New Zealander Graeme Kendall writes about going through the North West Passage non-stop in a modern production yacht
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.