Thursday, November 19, 2009

North West Passage Transit

This is an excellent eyewitness report regarding this summer’s transit of the North West Passage. The passage was blocked with pack ice and the transit was clearly a struggle. Whereas winds opened the passage last year for clear sailing that was not the case this year. I note though that these were seas that an icebreaker would have no trouble with.

It is fair to say that the passage is open yearly for icebreaker traffic. That was hardly the case three years ago.

The locals make the point that commercial traffic will remain impossible so long as the ice itself remains unpredictable. And as long as multi year ice lingers to the north this will not end.

However, this year demonstrated an effective rate of multiyear ice breakdown that was previously unimagined. In fact looking at the satellite images informs me that most multiyear ice has broken up hugely and that surface areas are exponentially expanded suggesting real ice loss this coming season will be dramatic. The slightly larger areal extent is a result of this behavior and is very misleading.

If the areal extent were now to effectively collapse as it might do this coming year, then it is possible that the western end of the passage will be cleared early. This opens the passage for clear sailing.

Filmmaker completes voyage through Northwest Passage

by Scott Bowlen / Ketchikan Daily News

This Oct. 26, 2009 photo shows Sprague Theobald's yacht Bagan moored in Ketchikan, alaska while its crew rested following their voyage, which began in June from Rhode Island, through the Northwest Passage, the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and Inside Passage. - Tom Miller/Ketchikan Daily News


KETCHIKAN, Alaska - The creak and groan of moving sea ice reverberated through the fiberglass hull of Sprague Theobald's 57-foot Nordhavn power boat Bagan in mid-August as it sat somewhere in the Northwest Passage, high above the Arctic Circle.

Theobald, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, knew something about sea ice.

Part of his pre-voyage research had focused on the early explorers whose ships got trapped in ice as they searched for an open-water link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans above the oft-frozen top of North America.

And he knew Bagan would encounter ice during the planned 8,500-mile traverse of the Northwest Passage trip that began June 16 in Newport, R.I., and would conclude in Washington state.

What he wasn't prepared for was the nerve-racking noise produced by huge sheets of shifting, colliding sea ice.

"The sound was horrific," Theobald said Oct. 26 while talking with the Daily News aboard the Bagan at Ketchikan's Bar Harbor.

"I thought it was the hull - it's that grinding, cracking noise (like) you'd think fiberglass would sound like if it was breaking," he said.

Crew members headed below decks to check the Bagan's hull ribbing and lay-up.

No damage.

"It finally dawned on me, this is the ice that's making all that noise," Theobald said.

But now the ice had Bagan in its grip, and both ice and boat were moving toward a rock-strewn shore.

"It looked like the only outcome of this was going to be very ugly," he said.

Two years earlier, Theobald had begun planning for a transit of the Northwest Passage.

That year, 2007, was the first year since at least 1978 that late-summer reductions in sea ice had rendered the Northwest Passage completely navigable, according to the European Space Agency.

The situation sparked interest among commercial shippers about the possibility of sending cargo through the Northwest Passage, shaving thousands of miles from the sea trade routes between Asia and Europe.

Indeed, it was the potential for reducing sailing time (and cost) that helped prompt the early explorers to search for a northern route. The ever-present ice proved an almost insurmountable barrier, however, and it wasn't until 1906 that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundson became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage.

The fact that the Northwest Passage was navigable again also caught the attention of Theobald, who has combined his love of oceangoing adventure with a career in writing, television and filmmaking.

He said about 50 percent of his interest in the Northwest Passage was for the adventure.

"But 50 - maybe just a little more than 50 percent - was if I could get a good documentary out of it," he said.

Given that climate change has caused large amounts of Arctic ice to melt, some people assumed Theobald wanted to do a documentary about global warning from a particular viewpoint.

"Not really," he said. "The media talks so much about global warming, but nobody's really sent a camera up there to talk to the people who it would affect - regardless of whether you believe in it or not."

Also, filming the Northwest Passage now would give people an idea of "what we would have to lose" if shipping were to be routed through the Northwest Passage, he said.

"Just let the pictures speak for themselves, but not to try to have an opinion either way on it," Theobald said.

He began preparing his boat in mid-2008.

Nordavn makes "remarkably strong" offshore trawlers, said Theobald.

"I had this boat for about three or four years and it dawned on me that with the right combination - hopefully with some backing and some funding and a good crew - it would be something I could take on," Theobald said.

He went through every system on the vessel, upgrading communications and heating gear in particular, and replacing anything else that looked even slightly suspicious.

He lined up full funding for the trip through various sponsors, including major underwriting from Nordhavn.

But then, after Theobald had committed to hiring crew (including Capt. Clinton Bolton and First Mate Dominique Tanton - Theobald's stepdaughter), the national economic crisis hit.

He lost a huge chunk of sponsor funding, including Nordhavn. Thoebald said he continues to have a "great relationship" with the boat manufacturer and understands why the company had to pull its funding for the voyage.

"With the economy, orders were dropping out (of Nordhavn's) books, left, right and center," said Thoebald.

The sudden absence of funding forced a huge decision. Should he sail? Or should he call the whole thing off?

"At some point in your life - once - you have to roll the dice in a big way," he said.

Theobald rolled the dice, committing the profits he'd earned from the sale of a house to the venture.

"I said, 'I've got to use that,' said Theobald.

The Bagan left Newport, R. I., on June 16 with Theobald, Bolton, Tanton and Ted Croy aboard.

Joining the crew later were Theobald's son, Sefton Theobald; master diver Greg Deascentis; and cameraman Ulli Bonnekamp (Croy and Bonnekamp were aboard early in the trip, but not in the Northwest Passage itself).

Bagan headed north to Newfoundland and on to Greenland's Disko Bay before cutting across Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound.

There, the Bagan entered the 1,800-mile Northwest Passage on July 31, and the crew started work on photography and filming.

For most areas of the world nowadays, nautical charts are filled with scores of numbers indicating depths, and most hazards are clearly marked.

That's not the case for much of the Northwest Passage.

"Blank, except for one little line that was done in 1850," Theobald said.

Lack of chart soundings made Theobald think better of visiting an island where an ill-fated expedition is believed to have become icebound in the 1840s.

If Bagan got into trouble, "it's not like there's a sea tow or somebody around to come and get you," Theobald said. "You were on your own."

As they traveled through Canada's Arctic Archipelago, the Bagan crew was downloading the Canadian Ice Service's daily maps that rate the varying thickness of sea ice in the region, trying to discern where and how fast the ice was melting.

Based on a lead in the ice on an Ice Service map, they headed toward a small Inuit community called Gjoa Haven on King William Island.

On Aug. 15, Theobald blogged that the crew hoped they were just two days out of Gjoa Haven.

The ice intervened.

Bagan's progress was reduced to a crawl, its crew looking for any leads in the surrounding ice through which the boat could proceed.

"We really had to ask the unthinkable of the boat, and turn her into a tug and a battering ram," Theobald said.

A crew member would sit high on the boat's radar arch, calling out directions for promising leads. Other crew would stand on the bow and stern with boat hooks, pushing ice away

"Making our way through this solid ice barrier was beyond nerve-racking in that the protestations from the ice were heard in the forms of shrieks, screeches, explosions and deep powerful shudders," Theobald wrote in the trip's blog. "If any of the ice bits found their way to our exposed stabilizers, propeller or rudder the potential damage could have bordered on the unthinkable. Time and again we'd fight for 500 yards, only to have it taken from us at the last minute, finding that the lead ahead had closed in the 10 minutes we'd been trying to get to it."

They'd traveled only 18 miles in 17 hours. And they were now trapped.

"Not being able to move forward or backward, we shut down the engine and anchored onto a floe, one and a half miles from shore," he wrote.

The next morning found them just one-half-mile from shore and moving slowly closer.

They received an e-mail from a boat that was icebound, about 60 miles away. The Canadian Coast Guard had sent an icebreaker to free the other boat from the ice's grip.

"That really wasn't going to be an option for us," Theobald said. "Because we got ourselves into that mess and I didn't want to ask Canada to spend a lot of money to get us out."

They decided to try to push their way out. But they made three miles before anchoring again on an ice floe.

"It was rough," he said. "We were all pretty beat and exhausted at the end of it - especially with no guaranteed outcome. It's not like, 'Well, if we fight through this, the guidebooks say you reach the end of the ice and you're free.'"

The next morning revealed that they had drifted seven miles in the right direction.

"By three that afternoon we had broken our way clear into thinner and less dense ice packs," wrote Theobald, who was impressed with Nordhavn's toughness.

"Some of the hits we took on the ice, there was no creaking and groaning from the boat. The ice hit and sort of bounced off," he said.

They reached Gjoa Haven at 2:30 a.m. the next day.

"Never have I been so glad to hear the engine shut down," he wrote.

After a pleasant visit in Gjoa Haven, the Bagan transited Mclintock Bay en route to a community at Cambridge Bay.

It was there that Theobald heard some of the disparate views regarding climate change in the Arctic.

Theobald first interviewed two elders, men who had hunted in that area for their entire lives.

"The winters are getting longer," one of them said. "And the expression that we have is, 'The sun is coming up at the wrong time of the year. It's coming up too late.'"

Theobald then interviewed some geologists who had been working there for a decade or more.

"They said, 'Oh, we've seen big changes, the winters are much shorter,'" Theobald said.

Even at "ground zero," he said, "there are no agreeing opinions on global warming."

Yet everyone they spoke with agreed that the Northwest Passage would never open to commercial shipping, he said.

Cost is the major factor. Ships would have to have double or triple hulls, and the ice is so pervasive that icebreakers still would be required, he said.

"It would be so expensive to have a fleet of icebreakers to go through ahead of you to open a lane that will shut 12 hours later," Theobald said. "It's just such a strong entity, the ice."

From Cambridge Bay, the Bagan continued west through the Coronation and Amundsen gulfs before exiting the Northwest Passage at 130 degrees west longitude.

The crew celebrated, but they knew there was still about 2,000 miles to go through some famously nasty waters, including the Chukchi and Bering seas.

"I thought, 'God, I wish this crew hadn't watched The Deadliest Catch,'" he said. "Especially me, because we're all looking over our shoulders (in the Bering Sea) thinking when is this (bad weather) going to hit?"

They got lucky with great weather in the Bering Sea, but they got slammed when they came through the Aleutians and into the Gulf of Alaska.

"It really, really piped up," Theobald said. "We had our hands full until we got to Sitka."

Capt. Bolton had departed the crew at Nome. DeAscentis stayed on through Sitka.

Bagan departed Sitka en route to Ketchikan in early October, with just Theobald and his three family members aboard.

But the ice wasn't done with Bagan quite yet.

The boat was entering Wrangell Narrows when a small berg of glacier ice appeared out of the fog.

"It was ... maybe about the size of a freezer trunk," he said. "And I saw it and I was just, 'AAHHH. NOOO! No more ice!'"

Bagan cleared the berg and arrived safely in Ketchikan on Oct. 9.

It continued south toward Seattle on Oct. 27, traveling slowly to try (somewhat unsuccessfully) to coincide the rest of the voyage with pockets of good weather.

While still in Ketchikan, Theobald wasn't certain about when the documentary resulting from the voyage would be finished, or how it would be distributed.

"If I'm doing it on my own, which I kind of am leaning towards, it will probably be finished by the end of the summer, so I would be hoping to sell it for the fall, or the next spring," he said.

When he spoke with the Daily News, Theobald had had some time to reflect on the Bagan's voyage through the Northwest Passage.

He said the experience really opened his eyes about the toughness of the 19th century sailors who explored the Northwest Passage area, some of whom got stuck there in the ice.

"That sailing breed then was a different breed," Theobald said. "But we had GPS, electronic charts, (satellite) phones, e-mail, could download weather reports - and when we were locked in the ice, there was a huge amount of terror involved.

"Those guys, who were stuck up there for two years with nothing, I mean, they were supermen in that regard. They would come back, and if not do it again, they would go off to do (Cape) Horn or something," he said.

So what about Theobald; would he do it again?

Well, maybe as a crewman aboard someone else's boat, he said.

"You know, I loved every minute of it, but not to be repeated," said Theobald. "I would never take my boat above Glacier Bay again. I'm a little filled up with ice at this point - but I'm not regretting a single minute of it."

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