After our speedy escape from Graham Harbor, we sail toward Peel sound.
The first explorers of the North West Passage: a deadly challenge.
The first explorers of the North West Passage, without any reliable navigational maps or weather forecasts, left ships, bones and graves in their wake. One of the most notorious failure is the third Franklin expedition in 1845-46. All of its 145 members lost their life.
The two ships in this expedition, the “Erebus” and “Terror” gave their name on a bay north of our last Graham Harbor anchorage. Erebus & Terror Bay is located on Beechey Island at 74o 43’N / 91o5.5’W. Most of the time, this bay is filled with ice and not accessible. Silent testimony of this tragedy, three graves are located at the far west end of this isolated bay.
Victor our Arctic shepherd…
Today, our Arctic maps, not as accurate as maps used south, are still adequate. And we have Victor, a local legend among the sailors attempting the North West Passage. Our Arctic shepherd guides and advises every sailor going through the Passage. His guidance is appreciated by all, a useful tool for making our final navigational decisions. This decision engages the safety of our crew and of our boat. Today, he wrote us this precious suggestion:
« After your dramatic departure from Graham, I can see rather uneventful sail toward Peel. That means those Easterlies winds have done a proper job much better than I expected. Now, as you are entering Peel a new type of challenges are coming. Confused winds changing a few times a day added to lot of ice movements difficult to predict. All together not that many sailors ever made those waters historically, hence not many records written. 2010 has a history of the biggest battle there, mainly with very dense belts and strips of ice all of a sudden moving away. And next part of it arriving a bit further south with more. There was a boat with more than 100 HP motor which had serious problems to push the ice. At least Regent always offers at times regular heavy ice and consistent and much shorter route through Bellot to Franklin. Now Regent is out of any view. All that, I am writing as we didn’t reach magic date of 25 August when things may change dramatically. Those late comers may use it to their advantage.
So, let fight Peel Sound together and I will try my best to inform you for your success. Reading any official Sailing Directions for us, small craft sailing boats is missing a great part (of the needed information). Those books are written for delivery ships of at least 2000 tons displacement. Canadian books are written in English & French while another major, Admiralty is now a copy of Canadian in one volume. National Geospatial Association of US which is free is separate and written by US. It lack many things. That’s why I have written my own Periplus that still lacks many new pointers.
Hope things go smooth.
Entering Peel Sound to camp two in “No Name Harbor” in the middle of “Nowhere ”.
We recognize in this previous advice the work of a serious router. Many thanks again Victor, for this precious information. As captain, I know that the ultimate responsibility in the final choice is mine. Please, don’t blame Victor for your bad decisions!
For now, I want to avoid icy Bellot strait and his 8 knots of unpredictable currents. Peel was always a big risk. In fact, all of this Passage is risky. Going there is a challenge, living in the Arctic is a challenge . The reward of Arctic life and landscapes are just matching these challenges. Don’t sail there if you cannot live with that reality.
Peel Sound is open right now. For me, it’s a go! Our start is pretty smooth.
Under gib, we run 7 knots and more. We should have a “quiet” night under sail. We organize our watches. One keeps a very sharp look-out for any growlers floating around. The other takes care of the wheel. Now, it’s night at 3:00 amand a very dense fog surrounds “Breskell. So far so good, no ice but a sharp drop in air temperature.
With a 15 knots following wind, we sail under full gib with moderate seas. We start encountering more drifting ice. During the early morning, I change my strategy. Joshua and Leila lack ice experiences. I don’t want to leave them alone on deck. In my new two hours shift, it’s Eric and Leila on watch, then my turn with Joshua. It’s works well!
In the late morning of the 13th of August, we set up the wind vane, keeping our two peoples watches. Here and there, growlers move past. We even encounter a few icebergs, nothing really bad or dangerous. Victor was suggesting not to hurry. Why not stop in Aston Bay?
We can rest and spend the quiet night dreamed in our previous anchorage. We had left in a hurry Graham Harbor and now a real opportunity presents itself. The best of two worlds: We enjoy a great sailing day and tomorrow morning we should swing at anchor for some well-deserved rest in a well protected bay.
We all are elated by this prospect.
Forget our rest stop in Aston Bay.
In the evening, Eric downloads the new ice chart. Surprise, the ice moves quickly out of the way and Peel Sound opens partially. I decide to take advantage of this unexpected clearing. What about our anchorage in Aston Bay? Another evanescent dream lost in our Arctic memories.
Going through the North West Passage is our main goal. Later, we will rest. Let’s keep going.
In the meantime, Victor emailed us. Seeing our progress and the ice chart , he agrees with our decision. That comfort us in our previous choice. For “Breskell” crew, it’s now or never. What could be our unique opportunity is not going to escape us.
At the end of the day, the wind died and my old Perkins starts its monotonous rumble. Our choice is a no brainer! We need to keep moving. Wind equals sail, no wind means motor. In each case, we progress. During the night, with the return of the wind, the gib rolls out. We run a nice and smooth 7 knots on a flat sea. Unfortunately , this night wind don’t last.. We alternate between sail and motor. If the wind is always free and renewable, my Perkins is old-fashioned. It drinks fossil fuel like an old addict. In the morning, we switch tank and fill up our empty port tank with one of the fuel bladder stored on deck.
The monotony of our morning motoring is finally interrupted when a polar bear appears, walking along the shore. Our first sight this year. Unfortunately, it was too far away to fully appreciate this Arctic beauty. We still immortalize him with all our camera power. Sadly, our pictures will not impress the “National Geography” magazine !
Entering the ice-field…
We pass Hummock Point in the morning and Prescott island materializes across Peel Sound. Bellot Strait lays 66 miles south of “Breskell”. Our previous risky option of selecting Peel Sound offers now an obvious advantage: we will by-pass Bellot.
A relief for me. With his 8 knots of unpredictable currents and its erratic growlers movements, Bellot Strait can be a lethal combination for a wooden boat like “Breskell”. We can get immobilized, squeezed and reduced to matches by the unpredictable movements of ice in this pass. We have already experienced what it means to hit a growler at this speed. Two big plasters on “Breskell” bow testify today about this frightening encounter of yesterday. I am not ready to take another chance. At midday, a dam of drifting ice appears in front of us. “Breskell” needs to “walk the ice” or to squeeze slowly around it. “Morgan”, a sailboat 120 miles ahead of us, went through this challenge unscathed. Not the same happy ending for “Altego”, our neighbor in Graham harbor. They are dead stuck into the ice- field.
Trapped for good, they have no way to move out for now. They e-mail us this sad new. For us, navigation becomes highly stressful. I cannot get stuck in the same condition .
A cold molded wooden boat is like a fragile bird: good at sailing or flying, not at engaging ice or trees. My decision is clear: keep going and adapt quickly to avoid at all costs any entrapment in this minefield.
We enter now the real challenging segment of our “climbing”. In this tricky part, small mistakes could prove deadly. In front of the first ice we keep going. Turn right , turn left, push some big pieces away. “Breskell” is doing pretty well. Together, we “walk the ice” at one knot an hour. We have honeyed this skill during the past two years.
I climb up the mast to my “crow nest”. It allows me to detect open waters much better. Up there with the birds, Eric at the wheel, both with our VHF, we start the most delicate part of this fascinating journey. Exhilaration and awe in the middle of this mythical passage joining two different oceans is showing on our face. Emerging slowly from the fog covering Peel Sound, our dream is becoming reality.
When the ice’s cover looks too dense, we negotiate it closer to shore. Here, we encounter fewer obstacles. Our progression is easier. Near shore, the air temperature seems also higher, even if it’s not « Caribbean » weather anymore! The ice cover is around 2 to 3 /10 with some more dense patches. Definitely better than the 6/10 of the previous year! We progress. After all those years of careful preparations, I know that my well-deserved 10% luck is at my fingertips. The gate of the North West Passage opened for “Breskell” in 2019.
Camp 2 : “No name” in the middle of “Nowhere” drifting with the tides…
“Breskell” is not galloping anymore but ambling slowly and steadily. The dense fog makes the surrounding phantasmagorical. I enjoy so much this northern world where time seems to hold on. We stop the engine to listen to the Arctic sounds.
Not a single human made noise. No train, no plane, no car, no phone, just an unreal silence interrupted by some ice breaking, some growlers scrapping gently the hull and water flapping around the surrounding ice. We are alone in the middle of nowhere.
Still in my crow’s nest, my hand-held VHF cracks. Someone, somewhere calls: “Breskell, Breskell”.
My quick reply :
“Vessel calling, this is Breskell over” .
“Altego, “Breskell”. We can see you!” I turn around and
Altego, in a very thick ice cover, disentangles herself slowly from the pack and starts moving.
They motor toward “Breskell”. We are so happy to meet them again after their dangerous sojourn locked for good in the ice.
And “Altego” captain, Georges, was so relieved to return to some ice-free water that he offers us coffee.
So here we are, a few happy sailors on our way to the summit of our own Himalayas sharing together a good cup of coffee.
Georges brews it with an electric coffee machine run by his deck generator. We enjoy a warm cup during this improved bivouac in an unknown place in the middle of an improbable Sound in a “No Name Harbor”.
We decide to navigate together for the next part of the final climbing. If anything goes wrong, we can help each other’s. Very shortly after our coffee break, we hear “Opale”. Another team we met previously. This time also, she is shrouded in heavy fog and now surrounded by heavy ice.
They ask for advice. “Easy! Join us close to shore if you can”.
Half an hour later, they join our convoy. I have a big advantage on them all. My “crow nest”! It’s hard to detect open waters with your radar when you are surrounded by floes. At sea level, they all look like clutters on a radar screen. I am much more efficient with my bird’s view of the surrounding landscape.
George suggests that “Breskell” takes the lead.
So now, the most vulnerable and fragile boat of all, 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…
Good news for “Breskell” crew pondered by some sad scientific news for all of us.
We know, you know that Arctic where temperature increase is 3 times faster than anywhere on the planet is melting quickly. Our Peel Sound journey adds another testimony of that. Arctic is also starting to emit much more carbon dioxide.
Twice has much as expected: 1.7 billion tons in the last season.
One of the scientists of an important study published in “Nature Climate Change” Dr M. Egan said : “Emission in winter is more important that plant absorption during the summer”. A big surprise. Plant absorption during the summer was expected to compensate for winter release. So now, Arctic is also emitting carbon dioxide. Worse, a permafrost subject to unexpected and deep increase of thawing is going to augment these emissions.
And that result voluntarily ignores another very alarming factor : the release of methane with the melting of the permafrost. A gas 30% more potent than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effects.
When the fog enshrouding “Breskell” and the others vessels transiting the North West Passage will lift, the awakening of our planet earth could be brutal. Brutal but not unexpected…