Enough With The Northwest Passage, Already

A bull walrus lies on an ice floe north of Nordaustlandet.

North of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, from “Morgan’s Cloud” in 2/10 ice. We were being very careful to follow the rules.

This whole transiting the Northwest Passage (The Passage) in a yacht is getting out of hand and many (maybe most) of the crews and boats trying it shouldn’t be anywhere near the place.

How can someone who has spent much of the last 20 years in the high latitudes in a yacht say that without being a hypocrite, you ask? Simple, the Northwest Passage is different from most other high latitude destinations normally visited by yachts. Read on for why.

In most years (and particularly in the last two) there is no way to transit The Passage without breaking most, or even all, of the rules of prudent ice navigation for non-ice-strengthened yachts, that have served me well for 20 years and that are based on wisdom from professional ice navigators:

  1. Never enter an area of strong currents when pack ice may be present.
  2. Never enter an area of over 3/10 ice (30% sea coverage).
  3. Never enter an area of pack ice without a clear and open exit path.
  4. Never navigate in such a way that you run the risk of getting trapped between the ice and the land.
  5. Never enter an area of pack ice if there is a risk that the wind will get up before you can reach shelter or clear water.
  6. Never enter a strait or channel if the other end is, or could be before you finish the transit, blocked with ice.

Yes, I know, plenty of yachts have broken these rules and made it through. That does not alter the fact that breaking the above rules is unseamanlike and just plain foolhardy.

Or, to put it another way, in most years transiting the passage in a yacht is a crap shoot where luck, combined with not a little bullheadedness, is the arbiter of success, not seamanship.

And for what reason are many yachts taking on these risks? So they can get the tick, “I have transited The Passage.” For these crews it’s not a voyage with the associated appreciation and learning about the surrounding lands and seas, it’s a mad dash, starting way too late in the season, just to say they did it.

And then there is this whole “I was first thing“, which is even more unattractive than just getting the tick. The latest I have heard is “first fiberglass boat through The Passage both ways in successive years”. What’s next? “First boat crewed by brown eyed right handed people from Timbuktu?”

And it gets worse still. Many of these crews are attempting The Passage as their first high latitude experience. That’s crazy. That’s like attempting a doctoral thesis just after graduating high school.

And you know what really upsets me? Those yachts attempting the passage that aren’t qualified to, or that keep on going when they should have turned back, are going to ruin high latitude sailing for the rest of us by getting us all banned from the Arctic by the authorities. Just how many times are the Canadian Coast Guard going to risk their ships and crews to get these boats out of their own hubris and/or ignorance induced dangerous situations before they get tired of it and close The Passage to all yachts?

And worse still, will those bans just apply to The Passage? No, authorities when riled up enough always over react. In fact, there are already ominous rumblings out of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of regulations that may make it impossible to go anywhere in the Arctic in a yacht, or at least one that we can afford.

So does that mean that I think that no one should attempt The Passage in a yacht? Not a bit of it:

  • If you are going to actually cruise the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in a boat equipped to winter over, unassisted by the authorities, and have the experience to pull that off; or
  • if you wish to attempt a transit on the basis that you will call it off if you are faced with breaking any of the rules above, and have the experience to evaluate those decisions;

then more power to you.

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

46 comments… add one
  • Scott Fraser Oct 9, 2014, 10:03 am

    Not only was it the first plastic boat to do the NWP on both directions in successive years but it was a 33 ft boat with a 78 yr old skipper. Probably multiple firsts there. Only redeeming feature of this tale is that the skipper has many years experience in high latitudes north and south and well over 100,000 offshore miles. You can read all about it in “Addicted to Adventure” by Bob Shepton.

    I’ve sailed with Bob and can attest to his “addiction”, and I’ve sailed in the high arctic, once crossing 80N. In my humble view your post is spot on. The arctic kills the careless…and the foolish.

    • John Oct 10, 2014, 8:28 am

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for the support.

      As you say, I was referring to Bob’s passage. I should clarify that I have huge respect for Bob and what he has accomplished over the years.

  • Ed Finn ,Newfoundland Oct 9, 2014, 9:00 pm

    You might want to edit this before u publish it…
    Six fundamental rules !
    Where did you find those?
    I dont think you can have an artic or pack ice cruise /
    “adventure ” without violating one or several of these rules.
    Can a person climb Mount Everest without incurring risk or danger?
    Heck, I cant cross Trinity Bay- just outside of my home port- in May or June without a risk of being trapped in pack ice. Yet my friends and I do every year.
    And the wind can change any time, trapping you on a lee shore, or between a lee shore and pack ice.
    These days,Commercial seal harvesters (hunters) regularly conduct their fishery from boats, in , yes in, pack ice.
    Are u sure about these where did you find ’em …Hawaii?
    Dont mean to be disrespectful.
    And I wouldn’t be encouraging amateurs to take risks in the Arctic without the knowledge that stuff can go wrong, and it can sink your boat and/or kill you.
    Extreme sports are full of dangers, thats why we call them extreme.
    No one should expect to traverse the arctic without being fully prepared.
    But adequately prepared people have done it for 100 years.
    Accepting risk, in persuit of adventure or
    In the persuit of happiness, is not usually called foolhardy, its called adventure.
    Taking risks in indemic in the human condition,
    That’s why our ancestors ( monkeys) climbed down out of the trees, and moved us forward.
    John you grew up in the British Isles,or was it Bermuda?
    I grew up in Newfoundland, and played on pack ice , on the way home from
    grade school. Our perspectives, and experiences are much different.
    But I must take exception to those six rules.
    In closing
    I really enjoyed your website, and its the only website I ever paid for.
    ( thats flattery!)
    Please don’t cancel my subscription…
    Ed Finn
    Carbonear, Newfoundland

    • John Oct 10, 2014, 8:20 am

      Hi Ed,

      Thanks for the kind comments on the site.

      I guess I will stick with my rules. They have served me well over some 20 years of going north and I have had plenty of Adventure, at least by my lights, while still observing them.

      Having said that, I agree with you, they would not work for a commercial seal harvester in Newfoundland, or you trying to get across Trinity Bay in the early summer. The key to me in resolving this conflict is that it might be OK, and even safe, for a Newfoundlander who has been around ice in his or her home waters to break the rules in those same home waters, but that does not make it OK for a yachtie in the NWP who breaks the rules and then expects the Coast Guard to solve the problem.

      Also, let’s not forget how many Newfoundlanders have lost their boats and sometimes lives due to ice action.

  • Larry Roberts Oct 9, 2014, 11:39 pm

    I think it is a bit simplistic to suggest all who transit the NWP are adventurers. The [relatively] ice-free late summers of 2011 and 2012 coupled with all the “global warming” hype in the media at the time led many to believe the NWP would be a practical route between the oceans in 2013.
    I know that our boat and believe that at least two others felt the NWP was simply a reasonable way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
    That said, we weren’t completely taken in by the media. We had sailed previously in the Antarctic and Spitsbergen and had daily access to ice charts, weather maps and text forecasts. We were prepared to turn around or winter in Cambridge if the need arose [I have spent considerable time in the Canadian Arctic in winter and have no illusions what it is like].
    I agree that the Canadian Arctic is very different than other ice areas to which yachts cruise: when problems strike between Lancaster Sound and Point Barrow there is no easy exit. By contrast, ice problems in the Antarctic or Spitsbergen are usually rectified by shaping a course in the direction of the equator.
    In retrospect though, we are glad the ice conditions of previous years sucked us in. Through considerable effort, planning and plan-changes, and a few mechanical jury-rigs we reached the Pacific in an undamaged boat to continue our cruising.
    Your rules are a great starting point but are just a few of many things that must be studied and understood for a safe passage.

    Larry Roberts
    SV TRAVERSAY III [2013 w-bound NWP]

    • John Oct 10, 2014, 8:12 am

      HI Larry,

      Sounds like you were well prepared and qualified for your traverse. I particularly like the fact that you were prepared to winter over in Cambridge Bay. As I say in the post, more power to you, and congratulations.

  • Michael Oct 10, 2014, 4:00 am

    Thanks John for this statement. I think your rules are generally right, at least they are a point to start from.
    Ofcourse it is very much a question of your personal attitude to risk taking how far you go. We had only been sailing in Northwest Greenland and Spitsbergen so far. But we talked to some crews going in and coming from the Northwestpassage the last 2 years. 2013 the 2 boats (Tooluka and Arctic Tern) that turned arround and did not make it from the east where the ones with the by far most experienced crews. Others pushed the limits and made it only with the help of an icebreaker, although this was only for a short distance. Even one katamaran made it in 2013, on there webside you can read: “The first Katamaran that ever made the Northwestpassage”.

    Ofcourse everybody must decide for themselves and the personal motivation often seems to be a mix of reasons but the search for honor obviously often is part of these.
    But what kind of honor ? What are we doing is just sailing, this is good but it is not an social engagement, changing the world, making more sense then to sail – enough for itself.

    • John Oct 10, 2014, 8:23 am

      Hi Michael,

      All good points, thank you. I particularly like your point that two of the most experienced boats turned back—kind of says it all.

      • Michael Oct 12, 2014, 3:19 am

        Hi John,
        I should have written what I meant more precise: “The 2 most experienced crews in ice navigation that entered the passage from the east in 2013 turned around”

  • Matt Rutherford Oct 10, 2014, 1:31 pm

    I do believe I fall into the “foolish boat” category, I just didn’t have $300,000 for a high latitude boat. That said, when I went through the NWP it was a light ice year so I made it through without breaking any of the rules listed above. Every year the NWP is a crap shoot. There is no way to know what the ice will be like until you arrive.

    I would suggest one more rule. You should never try to transit the NWP without “eyes in the sky” AKA an ice guide. Even on my rather proletarian circumnavigation of the Americas I had iridium based communications equipment. Its important to find someone based back on land who has access to ice information and experience using this information. You can not relay on an ice guide for seamanship or decision making aboard the vessel but having someone who can tell you what the ice is doing ahead and behind you can make a huge difference.

    I don’t think people will stop attempting the NWP any time soon, and its only a matter of time until something truly tragic happens up there. Then again, if someone told me their dream was to sail the NWP I would try to help them make that happen (I helped a guy named Micheal Johnson get through the NWP by hooking him up with an ice guide named Victor and he made it!)

    I talked to a lady at the Canadian embassy, she told me Canada tried to put some restrictions on the NWP a few years back but couldn’t do it because of all the international arguing about “who owns the NWP”. That can and may change in the near future.

    By the way i’m still planing on heading to East Greenland next year with a PHD from the university of Texas researching the health of the glaciers within the East Greenland fjords. Looks like ill be launching a scientific fixed wing drone with a catapult off the back of my Colvin Gazelle. Should be fun.

    Matt Rutherford

    • John Oct 11, 2014, 8:45 am

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for the well reasoned comment. I think that your point that you were in fact able to transit the NWP without breaking “the rules” is telling. As I said in the post, I have no problem with that at all. My worry is that increasing numbers of boats are being driven to keep going no matter what, driven by the desire to get the tick.

      Also, all very good point on the importance of good ice information and the ability to interpret it properly.

  • Svein Lamark Oct 10, 2014, 3:02 pm

    Hi John,
    I believe I have heard your rules many times before. Both my father and grandpa financed seal hunters and whalers to The Arctic. They took the last and most risky 10-15 % of the financial project. As a kid I loved to listen in to the discussions between my father and skippers of seal hunters and whale ships. I guess they would all have accepted your rules, but they were doing risk management. Number one risk region was the entrance to The White Sea: Difficult ice and unstable Russia. Number two was North East Greenland: Lots of dangerous ice coming south from The North Pole. The West Ice (ice in March north of Jan Mayen) was also considered dangerous. The ice of New Foundland was not so dangerous (probably because the ships going there were bigger). The west side of Greenland was safer, but the NWP a no entry zone. They also considered The North Atlantic in winter time a dangerous place. Many good ships were lost here outside the ice.
    Later in my life I moved from The Arctic to an island in Sothern Norway called Nøtterøy. At that time this island had about 5000 retired whalers with experience from The South Pole region. I spoke to many of them and they all described the sea and its ice as extremely dangerous. It is no place fore a yacht. I guess all of this men would accept your rules.
    One problem to day is that some sailors do not respect those old rules. They are willing to take any risk. This is provoking the governments and they will make new restrictions to prevent sailors coming to this regions. A foolish adventurer can make it difficult for every body else.

    • John Oct 11, 2014, 8:59 am

      Hi Svein,

      Thank you. I felt very strongly about this post, but I also knew that I was going out on a limb by proposing a set of rules. Having those rules confirmed by someone of your experience backed up by history from the best ice navigators in the world…well that makes me feel a whole lot better!

      By the way, a lot of what I wrote about ice navigation in yachts I learned from the then recently retired captain of the Norwegian Arctic research vessel Lance. He was kind enough to spend several hours with me imparting ice navigation wisdom (that he could trace directly back to Nansen) the winter before we voyaged to Svalbard and spent time in Hinlopen Strait. His wisdom rang in my ears as we turned back west at Nordkapp on Nordaustlandet because continuing would have violated at least three of the rules.

  • Ben Tucker Oct 10, 2014, 8:56 pm

    Those same ice rules where explained to me by Don Mcintire before I sailed Snow Petrel to Commonweath Bay. Our First attempt through the pack was aborted when fatigue, a light northerly developing and steadily thickening ice with no end in sight made me very nervous. We still had a very open lead to follow, but concern over my escape route and the viability of the lead led to a “strategic” retreat.

    A day and a half later we found a clear lead into the wide shore lead. Knowing both ends where clear. The veiw from up the mast really helped confirm this, as did the “water sky” to the south and with stable weather we pushed through a patch of 3/10 ice for about half a mile to get into open water.

    The voyage home meant waiting for a good south eastery gale to open the pack. And heading out once it eased. Sat pics from Dumont Durville base, and our shore contact Mike harris had access to the latest Natice charts and updated us when they came out. We knew we where near the ice edge when we hit the pack due to the swell rolling through it. And the sky. We hunted along it for a few hours and found a thin spot that we could see a path through and went for it.

    Pack is downright scary! My concern with the NW passage is simmilar to yours. I had an easy abort plan. I didnt need to enter the pack. I could easily have sailed home having reached the ice edge and been happy. The NW passage seems to be much more commiting. When you are in it theres no getting out easily. No abort path. And the types that are drawn to it, and succeed in getting to the arctic are frequently the driven types where caution is replaced by a grim determination to succeed at all costs.

    • John Oct 11, 2014, 9:21 am

      Hi Ben,

      That makes perfect sense to me. As you say, the NWP involves an unique commitment once past a certain point with no way out if things change. And therefore I’m convinced that any boat attempting the NWP, except (perhaps) in very light ice years, must be prepared to winter over (without asking the authorities to dig them out)…just as Amundsen, Larsen, and Bockstoce did.

  • Bob Shepton Oct 11, 2014, 6:32 am

    An interesting discussion. Frankly though, in my opinion none of us has the prerogative or authority to lay down rules for others to follow, for going through the Northwest Passage, or entering ice, or not. I give advice if asked, I may express an opinion or make suggestions, much as I have tried to do as co-author with Jon Amtrup in ‘High Latitude Sailing’. But to lay down rules would be hubristic, and we are back to the question of 2000 years ago, ‘By what authority are you doing (or saying) these things’. He had authority; we do not.
    And, in my opinion, the rules themselves are suspect. Certainly in 2012 we circumvents pack ice in the Bellot Strait by passing between the ice and the shore, and in 2013 if we had not entered and weaved for eight miles through 3/10ths ice in Prince Regent Inlet without being able to see or know whether there was any exit, we would probably still be there. To me these are a matter of personal judgement, and the circumstances and situation, and the weather, at the time. Not a set of rules.
    I am sorry John did not like our ‘first fibreglass boat to make a double transit of the Northwest Passage, and in consecutive years’ For a record? No – having wintered the boat in Nome, Alaska, it was the shortest way back. Fortunately people in UK took the opposite view and were very supportive, appreciative and generous in response (we are not talking finance here!). I fear John has forgotten life is about challenge…
    It was fortunate that we did it this way as I have just been able to take the Wild Bunch again to climb big walls in the remote fjords of Baffin. Now there is a desolate, uncompromising, hard place. Still I am sure they will make an excellent film of it all to succeed their excellent ‘Vertical Sailing’. And guys dont’ forget, you might enjoy my book ‘Addicted to Adventure’….!

    • John Oct 11, 2014, 9:10 am

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks very much for commenting with a well reasoned rebuttal. I can’t say it has changed my thinking, but I certainly respect your opinion.

      Having said that I would argue that just getting into a situation where “if we had not entered and weaved for eight miles through 3/10ths ice in Prince Regent Inlet without being able to see or know whether there was any exit, we would probably still be there” rather confirms my case that, in that year, the NWP was no place for a lightly built yacht.

      As to the whole first thing. Louis Nielson, trapper from Svalbard, explains my discomfort better than I could. In addition, I’m convinced that focusing on records is probably the greatest enemy of prudent seamanship.

    • John Oct 11, 2014, 9:12 am

      Hi Bob,

      One other thought. The rules I proposed are, as Svein and Ben confirm, not mine, but rather wisdom learned from old ice navigators.

  • Dick Stevenson Oct 11, 2014, 9:36 am

    Dear John and all,
    One of the underlying themes in this article, as well as a few others of John’s, is our interest/willingness to self-govern ourselves as cruising sailors. One of the attractions of our life and the territory it encompasses is the freedom from oversight, from rules, and the reliance on one’s own skill, experience and judgment in what is undertaken or decided against. That said, I would want there to be some willingness on our part to say to others that what they are contemplating is not wise for them, not wise for the cruising community, and to apply some degree of pressure.
    I will give a couple of examples of where I think self-regulating through some sort of community pressure might benefit all of us who wander the waters of the world.
    I was entering the Solent on a beautiful Saturday afternoon a couple of years ago and my laptop navigation program froze. When I got it up and running, I could not believe the number of AIS targets lighted up. The echart was filled (over-filled actually) with them. Most were class B sailboats and a few class A ships in their lanes. My worry (and suspicion) is that the class A vessels will filter out class B targets as a nuisance and distraction and forget/neglect to return to receiving class B when they get to open water(or decide not to bother with class B at all). This should be a worry for any of us who like the added security of having our class B transponders seen and responded to by commercial vessels. Magazines, manufacturers, bloggers etc. should all be promoting the habit of turning off the transmit function of their AIS transponders where they are not warranted. Those who do leave it on should be spoken to (in the nicest possible way). I want ships in open water to see my class B signal.
    Other areas: We all have heard a skipper say that he runs with his tricolor on even if motoring cause he thinks he is seen better. Pretty soon we will lose our special privilege if that goes on or commercial vessels will learn to disregard our light communication as they know we can’t be going 6 knots upwind in 3 knots of wind.
    Florida is already regulating anchoring, in part, because of anchored vessels that park their boats for long periods, foul the local waters and generally take advantage of the (now former) freedom. The rules are proliferating and greatly interfering with those who are more self-regulating in their practices.
    A question: Are there too many not well prepared people going off shore and stretching SAR’s resources and patience?
    Community opinion does make a difference. People speaking to people does have an impact. Magazine articles and bloggers should take a position.
    If we do not regulate ourselves, then others may choose to do so. There are clearly obvious transgressions and a vast gray area, but I am glad that John takes these positions and articulates a position. I do not have plans for the NWP but I would be very disturbed if authorities started taking possibilities away from me.
    My best to all, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • Marc Dacey Oct 19, 2014, 12:40 pm

      Very good points, Dick, particularly “Are there too many not well prepared people going off shore and stretching SAR’s resources and patience?” The phenomenon of reaching for the big red button is not good for the vocation of sailing, a word I use deliberately for those who are called to the sea and must be ready to serve its agendas rather than “we have to be in St. Kitts in nine days for the Festival of Rum”. We’ve all seen and heard of various dodgy practices (running with improper lights, crossing traffic separation schemes in a hazardous fashion, being unaware of AIS issues, failure to keep a proper watch) that are leaving the impression of “too many tools, not enough craft” as more imprudent sailors get ahead of themselves. It makes it worse for everyone when the general seamanship is in decline and ultimately, it will affect the ability of sailors to be “responsibly autonomous” if people need saving because they’ve gotten sore tummies or they’ve taken a Hunter into a hurricane out of poor judgement. No knock on Hunter, by the way, but on the ability to spot a hurricane risk when in a typical boat best kept coastal.

  • Bob Shepton Oct 12, 2014, 4:46 am

    I feel I must just come back to make it clear that we did not set out on our double transit of the Northwest Passage with the intention of establishing a record. It just happened that way.
    In fact I am surprised John did not rail against the other dubious record I am claiming. To be the oldest man to take his boat through the North West Passage, at any rate both ways! In fact to make it worse I have kept, deliberately this time, ‘the meanest Atlantic crossing of them all’ (Greenland to Scotland, or vice versa) to celebrate my eightieth year next year (if I survive that long).Did I grow old just to establish a record? No, and I don’t understand how, but somehow it just seems to happen (though I keep denying it of course….)
    But sorry, John, I have to come back to my main objection to your diatribe. ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?’ There should be no rulers, or rules, in this game. Suggestions, opinions maybe, but that is all….(in my opinion!)

    • John Oct 12, 2014, 7:52 am

      Hi Bob,

      Dick has done a far better job in answering your comment, and particularly the last part of it, than I would, so I will say no more.

  • Dick Stevenson Oct 12, 2014, 6:02 am

    Dear Bob,
    I see this article of John’s as very much taking us in a good direction. I also believe the term “rules” was, for me also, an unfortunate choice of language for all the connotations that you so correctly point out.
    I would however, request that you consider going farther than the “suggestions, opinions, maybe” reaction when it comes to activities you consider questionable. This is into the realm of peer pressure which is, to my thinking, the way a community regulates itself prior to formalizing behaviours in laws and rules. John is exerting peer pressure.
    This pressure can range from the relatively trivial: expressing dis-approval to another skipper (rather than the more common reaction of staying quiet) when he says to you: “If you leave the mooring by 0800, you do not have to pay.” To the more important: “It is my opinion, on listening to you, that you, your crew and boat are not ready for the passage you are planning. If I am correct, then you are putting your crew in danger, you may be taxing the good will of SAR facilities and putting responders in danger and I would want you to consider a less ambitious passage while you build up experience. It is only respectful to SAR people that you go out more prepared than you are.”
    These kinds of conversations do make a difference. I expect John to have achieved his goals in his article: to have those whose primary motivation is a feather in their expedition cap, or those who might not have the experience, or those who spend time in reading and contemplation of John’s “rules”,: to think again. They certainly can still choose to go, but it will be a more considered decision.
    I believe that this kind of forthrightness can be refreshing if uncomfortable at first. Magazines can do it by editorially shifting towards their reader’s best interest and away from their advertiser’s yoke. Writers like John can do it even if they do not get the tone perfectly for everyone at first try. And skippers can do it when they hear someone at the pub talking about cutting corners in some fashion. It is this kind of “peer pressure” or we may face some sort of regulatory over-reaction that will be restricting or expensive or both or worse.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • John Oct 12, 2014, 7:51 am

    Hi Dick,

    As so often happens around here, you have clarified and improved my original post. I would agree with every word of both your comments.

  • Nick Kats Oct 12, 2014, 8:06 am

    Powerful post John! and great that you bring up the subject of sailing in ice! My 2 cents, based on my 10 days sailing in ice off the East Greenland coast & up its fjords.

    I see the 6 rules as sensible guidelines, not absolute. The exceptions are many and they depend on local opportunity, knowledge etc. Examples.

    ‘Never navigate between ice & land if you risk being trapped’. The winds of East Greenland generally parallel the coast, rather than blowing onshore. This knowledge can be helpful in assessing specific situations. Also, if there are large bergs in waters that shoal relatively slowly, these bergs can provide a haven of safety from onshore winds. When the berg grounds it can no longer move inland any further. Then it acts as breakwater to other ice coming in. Anchoring or tying up behind it may be the best course.

    ‘Never enter pack ice if there is a risk of wind getting up’. If the pack ice is relatively thin, and the ice field is well offshore – no lee shore, this should not be a problem. As the wind gets up the ice travels downwind unhindered, the spacing between bergs more or less constant (except at the windward edge which gets compressed, and at the lee end which gets more dispersed). As already noted, the E Greenland wind tends to blow parallel to the coast. What is much more risky is being in pack ice with a lee shore rapidly coming up.

    And so on. In my view, these examples are valuable exceptions to an useful set of principles.

    • John Oct 12, 2014, 8:36 am

      Hi Nick,

      Having used those strategies during our three cruises to East Greenland I agree completely.

      But the key is, as you say, local conditions. East Greenland is, while very challenging, very different than the inner reaches of the NWP because in the former in summer clear water is generally just 20 miles or less offshore. A very different situation than the NWP.

      Also, you mention burgs. My “rules” are specifically about pack ice that behaves quite differently than berg ice. Even a mix of bergs and pack tends to have more open areas than pack does.

      In fact I have a different, although similar set of “rules” for bergy waters.

  • Bob Shepton Oct 16, 2014, 3:57 am

    Yes Dick, if John had said something like ‘Those thinking of going through the North West Passage might like to consider these points….’ OR ‘Possible guidelines for those considering the NW Passage might be…’ I would have had no argument. But to lay down categorical rules is in my mind out of order, especially as some of them are suspect anyway.
    But I can see what he was after. I have recently had contact in the Arctic with a particular gentleman who had just been through the Passage and who to be frank had not a clue and got into all sorts of trouble. He is now in the Atlantic trying to get to Europe, in this month, and I think caught in a big depression. But again we could never have said ‘You must not go’. We could advise but I am sorry to say however pleasant some people – and he was – are they are not going to take nay notice, advice or rules.
    But then I have to say I am puzzled. I have just searched the list of all the vessels that have been through the NW Passage since Amundsen and I can find no mention of Morgans Cloud. Surely John would not have laid down rules if he hadn’t been through himself, that really would be out of order. But maybe he has been through on someone else’s boat…

    • John Oct 16, 2014, 8:35 am

      Hi Bob,

      On reflection, I think that both you and Dick are correct in that I should have worded the post to say something like “my rules, that I recommend to others”. Having said that, it’s a detail and does not alter my (and now your) point that many people who are doing the passage shouldn’t be. And if I have made even one person think twice before taking it on then, I think, the post was worth while.

      As to you crack about me transiting the passage. As you well know, I have not transited the passage. Nor would I in our present boat, since she is not ice strengthened, unless it were a very easy year. Plus it would be, to me, a waste of a season that could be better used in other places—I’m simply not driven by getting ticks or being the first Bermudian to transit the passage.

      However, I have had considerable experience in the north and further, to date (touch wood) all of my voyages have been accomplished with an absolute minimum of drama. That I feel qualifies me to have an opinion and exert peer pressure (thank you Dick) to try to stop others ruining the north for the rest of us by provoking regulation by foolhardy behaviour.

  • Svein Lamark Oct 16, 2014, 10:28 am

    Hi John,
    I do not consider your rules as absolute, but more like summarized wisdom that most experienced ice pilots would agree on.
    Recently I had a beer aboard in Dagmar Aaen with captain Arved Fuchs as he came back from the fjords of North East Greenland. This year he saw no ice, but some years ago two very good sailors both lost their boats in the same water ( Ragnar Torseth and Carl Emil Petersen). The ice situation is changing fast in this waters. Nordaustlandet on Svalbard has been easy some years because of the global warming, but not this year with lots of ice. Arved Fuchs has sailed both the NWP several times as well as The North East Passage and also around The South Pole. His boat Dagmar Aaen is a wooden boat built 1931. Arved keeps his old sailboat in perfect condition and she has a strong engine, a slow turning Callesen diesel. When sailing in ice the power of the engine is also a crucial question. How thick ice can the boat sail trough? This question goes both for fresh water ice and salt water ice as they are different to sail in. Another vital question when the boat is stuck, is how big is the bollard pull (pull at 0 knots)? Most yacht owners do not know the answers to those questions. A serious sailor should find out before going to the NWP. However John, I do find I fully acceptable like you do, to admit that your MC is not an icebreaker and stay away from the NWP.

    • John Oct 17, 2014, 7:51 am

      Hi Svein,

      That’s a very interesting point on bollard pull. The moment I read it I got it, but I had never thought of it before.

      And that brings to mind another point that develops from yours: We yachties, myself included, should never forget that we are just playing in the arctic and are woefully ignorant compared to professional ice navigators.

      I get a very red face when I think about how those professionals must laugh and shake their heads at our posturing about what we have done and the awards we give each other for our “achievements”.

      • Svein Lamark Oct 17, 2014, 9:11 am

        Hi John,
        I have a note on bollard pull. My 42 feet boat has a measured pull of 4000 kg. I guess that many sailboats of that seize have only 2-400 kg. My boat was once stuck in the ice west of Greenland. The skipper sailed full speed ahead to get out. Nothing happened the first day. At day two the ice started to lift the boat and the skipper moved all he could on the ice preparing to leave the boat. At day tree the boat came down and sailed out. Sailing like that full speed ahead at zero knots for 3 days will create a lot of heat in the engine room and of course in the engine. You need a very good cooling system of the engine and the engine room that most yachts do not have. Also you need a lot of fuel. In a situation like that my boat consumes 700 liters of fuel per day. After 3 days the skipper had used 2100 liters and the tank was almost empty ( and the boat had not moved an inch). He sett sails and got home. I guess most small boats would have been lost in a situation like that.

        • Erik de Jong Oct 17, 2014, 11:23 am

          Hi Svein,

          Why would one leave their engine running while nothing is happening? We have been stuck in ice regularly as well, and if the engine can’t handle it any more, we just turn it off and let the boat float between the ice till the conditions change.
          What was your incentive to keep pushing?

          • Erik de Jong Oct 17, 2014, 11:25 am

            In addition, before I get burned down: our boat is purpose built to survive being stuck in ice.

          • Svein Lamark Oct 17, 2014, 1:19 pm

            Hi Erik,
            when stuck in ice and running engine with some bollard pull, you are reducing the strength of the ice, often slowly. Many ice pilots also used dynamite to weaken the ice in front of the boat. If you see an opening, head that way. Around the boat the first free water you produce will normally be behind the boat. Then you sail back and ahead with full speed and the hole will become bigger. With some luck you get out. But if you have no bollard pull, there is no sense in using this technic. It is also good if the pull is capable of lifting a heavy fore ship up on the ice and then let the weight of the ship crush some ice. I have some big water tanks in the front that can be used for this purpose. This tanks are normally empty.

  • Bill Attwood Oct 17, 2014, 3:31 am

    Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Disagreements on the ACC site are almost always couched in friendly and constructive terms – what a pity that Jan is unable to manage this. His post is a prime candidate for the moderators red pencil. John, I also feel that your original post was too doctrinaire, but you have accepted critical comment in a positive and constructive way. I think that the balance of comments is also probably on your side.

    • John Oct 17, 2014, 7:42 am

      Hi Bill,

      Nicely put. After some consideration, I will leave Jan’s comment up, but it was a close run thing and another outburst in that tone from him will be deleted.

    • John Oct 18, 2014, 8:46 am

      Hi Bill,

      Well he did it again, only worse this time in that he started with “what’s wrong with John” and went on to put words in my mouth that I never wrote. So I deleted both his comments. I really hate doing that and never feel good about it, but having support from other readers like you does make me feel better about it, thank you.

  • Bob Shepton Oct 17, 2014, 6:56 am

    OK John thank you for admitting that you may have been wrong to lay down categorical rules for other people to follow. Happy with that, though doubly naughty if I may say so since on your own admittance you hadn’t been through yourself. But I can see your concern re ‘those who should not be there’, but don’t you think the Arctic (and Antarctic) have a way of very quickly cutting you down to size so you know when you should withdraw. There will always of course be those who are stupid whatever we advise, but it catches up with them in the end – one is probably in big trouble now in an Atlantic storm!
    I do feel however you have a bit of a hang up over ‘ticks in the box’. We for instance did not go through to get a tick in a box, but because it is a challenge and that’s what life is about, instead of this interminable playing it safe people seem to go in for these days. Any firsts that might have accrued were merely incidental in passing, though as a climber I was always looking to do first ascents, just as my ‘Wild Bunch’ were in Greenland in 2010 and again in Greenland and Baffin this last summer – with considerable success. I hope you enjoyed their film ‘Vertical Sailing’ by the way …and if you want a laugh look at episode 3 on UTube!

    • John Oct 17, 2014, 7:40 am

      Hi Bob,

      I have changed the post and I am now 100% comfortable with it and my position stated in it.

      I would suggest you might want to examine your own writing with the same sort of critical eye and open mind to the opinions of others, particularly in areas where said writing may encourage others to go after “ticks” or “firsts” in foolhardy ways. In my opinion you have been more than a little “naughty” in this area.

  • John Oct 17, 2014, 7:31 am

    Hi All,

    Lots of constructive and interesting comment on this post, thank you (and one not so much).

    Just one point I want to reemphasize: While people have the right to take any risks they want, they do not have the right to do so in a way that will adversely affect the rest of us by putting undue strain on the search and rescue assets of the surrounding country and as a result provoking draconian and undesirable regulation.

    That was the main point of the post and I stick by it 100%.

  • Erik de Jong Oct 17, 2014, 10:00 am

    I think that in the end it has all to do with the attitude around the passage.
    One does not “do” the passage, one makes an attempt to go through. That is a significant difference. Eventough there have been many easy years, followed by two difficult years, the passage is still an environment where mother nature is boss, and unless you have a 200+ton boat with 2000hp or more, you have no say what so ever if mother nature does not want you to go through.

    A humble attitude with respect for the elements is an absolute minimum requirement to be up there and not to be a danger to yourself and others. We have been poking around in the eastern part of the NW passage this summer and I met some boats that were going to “do” the NW passage, but were so poorly prepared with such unsuitable boats that I could only nod my head.

    One word most here seem to miss in John’s post is “ice reinforced” before the word yacht. The guidelines, let’s not call it rules” are applicable in most situation for “standard” yachts, but there are plenty of yachts around that are actually suitably reinforced to take more risk and see more ice. In the end, you just need to know the limits of your boat. In that light, I cannot understand why somebody with practically no experience with sailing in ice would do a passage attempt, or with a boat that has never been in ice before.
    Of course one won’t be able to gain ice experience or knowledge of their boats without actually doing it, but why the NW passage? Try west Greenland first, or Svalbard, or any other place where there is a relatively easy escape.

    Bear in mind, there is no such thing as failing when it comes to a passage attempt, there is such a thing as having a great time up north!

    • John Oct 18, 2014, 8:42 am

      Hi Erik,

      Very well put and a great addition to my post. Thank you.

  • Bill Attwood Oct 18, 2014, 2:30 pm

    I have just read and enjoyed Bob´s book; it gives an interesting insight into why people take on challenges. One is never sure what drives an “adventurer”, and where the boundary lies between those of us who like a small adventure, and those who go on to do things which make the rest of us applaud – or shake our heads in wonder! There is no doubt that there is a strong competitive element involved. One has only to look at the climbing world – for example Bob`s Wild Bunch – to see that first ascents, ascents without aid of previously aided climbs etc, are driven by a spirit of competition. Bob´s opening up of climbs on the South Coast sea cliffs is something he is proud of, rightly so, and he has the right to “flaunt it, baby, flaunt it” (Zero Mostel in “The Producers”). Adventurers must be driven people. Let´s face it, you need very strong motivation to put up with the discomforts of such undertakings. The great polar explorers were not immune, driven by a mixture of patriotism and ego. BUT – there is a big difference between people who have served their time, and are willing to take responsibility for themselves, and the extreme sport tourists. These are people who think that all one needs in order to tick a box (Everest, NWP, Cape Horn etc) is the money and the time – and maybe the help of someone who does know what she/he is doing. I don´t see how one can stop such people, or indeed whether one should try. I should very much like to see “the authorities” state clearly that “if you want to do this, mate, you are on your own”. How many of the extreme sport tourists would be so eager if they knew that if things went wrong they could end up dead? Maybe they would then stick to bungee jumping and river rafting.
    Could it be time that we got back to the important business of the A40? I for one am waiting with my tongue hanging out for the next installment, and think that Erik should stop enjoying himself and give us our fix.
    Yours aye,

    • John Oct 20, 2014, 9:39 am

      Hi Bill,

      A40, actually it’s me your waiting on, not Erik. First draft of the interior post is all written, but it will take a bit longer before Erik and I have gone over it and Phyllis completes the final edit. This is a complex post and I want to get it right.

  • Trevor Robertson Oct 21, 2014, 3:22 pm


    Although I have done some sailing in the high latitudes, I have not been through the NW Passage so am unqualified to comment on some aspects of the post and comments. With that proviso I agree with the basic premise of ‘Enough with the Northwest passage, already’ but, unsurprisingly, not with every detail.

    The six rules are eminently sensible, but I agree with Erik that they perhaps might perhaps be better phrased as warnings along the lines of ‘If any of these six guidelines apply, think long and hard before proceeding, considering especially the limitations of your vessel and your own experience’. Vessels like ‘Pelagic’ or ‘Seal’, with large engines and very experience crews can do things that I would not (and should not) contemplate on ‘Iron Bark’, which has a 16hp engine and crew of one avowed coward.

    John gives two preconditions for transiting the passage: be prepared to winter over without assistance and be prepared to abort if conditions are adverse. I would add another. If you would not attempt the passage without emergency beacons, radios and sat phones to call for help, stay down south because you should not regard the ability to ask for assistance as an essential part of your plan. It might also be interesting to ask ‘If you could never tell anyone about it, would you still go?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then probably you are out to tick the box, and should not be contemplating this. Bill Attwood makes these points cogently.

    The issue of inexperienced crews on inappropriate vessels cluttering up the Arctic is a vexed one. I would hate my sailing to be subject to rules imposed by a distant bureaucracy, but that is where we are heading. ‘Iron Bark’ would almost certainly be barred from the Arctic by any such rules as being too small (35 ft), too low powered (16 hp), not enough safety equipment (she does not have six different ways to call for help) and so on, but she has made a number of high latitude voyages without fuss or requiring assistance.

    At the other end of the spectrum from ‘Iron Bark’ is a large motor yacht (about 90 ft) that I met two years ago in Upernavik, NW Greenland. It would certainly have passed any such tests. It was about to head off through the NW passage towing its tender, a 30ft sports fishing boat, because it was too big to carry on deck. As they were about to depart, a patch of growlers and bergy bits drifted by, certainly not a hazard to navigation. The skipper of the motor yacht, who certainly held the sort of formal qualifications beloved by those who would like to regulate us, expressed dismay at the amount of ice. He had clearly never seen any ice other than that a few scattered bergs on the way north from Disko Bay, but was heading into the NW passage with six paying passengers and a crew of five.

    Proscriptive rules are a blunt instrument that I would hate to see introduced, but unless we can deter some of these adventure without risk (thank you Annie Hill), credit card warriors, that is what we will end up with. Unfortunately this type of ‘adventurer’ (how I hate that word) are also usually publicity seekers, so the authorities and general public hear much about them and little about those of us who go quietly about the world’s oceans asking for little, especially in the way of help.

    This sort of post may deter some ‘adventurers’ but what might help more are some articles in the mainstream yachting press written by respected skippers with real ice piloting experience. Unfortunately people like Hamish Laird have better things to do with their time.

    Trevor Robertson,
    ‘Iron Bark’
    Stornoway, Scotland

    PS. Bob Shepton is right about the northern North Atlantic being a bit of a bastard this year. I copped a hiding in late August from Hurricane Cristobal when south of Iceland on the way from Newfoundland to Scotland, having previously given up on Greenland due to the weather, and it looks unpleasant out there again now.

    • John Oct 22, 2014, 7:43 am

      Hi Trevor,

      Great comment, thank you, and all the more valuable when we consider the source.

      I completely agree with your additions and modifications to my original thoughts.

      Interestingly, Phyllis, a few days after we published the above, came up with the same guide line for us on Morgan’s Cloud about rescue (post to follow) and then you and Bill wrote about the same conclusion—three people voicing the same idea independently would seem to confirm that it’s a good way to looks at the issue.

      And your second guideline about publicity is absolutely brilliant, thank you.

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