“Ice Tactics” Part 1. Negotiating a Brash Ice Barrier By Captain Jesse Osborn

In our 2014 completion of the Northwest Passage, Samantha and I encountered a large band of high concentration ice. We were able to work our way through that ice with tactics we learned along the way.

This article is the first of a short series I will be writing on ice tactics. As it seems there is little written about this topic, our lessons could be helpful to would be passage makers.


Communication and trust.
Communication and trust.


I remember how I felt, when Samantha woke me from my slumber. I had just passed out, and loathed coming on deck so soon.

But Samantha does not need help with anything very often. So I knew right away it was time to work. I scrambled topside to have a look and saw what she was talking about.

We had just cleared James Ross Straight and had been encountering the first ice since Simpson

Straight. In fact our visits to Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak were virtually ice free, as that area is protected from multi year ice flows, by shoal water.

Samantha explained that a very long, narrow strip of Ice blocked our path. It was only 100-300 yards thick, but wound East and West for, what seemed like forever. We were quite far offshore and she had motored East and West a good distance looking for an opening. But there were none.

The ice was blown into this line by a gentle NE wind.  According to “MANICE” the Canadian Ice Navigation Manual, we had encountered a; Jammed Brash Barrier: A strip or narrow belt of new, young or brash ice usually 100-5000 m across formed at the edge of either floating or fast ice or at the shore. Heavily compacted, mostly due to wind action, may extend 2 to 20 m below the surface, but does not normally have appreciable topography. Jammed brash barriers may disperse with changing winds, but can also consolidate to form a strip of unusually thick ice in comparison to the surrounding ice.

The decision at hand was complex.

If we continued motoring around, burning fuel and time, the wind could switch to the West. If that happened, before we could clear Bellot Straight, still hundreds of miles North. We would be pinched in the pack and forced to endure the pressure.

Or we could try and hide in one of few inlets on the Boothia Peninsula. Such as Pasley Bay, where the St Roch spent a full year. Blocked in by the very ice they were hiding from.

The other option was to force through the barrier in a fiberglass boat.

Difficult decisions like this, are daily occurrences in the Northwest Passage.

I walked up on the bow and looked at the barrier, eying the most narrow area, with the lowest lying flows and smallest pieces.

I’m not much on embracing helplessness, so I pondered the problem and made te decision. “Were going through the pack” I said as I guided from the bow. Samantha motored in easy. Then we switched places and set to work. I could feel the acid in my throat. This was a whole new level. Up until now, we moved the boat around the ice. Now, we would move the ice, around us…

Well into the barrier.  Learning curve... Steep
Well into the barrier. Learning curve… Steep

At first I just wanted to stick our nose in it and see of we could make way. But the ice moved and before we knew it. Once it was behind our rudder, we were committed.

Initially I assumed that the basic shape of the band would stay the same. I was wrong. The pack was churning slowly with the wind and current. Constantly reforming, thinning and thickening at a snails pace.

But like all assumptions gone wrong, there are hidden messages and wisdom to be found. Call them gems, or light bulbs. They lay in the wake of our ignorance, often ignored. But sitting in the pack ice at full throttle has a way of humbling you in to further analysis.

Through this somewhat desperate process of studying the plates around us. I realized that if we were beset in the ice, the condition would not last forever. The form would change eventually and we would be free again. (This was my new theory)….

Samantha and I were on the cusp of many challenges ahead and in hind sight, this effort, was the beginning of us truly coming together as a team. It was frustrating, intimidating and quite stressful for us both.

In sharing what we learned, I will lean on Eddie Gruben again. Who says “Nothing is impossible with determination and effort”.

For the next 3 hours Samantha and I worked through that ice and made it out unscathed, save for some gel coat and paint loss that is…

In reflection of that effort, I’ve written a quick “How to” for would be ice mingling types who sail sturdy hulls.

We always kept pressure on the ice ahead.
We always kept pressure on the ice ahead.

1. Pressing forward.
The engine was always engaged while we pressed through the ice. As was the Mainsail for a time, on a broad reach mostly. This provided continual pressure at the bow, so that as the pack moved around us, we moved forward. This helped the ice, “Roll” off of our hull so to speak. Also, when there was a movement in the ice ahead, no hesitation was possible. We simply moved as the openings developed.

So although our force was minimal (56 Horse Power) in comparison to the obstacle at hand. All energy was aimed well and absolutely constant.

This also created the unexpected benefit. PROP WASH. I shortly discovered that while thrusting forward, any ice, to your stern, is carried away. This is because the local current from your propeller, is contained in the ice flow and becomes a directed narrow band.

Put that prop wash to work!
Put that prop wash to work!

So although we were in 10/10 ice, we made a “hole” behind us. A light bulb went on and #2 tactic was developed.

Noticing movement and adapting new tools.
Noticing movement and adapting new tools.

2. Fanning the Stern.
As you work through the pack, you will need a constant adjustment of your angle in the ice. I say it that way because when beset, you are not really steering. But rather keeping the bow aimed at your next target of ice weakness.

There will be times when you are stuck making no forward progress through the pack. During that time, the ice at your stern will move in on each side of your rudder and threaten your steering and propeller.

This is a handy trick. But it takes some nerve at first.

Fanning the stern
Fanning the stern

Begin by slightly turning the helm to one side. Lets use a Port turn for example. Just a spoke or 2 as you watch astern and direct the prop wash with the rudder.

The stern will begin to walk over to Starboard, while also clearing the ice from the Port Side. while pivoting off the bow, your prop wash will sweep behind you and clear ice aft of the rudder.

Working the pond behind you takes concentration.
Working the pond behind you takes concentration.

Remember to go slow, so that your wash is effective. What you want is a pond behind you at all times. As your stern fans back and forth in an ever widening gap.

Do not relent from this side to side sweeping and soon you will see that your hull will begin levering against the ice as well. Creating a bigger “hole” for your “Hull” in the ice.

Be careful as small ice chunks. Like the size of a garbage can, may return to visit your stern, following the back eddy current of your prop wash.

After a while, you will have enough room to back up and use other tactics like “Ramming” or “Redirecting”.

It is likely in these conditions that you will face aft more then forward which works well while fanning and pivoting against a blockage. But be prepared to turn your head around in a hurry, when the bow breaks through. You will be off like a shot and in danger of non intentional ramming.

In our case I fanned off a particular blockage for over an hour at ¾ throttle.

Once I decided to back up, we dropped the mainsail. As we were primarily sailing downwind against the ice and needed to back up quickly.

We did however leave the mainsail ready to set at a moments notice. Should the engine fail beyond immediate repair, at least we would hold pressure on the bow and press forward to our exit.

Watch the small pieces.  They have a way of returning to you.
Watch the small pieces. They have a way of returning to you.

Remember that once you begin to back up, your prop wash will reverse and your pond will close in on you. So make it quick and make it count.

3. Redirect the bow
If you choose to back, redirecting the bow is usually the best option. But remember that if the flow is moving and reforming, the weak area for which you intend to aim, may disappear. So only redirect if you are sure to make progress into your new target.

If you are not sure, stay on task and get out some tools.

Samantha at the bow with tools.
Samantha at the bow with tools.

We used a splitting maul and Ice Poles, swung from the bow, to break, or weaken, the heavy ice plates that stopped us. This worked fairly well but was too exhausting as a primary means of progress.

Ultimately we resorted to a combination of tool work and ramming to make our way.

4. Ramming.
(Note)Empiricus is ridiculously well built. She is 18 inches of Cypress, and Fiberglass at the bobstay where a 1 inch Stainless through hull eye bolt, shackles to the 5/8 chain Bobstay. That Bobstsay is adjustable with tackle. So it has inherent give. Our rig itself is also low tension. (One of the many advantaged of the gaff rig).

I mention that because I do not advocate ramming a production fiberglass hull, with a high tension bobstay into any ice pack at any time. A tight wire at the waterline would likely snap.

In our case, I knew she could take the impact. So I proceeded with caution and intermittent observation of the bow between strikes. Just to make sure…

There is no fancy way to say ramming. Just back up and hit it. Gently at first, trying to use the minimum amount of force required, in order to make way.

Ramming this large piece, then spinning it for our exit.  Stage 1
Ramming this large piece, then spinning it for our exit. Stage 1
Ramming stage 2.  Keep that ice moving.
Ramming stage 2. Keep that ice moving.
Stage 3 for the exit.  Momentum is your friend.
Stage 3 for the exit. Momentum is your friend.

Movement will come in bursts, so be ready to move and pick your next slot.

You may have to stop and fan the stern between each strike, then resume with sharp blows, changing direction quickly.

Your engine is going to work here. So keep an eye on your exhaust and make sure raw water is still coming out. Ice can plug your raw water intake and burn the impeller up in minutes. (Note. Keep a stock of raw water impellers ready at all times).

Once you split the ice, use poles, to shove broken pieces down. Submerging them, then tucking them under the surrounding ice. This will create a path for you.

Drive them under the flow if you can.
Drive them under the flow if you can.

Now idle back to control your speed, but proceed with momentum until you are halted again or free from the pack.

5. Coffee
If the crew wants to take a break and have coffee. Do it. This is hard stressful work and may take many hours. Keeping all hands fed and happy is at the heart of success.  That includes yourself and besides, your not going anywhere… Just protect the rudder with prop wash and enjoy the process.

Samantha enjoying hard earned Coffee
Samantha enjoying hard earned Coffee

The end result of our efforts was, success in passing through about 200 yards of 9/10-10/10 of mixed ice types.  We did this by; pressing forward, fanning the stern, redirecting the bow and ramming as appropriate. We happily celebrated the accomplishment and found confidence in our new skills.

Were out!
Were out!

However, we always looked quite hard for away around the bands after that. Even though we knew it was possible. In doing so we found that sailing quite close to the windward shore, usually provided an opening.

Happyness is NOT being stuck in the ice.  Being thankful for basic things leads to a rewarding life.
Happyness is NOT being stuck in the ice. Being thankful for basic things leads to a rewarding life.

All in all, I don’t know if we saved time or not by entering that pack, that day. Whether or not, we would have found another opening, is pure speculation.
Regardless of that hindsight dilemma, we found the experience served us well

More Ice Tactics to follow, from
Captain Jesse Osborn


2 thoughts on ““Ice Tactics” Part 1. Negotiating a Brash Ice Barrier By Captain Jesse Osborn

  1. Solid article, Capt. Osborne, and congrats on your completion of the passage. We on Arctic Tern passed you headed the other way this year, but somehow we never met. Most of the ice we encountered was between Graham Harbor and Bellot, and we saw little in the area you describe. Hung out with Mike Johnson of Gitana, your Cambridge Bay companion, in Nome.


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