Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage. Newsletter No 10



Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage.
Newsletter No 10.
18.00 Zulu Wednesday 15th September
Position: 69 deg 08 mins North.   95 deg 10 mins West

It is usual that we read our last newsletter before sending out the current one to refresh our memory of where we were last up to and it appeared to us a be a little negative. Sorry about that. After sending it off we went ashore in the dinghy to try and get to see the latest ice charts. It was after 07.00 in the evening local time and to our luck, to see the local wildlife officer and his family came walking along the shore towards us. He was way ahead of us. Knowing that we had not been off the boat during the storm he had been checking the charts for us so that he could inform us as soon as we came ashore of the changes that the blow had caused. This is a typical example of how we have been treated up here in the Arctic. The people we have met have been such wonderful friendly and helpful people that we will find it hard to leave. Its a pleasure to be in a place where people still have time for one another and not having there lives so full with rushing about at a frantic pace all the time. We went up to his office and saw  that the storm had indeed wreaked havoc on the ice and that there was a narrow lead along most of the west side of the Boothia Peninsular with only a small section, about ten miles wide, of thick heavy ice that still remained blocking our way. Elated we made our way back to 'Fine Tolerance' and started to prepare for an early departure.

With every passing day at this time of the year the sun rises five minutes later and sets five minutes earlier than the day previously. In another three months the sun won't rise for six weeks and the area will be in perpetual darkness. Already there is over eight hours of darkness each night so it was in the early dawn, around five o'clock, that we set out to sail around King William Island, with our route planned to go up through James Ross Strait and into Franklin Strait, on from which we planned to cut through Bellot Strait, up and across Prince Regent Sound and hence out into Baffin Bay and finally south into the Atlantic Ocean. The wind was with us and we arrived at the entrance to James Ross Strait a few hours before dark. As there were some ice chunks floating about we decided to anchor and continue in the morning. 'Polar Bound', following just a few miles behind us, anchored nearby and an hour or so later 'Dagmar Aaen', which had come to join us both from where they had been in Spence Bay anchored also close by just after dark. The next morning saw us proceed through towards the northern end of the strait but only half way along we came across a thick wall of ice. We retreated back a short way and anchored to give the strait a bit more time to clear itself of the ice. The tidal current runs at about two knots and we felt that by morning we would be on our way again. The next morning we could still see a lot of ice, not much further away than the previous day, but set out to see if we could find a way through. 'Dagmar Aaen' has a crows nest half way up the mast which gives them a great advantage over 'Fine Tolerance' and 'Polar Bound' in finding gaps in the ice but even with this advantage the ice proved too thick and we all retreated once again and anchored.  A constant lookout needs to be kept when anchored in icy waters and rightly so. We had only been anchored a few hours when, with the tide change, a large section of ice, a few miles in length, swept down on us from the main ice wall, threatening to trap us up against the north shore of the strait. Hurriedly we pulled up our anchors and retreated a few miles further back.

When we awoke the next morning the ice could scarcely be seen and with high hopes we took of once again but once more, only a few miles further than we had gotten the previous day we hit the solid wall of ice again. It did have a few large leads (leads are gaps in the ice where, in our case, one can sail a boat down) but they did not penetrate very far and once more we retreated, this time further back to avoid any chance of being trapped. Even so, a few small floes drifted and were blown down on us and we had to up anchor and motor around them several times throughout the day.

After the first day of trying to break through had failed we had contacted the icebreaker that had saved us when the fishing net had wrapped around the prop to ask their advice and the weather and ice conditions. Their report then had been quite encouraging but contacting them again we were told that things were closing up and once again were not looking so good. 'Joton Arctic' had tried to come through from the other side but had failed and the ice appeared to be getting thicker. On our entire attempt on the North West Passage the Canadian Coast Guard have been magnificent, always being there and ready to give advise. Still, we decided to have a try again the next day.

Come morning there was no ice at all in sight. We pulled up our anchors and once again started to head up the James Ross Strait. Presently we came to some thick ice but we worked around it and with 'Dagmar Aaen' leading and 'Polar Bound" and ourselves following we starting running along the edge of the ice. In three hours we had made over ten nautical miles but then the lead through the ice started to curl around and block our passage. After a search we once again had to give up and retrace our wakes. With only 160 miles to get up to Bellot Strait we were not that far from victory. We anchored just back from the ice face and once again spent the rest of the day fending of chunks of ice that were being blown down onto us.

That night we talked to the Ice breaker again and the picture was once again grimmer than the previous day. Not only had a lot more ice come in and was packed against the land in front of us but the forecast was for much colder weather. Up until now we had been spending our days in plus 0 temperatures. Now it was forecast to go down to -4 degrees. Sea water freezes at around -1.5 so for Liz and I the writing was on the wall. Both 'Dagmar Aaen and 'Polar Bound' are much more powerful vessels then 'Fine Tolerance'. 'Dagmar Aaen's' engine alone weighs half the weight of our entire vessel. They can push through ice far easier than we can and can also travel at twice the speed. With the headwinds now forecast the chances of us being trapped against a hostile shore where just too great and so this morning we pulled the plug and with sadness said goodbye to our friends on the other vessels, wishing them every success but that for us our attempt was over. 'Dagmar Aaen' and 'Polar Bound' elected to stay on for a few more days in a hope of at least getting to Fort Ross from where they will be able to get out to the Atlantic the following year as already the top of  Prince Regent Sound is nearly blocked off. and there chances of getting through, if they do make it to Fort Ross are pretty slim.

As for us, we are at present heading back to Gjoa Haven knowing that we have done our best. There has only been about 15 small vessels in the whole history of the  North West Passage that have made it in one year so it is no disgrace to have got this far and failed. We nearly made it. We felt that we could almost reach out and touch the other side, it was in our grasp, but it was not to be. After Gjoa Haven we will go back to Cambridge Bay where we will most likely have to spend the winter with 'Fine Tolerance'. Our escape route back to the Pacific has also been cut off although there is still just a chance that the small ice blockage near Cape Bathurst will break free and release us. If it does then Pacific Bound we will be. If it doesn't then here's looking towards an Arctic Winter.

There are many people to thank, chiefly amongst them the Kiwi's of Campbell River, Edensaw Timber of Port Townsend, the Canadian Coast Guard and both our families. Also to all the persons who emailed us encouragement and to the people of the Arctic which made this years attempt so enjoyable.

Yours   Phil and Liz
'Fine Tolerance'