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Integrity - North West Passage by Will Stirling

Integrity - North West Passage Weeks 1-15

Weekly Reports 1-15

Written by Will Stirling

Integrity - North West Passage by Will Stirling

Week 1

After many years of preparation and planning, in the summer of 2023 Integrity will sail North into the Canadian Arctic.

If successful, she will complete the North West Passage and emerge in Alaska in mid-September.

For many centuries European explorers sought a new trade route to Asia over the top of the American continent. This became known as the search for the North West Passage.

The sea route was unknown and impractical, being largely blocked by multi-year ice. The searches by land and sea were accompanied by much hardship.

The existence of a route was finally confirmed in 1850 and first completed in 1906 by Roald Amundsen in the sailing cutter Gjoa.

A number of vessels, including some commercial vessels have now transited the North West Passage. As the Arctic ice recedes, the route is increasingly open.

Despite climate change having affected sea ice, sailing in the Canadian Arctic is a serious proposition and to be approached with trepidation and great caution.

Some have gone before and many will surely follow.

The crew has been selected to combine an experienced team of
high latitude sailors and cold climate specialists, many of whom have worked together before.

At all times we are engaged by seamanship and in all respects we will be reliant upon ourselves.

Final team building is scheduled during the coming weeks, with refresher safety courses and field training, before departure on 1st June.

Panerai watches, Connolly Clothing and Plymouth Gin, companies underwritten by enduring quality, are generously supporting the

Much appreciated support has also been given to the expedition by the Gino Watkins Memorial Fund (under the joint trusteeship of The Scott Polar Institute and the Royal Geographic Society) and the Arctic

Week 2

300 miles sailed along Nova Scotia, through the Bras D’Or lakes and across Cabot Straight to Newfoundland.

Inevitably - it’s a boat - a list of snags have risen to the surface so we have made the planned stop in
Codroy, Newfoundland to iron those out and plan to sail North again tomorrow. 

Last year we weathered the once in a blue moon hurricane in Codroy’s sheltered little harbour near the Wreckhouse Mountains. Due to the strength of wind at that time the boat was secured to the quay by her mast and rudder stock.

Whilst conditions are much more clement this time, the warmth and generosity of the locals remains the same.

So far conditions at sea have been plenty of fog, rain and cold and windy weather; probably not conditions we should be grumbling about yet.

Week 3

Good progress N along the west coast of Newfoundland this week despite being shore bound by overwhelming hospitality for a day in Neddy’s Cove!

The potentially awkward Straight of Belle Isle is astern and Labrador in sight.

It is mid-June. The N wind is bitingly cold. Yesterday we saw ice in the water and today there are seven large icebergs in view. We are now on the same latitude as Cornwall.

Galley enthusiasm is building as we try to make a dent in the stores.

A small concern is that the anthracite is reluctant to ignite in the wood burner without constant and fawning attention. There is 1/4 ton on board. Vital for morale; experiments continue. 

Week 4

The southern edge of the Labrador pack ice is in sight. There was a little nudging and wiggling to get through to Cartwright, Labrador. Between the Straight of Belle Isle and Cartwright there are many wonderful small harbours along the island fringed coast which often contain small, abandoned outports. At one more industrial site there was a winch made by the same company as our boat hauling winch at the No. 1 Covered Slipway in Plymouth.

The anthracite riddle has been solved. It needs crushing into pebbles, so we process 40lb at a time on the quayside with a lump hammer. In order to improve our environment, the saloon table has been re-finished and we re-inaugurated it with a roast lunch.  

As further progress N on the Labrador coast is forestalled by pack ice, we are making our preparations for the 700 nautical mile passage across the Davis Straight to Greenland. 

Week 5

Greenland Ahoy!

Having departed Cartwright with fuel, water and sandwiches, we retreated South for one day to outflank the Labrador pack ice, anchoring amongst a clutch of offshore islands to await daylight. Leaving Labrador at first light gave us the longest period of day to sail clear of the ice. During the first day we encountered the southern tip of pack ice significantly south of its plotted position and skirted around it. The ice lights were rigged before darkness fell. Sometime later we came into an isolated patch of loose ice. There was a swell running making the ice dance in the water. The concentration increased within a few moments, and it wasn’t clear where to turn in the dark. Just when
things looked awkward the ice seemed to dissipate and with great relief, we were in clear water again. As the days passed and we rotated watches on the tiller (two hours on and six hours off), the miles accumulated on the log.

Having turned off the gps before departure, navigation was by dead reckoning supported by sextant sights when the sun was visible. Venus and the Moon also helped but as we proceeded north night faded into twilight and then we reached
the land of midnight sun. At times Integrity was accompanied by pilot whales and later blue whales. After six days at sea the fog peeled back to reveal the snowy mountains of Greenland.

Week 6

Sailing in the mountains!

Wildlife this week has included eagles, an artic fox, an arctic hare and one musk rat (Tim was sold a beaver hat in Labrador but on closer inspection of the label it says musk rat - very soft nonetheless). We have been sailing in fjords and amongst the offshore islands, working our way North and passing the Arctic Circle during the week. With no darkness, sleep patterns are erratic. We have
been walking at midnight and had breakfast at 1600. We were accompanied on one walk by persistent and high altitude mosquitoes with sharp teeth. They certainly helped us walk faster.

Next stop Disko Bay.

Week 7

On reaching Disko Bay, Martyn produced a mini disco ball! Ice concentration has increased which has been tricky at times with narrow anchorage entrances and grounded icebergs. One anchorage yielded a crop of mermaid’s hair; we played some football on a surreal Astroturf in Godhavn; and Luke led a short climb on a carefully selected berg. The ice was incredibly hard.

Week 8

It was a little bit tricky to reach Illulisat due to the glacier ice in the fjord but with someone aloft and some wiggling we reached the harbour. Illulisat is crew change harbour - thank you very much to Tim, Martyn and Luke for all their imperturbable hard work over the last six weeks and 1,850 nautical miles. It was a really good team.  

With the next team on board we are sailing north around Disko Island - the next settlement will be Upernavik. 

Week 9

A wonderful week of incredible views and good company. Led by Kev we clambered up Sanderson’s Hope, a mountain headland named in 1587 by John Davis in his search for a North West Passage.  

The settlement of Upernavik is a few miles north of the headland.  

Whilst underway, we used the sun to check the compass at local midnight. Ordinarily this would be done at local noon with the sun due South. As we are sailing North and the sun is above the horizon all the time, we used the sun at due North at midnight. There is a small amount of maths involved because as we sail further north the magnetic variation between the magnetic pole and the geographic pole increases. At present we are approximately 1,000 miles from the North Pole with a magnetic variation of around 30 degrees as we enter the waters of Melville Bay, more commonly known in the past as The North Water. With the ex-military contingent of the current crew on board one mystery is an unseen crew member named Roger. If any instruction is given, it is by response delegated to Roger and promptly done. But the rest of us have never seen, heard, fed or watered Roger.

Week 10

Goodbye Greenland! As we waited for the pack ice in Melville Bay to dissipate, we spent some time near the iconic landmark called The Devil’s Thumb. The sea water is cold and despite the 24-hour sunlight, in one bay the surface had settled into pancake ice by early morning.  

Kev led us on an attempt to climb The Thumb, but we retreated prior to reaching the summit due to a lack of specialist climbing equipment for rock. Another walk in the mountains gave a spectacular view of the Greenland icecap. Hugh took some spectacular photos with his drone which is also used to help us find routes through the ice. It appears to be a relatively heavy ice year with some uncertainty ahead. 

Week 11

The route across the North Water to Canada was rather meandering in order to have least exposure to the pack ice. Three days is quite a long time to spend in persistently thick fog with blue sky above the mast head. For those who may doubt, fogbows exist! Magnetic variation has increased to almost 40 degrees with one chart noting ‘magnetic compass useless in this area’. In order to pass around the pack ice we reached our furthest North of the voyage, 75 degrees 30 N which means we have sailed just over a third of a hemisphere North from Nova Scotia.  

The eastern entrance to Lancaster Sound was fringed with loose pack ice which meant some wiggling to reach an anchorage on Devon Island. We have passed the last glacier on our route so there will be no more icebergs to marvel at. This is an icy year and at present pack ice prevents us from reaching Resolute. 

Week 12

En route we took shelter from some stronger wind in Erebus and Terror Bay beside Beechey Island, Franklins winter quarters in 1845. With the wind blowing off the ice to the North it was cold. Having climbed up to Franklins cairn to gain height we were able to survey the ice conditions to the West and choose a route through to Resolute. Within 6 hours of anchoring in Resolute Bay the wind changed, and the ice sailed in. The outcome of our predicament was uncertain for a moment. Having extricated ourselves from the ice grip we chose an equally unsuitable spot when most fortunately a local hunter guided us to a partially sheltered spot where we were able to pole the more threatening ice away from the boat. Within another 6 hours all the ice had gone again! Options are limited with ice around and variable wind conditions, so we have taken more local advice and moved to a secluded bay nearby from where the Resolute RCMP detachment have very kindly facilitated the final crew change and our errands. Thank you very much to Hugh, Kev, Owen, and Sara for all their enthusiasm for the voyage and calmness in difficulty. It was a good crew who brought a great deal of varied experience and skill to the journey. Also thank you to Sara for putting so much time and thought into the whole voyage over the last year and always being there in the background helping us.

Week 13

Finally, we have crossed Barrow Straight and passed between Edgeworth and Limestone Islands, the two sentinels marking the entrance to Peel Sound. Sailing down Peel Sound is a crucial milestone because it is an ice choke point in the North West Passage. We have been concerned about when it would be navigable. The later it opens, the later in the season we emerge the other end and the greater probability of autumn trouble in the Bering Sea. 

We were cornered near Resolute for 12 days, initially by ice and then by a storm. The word is not used lightly: for five days we were confined on board, unable to leave the boat because of the sea state. Luckily, we had forewarning and chose our anchorage carefully both in respect of wind and ice. The Canadian Coastguard ship even took shelter nearby and reported winds of 60 knots, which is the top end of Beaufort 10. With 36 hours of moderate weather between the next low-pressure system and the ice having finally been dispersed by the wind, we agreed to take the rough with the smooth and get into Peel Sound. 

Peel Sound dealt us fog and headwind so progress was a bit slow and uncomfortable, but every mile sailed is one less to go! Finally, as we reached the end of the narrow and shallow James Ross Straight, the wind turned with us, and the sun even came out. 

Across the St Rich Basin, through Rae Straight and this has led us on to Gjoa Haven, ‘The most perfect little harbour in the world’ which Amundsen found in 1903 and where he overwintered for 2 years. It is rather special to anchor a traditional boat in Gjoa Haven. 

Week 14

Sailing from Gjoa Haven, we negotiated Simpson Straight, the narrowest part of the Northwest Passage and the site of the Franklin Expedition’s last stand in the sombrely named Starvation Cove.  

Night has started to set in which is cold … and dark. Both of which have been compensated by the Northern Lights.In one small bay we happened upon the remains of a Hudson’s Bay Company hut complete with car, parked outside. Two of the car’s remarkably intact wheels were made of wood and one rim had what we presume to be a snow chain wrapped around it.  

Integrity had a good run with the square sail out of Dolphin and Union Straight. This is the final narrow passage between mainland North America and the Arctic Islands, which leads into the Beaufort Sea. The weather has been a struggle and became boisterous again, so we careered into a lovely bay with protection from all directions of wind - fortunate as over the subsequent 6 days a gale blew from the NW and then SE.  

On a day when we could get ashore by dinghy, we walked 7 miles to a river to catch a fish. We didn’t catch a fish! Nonetheless, it was good to be out in the countryside - a low lying desert of brown gravel as far as the eye can see. With reduced visual inputs, one gets sensitive to nuance; the changing light on the land can be captivating.  

Due to unseasonably strong weather, we have done 1/3 of the distance of the third leg in 2/3 of the allocated time. Patience is said to be an essential trait of the Arctic traveller; with 1,500 nautical miles still to go, we keep busy whilst waiting for the opportunity to press on. 

This far North it is autumn already. Sea ice isn’t a concern now as it has retreated further North and re-freezing won’t begin until later in the autumn. The probability of deteriorating weather is a bit if a worry in terms of making distance. Ideally we don’t want to be in the Bering Sea (the gap between America and Asia) around the equinox, although this now seems inevitable.

Week 15

A little more waiting (time for some darning and a haircut) and then action! We have sailed 750 miles to Point Barrow, the NW point of mainland N America. It has been a helter skelter journey to make the most of the reasonable weather.  

The Beaufort Sea is shallow, and we seem to have got used to approaching land in 4m of water. One must take care as the Canadian charts are in feet; the USA charts in fathoms and the digital charts in metres! There were only two brief stops during this period of pressing on: One at Tuktoyukyak, the northern end of the ice road, where we saw the tug and barge trains which service the settlements in the summer. And one at Herschel Island where the Inuviak rangers were packing up after the summer. They were most hospitable and their hut very warm. We were able to diagnose some 19th century boat parts in their museum store from the wreck of the Triton and Dan spoke about his ancestor Billy Mogg whose ship Bonanza was wrecked in the vicinity, which led on to a sledge journey with Amundsen.  

Following reassurance, we took a 5-mile route inside Herschel Island. It was too shallow for comfort and involved exiting across a sand bar adjacent to breaking waves. Musk oxen on shore and calm water in the passage were some compensation - but not enough! There is safety in deep water; as Joseph Conrad’s, ‘The true peace of God starts 1,000 miles from land’ may be interpreted. The compass is becoming more useful as we move west past the longitude of the magnetic North Pole. The magnetic variation is now east and down to a mere 9 degrees - which makes the maths a little easier.  

On leaving Canada we entered United States territorial waters. We attempted to stop at the settlement of Kaktovik for shelter from weather but on approach it was too shallow. It was windy and there was also evidence of a sand bar with breaking waves. Whilst we hauled our wind and dealt with the sails for onward travel two polar bears were playing in the water nearby.  

So it was fresh water rationing and straight on for Point Barrow. Wind, fog, a Northern Lights display, delicious cooking from Arthur and never enough sleep!