Northwest Passage road less traveled

Aug 6, 2013 by Guest Writer

By Capt. Liam Devlin

As the ice scraped and bumped along the hull, the ice floes we were amongst were a hell of a lot bigger than they had looked from afar. I searched the mass of ice ahead, looking for a way to thread the ship through the jumbled maze. Below decks, the crunching, grinding noise of the hard ice working against the boat sounded like a captain’s nightmare. I knew that M/Y Beothuk’s steel hull was extremely strong, but the relative vulnerability of the stabilizers and the propellers was my concern.

Clear water was only 100 meters or so ahead, but it took an age to reach it. The ice floes moved with the wind and the swell. The technique was to push them slowly until they gained momentum, taking them away from the boat. First Mate Nicholas Marr was on the bow, guiding me over the radio, to ensure the best angle to make contact with the larger floes.

This was our approach to Pond Inlet in Nunavut in Arctic Canada, where we subsequently cleared into Canada to begin navigating our way through the islands and channels that make up the Northwest Passage. When I started researching the trip, it quickly became apparent that this was a lot more complex than most other cruising grounds, or a passage between numerous Canadian Arctic islands.

The trip started in Boston, Mass., on the east coast of the United States on my birthday July 6, 2012, and ended in Vancouver, British Columbia three months later. Total passage was about 9,000 miles and involved cruising the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Greenland before arriving in the Canadian Arctic.

For me, each of these destinations had their own unique attractions, but the Northwest Passage was the real goal of the adventure. The entire voyage was the circumnavigation of the North American continent which we successfully complete by December 1, 2012 .

Arctic fox, polar bear and sperm whales
Pond Inlet was not our first encounter with ice. We had spent some time in Greenland’s Disko Bay, where we had slowly made our way through a maze of icebergs into the port of Ilulissat in Greenland. This, too, had been slow going, but I was pleased that we had made the effort to see what was clearly one of Greenland’s principle fishing ports. The icebergs in the bay had calved from the largest glacier in the northern hemisphere, which we were all keen to see.

Greenland was a spectacular destination, which was enjoyed by the owners and crew alike. For me, the highlight was a successful day spent fishing for Arctic char on Disko Island.

Finding anchorages with hidden treats like this was possible because we had armed ourselves with some expert knowledge. To complement the crew, we brought along an ice pilot from the expedition support company High Latitudes. Richard Haworth has visited these waters many times and I was able to learn from his knowledge, particularly when moving through heavy ice, such as that encountered in Disko Bay, Pond Inlet and the Franklin Strait. The voyage would not have been nearly as safe, successful or scenic without the assistance provided by High Latitudes.

Visits to remote Arctic settlements gave us the chance to chat with some interesting people. As the world becomes smaller due to technology and travel, we appreciate more these opportunities to sample remote cultures. In Canada, the fact that most of the Inuit population speaks English makes this much easier than in Greenland.

We spent a fascinating evening getting real insight into the culture and wildlife of the region from a friend of Richard’s who came aboard for dinner one evening. Dave Reed has been a resident in Pond Inlet for 20 years, running a tour company called Polar Sea Adventure. I got chatting to a couple of Inuit fishermen on the beach who explained how they hunt pilot whales and narwhal using rifles from their small boats. I am a great supporter of subsistence hunting and Inuit traditions, but to me this seemed a bit barbaric; surely this must result in a lot of wounded whales? This conversation made me realize the importance of environmental education in these remote areas and the influence modern cultures have on ancient hunting and gathering.

We were always on the lookout for Arctic wildlife. We were particularly rewarded when steaming southward in Prince Regent Inlet in Arctic Canada with whales. First, we encountered a pod of sperm whales, which Richard explained can be recognized by their lopsided blow, then almost immediately, a pair of bowhead whales.

I have spend more than 10 years traveling the world’s oceans and it’s moments like these that keep sun in my face and salt in my hair for another season.

Heading west, a couple of days were spent exploring the disused Hudson Bay settlement that is Fort Ross and its surrounding countryside. Here we spent some time watching an Arctic fox forage for his dinner.
The following day we cruised through the Bellot Strait in Nunavut where we were rewarded with a great sighting of a polar bear mother with her two cubs. These hugely powerful creatures are amazing to watch. However, the bears can be dangerous. We had to be on constant alert during all of our trips ashore in case we came across one of these creatures and always carried a rifle for defense. (Happily, we never came close to needing it.)

As we came out of the Bellot Strait, the wind began to build. It soon reached more than twice the forecasted 25 knots and we started to look for shelter. The only nearby anchorage mentioned in our pilot books was part way along a long fjord running east to west. The easterly wind was being funneled down quite ferociously and it clearly was not the place for us to take refuge.

We found a likely looking bay to the north. As with all of these waters, this coast is only partially surveyed, so some detailed exploration with the depth sounder was needed before we could anchor. This needed carefully attention as the high winds limited our maneuverability. As the wind built to more than 60 knots, we were forced to re-anchor twice.

Eventually, it turned out that we had chosen our refuge well and we were able to pass an uneventful, if very windy night, at anchor. We resumed our voyage southward in the morning.

Following Roald Amundsen’s footsteps
This next section of the passage, the James Ross Strait around the eastern end of King William Island, was the most likely to be blocked by ice. Indeed, our daily ice charts had been showing it to be firmly blocked by ice for some weeks. The ice seemed to be clearing and we were hoping the easterly gale would have moved the ice from the eastern shore of the straits.

Deciding to investigate our theory, we determined to see how far we could get southward. As we moved down the coast, carefully watching the depths, it seemed that our theory was working. An attempt to get around the western side of the Tasmania islands, uninhabited islands in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut, was unsuccessful due to a lot of drift ice.

Moving round to explore the passage inside the islands, we found two sailboats at anchor. These were the first yachts that we had seen since leaving Greenland two weeks earlier. One of the boats had some technical problems with their transmission, so we stopped overnight to lend a hand.

Once repairs had been completed, we again set off southward down the inside of the islands. The easterly winds had cleared the way for us and we reached Gjoa Haven the next day.

I had been looking forward to seeing this little settlement. It was essentially founded by Roald Amundsen when he spent two winters here in 1903 and 1904 on the first successful transit of the Northwest Passage.

We found the locals to be friendly and as curious about us as we were about them.
Our next stop at Cambridge Bay was as welcoming as Gjoa Haven. I spent some magical time when I left the boat for a half-day “walk-about”. I cycled out of town to the local river and explored upstream. Having found a likely spot, I set about fishing for the local delicacy of Arctic char.

This was the first time I had fished in fresh water. Standing there with my fishing rod, surrounded by views of the green Arctic tundra, was an experience I will never forget. After an hour’s quiet fishing, I landed a pan-sized char. Within minutes, it was grilling on an open fire. Definitely the best fish I ever tasted.

Around to Alaska
We were fortunate with the weather we encountered on the trip from Cambridge Bay westward. Much of the Alaskan coastline here is shallow, with few safe anchorages. A strong northerly wind can bring down the pack ice, trapping a vessel between the ice and the beach. We were lucky enough not to see any ice on this stretch of the trip.

Rounding Point Barrow, our next stop was Nome, Alaska. In 1901, this little town was the scene of a gold rush, and we found when we landed that the place is once again in the grip of gold fever. The town was full of enthusiastic entrepreneurs, which made it an interesting place to visit.

Here, we allowed ourselves a small celebration. Records show that we are something like the 116th vessel to pass through the passage. Amundsen took three years to arrive in Nome. We could only imagine the celebrations he and his crew had in this remote town.

Capt. Liam Devlin and a crew of five took the 102-foot M/Y Beothuk from Boston to Vancouver via the Northwest Passage last summer. Comments on this story are welcome below.