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.Continued...