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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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.

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