“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.”Continued...