New Zealander Graeme Kendall writes about going through the North West Passage non-stop in a modern production yacht
Every so often, a book appears that blows preconceptions clean out of the porthole. To the Ice and Beyond by Graeme Kendall is such a work. Many authorities, myself included, argue that for high-latitude voyaging far from assistance, a hefty chunk of displacement does no harm.
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.
I saw him from a distance – a small, purpose-built rowing boat, and the tall figures of a man and his dog, an Alaskan Malamute. With fenders in place I took a line and assisted him aboard. The beautiful dog – Tico, after whom Mathieu’s expedition was named – was left aboard his boat and we let the line out so I could keep it in tow as I sailed on at a slow pace.
Mathieu was a little shaken as I welcomed him on board and sat him down inside. We each explained our reasons for being there, and developed an immediate mutual respect.
In 2009 he had rowed across the Atlantic. Now it was his goal to row the North West Passage, taking two seasons to do it – with the limited window of opportunity it would not be possible to row the whole way in one year.
One day he’d had to battle against 47 knots of wind with a lot of ice. He was cold and exhausted. To top it off, he had seen a lot of polar bears.
I had two steaks left in the chilly bin. I suggested he stay for dinner, and he gladly accepted. I also had a small cask of red wine and I poured him some in my only glass. We toasted each other, me drinking from a cup. He was very tired, so after dinner he lay down for an hour or so.
I offered him coffee, which he refused until he saw me making plunger coffee for myself. “I’ll have one of those,” he said, and in later communications referred to Astral Express as the ‘Franklin Strait restaurant’. He gave me a pack of cheese that he said he would no longer require. It was a fine gift: gourmet cheese, purchased in France.
We discussed the possibility of taking the shortcut through Victoria Strait. We had both realised that the ice wasn’t too bad in there. This channel is 170 miles long and about 70 miles wide, making it one of the largest channels in this area, but it’s usually ice-blocked all year because it lies open to the McClintock Channel which feeds Arctic ice into this area, especially when the prevailing northerly winds are strong.
With the Canadian mainland to the south and the series of islands above, a maze of channels and straits is formed but is usually all iced up. No wonder early explorers found it hard to find a North West passage.
After a few hours I sailed as close as I could to the coast of King William Island and we said goodbye. He rowed ashore – he was doing this every day to give his dog a run around. It was a most congenial meeting.
I sailed on, the shortcut working well for me. But unfortunately for Mathieu conditions packed in behind me, he copped some very stormy weather and the ice came in. As it happened, the television adventurer Bear Grylls was travelling the North West Passage by motorboat at the same time, followed by a very big yacht with a big engine and plenty of luxurious equipment.
He invited Mathieu aboard, but Mathieu turned him down – although he eventually asked them to rescue his dog and take it with them to Cambridge Bay. Mathieu didn’t complete the passage. Realising it wasn’t possible to do it in two years, he wasn’t prepared to commit to the several years it actually required.
As I sailed through, Victoria Strait had around two-tenths ice coverage which, with careful navigation, was manageable. With daylight hours and a light wind, I was able to make my way south towards Queen Maud Gulf, where I would turn west.
It was rewarding to sail through this area as few vessels had ever done it. Clear ahead, calm sea, light wind, sailing at five knots. There was open water between ice sheets now and with a clear forecast ahead it was time for a quick rest. I lay down and had soon gone to sleep. Wham.
There was a resounding crash and the boat came to a complete stop. My legs folded against the bulkhead as I woke. It took a few seconds to focus as I sat up with my heart in my mouth. Rushing up on deck I saw a scraggy small iceberg blocking the way, the size of a truck above the water.
I inspected the bow for damage. There was nothing to be seen, and with sails still up Astral Express drilled off to port and we sailed on into clear water. I had been too complacent with the ice charts, I admonished myself. And, being tired, I hadn’t set the alarms.
When I was just about through Victoria Strait, I was briefly becalmed, a tiny yacht floating on a glass surface among reflected clouds. But then a few ripples disturbed the surface as a south-east wind arrived and my course changed to the west to sail across Queen Maud Gulf towards the entrance to Dease Strait.
Rain washed the salt off Astral Express as I entered the grim Beaufort Sea. Part of the Arctic Ocean, it’s mostly frozen but at this time of year there was a corridor of water between the Canadian and Alaskan coast and the ice edge, which was about 10 miles north. From there, the frozen Arctic extended all the way to the North Pole.
I saw no birds at all, the first time on the entire trip I had been without my feathered companions. It was all so ominous it was almost amusing. I really felt my predicament, to be sailing north of Alaska with nothing in sight and not a hope of rescue.
A couple of times at night it got really cold and the instruments on top of the mast froze and wouldn’t operate. They thawed out quite quickly during the day. I tied cloth around the stainless steel handholds inside because they also attracted the cold.
I continued to find it easier to dress up for the cold rather than use heating. The heater in the cabin wasn’t very efficient, and I wasn’t sure about the carbon dioxide of the heater, especially as I was on my own. I found that if I used a lightweight puffer jacket for inside and a thicker one for outside, I stayed warm.
It was too cold to change clothes much so I just kept it all on for a few days. I’d had the odd shower coming through the passage, but it was tempting not to bother when the weather got really cold. Baby wipes are good in those conditions – or just waiting for warmer weather.
With a fresh 20-knot easterly wind and a favourable current I started to increase my daily runs, with the best being 180 miles. At least I was romping along in the right direction. I had Alaska below me to the south now and on Wednesday 8 September I reached Point Barrow, the exit point for the North West Passage.
I had sailed the North West Passage and it was time for double rum that night.
First published in the February 2020 edition of Yachting World.