The ultimate success of a yacht depends on how carefully her original owner defined the boat’s objectives. Jarlath Cunnane (featured in Great Seamanship in the April 2020 issue of Yachting World), built the 50ft aluminium cutter North about for high latitudes and ice. He succeeded mightily, successfully tackling the full polar circumnavigation via the North East and North West Passages from east to west with an unstoppable crew of Irishmen.
When Sir David Hempleman-Adams decided to attempt the first British challenge to make both passages from west to east in a single season, North about was the boat of choice. He convinced Jarlath to part with her and, to cut a story of careful preparation down to three words, away he went.
Open Water, Breaking Ice is a beautifully produced account of how a man who, by his own admission, is more adventurer than sailor, makes the most of this remarkable boat to achieve his goal. He gives full credit to his skipper Nikolai Litau and his crew of men, women and a 14-year-old boy. We join them as they enter the frozen sounds of the North West Passage, face to face with the closing window of encroaching winter ice.
We left a cold and damp Tuk at 8.00 am, making our way slowly in light winds back along our inward track. North about heads east along the Tuktoyaktuk shelf where you can normally see bowhead whales, but all we saw was great baulks of floating timber washing out to sea from the Mackenzie Delta which meant those on watch had to react quickly to avoid some pretty big logs. Thankfully the autopilot is working like a dream.
From now until we reach Upernavik at the end of this leg we’re passing through waters and past islands whose names resound with characters from history – those early explorers who came to the region in search of the fabled North West Passage. It’s very exciting to see history rolling out in front of us, every cape, bay and headland named after someone significant.
In good seas and with a following wind we have sailed 169 miles in the 24 hours since leaving Tuk, a huge contrast to the hard yards gained against the headwinds in the Beaufort Sea. Johan allows Northabout to show us the best of her sailing qualities by setting the sails goosewinged, and sending her scudding along at 9 knots. However, from the Canadian ice charts it’s apparent that our intended ‘short cut’ through the Prince of Wales Strait is impassable due to the extent of multi-year ice and this means we will have to take a more southerly course through to Cambridge Bay. And so, North about is headed towards the relatively ice-free Amundsen Gulf, the channel that runs between Victoria Island and the mainland.
Cambridge Bay, farther on, is a crucial waymark for, should we meet ice that threatens to block our progress, it represents the last refuge for overwintering. And should we meet ice once we’ve passed that point we’d need to be certain we can retreat to Cambridge Bay as a safe haven.
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