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North West Passage - ice levels alarming for transiting yachts

by Douglas Pohl/Sail-World Cruising on 19 Aug 2013
Comparison between 2012 and 2013 .. .
The North West Passage, once thought of as an impossible dream for sailors, has been more and more ice free over the last few years, encouraging more and more yachts to the adventure. But 2013 is shaping up to be very different, possibly alarming for the boats who have already started. Here, Captain of the 55ft motor vessel Grey Goose and keen NW Passage correspondent Douglas Pohl tells the story:

Over the last three weeks, Arctic ice area has declined by 662,000 kmĀ², which is 60% of normal and the slowest on record.

Slow ice melt means more ice choke-points to navigate - many specific locations have been near impossible to even try with 90% ice concentrations. In 2013 there has been a 55%increase in Arctic ice since this date last year.

Basically the summer melt season has been the slowest on record.

There are more pronounced ice 'choke-points' for vessels attempting a NW Passage than in recorded history. Seven vessels have been waiting around Lancaster Sound unable to navigate south nor west while other vessels in the Western Arctic have been delayed in reaching Cambridge Bay from ice in Amundsen Gulf.

Westerly winds have also pushed the Beaufort Sea ice up tight against Banks Island. The 2013 ice season is nothing like the 2012 ice season - a black & white difference.

The bottom line is: If and when the ice melts 'enough' to allow open navigation by small yachts, will there be enough of the summer ice melt season remaining?

...or put another way: When will Mother Nature close the door and the sea freeze over, preventing anyone exiting the Arctic in 2013. It appears that slower sailing boats are at risk of being trapped in the Arctic.

Turning the western corner at Point Barrow has always been a risky proposition at the best of times, and Queen Maud and Bellot Strait are 'choke-points' for either direction of travel this season.

Sailing boats known to be in the area this season intending a transit or a partial transit are the following:

East to West:
Acalephe, Canadian, 13.9m, aluminium cutter rigged
Arctic Tern, British, 43ft Steel cutter rigged pilot house
La Belle Epoque, German, 13m steel cutter rigged ketch
Libelule, Swiss, 47ft catamaran
Tooluka, Netherlands, 14.15m steel sloop
Traversay III, (USA?), sloop, thought to be fibreglass


West to East:
Anna, thought to be French, 10.5 steel ketch
Balthazar, Canadian, 10.5m welded steel
Dodo's Delight, British, 33ft fibreglass sloop
Empiricus, USA, 50ft yawl
Tara, French, 36m aluminium expedition schooner motor-sailer

There are other boats in the region, some have cancelled their journey, others have a different intent than a North West Passage crossing, some are motor boats. Here are a few of those also in the region:

Arctic Joule, Canadian, cabin rowing boat
Babushka, French, a hubrid catamaran with cuddy cabin, going for the North Pole
Bernard Explorer, 46ft motor sailer, historical research expedition, Banks Island
Fairmont's Passion, USA, 17.5ft Norseboat - Inuvik to Resolute
Glory of the Sea, Canadian, 50ft aluminium cutter rig, circling the eastern side
Ikimaya, Canadian, tandem kayak, Tuktoyaktuk to Igloolik
Lady Dana, Polish, 14.3m steel sloop, doing an Arctic circumnavigation
Le Manguier, French, 21.1m steel hulled tug with stay-sail rig, circumnavigating Banks Is
Noeme, French, 14.5m cold moulded epoxy, route unknown
Polar Bound, British, 48ft custom aluminium expedition motor vessel, 6th transit
Rowing Ice, French, 21ft cabin rowing boat, West to East, part transit
Tranquillo, Netherlands, 56ft aluminium sloop, centreboard

They could all experience conditions worse than they had been expecting, and, no doubt, the Canadian rescue services are gearing up for what could be a challenging year.

You can follow Douglas's blog at : http://northwestpassage2013.blogspot.com/
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