There was the hungry polar bear he saw floating on a nearby chunk of ice. And the memorial site on a remote island for the 127 men who, in the 1800s, met their deaths on a similar Arctic voyage. The mythic narwhals — “Arctic unicorns” — that he observed up close. The fact that he made landfall at the northernmost inhabited settlement on the planet.
Morgan Peissel, a 25-year-old from Cambridge, now has a list of adventures to rival many a seasoned explorer. He, his cousin, Nicolas, and Swedish friend Edvin Buregren in late August accomplished what no other crew on a sailboat has: They made it through icy McClure Strait in the Canadian Arctic, near the top of the world. They sailed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, crossing the Arctic Circle at both ends.
The adventure of a lifetime, certainly, but the three men also did it to demonstrate a point about polar ice melts caused by global warming.
“We wanted to get a visual of the ice-cap depletion,” said Peissel in a phone call from Nome, Alaska, the boat’s first stop after sailing through McClure Strait on Aug. 29. “It’s a sign of the overall problem that we were able to pull this off.”
After being battered by storms in the Bering Sea, they arrived Sept. 29 at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. They hope to make it to their last port, Vancouver, in late October.
Their record was confirmed by NORDREG, an arm of the Canadian Coast Guard that manages all traffic in the Arctic waters. Jean-Pierre Lehnert, the officer in charge, says only a handful of vessels — most of them powerful ships — have ever made it through the McClure Strait.
In 1993, a 200-foot Canadian icebreaker broke its way through, followed in 2001 by a Russian icebreaker and in 2008 by a German research ship.
“The Belzebub II is the first sailboat to transit the Northwest Passage through McClure Strait,” says Lehnert, whose agency has long kept records on vessels in the Canadian Arctic. The Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, England, reports that a 48-foot powerboat with British adventurer David Scott Cowper solo at the helm, motored through this summer.
The 31-foot fiberglass boat, Belzebub II, sailed the strait during a 36-hour window when the shifting ice pack allowed. “Once we made it through, the ice had already closed behind us,” said Peissel. The Arctic sea ice can be 20 feet thick; the average on their voyage was 2 to 6 feet, two-thirds of it underwater.
The men had several “ice advisers,” including the Canadian Ice Service, a government weather organization that updated them daily on the location and condition of the ice. “They said they would provide us with ice information because we were in one of the most dangerous places on Earth,” said Peissel. There was also a ham radio operator “who’s been helping crews through the Northwest Passage for years.”
The McClure Strait is often preceded by the words “infamous” or “impassable.” It is part of the Northwest Passage — itself considered one of the most perilous sea routes in the world — through the Arctic Ocean via the northern Canadian archipelago.
The strait has a bleak history. In 1845, British explorer John Franklin attempted to chart the last unknown stretches of the Northwest Passage. He and his crew never returned, and there are grave sites on Beechey Island, where the men spent a frozen winter.
In 1851, Robert McClure, while looking for Franklin, became the first to traverse the passage from west to east, but not before his ship became trapped in ice. He and his crew spent three winters stuck in the Arctic before being rescued by another ship.
Two years ago, the Peissel cousins and Buregren began planning their own trip. Nicolas Peissel, 35, is from Montreal and met Buregren while he was living in Sweden. The three share a lifelong love of sailing.
To help cover costs, they pooled their resources, got a small grant from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, and hope to collect funds from the sponsors of their blog.
The men wanted a route no one had ever taken. The summer of 2011, they left Sweden — the Belzebub II belongs to Buregren — and sailed to Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, and finally Newfoundland, where the boat stayed the winter, awaiting the summer melt.
On June 17 of this year, the boat left Newfoundland and sailed to Thule Air Force Base in northwest Greenland. Thule is the United States’ northernmost base, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The nearest town, Qaanaaq, is one of the northernmost in the world, home to indigenous people.
“There’s maybe 500 Inuit there,” Peissel said, and most live off fishing and hunting seals, polar bears, walrus, and narwhals.
In Canada’s forbidding far north, there were few places to reprovision; the men would go three weeks or more between stops — and showers. At one stop, Grise Fiord, which means “place that never thaws” in Inuit, the average year-around temperature is 2 degrees and the population 130. Their next stop was Resolute; its Inuit name means “place with no dawn.”
As the boat made its way through the McClure Strait, a Canadian Ice Service reconnaissance plane took photos. The sailors blogged: “Happy but exhausted we called to thank our ice advisors and received congratulations for successfully crossing the Strait as the first sailboat ever in history.”
Tracy Wohlleben, a senior forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service, said ice specialist Jacques Collin created sea ice charts based on satellite imagery, and advised the Belzebub II of the window the boat had at the strait.
“The tricky thing is that the ice is so loosely concentrated, it’s very responsive to wind, so ships can find themselves surrounded by ice where 24 hours earlier there was none,” said Wohlleben. “This happened several times and the Belzebub had to turn back and try again.”
To Peissel, the message is clear: “The multi-year ice is melting, and it’s only being replaced by thinner, new ice. Most studies say there will be a lot less ice and thinner concentration because of global warming.”
Indeed, scientists and researchers recently announced that the Arctic sea ice has melted to the smallest size ever recorded, covering only half the area it did 30 years ago. At that point, pack ice covered 6 million square miles of sea in the winter, and dwindled to 3 million in the summer. This summer, scientists say, it shrank to 1 million square miles, and within another 20 years, the entire Arctic may have ice-free summers.
Once the Belzebub II cleared McClure, the danger was far from over. “We were in the Beaufort Sea, known for its infamous weather and we encountered 27-foot waves and winds at 40 knots,” said Peissel. “It was very scary.” The boat lost its main communications computer and a camera to the hail and water.
“For 48 hours, we struggled to eat, sleep or even stand up,” the men blogged.
Getting to Nome was a huge relief. They took their first shower in weeks, got “a good hot meal," and slept in beds. The boat was repaired. Everything in it was soaked through and had to be dried out.
After a week in Nome, where people mine for gold and musk ox wander the streets, they left for the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific. “We’re out of the Arctic, but we have to cross the Bering Sea, which is notorious for being very rough,” Peissel said.
His words proved prescient. In late September, the boat encountered brutal weather and limped into Nunivak, a permafrost-covered island in the Bering Sea, home to 200 residents. “Was getting beaten up at other anchorage by breaking waves. Had to cut main anchor loose,” Nicolas e-mailed his father, Bernard Peissel, a seasoned sailor who lives in Montreal.
If conditions outside the Belzebub are hazardous, conditions inside can also be dicey. Two-thirds of the boat is filled with Arctic and sailing equipment. The middle third, “about the size of a bathroom,” is the living quarters where the men cook, eat, and sleep — one at a time.
While one’s at the tiller, another cooks or sleeps, and the third does the route-planning, poring over maps, talking to the ice advisers, and blogging. There is no heat aboard, and the temperature below deck averages 32 degrees.
Two extra fuel tanks block the heat outlet: “When ice becomes very, very dense, it becomes impossible to sail through, so we occasionally motored when we had to,” said Morgan Peissel.
The men are vegetarians and have ample stores of dried beans, canned vegetables, and other staples. They drink from a 130-liter tank of water and wash dishes with seawater. On a stovetop camping oven, Peissel has turned out a chocolate cake, chocolate mousse “from scratch,” and even creme brulee.
Morgan comes by his adventurous spirit honestly. His father was the French explorer Michel Peissel, who died in 2011. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Peissel wrote 16 books and produced more than 20 documentary films about his explorations in far-flung outposts, including the high Tibetan plateau, remote Russian river towns, and unreported Mayan ruins.
Morgan’s mother, Missy Allen, is manager of Facial Plastics at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. “He’s following in his dad’s footsteps,” said Allen, who lives in Cambridge. “I’m very proud of him.”
Morgan Peissel has had adventures literally from birth. His parents were living in Mexico and his pregnant mother couldn’t make it to a Mexico City hospital in time, so “Morgancito” was born in a geriatric clinic in Cuernavaca. The family moved to Cadaques, a Spanish town on the Mediterranean, where the boy took, and later taught, sailing lessons.
When his parents divorced, he moved with his mother and older sister to Cambridge, where he sailed on the Charles River. And he spent his summers with his father in Cadaques and traveled with him to Bali, Nepal, and Tibet.
A film buff, Peissel worked as an assistant to Oscar-winning filmmaker Erroll Morris before becoming the IMAX projectionist at the New England Aquarium. His sister, Octavia, lives in Paris and works for director Wes Anderson.
While the other two sail on to Vancouver, Peissel flew out of Dutch Harbor on Thursday and will be an usher at a family wedding in Florida next week. His mother is eager for him to come home, but she knows it may not be for long.
“He wants to look for the elusive Tibetan Blue Bear, one of the rarest sub-species of bear in the world,” she said. Little is known about the bear, and it has rarely been spotted in the wild.
“I’d actually like to go on that trip,” said Allen. “I wonder if he’d let his mom come along.”