It is the climate-change-driven receding ice which made possible a new record for the most northerly crossing of the Northwest Passage this year by a sailing boat. So has been claimed by the Canadian leader of the expedition on his return home after their much publicised accomplishment, achieved in a 1976, 31ft Hallberg Rassy fibreglass boat, called Belzebub II. (See http://www.marinebusinessnews.com/Intrepid-trio-sails-Northwest-Passage,-highlighting-polar-ice-plight/101960!Sail_World_story.)
BelzebubII crew, Nicholas Peissel and Edvin Buregren. The third crew member was Nicholas’s brother, Morgan
While eco-expedition leader Nicolas Peissel is thrilled by the accomplishment, he told CTV's Canada AM Monday that he also has bittersweet feelings about the journey, which was only made possible because the Arctic sea ice has receded so drastically in recent years.
'We started planning this expedition a couple of years ago. We started researching ice charts and satellite images and we were really shocked by the amount of polar ice cap depletion, ' Peissel said. 'So we started to put this trip together to highlight the importance of climate change and the importance of stewardship over the Canadian Arctic.'
Peissel and two other crewmen, Edvin Buregren from Sweden and brother Morgan Peissel from Boston, successfully navigated a 31-foot fiberglass sailboat through the McClure Strait, travelling from Greenland to Alaska over a three-month period.
The route has only been completed once before, in 1991, by a Russian icebreaker -- and never by a purely wind-powered vessel with no reinforcements for dealing with the ever-present ice. The voyage also marks the most-northern crossing of the Northwest Passage ever successfully completed by a sailboat.
Peissel said it was always a longshot whether the crew would be able to get through the fickle passage, which has been unsuccessfully attempted by some of the world's most famous explorers, including Robert McClure himself, who lost his ship during his attempt in the 1800s.
'That's one thing about the Arctic: you really can't predict what the ice is going to do. We did see a trend there from year to year that more and more ice was clearing from the path, the route we wanted to take, but it was never certain. And actually, the ice only pulled back from the route we were about to attempt a few hours before we got there and it only remained open for about 48 hours,' Peissel said.
The crew began the journey in Sweden last year, sailing to Edinburgh, Scotland, and then crossing the Atlantic to Newfoundland as part of their training. This summer, they resumed the journey, travelling from Newfoundland along the west coast of Greenland, then through the Arctic Circle to Alaska, crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific and eventually winding up about a 10-day sail from Vancouver.
Along the way they encountered freezing cold temperatures, polar bears, snow and storms at sea that constantly threatened to put a premature end to their expedition.
'We spent about two months in storms until we finished our trip in Alaska a few days ago,' Peissel said.
He added: 'We definitely had a lot of bad weather. One of the areas we encountered that had the lowest sea ice extent was in the Beaufort Sea, on top of Canada and Alaska, and we had waves up to 30-feet high. The wind was blowing 50-60 knots, there was snow. It was very challenging sailing conditions and you really have to be prepared for that.'
Since their return home, the office of former U.S. vice-president Al Gore has contacted the group and asked to use some of their photos in Gore's presentations on the effects of climate change.
But instead of taking money for the photos, the group asked Gore to compensate them by offsetting the carbon they used on their journey, meaning the trip is effectively carbon neutral.
The crew had planned to sail all the way to Vancouver but ran into dangerous seas in Alaska. After sheltering for several days in some islands ahead of an expected Arctic hurricane, the group decided to fly home, leaving their sailboat in a small fishing village and chartering a helicopter.
While certainly memorable, Peissel was well prepared for the privations of this expedition. The Montreal native, who worked as a shipwright for close to a decade, circumnavigated the North Atlantic in 2009 in a 28-foot vessel -- a journey of more than 15,000 nautical miles.