Ill-equipped sailors attempt Northwest Passage

Amateur sailors are setting course for the legendary Northwest Passage, but some are ill-equipped and unprepared for the challenges of sailing in the North, Canadian Coast Guard authorities say.

Amateur sailors are setting course for the legendary Northwest Passage, but some are ill-equipped and unprepared for the challenges of sailing in the North, Canadian Coast Guard authorities say.

"It's a little bit scary," said Jean-Pierre Lehnert, the coast guard officer in charge of marine communications and traffic services in Iqaluit. "I really hope that they are prepared and they know what they have to go through. They're not sailing the St. Lawrence River."

Coast guard officials want pleasure craft operators who plan to attempt the Northwest Passage to contact them before they sail. ((Bob Weber/Canadian Press))
In 2007, two yachts sailed the ice-filled Arctic route. This year, there will be five times the number attempting the treacherous passage.

Last summer, the crew of a 12-metre sailboat radioed that they were in danger of being crushed by ice, Lehnert said.

"They wanted the icebreaker right away. The closest icebreaker was two days of sailing from them," he said. "Finally the ice broke up and they could escape."

All the coast guard could do in that situation was provide advice, Lehnert said.

"It was a really close call … and this happens … I will not say frequently, but still too many times."

Lehnert expects to see more such emergencies as more boats try to make the passage, some without filing sail plans with the coast guard and some without even carrying adequate radios. People are using VHF radios, which have a range of only 65 kilometres, Lehnert explained.

New NORDREG rules, under which ships going through the Northwest Passage register with the coast guard, don't apply to ships weighing less than 300 tonnes, so the yachts aren't governed by them, though they can choose to co-operate.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis St-Laurent patrols the Northwest Passage in 2008. An icebreaker can be days away if a private boat needs assistance. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))
In fact, the coast guard would prefer that they at least file a sail plan, Lehnert said. If a sail plan is filed, the coast guard will supply weather and ice information, as well as let boats know about commercial traffic in the area.

Transport Canada will provide an information package through the office of boating safety that includes information on equipment a boat should carry and resources available to crew.

"Quite a few of them, what they do is that they have a website, you know, saying, 'Follow us on the website,' but if something happens, there is nothing on the website to tell us," Lehnert said.

"When we hear about them for the first time, they're in trouble."

Lehnert estimates that half the craft that attempt the passage don't contact the coast guard before sailing. People in communities like Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven let the coast guard know about pleasure craft in their harbours, and Lehnert said they are often surprised by the news.

Peter Semotiuk, a former sailor and amateur radio operator in Cambridge Bay, helps crews of private boats with custom weather and ice reports.

The Silent Sound, helmed by a group raising awareness of climate change in the Arctic, was among the 23 vessels that sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2009. ((Submitted by Cameron Dueck))
Most people arrive prepared, but there are exceptions, he said.

"They want to do the passage but they don't have the resources — don't really have a boat that perhaps is suitable for it," he said. "It can turn pretty nasty here, with high winds and high seas."

The ice, cold weather and sketchy charts can sometimes be too much for even the most experienced sailor, he said.

Robert McClure, who captained HMS Investigator, the ship found at the bottom of Mercy Bay near Banks Island on Sunday, is credited with finding the Northwest Passage. However, the Investigator was locked in ice for more than two years and abandoned in 1854, so McClure didn't successfully navigate the passage.

The Gjoa, now at a marine museum in Oslo, was the first boat to make it through the Northwest Passage.
The first successful trip through the passage was recorded more than 50 years later by the Norwegian sailing and fishing boat Gjoa, captained by Roald Amundsen. It took the 21-metre vessel three years to travel east to west through the passage, wintering twice at Gjoa Haven and at King Point.

The next craft to make the trip was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wooden auxiliary schooner St-Roch, which made the first west-to-east transit of the passage from 1940 to 1942, wintering at Walker Bay and Pasley Bay. The same boat made the third successful trip through the passage and the first done in one season, in 1944.

There were only five transits of the passage in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s — nine of them in 1969 — but there were almost 70 in the 1990s.

The most crossings in a single year were recorded in 2009, when 23 boats, two of them yachts, made the passage. That record is expected to be broken this year.

Lehnert encourages any sailor considering a passage to contact Transport Canada and the coast guard, pointing out that a rescue by a coast guard ship is very expensive.

"The people, I believe, have to take all the precautions," he said.

With files from Chris Harbord