Northwest Passage yacht race promises high adventure (and high costs)

A B.C. sailor is laying the groundwork for the first adventure yacht race through the Northwest Passage to happen in 2017. The cost? An estimated $2.5 million per team.

'We shouldn't be able to do it, but because of climate change, we can,' Robert Molnar says

Race director Robert Molnar (left) says he always dreamed of conquering big water. (STAR)

A 67-year-old former advertising executive from Victoria is laying the groundwork for the world's first extreme sailing race through the Northwest Passage in July 2017.

"It is crazy and it's big," said race director Robert Molnar. "We shouldn't be able to do it, but because of climate change, we can."

Molnar, a Belgian-Canadian who comes from a family of sailors, sailed a section of the North Sea solo as a teenager and always dreamed of conquering big water.

It's not a walk in the park. Navigation is very complicated because of icebergs and weather.- Robert Molnar, race director

Now, for an entry fee of $50,000, and a total cost of $2.5 million per team, he's bringing that dream to a select group of extreme sailors looking for new frontiers.

The 14,000-kilometre race will see teams setting out from New York across the Arctic to Victoria with stops in Halifax; Nuuk, Greenland; Cambridge Bay, Nunavut; Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. and Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

'It's crazy and it's big,' says race director Robert Molnar about the Northwest Passage. (STAR)

"It's not a walk in the park," he said of the Northwest Passage. "Navigation is very complicated because of icebergs and weather."

Ice difficult to forecast

Mathematical modelling, Molnar said, shows racers have "an 85 to 95 per cent chance of making it easily" through the passage, but ice conditions will ultimately be the deciding factor.

Molnar said the organization team plans to draw on the advice of NASA, coast guards and international sailing experts who have decades of experience in Arctic waters.

"We are talking with at least three captains who spent all their lives there," he said, adding that one is the captain of an icebreaker.

Environment Canada said it can't forecast beyond three months, but historically September sees the least amount of ice coverage in the Northwest Passage.

"We noticed a big drop in 1998 and since then we've had more below-average years than above-average years," said senior ice forecaster Jason Ross.

"If I had to put a guess, I would say the ice will be below average [in 2017], but we can't really tell for sure."

Growing number of adventurers

More people make their way through the Northwest Passage each year.

Last year, 30 adventure and pleasure crafts attempted the route, but every year some don't finish.

That was the case for Cameron Webb and Matt McFadyen. In 2013, the two had planned to sail and row their way from Inuvik, N.W.T., to Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in an open, deckless, five-metre row boat.

Boats are being specifically designed for the race to level the playing field. The vessels will be built in B.C. (STAR)

The pair ended their trip early in Cambridge Bay, because pack ice blocked their route.

"To me, [the race] is all in the lap of the gods," Webb said.

Even in good ice conditions, sand bars and rock reefs can wreak havoc on even the most experienced sailors, Webb said.

"They get changed every year, so there's no pattern," he said. "It can't be charted … so you are totally going on instinct."

Safety a top priority

Even if sailors run into trouble, help won't be far away. A safety boat, equipped with a crane, helicopter pad and doctors, will follow the teams.

To even the playing field, teams will be required to sail high performance boats that will be built in B.C. and designed specifically for the race. Teams will be required to lease or buy them at a cost of $800,000 to $1 million.

Maintenance crews will inspect the boats at each checkpoint to prevent problems at sea.

Organizers have also been in touch with insurance companies in Germany familiar with extreme sporting events.

Overall, the race will cost an estimated $30 million U.S., with much of the money coming from sponsors. 

Bittersweet challenge

For Molnar, taking on the challenge is bittersweet.

"On one hand, I don't want to go because it's beautiful and pristine," he said. "On the other hand, it's being messed up big time and we are using sport in a healthy and environmentally friendly way to show the people something is wrong."

Molnar said teams will visit schools in several communities during their stopovers to talk about their voyage and the environment, and hope to raise awareness about climate change through the race.

He said three teams are confirmed so far and he's had interest from others in Germany, Spain, China, Brazil, Barbados, Canada and the U.S. for the other five spots available. 

The organizing team is hoping to finalize the design of race vessels soon, with the hope of having the first boat in the water this fall, and finishing the fleet in 2016.


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