable obstacle in 2004. We now reverted to our fallback plans of overwintering in the river port of Khatanga, 300 miles south.

First published in the April 2020 edition of Yachting World.