With the changes in the Arctic, the Northwest Passage (NWP) is becoming an increasingly attractive trip to adventurous voyagers. In April 2020, I got a chance at making this famous journey when Matt Thomas, the owner of the 60-foot steel staysail schooner Terra Nova, invited me to join for an attempt at the NWP, sailing west to east.
I agreed immediately and joined Terra Nova in Poulsbo, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle. The plan went something like this: We would depart Poulsbo in mid-May, sail to the Beaufort Sea via Sitka, Homer, Unimak Pass, Nome and the Bering Strait, enter Amundson Gulf in early August, and proceed to the Baffin Sea by Coronation and Queen Maude gulfs, Peel Sound, and Lancaster Sound. We’d enter Davis Strait in mid-September and make the Canadian Maritimes in October.
Terra Nova is a Grahame Shannon design. Originally 53 feet, Matt added seven feet aft, giving additional deck space and a cavernous lazarette, and allowing him to eliminate the mainmast’s running backstays. Another result was significant added weight aft, which, to bring the yacht into trim, required very heavy ground tackle forward. With the food, supplies, gear and extra fuel we carried for the NWP attempt (including three fuel bladders on deck), she sailed somewhat heavily and had a tendency to ship green water in a seaway. But Terra Nova is staunch, well equipped, generally confidence-instilling, and seemed capable of completing the NWP.
For the first part of the voyage there were four of us aboard. Skipper and owner Matt Thomas is a decorated Coast Guard rescue pilot, National Transportation Safety Board investigator, and now pilot for a major carrier. Hank, a retired teacher, has a passion for urban farming and particularly urban beekeeping, and has put in his time ‘round the buoys racing in Detroit. Sean lives aboard his Rhodes Bounty II in Oregon. He’s an excellent sailor and shipmate. I am an admiralty attorney in Portland, Maine, who’s been sailing long enough to know, from time to time, what he’s doing.
From Poulsbo we motored to Port Townsend, at the entrance to Puget Sound. The city is a mecca for yacht building and repair. Terra Nova’s extensive refit was accomplished at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op. The Co-Op is a shipyard owned and managed by its member shipwrights, electricians, sailmakers and other marine tradesfolk, just 30 in number and each a master in his or her specialty. The members vote to approve any prospective member, and the result is a high standard of marine excellence.
Exiting the strait
We were underway the next morning, motoring slowly into a fresh westerly. The snowy Olympics were to port, Vancouver Island to starboard, Rainier, Baker and their volcanic kin astern, the North Pacific ahead and blue sky and bright sun above.
A day later we departed The Strait of Juan de Fuca and came right for Sitka, eight hundred miles away. We were reaching at six knots, the Hydrovane steering. Whales and porpoises abounded, as did pelagic birds, many new to me. With evening the wind veered and freshened, and we set the trysail, permanently mounted on its own track. All the older authorities endorse this setup but I had no idea how much it eases blue water sailing by allowing you to set a trysail with no fuss at all.
The forecasted front passed without dramatics, and with a reaching breeze we made eight knots on course. There were gusts to 40 and we touched 10 knots of boat speed, the big boat charging along. I made a note not to fall overboard.
A week later we approached the Alaskan coast, 3,000-foot mountains to windward, still snowy but well into the spring melt. Mt. Edgecumbe, the extinct volcano looming over Sitka, was plainly visible 40 miles to our north. Sitka, on the outer coast of Baranof Island, was Russian Alaska’s capital, as revealed in the architecture and the local surnames. It is a vibrant little city in a jaw-dropping location.
The basin was packed with fishing boats: seiners, crabbers, longliners and trawlers. Most of the seiners were preparing to depart for the famous Bristol Bay salmon fishery, where a boat might clear a year’s pay in six weeks. A sense of optimism and energy prevailed, and all hands cheered when a boat dropped her lines and steamed out of the basin for Bristol Bay.
Hank left in Sitka, headed for Detroit and his urban farm project – and his bees. Terra Nova departed soon afterwards, bound for Homer on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, 650 miles across the Gulf of Alaska.
We stopped at a likely deep reef, and in a few minutes boated a 60-pound halibut. Dinner was rice cooked in a big pot with soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and spring onions, and thick pieces of the world’s best halibut laid on the rice, where it steamed to fragrant perfection.
June 1st found us steering NNW before a 30-knot breeze, wing and wing with the main and staysail. We wanted to be well north of the center of an approaching low, and there was discussion of coming right to a broad reach on the starboard tack, rather than run dead before a building breeze and sea. We continued to run, but before long we yawed wildly before a 40-knot gust and the staysail backed, broke its preventer and jibed over, then jibed again as the boat yawed back. With all hands on deck, it seemed prudent to jibe the staysail yet again, put the boat squarely on port tack, and rig a new preventer before going right before the wind again. This time, however, the block attachment bail on the staysail boom ripped out, putting the staysail out of commission for a time.
The preventer had chafed at the bow chock. We later improved on both preventers by milking a 20-foot Spectra cover over each, long enough to be properly positioned at any trim. The greater lesson was to check regularly for such chafe, no matter how unappealing a trip to the bow may be in lumpy weather.
On June 6 we moored in Homer, which, like Sitka, was packed with seiners bound for Bristol Bay. As planned, Sean departed the ship here and joined a seiner crew. He would rejoin much later, in the Arctic.
Taking Sean’s place was Oakley Cochrane, Matt’s wife. Oakley has an advanced degree in geophysics, worked on the ice in Greenland, the Arctic and the Antarctic, reported from some 70 villages for a rural Alaska news service, and for fun engaged in multi-day competitive winter traverses. She and Matt got to know each other on a self-guided ascent of Denali.
So now we were three. The next day we left Homer for Kodiak. The route took us past Ushagat Island in the Barren Islands group, bleak, rugged and clouded with fulmars and kittiwakes. Again I was reminded of Iceland — where would pelagic seabirds be without volcanic islands?
We arrived in Kodiak June 8, a bright day, and were escorted into the harbor by a resident sea otter. Kodiak was a victim of Alaska’s 1964 Good Friday earthquake, and the 1964 tsunami, thirty feet high, wiped out Kodiak’s waterfront. The tsunami will come again, and Kodiak street signs advise when one has reached a safe elevation.
We departed Kodiak June 12, en route to Dutch Harbor via the Shumagin Island group, which we hoped to reach the next afternoon, before approaching bad weather.
Late on June 15 we anchored in Flying Eagle Harbor, on Big Koniuji Island. It was cold, blowy, the ceiling was low and it appeared we had dropped the hook in a treeless glacial cirque. There was no sign of mankind. Our anchorage looked like williwaw terrain and we took care setting. We were there two nights, winds gusted over 30, but we stayed put.
We had rain, too, and each squall immediately revealed dozens of waterfalls in the surrounding cliffs. The rain also revealed a leak over my bunk, soon remedied.
On June 17 we left the Shumagins for King Cove, in Cold Bay, having decided to skip Dutch Harbor. We had a calm 100-mile crossing and saw pelagic birds new to me, including spectacled guillemots. We also saw a shark playing with a log — it looked like a Great White, which would not surprise me given the abundant prey.
King Cove, near the end of the Alaska Peninsula, is essentially a company town for Peter Pan Seafood. The company has several big bunkhouses, braced by steel cables against ferocious winter storms. The nearest road is 500 miles to the east. School children are warned to watch out for hungry bears. The town was quiet when we stopped, but when the salmon are in, seiners fill the bay waiting to offload, and frozen and canned salmon leave by the freighter load.
On June 21 we left King Cove, bound for Unimak Pass, by which we would pass through the Aleutians and enter the Bering Sea. Dawn gave us a superb sunrise over the volcanoes of Unimak Island, including the snowy cone of Shinhaldin, 9,000 feet high. We were early for the tide, but a nice reaching breeze came up.
Our track passed just off the location of Scotch Cap Light, which once marked the southwest corner of Unimak Island. On April 1, 1946, at 2:30 in the morning, a massive earthquake just offshore created a tsunami that swept the reinforced concrete structure off the 35-foot cliff on which it stood. Five Coast Guardsmen died.
Unimak Pass, one of the great commercial waterways of the world, lies on the great circle route between the ports of east Asia and the west coast of the United States. As many as 5,000 container ships, tankers, car carriers, and bulk cargo ships transit this remote strait each year. Yet there is no oil spill response capability nearby, nor even tug response. The potential for disaster will increase as the Northwest Passage develops into a trade route.
To the Pribilofs
Our destination was St. Paul Island in the Pribilof group, about 100 miles north. During this leg we worked on our application to enter Canadian waters. In response to the pandemic, Ottawa had decreed that no foreign vessel could enter the Northwest Passage except one engaged in innocent passage: no port calls. But we needed to fuel, and it would certainly be nice to anchor and go ashore. We explained that Terra Nova was to undergo work in a Halifax yard. We hoped that would suffice for Canada to allow us to enter.
Soon after departing the pass we had 25 knots of wind on the port bow and a sloppy sea. The bow buried often and I wondered how the ship would fare in the fall storms we could expect in the Davis Strait.
A few days later we anchored in the basin of St. Paul. The town is Village Cove, population 350. The basin and its towering breakwater create a harbor of refuge for the crabber fleet, and I asked the harbormaster if winter waves ever topped the breakwater. He said that was common – one storm shoved his office off its foundation.
Although we were permitted alongside, we were not allowed off the boat, again on account of the pandemic.
Lots of folks visited at the pier. I’ve seen again and again that islands attract islanders, and we met people from various islands across the Pacific. A Manxman had come to service the wind turbines, and extended his stay for a year. The Pribs are cold, damp, little peopled and barren, but they have their charms, especially in a plague year.
One local offered to shop, and we sent him to the store for produce, fresh baked goods, and any other targets of opportunity he might encounter. He returned with fantastically expensive potatoes and onions, some cheese, and a box of doughnuts featuring a 2017 sell-by date.
With nothing to keep us we left the same day. An hour out of port the main engine stalled, was restarted, emitted copious blue smoke and raw fuel, was shut down, and would not restart. We drained and changed filters repeatedly, and bled and re-bled the fuel system, but no joy.
It seemed likely that water had somehow gotten past the filters and damaged the high pressure fuel pump, the injectors, or both. In retrospect, pumping fuel into the boat from a tank truck in which the fuel had probably overwintered, without first eyeballing a sample in a clear glass jar, was a big mistake. The generator continued to run.
Fair winds to Norton Sound
The 500 miles to Nome was a remarkably pleasant part of the trip. We had fair winds much of the way, often moderate but sometimes topping 30. When the wind dropped we simply did what we could, and in a near calm two knots on course could seem satisfactory. What made the sailing a pleasure was the absence of the constant mental calculus about engine use the owner of a sail auxiliary undergoes in light weather. We just sailed, working to get the best out of the schooner, with good result.
We approached Nome in the wee hours and lay off. When the workday began the harbormaster sent out the Oosik (Inuit for walrus penis), which took us in tow ahead.
Nome marked the end of the trip for me, but not before I spent a few interesting days there. I knew Nome had been a center of gold mining, but I didn’t expect to find that gold mining remains central to the economy. All the mining is by dredge, and there are hundreds of dredges. Some are tiny one-man operations processing beach sand while others are big well-capitalized rigs searching the shallow offshore waters. Still others mine the sands of the inland areas. Abandoned equipment is everywhere.
In October 1918 the steamship Victoria called at Nome. Precautions were taken against the ship bringing in the Spanish Flu, including measures now so familiar, but the disease escaped into the community. In eight days 162 Sitnasuanmiut were dead, and more followed as the disease spread to the villages. Many whites died as well, but the disease was particularly lethal to the indigenous population – whole villages were wiped out, save a few children. A majority of elders perished, and it is thought that the loss of leadership and tradition deeply damaged Sitnasuanmiut culture. On a hillside outside of town I visited a mass grave for 172 native victims of the disease, one of many mass graves in the region.
At this point I left the ship and flew home. I had obligations. I knew to a near certainty that Canada would refuse us entry and the engine was down. Matt did get her running again, and Sean and others joined the ship in Nome or further along. Terra Nova got as far as Barter Island, near the Canadian border, before learning that Canada was not open for them and turning back. n
Nico Walsh is a former Coast Guard officer and admiralty law attorney living in Freeport, Maine.