In June 2014 Roger Wallis and Peter Bradley set sail from Homer Alaska en route to Greenland, in other words a west-east traverse of the notorious Northwest Passage. The yacht was a 52’ steel schooner called “Philos” belonging to Roger, and equipped with a six tonne retractable keel. She was purpose built for polar expeditions. Just before they set sail Roger asked me to join them at their first stop, and without much hesitation I flew to Canada, first to Vancouver, then Edmonton. I then hitched a ride on a cargo plane run up to Inuvik on the Arctic Ocean coast, via several small mining settlements. Here I worked out a rendezvous plan for the boat and the next day boarded a small mail plane in thick fog for a hairy ride over the tundra at low altitude to the tiny, mostly Inuit, settlement of Tuktoyaktuk, accessible only by plane in the summer or ice road down the McKenzie River in the winter.
“Philos” was anchored just off the beach and after getting my gear onboard we set about filling the 1000 lt diesel tank with several 20 lt fuel containers filled at the little general store. While doing this, in the freezing rain, we were approached by two Canadian Rangers eager to check the credentials of this visiting yacht. They had been flown in from Yellowknife after being told of the arrival of “Philos”. It was my first taste of the sensitive nature of the geo-politics in the Arctic (paranoia about the Russians). They told us about a massive Russian vehicle with huge balloons for tyres, that rolled into town last winter after driving across the north pole from Russia – just because they could. “Incursions” such as this, together with regular Russian “fly-overs” have fuelled serious Canadian (and no doubt American) sensitivities. Anyway, the Rangers were happy that we were Australian and bid us a safe journey after having a photo taken with us.
For the purpose of brevity I will fast forward about two weeks, not that it was without interest or incident, but the detail can wait for another writing. After sailing around the clock through the western half of the Passage we dropped anchor in the Inuit village of Cambridge Bay without yet encountering ice, although the fluorescent “blink” of pack ice never seemed too far over the horizon. The scenery so far had been utterly barren and desolate but incredibly beautiful and somewhat surreal, with the occasional DEW line stations and their massive spheres being the only signs that man had ever been there. These Distant Early Warning stations are, for the most part, unmanned surveillance facilities dotted across the top of Canada, built at the height of the cold war. They continue to cast an out-of-context shadow over this most hostile and isolated of environments. They are, no doubt, still fully functional and keeping a close eye on North America’s northern border.
Cambridge Bay itself is home to around 1400 people, about 80% Inuit, the rest mostly made up of FIFO workers building the Canadian High Arctic Research Station. It is built on a large sheltered inlet on Victoria Island, provisioned by barge and regular flights. Even at the height of summer there was not a bush to be seen and the ground was dust and rocks. There are a couple of small supermarkets run by Inuit co-ops and a few small businesses servicing the construction of CHARS. Here in the harbor lies the wreck of the “Maud”, one of Amundsen’s famous ships, and as it happened we arrived at the same time as a salvage team arrived from Norway with a tug and submersible barge to attempt to retrieve “Maud” and take her back to Norway where she will be placed in her own museum. The wreck sits partly exposed and it is easy to see the two foot thick hull built to withstand the crushing ice. We managed to get some great underwater footage of the very intact wreck in the crystal clear frigid waters.
After spending a few days re-provisioning and fuelling (we could only get Jet A fuel, much like kerosene, which works ok in diesel engines but burns hotter and quicker), we set sail once more, heading out into Queen Maud Gulf, an unforgiving area about 350 miles across, scarcely sounded and dotted with sharp pinnacles rising from the sea floor to within a few metres of the surface. Here we also encountered our first ice, thankfully in daylight. After 3 days we reached the opposite side of the gulf and entered the narrow and shallow Simpson Straits separating King William Island from the mainland. This difficult waterway was the key to unlocking the Northwest Passage for Amundsen when he discovered it back in 1906, and we found the charts still hopelessly inadequate for this area. Several tense hours were spent in the constant twilight of night feeling our way through the maze of sandbars and rocks. Once through the straits it was a short hop north along the coast of King William Island to Gjoa Haven, another small community on a sheltered little bay that Amundsen called “the finest little harbour in the world”. He actually stayed here for nearly two years while learning the ways of the Inuit. We were the only boat and we dropped anchor in about the same place as Amundsen.
With the Zodiac we ferried more fuel and supplies aboard while studying the ice charts for the challenging next stage. Unfortunately, while we were here Peter became unwell and after very difficult consideration he selflessly decided to fly home rather than jeopardise the trip. As a gale set in Roger and I contemplated the logistics of continuing with just the two of us and without much other option we decided we could do it. But the gale raged on, right on the nose, for days, and every day brought us closer to the inevitable freeze-over, leaving us with less and less time to complete the remaining 1200 odd miles. Each day we were visited by a big RIB from the Canadian Coast Guard ship anchored outside the harbor, bringing us the latest info on the ice and weather conditions ahead. They were in the area as part of an intense search for the wrecks of Franklin’s ships which disappeared with over 100 men in the mid 1840’s while trying to find the Northwest Passage. As the days passed and the NE gale continued we got the very exciting news from the Coast Guard that they had discovered the wreck of Franklin’s flag ship the “Erebus” just nearby! The Canadian Prime Minister went so far as to describe the find as ‘the greatest archeological discovery since King Tut’s tomb’! The next few days were chaotic as the world’s media flew into little Gjoa Haven to interview the discoverers and the local elders who had been telling westerners where to look for generations! A couple of nights later there was a big celebration in the town, during a blinding blizzard, to thank the locals for their help in the discovery. We were invited and the whole town came. There were several pollies giving tributes plus a few “we told you so” speeches by the Inuit, followed by a huge feast of whale, musk ox and other local delicacies. The locals were probably there for the food rather than the speeches which we couldn’t hear anyway for the raucous behavior of the gorgeous Inuit kids. After eating, the Inuit drum dancing began – an ancient ritual of trance inducing singing, dancing and drumming. We slipped out into the blizzard before the trance took hold.
While we had been waiting over a week for the gale to abate, winter had rapidly shown its face. The dark hours were extending by a half hour each day and the temperature was dropping by degrees each day, snow now covered the ground. It was now mid September and the freeze-over was becoming imminent. Roger and I reluctantly made the difficult decision to back-track to Cambridge Bay where we at least had a chance to haul “Philos” out of the water and winterize her. The gale had been going for 10 days before we got a break and pulled anchor early one morning. We headed back west and managed to get through Simpson Strait before darkness fell over a very eerie but calm Queen Maud Gulf. About 10 pm that night I was woken by a huge crash and grinding sound, immediately realising we had hit ice. I rushed up to the cockpit and Roger was shining his torch on a ‘bergy bit’ bearing some of our paint! We decided it was safer to drift until daylight but within half an hour we were hemmed in on all sides by pack ice with the bright fluorescent ‘ice blink’ all around us. I stood on the bow with a head torch while Roger tried to steer us into clear water but it seemed useless. Eventually, just before dawn, the wind picked up. Initially this was disturbing as the ice was bashing against the hull, but soon it had the effect of dispersing the pack and we started to see leads we could follow. After what seemed like hours we broke out into open water, a huge relief, and there was enough light to see where to go. All that day we sailed through drifting packs of ice in 25 knots of following seas. With only the two of us, the watches were long and bitterly cold. More than once I thought I’d rather be elsewhere.
The next day we arrived safely back in Cam Bay and dropped anchor again. The town looked totally different with a coating of white. We now had the arduous task of getting “Philos” out of the water and prepping her for the coldest temperatures on earth. Winter here regularly gets down to minus 60 and that is harsh on equipment! First though we had to wait until the local construction company could spare a mobile crane to lift us. We waited over a week while sitting at anchor near the makeshift wharf. The temperature was now around minus 3 and we knew the freeze-over was imminent. Then one night lying in my bunk I heard the strange crackling sound outside the hull and knew the ocean was turning solid. The next morning we were sitting 2 inches of ice so we upped anchor and started pushing our way towards the wharf. This took hours but we finally tied up alongside and the next day the ice had thickened by another inch.
Nothing happens quickly in the Arctic, except the onset of winter, and the crane took another few days to position itself on the earth and rock wharf ready to lift us. It had taken them a day to track down the keys to the crane and another day to get it started, but finally the day came to lift our 22 tonne yacht with a 20 tonne mobile crane, out of 4 inches of ice. Tense moments ensured as the steel cables drew tight and the yacht started to move slightly. All of a sudden she popped free of the ice and the crane stayed upright although slightly teetering. They swung the boat around, gouging some paint off the hull on the corner of the wharf, and then sat her down on a steel sled that we had found and modified. There was a perfect boat shaped footprint of unfrozen water next to the wharf. After we stabilized her with offcuts of timber, we then used two huge graders plus a D6 dozer to drag “Philos” down the wharf and over the road to where she would spend the winter.
Rog and I then spent the next couple of weeks winterizing the boat. This entailed making plywood covers for all hatches and windows, building a ‘dog kennel’ over the cockpit, insulating all the electronics and aerials, then removing all liquids from the boat. Several water tanks had to be emptied and the ice chipped out of the bottom of them, most of the food removed, engine pulled down, plumbing purged etc. By the end we were ‘camped’ in the boat with no facilities and exhausted. Temp was now down to around -10 each day and the bay was frozen to around a foot thick. The locals were starting to venture out on the ice and it was like glass! We were taken to where we could clearly see the wreck of a schooner laying on the floor of the bay, through the ice, while a local kite sailor made the most of the glassy conditions on his ice skates. We were told that it had been some 30 years since the water had frozen that smooth.
Once “Philos” was battened down, I was anxious to get home, now away more than a month longer than anticipated. This proved to be difficult because with very little visibility due to ice fog, no flights were able to land for several days. This is when it really sunk home just how isolated we were. Finally the construction boss came to my ‘rescue’ when he invited me to fly south on his chartered plane as he went to a meeting in Yellowknife. Roger stayed another day to finish the work, then managed to get a flight out himself.
“Philos” will sit there facing the frozen sea for over 10 months, nestled behind a massive fuel tank and enduring unimaginable cold. Then we will return to put her back together, refloat her and finish what we started. The journey will take us from Cambridge Bay, back across Queen Maud Gulf and through the difficult Simpson Strait (for the third time), and on to Gjoa Haven for a fuel stop. Then into new territory – north through Franklin Strait, Peel Sound, possibly a short cut through Bellot Strait, then up Prince Regent Inlet to Lancaster Sound, then turn east until Davis Strait which is the finish of the NW Passage. Anyway, that is the plan, but the Arctic always dictates its own terms so lets just wait and see.