Negotiating the North west passage

Negotiating the Northwest Passage

by Sandra Carrod. Photos by Chris Riley

Bang! Crrrrrunnch!

I woke with a jolt to a hideous scraping sound. I threw off my cocoon of sleeping bags, and, dragging on more layers of clothing, hurtled up to the wheelhouse.

Skipper Steve Kafka was at the helm of the Evohe. ‘We hit a submerged piece of ice,’ he explained. ‘ Didn’t see it. The sea looks like pea soup since that storm.’

We were attempting the notorious Northwest Passage, through the frozen desolation of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. Over four centuries scores of men (the women had more sense and stayed home) lost their lives searching for the short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The first to succeed was Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1906, and it wasn’t until 1973 that the first yacht successfully negotiated the Northwest Passage.

Steve had scrapped the original plan to sail straight home from the Aleutian Islands via Hawaii after a filming charter, preferring instead to take the scenic route. Two months earlier we knew almost nothing about the Northwest Passage and here we were.

The sea ice recedes from the shore for just a short time in the Arctic summer and, even then, not every year. Only a few dozen boats have ever made it safely through the passage and only a handful in a single summer, but there was no shortage of masochistic volunteers. Lee’s mum still thought her daughter was bound for Hawaii. Lee didn’t want to worry her. Concerned friends back in New Zealand spread the word. ‘Captain Kafka is really going over the top this time!’

Stuck in Tuk

The Inuit settlement Tuktoyaktuk is the northernmost township of mainland Canada. More Bluff than North Cape…

I arrived at the Hotel Tuk Inn in a blizzard, expecting to join the Evohe next day. They gave me a room once occupied by Courtney Love. A previous guest (presumably not Ms Love) had left a warning on the hotel notice board: ‘Don’t get stuck in Tuk.’ Well I did.

For five days I read (if the power was on) and soaked up the cook’s yarns about life in the far north. I wandered the potholed, waterlogged streets. I narrowly escaped being eaten by an overfriendly husky dog. A gang of youths shouted ‘show us your tits’, which, as any readers who have met me will know, showed great imaginative powers.

I guess it could have been worse, just marginally. I could have been on the storm-tossed yacht. What was keeping them? The storm had blown itself out, but the Canadian Coast Guard’s ice maps showed the sea west of Tuk choked with nine-tenths ice. Maybe they’d got stuck? Or turned back? We all knew that was a risk.

The Evohe finally glided into Tuk harbour under a clear blue sky. The drained faces said it all. They’d spent 36 sleepless hours riding what the American Press dubbed the ‘storm of the century’, the yacht bucking like a demented bronco in record winds, dodging massive lumps of sea ice swept down from the frozen north.

And now, to backtrack to where this tortured tale began, just hours out of Tuk…

Spanner in the works

Evohe ground to a halt after the collision and I saw the same taut faces around me. The short Arctic summer was rapidly nearing its end and freeze-up was approaching fast. We had 3000 miles to go and a bent propeller.

Steve Kafka and intrepid diver Chris Riley (much maligned in previous issues) donned drysuits to check out the damage. No one on deck envied them as they descended into the murk. Their faces just centimetres away from the prop blade, the divers saw the edge looking more like a clamshell than a propeller. To lever it back into shape, Steve placed an adjustable spanner on the blade tip while Chris applied pressure at the other end of a long pipe but coordination was impossible because they couldn’t see each other. The attempt failed dismally.

Fortunately Evohe has two engines (we weren’t keen on sailing at this point) so we were able to motor on at reduced speed, dodging ice floes as we went. It got pretty hairy at times. The whole horizon would suddenly turn to a low wall of loosely-interlocking ice sheets and the lead we were following would suddenly close up, forcing us to backtrack. When things were tight Riles climbed the mast to look for leads. Twenty-four hours later we were clear of the worst of the ice and hunted for a suitable piece to tie up to. We didn’t want to drift back into the pack and it was far too deep to anchor.

Riles dived in and secured our line to a beautiful, turquoise-coloured ice cube. Adrian, the first mate, located the spare prop. But there was no spare nut! Steve and Riles carefully rehearsed their moves before they dived. Today the water was crystal clear, very cold and very, very deep. Everyone, except the divers, held their breath. Any parts dropped would be lost forever. But they succeeded and soon we were back in business. Lee sent her mother an email: ‘ Smooth sailing. Great crew. Good food. Making good time.’

The Northwest Passage

Amundsen took over three years to get from one end of the Northwest Passage to the other. In 1904 he wintered over in Gjoa Haven, which is named after his boat. Now skidoos, neatly stacked wooden sledges and piles of caribou antlers were parked outside each house. The huskies were chained, thank goodness. Riles and Kellie, the boat’s Girl Friday, were keen to dive on the very spot where the ‘Gjoa’ had sat for months wedged in the ice. Time was precious. At any moment the wind could change and the ice close in on us. Chris and Kellie wasted no time in suiting up.

Before long Riles brought up a perfectly preserved tinderbox, a ion of muskets, and a silver fob watch bearing the initials R.A. Well… actually he didn’t, but he would have liked to. Some locals soon turned up in their little boats and asked him to find their lost anchors. By the end of the dive he’d salvaged two toy plastic pedal cars, a broken hockey stick and a complete mountain bike, (honest)! Oh, and several golf balls. There is a golf course in Gjoa Haven – hard to believe in a region covered in permafrost. They charge brown fees there. Well, that’s what Riley told me.

We picked our way eastwards through some nasty shoals and a gale to Coningham Bay. Beluga whales use the shallow bay to rub parasites off their skin. The beach was lined with the tents of Inuit whalers. They hunt beluga for the blubber, a delicacy they call ‘muktuk’, which is stored for the long winter. Carcasses, stripped of blubber, littered the beach a kilometre or so from the tents. The idea was that the local polar bear population would feast on those remains rather than on the Inuit, but the number of guns strewn around the camp showed they were taking no chances.

We made various unsuccessful and hair-raising attempts, both from land and sea, to photograph the polar bears feeding. At Port Ross we came across a cabin stocked with food for wildlife researchers and stranded sailors. It had been ransacked by a hungry bear (he’d left his business card outside the door). We decided to quit while we were ahead.

The flat and featureless landscape gave way to towering cliffs and craggy, snow-covered mountains. Baffin Island was stunning. Glacier after sparkling glacier flowed down to the sea. Size and distance were gargantuan and impossible to gauge; ten miles looked like one. The icebergs here were huge blue-green ice palaces, castles, dragons and sea monsters, which dwarfed the Evohe. We voyaged on to Greenland and more unusual dives. But that’s another story…

Lee decided it was time to come clean and started on her email: ‘Dear Mum……’

scroll to top