The Northwest Passage remains one of the most remote and inhospitable regions of the globe and has until recently been virtually impassable, with the sea frozen for much of the year. Since Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen first completed the journey in 1906 there have been fewer than 160 crossings, but with the retreat of the ice pack due to global warming, the route is becoming increasingly navigable.
It was the isolation and exclusivity that inspired Captain James Pizzaruso and the owner of the 36m gentlemans motor yacht Arcadia to plan their own adventure originally scheduled for 2009.
My mate, Brent Cook, and I were on the bridge one night looking for an alternative to Panama to get back to the Med, explains Pizzaruso. We were trying to plan a circumnavigation, but Suez just did not appeal to anybody involved. The research for the Northwest Passage trip excited the crew and the owner, and so preparations began.
The crew had lined up a potential west-east transit, but delays to their approach from Japan meant they lost their weather window.
Undeterred, they began preparations for an east-west attempt, and in July 2011, after some preparatory refit work at Royal Huismans yard in Holland, Arcadia headed up the North Sea bound for Greenland.
The plan was to cruise Greenlands coast for three weeks to await the optimum weather window and to use the area as a training ground to see how Arcadia would perform in challenging conditions. It was a steep learning curve.
The yacht had ventured into the Arctic Circle before, but had never undertaken such a challenging voyage. She is a luxury cruising yacht constructed from aluminium with some carbon composite elements in her superstructure not a steel-bound ice-breaker and her stabilisers are also largely incompatible with chunks of submerged ice.
In preparation, Pizzaruso added temporary floodlights to the bow.
I didnt want to risk missing something by scanning with just the searchlight, he says. I wanted the same lights that the guys on (television series) Deadliest Catch use. Steve Figueiredo at Newport Shipyard gave us a few ideas, and a company in Holland provided the low pressure sodium lights. They proved to be very useful.
For safety, we purchased cold water survival suits, added another Iridium satellite phone to our inventory, and purchased a soft-bottom inflatable tender for rocky landings.
I studied the charts and made it a point to familiarise myself and the crew with the Egg Code the World Meteorology Organisation system for sea ice symbology and other features on ice analysis charts.
We were of the opinion that the trip was going to plan itself as conditions would favour different options as it unfolded, and that is what happened.
Arcadia also enlisted retired US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Jeff Garrett, who had done the passage as master of an icebreaker, as a guide and adviser.
We felt Jeffs experience of ice breaking could come in handy and he provided a fantastic amount of information on what we could have expected.