Tom Cunliffe introduces Sir David Hempleman-Adams' Open Water Breaking Ice. The story of his tackling the full polar circumnavigation via the North East and North West Passages from east to west


The ultimate success of a yacht depends on how carefully her original owner defined the boat’s objectives. Jarlath Cunnane (featured in Great Seamanship in the April 2020 issue of Yachting World), built the 50ft aluminium cutter Northabout for high latitudes and ice. He succeeded mightily, successfully tackling the full polar circumnavigation via the North East and North West Passages from east to west with an unstoppable crew of Irishmen.

When Sir David Hempleman-Adams decided to attempt the first British challenge to make both passages from west to east in a single season, Northabout was the boat of choice. He convinced Jarlath to part with her and, to cut a story of careful preparation down to three words, away he went.

Open Water, Breaking Ice is a beautifully produced account of how a man who, by his own admission, is more adventurer than sailor, makes the most of this remarkable boat to achieve his goal. He gives full credit to his skipper Nikolai Litau and his crew of men, women and a 14-year-old boy. We join them as they enter the frozen sounds of the North West Passage, face to face with the closing window of encroaching winter ice.

‘We left a cold and damp Tuk at 8.00am, making our way slowly in light winds back along our inward track. Northabout heads east along the Tuktoyaktuk shelf where you can normally see bowhead whales, but all we saw was great baulks of floating timber washing out to sea from the Mackenzie Delta which meant those on watch had to react quickly to avoid some pretty big logs. Thankfully the autopilot is working like a dream.

From now until we reach Upernavik at the end of this leg we’re passing through waters and past islands whose names resound with characters from history – those early explorers who came to the region in search of the fabled North West Passage. It’s very exciting to see history rolling out in front of us, every cape, bay and headland named after someone significant.

In good seas and with a following wind we have sailed 169 miles in the 24 hours since leaving Tuk, a huge contrast to the hard yards gained against the headwinds in the Beaufort Sea.

Making good time

Johan allows Northabout to show us the best of her sailing qualities by setting the sails goose-winged, and sending her scudding along at 9 knots. However, from the Canadian ice charts it’s apparent that our intended ‘short cut’ through the Prince of Wales Strait is impassable due to the extent of multi-year ice and this means we will have to take a more southerly course through to Cambridge Bay.

And so, Northabout is headed towards the relatively ice-free Amundsen Gulf, the channel that runs between Victoria Island and the mainland.

Cambridge Bay, farther on, is a crucial waymark for, should we meet ice that threatens to block our progress, it represents the last refuge for overwintering. And should we meet ice once we’ve passed that point we’d need to be certain we can retreat to Cambridge Bay as a safe haven.

Points of interest. Photo: by

As if to reinforce the need to be vigilant (and fortunate!) as to our prospects of success through the North West Passage, the Russian ice charts come in that night and reveal just how lucky we had been in getting through the North East Passage.

The charts show that while beyond the Laptev Sea there is clear water, in the Laptev Sea itself the ice has returned right up to the coast blocking any route through it. Had not the timely storm arrived to temporarily push the ice offshore when we were in the thick of all that, we would have been forced to overwinter.

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On 6th and 7th [September] we continue to make good progress and push on through the Dolphin and Union Strait (named after the two small boats used by the naturalist John Richardson who explored here in 1864) towards Coronation Gulf. What I find interesting is the almost complete absence of freighter traffic here, whereas in the North East Passage we encountered a steady stream of shipping. Odd considering the North West Passage is shorter and subject to less red tape.

Beautiful skies all day, different colours, with sun occasionally on the land. You really do feel the history and presence of the past here.

We passed Turnagain Point, named by Franklin as the furthest east on his first overland expedition of 1819/21. On their return journey the explorers suffered great hardship and starvation, surviving on lichen and ultimately eating their boots, after which Franklin became known throughout England as, ‘The man who ate his boots’.

Later, with the wind at our face, we make slow progress along Dease Strait, past Cambridge Bay and into Queen Maud Gulf, very much feeling this was our own ‘point of no return’.

The 49ft aluminium vessel, Northabout, crossed the North West and North East Passages in one season. Photo: by

With Cambridge Bay receding over our stern and the ice charts showing open water all the way up to the Bellot Strait (the narrow channel that separates Somerset Island from the Boothia Peninsula), for the first time I allowed myself to hope that our Polar Ocean Challenge would be successful.

Even the wind appeared to be turning in our favour. Yet the forecast also showed the possibility of ice closing in and I was under no illusion that the luck we’d enjoyed in the North East Passage needed to hold.

A chance encounter

The following day we have one of those chance encounters at sea that have a touch of serendipity about them. In the middle of a bleak arctic sea a small vessel hove into view off our port side, grey hulled with yellow upperworks, looking for all the world like a lost lifeboat. This was David Scott Cowper and his son Freddie aboard Polar Bound, on their way through the North West Passage via the Fury and Hecla Strait.

Ice spotting duties up the mast. Photo: by

I’d known about their intended route but to come within sight of each other was a truly surreal experience, two sailors chatting away over the radio in one of the world’s most remote places.

A legend in high latitude sailing, David was heading into Cambridge Bay for breakfast and invited us to join him but, sadly, with the prospect of ice and storms forecast, we had to decline. As we parted company each sailing our own path through that immense seascape I couldn’t help thinking about ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’!

This is indeed a god-forsaken place if the elements turn against you. One’s thoughts turned again to Franklin and his crew held fast in the remorseless ice. It was about here, off King William Island in 1846, that he abandoned his vessels and here, 170 years later, the remains of HMS Erebus (in 2014) and HMS Terror (2016) were discovered by underwater archaeologists.

Almost to the day, as we sailed close by King William Island, the world’s press announced that the wreck of HMS Terror had been found lying in remarkable condition on the sea bed, her ship’s bell being recovered and brought to the surface.

With all these place names reminding one of the fate of so many explorers who had gone before, coupled with the grey skies and greyer seas, this region draws on itself a cloak of sadness and despair – a gloom that the continuing headwind aboard Northabout does little to dispel.

The Bellot Strait is a treacherous narrow passage of water about 2km wide and 25 in length, flanked either side with barren cliffs. It’s named after Joseph René Bellot, a Frenchman who was Captain William Kennedy’s navigator when they searched for Franklin back in 1851.

Ice allowing, it will lead us eventually into the Prince Regent Inlet, then Lancaster Sound and Baffin Bay. It’s important to get the tides right for our passage in the strait as they rip through at up to 12 knots and any floating ice could do nasty things to a boat’s hull.

Northabout’s crew wrapped up against the cold. Photo: by

There was thick ice when Børge Ousland came through in Northern Passage in 2010, and Jarlath in Northabout found the route blocked. But we had more immediate problems when we approach the strait as the magnetic compass is going haywire and the autopilot seems equally confused.

I recall that Amundsen experienced the same compass problems 100 years back. To add to our worries the ice chart for the days ahead showed ice building up in the Prince Regent Inlet.

Idyllic surroundings

For now, though, conditions could not be more idyllic. We had zero wind, so the surface was like a mirror and the steep cliffs and hills reminded me of Scotland. We had worked out the best time for a transit from the tide tables and at one point we reached an impressive 11.9 knots.

Northabout is tough, built for polar conditions. Photo: by

Throughout the passage we all stayed on deck, transfixed by the raw beauty of this special place. At the end of the strait we slowly edged past the famous Magpie Rock, the foot of which roils with turbulence as the tide flows around it. But, beautiful as it was, I couldn’t stop myself thinking about what this ice-free channel represented in global terms – a part of the world that up to very recent times was pretty much ice-locked – indeed had not been transited until the late 1940s. And now we didn’t see one piece of proper ice, not even a floating ice cube for a G&T.

After exiting the strait we made our way into a little bay at Fort Ross sitting at the southern tip of Somerset Island. Here are two historic huts that were owned by the Hudson Bay Company and now maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard.

Above the huts is a cairn that was built by Captain M’clintock during his search for Franklin and, by happy coincidence, it was his great grandson John M’clintock who performed the naming ceremony of Northabout.

From Bellot we entered Prince Regent Inlet and here we came to our first ice, as forecast, although now so thick that it threatened to seal off the strait. If we didn’t get through, then it would be a long slog back to Cambridge Bay to overwinter.

The ice has changed rapidly in the last few days, thickening and closing the route at the top of Prince Regent Inlet and also to Resolute Bay; winter is on its way.

We plodded on for an hour attempting to find a way through 5⁄10ths ice, too thick for us to go through although we could see clear water on the far side of the floe. Barbara came on watch and by an amazing piece of helming managed to squeeze Northabout between two pans of ice and into open water. Her skill at this point almost certainly meant the difference between reaching Greenland or backtracking with our tail between our legs all the way back to Cambridge Bay for overwintering.

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