We came upon it quickly, after a NOAA plane flew overhead and radioed that ice lay ahead, but there were plenty of navigable leads. Shortly after, someone on board made an innocent-enough observation: "Hey, there's our first ice!" It was a long, low expanse of pack ice, still a few miles away, and if you didn't invest much thought into it, the stuff looked no more threatening than a tempting stretch of white-sand beach.
Two hours later, we were more or less surrounded by it. We missed most of the ice, but not all of it. That was an impossible task. Making contact with ice is an interesting experience. The first time you do it, you're terrified. The second time, less so. The third time, it's like, dude, whatever. The closer we got to Barrow, the more entrapped we seemed to be. Fortuitously, we'd sailed into the high latitudes and the land of the midnight sun, where the perpetual summer daylight made piloting much easier.
Even off the small town of Barrow, however, the ice was nearly on shore, and the loud reports from the rifles of the seal hunters working the nearby floes seemed like a fitting soundtrack to the entire surreal episode. Well after midnight, nearly a dozen hours into our "ice capades," we dropped the hook off the open roadstead by the village's main drag, and everyone took a few deep breaths. The respite was short-lived. Just minutes later, someone shouted from shore, "The ice is coming! Your boat will sink in 10 hours!" That nugget earned our undivided attention, so we hauled the anchor and moved to a safer anchorage off Elson Lagoon, several miles north of town, where our frayed nerves finally found relief.
We'd planned on spending a week or so in Barrow, but that notion proved to be wildly optimistic, as the ice to our immediate east in the Beaufort Sea remained a formidable-and impenetrable-presence through much of July. As it turned out, our forced layover, underscored by a long week of steady 25- to 30-knot easterlies, presented the opportunity to meet some fantastic people, all of whom welcomed us with open arms and shared endless stories and information about life above the Arctic Circle.
From Harry Brower Jr., an Eskimo subsistence-whaling captain whose grandfather was one of the storied Yankee whalers who plied the western Arctic, and his close friend, a wildlife biologist named Craig George, we learned about the bowhead whale, which has played such a prominent role in the history of the region and which now has made a stirring recovery since the mid-1970s, when scientists believed it was on the verge of extinction. Both men drove home the point that climate change in the Arctic-and, more specifically, the loss of the pack ice-has become a real and forceful factor in their everyday work and endeavors over the last 20 years.
In late July, when the receding ice finally allowed us to resume our voyage, that point was underscored when we paid a brief visit to ornithologist George Divoky, the sole human inhabitant on tiny Cooper Island; he's been making an annual pilgrimage there to study black guillemots for 33 consecutive summers. For the first 27 years, Divoky never saw a polar bear on the island; the pack ice was nearby, and there were countless seals for the taking. But in the years since, as the ice has disappeared-along with their primary source of chow-hungry bears have been a constant and unwelcome presence, coming ashore in search of food. He now carries a rifle at all times and has moved into a small storage shed, abandoning the tents he once used as his camp.
"People ask me if I believe in climate change," he said, somewhat facetiously. "And I say, 'No, but I believe in polar bears.' When I see a polar bear, I know that's a polar bear. But I also know I was out here for so long and I didn't see polar bears. So, you know, something's going on."
After our stay at Cooper, and finally heading eastward, we found that our progress came in fits and starts, and Thoreson's early advice invoking "patience" became our mantra. We made our first call in the Canadian Arctic at the old whaling camp on Herschel Island, in the Yukon Territory, then continued onward through Amundsen Gulf, into and out of a narrow, ice-strewn waterway called Dolphin and Union Strait, and on to the small outpost of Cambridge Bay.
From there, it was another 230 nautical miles to Gjoa Haven, so named after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's stout ship, Gjoa (pronounced JO-ah), aboard which he recorded the first-ever trip through the Northwest Passage in an epic voyage from 1903 through 1906. On this section of the voyage, Ocean Watch zigzagged through a narrow, treacherous waterway called Simpson Strait, the most hazardous waters we experienced since leaving Seattle.
Following a brief layover at Gjoa-which Amundsen described as the "finest harbor in the world"-it was time to push ahead into the hazardous, icy seas to the north: Larsen Sound, Franklin Strait, and Peel Sound, the latter of which had been jammed with ice all season. But the ice charts showed that Peel was beginning to open up, and time was of the essence. Remarkably, a massive high-pressure system had parked over these waters, providing an absolutely perfect, almost unbelievable weather window that would've been foolish to squander.
In spirit and execution, this crucial leg was approached like a mountaineer's final sprint, after weeks of staging, from base camp to summit. For the next 72 hours-and through one final, tense run through thick pack ice-we pushed hard, finally making it as far as Bellot Strait, a slim, 22-mile strait that took us past Zenith Point, the northernmost tip of land in continental North America. Bellot is rarely free of ice, but our timing was impeccable-and lucky. We motored into the strait at seven knots, and a couple of hours later, we were fired out the other end on a ripping current making 14.5 knots. The immediate waters ahead of us, in Prince Regent Inlet, were also free of ice. The worst, most hazardous portion of the Northwest Passage, incredibly, was behind us.
We were out.
A couple of days later, in the last weekend of August, we sailed past the glaciers lining the deep channel of Navy Board Inlet, at the north end of Baffin Island, and dropped anchor off Pond Inlet, our last Inuit port of call. Ahead of us lay a 1,800-mile nonstop voyage to St. John's, Newfoundland, dodging icebergs and enduring a whopping three-day gale in the Labrador Sea that whipped up formidable seas and sent the 44-ton Ocean Watch careening down the face of one 25-foot wave at 17.5 knots. Sporty!
In the century since Amundsen first tackled the Northwest Passage, roughly a hundred boats have completed the journey; about 70 percent of them have been icebreakers or ice-reinforced vessels. The first "modern" cruising sailor to make it was a tenacious Dutchman named Willy de Roos, who transited from east to west, like Amundsen, aboard his 42-foot ketch, Williwaw, in 1977. In the years since, many more boats have tried than have succeeded, though a couple of dozen intrepid crews pulled it off. That is, until 2007, the year of the catastrophic ice loss, when all four attempts were successful.
In 2009, again, all 11 vessels that sailed north of the Arctic Circle and into the Northwest Passage completed the voyage, a record number. Trust me, it's still a very difficult sail, and we were thrilled and humbled to be the first American boat that's completed a west-to-east run in a single season; our own David Thoreson became the first U.S. sailor to make it in both directions. One of the more gratifying parts of the adventure was sharing harbors and bonfires with the crews of two other members of the Class of 2009, the Canadian 40-footer Silent Sound and the French centerboarder Baloum-Gwen. Cruising in company through such extreme cruising grounds, at least part of the time, was a highlight of the summer.
Not all of the successful 2009 vessels were steel workboats like Ocean Watch, the sort of craft one associates with high-latitude voyaging. In fact, a German couple made it through aboard a stock Bavaria 44, and an American family notched it on a Bristol Channel Cutter.
Ultimately, although it took longer in 2009, the leads through the pack ice eventually opened up, and when all was said and done, the Arctic suffered its third largest loss of sea ice ever, right behind 2007 and 2008.
What does it all mean? Allow me to channel my inner George Divoky, the bird man of Cooper Island who may have to abandon his lifelong research there due to the new influx of intruding polar bears.
Aboard Ocean Watch, when people ask us about climate change, we put our answer this way: For the most part, we're sailors, not scientists, but we understand that cruising boats are running the exalted Northwest Passage in record numbers. We also know of so many excellent sailors who tried in the past on numerous occasions to make this voyage but were turned back by thick, multi-year ice that now is simply no longer there.
So, as Divoky would say-and we'd agree with him-there's something going on.
Herb McCormick is a CW editor at large.