Sailing through the Northwest Passage
Nicolas Peissel is part of a Royal Canadian Geographical Society-supported expedition to cross the Northwest Passage. Click here to read more about the Passage Through Ice journey and read more posts about the expedition on CG Compass.
We were poised in Prince of Wales Strait on the East side of Banks Island when we received the email we had been waiting for:
It not recommended to go into M'Clure Strait, but there is a window open north of Banks. There is a lead developing all along the North shore of Banks Island. The wind will be favourable pushing away the ice but these conditions will change when the pack of multi-year will come back against the northern shore of Banks Island in a day or two.
Hope this will help you make a decision. Regards and good sailing.
Ice Services Specialist
We made our decision in a heartbeat and headed into the narrow passage filled with excitement and trepidation at what awaited us. We moved as quickly as possible knowing that we would have no time to waste during this short window; we only had 36 hours before the strait would close again.
The small lead was only a few miles wide with the cliffs of Banks Island on one side and a wall of thick multiyear ice to the other. We had to navigate through varying ice concentrations and there was a constant concern about hitting an underwater obstacle so close to land since the charts only showed the 200-metre depth curve. Every hour we sent out position reports and revised a constant stream of information from Peter Semotiuk, Bernard and Jacques, who were now supplying us with official Canadian Ice Service satellite images with our position plotted out.
Constantly scanning the horizon for ice obstacles, we spotted a strange shape out in the distance. After a lively discussion over whether it was an oil prospecting ship, a weather buoy or a drifting fishing boat from the Japanese tsunami, we realized that it must be David Cowper's polar-bound motor vessel, which we knew was attempting the M'Clure Strait. We hailed him over the VHF but received no answer and the boat disappeared into the fog.
After 12 hours we reached the North Coast of Banks island. The ice thinned out and the lead grew wider, and we felt more at ease enjoying the beauty of the island and the ice formations. Just to the south of us less than a mile away was Mercy Bay where Robert McClure, after which the strait was named, was trapped with his men in the ice and his ship crushed and sunk during his expedition of 1850-1854. We felt the weight of history and the fate that met so many expeditions that attempted what we were in the process of doing ourselves.
Twenty four hours into the passage we received an ice chart with some worrying information: heavy ice was closing up the strait behind us and we had no choice but to move forward. It also showed a heavy ice clog just ahead of us that we weren't sure we would be able to navigate, but clearer waters prevailed after that point. If we could push through that last clog point and keep our speed up we would be able to clear M'Clure Strait before the heavy ice pushed back against the north shore of the island and trap us for the winter. We approached the clog point but found much less ice than we anticipated and found a route through the ice which reflected beautifully on the mirrored waters. We now had only a few miles left before accomplishing the strait but we were exhausted, having spent the last 36 hours navigating the ice without sleep, but to our great surprise the horizon showed nothing but clear water.
With sails up in a light breeze we sailed swiftly toward the northwest point of Banks Island to become the first sailboat in history to complete this route. Suddenly over the VHF Radio we heard our boat name being called. It was the Canadian Ice Service's reconnaissance plane, CanICE 3, asking for our position. A few minutes later the large plane fell out of the low cloud ceiling and banked around the boat. We exchanged salutations and their ice cameras captured us accomplishing what we had worked towards for almost two years.
Happy but exhausted we called to thank our ice advisors and received congratulations for successfully crossing M'Clure Strait as the first sailboat ever in history. We also learned that David Cowper completed the passage a few hours ahead of us, making him the first non-commercial vessel to complete M'Clure. It was an exciting day for all in the Arctic and we were ecstatic to be able to post a press release that linked our achievement to climate change and melting polar ice cap.
We would like to send out a special thanks to Peter Semotiuk, Jacques, the Canadian Ice Service and the Canadian Coast Guard for providing us with amazing support. We could not have done this without you!