Ice: Cubed

Ice, we'd discovered, is cold, hard, dangerous-and exhausting. "Herb's Watch" for our August 6, 2009 _CW_Reckonings

Herbs Ice 368

Skipper Mark Schrader guides Ocean Watch through the ice.Herb Mccormick

Ice. Pack ice. Near-shore ice. Ice ridges. Fast ice. Icy Strait. Icy Cape. Icebergs. Bergy bits. Ice floes. Young ice. Old ice. Multi-year ice. Icecap. Do you want ice with that? Ice. Ice. Ice.

All we're thinking about is ice.

The voyage of Ocean Watch and our attempt to sail "around the Americas" has come to a screeching, and we hope temporary, halt this week as we wait for-you guessed it-updated ice reports and a decided change in the weather. In our bumpy anchorage in an open roadstead off the Arctic village of Barrow (at the elevated latitude of 71 degrees 17 minutes north latitude), it's been blowing hard from the east now for four straight days (we're talking sustained winds of 25 to 30 knots). Brisk easterlies are forecast for at least the next three days. We're bound for the Northwest Passage and an attempt to traverse it from west to east. But we won't go anywhere until this breeze lays down a bit.

A fairly good sea is running, and even though our 44-ton steel cutter is handling it all pretty well, the motion aboard is, um, interesting. The simple act of launching the dinghy, hitting the beach, and scrambling ashore is a cold, bracing adventure (water temperatures are just above freezing), so no one's in very much of a hurry to hit town. It gives us plenty of time to sit around and think about . . . ice.

We had our first taste of navigating through it on the last 24-hours of our trip into Barrow. We'd been monitoring the excellent ice reports and charts from the Canadian Ice Service and had seen a promising lead from our previous anchorage in Ledyard Bay. But once we were actually in the ice, surrounded by ice, all but consumed by ice, the reality of the situation proved far more intense than the concept. Skipper Mark Schrader and I swapped turns on the bow trying to puzzle out the leads; our photographer and ice veteran, David Thoreson, was hoisted up to the first spreaders to get a gauge on the big picture; first mate Dave Logan manned the helm for hours on end, picking his way through the endless riddle of the ice.

We bumped our way into Barrow after an all-night vigil, and it took another good day to recover from the tension and the effort. Ice, we'd discovered, is cold, hard, dangerous-and exhausting.

Thoreson has been up this way before. His first attempt at transiting the Northwest Passage, in 1994, was halted by ice. His next effort, a successful trip through the Passage in 2007, was completely ice-free. Several cruising sailboats made it through in that year and in 2008. But every year in the Arctic is different. And everyone seems to agree that there's more ice up here this year than in the previous two.

In 2007 and 2008, ice leads in Cambridge Bay, a good thousand miles east of Barrow, opened on precisely the same date: August 15. This year, the prediction calls for a later opening. What will ultimately happen is anyone's guess. Once the wind eases-if the wind eases-we'll head east and give it our best shot.

Our success or failure will depend largely on one factor, and one factor only.
Ice.