Let's put it this way: It was one discouraging e-mail. Outside the hotel-room window in Nome, Alaska, the storm-tossed Bering Sea was a portrait of frothy gray; inside, the scene wasn't much sunnier. Thanks to the powerful northerly winds churning the relatively shallow waters, the ongoing voyage of the 64-foot cutter Ocean Watch-and its bid to sail "around the Americas" via the Northwest Passage (see "North to Northwest," September 2009)-had temporarily come to a grinding halt. With the boat safely docked in the nearby protected harbor, my fellow OW crewmate, David Thoreson, and I had repaired to a downtown inn-and its halfway decent WiFi connection-to catch up on e-mail and download the latest ice charts.
On a couple of notable counts, it turned into a miserable exercise.
In 2007, Thoreson and the crew aboard Roger Swanson's Cloud Nine had negotiated the Northwest Passage from east to west in shocking, unheard-of fashion: That summer, the Arctic had experienced a catastrophic, record-setting loss of sea ice, and the fiberglass 57-footer transited the famous northern waterway totally unscathed, never touching a single patch of ice. And Cloud Nine had company, as three other yachts also made it through successfully. The 2008 season brought more of the same, as another seven small boats bagged the once impassable Northwest Passage in nearly ice-free waters.
But there are no givens at any time above the Arctic Circle, and from the very outset of our travels north, which had begun in Seattle, Washington, in late May, it was clear that, in terms of cold and ice, 2009 was going to be a far different, more challenging year than the previous two. The preceding winter and spring had both been significantly colder, and the new sea ice had combined with old floes that had broken free from the ice cap in 2007 and 2008 to form serious choke points at several significant junctures along the Northwest Passage.
"Patience," said Thoreson, again and again. "We'll need to be patient. We won't decide when we can move. The ice will."
All that was readily apparent by studying the excellent ice charts published regularly by the Canadian Ice Service. It was the first week in July, and clearly we had a long summer ahead of us. But it was an e-mail note Thoreson received that day from a self-professed ice scholar that left me anxious and slightly ill for weeks to come. (I received another strange, discouraging one from a Famous Voyaging Couple not long after that basically echoed the sentiment, concluding with a dismissive "Tisk, tisk.")
"Too bad about all the ice up there this year," was the gist of the message, which I'm paraphrasing here. "Looks like you guys are hosed. What's Plan B?"
Plan B? The whole premise of our goal to sail around the Americas hinged on a successful transit of the historic Northwest Passage (which by strict definition is a voyage over the top of North America, from the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Circle). If we didn't make it through, the sole alternative was to find the safest harbor possible and spend a long winter encased in ice.
That was Plan B, and frankly, it was mortifying. So we set out on the only premise available: We'd keep going, ultimately bound for Newfoundland and points south, until we couldn't go any farther. Unnervingly, our progress would come to a literal standstill much sooner than expected.
After a relatively straightforward trip through the notorious Bering Strait, we were just a few miles shy of the Arctic Circle, which lies at 66 degrees 30 minutes north, when skipper Mark Schrader and first mate Dave Logan set a course for the tiny Alaskan community of Shishmaref, on the very exposed northwest coast of the Seward Peninsula. Our travels aboard Ocean Watch are meant to be a "voyage of discovery," and we were all very curious about Shishmaref. A week earlier, a BBC reporter had visited the place and described it thus: "It is thought to be the most extreme example of global warming on the planet."
A double-barrel combination of rising seas and melting tundra is causing the tenuous barrier island on which the town of Shishmaref was built, over 400 years ago, to literally vanish. Over the last three decades, temperatures have risen in the Arctic, and the permafrost is thawing. Combined with the northerly winter gales, particularly at times of high tidal surge, the northern shore of Shishmaref is crumbling and being claimed by the sea. Some locals estimate that three to five feet of erosion occur each year, though others guess the figure is close to 10 feet.
Either way, it's semantics. Shishmaref is disappearing. We wanted to see it for ourselves, and we did get close enough to view numerous homes and buildings sliding into the sea. But the approach to the low-lying isle is poorly marked, the waters surrounding it are thin, and Ocean Watch draws nearly nine feet. Which is why, on a dark night, in a rising breeze, on a lee shore, we went aground.
Luckily, before too long we managed to bounce our steel hull into deeper waters and continue north. But the next heart-stopping experience would prove even more harrowing and also provide a glimpse of coming attractions-and obstacles-for the eventful weeks ahead. For at 70 degrees north, roughly 80 miles south of Barrow, Alaska-the northernmost U.S. town-we sailed, for the very first time, into the ice.
Though we'd eventually learn to negotiate the northern pack ice with a modicum of grace and efficiency and to identify and follow leads through the ice mazes while skirting the impassable blockades and logjams, in this inaugural encounter, our collective familiarity with ice-strewn waters was minimal. Our secret weapon was Thoreson, now on his third trip to the Northwest Passage, who spent hours in the spreaders scouring the horizon for safe routes.
Still, this initial "taste" of Arctic ice left us anxious and unsettled.