An Arctic Cruise in Company

Buddy boats abound in Barrow, Alaska: The Around the Americas sailors on Ocean Watch find them heading in both directions in their attempts on the Northwest Passage. "Herb's Watch" for our August 20, 2009, CW Reckonings

/Ocean Watch/ has plenty of company on her Northwest Passage voyage, including the Belgium-registered Baloum-Gwen, a steel 49-footer skippered by French sailor Thierry Fabing (third from left).//

_Ocean Watch__ has plenty of company on her Northwest Passage voyage, including the Belgium-registered Baloum-Gwen, a steel 49-footer skippered by French sailor Thierry Fabing (third from left).Herb Mccormick

Before we left Barrow, Alaska, in the last week of July to head east into the Northwest Passage on our ongoing attempt to sail around the Americas (www.aroundtheamericas.org), we shared the rather tenuous anchorage off the beach in front of town with a pair of sailboats: Silent Sound, a Moore 40 skippered by Canadian Cameron Dueck, and a 49-foot steel yacht, Baloum-Gwen, owned by French sailor Thierry Fabing. Our own steel cutter, the 64-foot Ocean Watch, rounded out the trio of boats swinging on their hooks. The locals in town said it had been a very long time since they'd seen such a sight. In our own experience, we haven't laid eyes on another sailboat since leaving the Alaskan capital of Juneau at the beginning of June.

For that reason, we can state with a fairly high degree of certainty that our little threesome, currently sharing yet another harbor in the Canadian town of Tuktoyaktuk, in the rugged Northwest Territories province, are the only boats attempting a west-to-east transit of the passage this summer. We're also aware of at least five vessels-four sailboats and a Nordhavn trawler-that are currently somewhere in the vicinity of Baffin Island and harbor hopes of making a successful east-to-west run through the passage. Together, we're more or less sharing a high-latitude cruise in company in the challenging waters above the Arctic Circle.

The crew of every boat has an interesting story to tell, and those aboard Silent Sound (www.openpassageexpedition.com) and the Belgium-registered Baloum-Gwen (www.baloumgwen.fr) are not exceptions.

The English translation of Baloum-Gwen, says Thierry, a former salvage-tug captain, is "white whale," the name of the boat when he purchased it in Brittany four years ago. In many ways, it seems like the ideal Arctic vessel: solidly built for the icy waters, with a centerboard for the shallows that one encounters up here with surprising regularity. Ocean Watch draws nearly nine feet, which is right on the very edge of practicality at 70 degrees north latitude, and at times we've definitely been jealous of Baloum-Gwen's range-she draws a mere three feet with the board up-and versatility.

Thierry is in the midst of his second Northwest Passage voyage in as many seasons. In 2008, he successfully negotiated the passage, then sailed on to the Alaskan harbor of Sand Point in the Aleutian Islands. This year, once through, he plans on again laying the boat up for the winter before sailing across the Atlantic to home.

Silent Sound's Cameron Dueck grew up in a Mennonite family on a farm in Manitoba, an experience he recounts with fondness and humor. Today, he's a journalist based in Asia, and he's taken a sabbatical to write about the environment and climate change. He bought Silent Sound in Victoria, British Columbia, for the express purpose of undertaking his current voyage, and he plans to put her up for sale in Nova Scotia once it's completed. Aboard Ocean Watch, we've enjoyed getting to know both Thierry and Cameron and their crews.

It's always good meeting fellow sailors along the way, especially here in the Arctic, where we're few and far between.