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Cambridge Bay, Northwest Passage, hotting up.

by Sail-World Cruising round-up on 26 Aug 2012
Tranquillo - another yacht sailing the Northwest Passage in 2012 .. .
The melt goes on, and it's encouraging the adventurous. As the Northwest Passage becomes increasingly ice-free during the summers, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, has seen a dramatic upswing in cruising sailors arriving, with up to six yachts in the Bay at the same time.

'It wouldn’t be surprising to see six sailboats out in the bay at one time, and we usually have between two to six cruise ships come here every year as well, and the cruise ships have hundreds of tourists,' Cambridge Bay’s senior administrative officer Steve King told CBC News this week.

Cruising sailors were not the first opportunists. While the first cruise ship successfully crossed the Northwest Passage in 1984, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the ships began to pass through every year. Sailing the Northwest Passage in private yachts only took off in the 2000s.

According to Environment Canada data, the Passage has become almost ice-free every year for the past five years. In 2011 16 private yachts made their way successfully through the once-dreaded passage.

Those who travel the passage say they feel the history of the place, as 19th Century explorers travelled the same waters. 'I like it when people say 'oh it's easy now what you’re doing because all the ice is gone,' said Frank Rothwell, skipper of the Upchuck, a sailing boat from England stopping over in Cambridge Bay on its way through the Passage. 'It's still a challenge and many people have died in the past doing what we are doing.'

Modern technology may add some security and comfort – the Upchuck is equipped with a satellite phone and heat — but a long voyage in a remote area requires being self-sufficient in food, fuel, tools and parts.

Long weeks spent in communities like Cambridge Bay waiting for ice to clear also fosters camaraderie among the sailors of international origin. More than ever, in these areas which are not charted accurately, cruising sailors rely on each other for vital information, which is shared generously.

Rescue is often not close by, either. Search and rescue aircraft are all located thousands of kilometres away — in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Peter Garden is a New Zealand sailor, taking his family through the Passage, is already used to charts being inaccurate, from his experience in the Pacific.

'Actually,' explains Garden, 'the charts are probably accurate in themselves, but they are out of alignment with reality, and need to be offset.'

Whatever the cause, narrow passages can be challenging when the charts are up to a quarter of a mile out.

All the sailors in Cambridge Bay this week agreed that it was a good location to have to wait for the ice to clear - they even have an internet connection!

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