Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage. Newsletter No 6



Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage.
Newsletter No 6.
03.00 Zulu Tuesday 10th August
Position : 69 deg 16 mins North.   117 deg 09 mins West

We are currently inside the Northwest Passage proper, after travelling 4000 miles from where we wintered in Port Townsend in Washington, USA. While the transit of the Northwest Passage by boat is generally taken from the Arctic Circle on the Pacific Side of the America's to the Atlantic side the actual Northwest Passage itself is that section from the Beaufort Sea to Baffin Bay. Our position right now is in the middle of Dolphin and Union Strait which so far has been treating us rather kindly and only throwing up the odd blocking floes of ice which up to now haven't presented to much of a problem. However it is the eastern half of the strait that still has heavy ice so only time will tell how we will take it. Once through we should then have a pretty clear run up along the south shore of Victoria Island to Cambridge Bay. Well, here's hoping so anyway.

We left Tuktoyaktuk with a good forecast and made 20 nm in the first 3 hours but unfortunately the wind shifted around to blow hard on the nose again. With it up came the short, steep, sharp seas as well and before long we were under a double reefed main and the small storm jib. This was the point of no return, we both felt it. To continue past Cape Bathurst was the final commitment to go through to the other side. As Fine Tolerance ploughed into the cool waters burying her nose and covering her foredeck time and time again the thought was definitely there, 'are we ready for this'. After all we are not your macho sailor types, just your average cruising couple. What should have been a pleasant 20 hour sail to Cape Bathurst turned into a very wet, upwind battle and it wasn't until the next afternoon that we sighted the Cape. As we neared the Cape the wind dropped away some and I guess, probably through inaction we continued onward and as we rounded the Cape we put the engine on once again.

The last ice chart we had seen told us of a 3/10 water surface coverage by ice in this area but we were hoping that the wind and the previous few days had diminished this relatively high number somewhat. One thing with ice is that it  dampens all swell and we could feel a small bit of swell under the boat still. Also in the clear conditions that now existed we had a refracted light. This is an abnormal refraction of light at sea produced by an inversion of temperatures in a layer of air, which in turn creates variations in density of the air. Light rays passing through this layer are bent or deflected in excess of normal conditions. In real terms this gives us a double horizon. The one we usually see at around 3 to 4 miles and another one that can be ten or twenty miles away. (One of the reasons that Franklin, his men and ships were not discovered for 10 years after they went missing was that all the charts of the time showed a mountain range blocking the end of the sound that he had sailed down. In actual fact there was no mountain range and the sound led on into what we now know as the Northwest Passage. Researchers now believe that it was the refracted image of a mountain range many hundreds of miles away that caused this error on the charts.) In our case, when we can see ice on the horizon and a dark refracted image above it, it indicates to us that there is open water on the other side of the barrier immediately in front. If the refracted image has patches of dark and light then it is an indication that there is a mix of open water and ice. All white, of course, means all ice. The horizon in front of us showed a lot of dark patches and so rather than hug the shore of Franklin Bay, thereby adding another 40 plus miles to our distance to travel, we decided to gamble that we could cut straight across the Bay to the other side. The worst that could happen was that we would have to backtrack and then follow the coast. Generally we each do shifts of 3 hours at the helm and after retiring below for a nap I emerged on deck to find Liz just rounding a large ice floe that
stretched away northward over the horizon. We pushed on. Several more large floes showed up to the south of us which we slip around. After 20 miles of just making it around these large floes, thinking, why the heck do I lead us into these things, the way cleared and we came out into open water. Whoopee. Still not sure whether it was worth the anxiety though. From there on it has been plain sailing. If it wasn't for the odd iceberg and the cool weather one could imagine one was sailing down a trade winds route. After the ice we picked up a nice cross wind which slowly veered around to become a fresh breeze from behind. Currently we are poled out in a slowly diminishing NW wind and besides the strong possibility of more ice up ahead things are looking pretty good. Only 300 more miles to Cambridge Bay and half the Northwest Passage completed. Maybe it's the easier half but half is half and we're quite happy to leave it at that for now.

We'll leave you with a description of the layers of clothing we each wear to go up into the cockpit to steer Fine Tolerance. Liz: thermal underwear (long john's & long sleeved spencer), long sleeved wool jumper, long sleeved polar fleece sweat shirt, polar fleece sweat pants, down jacket with hood , 2 pair of socks, a pair of ug boots, scarf, polar fleece hat, a wind helmet which is polar fleece type of balaclava & over everything an insulated working suit & gloves. Phil: thermal underwear, long sleeved warm top, polar fleece sweatshirt, polar fleece sweat pants, two pair of socks, wool beanie, down jacket with fur hood, insulated working overall suit, gloves and boots.

Yours   Phil and Liz
'Fine Tolerance'