New Zealander Graeme Kendall writes about going through the North West Passage non-stop in a modern production yacht
Enter Mr Kendall, a New Zealander of great experience who has a mind to circumnavigate by an unusual route: northabout round Australia, Good Hope to starboard, North America to port via the North West Passage, and home more or less due south down the length of the Pacific.
The boat chosen by this most capable mariner is an Elliott 1250 Tourer, 12.5m x 4m x 2.4m, with a displacement of 8,500kg, a deep, narrow bulb keel and a stern-hung spade rudder.
Kendall’s style is so relaxed it’s almost as if he’s chatting over a pint, yet every so often he leavens this with near-spiritual references to his experience. It is a remarkably balanced book and nobody thinking of sailing long distances should fail to read it. We join him at the entrance to the North West Passage, where he finds unexpected company for dinner.
From To the Ice and Beyond
Now that I was in the Passage, I thought: well, I’m committed. The further I went, the more committed I was. I had to keep going to get out the other side, and every mile I did was one more behind me. That was a good feeling.
It was fairly demanding sailing from the point of view of navigation. It was all about making choices. I got information from the charts – and I hoped they were accurate – and I decided which way I was going to go. But the decisions were often based on uncertainty.
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However, I was lucky. The weather was good and I had favourable wind. If I’d gone through when it was stormy it could have been a very different experience. Having to manage the boat in a storm at the same time as looking out for ice wouldn’t have been easy, and I knew I was fortunate.
A few days after me in certain areas, the weather did pack in – the wind changed, the ice gathered and at least one person had to be rescued. But for now I was lucky and I sailed on.
The northerly breeze freshened astern and I reduced sail, reefing in the main, headsails furled and running dead downwind. Perfect. I was sitting on about eight knots and keeping to the middle of the 15-mile wide strait.
There were many small islands near the shore and a few icebergs, but these appeared less frequently as I proceeded south.
There was also wildlife about, with seals, whales, the ever-present birds and polar bears foraging on the distant shore.
I watched the polar bears through the binoculars and saw they were discoloured from being on dry land.
The closest I came to them was about 300m. One or two looked in my direction and I knew they knew I was there. What aromas were they getting? I was too far away, though, and sailing faster than they could swim. They just went about their business.
The wind was now about 20 knots so I was looking at a good day’s run. Peter Semotiuk of Cambridge Bay called to inform me of a Frenchman, Mathieu Bonnier, who was trying to row part of the North West Passage. Peter thought I might be getting pretty close to him, and said I should look out for him as he may need some assistance or a rest.
I didn’t think too much of it. He was doing his thing and I was doing mine. The weak afternoon sun soon cleared the ice off the deck and my happy hour rum tasted really good that evening.
Next morning I entered Franklin Strait with the usual fog smothering the edges of everything in grey. But luckily it wasn’t a pea soup, so I could keep my look out for ice. The fog is usually gone by noon.
I got another call from Peter with an update on Mathieu Bonnier. The Frenchman was very tired and lonely and he had had about enough. Within the hour I received a phone call from Mathieu himself. I told him I was about 45 miles away and should be able to see him if I veered a little to port as I got close to Victoria Strait.
By evening the wind had eased and I was on lookout for Mathieu. His position was just off the northern tip of King William Island and it looked as if he also was contemplating the shortcut through Victoria Strait.
In 2014 the underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris found the wreck of Franklin’s Erebus where Franklin Strait converges with Victoria Strait – exactly beneath the spot that I was now about to rendezvous with Mathieu Bonnier.