Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage. Newsletter No 11



Fine Tolerance and the North West Passage.
Newsletter No 11.
18.00 Zulu Monday 1st November
Position: Iced in solid in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada.

Our apologies for this newsletter taking so long to write it up and send  it out to you all. A lot has happened since we last wrote and as this is a long newsletter we have split it up into sections so that if the non sailing, or wildlife, or lifestyle, etc sections do not interest you, you will be able to just skip right over it. The sections are;
  • (1) Return to Cambridge Bay.
  • (2) Our reasons for not returning further.
  • (3) The other vessels.
  • (4) Being iced in.
  • (5) Life on a vessel with rapidly depleting systems.
  • (6) The weather.
  • (7) The community.
  • (8) Local wildlife.
We hope you all find something of interest. So here we go.
  • (1) Return to Cambridge Bay.

We found our retreat from James Ross Strait back to Cambridge Bay hard work. There is a different mentality when going forward to going backwards and for the first time we started to make mistakes, and although serious, we were lucky on each occasion to have just learnt another lesson and not suffered much more dire consequences.


The change in the weather in just the past few weeks had been more dramatic than we realized. It was now more than just cool sailing weather and we were in a rush to get back as quick as we could before it got much worse as we still had in our minds the possibility of breaking out back into the Pacific Ocean, a 2200 nm (nearly 5000 km) away which would take us in all probability 20 days to complete.

Our first day returning was with a good following wind and in an effort to get to Gjoa Haven before dark we shook the reef out of the main sail. This bought to home how much the weather had changed, even in the five days we had spent at the ice’s edge. Not only was the reefed portion of the sail as stiff as an overly starched shirt collar, the reefing lines had all frozen and it took one of us pulling and wriggling the line from one side of a block while the other pushed and wriggled it from the other end before they would start to move around the pulley.   By repeatedly thumping the sail we beat it into shape until it became flexible again.  When we went to pole out the headsail the foredeck and pole were covered in a thick slush puppy consistency frozen sea ice. There was also a large icicle hanging off the tip of the anchor where sea water had splashed up and frozen as it had dripped off. We got the  headsail poled out and noted for future reference just how these conditions, which actually didn't seem too bad at the time, had crept up on us without us noticing. With a full crew there would not have been any worries but with just the two of us the margin of error we allowed ourselves had definitely decreased. Just on twilight, with Gjoa Haven about 1 mile away we hit ground. We were trying to cut off a extra mile or so of sailing by passing between a small offshore island and the main Prince of Wales Island. It should be mentioned here that there was no soundings on the chart in this area but as we had been anchoring in unsounded areas for the past five days we felt that we would be quite safe. Wrong! And being wrong in this part of the world is being very wrong indeed. There were definitely no boats capable of pulling us off stationed anywhere near. In the gathering darkness we struggled to free Fine Tolerance and finally, after 2 hours we succeeded with Liz on board with the engine running full throttle in reverse and me in the dinghy, also on full revs, skewing the bow around. A lucky escape, and once free we set off to travel the extra mile we had tried to save and passed on the outside of the island. Getting into the harbour was another tale as by now it was completely dark and there are no lights or lit beacons showing the way into the this harbour. Our plans to have a quick visit ashore to friends was swapped for a quick exit to the bunk instead.

Early the next morning we pulled out of Gjoa Haven and started the journey towards our next stop, Cambridge Bay. The days were getting shorter, by about 12 minutes a day, and we had an uneventful day sailing and motor sailing back through Simpson Straight. Just before dusk we came to McClintock Bay where there was a tug with barges that was loading environmental cleaning up equipment from a abandoned  D.E.W. line station site. Talking to the tug boat captain over the VHF radio we were informed that there were some large icebergs drifting down in the area ahead of us so we decided to anchor where we were for the night rather than risk hitting one in the darkness. The night was still with the wind forecast to increase through the next day. early morning saw us once more on our way, passing may bergs about the size of double garages, large enough to inflict damage and small enough to be next to impossible to see in the pitch dark. We often had to alter course to avoid them and felt that our decision to stop for the night was well justified. By evening we were past the area of floating ice pieces and in an increasing wind we decided to anchor for the night at Jenny Lind Island where there was a bay that would offer us shelter from the freshening breeze. It was only 17 nm away but with the headwind we had steadily increasing and short sharp seas building it took us eight hours to sail the distance. All in pitch darkness and as we said, lucky there was no ice in this area. It was 2.30 in the morning when we finally dropped the anchor, using a combination of GPS, radar and soundings to select what we felt was a safe place.

The next morning we slept in and with the wind nearly gone decided to have a day off exploring so launched the dinghy and spent the afternoon wandering around. During the cold war era there was a large maned D.E.W. line station near this bay also which we walked up to and around. Unfortunately it was all boarded up and we couldn't get in to check out the inside of the installation. There are still D.E.W line stations all along the coast up here but now they are all automated and run from thousands of miles away. At one time this site housed 100 men.



The abandoned D.E.W line station on Jenny Lind Island. The wreck of Amundsen's three masted schooner 'Maud' in Cambridge Bay. Amundsen spent three years in the polar ice in the Maud in an attempt to drift to the North Pole.


With eighty miles still to go we started off again the next morning planning on reaching Cambridge Bay just after dusk. After the first 40 miles we realized that it was going to be dark even when we reached the reefs that guard the outside of the entrance to the bay so we quickly inserted a series of waypoints given to us by one of the tug boat captains which we would be able to follow into the bay in the darkness. Once again we found ourselves in complete blackness with a rising wind although this time the wind was coming from behind us. We jibbed, breaking the block rigged as a preventer and demolishing the bimini. With the awkward, steep sharp seas, the darkness, and with the wind blowing snow horizontally across the deck, we took over forty minutes to get everything under control and us back on course. Luckily we had a navigation beacon that we could make out between flurries that kept us orientated as we were at the time only a mile offshore in about 6 meters of water. We crept in using the waypoints in the GPS and the visual glimpses of the beacon until suddenly things did not seem right. It's strange how it happens. It's a feeling one gets, nothing that one can put their finger on but instinct tells you that there is something wrong. We knew that there were small islands and rocks all around us even though we could not see them and owing to the motion of the boat the radar picture was not totally reliable but still we both knew that something was wrong. We crept along, trying more or less to keep to the same position, checking, and cross checking the depth sounder, radar, chart and GPS and slowly crept around unseen obstacles until we felt we were once more back on track. From there on in was relatively easy although, with the wind blowing from a direction that did not enable us to come up easily alongside the government wharf, we decided to anchor in the east arm of the bay, very near the wreak of the 'Maud", Rould Amundsen's last polar exploration ship and now barely visible above high tide. It was now once again about 2.00 in the morning and with the searchlight rendered useless with the blowing snow (all you see when you use a spotlight when it is snowing is white snowflake reflections) we crept in towards the anchorage, searching for the small island that showed on our chart. It wasn't until we looked back towards the townsite that we say it, in our wake. We had missed it by about 15 meters. Luck was with us still.

The following day we motored over to the wharf. Including the day we had had off at jenny Lind Island it had taken us five days to have sailed 300 nm.

This photo was taken just a few days after we tied up. Not what one could call idea sailing conditions.


  • (2) Our reasons for not returning further.

We still had nearly 2000 nm to travel and now that the weather had cooled and we could expect it to get colder, we felt that it was a big call for just the two of us. Further, once we rounded Icy Cape we would also have much larger seas to contend with, with no place to run to shelter. Freezing rain would also become a problem as the weather deteriorated.

There was also the chance that we would not be able to break through the ice that lay off Cape Bathurst. Our friends on the Canadian Coast Guard Ice Breaker told us that there was a 50/50 chance of making it through. If we couldn't then we would have to turn around once again and retreat back to Cambridge Bay, a 900 nm round trip.

Also there was now no chance of any rescue if anything of a thousand things went wrong. Once the ice breaker left the area we would be completely alone. There is no Coast Guard up here, there is no helicopter rescue team ready to go at a moments notice, there would be no other boat that even remotely equalled the size of Fine Tolerance until we got around and into the Bearing Sea.

We have never experienced an Arctic winter, very few people have, and we felt that this would probably be our only opportunity.

If we did try and get out, and did succeed in making it back to the Pacific the chances of coming up to try and make it through this legendary passage again would be quite minimal.

Everyone we had met in this community appeared to be very nice  although they all expressed doubts about our ability to winter over in Fine Tolerance considering that the temperature often stays below -40C for weeks on end in the winter. This is without the wind chill factor which can push it down to below -80C. Still everybody we met was supportive of us staying. There was no doubt that this community, despite it's remoteness, had more facilities than any other place we had visited this side of Nome and that the bay was a safe place to leave the boat to be iced in.

So we decided to stay


  • (3)The other vessels.
The Norwegian yacht 'Jotun Arctic' had turned back from their east to west attempt and had elected Arctic bay on the west side of Baffin Island as there wintering over site. They had made it as far as the Tasmanian Islands, about 200 nm ahead of where we had been anchored in James Ross Strait. Their choice of Arctic Bay was, we guess because it was the first settlement on their retreat path. When last talking to them on the HF radio during the third week of October they had been having quite a bit of trouble with large multi year floes of ice drifting into the bay. Even though Arctic Bay is further north at 72 deg North the sea had still not frozen over solid inside the bay. When this happens it is a 24 hour job keeping a constant watch to avoid being pushed aground, out into the ice in the sound or loosing all the anchoring gear under a large floe and then being unable to recover it. It's a case of anchoring, then up anchoring when threatened by the ice, then re anchoring only to find that the whole process has to be repeated again and again. We are sure that the whole area would now be frozen but have not heard from them since. There is a period where the ice is to thick for a dinghy and to thin to walk on and they may be in this period.
'Minke 1' had turned back before we had reached James Ross Strait and had tied up to a Canadian Coast Guard oil spill response barge which is permanently stationed in Cambridge Bay with the skipper and crew all flying out.
'Polar Bound' and 'Dagmar Aaen' who had both remained in James Ross Strait when we had departed had to beat a hasty retreat that afternoon. For five days they were forced back further and further by the ice until in the end they were 20 miles further back from their goal of Fort Ross. On the verge of them also giving up a storm was predicted which they felt would give the ice one more chance of breaking up. 'Dagmar Aaen' dragged her anchor and was forced to spend the night in zero visibility motoring to hold a relatively stationary position but the ice did break up and a lead opened along the western shore of the Boothia Peninsular. They bolted at full power up this shore lead. Just past the Tasmanian Islands 'Dagmar Aaen' ran but broke free with 'Polar Bound's' help. They got through Bellot Strait and after a brief stop at Fort Ross 'Dagmar Aaen' took off again. From the various crew reports sent us it was a harrowing journey through to Pond. With new ice forming all the time around them they travelled at full power, under spotlights at night, and in the end being reduced to 1.5 kts breaking through 10 cm (4") newly formed ice before at last gaining open water in Lancaster Sound. David Cowper off 'Polar Bound' elected to stay an extra few hours at Fort Ross by which time the chance to get out had closed. With the help of the last ice breaker to leave the Prince Regent Sound area he was lead out into Lancaster Sound. From here he only made 30 nm before once more being iced in. Again the Canadian Coast Guard came to his rescue and sent back another smaller icebreaker that was in Dundas harbour. Once again he was broken out and escorted into open water from which he at last escaped. The last report we had, just a few days ago, put both 'Polar Bound' and 'Dagmar Aaen'  within a few days of there final destination ports in Scotland and Germany.
When we first heard that they had broken through we were both quite devastated but as the full story emerged we both knew that we had made the right decision for us and 'Fine Tolerance'. 'Dagmar Aaen's' effort was quite extraordinary. Even with the power that was at her disposal and with a crew of 10 she just made it by the skin of her teeth. Granted that there was the back up of the Ice breakers that were still about in the area but it was still a very gutsy effort and worthy of every accolade. The Canadian Coast Guard advised them that they were the 101st vessel to have transited the passage in the past 100 years. This list includes all vessels including ice breakers so it really is only a small band of vessels that have ever completed the passage. We could not possibly have made it this year. Both vessels can travel at twice the speed of 'Fine Tolerance' when there is little wind and they would have both have left Fort Ross before we had even reached it if we had all taken off for the James Ross Strait area together. We would more than likely have been caught in closing ice on this side of Bellot Strait with the nearest settlement over 400 km away. While we had allowed for 12 months food provisioning heating was a different story and our fuel supplies would have been depleted well before winter was over. Severe rationing would have kept us going but there is no doubt that it would have been a rather uncomfortable winter.
The English vessel 'Polar Bound' skippered by Englishman David Cowper and the German vessel 'Dagmar Aaen' skippered by the  Arved Fuchs.
  • (4) Being iced in.
While we had had small pieces of surface ice blown into the small protected area where we had decided would be the best place to be iced in it was not until the 1st of October that the surface of the water actually froze over. The following day it had melted again so we took the opportunity to tie ourselves 2 meters off the wall of the wharf. This was done by carrying a line attached to the aft bollard around to the shore and tying it to an anchor that we had placed there earlier. The bow we could angle a line out from and attach it to a pipe already in the ground. The distance that we pulled ourselves off was dictated by the length of the available gang plank. The reason that we could not stay against the wharf is because even though the surface ice is solid it is still floating on the sea surface and is affected by tidal action. As it rises and falls with each tide it cracks up against the wharf face and has the effect of tilting the boat.
Because there is a period of time where the ice is to thin to support a person and the dinghy is rendered useless we used the plank to board and disembark. This usually was a crawling affair. On low tide the plank became rather steep and more often than not was covered with a layer of frost, ice or snow which made it quite slippery. Neither of us wanted to end up falling and crashing through the ice covered water below so were extra careful crossing the plank. We did have the duck board down and a safety line just above the ice so that if a accident did happen we would have a chance of getting out as quick as possible. Day by day the ice thickened but for some reason every so often it would melt against the hull and the greater pressure from the ice on the side away from the wharf would push Fine Tolerance closer into the wharf wall. We could not find any way to stop this. The pressure was greater than any anchoring devise we have now been pushed to within 1 meter of the wharf. Our only option that we can see would be to cut a piece if ice equal to the size of Fine Tolerance from the outer side and then cutting all around her pull her away from the wharf and let her refreeze in. We have a chain saw on board for cutting ice and while the ice is still less than 90 cm (3') thick this is a possibility. We are tilting with the rise and fall of the tide but no more than 5 deg each way. When the ice grows to 2 meters thick we are not sure what will happen. Once the ice thickens enough to envelope the keel it will be interesting to see how much this tilting becomes. Hopefully it will reduce it.
In the first picture you can still see open water behind us. This was taken just a few days after the water started to freeze over. We treated the gang plank with the utmost respect.
The ice is also beginning to push the hull out off the water. Since the ice first started forming Fine Tolerance has been lifted about 6 inches out of the water. This is about three ton of boat that has been forced up by the ice. I would not imagine that we will be lifted much further out but once again only time will tell. The complete lack of available data makes any predictions rather difficult. All hull cocks have been turned off and we can only hope that come thawing time no damage will have occurred. The plastic through hulls such as the depth sounder and speed log would appear to be the weakest points but only time will tell. Luckily all our internal piping is made from flexible hosing which should allow for the ice, where water still lies, to expand without breaking anything. We have found however that most plastics become very brittle so once again it is only time that will tell how we fare. It is a fact that some metals become as brittle as glass when the temperature reaches below -40C. We are hoping we have nothing like this aboard.
  • (5) Life on a vessel with rapidly depleting systems.
While we had taken precautions and added equipment to Fine Tolerance before embarking on this journey they were basically inadequate for the winter. In our defence we were not planning to stay through the winter, our plan being to make a one season transit with the idea that if trapped we would survive until the following season. We believe we would have, uncomfortable though it would have been. Still there were many things that we didn't allow for, in fact couldn't really have been expected to allow for given the lack of information available. This section is living on board with rapidly depleting systems. This is what we mean.
The first system to cease working efficiently was the heater. Up until we turned it off a few days ago, after which the temperature aboard plunged to -16C and appears to be remaining constant, it could only keep the cabin between -4C and +4C. Most of the time if hovered around just above 0. While this was ,we feel, due to insufficient insulation it was also because we could not get the chimney to draw properly. We believe that this was due to the fact that the chimney above deck could not heat up thereby reducing the drawing power. We also suspect the temperature of the fuel itself but do need to do more investigation into the whole system before becoming to any real conclusion. Obviously the heater was still working, shown by the drop in cabin temperature as soon as it was shut down, but it should have been working much better.
The fresh water system ceased working during the second week of ice in. Exactly where the problem was we are not to sure but expect that the stainless steel tanks which are separated from the hull by only a 50 to 75 cm (2" to 3") gap froze up. We had emptied three of the four tanks onboard and the last one was only about 1/4 full so we are not expecting any cracking of the tanks due to ice expansion pressure during next summers thawing. We used our 20 lt emergency water container which we kept refilling from friends houses. Just as an aside, there are no outside water outlets anywhere in town. For one thing they would just break under ice pressure every winter and in the short summer there are no gardens or lawns. There is a small river ford on the outside of town where, in the middle of summer when it is not frozen over, locals can wash down their vehicles.
The next thing to cease working was the head (toilet) system. To help conserve heat we shut the head door and in the morning woke up to discover the water in the bowl was completely frozen. We did not want to risk breaking anything by breaking the ice up and once frozen the cabin temperature was not sufficient to thaw it. From then on we used a porta potty lent to us by the school principle. We kept it in the side cabin which received some of the warmth from the main salon.
The waste water system was the last to cease working. When empting the dish water last week it just didn't drain away. The pipe leading from the sink to the waste holding tank lay near the hull in one spot and had frozen. On inspection the holding tank itself, which is a plastic tank situated in the keel, had approximately 50 cm of ice growing inwards in it and would have soon completely frozen up and rendered the system useless anyway. As it was we were able to clean everything out and prevent any damage so it was not such a bad thing. from then on all cleaning was done in a container and emptied into the port-a-potty for carrying off and disposal off the boat.
The electrical system was gradually being depleted. The sun is so low in the sky that the solar panels were operating at, our guess would be, 15% efficiency which was not enough to replace the power we were using. Also, the colder it becomes, the less batteries are capable of being charged until in the end they are rendered worthless. Normal dry cell batteries will fail completely in extremely low temperatures which means that the small watch type batteries that keep most electronics operating cease to work in this area unless they can be kept warm. We stopped everything except the lights but still could not keep up with the power loss. We were not prepared to risk damaging the engine and had drained the system of both fresh and salt water so could not use it to charge the main ships batteries.
Without sufficient power and heat we decided to take up the kind offer from a local contractor that was heading back to Ontario for the winter to house sit his house until April next year. Last weekend we moved off Fine Tolerance and are now in a small house with all the trappings of home.
  • (6) The weather.
Today is gloriously sunny with the temperature forecast to reach a high of -27C. The past two days have been blizzard conditions. The water and waste trucks have not been running, air flights were cancelled and the children missed out on tricking and treating for Halloween which is a well patronized festivity here in Canada. The major problem with blizzards in this region is the snow blowing around reduces visibility. We have been told that in a full on blizzard we will not be able to see any more than a few feet ahead of us which makes any movement very dangerous. During the past few days we didn't experience anything less than 50 meters visibility so it was relatively safe to walk about in the town as there was always a house in sight. We took a small walk both days and tonight the children will be out in force.
For myself, I know that if my moustache takes a few minutes to crackle and freeze then the temperature is less than -20C, if it crackles and freezes within the first few breaths then in is more than -20C and if ice starts building up on it then it is more than -25C. Not as precise as a thermometer but a handy indication never the less. 
January and February are the coolest months with the average lows around -35C and average highs -27C. The sun is at present rising in the Southeast and setting in the Southwest, reaching a hight, at midday, of about 20 degrees above the horizon. Soon it will not rise at all and the days will become perpetual night. We have been told that May is the nicest month as snow is still lying all about and there is daylight nearly 24 hours a day.
Technically the area here is a desert, with the average annual rainfall being only 6.9 cm. There is only, on average, 82.1 cm of snowfall per year as well as most of the time it is to cold to snow so in actual fact it is not that bad a place to live. Basically although it is cold it is not wet, and the sunsets still remain spectacular.
The main mode of transport out on the land. A snowmobile pulling a sled across a frozen lake. Snowmobiles are also the most come type of transport throughout the town although as the streets are kept clear there are still many vehicles running around.
  • (7) The community.
The settlement of Cambridge Bay
The population of Cambridge Bay is around 1400. It has an airport, two supermarket type stores, a hardware shop, two lodges, one of which has a restaurant, a fast food outlet, a medical centre with one doctor, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Station, an ice hockey field and curling rink, a elementary and high school, three churches and government departments galore. There is also a well named 'Many Pebbles Golf Course'. Cambridge Bay is a dry town. While it is not illegal to possess or drink alcohol if you want any it must be flown in from down south or bought in as hand luggage when flying in. The nearest alcohol outlet is 1000 km away. Eighty percent of the population are Eskimo, the local group of which are called Inuit. The next nearest settlement is Gjoa Haven to the east which is approximately 400 km. The nearest road leading to the rest of the word is Inuvik which is about 1000 km away. English is the universal language although many of the Inuit speak in their native tongue to each other.
To the left, one of the main streets in town. To the right the street that leads up from Fine Tolerance to our temporary residence.
  • (8) Local wildlife.
For an area that, at first glance, appears devoid of any plant life there is quite a lot of wild life. While this is nowhere near the amounts of more temperate climates because of the terrain it is far more visible. It is also remarkably tame. For the past 3 weeks the caribou have been migrating from their summer feeding grounds further north down to their winter feeding grounds down south. We have been out and seen numerous herds of between 100 and 400 beasts. Besides the currently migrating herds of Caribou there are numerous herds of Musk Ox that live year around in this area. Throw in the Arctic Foxes and Hares, the Ptarmigan and other birds and every time one goes out on the land one always sees something. We have not been disappointed yet. Their tameness has allowed us to observe them from quite close. The photos of the Arctic Hare were taken from only a few meters away, those of the Musk Ox and Fox from 10 to 15 meters. This is not a known Polar Bear region although the odd one has been known to wander through. In the past month we have observed the coats of many of the animals changing from their summer browns to their winter whites. The main exception to this change of colour of their coats is the musk ox who appears to stay the same dark brown colour year round.
These arctic hares would have had brown coats only a few weeks ago. With the coming of the snow they turn completely white other than their eyes and the tips of their ears as a camouflage against their enemies.
Quite unafraid, this Musk Ox posed for about 10 minutes before slowly turning and ambling away. Even though they look more like a cow they are actually a relative of the sheep family and a remnant of a prehistoric age.
An arctic fox wearing with his all white winter fur and the partridge like ptarmigan who change all their feathers white for the winter.
Three boys walking up to a small group of caribou. From a largely brown colour their coat is also changing to become predominately white. These deer like animals are one of the major foods of the local people. They are harvested as they pass through the community and left in unheated buildings where they naturally freeze. Thus they provide food for the following 5 months of winter.
Well, that's about it. If you have any questions now is the time to email and ask as we have a normal internet connection and are not using the Iridium satellite system. We will be aiming to send out another newsletter around Christmas time. All the best to all until then.

Yours   Phil and Liz
'Fine Tolerance'