Two young Australian cruising sailors have begun a voyage through the North West Passage - that alluring passage that has so fascinated sailor for centuries and led explorer, sometimes to their deaths, for 160 years until it was finally conquered by Roald Amundsen in 1906.
Teleport - big challenges ahead
Once known for its treacherous pack ice which made it difficult, if not impossible, to navigate, the legendary route has become easier and easier. This year was the easiest, with the ice having reached a record low this month, even lower than the previous record low levels in 2007. (See http://www.sail-world.com/Cruising/international/North-Sea-Passage-more-and-more-accessible---sea-ice-record-reached/88318!Sail-World_story)
However, 'easy' is a comparative word.
For Cameron Dueck, captain of Silent Sound, a yacht that successfully sailed west to east through the passage in 2009 with a crew of three other sailors, those fears are all too familiar.
While making the trip, Dueck told the Vancouver Sun he was surprised by how little ice they encountered, adding he expects sea traffic through the passage to rise if ice levels remain low.
But for those thinking of attempting the voyage, Dueck had a warning.
'I think a lot of sailors think if the ice is gone, the danger is gone and that is not true,' Dueck told the Vancouver Sun recently. 'You are in an extremely isolated part of the world, an area where you cannot rely on rescue and repair services.'
So Australians Chris Bray, 27, and girlfriend Jess Taunton, 23, became the first sailors to begin navigating a junk rig yacht, also known as a Chinese lugsail, through the ice-laden seaway at the beginning of the season.
Chris and Jess were actually cycling through Tasmania when a surprising opportunity presented itself. They told how they had visited an old friend who had recently bought a junk rig yacht, moored in Halifax, and planned to sail it across the Atlantic. When his plans unexpectedly changed, the boat, named Teleport, went up for sale at a price Bray and Taunton couldn't refuse.
Their idea of sailing the boat back to Australia was only mildly complicated by its inconvenient geographical location on the 'wrong' side of Canada.
While most anyone else would sail the boat through the easy-to-navigate Panama Canal, these born explorers knew they couldn't take the 'easy route.'
'We wanted an adventure,' said Bray. 'We wanted a challenge going up to a part of the world that not many people go.'
With their course decided, there were only a few other minor obstacles to overcome. Taunton, who is incredibly susceptible to seasickness, had never set foot on a sailboat before, and their vessel was in need of serious repairs before it could be considered seaworthy.
'It was just gradually deteriorating and rotting while it was sitting there,' said Bray, who ended up devoting several months to fixing it up.
With five years of sailing experience in his younger years living on a yacht, however, Bray's familiarity with sailboats more than made up for Taunton's relative inexperience when they eventually set sail earlier this year.
The trip also wasn't Bray's first Arctic adventure. In 2008 he completed a hike across Victoria Island with a friend in 128, and wrote a book about their experiences later.
At the end of June this year, Teleport began its journey up the coast of Nova Scotia, past Newfoundland and across the open sea passage to Greenland, the latter portion of which ended up taking about 12 days, five days longer than anticipated.
'We got smashed by some pretty horrendous weather on the way,' said Bray.
Although this year has seen near record-setting low levels of ice formation in the Northwest Passage, Teleport encountered many icebergs along the way, especially along the coast of Greenland.
As the icebergs melt, Bray said they break apart into seemingly harmless but incredibly sharp pieces that are difficult to spot.
'Jess would stand on the bow with an ice pole and fend them away so we didn't ding into them too hard,' he said. 'If you run into one of these bits of ice . . . you'd sink pretty well right away.'
Sharp rocks jutting out of the ocean posed another serious danger.
'Up here, the ocean is not very well charted,' explained Bray. 'Every now and then you see a big rock in the middle of absolutely nowhere with some unfortunate ship's name on it.'
After more than two months at sea, Bray and Taunton arrived in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on Aug. 31, the midway point of the passage, where they have left their boat, and will return next May to complete the passage..
It had been a wonderful experience. 'We saw plenty of polar bears and seals,' Bray described. 'We even had a pod of killer whales come right up to the boat and dive all around it.'
To follow Teleport's progress, visit www.yachtteleport.com