Two young Australians have become the latest to have sailed the Northwest Passage, Chris Bray and his fiance Jess Taunton. Chris, who hails from Avalon in Sydney, is, at 29 and as far as he has been able to tell, the youngest skipper ever to brave the once treacherous passage.
Unlike many others, however, Chris and Jess didn't do it with a specially prepared steel yacht. Jess had never sailed before, and they did it in an ancient, but renovated, 'junk-rigged' 29ft wooden yacht.
The adventure began in 2009 when they bought the rotting yacht, which they called Teleport, in Canada and Chris set about restoring it. 'It was just gradually deteriorating and rotting while it was sitting there,' said Bray, who ended up devoting several months to the job.
Teleport - Chris gives the thumbs up
In mid-2011, they started their journey from Halifax, Canada. Called the Everest of Sailing, the Northwest Passage is poorly charted and the sea route was first navigated in 1903. Until the great and alarming melt started in the 21st Century, pack ice prevented ships from going through the passage.
Although 2011 had 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 left their boat. They returned in May this year to complete the passage, which they did by arriving in Nome, Alaska. Their timing had been good - 2012, sadly for the future of the planet, but excellent for sailors, set a new low for ice, making the passages easier this year than ever before.
It has been a wonderful experience they report. '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.'
'The whole experience was amazing,' he said.
They saw arctic foxes and a polar bear even chewed their camera. One of the highlights was when Mr Bray proposed to Ms Taunton by spelling out 'Marry Me?' with white rocks at Mount Pelly. She said yes.
The couple are planning to sail the yacht all the way home to Sydney and then to return to sea next year.
Editor's Note: We have been unable to find a younger skipper to have sailed the Northwest Passage. All information is welcome.
We have received several letters from readers, recounting younger sailors who have completed a Northwest Passage crossing. Here is the youngest claimed:
Sender: Phil Hogg
Message: Jeff MacInnis was 23 when he started on his crossing of the Northwest Passage. It took him three years. The story is told in his book 'Polar Passage. The historic first sail through the Northwest Passage'. IBSN 0-8041-0650-9. He did it without an engine.