On September 1, 2014, just after our 1st attempt at the Northwest Passage’s infamous Bellot Straight, we vowed not to make another, until we had a got, clear ice report. We were prepared and ready to return to Gjoa Haven for the winter, if need be and in the mean time sat drifting in calm conditions, with hopes for a passage. Erkan Gursoy of Altan Girl, called us that very same evening. He thought the Straight had cleared of ice, enough for another attempt. But we encouraged him to wait for an ice report as well.
We spent that night, adrift near the mouth of Bellot. But had to move 6 miles westward, as to stay clear of the current suction. Soon after the sun dipped over the horizon, fresh Ice began ice forming on the waters surface. First in patches, like needles floating by the handful, then, merging to the next patch and the next. Ultimately becoming a uniform skin, within an hour of sundown.
The current took hold of our keel again and I woke to the grinding of fine ice against our hull. Even six miles from the entrance, the current tugged us through the fresh ice crystals. That thin skin of ice played an eerie tune of scrape and crumble, against the resonating hull as we tried to get precious sleep.
The next acceptable tide (2 hours before high slack) to make an attempt was drawing near. Right about then we got an ice report (5/10 multi year ice flows, with a complete blockage and a NO GO suggestion from our land based resources)
At 0230 UTC we saw MV Triton, a large steel pleasure yacht approximately 163 feet long, jogging back and forth at the mouth of Bellot. We spoke on the radio for a bit and I passed on our latest ice information. They too, had decided to wait, but informed us that they could see a sailboat mast, deep inside Bellot. Triton had nosed into the straight and contemplated sending in a tender to help as the boat was in obvious distress and could not move. As it turns out, that was Altan Girl and he was pinned against a complete blockage by very large ice flows. There was nothing anyone could do for him.
He had a satellite communication device onboard and we got in communication with our friend Victor. He was was already trying to help Altan Girl however he could, so we knew the outside world, was as poised as could be possible to help out. His fate was to be flushed down the 18 mile tube, surrounded by 50% , multi year Ice flows, at max current power…
I would not be telling the truth if I said we were not upset about this, completely avoidable situation. But I had to remind myself that it was his ship and his life. Rite wrong or indifferent, he was in the straight now. Attempts were made to contact vessels on the other side, but no one could reach him and the icebreaker was not around.
The sun began to shine well, the day was bright and clear. Still the ice around our hull continued to build late into the morning. It was so thick by local noon, the current could no longer drag us through through the glaze. We sat still and watched the current flow underneath the ice. It was like like peering down through the floor of a glass bottom boat, with thousands of tiny sea creatures, whisking along at a full knot.
We heard later that morning that Altan Girl was near the East exit of Bellot Straight, having suffered great difficulties’. Tandberg Polar of the Maud Expedition had reportedly, towed him free of the pack ice on the east side and he was clear. A short time later we received word from his family that Erkan had made it, but thought “That was the end”… we were relieved to hear he was alive, regardless and it was nice to have the air clear of this concern.
Again we revisited our options, and settled our spirits, that if we had to winter over, we would do so. No clean ice report, no go… So Samantha fired up some power cakes and I set to work in the bright sun with freezing fingers preparing for what may come next. During our first attempt, we were set to sail as always. But having cloth and sheets about the deck, was a bit cumbersome for heavy ice navigation and use of long poles.
So in preparation for another possible attempt we; removed the Genoa completely and stowed it below, lifted the mizzen boom to add stern clearance, removed all the sheets and gybe preventers, topped off the fuel, topped off the fresh water, repaired the radio power supply and tested it for function, troubleshot the depth sounder and cleared the deck of anything that was in immediate need topside. The mainsail however was ready to run should we lose power.
One of our Honda generators had shut down the night before. I suspected a fuel problem. So I tore down the carburetors and gave it a good scrubbing and gasoline bath. It was cold finger work and even though the sun shone bright, my hands felt the bight deeply. Everything takes longer in the arctic, but I got the job done and was completing a successful test run, when we got a fresh ice report.
Bellot straight 2/10 ice, try in the morning. The message said… Sweet! I belted as our hopes of passing were re ignited. I looked at the tide and it was 2 hours before high slack…. Were going now. I said as I fired up the engine, checking that the raw water was flowing and not frozen. As the engine warmed up, I put the covers back on the generator and stowed it. Then Samantha began steering us through the fresh ice sheet with a b-line for Bellot. I went below and furthered preparation by accessing and untying the 2 emergency de-watering pumps from the v-berth and laying them out, next to their appropriate hoses. (Empiricus carries a 2 inch sump style, 2KW electric water pump as well as an 1.5 inch Honda gas powered trash pump with hard hose.) Access ports have been cut to the lowest bilge level, so that suction lines may be inserted without floorboard removal. So I loosened the main bilge access cap. Then switching gears, I laid out our survival suits, ditch kit, and shotgun. Just in case we had to step onto an ice flow. Prepare for the worst, plan your best and make your decision. That’s the game on a daily basis in the arctic.
I hailed Triton as we plowed ice, breaking chucks like pizza slices at the bow. Triton had already gone in for an early look and the pilot reported, they could see ice free waters, six miles in. We knew that the 4 mile mark is the narrowest point in the straight and black smoke burped from our little Yanmar as I ran her up hot. This was our chance…
We looked at our position and were now 4 miles from the entrance and I felt relaxed, knowing we were as ready as ready gets.
Sure enough the waters were relatively ice free, up to the 4 mile mark. The massive shiny pleasure Yacht had encountered heavy ice at the six mile mark and aborted the attempt. Our hearts sunk, and we turned around for a moment. But my gut wrenched at this decision and it did not feel right to blindly follow another vessels decision when our ice report was so promising.
I turned back around after just a hundred yards. There was no heavy ice behind us and we would not be endangered by taking a closer look. Besides that, the tide was approaching just at slack now. When the current flowed east, the ice might move about and loosen, possibly creating leads through. It felt better immediately to continue on in and we encountered Triton at the 4.5 mile mark. They honked a mega horn and we responded with a bell clang and a wave. Promising to tell them what we saw.
Ten minutes later we could see the ice Triton was talking about. But as we suspected, it was broken into sections and beginning to move. Samantha watched the horizon from the rigging and we found a lead past the first big bergs. It was a narrow opening near the south shore, leading to large patches of open water as far as we could see.
I stopped and we spun some circles, just watching the drift trends. We still had time to abort and escape the current but we had to decide soon. Sam looked down from the rigging and I looked up. We didn’t even have to say it, but we did. Lets do it we agreed and as I aimed for the lead, our commitment was cemented.
This first lead proved the most difficult however and I wished we had gone a little sooner. Because a boat length away from the open lead, the ice started moving. Just like before, the creepy carnival ride switch was flipped and the ice came to life with a lurch. It was to late to stop forward progress and I looked to the Portside in horror, as a half-acre, multiyear ice flow bore down on us. As deep blue tongue of ice protruded from the deeper edge, spearheading the ½ knot squeeze we soon felt.
I held over a knot of speed until the first impact, which kicked our keel hard, causing a port list. The second impact was the surface edge, which drove us with a smack, against the berg to our starboard. But the ice still came at us… Empiricus fended the squeeze as suitcase sized chucks of the shelf, burst and exploded against her, being peeled back and split off like a big ugly fingernail. The force was incredible and my instincts told me, that if we did not move forward, we would be here to stay. I had come to neutral, with a centered rudder, in hopes of minimizing damage. But we had to clear this squeeze. If I bent the spinning prop in the squeeze, I would have to worry about that later. W had a spare prop and dive gear onboard, but I groaned at the thought as, I firewalled the engine forward with a clenched jaw.
Our hull had been slowly rising up from the squeeze, bringing the prop closer to danger, but soon we slid forward and down, to our fully wetted draft. Gaining speed out of the squeeze, I stayed hot in the throttle until our stern was clear, then came to a drift of 2 knots or so.
I was not sure if we had steering and a large burg was dead ahead in our destined path. We met it with a jaw shaking impact and I called for a damage report. If we had indeed holed her, the plan was to change tactics and employ the pumps while we sat in clean water. Having made the worst of it now, Samantha reluctantly pried herself from the rigging and yanked the floorboards up. Giving a report of all is well… What a boat…
The steering answered fine and we were still spitting raw water from the exhaust. Samantha took the laser thermometer and shot the engine face all over. No temps above 150F. So we continued as before, now enjoying large patches of open water. We had learned allot on our first attempt and our communication was much better as well.
I had learned that when you see a gap, take it and do so with speed, lest you be pinched. But that plan opens you to other problems, as I will describe now.
It was getting very cold and fingered gloves simply don’t work on long watches, so I was wearing my army surplus mittens with liners as always. They were great for tossing aside while tying and fixing. Then putting back on quickly to re warm. This is how the Inuit stay warm and the reason they wear baggy clothes. Quickly dressing and un dressing allows them to control body temp without sweating.
Big bulky mitts and safety tethers are great for snagging in the spokes of a ships wheel, when doing 3 knots through an ice gap. Which is what happened next and by the time I had it sorted, we met another berg with our bow… Damage report please…. My Bad…
From then on out, things looked pretty fair and we weaved the flows with ease. When we passed the infamous Magpie Rock, the sun was setting, leaving dusky light to show the whirl pooling current. Which only passively shifted us now, having been stripped of its icy weapons.
It was a black night, by the time we weaved through the bergs, into Depot Bay following the anchor light of Tanberg Polar. Having safely navigated the crux of the Northwest Passage. Bellot Straight.
A subsiquent inspection on dry dock, would show that Empiricus suffered no ill consequences from the ice. Save for some paint removal at the waterline and some scratches on the keel bulb, she was ship shape.
Here is what we learned during our transit of Bellot Straight.
- Be ready. Well that seems to go without saying right? Wrong… The typical level of readiness is not good enough for places like Bellot Straight. Just like before a big game, match, or race. Take some time to stop and retie your shoes so to speak, before the starting gun fires off. Your passage will be dictated by tides and ice, so there will be predictable gaps of time to work with before hand. So although I initially tried to time our approach for an un interrupted transit. We would have been better off, to stop and clear our decks. As well as do inspections before entering the straight. We did this on the second attempt with appreciable advantages in spirit and mobility.
- Stay confident. There will be many fast decisions to make on the fly. Having a confident, unified crew will get you farther then anything else. When we entered Bellot Straight, our minds were on self-sufficiency and self-rescue. We did not calculate the involvement of others, nor count on being rescued. It was our decision alone, to make the transit and therefore our burden to bear. If you are not approaching with confidence, don’t go. The Northwest Passage is an ALL IN venture. Your gut is the most reliable instrument onboard. Listen to it.
- Know your boat. Empiricus continues to impress me with her strength and my decisions with her regarding ice contact are rooted in the fact that I know her well. Had that not been the case, or if we were on a production grade vessel or a vessel of different build characteristics, our tactics would likely had been different. Take Triton for example, a well built Delta Yacht with a steel hull. She plays by a different set of rules. First off, she is much wider, needing larger leads. She would also carry a high speed at idle, making her stern vulnerable to ice, between bouts of intermittent prop wash. In contrast, nearly any sailboat can steer with great accuracy at very low speeds, due to an oversized rudder. Empiricus can provide continual forward thrust at ½ knot and her rounded narrow hull slices nicely through leads. A wider, square stern vessel, with small rudders would have to adapt to its strengths and weaknesses, as did we. What I am saying here, is the rules are different for different builds and crews. Each vessel will need to find a recipe that works. Know your boat is at the heart of the solution.
- Don’t race a closing gap. This one is self-explanatory for the most part. If making a gap before it closes, requires more speed then you would approach a concrete mooring. Do not take it. You will likely lose. Slow and steady wins. Play it like a 2 hour chess game.
- Stay focused. Bellot Straight, with any amount of ice in her grip, will ask allot of you. Total involvement and concentration are a must. So put annoyances and worries aside for now. These could be anything from blog stalkers, giving unsolicited advice, or messages of bad news, to worry for other vessels. Or maybe the ice that froze around your hull last night and your concern for an early freeze over. If you cant change it, forget it. This is game day.
- Let your tactics evolve. As your education in the ice grows, you will find that some of your assumptions are wrong. We all use assumptions, to fill gaps in our knowledge. So be easy on yourself and accept the wisdom that comes with your mistakes. For instance, when we first entered the straight, we had a rule to not allow any ice behind us. This was based on the assumption that the ice would flow East with the current. As it worked out, the ice in the middle, just spins in place for the most part. So we had to break past that rule and revamp our tactics. Along the way our skill grew and our assumptions shrank, giving us the ability to negotiate heavy ice, with ever growing confidence.
- Enjoy the process. That taste of acid in your throat is not weakness. It is wisdom being born. Swallow that acid and set a stiff jaw to the moments that press you back. Accept the humility that comes with failure and remember, that sometimes, progress, is made, by standing still and waiting. So wait for your leads and rest between moves, always planning, always learning. Remember that when we are at the trembling edge of our skill and courage, the best of ourselves, will boil to the surface. Finding our imperfect selves is a raw, experience, through which we can grow, serve and lead.
Life is a gift. Unwrap it.
Capt. Jesse Osborn.