Big Bad Bellot.
The West entrance to the strait is located at 71 Deg 58 Min North by 95 Deg 11 Min West. Its southern shore marks the northernmost point on the North American continent. This narrow body of water is not well charted and carries a long history of dramatic encounters for ships transiting the Northwest Passage. This is due to the unpredictable and rapidly changing current, which draws in, churns and deposits ice in a random but powerful cycle.
I feel that Bellot Strait is best described visually, as a very large scale version of an old Arcade game called Frogger.
Remember Frogger? The object was simple… Hop your frog to the other side. The action was difficult, however, in that precise timing and forethought were required at all times. Everything was moving ahead and behind, both this way and that. Logs going left, lily pads going right, alligators everywhere.
Much concentration was required, to just keep your frog alive. So most of the time, getting to the other side was not the result of a well-laid plan, but the byproduct, of an intense personal will to keep moving forward.
This is the way of things, in Bellot Strait. The logs are open water; lily pads are slushy masses and the alligators outweigh you 100-1. So from the outset, it is important to accept that the only thing you have control over is your own hop…
Samantha and I made two attempts at Bellot Strait, succeeding on the second attempt. First I will tell you the major plays of our experience, from our first and second attempts. Then I will tell you what we learned from that process. Lastly I will share the tactics which led us to a successful passage through Bellot Strait and the Crux of the Northwest Passage
Because the ice conditions within and around Bellot Strait change so rapidly, our experience may not represent any “norm”. With that fact in mind, I will pass on our experience and the conditions we encountered. To sum up my motivation in this writing, I’ll say there are lots of ways to make a stir-fry dish. My hopes are that these basic techniques will be helpful and informative. The spice and heat are up to you…
On 08/31/2014 at 1104 hrs, Samantha and I approached the mouth of Bellot Strait, having just worked very hard for days on end. We had driven hard from Taloyoak, making way around and through “Brash Ice Barriers” SEE BRASH ICE BARRIER LINK as we gathered northern latitude.
Northeast wind had opened up a lead. This lead began from James Ross Strait, northward to Bellot Strait along the west coast of the Boothia Peninsula.
This is an important detail. Peel Sound and M’Clintock Channel never opened as far as we know in 2014. So when we got to the mouth of Bellot on the last day of August, 2014, our choices were narrowed and clear.
1. Pass through Bellot Strait.
2. Turn around and find a place to winter over. Again…
We had, of course, talked extensively about these narrow options.
As a side note, having gone through the Northwest Passage, I am very slow if not obstinate to judge the choices of other captains in that place. There are literally hundreds of decisions to be made on a daily basis. The factors involved in those decisions are even more numerous.
Imagine if you will, the many factors involved in each “go-no go” decision. Such as vessel capabilities, crew cohesion, skill, information at hand, financial obligations on shore, forecasted weather, actual weather, forecasted ice, actual ice, mechanical limitations, mechanical breakdowns, personal limitations, personal breakdowns, resources, tools at hand and the ability use them, etc.
These are broad categories but you get the idea. My point here is that the internet and all its gifts may lay out a very clear path in an observers eyes. But the passage makers themselves are privy to the remaining 98 percent of information at hand. Therefore the path they lay in real time may not make sense to those in the outside world.
The question at hand was, with so much ice in our path and being so late in the season. “Should we press for Bellot Strait and continue the passage?”
3 things we knew.
• Just 11 hours before we reached Bellot, the crew of “Drina” reported that Bellot was “not to bad”. However, more ice was grouped “ in the middle.”
• The current weather pattern was stable due to a dominating high-pressure system over the area.
• The nights were getting colder as we climbed northward.
Essentially, we were running out of time. Samantha and I had already set an acceptable timeframe to try for a passage through Bellot. We decided that we would make our attempt no later than September 1st. If by then, if the weather was still favorable, we might wait a few more days. But we would not wait past the 3rd, that being our final date with no exceptions.
This decision to wait around, at the western mouth of Bellot was a tough one. Reason being if the wind switched to the west, our lead would close along the Boothia, leaving us trapped in the pack, or driven ashore.
If we did make the Strait, there was no stopping short of Greenland. This was the crux of our journey.
Heavy decisions like this create unrelenting stress that can become cumulative if you allow it. I found that accepting these risks and letting myself sleep was key to good decision making.
Truly, in the Northwest Passage, you can worry yourself asleep on one issue, then wake to a new one. Going on and on like this will wear you out. So aside from major weather systems and ice forecasting, most of our decisions were made on short notice, in time with the changing Arctic.
In planning our approach, we had aimed to reach the entrance just before high slack water. This tidal advice was given by a very reliable source, who had successfully guided many others through Bellot.
In regards to timing, two seasons in the ice taught me that proper timing improves efficiency and increases the percentage of sailing. Much like the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race. Following this cadence, we found that most of our voyage was carried out at 4 knots, while sailing and motor sailing deeply reefed. This, I found was the best combination for a short crew. It allowed each of us to sleep, uninterrupted, while the helmsman easily adapted to changes topside.
By the time we neared Bellot, we had about an hour to wait for a proper tidal approach. So we drifted near the mouth and used that time to prepare for the passage.
I topped the fuel from our drums on deck, changed the fuel filter, drained the water separator, inspected the engine, tightened the alternator belt and cleaned the raw water screen. Even if all these were fine beforehand, the stakes were large and after completing these tasks, my mind could rest.
The most recent ice report was 12 hours old at the time we began our attempt. The satellite imagery our outside resources used, watching from afar, showed 1/10 ice cover in Bellot.
We had the weather right however, as well as the tide. We decided to give it a shot…
A bit about the boat.
• Empiricus. A heavily built Gaff Rigged Yawl, boasting 2 inches of cypress and oak in her core, with a minimum of 1 inch fiberglass encapsulation. A bulbous concrete ballasted keel, integral to her construction, provides her ballast. At the bobstay, which is 5/8 steel chain, there is a ½ inch stainless plate, welded to a 1 inch stainless bolt that passes through inches of Cypress and fiberglass to the chain locker where it is secured.
• She weighed in at 38000 lbs. minus fuel and water, when we splashed in Cambridge Bay. The rudder is huge, skeg hung with 2” Diameter axle stock shaft and overbuilt chain steering.
• The engine is a Yanmar 3jh4e normally aspirated 56 HP diesel, with less than 2000 hours on the Hobbs meter. The raw water cooling intake is submerged 3 feet and quite near centerline. All 3 through hulls are bronze and flush set, or built up with tapering epoxy.
• She is very maneuverable due to a cut away forefoot but slow to respond to a fore and aft direction change, due to her weight and relatively low horsepower.
I knew she could handle an impact quite well. In fact, Truman Horton, whom built her in 1986 told be that “I believe you could run her into a concrete wall”. His words rang in my ears that day. Over and over again…
We entered the mouth of Bellot Strait at 1104 hrs on 08/31/2014 under double reefed mainsail and engine. Conditions were calm and we could see at least 2 miles down the strait.
At about a mile in, we began encountering large ice flows, mostly multi-year ice that ranged from 1 foot above water to 15 feet in height. This reduced our visibility down the strait. The water was mostly calm, as we were near slack high water, so we eased around the large flows, hoping to catch leads all the way through.
Altan Girl, who had entered just before us, could be seen about a mile ahead. Only the top of her mast was visible, due to the large flows of multi-year ice between us. Radio contact with Altan Girl had always been patchy at best and that day was no exception. We tried to communicate with him several times, but could not do so until we were within clear sight, less then a quarter mile.
Our experienced friend back on land was in contact with us via Delorme and advised us to stick to the southern shore. This was good advice as the water was more still and the leads more open.
Samantha climbed the rigging to gain a better perspective of the leads ahead, as we passed the ice flows, very close to shore. As the water swallowed along the shoreline, our fantastic Standard Horizon depth sounder quit operating. Lovely…
But no time to dwell on it, we had navigating to do. I pulled out the lead line in case we needed to take manual soundings and we continued onward, following intermittent leads near the southern shore. Eventually, we caught up with Altan Girl, who was motoring back and forth, in front of a complete blockage at the 4 mile mark.
The blockage was one solid mass of multi-year ice, packed as far as the eye could see. It appeared to be wedged into the land on both sides of the strait at its narrowest point and obviously impassable. We’re outta here!
We made our westbound retreat against the eastbound current. A 2 knot back eddy, carried small hunks of ice to the West like a flock of big rubber ducks gad come to life, like someone had flipped a switch, powering up a giant creepy carnival ride. Nothing looked the same and our leads were closing fast.
The current was changing with the tide, getting stronger and stronger. But this was just the beginning…This meant that all the ice flows we passed on the way in, were closing in on top of us, leaving no where to run downstream.
We took a couple short circles near the North Shore while trying to hail Altan Girl on the radio. Then our radio cut out as well. It must have been a bad day for electrical problems… I tossed the mic aside, frustrated with the ongoing distraction. It struck the cockpit combing and broke the waterproof casing on the handset. This was a foolish mistake. The mic still worked when I opened the hatch and jiggled the wires. At least I had found the problem, but the unit was no longer waterproof. I took the mic tossing as a red flag that I was stressed out and needed to focus on solutions, not problems.
We dropped the mainsail in preparation for tricky maneuvering. But left it untied and ready to run up, should we lose the engine. As soon as it was down we began hunting for an exit.
Samantha tried valiantly to fend off some ice and snapped her pole in the process. The piece drifted by with our point stuck in it. Like a wounded whale, it wagged the stick in its back as we passed.
Collision with multi-year ice was now imminent, whether we made it back out or not. Either we wait, to be struck and squeezed between the packs, or we strike our way out as gently as possible.
We took 2 laps within the ever-shrinking pond around us before deciding where to make our move. The question in my mind was “Will we be the can, or the can opener?” I felt like throwing up…
Like giant frozen cigar cutters, the bergs slowly sliced apart and together like the “Frogger” game of my youth. Our helm was spongy and the engine was working hard as we zoomed about, dodging these frozen free-moving rocks… I sure was glad I changed that fuel filter…Gulp…
Samantha went inside to the backup radio and relayed to Erkan that we were aborting the attempt. Then she climbed the ratlines to gain perspective and possible routes. I manned the helm and throttle with a clenched jaw, knowing full well we were in for a battle.
This was the second time Samantha and I had broken ice as a team and we learned a lot on our first go in the Brash Ice Barrier. I had to trust her. She had to trust me. Most importantly, we had to stay on the same team
A side note on communication and high stress:
When I was teaching ASA classes in Resurrection Bay Alaska, I made it a point in every class to run a live, cold-water rescue scenario while at anchor. Doing is learning and book work will not save a life.
So at some point in the morning or evening, I would jump in the water, yell “man overboard” and let them put their book skills to work in real time.
Almost all classes had me out of the water without my assistance in less than a minute. Following the rescue drill, we would debrief and enjoy the empowerment they found in the rescue process.
However, there was one particular class that did just the opposite. They simply argued with each other… I watched in amazement as they each pitched their “superior” ideas to each other, to no avail.
After a few minute in the cold water, I was losing dexterity in my fingertips. So I signaled one of the more passive students to throw me a line, which I used to climb up the starboard side.
They failed to come together as a team and rescue me. My debrief was simple… “Pick the worst idea, and do it.”
You see, they failed to recognize that failing to act, for the sake of perfection, is worse then making an ugly rescue. This was a good lesson and I’m sure you would agree, that scrapes and bruises are the least of a drowning mans concerns…
I bring that instance up now, because I knew there were a hundred possible ways to negotiate labyrinth ahead. But only a few would end in success.
We would succeed as a team, or we would fail as a team. So I told Samantha not to be “nice”. To yell clear directions, without explaining why. Port or starboard, fast or slow, yes or no. We simply had no time for anything else. In this way we communicated clearly and came together as one.
I followed Samantha’s pointing arm into a narrow ice filled gap. “Do you like it!?” I yelled. “Yea!” she yelled as she climbed down and headed for the bow, now seconds from collision.
We had found a loose batch of ice between two giant flows. If we could clear the ice chunks and wedge the flows apart, we would make it. The gap was about 10 feet wide and 80 feet long, curving to starboard midway. The loose ice in the gap was garbage can sized, with a chunk on the exit side about the size of Empiricus, but free floating.
I went hard reverse and slowed to a crawl. We needed enough speed to transfer energy and move the ice with momentum. But not so much speed, that we would become the “can” and hole the boat.
I came into the gap at a knot of speed and felt the munching of ice at our bow. The next impact was to the port side, when we met the curve in our gap.
Ice was riding both sides of our hull now as we wedged the large bergs apart. So steering was no longer an option. I stayed at the throttle and let our bow deflect to starboard, while turning the rudder starboard. I did this to protect it from the deep ice shelf underwater of the port side berg.
Soon we were emerging from the gap having felt the heavy shudders of the deflection process only a few times. But in order to escape the pinch and protect the rudder I had to gain speed. This drove us toward the last piece of this little puzzle, a large cake on the other side of the gap.
We struck head on at about 2 knots and lurched to a halt. But the chain bobstay cushioned the strike nicely and soon the cake began moving.
I breathed a small relieving sigh, as we drove the heavy mass to the south about a boat length.
Once I had some clear water to the stern and to the starboard, I used prop walk for a hard starboard spin to clear the bow. Moments later, we cleared the gap and watched it slide shut behind us.
We found ourselves closer to the south shore now, where the water was clearer and calmer. But we were not out of it yet.
Soon we found ourselves shoving another large cake to make another tight exit. This time we were pushing ice to escape the flows that moved in behind, threatening our rudder.
I powered hard after slowing again and began moving the cake. But this one was very deep in the water and heavier then the first. Soon the bow began to climb up onto the cake and we rocked over to Port a few degrees.
Samantha was in the rigging and the ratlines were nearly vertical. The ice cake was moving slowly and had begun to spin from our thrust. But the hull was rising out of the water and I feared we would be hung up if we continued forward.
So I backed off hard in reverse, much to Samantha’s dismay, as she could see the ice behind, still moving in. This was a critical choice, where no clearly superior answer could be found, yet a decision must be made. After a short burst of black smoke, we slid back off the ice. Then a burst forward and rudder to port, gave us a clean exit, just barely clearing both obstacles.
I remember saying “OK. That was a good move… Next Move…” And so the afternoon went. Move after move, lead after lead. Some pushing here, some waiting there, until we eventually made our way back to the west entrance of Bellot Strait.
At 1420 hrs, we were right back where we started and glad for it.
We had lost contact with Altan Girl since Samantha called him. He was last seen near the westbound back eddy. We sent out Delorme messages regarding his situation to the contacts he provided us, then waited for a reply. We could see his mast and he was almost out. Soon after that we contacted him on the radio. He reported he could not move… This went on for about an hour when he reported having safely emerged.
After a celebration of joy and short nap, we got up to check our drift rate and the ice situation. The weather was beautiful and calm. Again I was amazed at the combination of danger and beauty in this fascinating place.
At 2315 hrs local, Samantha saw icebreaker Pierre Raddison entering Bellot Strait. I hailed them and requested an ice report from their passage. They took down our contact’s e-mail and agreed to send the report. We always found the Canadian Coast Guard to be very helpful when requesting information.
Samantha and I briefly discussed the idea of following them through. But it was a short conversation. Neither one of us were interested in following an icebreaker in those heavy flows. We had heard the horror stories about following icebreakers and didn’t need our own. We would wait until the ice volume decreased. Our weather was stable and good. We would try again tomorrow, ice permitting.
We were sticking to our rules, these very simple rules, and it was working.
1. Fix what can kill you.
2. Fix what can hurt you.
3. Fix what can make you more comfortable.
We were enjoying the process and not falling in love with the outcome.
But there was another problem on the horizon. The stable high-pressure system laid a cold foundation of air on the calm water. Just minutes after sunset, the water began to glaze over… The ocean was freezing around us…
To be continued…
Capt. Jesse Osborn