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Cornell turns back from the North West Passage

by Jimmy Cornell on 18 Aug 2014
Sailors’graves on Beechy Island Cornell Sailing Events
Our stop at Beechey Island was tinged with sadness, not only because of the tragic events of all those years ago, but also by the decision to abandon our attempt to transit the Northwest Passage this summer.

With the ice situation showing little improvement, even if a late transit may become possible, we could face the prospect of being unable to reach the Pacific before the seas started to ice up again.

In such an eventuality the only solution would be to overwinter somewhere in Arctic Canada or Alaska, something that I was not prepared to do. It was therefore decided to turn around and sail back to Europe while the weather conditions in the Northern Atlantic are still favourable for our 2700 miles passage home.

The first response to my decision came from my son Ivan. I quote his words here, as they reflect exactly my own feelings: 'Seeing as there seems to be a 50-50 chance that the Northwest Passage won’t open this year, it may be for the best to turn back.

This is something my cycling has taught me about being audacious: it’s better to have tried and possibly failed than not to try at all!'

Located at the western end of Lancaster Sound, Beechey Island is the site where the ill-fated expedition led by Sir John Franklin, spent their first Arctic winter in 1845-46. Two well-equipped ships, Terror and Erebus, had left London in May 1845, with the task of completing the charting of the Northwest Passage, and thus establishing beyond any doubt the existence of this waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Neither the ships nor any of the 129 men were ever seen again.

In the following years, several search expeditions were mounted and eventually their tragic fate became known. With their ships beset by ice, the crews were forced to abandon them and try to save themselves by walking overland. Only a few managed to make it to the mainland, where they all perished.

Over the years there has been much speculation as to the real reason how such a well-prepared expedition could have come to such an unexpected end. It was only in the early 1980s that it was finally proven that the
high content of lead in the human remains that had been analysed, would have caused severe lead poisoning. Combined with scurvy, the effects had eventually led to their deaths.

On the shore of Beechey Island are the graves of the men who had died during that first winter, as well as several memorials dedicated to the members of this tragic expedition. For sailors attempting a transit of the Northwest Passage, the site is a place of pilgrimage, and, having anchored Aventura in Terror and Erebus Bay, we made our way ashore to pay our respects.

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