High latitude adventurer

A former construction manager from Sligo in Ireland’s County Mayo, Jarlath Cunnane has sailed extensively throughout the North Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea with a lifetime’s sailing experience off the West Coast of Ireland. From 2001 through 2005, Cunnane skippered the Irish Northwest Passage expedition, a circumnavigation of the Arctic Ocean by eight Irish sailors aboard the 49-foot aluminum sloop Northabout. In late 2005, the Cruising Club of America recognized Cunnane’s efforts when he was awarded the club’s Blue Water Medal.

Despite the fact that his family had no maritime history, Cunnane was always interested in sailing and the sea. Cunnane began sailing in dinghies at his local yacht club, while earning a living in the construction business to support his family.

He built his first boat, a small sailing dinghy, in the kitchen of his partly completed house in Sligo while working on a major construction project. With each successive boatbuilding project, the boats increased in size as he carved time out of a busy life for boatbuilding and sailing. He built and sailed Tom Crean, a replica of Ernest Shackleton’s James Caird lifeboat used in the 1997 South Arís expedition, a recreation of Shackleton’s 800-mile epic journey from Elephant Island in the Southern Ocean to South Georgia. Cunnane next built the sloop Northabout, with its ice-breaking bow, in 2000 for the Northwest Passage expedition. Married with two children, Cunnane has won numerous awards in addition to the Blue Water Medal, including twice being awarded the Irish Cruising Club’s Atlantic Trophy and the Royal Cruising Club’s Seamanship Medal in 2005.

ON: How did you begin voyaging?

JC: My first major voyage was undertaken in 1986 when a friend invited me to crew on his yacht Ricjak on an Atlantic crossing from Boston to Ireland. Though I had considerable dinghy sailing experience, I had no oceangoing experience. In Boston, in brilliant sunshine, I was naively unaware that Ricjak leaked like a sieve and its engine was about to give up the ghost. The fact that we were about to undertake a winter crossing that was to give us five severe storms didn’t cross my mind in my enthusiasm for sailing and, after all, my friend had sailed Ricjak to America, which gave the false impression that all was seaworthy on board. The greatest storm occurred as we approached the lee shore of the west coast of Ireland. Engineless, without radio or electronic navigation aids and the sails in tatters, we spent the worst night of our lives lying to a sea anchor, drifting at the mercy of the wind, which was recorded ashore gusting to 108 mph. As dawn broke we found we had miraculously missed being driven ashore on Achill Head as we drifted by in the breaking seas in the darkness. Fortunately the wind eased in the early morning, we raised a storm jib and after another trying day spent sewing sails, we sailed into the safety of Westport Harbor. This was a great learning experience for me, forever after I could quote Homer to my crew: ” Be not afraid, for I have seen worse sights than this.”

ON: How did you decide to build your own boat?

JC: I have always had a fascination with building boats. Boatbuilding is an art, and to see a hull form emerge from a craftsman’s hands is for me one of life’s great miracles. The first boat I built was a nondescript 13-foot marine plywood rowboat. Later, as I became fascinated with the science of sailing, I converted it to sail using a sheet of polythene as a sail. Sailing was practically unknown in my locality at the time, and I had to learn the art all on my own with the help of some old Rudder magazines a friend gave me. The next development was the addition of a centerboard, as seen in Rudder, as I slowly discovered why I could only sail sideways. Having learned the basics of sailing I later built a Fireball class sailing dinghy, and over the years continued to build and sail all types of boats and even tried for a time to build professionally. Regrettably in those days, there being neither the demand or money available to make it a successful business venture, I reverted to the more secure, if rather mundane, life in building construction and civil engineering.

The reason for building Northabout myself was purely financial; this was the only way I could afford a boat of this size. While I did enjoy building Northabout, I also had the confidence in knowing that it was built to the highest standards in all the areas that mattered. The hull, the rigging and sails, the engine and machinery were not compromised. The internal fitting out was basic, but at least everyone had a berth to sleep on! The final fit out is now underway.

ON: Is the boat of your own design or did you have a naval architect draw up plans?

JC: Gilbert Caroff of France, who specializes in designing polar expedition boats, designed the boat. It is a Nadja class, 49 feet long, 14.5 feet beam and draws 4.5 feet with the centerboard up. Built of aluminum, it has a 90-hp Perkins diesel engine.

Two features of the design are noteworthy and helped greatly in getting through the Northwest Passage. The shallow draft enabled us to sail close inshore in the “relatively” ice-free area between the grounded ice and the shore. The raised “ice-breaker” style bow, while not a true icebreaker, in the event of colliding with a floe would ride up on the ice instead of crashing directly into the floe. A foil behind the rudder protects the rudder when going astern in ice.

ON: What safety equipment did you take with you?

JC: Safety equipment included provisions to overwinter or walkout to the nearest settlement, an eight-person life raft and a 12-foot inflatable dinghy, as well as:

GRP dinghy reinforced to withstand dragging across ice in the event of a walkout

Army 24-hour ration packs

Ex-army backpack HF radio transmitter, with solar charging panels

EPIRB, flares, VHF radios

Eight survival suits

Tents and cooking equipment

Tinned food for two seasons

A medical doctor, Michael Brogan, was on our team. He carried medical equipment for emergencies. Fortunately we didn’t need his services, except for hangovers following partying ashore.

And while not exactly safety equipment, the Dickinson Atlantic diesel stove kept us warm and enabled us to bake bread daily.

ON: What communications gear do you consider to be essential for offshore voyaging?

JC: Prior to leaving Ireland we set up a radio link with a talented amateur radio enthusiast, Brendan Minish, who acted as our baseman, and indeed he was a vital part of our team. Brendan communicated with us via HF radio, both with data and voice, sending us the latest weather and ice charts. Brendan was able to collect weather information and ice charts from various sources, filter out unnecessary information and forward info to us. To transmit and receive data we installed a Pactor modem and used the Winlink network, which is run by amateurs and is free. On board we designed an insulated backstay antenna optimized for the radio frequency we used, while Brendan set up a directional antenna on a steel tower in his backyard.

Briefly, I believe we had a very simple setup, which I would recommend for offshore sailing. We received data via antenna, antenna tuner, HF radio, modem, and displayed on a laptop computer. We carried duplicate components for all the communications equipment.

For the Northeast Passage the Russian authorities required us to carry a satphone to report our position daily to the Northern Sea Route Administration. We used an Iridium hand-held with external antenna.

ON: How do you obtain weather data when on a voyage?

JC: Brendan, at base, collected weather and ice information from a variety of sources: American, Canadian, Russian, Danish, Norwegian, British and Irish. The information relevant to our area was then sent to us. This cut down on the amount of data transmitted.

ON: What is your main source of generating electrical power while voyaging?

JC:The only power source used was the ship’s 12-volt battery bank. This was charged with the engine’s standard high-output alternator. In the arctic ice, much of the time is spent motoring, so keeping batteries charged wasn’t a problem, so long as we were careful about consumption. We carried a spare alternator on board. And as a backup, we carried a small 600-watt gasoline generator. This was used only once.

ON: What was the most important thing you learned from voyaging in the Arctic?

JC: Learning about ice was a very important part of our Polar expedition – how ice moves with the wind and currents, how to avoid being squeezed by pressure ice and knowing when to turn back. Despite global warming, there is still a lot of ice in the Polar regions.

And on the human aspect of voyaging, we were a team of sailing friends, each with his own particular skills. We learned to live together, all eight crew wedged into a small space. We are still friends! Meeting people in isolated areas of the world was a privilege, we shared our music with them and they, in turn, entertained us. n

By Ocean Navigator