Midday and we pass Tasmania Island in Franklin Strait. it’s open water all around. Our three boats run at about 5 knots on flat water.
Franklin Strait: the tricky part.
Staying together, we adjust our speed to the slowest sailboat: “Opale”. A few hours later, it’s coffee time! George loves those impromptu breaks in the middle of Nowhere in an Unnamed Harbor.
Let me confess that I enjoy them too. We drift together, savoring a good coffee in an unmatched surrounding. We relax, exchange impressions and opinions weighting ours options in front of the Passage, the trickiest parts coming soon. We spend a surreal three hours rafting together in this Arctic “rest area”! Time for some “family pictures” before returning to our individual floating homes. We wish each other good luck.
Still communicating together, each captain makes his own personal decision. We start seeing some ice on our starboard-side. The field seems pretty thick. We can sail in anything up to 4/ 10th ice, or 40 percent of the sea area.
Driving through 6/ 10th ice is difficult to impossible. Entering areas of 7/ 10th and we would end up like poor Franklin’s ships !
Challenging heavy ice.
My feeling is that now we are confronted to a 7 or 8/10 field. A dangerous place with not much opening in it. “Altego” takes the lead,
Opale and Breskell follow.
I climb to my crow’s nest. Andre from “Altago” is also up to his higher spreader. We sail, parallel to the ice- field, in this formation for the next 3 or 4 hours. The channel, slowly filling with ice, we are now getting closer and closer to land. Like all experimented mariner, George hates going too close to shore? At one point, he enters the floe. From the sea bird perspective of my crow’s nest, I don’t understand his move. Not in the leading position and George being closer to the ice, I let him go. Maybe we miss an important information?
We made a deal: support each other. I don’t even call him. I follow. Still, I don’t feel comfortable . For me, he is making a wrong turn. Farther down and deeper in the field, Georges stops. What’s going on we asked with “Opale”?
Close to shore: an alternative strategy.
Ice is too thick. We cannot keep going Olivier. We are stuck!
I climb down from my crow’s nest. I have in mind a working alternative. On deck, I expose it:
« George, we have to return close to shore, very close to land».
At this point, George swings his arm like a discouraged sailor. I understand right away.
So now, the most vulnerable and fragile boat, my cold molded hand-made “Breskell”, thanks to her “crow nest” up the mast and her inspiring horse/dragoon on the bow, is leading the way in front of two seasoned and much more heavily build sailboats. A sweet revenge for me against all those pretending that the crazy French sailor with his hardened wooden boat was going to fail…
First, we back up slowly to disentangle our boats from the packed ice. We motor-sail toward the shore. 30′,25′, 20′ feet under the keel and finally the channel opens. The ice-field doesn’t go all the way to the land. A narrow passage subsides between shore and ice-field. Narrow, but enough to allow our boats to squeeze in .
No more than 15′ on the depth sounder. We still have enough water to navigate and I have my personal way to appreciate the depth. My swing keel is left hanging below. If I get stuck into the numerous uncharted shoals, it’s just a matter of lifting up the center-board to unstuck “Breskell”. We open the way.
Slowly, at about 5 knots, we keep running among growlers and floes of different sizes.
Good news: open water at last.
We receive a call from the Canadian Coast Guard. They check out the boats transiting the Passage. They ask about our destination, actual position and the name of each boat.
Then follows a good, a wonderful new. We should encounter open waters soon! And they conclude by wishing us all a safe trip.
They were right. Less than an hour later, we were done with this huge ice- field. We now sail on open waters, crossing Queen Maude Gulf. This year, on the first of September, this sound is totally free of ice. An unheard event. A welcome opportunity for us northern passage-makers. Not a good omen for you, inhabitants of planet earth. Cambridge Bay is our next camp 3. An easy ride on open water from now, even if it’s along a maze of islands. Early explorer like Amundsen were very apprehensive about sailing in Queen Maud. Franklin lost his life, his crew and his two boats there.
“We would rather sacrifice a few hours than jeopardize our vessel in these very hazardous waters, with a ragged stone bottom and shallow water under the keel, an unsafe compass, and a small crew,” he wrote about sailing his ship there.
Government-issued sailing instructions confirm that the area is “encumbered by islands, reefs and shoals; the channels through these…. are among the most difficult to navigate in the western Arctic.” The guide warns that “the track through this area is tortuous and abounds in dangerous shoals. The eastern portion of Queen Maud Gulf is a nightmare of low-lying islands which are hard to see and are so low that many don’t appear on radar. As an extra challenge, they are interspersed with poorly charted reefs and rocks”.
Brittany is also full of rocks. For my boat, for me, the real challenge is ice. “Breskell” got bitten twice by those moving rocks. She left a good chunk of skin in each bite. The shoals or capes, I spend a long time learning to slalom around them. They don’t rush against you in the dark or the fog.
Each boat returns to its own journey.
A short exchange on the VHF. We all agree to return to our individual freedom. Sailing in formation “the navy way” doesn’t ’t belong to the training of pelagic sailors. We will meet again in our next camp, the northern city of Cambridge Bay. A wise decision. Soon, a heavy fog falls down. We lose sight of each other almost immediately.
Under sails and light wind, we set up our small electronic autopilot. It works better and better. At 69 North and 47 West, disturbances coming from the proximity of the magnetic pole are much attenuated. Its internal compass doesn’t lose his calibrated mind as quickly as up north. Slow to react but not completely lost and turning in circle.
As expected in an area of variable winds, it dies and our “iron sail” takes charge. Finally, around 1:00 pm, with a light breeze, we rise sail again. It’s getting warm, sunny and comfortable in the cockpit. Another almost perfect Caribbean sailing day. Pretty weird and not an Arctic conventional weather. We enjoy it and don’t complain.
We switch between wind and calm. The cable operating the wheel gets slack. I take advantage of a period of calm to tighten its wires again. It’s
Saturday morning, time to call Chris from KPTZ in Port Townsend. We have a weekly satellite phone meeting today. Chris records our conversation and will broadcast it Tuesday on “Morning on Salish” a popular radio show in my home town.
Landing in Cambridge Bay (Ikaluktutiak)
Waypoints from waypoints, we approach the bay protecting, deep inside, the city of Cambridge Bay. One of the most important settlement in Nunavut. Huge tanks line the shore with big infrastructures rising around.
Cambridge Bay looks way different from any northern outposts we visited so far.
It’s an animated urban area.
A cruise ship lays at anchor and a Canadian Coast Guard vessel stands not far away. Two solitary sailboats, “Morgan” and “Inook” are tied to a dock.
Both plan to leave tomorrow after a stay of a few days. A strong gale being predicted soon, they would like to be as far away as possible at that time.
Few hours later, “Altego” shows up. Waking up next morning, Opale is also docked next to us.
On the trail, we have already shared precious sailing memories and are pleased to be united again. Guess what?
A party tonight before provisioning the boat for the next leg
We plan a party for tonight. Sail hard when we need it and then party even harder when occasion arise. Who knows when we will meet together again? On the other side of this Passage, the whole Pacific opens in front of our bow. From Japan to Antarctica with the warm South Seas in between, our playground is infinite. When you belong to the exclusive club of the North West Passage makers, you have no sailing inhibitions. Tonight, I screen for them Joyce beautiful movie “Breskell” on board “Altego”. We spend a great time together.
Our constant worries about the moving ice-field, the damn vicious growlers and the treacherous floes are all behind us! Time to relax…
Next day, we prepare already our next departure to camp 4 in Nome Alaska, a long ride away. Coming from the Est, only when you pass the Bering Strait is your passage officially recorded. We arrange for diesel and water delivery. Diesel comes up first reasonably priced. Water now.
“Oh my god, here, it’s more expansive than gold…”
We end up with a $250 bill! I just can’t believe it. George resumes it soberly:
“We need water, they have an exclusivity. They took advantage of it”.
A normal business practice and water is expensive to produce in summer using a complex desalination process. So no pay, no water, no choice. Easy!
The predicted gale is expected soon and I agree with George: we should leave tonight to be out of the bay before the storm strikes. Unfortunately, we are not ready. “Altego” leaves. We stay. We have been so busy that I did not have time to buy motor oil.
Visit in town with a new friend before a needed oil change.
My change is overdue. I want to take good care of my old faithful Perkins. Most rooted and sedentary landlubbers believe they are in hostile territory as soon as they leave their small gated neighborhood. Just the opposite ! When they are not overwhelmed by a constant tourist flow, peoples try their best to help the foreign visitor. Take Otto from Nova Scotia. During an impromptu meeting, we explain our diesel oil problems. He promises oil for tomorrow.
Next day, at 7:30 amOtto shows up. I jump in his car and together we drive to his shop. From a big 55 gallons drum, Otto pours out some oil.
Hold on I tell him, I forgot my credit card!
“We will solve the problem later, don’t worry and come with me. I will give you a tour of the city. As contractor, Otto leads a team of skilled electricians, plumbers, carpenters. Two of his carpenters originate from Quebec. They are surprised and pleased to meet another French speaker. They explain why and how they ended-up in this far-out settlement. Like Otto, they work 6 weeks in a row, 10 hours a day, six or even seven days a week. The money is good. At the end of their contract, they fly home for two weeks. And Otto shares with me a secret love affair… He shows me some pictures of his passion. Real beauties ! Red cedar canoes glued with EPOXY! Wood and epoxy. A shared love finally.
Back to the boat, we unload the oil. I run for my credit card. Otto doesn’t want any of that. Thanks again Otto. This is an awesome gift this far north. I really appreciated it and the precious time we spent together. I change my oil. Otto is back to work and “Opale” had left 2 hours ago. Time for us to leave Cambridge Bay.
Sovereignty on Arctic Waters.
Our Passage in these northern waters “almost” free of ice because of the climate changes due to human activities, opens a delicate question. The high endurance, multi-task vessel of the Canadian Coast Guard at anchor in Cambridge Bay underlines it.
Which country exercises sovereignty over these waters?
Canada claims historical rights and total control over “its inside water”. The summer of 2009 marked the centennial of the first time Canada proclaimed ownership of its Arctic territory. Canada’s claim was made by Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, a Quebec sailor. On July 1, 1909 Bernier erected a tablet in Winter Harbor on Melville Island, officially claiming the Arctic Archipelago for Canada. This country also have thousands of years of “Canadian Inuits” occupation of the territory to prove it.
The Russians, with the help of a submarine and along an underwater ridge, stuck a flag on the seafloor to assert also sovereignty. They have a long practice of Arctic waters and own the best icebreakers…
Americans are not far away. They consider the North West Passage as international waters. They claim the right to free transit inside. They possess also the biggest aircraft carriers….
Danemark, Greenland and, believe it or not, even Chinese, for some reasons or others, mostly greed, want a piece of the new cake.
I am just a sailor, not a politician.
I am just a sailor, not a politician. I met Inuits who roamed and lived out of this land for thousands of year. A new generation of Inuit leaders, like the young deputy Mumilaaq Qaqqaq of Nunavut, enters today Ottawa’s parliament.
Harboring traditional Inuit tattoos, Mumilaaq claims that, as Amundsen wrote, not only were they the first discoverers of this famed North West Passage, but “more enduring than stone” they resisted also the government and the church attacks against her people and her culture. The price to pay was high. The misery resulting from this cultural slaughter was evident on the back side of Cambridge Bay during my short visit there with Otto . Alcohol, drugs, family violence and even worst, the high rate of young’s suicides testify of this sad past: 10 times the rate of the rest of Canada. The highest in the world! Sad, really sad.
On June 11, 2008, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the role of past governments in administration of the residential schools. In 2015, in their final conclusion , the “truth and reconciliation report “ asserted that the combined action of church and government was the equivalent to a “cultural genocide”! A strong but well-deserved statement.
Invited as a privileged guest in their magnificent land and discovering the resurgence of a vibrant traditional culture, I hope that, facing the inevitable transformations, good and bad, coming out of the climate changes in the near future, the voice of the first inhabitants of this outstanding country will also be part of the necessary dialog about sovereignty.
The Inuits don’t possess the military power given by the best icebreakers or the biggest aircraft carriers but “more enduring than stone”, they were the first inhabitants of this awesome territory.