The window is short — and now’s the time to start planning!
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Northwest Passage is a famous sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the sparsely populated Canadian islands known as the Arctic Archipelago. Regulations are strict and it’s only accessible for boats from July to September. Chief Officer Rob MacDonell of M/Y Blue Moon offers the following rundown based on his own experience as a passagemaker.
Expect it to be cold while traveling through the Northwest Passage. Although this is obvious, make sure to purchase extra space heaters for crew and guest areas, as well as for lockers out on deck. Warn the crew to prepare for very dry and irritable skin.
There are very limited medical facilities while traveling through the Arctic. Before we left, we asked a doctor who has been to the Arctic and who specializes in remote access and medevac coordination to come aboard and go through our marine medical kit. He made valuable suggestions as to what other supplies we might need to get before the passage.
It is advised to carry paper charts for all of the areas where the vessel might plan on going. The electronic charts on Transas were mostly accurate for all the areas we traveled. We also made an effort to only go into the well-charted areas. As a backup, our ice pilot had a laptop with an Olex system installed, which provided more bottom contour information than what was on the electronic and paper charts.
Who needs to be contacted
The city of Cambridge Bay charges for anyone who steps ashore. Arrangements and payment should be made well in advance of arrival (mailed in by check). Notify them well in advance so they can have everything ready once the vessel arrives.
Clearing into Canada can be a bit of a challenge, and we coordinated this with EYOS Expeditions. All crew and guest information was sent to the Canada Border Services Agency in Yellowknife about a month before our arrival.
There are also a number of tribes in Nunavut that need to be contacted for permission to go ashore on their land. This was also taken care of through EYOS.
Polar Waters Operation Manual
This is a comprehensive 170-page guide specific to the vessel on the complete operations of the vessel. A representative from EYOS came on board to see what systems were in place and could be used for the trip. They also made recommendations, such as additional spotlights to make sure the vessel would be up to SOLAS Polar Water Code.
It takes 8 to 12 weeks for the manual to be made. Once that’s done and the recommendations have been implemented, the manual must be submitted to the vessel’s class society for approval, which can take another 8 to 12 weeks. There are only a few people who are qualified to approve it, and if they go on holiday for a month, you will have to wait. In my experience, they go on holiday in late spring!
Once the manual has been approved by class, a surveyor must be brought on board to confirm that everything in the manual has been implemented. They will then issue the vessel a Polar Waters Certificate. All of this should be done before the end of June.
We contracted with EYOS to provide the vessel with an ice pilot and polar bear guide, both of which are required for entering polar areas. Before guests or crew can go ashore, the polar bear guide goes first and scouts the area for wildlife. If any wildlife is found, no one is allowed to go ashore. If the area is clear, then the polar bear guide, armed with a loaded rifle, must accompany the group at all times while ashore.
A Mark V Zodiac was purchased with a 70-hp outboard engine for all of our excursions ashore. This is a nice, light tender to take ashore with guests and crew. To make room for it, one of our tenders needed to be left behind and trucked across the U.S. for us to pick up on the other side. It is advised to purchase at least one extra prop for the outboard. They do come with prop guards, but the frigid water causes them to shatter when even lightly touched by an underwater rock.
Personal survival kits — with warm clothing, drinking water, a pocketknife, etc. — are required for each person on board. The full list of necessary items is written up in the Polar Waters Operation Manual.
General, eight-person survival kits were provided in enough sets to cover everyone on board. Each kit included an eight-person tent, two sleeping bags, two mattresses, a shovel, etc. These kits are mandatory, as it might take up to five days for a rescue crew to arrive if needed.
Although we had planned on our satellite internet connection not working for the duration of the trip, it actually did work from time to time. There were also a number of cell towers between Nome and Cambridge Bay. Once the vessel was in Cambridge Bay, the satellite internet did not work and LTE was not compatible with any of the cards on board or any of the crew phones. We were able to purchase LTE hotspot WiFi routers and SIM cards in town for the crew to use in their phones, however, the programming needed to be done by the store — it was not just a straight SIM swap. Once purchased, the SIM cards worked in other communities of Nunavut as well, such as Resolute and Pond Inlet.
Since we did not have consistent internet, it was very important that we had an Iridium dish installed with a data contract. It’s a slow and expensive connection, but it was important for safety as well as completing the daily ice reports for the Canadian government.
Ice reports and passage plans
Because we were a private vessel and had an ice pilot aboard, it was not necessary for any of the crew to have basic or advanced Polar Code certification. It was necessary, though, to understand how the ice reports work. The ice reports come out at the same time every day and are crucial for planning some sections of the trip. We needed to log on and download the reports daily, then use them to create our passage plan reports, which needed to be sent out an hour and a half before we weighed anchor so that we could get confirmation from NORDREG that we were clear to proceed. Once underway, we were required to send position reports at noon and when we arrived at our next anchorage.
A good portion of the dry and frozen food was purchased in Seattle, then a bit more in Juneau. Once the vessel arrived at Nome, we got a bit more — but just necessities. There are two supermarkets there with a bit of fruit, vegetables, and milk. Our next stop was Cambridge Bay. We were able to coordinate with an agent there a couple of weeks in advance to put an order in for some fresh fruit and vegetables. Overall, provisioning for the trip did need to be organized ahead of time but was easier and more straight forward than expected. Everyone needed to understand that all meals were not going to be as abundant or balanced as usual, but the chefs did an amazing job with what they had and no crew went hungry at any time.
This is one of the larger concerns when planning the Northwest Passage. Once you leave Nome, you will not be able to unload garbage until Greenland. For us, this was a full five weeks. We planned for months in advance on how to reduce our garbage, and an eight-day dry run from southeast Alaska to Nome got the crew into the habit of separating their garbage.
Soda cans were banned from the boat and substituted with drink mixers like Gatorade and flavor drops. All crew and guests were given personalized Yeti cups for hot and cold drinks. Items like paper towels and napkins were substituted with cloth. Dishwasher tabs with less packaging were purchased. Anything on board that could be transferred into reusable containers was. Every cupboard was measured to maximize storage space. Whenever wine was consumed on board, the empty bottle was placed back into the rack where it had been taken from. Similarly, if someone used up something like shampoo, the empty bottle was placed under their sink until the end of the trip.
A recycling program was implemented, and all garbage was divided into paper, plastic, glass/metal, and “other.” Paper, plastic, glass and metal were cleaned and crushed before being placed into the appropriate bins, then compacted and stored in a bilge for the remainder of the trip. The “other” garbage was placed neatly in our garbage fridge.
At the end of the trip, it took three crew members 15 minutes to unload all of the garbage, and not a drop of it leaked. It was one of the cleanest end-of-trip garbage disposals that I have ever done. In fact, due to their efficiency and ease, it was decided that a lot of the measures implemented for the Northwest Passage would be kept in place after the journey.
It is best to get fuel at Dutch Harbor, then top up again in Nome. Both places can be booked a week in advance. Nome has a very difficult dock for crew to get on and off, and is exposed to the south. If a storm comes through, you will have to depart the dock and sit at an exposed anchorage.
The next stop for fuel is Cambridge Bay, which is 1,700 nautical miles from Nome. There are some small communities along the way that might have fuel as well, but we did not stop on this portion of the trip.
Fuel in Cambridge Bay needs to be confirmed a minimum of three months in advance. All of the community’s fuel for the year arrives at the end of August. Once a confirmation has been made that fuel is available, it should be paid for as quickly as possible via a Canadian bank account wire transfer or by check. If paying by check, note that it can take three to four weeks for the check to arrive in the mail. It is important to get the confirmation and payment done as quickly as possible and to confirm that the check has actually arrived.
There should also be a possibility to get fuel in Pond Inlet, but we continued on and went over to Greenland to get our fuel before heading down the coast. Fuel is fairly easy to get in Greenland, but it will need to be organized a month in advance and can be prepaid with a standard wire transfer.
Check out the latest What the Deck with tips for your Arctic adventure here, and how to prepare for a trip to Antartica here.