Arcadia is the 159th vessel to transit the Northwest Passage in the last 108 years | photo by Luc Hardy
The Royal Huisman 36 metre explorer Arcadia completed her east-west transit of the Northwest Passage in September 2011 – only the 159th vessel to do so in the 108 years since records began.
Despite the recession of Arctic pack ice due to global warming over the past two decades, the Arctic Circle remains one of the most isolated and inhospitable areas of the world. Only 159 vessels have completed a transit of the Northwest Passage since Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s passage between 1903 and 1906 – half the number of successful attempts on the world’s most dangerous mountain, K2.
Against this background, Captain James Pizzaruso and the owner of the 36 metre gentleman’s motor yacht Arcadia made thorough and careful preparations for their own east-west attempt on the Northwest Passage.
They had already lined up a potential west-east transit in 2009, but delays to their approach from Japan meant they were to lose their weather window. In late July 2011, however, everything fell into place as Arcadia left the Royal Huisman yard in Vollenhove, Holland (where she had undertaken some preparatory refit work), and headed up the North Sea bound for Greenland.
The plan was to cruise the Greenland coast for three weeks on arrival – in part to await the optimum weather window but also to use this area as a training ground to gain an understanding of how Arcadia would perform in challenging sea ice conditions. Arcadia is no steel-bound ice-breaker: she is a luxury cruising yacht constructed from aluminium, with some carbon composite elements in her superstructure. She has stabilisers, too – appendages that are incompatible with chunks of largely submerged ice. She had ventured briefly into the Arctic Circle before, but this voyage represented a steep learning curve.
Captain Pizzaruso explained: ‘You really cannot afford to be complacent up here. For one thing you are so isolated and, for another, some of the conventional rules just don’t apply and what you have to do is counter-intuitive. You would expect to find shelter and security in a protected anchorage, but the reality is that ice caps can create powerful katabatic winds and steep seas just metres from the shore. Safety and security are actually to be found in the normally more exposed areas of deep open water.’
Arcadia’s Greenland cruise was a great success on every level. Guests and crew were delighted by stunning scenery, diverse wildlife, magnificent shore-side trekking, welcoming indigenous people and the sheer scale and beauty of the ice they encountered.
The ‘steep learning curve’ soon flattened out to a point where captain and crew felt comfortable and on 2 September, Arcadia filled her tanks with winterised fuel and departed Christianshab, Greenland, for a three-day Baffin Sea crossing to Pond Inlet, eastern gateway to the Northwest Passage.
On 6 September, Arcadia left Pond Inlet and headed into the Northwest Passage. Based on reports received, ice conditions were expected to be favourable – but hardly this favourable: the Passage proved to be free of sea ice. But the icy capes and islands left no room for doubt that Arcadia was travelling in extremely high and isolated latitudes: only one other ship was seen.
Arcadia progressed westwards by way of Devon Island, Prince Leopold Island, Fort Ross (Somerset Island), through Bellot Strait to Jenny Lind Island, Cambridge Bay (Victoria Island) and then on to Nome Island via Banks Island, the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and Bering Strait. Anchorages were chosen to allow owners, guests and crew to enjoy invigorating (if sometimes cold and challenging) hikes ashore where they could explore, view wildlife and, most poignantly, visit the graves of lost expedition sailors on Beechey Island.
From a wildlife perspective the passage yielded some dividends and some disappointments. Guests and crew were delighted not only by the number of polar bear sightings but also by the healthy condition of the bears; those seen on a previous passage to Labrador had appeared emaciated by comparison. Humpback whales were regular companions but eagerly-anticipated sightings of the much rarer Narwhal and Beluga whales did not come to pass. The best platform for wildlife sightings proved to be the yacht itself: shore parties soon discovered the sensitivity of both birds and mammals to their presence.
Navigationally, the Northwest Passage presented only modest challenges – but that, of course, is in the context of both 21st century technology and of 2011’s exceptionally open waters. Charts of the region note that the compass is effectively useless so close to the magnetic Pole. However, GPS and radar, together with good, old-fashioned visual bearings ensured safe navigation through the relatively deep and steep-to passages, although caution was required with regard to the GPS chart datum.
For Arcadia’s owner, the most powerful memories of the passage derived from such an extraordinary sense of isolation and vulnerability at the northern navigable tip of the planet; from the sense of awe and humility that accompanied a passage in the footsteps of pioneers like Franklin and Amundsen; from the magnificence of the scenery and wildlife; and from the recognition that this relatively small yacht could offer such comfortable and reliable access to an exceptional experience so far from modern-day human habitation.
And finally there is the quiet pride in being credited as only the 159th vessel ever to complete a transit of the Northwest Passage. The open waters of 2011 may have made the attempt less challenging than in earlier times, but it takes a rare spirit to even contemplate heading north into the Arctic Circle to make such an attempt.
you might also like