This past summer a number of expeditions took to the Northwest Passage. They were all attempting to transit this fabled route, given that the reported decrease in summer ice has made the passage less difficult. One of these expeditions was by two British Royal Marines who were tried the passage in a 17.5 foot open Norseboat built by Kevin Jeffries’ company. By early September Kevin Oliver and Tony Lancashire didn’t quite cover the entire route, but they made an impressive ocean passage in a small boat nonetheless. For Norseboat, the trip demonstrated the impressive capability of these pocket cruisers. Most voyagers, however, might want to do their Norseboat exploring in less challenging climates that don’t boast floating icebergs.
It had taken Kevin and Tony 42 days in all to reach Gjoa Haven. Along the way the two adventurers encountered a wide range of contradictory conditions: extreme sailing hard to windward, rowing huge expanses of glassy sea, sailing at 6 knots afore strong winds and hauling over ice floes that delayed them for days on end.
Kevin Oliver and Tony Lancashire, set out from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, July 24, in a NorseBoat 17.5, an innovative sailing and rowing craft built in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The expedition was conceived to support the United Kingdom-based charity â€¢Toe in the Water’, an organization that encourages sailing to rehabilitate men and women injured serving their country.
The year previous, Tony, then working out of Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, contacted me. He said he and a fellow marine planned to sail and row their way through the Northwest Passage the summer of 2009. After investigating boats on the market they had homed in on our NorseBoat, for its reputed seaworthiness and versatility. Tony and I agreed to meet at the US Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland to review their plans.
Upon hearing of the venture my wife said, “I hope you told them that your boat isn’t suitable for that sort of thing.” I countered that in the right hands a craft like the NorseBoat could do amazing things. “Besides”, I said, “Royal Marines are known for undertaking unsuitably dangerous activities.” Those thoughts, however, wouldn’t prevent me from having an adrenaline-filled summer anxiously following their progress through The Passage on one of our boats.
Early May 2009 I delivered hull #89 to Virginia and accompanied Tony and Kevin for sea trials. After a long day of getting the boat rigged and ready, including installing a sliding seat rowing unit, Tony, his girlfriend Laura, Kevin Oliver and myself ventured out onto the Potomac in stiff winds. It was a good day to test the boat and gear. She performed admirably.
Mid-June, Arctic Mariner left Virginia by truck bound for Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories. By the third week in July, Tony and Kevin were there too, packing the boat and making final preparations. With understated British humour, Kevin wore a T-shirt sporting a quote from the movie Jaws, “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Over the course of their adventure, Kevin and Tony sent daily blogs and received messages from family, friends and supporters via their solar-powered mini-laptop. Web guru, Terry Hudson, of Hudson e-Design in Prince Edward Island, volunteered to create the arcticmariner.org website with interactive messaging, blogs, a photo gallery, and a position tracker via Google Maps.
The marines? blog just after setting sail, July 24:
“We’re moving at last. This is fantastic. Sitting here in the front of the boat listening to David Bowie – the first of Amber’s* Arctic Mariner Ipod compilations, sailing in light airs. It’s ten O’clock at night and the sun is still high in the sky. A passing Inuit [Inuk] just gave us a “White Fish” which we have filleted and will cook for tea. Awesome. We’re making just over 3 knotsâ€¢” [Amber is Kevin Oliver?s wife]
The hard reality hit on the Beaufort Sea. Tony and Kevin battled strong, cold headwinds for near a week, save for a brief respite during which Kevin celebrated his birthday immersed in Tuktoyaktuk hospitality, sampling caribou steak and dried fish. Off again four days later, they gained 26 miles across open water to make it within 5 miles of their destination shore, when contrary winds and waves forced them back; forcing them to anchor that evening a mere 300 yards from where they had originally set out.
Fortunes did change. August 3, the wind shifted to coming strong out of the NW. Over 30 hours they made 120 miles headway, including two open water passages of more than 30 miles. Sailing and rowing progress was good and a comfortable rhythm set over the course of a few consecutive days. En route they met up with a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. Her crew gave them weather and ice reports and fresh food. Five days later however, would tell a far different story.
“Adventure in the Arctic is a constant battle with the elements. This time it’s the ice which, according to the captain of the area Coastguard ship, is the worst he’s ever seen (for this time of year). The predominately northwest winds have forced loose ice into the Straitâ€¢we now find ourselves locked in a major ice flow, unable to move. We’re in regular contact with the Coastguard who advise that there’s nothing to be done but wait for the southeast winds to break up the pack. We are drifting southeast at about 1 knot. It snowed last night and we had a baby seal playing around the boat.”
The heavy ice delayed real advance, but didn’t stop it altogether. Tony and Kevin estimate they dragged their boat and gear approximately four miles onto, over, and off of ice floes, as they made their way toward open water before the ice began to break-up. It finally gave way on the 13th.
“Our 5 day spell in the freezer is overâ€¢ We had a magical 2 hours in sunshine and the company of 20 sealsâ€¢ We then spent 10 miles rowing in (partial ice-covered water) to land at midnight.”
They were sighted again, a day later, by the crew of the 64 ft. Round The Americas yacht, Ocean Watch. When Herb McCormick of Ocean Watch reached the marines and their NorseBoat moored to a beached ice floe, he stated plainly, “Even for Englishmen you dudes have to be out of your bloody minds.”
Waiting patiently for the marines to land at Cambridge Bay was Tom Livingston, a water engineer working in the Arctic and, as unlikely as it seems, another NorseBoat owner. True to his word, when the marines made Cambridge Bay on the 22nd, Tom was there to greet them. Arctic Mariner was hauled briskly out of the water and their gear stowed at his home, before sweeping them off to a BBQ. Tony and Kevin clearly enjoyed their four days in Cambridge Bay.
“The hospitality was incredible – never have we experienced people so willing to help two total strangers who arrived in their small boat.”
Over the remaining 250 mile journey to Gjoa Haven, contrary winds stalled progress again. When the winds finally did change to a favourable heading, they were fierce, giving the marines some of the most challenging sailing of their trip. At one point a freak wave hit the boat and snapped their tiller, thoroughly dousing Tony in icy water. Resourceful in the face of adversity, they pointed Arctic Mariner downwind under her foresail, while they redrilled and bolted the tiller back into place.
True, they had planned to go further, but were content to terminate their journey at Gjoa Haven, at least for 2009. It proved a good choice.
“Again we are struck by the warm reception from everyone.” “As we prepare to leave Gjoa Havenâ€¢, we look back on a very special weekend spent in the company of very generous hosts.” “â€¢the Nunavut hospitality has been amazing.”
It?s unlikely that Kevin Oliver and Tony Lancaster will soon forget their encounters with charging bears, curious whales, and the warm, friendly northerners they met while on route. As for me, I’m both relieved and sorry that their Northwest Passage adventure is over. I found it an exciting, anxiety-filled rollercoaster ride. My reward came at the successful conclusion of their voyage, when on their final blog Tony and Kevin wrote of their NorseBoat:
“Arctic Mariner has been our home for six weeks, and she has been superb.”