Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage. Newsletter No 2



Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage.
Newsletter No 2.
Position : 70 deg 40 mins North.   160 deg 32 mins West.

We have passed a few personal milestones this past week. First the crossing of the Arctic circle, then the crossing of the seventieth parallel.

We hoisted anchor and departed Port Clarence in fine clear weather with a light breeze that soon departed which made us turn the engine on. Ahead we could see Big and Small  Diomede Island. There is only a few miles between these islands through which runs the border between Russia and the USA. At times in the distance we could see the mountains of Siberia. We passed the Eskimo village of Wales and then crossed the Arctic Circle which we toasted with the customary nip of rum and a toast to old King Neptune. We then kept heading on north, passing Cape Hope on which there is another small Eskimo settlement and  then Cape Lisbourne which still has a manned D.E.W. (Distant Early Warning) station on it's peak. During the cold war with the USSR, the USA set up a whole series of these stations to give them warning of any missile attack. From there we continued North East towards Icy Cape and our selected anchorage of Peard Bay, about 45 nm short of Barrow. We had been sailing for the past few days but once again the wind died, just before Icy Cape, and once more we fired up the engine, just ticking it over, still with sails set.. One hour later the engine stopped stone dead. Panic stations! I rushed down below suspecting the gearbox but everything seemed in order. Then I figured out that it was something around the prop that had stalled the engine. Returning topsides and looking behind we noted a huge trail of green netting stretching back 50 meters or so. We are at present carrying more spares and equipment than we have ever carried, including even a chainsaw to cut us free from thin ice but dive tanks were never seriously on the list. We tried to haul the net on board but there was just too much of it and as it was all twisted up into large rolls and clumps it was way too heavy as well. In the end we just hacked and cut it free. We then tied the remaining section that was still tangled around the prop to one side of the boat and I donned my thin summer surfers short-john wetsuit, OK in temperate waters but wholly inadequate for these waters. Strapping a polartech hat to my head to try and minimise heat loss I jumped in. At least the water was crystal clear. The net was a huge tangled mess all around the propeller. I dove and tried to slice it way, but after just a few dives the cold and exhaustion got me and I climbed back aboard, put on warm clothes and went below to the heater to warm up and recover.  We have survival suits on board, a necessity in these waters, more so than a life raft. I got one out and Liz helped me climb into it. After the lightweight wet suit it was very comfortable and warm when I entered the water in it but the built in reserve buoyancy prevented me from sinking under the boat. Once again I donned the wetsuit and jumped in but once again cold and exhaustion got to me. So far I had barely made an impression on the tangle. Some more thinking time passed with me recovering once again in front of the heater. It is not possible to sail through the North West Passage without an engine. An engine is required at times to push and shove icebergs out of the way, etc. The only sailboat in history to sail through the North West Passage was two Americans in a Hobie Cat in 1988. It took them three summers of hard sailing and hauling the Hobie Cat over the blocking sections of ice. Their story is available in the book "Polar Passages" Our options were (1) to head for Barrow and hope that there was a diver or dive tanks available. A quick call on the satellite phone put paid to that idea. We were told that there was next to no possibility that there would be any scuba gear in Barrow. (The ice shelf is at present 11 nm off of Barrow which has no port, just an open roadstead. As with nearly all the communities around this area of the world there are no jetties or wharfs as whatever is built on the shore in summer the ice destroys come winter,) (2)  to sail back to Nome. We had secured the net up the side of the boat away from the rudder so we still had steerage and of course sail power. Nome is now over 450 nm back and to backtrack that far would in all likelihood stop any chance of getting back up here for the small window of opportunity when the ice frees up enough to get through. (3) we knew through another sailer that a Canadian Ice Breaker was due up here around now. We had been given the Captains card, what providence, so we sent of an email telling of our plight and asking for any suggestions and whether they could perhaps, if they are in the area, lend us a dive tank for 30 minutes. This morning we received a reply saying that they were only 290 nm away and heading in our direction and would be here in 48 hours but that they did not have any dive gear on board. Their suggestion is that it may be possible to lift up our stern to expose the propeller and to cut away the net by using their 20 ton crane which is on their aft deck. We are presently hove to waiting for their arrival tomorrow to see if this is possible. We'll let you know what happens. Other than this small setback we are both fit and well and in good spirits.

Yours   Phil and Liz
Fine Tolerance'