San Francisco, October, 2009
Preparations for the trip began months before our departure in mid-June, 2009. I greatly appreciated the reports and videos made by Roger Swanson and Gaynelle Templin of their attempts on the passage aboard Cloud Nine, which were ultimately successful in 2007. Scores of charts had to be ordered from catalogs and collated into convenient packages for each leg; this onerous task was greatly helped by my old shipmate, Louise Hanson. Advice on getting ice and weather data via satellite was offered by Bob Foreman based on his extensive use of these services in the Bermuda Race. Crew had to be contacted and arrangements made for each leg. Ed Hopkins, a fellow member of the South Bay Cruising Club, took the drastic step of resigning from his job in the city to sign up for the complete trip. Joey Waits, a veteran of the 2007 Antarctic Cruise signed up as far as San Francisco. Russ Roberts, a Delta Airlines pilot, organized a few weeks off work so that he could join us at Nuuk, Greenland, just for the actual passage in northern Canada. Many orders for bulk food supplies had to be placed. Special equipment was needed, for example; a spare propeller, a ten-foot-long pole and spike to fend off ice floes and a shotgun should we be unlucky enough to meet a hungry polar bear. Ten five-gallon jerry jugs of diesel were fastened to the lower life-lines. Besides all these tasks were the normal launch activities; painting the bottom, launching and stepping ther mast, all performed by the Weeks Yard. I started the engine, filled the water tanks and checked out all the various systems. Not to mention a “Bon Voyage Party.” Somehow the whole ball of wax came together and we left on schedule at noon on 15th June, 2009.
Our cruise up the coast to Block Island and on to the Cape Cod Canal was fairly routine. As we popped out of the canal a steady south wind was forecast for a couple of days and I decided to bypass my usual stopover at Provincetown and head straight for Nova Scotia. We enjoyed a good passage across the Gulf of Maine but bad weather awaited near Cape Sable, at the south end of Nova Scotia. In went the reefs as we fought our way up the coast to Lunenburg. In the fog and rain we tacked to avoid a trawler which then promptly reversed course and in the confusion the jib sheets got tangled, the sail flogged and then tore. We set the staysail and motor-sailed the last ten miles to port in gale force winds. Jennifer and Kathy at North Sails soon had the jib back in shape and after three days we left for St John’s, Newfoundland. It was a windless day with thick fog. Despite all the modern appurtenances such as radar and GPS we got a shock as a rocky shore and breakers loomed out of the fog on the bow and a swift turn was needed to avoid an early end to the cruise. Once clear of Lunenburg Bay the fog lifted, we set sail and five days later we had the imposing headlands either side of the Narrows in sight.
St John’s was very familiar from my sojourn there in 2008. Soon a friendly face appeared, Jim Winters, who was able to find a machine shop to repair a stainless steel elbow from the engine exhaust system. St John’s is a pleasant place with many coffee shops, bars and old book stores, George St was a magnet for Joey at night. But we had to keep moving; the window for good ice much further north was opening and we had to be there. I replaced much of the food we had used as food prices would escalate in Greenland and the Arctic. We left after a week but our visit wasn’t over; twenty miles out the steering chain which connect s the wheel to the quadrant broke. The emergency tiller was quickly rigged and we tied up again at St John’s just after midnight. Repairs were made in daylight and by Happy Hour we were on our way again. Ice charts obtained from the Canadian Coast Guard indicated we might find icebergs coming south with the Labrador Current, so we shaped a course to cross this region as quickly as possible and then headed due north to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. We encountered no icebergs at the start of the nine-day leg, but sailed by plenty as we approached Nuuk. The harbor scene was just the same as in 2008 -chaos! Numerous small boats and medium-sized ships were rafted together on the west side of the inner pool. We tied up alongside a French cruising boat called Fleur Austral that we would run into again further north. We checked with the police for immigration clearance but they weren’t very interested in us. We moved to the fuel station- our last chance to get cheap diesel and when we returned Fleur Austral had gone. We tied up next to an old steel barge, about six boats out from the dock. This turned out to be my undoing- to get to Fiona I had to walk around a narrow catwalk surrounding the empty hold, there were no rails. The catwalk was only about nine inches wide and littered with wire rope, rusty shackles other marine bits and pieces. Returning to the boat I missed my footing and tumbled heavily into the hold, landing on a steel rib. As soon as I tried to get up I realized I had cracked one of my own ribs, which are not made of steel. I have broken enough of them over the years to know the symptoms. For the next few weeks I suffered considerable pain using my arms and when trying to find a comfortable sleeping position. Sneezing was agony. Russ had stayed in touch by e-mail and arrived on sched via Iceland. However an unfortunate development was that Ed decided to quit the cruise at this stage. He had suffered from sea-sickness and I think that colored his view of the possibly arduous sailing still lying ahead.
After we left Nuuk we experienced mostly windless conditions and as we motored up the coast I decided to put into Sisimiut to top off the tanks. This port was the furthest north that we reached in 2008, just before arriving we crossed the Arctic Circle; traditional marker of the start of the NW Passage. On the way to Upernarvik , our last stop in Greenland, we cranked up the Iridium satellite receiver to download charts of ice conditions at the north end of Baffin Island. Every year ice accumulates in this region often blocking the entrance to Lancaster Sound, which is the start of the tortuous route through the archipelago of Arctic islands. Thus it was important to know the precise edge of the pack ice to avoid sailing too far north. As it was we had to sail to very nearly 75 degrees N before turning west. There were plenty of icebergs about but fairly widely scattered and avoiding them just needs a careful look-out. As it turned out there were plenty of ice charts available but some were not complete and it proved expensive in terms of download minutes to get the info we wanted. Russ had a brilliant idea: have his sister, Debbie, scan the ice charts on the internet, which was essentially free, and send us ice limit coordinates and the best charts to use via Sailmail, which is the low bandwidth bread and butter e-mail server for the boat. Russ also had a SPOT transceiver, this enables GPS coordinates to be relayed to a web site along with a reassuring message that everything is OK, or not, as the case may be. Rich, the Fiona Webmaster, was able to establish a link to the SPOT display from FNN on the boat Web site, so that anyone logging on could follow our progress. This has proven to be very popular with friends interesting in following our cruise.
Upernarvik is an old whaling port, now it is a small, mostly Inuit, village clinging to the sides of the hills. We dodged numerous icebergs on the way to the dock. I arranged for a fuel delivery by truck. There were dogs everywhere, they are used to pull sleds in winter, but there were also plenty of snow-mobiles lying outside the simple dwellings. In summer the universal form of transport is the all terrain vehicle, or ATV. We found a small museum with an old kayak and hunting implements from the Stone Age Inuit culture. I was continuously impressed during our sojourn in the high arctic by the astonishing way the Inuits had managed to survive in one of the most hostile environments in the world. Several books we carried on board described their way of life before it was swept away in a generation in the twentieth century. Now the salient feature of all the Inuit villages we visited is a tank farm, replenished every summer with oil and gasoline, without which they would not survive winter. In Upernarvik we met an elderly French couple living in a tent on the shore. They had flown a canoe and their camping gear from France and were planning to cruise along the Greenland coast, camping at night. Suddenly Fiona seemed the height of luxury.
From Upernarvik our route took us through Lancaster Sound, with the ice-bound coast of Baffin Island on our left and the dramatic cliffs of Devon Island on our right. Our destination was Resolute Bay near 75 degrees N, where we would wait for the ice to open up in Peel Sound and the Franklin Strait, if, indeed, it opened up at all in 2009. Before reaching Resolute we anchored for a night at Beechey Island. This desolate spot is where the famous Franklin expedition wintered over in 1845/6. Two ships of the most modern design, they were equipped with early steam engines, had left England in the spring of 1845 with orders to force a way through the North West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Much of the route had already been explored, especially the Beaufort Sea, the coast of the Arctic Sea of northern Canada, and the region around Lancaster Sound. It was felt only a few hundred unknown miles separated these two areas and Sir John Franklin with the ice-strengthened Erebus and Terror would have no difficulty completing the passage, to the greater glory of British Empire, and the Royal Navy. I will touch on the Franklin Expedition later, but the immediate focus of interest was three graves on the shore. These belonged to two sailors and a marine from Franklin’s ships that died during that first winter. They had been buried in permafrost, thus the bodies were well preserved. In 1984 Canadian scientists received permission to exhume the bodies and conduct autopsies, providing the graves and bodies were returned to their original state. There was great interest in how these men died as the expedition disappeared from human kin after their stay at Beechey Island and only a few scattered remains were found many years later, leaving no written record. The story of the exhumation and autopsy is told in a fascinating book by O. Beattie and J. Geiger entitled Frozen in Time. They found the bodies to be in almost perfect condition, the spooky photos show the poor mariners as they looked when they died. They died of TB and respiratory problems but analysis of their hair showed excessive lead accumulation. Samples taken along the length of the hair showed how the lead built up with time. The scientists theorize that lead from the new method used to preserve food on the ships, namely canned meat and vegetables, got into their systems from the solder. It seems likely that a year or two later the whole expedition was suffering from serious lead poisoning and this could have been a major factor in the failure of the venture. Along the beach were remains from later expeditions and even a few cairns containing the ashes of prominent Canadian Arctic pioneers.
The ice charts showed a band of drifting ice blocking the entrance to Resolute Bay, but it was only 2 to 3 tenths density and we figured we could work through it. We eventually anchored at the head of the bay near the small Inuit village of only about 250 souls. Fleur Austral was already anchored there. We checked in with local Royal Canadian Mounted Police post as this was our first official stop in Canada. Then it was a few yards to the local hotel called the South Camp Inn. Run by an entrepreneur called Azzie. The hotel was more like a youth hostel but Azzie offered us a free lunch, showers and free e-mail. We couldn’t have found a finer friend. The hotel serviced passengers arriving at the airstrip, often government officials or workers at the mining companies further north. Also it was nice and warm, we often found ourselves in the lounge watching mindless TV. Azzie arranged for a fuel delivery by truck, we had to bring the boat into the shallow water at the beach and carry the hose out on the dinghy. I stopped by the French boat to let them know about these arrangements, which were laid on for the next day. All went well and the captain invited us on board for Happy Hour, his name is Phillipe Poupon, he was a celebrated French racer in the 1970s and ’80s. He won the Global Vendee a couple of times, which is a very tough single -handed circumnavigation. His charming wife, Geraldine was a film actress who appeared with such stars as Gene HacKman. They were attempting the NW Passage with their four children , ranging in age from about one to fourteen years, and an old friend with little sailing experience. The boat was quite new, designed by Phillipe and built of aluminum, about 68 ft long. We were all awed by both the family and their boat.
A day after refueling at about 4 o’clock in the morning, it was broad daylight of course, we were awakened by a shout from shore. Pack ice was moving into the bay at an astonishing rate. Fleur Austral was just clearing out through the last remaining clear lead right against the eastern shore of the bay. It was shallow there, but with centerboard up the French boat had a very small draft. We raised the anchor and motored into the clear pools between the floes, but these got smaller and smaller until finally we were forced right against the shore, unfortunately it was high tide. By the afternoon Fiona was hard aground with her port bilge resting on the sea bottom. With her long straight keel and generous beam Fiona can take that sort of treatment without damage if the sea is calm, unlike many more modern boats with skeg keels.
A German boat, Perithia, which had anchored the day before, was in the same predicament as ourselves, although they managed to stay afloat. We floated off at the next high tide and pushed our way through the floes to deeper water. The same afternoon we were hailed by a young fellow standing on the shore. We invited Dave aboard for Happy Hour. He was a visiting workman from New Brunswick who had been hired for maintenance work on the government-supplied houses. Unfortunately he had had a contretemps with local board and had been summarily fired, he wanted out as soon as possible. I was delighted, ever since Ed left us in Nuuk I had been hoping we would have four on board for the transit of the Passage. In the finest tradition of the old British naval press-gangs he was immediately signed onto the crew list, although he had no sailing experience. How many young men have their first sailing lessons in the North West Passage? We had some excitement when a polar bear swam by, climbed onto a floe and sunned itself for a few hours. The next day we went ashore to investigate the wreck of a WWII Lancaster, which had crashed in 1950 on the approach to the runway. The local conservation officer, a young woman, spotted us on the road and made us return to the boat to get our old shotgun – the bear had allegedly chased someone on a bike in the village the evening before. One afternoon we climbed Signal Hill, a 600 foot eminence overlooking the village. Each evening we talked on shortwave to Peter Semotiuk, a resident of Cambridge Bay who runs a radio net for cruising boats. He kept us up to date on ice condition, we also had our own ice charts downloaded via the Iridium satellite radio and of course we had Debbie’s e-mail messages. Finally after 10 days of waiting it appeared the ice was clearing in Peel Sound and Franklin Strait and a narrow lead existed on the east side.
Early on the morning we planned to leave Resolute ice floes again started to invade the bay so we simply upped anchor and threaded our way out. Once clear of the bay only a few growlers and bergey bits dotted the sea. There was a light head wind as we powered past Griffith Island and into Peel Sound. We had started on the heart of the North West Passage, and likely to be the most difficult section. For over a day we powered south with only a light wind, in fact we experienced only light winds throughout most of the time we were in the middle portion of the passage. In 2005 my friends Roger and Gaynelle aboard Cloud Nine had to turn back in this region after they were freed from the ice by a Canadian ice-breaker. Late on the second day after leaving Resolute we entered the ice field that lay north of the Tasmania Islands, an archipelago lying off the east coast of the Boothia Peninsula. There were several channels shown on the chart which led south, I elected to use the most easterly, marked the ‘Shortland Canal’, and despite fairly thick ice we were able to negotiate a way through in a few hours using a spotter perched in the ratlines. I should mention that the compass and autopilot were both not functioning properly due to the proximity of the North Magnetic Pole, which is now located north of Resolute. We got directional info from the GPS; the helmsman had a battery-operated unit in the cockpit. The weather turned nasty, with sleet and fog. Fortunately with engine running we had some heat in the cabin. By noon, south of the Tasmanias ,the ice really thickened, in the fog we could see very few leads of clear water and these usually tapered out with little progress. The radar was deceptive as it only picked up the larger floes and apparent leads turned out to be choked with smaller floes as we got closer. We pushed on for nearly twelve hours before we had to admit we were stuck and we tied ourselves to an iceberg just before midnight, although the light from a watery sun illuminated the fog and the gloomy scene around us. I was awakened by a crash and the sudden tilting of my bunk. We all rushed on deck; a berg had collided with our own icy haven, it had rotated and the underwater mass had lifted Fiona’s bow clear of the surface. With the stern still in deep water I started the engine, put the transmission in reverse and we slid back into the sea as though we were on ways. We found another floe to attach ourselves to on the lee side using the dinghy anchor; one piece of equipment I had omitted to bring was a four-pronged grapnel. The fog started to lift and soon the shore of the Boothia Peninsula was visible just less than half a mile to the east. It looked rocky and very bleak. A check of our position on the GPS showed that we were moving north with ice-field. We were still in a clear pool of water but it was shrinking, by lunchtime clear water had virtually disappeared and we were surrounded by ice, some of which was obviously ‘old’ ice with thick pieces tilted up on edge. After lunch I checked our progress north in the field, we were heading back towards the Tasmanias at about 7 nautical miles a day. The chart showed a promontory and bay on the coast just before the islands, I was concerned the ice may push us into them. I decided to call the Canadian coast Guard to advise them of our position and see if there was an ice breaker in the vicinity. I told them we were not in immediate danger and they advised getting the inflatable ready so that we could reach the shore of the Boothia Peninsula if Fiona was crushed and sank. They also recommended putting survival gear and important personal possessions in handy bags. They said a breaker could be there in one or two days if needed. As we blew up the dinghy on the foredeck we could hear the ‘song ‘of Beluga whales coming through the hull, they must have been under the boat which was in about 170 ft of water. Their tune sounded like someone playing a saw with a violin bow. All afternoon we fended off floes with the 10 ft pole and spike I had brought along just for this purpose. In the evening we watched a movie on DVD. The next day was much the same with ice now forming virtually 100% coverage. Every 6 hours I checked in with the coast guard as they had requested, but they said an ice-breaker would not be heading our way as we were not in immediate danger. By then we had moved 14 miles north and the cape and Tasmania Islands were clearly visible. As we maneuvered to avoid being crushed using the engine and the poles I was very concerned about the vulnerability of the rudder, the top of which stuck out of the water by an inch or two at the stern and clearly would not survive an impact from a rampaging heavy floe. By the third day a northeast wind developed and almost imperceptively the clear areas between the floes began to widen. From the spreader a clear lead extending to the south about a mile away was visible. We began to push floes out the way and generally make our way in that direction. It looked like we were going to break out after all. After a couple of hours we made it to the lead, which by then, of course, had changed its character and developed tributaries. We worked our way generally south and edged away from the coast. The value of having four on board was apparent; we split into two watches of two men, one spotting from the ratlines and one hand-steering. I called the coast guard to let them know we were on our way again. When we found a clear patch a few hundred yards in extent we anchored to a floe in the evening, the nights were now getting noticeably darker. Within a few hours the patch shrank and we had to re-anchor by sailing up to another substantial floe and tossing our dinghy anchor onto it until it wedged firmly on a protuberance. We were now headed for the James Ross Channel, east of King William Island.
Perhaps this is the time for a little history of Arctic exploration. In the middle of the nineteenth century most Arctic experts, including apparently Sir John Franklin, believed that King William Island was a peninsula attached to the Boothia Peninsula. Thus to proceed south King William Land had to be passed to the west. Unfortunately the M’Clure Channel lying to the west of King William brought down a continuous stream of heavy old ice floes from the north and was very rarely passable. The Franklin expedition in 1846 was trapped in ice west of King William, probably for two winters, and ultimately the ships were crushed and sank. Some members made it to shore and trekked south, their remains were discovered many years later. No one survived to tell the tale. By 1847/8 there was concern in London about the fate of the expedition and mostly at the urging of Sir John’s wife Jane several rescue attempts were organized, all without success. Later Dr. John Rae, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, met Inuits possessing relics of the expedition and oral stories of the white men who perished. In extremis some of the survivors had resorted to cannibalism. His findings caused a sensation but his mention of cannibalism earned lifelong opprobrium as it was contrary to the heroic image of Sir John fostered by his wife, and, strangely, Charles Dickens. It was Dr. Rae, exploring the Boothia Peninsula on foot, not by sea, who made the discovery that King William was an island and that the channel separating it from Boothia was apparently navigable when the ice melted in summer. King William forms a barrier that prevents the ice from the M’Clure Channel blocking the passage most summers. This crucial knowledge was exploited by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen when he made the first transit of the North West Passage. Amundsen sailed his 58 foot sailboat, which had a small engine, through the passage in three years starting in 1903, wintering twice in a small bay on the southeast side of King William Island he called Gjoa Haven, named after his boat Gjoa. His arrival attracted nomadic Inuits to Gjoa Haven because westerners were a source of invaluable (to them) wood and iron. Amundsen was probably one of the last Europeans to experience firsthand the Stone Age culture of the Inuits before it disappeared in the twentieth century. His account of their way of life in that demanding environment makes for interesting reading as he lived very closely with them; in fact we met his grandson when we visited Gjoa Haven, which is now a permanent settlement of about a thousand souls.
Back to the cruise: our down-loaded ice charts and e-mails from Debbie indicated that the only way south was close to the shore of the Boothia Peninsula. We began to slowly work our way east and south, again with two men on watch, one in the rigging spotting the best route through the ice. A hazard we learned to avoid while zigzagging between the floes was that many had underwater projections protruding well beyond the surface contour. We called them ‘Horns’, presumably caused by wave action eroding the edges of the floe faster than the underwater part was melting. The ice reports were right; close to the coast was a fairly clear channel with patches of heavier ice concentration. We sailed past the point on Boothia where Dr. Rae had observed the strait separating King William Island and six days after leaving Resolute we anchored in the bay at Gjoa Haven. We had been luckier than Amundsen who went hard aground in this part of the Passage and lost some of his keel, although we did have a near miss with a rocky island. But we had the benefit of GPS and modern charts, What was going on? Then I saw a small note on the margin of the chart; ‘Horizontal datum not determined’. In other words, the chart was not quite as modern as I thought, and dated from the days when longitude has harder to measure accurately and a world-wide reference datum for lat/long had not been established.
We inflated the dinghy and motored to the pebbly shore. The fresh water creek, which attracted Amundsen in choosing the site, flowed down a steep gully, but now it was littered with debris. There was a hotel, a market and the RCMP station. Residents zipped about on ATVs and snowmobiles lay around, waiting for winter. The nondescript houses looked exactly like those at Resolute – somewhat depressing. I arranged for a fuel delivery by truck, the manageress of the market walked with me to a small section of bulkheaded dock to show me where the truck would come. The water was shallow and encumbered by a couple of abandoned kid’s bikes. The Gjoa Haven Hamlet office building had a small exhibit devoted to Amundsen, as I mentioned earlier, an elderly man introduced himself as Amundsen’s grandson. It was quite possible; the Inuit culture regarded wives as chattel and they were often lent to visitors. For warmth the whole family usually slept together naked between animal skins; good heat transfer engineering, perhaps, but … Interestingly, Amundsen’s detailed account of his nearly two-year stay at Gjoa makes no mention of any liaison. The same thing happened to other Arctic explorers; Peary and Henson both fathered children with Inuit women in Greenland while wintering over prior to their dash to the North Pole.
We went back to the boat to await the fuel truck and tied to the dock, but a few feet out. Unfortunately the water was shallower ahead of the bow and we were soon aground forward as we waited all afternoon for the truck. When it came we filled the tanks and finally got back into deep water about 11 pm by using the dinghy to pull the bow round at high tide. Just as we re-anchored the lights of a boat were spotted heading into the bay. We knew from radio chatter with Peter that this was Ocean Watch, a 68 ft-long sailboat which had left Seattle in May and was making a west to east transit of the NW Passage. We called on VHF and arranged to meet for brunch the next day at the snack bar in the hotel. The captain, Mark, was like me a member of the Cruising Club of America so it was fitting that our two cruises should cross paths at Gjoa Haven. When we all gathered for a late breakfast Mark explained he was trying to circumnavigate both North and South America in a year. He had also aroused some media interest in his cruise as he carried two scientists among the crew who were studying global warming in these northern climes. We left in the afternoon as we had a fair wind to carry us to the south end of King William Island. As we rounded the point and hung a right up to the Simpson Strait the boisterous wind was then dead on the nose and I did not fancy tacking up the rock-strewn water. A cozy-looking bay lay on the right on the shore of King William and we headed for that. When we had a lee we dropped the anchor in 20 ft and settled down for the night. Nursing a rum and apple juice I stared at the bleak shore a quarter of a mile to windward. I pondered about the desperate crews of Franklin’s ships trying to make it overland back to the Canadian mainland. We were probably very close to a path they would have chosen, some relics, skeletons and a whaleboat were found near the estuary of the Back River, which lay to our south on the other side of the Simpson Strait, the site was later called ‘Starvation Cove”. I raised a toast to their ghosts and went below into the warm cabin.
It took another day for the wind to drop, and then we negotiated the tricky Simpson’s Strait under power. Halfway through we passed the cruise ship Hanseatic which was heading east. The passengers lined the rail and waved enthusiastically. Fiona must have looked very small to them and they probably wondered what those crazy New Yorkers were doing so far north. The next section of our route, Requisite Channel, also looked rather difficult with numerous shoals and small rocks so I decided to leave that for the morrow and anchor in M’Clintock Bay. This turned out to be quite interesting; a Dew Line radar was visible on the horizon and when we dinghied ashore we found an airstrip along the beach. There were some large fuel tanks and a hut, all obviously abandoned. On the shore was the wreck of a wooden fishing boat called the Sea Otter. Joey managed to climb aboard, he reported everything of value had been stripped from the hulk. I wonder what dramatic circumstances led to her demise. In the morning it was cold, 22?F, and a heavy frost lay on deck. We left bright and early, navigated very carefully through the Requisite Channel which fortunately was almost free of ice. We tied up at Cambridge Bay two days after leaving M’Clintock; it was August 25th. In the early planning of the trip I had chosen August 22nd as the ‘drop dead’ date for a decision on whether we were going to make it through or turn back to the Atlantic before the Passage closed due to winter ice. According to Peter we had seen the worst ice and the route along the Arctic coast of the Canadian mainland and in the Beaufort Sea would be largely free of ice if we hurried. Even though we were running a little late I decided to push on to Alaska, which was still a long way off. Russ decided Cambridge Bay was as far west as he had time for and wisely decided to fly out and rejoin the workaday world.
Anchored near the dock at Cambridge Bay was an American power boat, Bagan, which was also making an east to west passage. Sprague, the owner, and a cameraman visited us later for some footage for his passage video. Ashore I was able to arrange for a fuel delivery to top off the tanks and to have fresh water delivered, the first we had taken aboard since Nuuk. Both were expensive but I was surprised at the cost of water; 35 cent/gal, after all, numerous lakes abounded north of the village. I asked the truck driver why and discovered the water was stored in a heated building so it was available all winter. Such are the complexities of living so far north. Cambridge Bay was a notch above the villages we had visited previously, it had a couple of supermarkets, one of which featured a Pizza Hut in the foyer, western civilization was creeping in. We were able to get showers at the Visitor Centre and Peter came down to the dock for a drink at Happy Hour. A local politician, whom we had first met at Resolute, Keith Peterson, gave us some souvenir items from his election campaign. Keith is a member of the Nunavut Legislature, an entity split off from the Northern Territories by the Canadians some years ago. I believe the idea is to give the Inuit some measure of autonomy.
When we left we aimed for our last port in Canada, Tuktoyaktuk, on the western side of the MacKenzie River Delta and about 6oo nm away. We encountered only scattered ice. Many of the geographical features had names reflecting the intense interest in the region during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Lady Franklin, Bathurst, Dease and Union and Dolphin. The Northern Lights laid on a show. It was nearly midnight when we arrived at Tuktoyaktuk to discover Bagan tied to the dock. We rafted alongside. They were heading next for Barrow, in Alaska, to pick up some spare parts that had been shipped there. We left a few hours after them but our destination was Nome, on the other side of the Bering Strait. We had a tedious sail along the north coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, occasionally we could see the edge of the pack ice on the starboard horizon but we had no serious problems with ice. It was 500 nm to Point Barrow, the most northerly extremity of Alaska and then we turned south in the Chukchi Sea. Two days later, in heavy seas roiling up from astern, the roller chain of the steering system broke. We hove-to for a while to rig the emergency tiller and then resumed our course to Nome, but hand-steering during two-hour watches. It was strenuous, cold duty for the two and a half days it took us to raise Nome, ten days and over 1,100 nm out of Tuktoyaktuk. We crossed the Arctic Circle thus completing the North West Passage transit. From the crossing the circle heading north to crossing heading south took 49 days, including 34 sailing days and we logged 3,440 nm. Peter sent me an e-mail to say he believed eleven private boats had made the passage this year. The day before our arrival we surfed through the Bering Strait with Russia just a few miles on our starboard. We were surprisingly far west; not far from the International Date Line, further west even than Hawaii and Midway Islands.
We arrived at Nome just before midnight and tied up to the rather forbidding ten foot high dock wall; Bagan was tied up just round the corner. In morning we were cleared back into the US by a very pleasant border control officer. I was disappointed to discover Nome charged a stiff nightly fee for dockage, I had got used to the free dockage in Canada. I replaced the broken steering chain and in the afternoon we topped off the tanks from a fuel truck. The next day I wandered round Nome which is quite a small place made famous by the Gold Rush in the late 1880s. Some entrepreneurs still operated dredges just off the shoreline, prospecting for gold. All the rip-roaring bars, bordellos, honky-tonks and hotels have been swept away by the tide of time, but a small section of Front Street has been created to evoke that time, although it reminded me of Disney World. There is no direct road connection with the rest of Alaska. Dave came to me in the afternoon and told me he was going to leave the boat in Nome and move to a hotel. I was disappointed because it was nearly 3,000 nm to San Francisco, where I intended to make our landfall on the mainland after leaving Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. Both the Bering Sea to Dutch Harbor and the Gulf of Alaska have a bad reputation for heavy weather and winter was approaching; l wanted to leave as soon as possible with at least three on board to give easy watch-keeping hours. Joey, Dave and a crew member from Bagan went on quite a pub-crawl that night, about 2 am I was awakened by a cry from Dave. Joey and his friend from Bagan had fallen into the harbor returning to the power boat. Dave had managed to get them to the ladders on the dock wall and needed help getting Joey onto Fiona. He probably saved their lives as hypothermia sets in quickly up there. We stripped Joey, wrapped him in blankets, made him hot tea and got him into his bunk. In the morning Joey was very contrite but also very depressed that Dave was leaving us, he did not relish the thought of double-handing to Dutch Harbor, lying about 650 nm to the south across the Bering Sea. I was planning to leave by lunchtime as it looked like a great weather window had opened with northerly winds forecast for four days. The three of us sat down over the breakfast table at a local café and the emotional upshot was the Joey decided to join Dave. We went back to the boat, Joey packed his gear and my former crew pushed Fiona clear of the dock as I started a single-handed leg to Dutch Harbor where I felt sure I could enlist new crew.
I was exceptionally lucky with the weather. The wind remained on the stern at moderate strength and I sailed or motor sailed without much difficulty. I remembered that Roger and Gaynelle on Cloud Nine had encountered a 60 kt storm on this leg of their 2007 passage and sought shelter at Nunavik Island. When Nunavik came up on the port side the weather was fine and I pushed on. I was receiving GRIB wind forecasts via Sailmail and Debbie was still sending a daily weather updates. Only as I neared Dutch Harbor did the forecast begin to look ominous with gale force winds, but fortunately from the northwest, not on the nose. I arrived in the vicinity of Dutch Harbor near midnight; I had picked out a spot on the chart to anchor that provided a good lee from the gale. My greatest difficulty was getting the 65 lb fisherman’s anchor deployed as the crew had secured it inside the pulpit and I had to lift it plus chain over the rail. Once I got the anchor down I slept like baby, I had made the leg in four and a half days from Nome; respectable even for a fully-crewed boat. In the morning I called the harbormaster on VHF for directions into the secluded inner boat harbor and tied up next to a Swedish motor-sailor that had just completed the North East Passage from Sweden via the Russian and Siberian coast to Alaska.
The Swedish captain, Nicholas, had a rented van and very kindly drove me to the harbor master’s office and later to a gas station to refill the jerry jugs. Dutch Harbor is one of the busiest fishing ports in the US, the harbor was very active with boats coming and going. Some had been featured in the TV series ‘Deadliest Catch’. I posted notices at chandleries, bars and the recreation center for new crew and also posted a crew call on the website. I walked over to the small village of Unalaska for a shower at the recreation center and toured the Russian Orthodox Church, with its characteristic onion-shaped towers, a reminder that this whole region was once part of Russia. Standing on the bridge over the river I saw dozens of salmon spawning in the gravel, which they disturbed by furiously wriggling their bodies. Then they died, the seagulls were having a feast. I went with Nicholas for a drive up Ballyhoo Mountain to see the remains of extensive WWII gun batteries. This area is now tribal land and we had to buy a $5/day permit. The Japanese invaded Attu further east in the Aleutians and there was fear they may work down the chain. Dutch Harbor was converted into a submarine base and bombed by planes from Japanese carriers. There is a museum devoted to the wartime period; some of the old military radios there were familiar; I had bought them as surplus when I was a teen-ager. Unfortunately in the paranoia that swept the country at that time the native population was deported and spent the war in deplorable conditions. There was a very pleasant hotel at which we had lunch a couple of times, free wi-fi in the lobby was perfect for dealing with my e-mail. Eventually Tom, a former coast guard sailor, from Oregon and Ben, a fisherman from Homer, Alaska, signed up for the leg to San Francisco. Before we left Nicholas and I paid a call on one of the ship’s pilots that guided vesses into Dutch Harbor. We wanted advice on transiting the pass into the North Pacific Ocean; the passes can have fierce currents and rough seas if the wind opposes the current. He was very helpful and gave us both a booklet of local tidal information.
We left with a gap between the passing low pressure cells and transited the Unalga Pass on the ebb, as the pilot advised, without problems. Once into the North Pacific the next low caught up with us and we experienced gale force winds that put the lee rail under. Unfortunately the crew had not had time to find their sea-legs, so it was a rough introduction to the boat. A couple of days out the staysail halyard snapped. The break was next to the swaged shackle, so it was just a question of reeving the line back through the block on the mast and swaging another thimble. Fortunately Ben is an experienced rock climber and he shinnied up the ratlines and mast steps to reeve the halyard with the wind still howling, we had the new swage fitting on and the sail drawing again within two hours. I was fortunate this failure did not occur while I was single-handing from Nome. A few days later there was a mysterious engine stoppage which I eventually traced to copious amounts of water in the fuel, the only explanation seemed to be leakage through the deck plate into the tank when the deck was awash during the gale. In the end I removed about five gallons of water from the tank and then discovered it was empty because the gauge was over-reading by about 30 gallons. About this time we sailed into a large, stationary high pressure system that gave us light head winds for a couple of days- always frustrating sailing. But we pressed on towards the Golden Gate Bridge and passed the half-way mark eight days out from Dutch Harbor. A few days later a low pressure cell crossed our track with strong gale force winds for a day, we reefed down and survived without problems. As we wallowed in the aftermath of the storm with high seas and light winds the faithful Perkins engine overheated. I dealt with all the usual suspects such as raw water intake filter and a replacement pump impeller but sea water was simply not getting pumped around the engine. It was baffling but as an expedient I rigged an electric pump which might allow the engine to run for about thirty minutes as we approached the dock. I gloomily contemplated an expensive repair in port and read through the shop manual, a throwaway remark in the book mentioned loss of pump performance due to a worn cover plate and suggested simply reversing it. It seemed too simple a solution but half an hour later Ben and I working in the cramped, rolling engine room had the plate off and put it back with the outside face on the inside. It worked like a charm and the engine ran cooler than it had done for months.
The next problem was to plan our arrival in San Francisco, I contacted Bill Steenberg, a former crew member who lives in the area, and he arranged a slip in Emeryville, near Oakland. I intended to fly home for a couple of weeks before resuming the cruise to Panama and the return leg to Long Island. The pilot recommends entering San Francisco Bay with the flood tide By estimating our arrival date within a couple days when we had still about five hundred miles to go I was able to look up the tide table and discover the tide turned about 5 am. This was perfect, we could enter the Golden Gate as the sun rose and cross the bay to Emeryville by mid-morning. We might even see the Golden Gate Bridge if it wasn’t foggy. The problem was the wind; it had swung around the southeast, on the nose as usual, and dropped. We did not have enough fuel to power all the way there and the seas were too high anyway. We emptied the last of the jerry jugs into the tank and sailed whenever we could. The wind for the last day was forecast to be very light and, of course, the seas had calmed down. We powered very slowly to conserve fuel and eventually we picked up a fair wind for a few hours. A thick fog descended on us and we cautiously made our way across the sea lanes leading to San Francisco. At one time on a twelve to two watch I had to sail a holding pattern to ensure we arrived off the Golden Gate Bridge with a favorable tide. Unfortunately a thick fog enveloped the famous bridge as we approached but it lifted a little and we could see portions of the span. The fog signal on the south side hooted ominously as we slipped into the bay. My friend and old shipmate Bill Steenberg had made a reservation for the boat at the Emery Cove Marina near Oakland. As we approached the jetty Bill and his family waved a welcome. Later we had champagne and hors d’oevres in the club house. The first phase of the cruise was over.
Since leaving Long Island on June 15 we logged 8,873 nautical miles in 124 days. We spent 45 days in various ports yielding an average of 112 miles per sailing day, including those in which we were trapped in ice. I had six crew, at least two of whom, Russ and Ben, were sorry to sign off. Until the leg to Panama and New York,
Fair Winds to All, from Eric
Mounties at St John’s, Newfoundland, on Canada Day (their equivalent of 4 July).
View of Upernarvik, Greenland.
Graves of the three sailors from the Franklin Expedition, Beechey Is, Nunavut, Canada.
Ice floes press Fiona in Resolute Bay.
Fiona aground at low tide, pushed onshore by ice at Resolute Bay. (R. Roberts photo)
View from the deck of Fiona aground at Resolute.
Joey, the Viking, prepares to push floes aside at Resolute. (R. Roberts photo)
Polar Bear floats alongside, Resolute Bay. (R. Roberts photo)
Joey sporting shotgun on the wing of the Lancaster bomber that crashed in 1950, Resolute.
Russ, Joey, Azzie, Eric and Dave pose at the South Camp Inn, Resolute.
Fiona is tied to ‘berg after being trapped in the Franklin Strait.
Mark Schrader of Ocean Watch and Eric talk at Gjoa Haven.
Peter Semotiuk, who runs the radio net from Cambridge Bay, joins Eric aboard Fiona.
The Russian Orthodox Church at Unalaska, Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
WWII observation post on Ballyhoo Mountain, Dutch Harbor.
Eric passes under the Golden Gate bridge, San Francisco, CA, at the end of phase one of the cruise.
Eric is greeted by former crew Bill Steenberg at Emeryville, CA.