August 20 th. The weather window expected by alpinists climbing Himalayan summits rests on the clearing of the sky. For an arctic sailor engaged in the North West Passage, the weather window relays on the clearing of ice.
Much more people climb the Himalaya than make the North West Passage. This year ? Not a single sailboat!
At least, we don’t wait in line for making our entrance.
Last year, Paul from « Makore II » went through Bellot Strait the 20th of August. This year, same date, Bellot stays totally frozen and ice shuts off also Queen Maude inlet.
” What’s next ?”
I visit another boat named “ Sauvage”. We have a great time together sharing sea stories, drinking coffee and of course returning again and again to our main subject: this year’s opening of the North West Passage.
A redundant topic for each and every boat anchored here in beautiful Arctic Bay.
Sophie and Didier, owners of « Sauvage », travel with some friends and their vacationing daughter. Inside “Sauvage”, the atmosphere is cosy and comfortable. At more that 60 feet (20 meters), this boat has a huge interior volume even if the center-board trunk takes its share of the inside space.
The spacious salon sits many visitors around its convivial table. Dominique from “Chaman” shows up. For this skipper, the game is already over. Facing the ice condition this year, he decided to turn back. Dominique is not a Sunday sailor. His wife is a racer and Dominique entered the “Vendée globe”.
For these who don’t know the “Vendée Globe”, it’s, by far, the most challenging solo offshore sailing race in the world. Not just for the iron-men of the sail. Out there, there is a lot of these hardened sailors. I belong to that category. We share together solo crossings and memorable beatings at sea. But in the “Vendée globe” play, not the iron-men, but the “titanium” men or women of the sailing world. To be a hardened sailor is not enough for entering this race. Extraterrestrial sailors are required. Invented by the French, these bureaucratic unchallenged champions limited this race to some surprising simple rules: each four years, sailing solo around the world, without any help, and as fast as you dare. This global world challenge starts from « Vendée » a French region and returns to the same place. And good luck to all! One more limitation was imposed later by the Australians. They forbid the racers to go down too much south into deep Antarctica. In the first races, to shorten their road, some crazy ( French ?) skippers raced and slalomed in the middle of the Antarctica icebergs! When they crashed, the rescue missions launched by the navy where so far away from any inhabited lands that they needed major tactical operations. Out of range of coast-guards, it involved an armada of military ships, planes and helicopters. All these bills endorsed by the Aussie taxpayers who, soon enough, started complaining loudly. Dominique, as a seasoned “Vendée globe” skipper, is not an ice apprentice . When asked why they passed their turn this year, they don’t hesitate: too much ice, too much risks and enough time in front of us! Each boat chases its own dream and its personal goals. There are few collective decisions in the highly individualistic boating community of long distance sailors.
« Sauvage » had done what every sailor tries to avoid on long sailing journey. They booked a charter contract in the “Gambier island”, just on the other side of this icy continent. They are now in a pretty tight schedule.
“Morgane”, a small 34 feet steel boat, plans also to push hard, to take its chance and to go ahead this summer. With all this ice, if you are very lucky, bingo! You deserve the reward. If not ? You get trapped in the ice. With a steel boat, the prospect looks better than with a wooden one. Still, you have all the nine winter months to meditate, jailed in the ice-sheet, about your mistaken decision, sharing your sorrow with some empathetic walrus.
Breskell? I had pledged this year to sail my boat home. I promised that to my family, my school, my friends and my sponsors. Even worse, I swore that to myself! And for now, I intend to fulfill these promises.
We need to press harder. Listening to the Coast Guard disheartening weather forecasts or consulting some discouraging ice charts is not enough. A denial of reality against all these official reports ? Maybe. Let’s see by ourselfs the damned entrance door to this passage.
“What’s next” ?
Another look at the ice chart this morning and at the latest news coming from “ATKA”, a boat close to Bellot.
They all agree. Shut tight for now. But ice moves fast. Open for us tomorrow? Maybe ! For now, we are delaying our final decision.
We were invited to a special concert given in our honor by the « diesel truck driver ». This singer/truck-driver had already performed two days ago for a cruise-ship. A huge success. None of us sailors being aware about this show, we missed it. Contacted by our small community, our crooner agrees for another performance. At 9:00 pm, every sailors in Arctic Bay gather in front of the modest local Lutheran church for a last and unique family picture.
That’s great! Then, together , we enter the church.
The «diesel truck driver », our performance singer, stands “on stage” accompanied by a guitar player. They offer a wonderful concert of Inuit music.
Our troubadour possesses a rich, soft and wonderful voice. An awesome moment for all, shared in a serene atmosphere . The show over, we all congratulate warmly our artists. They deserve our unanimous praise. For an instant , we forgot the « what‘s next » of tomorrow.
The next day, each boat will return to its own well define and separate track : apart of the long-distance sailor’s life. Intense community moments together, memories for a lifetime with dear friends, shared experiences that we will keep in our heart. Tomorrow? It’s alone again on the path of life ready for new encounters and uncharted adventures.
« What’s next » you ask?
“Chaman” returns East.
“Morgane” plans to go West but delays its departure . For now, they stay in Arctic Bay to wait and see what is happening to the other sailors.
“Sauvage” will try to squeeze in…
« Breskell »? We leave tomorrow, and it’s west again for us.
We want to “feel” the ice close to the entrance door, up to Batty bay on the East side of Sormerset island… In Regent Inlet
No final decision is being made.
I have this knot in the stomach gnawing at me until a final decision is reached. The rational facts don’t give me great hopes. So, what? Suppose a small chance materializes. A powerful shift in the always present arctic undercurrents, an unexpected ice movement, even the elusive butterfly wings flapping in the Deep South and starting right here some brutal storm mixing all the cards again . This time, imagine I get the Ace. I don’t want to pass my turn. Even if I am not ready to risk my wooden boat in the same hazardous gamble played by the huge 60 feet “Sauvage”.
What about my crew?
Our filmmakers, Dom and Joe are totally motivated by their hunt for spectacular images.
And Eric, our navy seal in training?
“Semper fidelis” or always ready as they said in modern times.
Only Shannon is home-sick and can’t carry on anymore. She plans to book a room tomorrow . Maybe she perceives also that we have barely any chance to go through this year?
Last farewells for all at the dinghy dock.
It’s now the 23 of August.
In early morning « Chaman » and « Sauvage » leave, each one in an opposite direction, West for « Sauvage », Est for « Chaman ».
Joe, Dom and Eric go shopping on land. Taking advantage of being alone, I work in my engine room preparing Breskell for her next leg. A quick look at my last surgery. The wound looks fine. Well patched, my boat is ready for her next leg.
Midday already when the engine starts rumbling again. The anchor is up. On the beach, we wave to Shannon and, after a last goodbye to “Morgane”, we sail West, on the wake of “Sauvage” and in the pursuit of our common dream: crossing the North West Passage this year.
Motoring in Admiralty Inlet today contradicts totally the weather report and its strong wind predictions. It’s pretty easy. Will it be the same with the ice condition? A wrong forecast and a last-minute change… Yes! But for the worst… We receive the latest ice chart this evening at around 8 pm. It’s deteriorating by the minute!
This, for the official statement, but we gather also the unofficial reports of our sailors friends up there in the Arctic. « Destiny », another serious candidate gives up after waiting the expected opening window for too long. « Dog bark”, on the other side of the channel, is attempting the passage from West to Est. And it’s not any better from the other side of the door. They also give up.
We are at now N 7339,29 and W 8451,34.
« What’s next” ?
Waiting for an improbable window this year? The quantity of ice surrounding Breskell is impressive. We feel it in front. We experience it on our side. We hear it all around us. Only an inconceivable miracle will open a channel. Most likely , a jawfull of sharp ice teeth will close on us and crush Breskell to kindles. That would be the end of my dream. The most dangerous teeth are not inside the jaws of an enormous shark in the fertile imagination of a Hollywood scenarist. Mortal ice teeth are real in the Arctic. This year, they are right here, at the entrance of the North West passage, just waiting for us!
Another reason needs also to be taken into consideration… This week, consider that nothing can be done. Suppose we wait for two more weeks. Then, an unlikely window opens. As expected, we go through the passage unscathed. This, I am sure if the conditions are right. Now, overdo in the season, we have to sail the Arctic Ocean, across the Beaufort sea, the Chukchi sea, through the Bering Strait and down to the gulf of Alaska, thousands of miles away.
Have you read about the intensity of the depressions coming in from Siberia and the forcefulness of the storms plaguing this area in late October and November? That, just before the total annual freezing… I will have probably to hibernate Breskell on some isolated out-post in Innu territory. How to you do this without any harbor? Probably by winching my boat up on some frozen land like a whale after a successful hunt. That could be done. Yes, I can do it….
Except clearing the ice out of this damned channel!
The next morning, after another meeting with Dom and Eric, ( Joe is outside at the helm) we decide to give up. How can we make it when we cannot even reach Cambridge bay, our base camp, before initiating our crossing.
There is now a 9/10 ice cover. And it’s getting worse. I make Breskell learn how to “walk the ice”. But I need a minimum of water to waltz around. You remember that I also tried to make her learn another trick: climbing on ice. During my two or three attempts, she complained loudly. I failed miserably the last one! Breskell is a very good boat. But she was not designed by my father as an ice sled! And anyway, you need a damned good team of my beloved Huskies to haul her 50 feet hull across an Arctic trail. Until tonight, I still had hopes and knots in my stomach. Yes, the ice would melt and open. Yes, miracles happen. Sadly not today!
“A l’impossible nul n’est tenu” . It’s a french saying. Hard to translate but it means that, except for returning with huskies and sleds, I have to quit. As simple and heartbreaking as it is…
We get several messages from friends on other boats. They were all watching us.
« What’s next” ? What the “crazy” French with his “hardened boat” and “knotty brain” is attempting now? They all told us that keeping trying would be loosing our time. They all added that it was foolish and dangerous. Let me remember them and you, that I have a nice wife, a loving family, friends, sponsors and that I plan to see them all again. And loosing “my Breskell” is not an option. After taking this final decision we decided… to go north! I suppose that, learning about this new option, some of you think that I contracted a severe case of Arctic hallucinations. Wait a minute. Our filmmakers wanted to film more ice. And this, I can easily achieve. Ice is everywhere. And a little more of the north is not to annoy me.
I truly enjoy the challenge offered by this astonishing land and its unforgiving nature. I always recognize their superior combined powers over a humble sailor and his wooden boat. I tried my best to overcome the challenge. They closed unceremoniously the door on my lifetime dream. I respect that. Defeated? If you want. In the hand of such majestic powers, I have not a single shade of shame, not even the knot in my stomach after the last gong. I am still alive, enjoying life with a wonderful crew. After some more of the north, I sail now on a very good and well patched wooden boat toward Pond inlet, Newfoundland and the rest of my life.
Here is the list of our sailor friends attempting the NW passage in 2018 and their final decision:
Blue Peter..Turn around
Kiwi Rea….Turn around
Ice Angel…Turn around
Dog Bark…. Turn around tonight
Atka: whatever the condition, he wants to make it with the supposed help of an ice breaker. He plans to spend the winter locked in ice … he built his boat for that purpose.
To all of you: good luck, be careful, follow your dreams, pay the price, don’t complain and…
see you again…