The Northwest Passage
"The ice was grinding the sides of our concrete boat with such force that it felt like any minute now we could bust open like a can of beans and have to fend for our lives in the grinding, churning ice field all around us. The 250 kg Polar bear and her cub sauntering along the ice flow nearby was a sobering reality that we weren’t entirely alone up here in this frozen wilderness and when our exhausted captain removed the cigarette from his whiskered mouth to croak out the order to bring the survival suits up on deck, we all knew our situation was getting very serious. Why in gods name are we here? This is about the most dangerous situation any of us had been in and we had sailed nearly half-way round the world, battled fierce storms, pushed our old hand-made gypsy boat through seemingly impenetrable ice fields, been trapped in an ice-clogged bay for a month, had encounters with sharks, polar bears and each other, but this was the moment when we actually had to sit back, take a deep breath and mentally map out which chunk of ice we could potentially scramble our way onto before getting crushed by the churning field of icebergs smashing and tossing all around us - preferably one that doesn’t have a hungry polar bear sniffing around on it I guess. I fondled the collection of expired flares I had stashed in the pocket of my grease-stained op-shop jacket and wondered if they would light if I actually had to ward-off a hungry bear. But then, as I went to brush off the snow that had started to settle above my cracked lips, I noticed I was smiling.. grinning like a Cheshire cat actually, I was having the time of my life – this is what it is all about, this is why I came to sail the Northwest Passage".
- A moment for me during a particularly hairy situation in the icy Northwest Passage
The Northwest Passage today poses an immense challenge to modern-day sailors and explorers - it is said for every sailor who has successfully transited the Northwest Passage, 12 climbers have stood at the summit of Mount Everest. It stands as the holy grail of expedition sailing and I feel honoured to be part of a crew that will be attempting this historic sea passage in the footsteps of some of history’s most famous explorers.
When it comes to ocean passages, there are few that are more mysterious, challenging or soaked in history than the fabled Northwest Passage. The bones of many lost seafarers and explorers sit under the ice of this part of the world, most of them lost trying to find the same thing, a sea route through the Arctic, above the North American continent to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The idea of a Northwest Passage appeared in fantastical maps as long ago as the second century AD and was hypothesised by famous geographers such as Ptolemy, though it wasn’t until the fifteenth century when Europeans, desperate to find alternative sea routes to the Far East went in search of it in their boats. What followed in the coming centuries was one expedition after another making attempts to cross this unknown section of the world map, most of which failed and many of which saw a great loss of life in this hostile environment.
Probably the most famous expedition of all to attempt the Northwest Passage was that led by Sir John Franklin in 1845 onboard two state-of-the-art British naval ships H.M.S Erebus and H.M.S Terror.
After failing to return or send news of their fate, numerous rescue missions set out to find out what happened to this famous expedition and eventually, through stories from Inuit locals and coming across remnants of the expedition, it was discovered that both ships had been bound by ice for multiple winters, forcing many of the survivors to take on a brutal march south, in the end giving in to exhaustion, starvation and exposure.
Those who discovered the remains of one of the camps of survivors believed that some had resorted to cannibalism at the very end. The outcome was that all 129 men of the expedition had perished in one way or another and both ships were lost.
It wasn’t until 2014 when the mystery of the Erebus was solved when, after acting on a series of stories passed down by the Inuit locals of the area (having been recorded by local historian Louie Kamookak), rangers from Parks Canada onboard an icebreaker discovered the wreck of the Erebus in shallow water west of Adelaide Peninsula in Nunavut, Canada.
A couple years later in 2016, the 168 year old mystery of the H.M.S Terror was solved when acting on a story from an Inuit hunter Sammy Kogvik who remembers a strange wooden pole he found a number of years ago sticking out of the ice while on a fishing trip. Following Sammy’s lead, the wreck of the Terror was discovered in what is now called Terror Bay on King William Island just north of where the Erebus was discovered.
We were lucky to meet Sammy Kogvik onboard our own expedition ship and I remember Sammy telling us about how he found a large wooden pole sicking up out of the ice while retrieving and setting fishing nets, how he took a photo hugging it and how he then lost his camera and for years kept his story quiet about how he discovered the mast of the H.M.S Terror!
It wasn’t until 1906 when the first expedition successfully navigated the Northwest Passage and it was done so by no other than the famous Norwegian Polar Explorer Roald Amundsen onboard his 41 tonne sloop, the Gjøa and a crew of six friends. Amundsen took this passage slow, over the course of three years spending as much time as possible learning from local Inuit how to survive and thrive in this hostile environment. Skills he no-doubt took with him on his future expeditions which also saw him as the first person in history to reach the South Pole. Where other explorers struggled and died of starvation and exposure, Amundsen thrived, famously having actually put on weight during his expedition to the South Pole partly thanks to techniques he learned from Inuit in the Northwest Passage.