Northwest Passage traffic breaks record

A record number of vessels, from rowboats to cargo ships, travelled through the Northwest Passage this year, the Canadian Coast Guard says.

Arctic adventurers cause spike in marine traffic to 23 trips

Among the 23 vessels that sailed through the Northwest Passage this year was the sailboat Silent Sound, helmed by a group raising awareness of climate change in the Arctic. ((Submitted by Cameron Dueck))

A record number of vessels, from rowboats to cargo ships, travelled through the Northwest Passage this year, according to the Canadian Coast Guard.

The trips in the Northwest Passage included a rising number of adventurers from around the world keen to explore the fabled Arctic waterway, said Jean-Pierre Lehnert, the officer in charge of the coast guard's marine communication and traffic services centre in Iqaluit.

"This year we had 23 transits of the Northwest Passage, compared to 17 last year," said Lehnert.

"The increase is mostly due to the adventurers, that number increased a lot. And also, we had those two cargo vessels that made the Northwest Passage."

There were even two British navy men who rowed through part of the Northwest Passage. The men left their rowboat in the Nunavut community of Gjoa Haven and are expected to continue their voyage next year.

Lehnert said this year's number of marine transits is the most since the first recorded passage in 1903.

He added that traffic through the Northwest Passage could have been even higher: only two cruise ships travelled through the passage this year, compared with six or seven in recent years.

Lehnert attributed the decline in cruise traffic to the economic slump.

Still dangerous

But even though more ships are travelling through an increasingly ice-free passage, Lehnert said the waterway is still far from easy to cross.

Two ships called the coast guard for help this year, including one sailboat that got caught in the ice, he recalled.

"They were surrounded by ice, and the ice was putting pressure on the boat," he said. "They were getting really scared and at one point they were talking about leaving the boat."

Luckily, the wind changed and shifted the ice, and the vessel was able to continue its voyage, he added.

In Gjoa Haven, one of several Nunavut communities along the Northwest Passage, Mayor Joanni Sallerina said incidents such as the stuck sailboat illustrate how dangerous the Arctic can be.

"It's very unpredictable weather and there's always something that's unexpected [that] happens all the time," he said.

"I think having experience in sailing and travelling in the ice would make a lot of difference for people who are travelling up here in the North."

Lehnert said the Coast Guard will help those who encounter trouble in the Northwest Passage, but such rescue efforts are expensive for Canadian taxpayers.

"It's probably around $25,000 to $30,000 per day to task a coast guard ship," he said. "That's a lot of money and loss of time and resources."

Both Sallerina and Lehnert said people travelling the Northwest Passage need to be better informed and prepared if they plan to sail through the passage or elsewhere in the Arctic.