In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin attempted to discover a route through the Arctic’s infamous Northwest Passage with his two Royal Navy sailing ships Erebus and Terror. Both vessels were lost with all hands and the mystery of their disappearance in the ice vexed the civilised world until strange rumours began to emerge several years later.
The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the Antarctic in 1911, finally forced his way through the ice bound Passage in 1906 although there are those who suggest he wasn’t the first. In both instances, neither of these intrepid adventurers had any inclination that global warming would one day (in 2007 in fact) open the route through the Arctic to connect the two great oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific.
I daresay the issue of the Arctic getting warmer never entered the minds of Franklin’s crew as they resorted to cannibalism and froze to death. Nowadays, vessels of various types transit the Northwest Passage and it’s still a controversial argument.
In 1778, Captain James Cook, perhaps the greatest of all English explorers, attempted to find the Passage from the Pacific side and failed. Driven back by the pack ice, he returned to Hawaii and was slaughtered by warriors on the big island. In 2013, my wife Marie and I set out from New Zealand in our own sailing boat Sänna to follow Cook’s route north across the Pacific to British Columbia and Alaska. I was asked by the UK’s Sailing Today magazine to write about Cook’s demise and our own voyage, because we too wanted to find a sailing route home to England. For those of you who are interested you can read the published article here.
Global warming has undoubtedly changed things. These days cruise ships, commercial cargo carriers and small private vessels just like ours transit the Northwest Passage and it’s an emotionally charged subject. The route through is one of the world’s last great wildernesses and the issue of conservation, safety and territorial ownership is passionately debated by those concerned with such things.
For example, the Canadian government are being urged by their own experts, and the media in particular, to restrict the number of both commercial and private vessels in the Arctic region and more specifically the Northwest Passage. They argue that Canada does not have the resources to provide search and rescue operations for high levels of tourism in what is still a vast and exceptionally remote region. Canada’s ice breaking ships, a limited resource, are already being called upon to rescue vessels which become trapped in the ice. Furthermore, huge passenger cruise ships, which are not of ice rated construction, are planning to transit the Passage and are already pre-selling vacation holidays onboard. The mega cruise ship Crystal Serenity for example.
In 2014, twenty seven privately owned sailing and motor vessels attempted to transit the Northwest Passage to take advantage of the perceived ice free sea ways between the Atlantic and Pacific. Of these, only UK sailing legend Jimmy Cornell’s Aventura was specifically built for the task, the rest being invariably constructed for normal ocean passages… much like Franklin’s Terror and Erebus, Cook’s Resolution and Amundsen’s herring boat Gjøa in fact. Only ten of those making the attempt in 2014 made it through the Passage, the rest, including Cornell’s much lauded Aventura, being forced back by pack ice which failed to dissipate as expected. The previous year, in 2013, the ice suddenly came back with a vengeance and six sailing vessels were trapped, eventually being rescued by Canadian ice breakers at great expense.
And there is the great issue. Firstly, global warming is not the reliable robust planet destroyer some would like to have us think and, secondly, the Northwest Passage isn’t for the casual faint hearted. It’s still largely unpredictable. The Canadian authorities argue they have the responsibility and cost of rescuing intrepid adventurers who don’t quite make it. So, in simple terms, should these small sailing boats and commercial cruise ships, in the polar region purely for pleasure and of no scientific value, be allowed to cruise through these Arctic regions at will. What do you think?
Let’s discuss our own situation for example.
We ourselves, that is Marie and I, made a plan for our own attempt to transit the Passage this coming year, partly in our quest to continue in Captain Cook’s wake and also to find a route home to complete our sailing circumnavigation. We’re now overwintering Sänna in Alaska and our opinions are changing.
Firstly, we thought to include Marie’s son Henry, he’s lived and sailed with us for much of his early years and we’ve, in part, home educated him onboard. Henry is now in mainstream school education in the UK and we approached the teaching establishment for their views on our planned adventure. They were steadfastly opposed although the more liberal and enlightened teachers thought differently. Clearly we touched a raw social nerve and, for those of you who are interested, you can read about this heartfelt and thought provoking debate here.
More importantly, in addition to the teaching fraternity, both the sailing establishment and the various authorities are purposely divided over our venture. My initial attempts to secure UK media backing to contribute to funding the required insurance for our voyage failed because the Northwest Passage isn’t news anymore. It’s been done. That is, I was told, until there is a major disaster or loss of life in the region (which is predicted to happen at some point) when the cameras and reporters will eagerly return with a vengeance. Media focus is shifting away from intrepid adventurism to the environmental impacts of casual tourism. No one nowadays is much interested in our adventure and, as my wife tells me, I’m not one that likes to go unnoticed. So what are we to do?
Another fundamental argument we’re increasingly encountering is the construction of our boat, which is not dissimilar to those other sailing boats making the attempt. You see, in simple terms, our hull is made of plastic (GRP in fact) which is supposedly not concussive to ice impact. There’s also much debate by sailing experts about the quality of the design and build of our type of vessel although figures and facts about disasters at sea don’t support this. We’ve successfully survived a number of violent storms unscathed during our round-the-world voyage. But should we venture into the Arctic ice?
A further debate is previous experience of sailing in high latitudes and I do vehemently support this. Day to day survival in extreme cold environments, in my experience, is all about gradual conditioning and acclimatisation much like adapting the mind and body to high altitude climbing. There is also the important aspect of ice navigation. We do have a deal of experience so for ourselves this isn’t a great issue. The Reverend Bob Shepton, the UK’s yachtsman of the year in 2013 and a sailing legend, transited the Northwest Passage in his GRP constructed vessel Dodo’s Delight twice… the most recent at 78 years of age! Bob and I have discussed our own planned attempt in some detail and we both agree that Sänna’s actual build, not her perceived build, and our previous experience in icy waters do not preclude us from thinking we could succeed.
So, why then, are we considering heading south from Alaska to Panama to get into the Atlantic the easy way?
Firstly, we were taken aback by the reaction to including Henry in our plans. He passionately wanted to make his own decision but it meant a potential year out of mainstream schooling, longer if forced to overwinter in the ice as other yachts have done so. New laws have recently been introduced in the UK to prevent extended absences from schools and home education is frowned upon, especially by professional teachers and headmasters charged with improving educational standards. Teachers we debated the subject with also raised the issue of his interaction and dynamics with other children of the same age, which, onboard a sailing boat for anything up to a year in the Arctic, Henry wouldn’t necessarily share. But there is also a counter argument about teenage life experiences and the higher standards achieved through home education. Again, you can read about our experiences in dealing with the education establishment here.
Ironically, to continue on this point, we found much greater media interest in this social argument about education and Henry’s inclusion in our Polar challenge than if we were to make the voyage without him. With Henry onboard we would undoubtedly attract media interest, without him then no dice.
Secondly, there is undoubted risk. Whether it’s just the two of us (or three if Henry does join us), the ocean is unforgiving and even more so in extreme environments. But we’ve learned to live with the risks and deal with them. In return we get to see incredible parts of the world in a way that encompasses a great deal of freedom and a way of life that encourages independence.
But the single big issue for ourselves is the reaction of our peers and that of the respected establishment. The Arctic, despite global warming, is precious and shouldn’t be destroyed by casual tourism that has no scientific purpose? As a sometime rebel, I at first passionately supported this argument, I did not consider myself a tourist. I’m a sailor and adventurer seeking to change my life by sailing my boat alone with my wife. We could go wherever we wanted to sail. Over time I’ve become more wise and learned to view things a little differently. We’ve seen how tourism can change remote regions for sometimes necessary economic reasons. But commercial tourism destroys wilderness… take Alaska for instance.
History provides us with every example of what happens. The courageous explorers, the likes of Cook, Amundsen and many others, discover unknown regions of the world in their own way. They are quickly followed by the adventurers and hard core settlers, like the Klondyke Gold Rush for example, and then come the independent adventure tourist, bringing no value but their own intrepid courage. Finally, organised commercial tourism introduces the casual tourist who often bring great wealth and prosperity to the region. The environment changes and the wilderness is gone. Even so, everyone has the right to travel in their own way and it can be argued that no one has the right to claim incredible locations for themselves. Maybe. Maybe not.
From a mariner’s stand point, Jimmy Cornell in Aventura, a boat built specifically for his Blue Water Odyssey sailing race he organised for the Northwest Passage to highlight the effects of Arctic Global Warming, failed to make a transit. Cornell responded by cancelling the event stating too many of the entry boats, which he himself initially encouraged, were not suitable for sailing in the polar regions, especially given the renewed vengeance of the ice pack. Although ironic that his boat failed and others considered unsuitable succeeded, he has set the debate running and to make our own attempt will mean we could fall foul of expert opinion.
We have yet to make a decision if we’ll sail north and disregard the views of many experts. We can easily go south. The US Coast Guard in Alaska recently advised us of possible new permit requirements to restrict casual encroachment into the region, but then they themselves do not support Canada’s claim to territorial ownership of this Arctic region. It’s ironic that even opposing governments cannot agree and challenge each other over the Northwest Passage. And if things go wrong with our attempt, which is perfectly possible, I will certainly attract a great deal of criticism and be pilloried for being irresponsible in light of the great debate that’s growing.
These days, I suspect we ourselves are merely selfish tourists and not the intrepid adventurers we like to think. We’re a potential liability and I get the distinct impression we are not welcome in the far north. Even so, our thirst for adventure drives us on and maybe we’ll disregard everything, press-gang Henry onboard and go north. But challenging the ways of the world gets tiring and, nowadays, we’re more wary of being controversial. Most probably, we’ll retreat and go south.
Only through global warming is this debate possible and the world we know is changing at a frighteningly fast pace. Or is it? Perhaps the ghosts of Franklin and his lost crew are trying to warn us that all is not well in the frozen north…
Please feel free to comment your thoughts.
Dave & Marie Ungless are currently sailing their boat Sänna around the world from west to east. Their nine year voyage so far has taken them into the North Pacific and to Alaska where they are now located. Dave is a freelance writer and journalist writing about their travels and the social aspects of their journey.
You can also Like their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/sv.sanna.