Morgan Peissel (left), Nicolas Peissel (centre) and Edvin Buregren (right) survey the High Arctic seascape. (Courtesy of thearcticproject.org)

With nothing but ice-choked water stretching to every horizon, the Belzebub II entered a narrow opening in Viscount Melville Sound, high in Canada’s Arctic. The mid-August afternoon air was still. Sleepy-looking seals and the occasional polar bear slipped from the surrounding ice floes as the ship approached and swam quizzically alongside.

The 9.36-metre fibreglass yacht had been strengthened for northern sailing. Its 10-kilogram, custom-built steel bow cap was designed to ride up and over ice, while an additional seven millimetres of fibreglass shielded the waterline. But should the ship ever become trapped in thick pack ice, the relentless grinding force would pop it like a grape.

The crew — Nicolas Peissel, a Montrealer with dark, tousled hair and a peach-fuzz beard; Edvin Buregren, a steely-eyed Swede from Varberg; and Morgan Peissel, Nicolas’s Boston-based filmmaker cousin — was receiving hourly ice updates via satellite phone and e-mail from Nicolas’s father, who was poring over NASA satellite imagery in his suburban Montréal basement, as well as regular detailed ice and weather information from a ham radio operator in Winnipeg.

After three days of zigzagging, the Belzebub had cleared the worst of the congestion. Open water — and a place in history — beckoned. Peissel and Buregren’s attempt to trace the edge of the Arctic’s retreating ice was taking their ship on the most northerly route through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago ever traversed by a sailboat. But before the Belzebub officially completed its record-breaking transit of the Northwest Passage, it still had to dip below the Arctic Circle.

Then, with little warning, a gale descended. Soon afterward, the engine began making unusual sounds, and over an intermittent satellite connection, the Swedish manufacturer diagnosed a blown transmission. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, the Canadian Ice Service (CIS), a division of the Meteorological Service of Canada, sent a transmission warning that ice forecasts were changing rapidly. Within hours, thick pack ice would be converging on the Belzebub from three directions.

Immediately, the yacht began plowing back toward Resolute, on Cornwallis Island, from which they’d set out five days before. With little room to manoeuvre and no engine to slow down the boat, it was high-stakes sailing, an experience that Buregren describes as “without question, the most demanding sail of my life.”

By the time the Belzebub reached Resolute, the mood aboard was miserable, the mission apparently doomed to failure. “We all believed it was the end of the expedition,” says Buregren. “The weather window was closing. How could a spare engine part arrive from Sweden in time to sail again that summer? It felt as if we’d blown our only chance.”

Explorers have been attempting to transit the Northwest Passage for hundreds of years. Click here to explore a timeline of key voyages.

For centuries, the desolate, icebound channels of the Northwest Passage have been the exclusive realm of squarerigged British naval vessels and steel-hulled icebreakers. Since 1906, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to successfully transit the passage — following in the wake of explorers such as Baffin, Parry, Rae, Franklin, McClure and others whose names now lie scattered across Canada’s northern geography — only 115 vessels had ever completed the journey prior to last summer, a pittance when compared with the 3,342 people who summited Mount Everest in the same period.

But times are changing in the Arctic: summer sea ice is disappearing. The CIS has listed the southern routes of the Northwest Passage as “navigable” since 2006 — meaning nowhere is sea ice density greater than 6 tenths (sea ice coverage is measured by area and expressed in tenths). In 2007, the pan-Arctic sea ice minimum extent dropped to a staggering and then record low of 4.2 million square kilometres, down from the previous two-decade average of 7 million square kilometres. And it didn’t take long for the surge in boat traffic to begin. In 2009, eight yachts completed the journey. By 2010, luxury vessels had joined the rush, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 126.2-metre Octopus. During the summer of 2011, 16 ships navigated the once feared Arctic gauntlet, none of them icebreakers.

“If you take the traditional [southern] route through the Northwest Passage, there is a 99.9 percent chance you’ll get through,” says Peter Semotiuk, the legendary weather router who arguably understands the region’s complex currents and floe movements better than anyone. Semotiuk aided the Belzebub with ham radio broadcasts, just as he has other Arctic mariners for 40 years. More northerly routes, however, where ice remains the biggest hazard, are another story. “Those boys were definitely sticking their necks out,” says Semotiuk of the Belzebub’s chosen course. “Especially with that boat.”

Two months before its retreat in Viscount Melville Sound, the Belzebub slipped from the harbour in Lewisporte, N.L., with a lonely honk of its foghorn. A century earlier, the air would have been filled with streamers, the departure front-page news. Instead, a few onlookers snapped some pictures of the crew. “They thought it was the last time we’d ever be seen alive,” says Nicolas Peissel.

But Peissel and Buregren were no strangers to the open ocean — the former was once a shipwright, the latter spent his teenage years exploring the Baltic and North seas by dinghy. After nine easy days, they reached Greenland and entered Baffin Bay, notorious for its treacherous ice. Here, in the first indication that the summer of 2012 might eclipse all previous ice-recession records, the Belzebub encountered only a scattering of small chunks.

Ice was also conspicuous by its absence farther north along Greenland’s west coast at Eternity Fjord, less than 100 kilometres from the Arctic Circle. As the ship sailed into the fiord, the GPS sounded a shrill alarm — glacier dead ahead. But Peissel could see that the closest ice was more than a kilometre away; it had receded since the area was last mapped in 1964. Now in uncharted waters, Peissel inched the vessel forward, eyes glued to the depth sounder: 100 metres ... 40 ... 30.

Suddenly, with a sickening crunch, the Belzebub grounded out. Peissel threw the engine in reverse, but they were stuck. With the tide dropping, there was not a second to waste. If the ocean floor was as rocky as the surrounding shores, it would puncture the hull. Leaping into a dinghy, Buregren hauled on a line running to the top of the mast, hoping to heel the ship and free the keel. No luck. Changing tactics, he dropped anchors in a fan behind the Belzebub while Peissel attempted to winch the vessel free. But it was too late: the yacht was already listing. Within hours, it was high and dry, resting atop not jagged rocks but a hull-friendly bar of soft glacial silt.

The team’s ship, Belzebub II, ran aground in Eternity Fjord, Greenland – a reminder of the dangers of sailing in the Arctic. (Courtesy of thearcticproject.org)

Six hours later, the Belzebub was floating free, but the incident was a stern reminder of northern sailing’s capricious nature, where ice, wind and currents pose constant threats and vast regions remain murkily charted by centuryold soundings, if at all.

Every winter as Arctic waters freeze, salt is extruded into the sea. But a small fraction remains embedded between the ice crystals, making young ice relatively thin, weak and susceptible to seasonal melting. With each passing winter, salt continues to be expelled and the ice stiffens. “You can tell multi-year ice immediately when you see it,” says Peissel. “The rule of thumb is that first-year ice is good for boiling potatoes, second-year ice is good for making rice and pasta and third-year ice is good for drinking.”

The latter is also excellent at knocking holes in hulls, and by early August, the Belzebub was facing a 7-tenths congestion of it at the mouth of Nares Strait, the constriction between Greenland and Ellesmere Island that funnels icebergs and thick multi-year ice into Baffin Bay. There would be no sailing farther north and then south back down the coast of Ellesmere Island, as originally planned. At Qaanaaq, Greenland — just 1,330 kilometres from the North Pole — the Belzebub swung west and crossed into Canadian waters, heading for Jones Sound, which separates Ellesmere and Devon islands. The men hoped they might sneak through, but upon arrival in Grise Fiord, on Ellesmere Island, they discovered Jones Sound was clogged with impassable ice. Undeterred, they raced south toward a rare opening developing in Viscount Melville Sound, where, within days, their plans would crumble in the face of gales, engine failure and ice.

A series of miracles followed the Belzebub’s discouraging retreat to Resolute. An engine part arrived from Sweden quickly, and within a week, the motor had been repaired. By that time, Viscount Melville Sound had cleared; satellite images of the remaining swirls of ice resembled a splash of cream in a cup of black coffee.

Only three days after the men set off, another gale descended. Chunks of ice the size of cars tumbled from three-metre waves. The temperature plummeted, and heavy snow stung the sailors’ eyes. Worse still were the end-ofsummer twilight hours, when it became impossible to differentiate whitecaps from ice. Despite all this, the storm was another stroke of luck, for the south wind that lashed the Belzebub was also pushing ice away from Banks Island, which lay directly ahead, opening a narrow lead through M’Clure Strait. Only three icebreakers have ever managed to force their way through M’Clure Strait, and just one went on to complete the entire Northwest Passage: the legendary Kapitan Khlebnikov, a 129-metre ship with six powerful engines producing 24,200 horsepower. Now a fibreglass sailboat was poised to repeat that feat.

But the CIS warned that vast quantities of ice would return within 36 hours, leaving barely enough time for the Belzebub to squeak through, and sent an e-mail recommending that the yacht not enter M’Clure Strait. “Of course, they had to say that,” says Buregren. “But reading between the lines, they were saying, ‘This is very cool.’ From that moment, they became part of the team, sending us hourly updates with fresh satellite images.”

As the gale receded, the men pushed the motor to full throttle, and in eerily calm conditions, the high cliffs of Banks Island — the westernmost island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago — appeared from the mists ahead. Somewhere to the north, out of sight but moving toward them, was a wall of multi-year ice, between 8 and 10 tenths.

After the Belzebub had been in the strait for 12 hours, chunks of ice began to appear. After 24 hours, the passage behind them had closed, blocking retreat. With two “pinches” developing ahead, the men began to discuss contingency plans. If they were forced to abandon ship, they planned to hike to safety across Banks Island rather than call for rescue. They took turns standing atop the bowsprit with eyes strained forward, and for hour after hour, the crystalclear waters remained dead calm and largely ice-free.

At 6:02 p.m. on Aug. 29th, 2012, a CIS reconnaissance plane dropped from low clouds and banked sharply. Below lay Cape Prince Alfred, the most northwesterly point of Banks Island, and just offshore was something that caused the plane’s deviation from standard routing: a single white sail fluttering upon the ink-dark ocean. On-board cameras recorded the historic moment, as the Belzebub became the first-ever sailboat to transit M’Clure Strait.

The crew savoured its achievement only briefly. The Beaufort and Chukchi seas still lay ahead, and fall storms would soon arrive. The Beaufort’s heavy ice has long forced ships to hug the coastline, but for the first time in recorded history, the southern portion of the sea was ice-free, allowing the Belzebub to cut straight toward Point Barrow, Alaska. Sailing hundreds of kilometres offshore through sparse floes, the men occasionally spotted polar bears amid the oblivion.

Soon, temperatures dropped below freezing and waves grew to 10 metres. Through frost-encrusted goggles, eyes strained to spot any fragments of ice in the seas ahead. Exhaustion set in. On-deck watches dropped from three hours to one. The Arctic Circle — and Belzebub’s official completion of the Northwest Passage on Sept. 12 — passed in a blur. On Oct 12, 114 days and 12,000 kilometres after leaving Newfoundland, the ship took winter refuge in Sand Point, Alaska, on the southern fringe of the Aleutian chain. Its journey was over.

A record 21 vessels navigated the Northwest Passage during the summer of 2012. (To put that in perspective, just 20 vessels had ever completed the Northwest Passage crossing as of 1980.) Of those, five took the northerly routes and two — the Belzebub and the M/V Polar Bound, a 14.6-metre powerboat captained by British explorer David Cowper — passed through M’Clure Strait, each on the same day.

The pan-Arctic sea ice minimum extent hit an all-time low of 3.4 million square kilometres last summer. That means 800,000 square kilometres of multi-year ice — an area larger than Alberta — has been lost since the 2007 low. Since 2000, an area a quarter the size of Canada has disappeared. With no indication that such losses will slow or abate, it appears that an entirely ice-free Arctic summer may not be far off. The implications for Canada — from territorial issues to shipping sovereignty and resource extraction — are enormous.

Should we be concerned? It depends on whom you ask. Certainly, the traditional cultures and wild animals that depend on seasonal sea ice for survival would answer yes. On a larger scale, polar ice caps drive the Earth’s great oceanic circulations, which, in turn, dictate global weather patterns. Which brings us to the issue of climate change itself. Admittedly, anecdotal observations made by a few passing sailors don’t prove anything. But the Belzebub’s journey still matters, because amid the unceasing spin and complex arguments that surround climate change, seeing these traditionally ice-clogged passages transform into open, shimmering water is something around which even the jaded and unengaged can wrap their heads.

Click on the map above to see photos and videos from the expeditions. (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Last year, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Expeditions Program helped fund seven trips, all of which took place in Canada’s North. These incredible journeys of exploration on land and water ranged from a historic transit of the Northwest Passage to a thrilling summit attempt of a Yukon peak. Click on the map above for a snapshot of each adventure.