A new cruising ground?

Apparently in 2007 the Arctic icecap has melted back further than ever before. On September 9th it was reported that it covered an area of just 4.24msq.kms. The previous minimum record was 5.32 msq kms in September 2005.During this year the North West Passage was open from August 22nd. A recent study by eminent scientists had the alarming prediction that the permanent polar ice cap would completely disappear by 2030 with very worrying consequences for the climate and the direction and strength of the North Atlantic Drift which ensures the mildness of the Western European seaboard.

The shorter winters and the withdrawal of the ice from around Greenland and the other Arctic islands, is already causing considerable changes to the lives of people living in that region. It is not only the polar bears that are finding their opportunities to hunt becoming more limited; Inuits who also hunt across the ice now have a season which is two months less than in the past and the numbers who rely for their livelihood on hunting are said to be down to a mere 500.One of their leaders Aqqaluk Lynge spoke at the Stansted public inquiry,eloquently explaining how air travel, and of course the other activities of the rich countries,were affecting the lives of his people.‘Climate change is not just a theory to us in the Arctic, it is a dark and dangerous reality. Human induced climate change is undermining the ecosystem upon which Inuit depend for their physical and cultural survival,’he said, and went on to warn, ‘the serious consequences affecting my people today, will affect your people tomorrow’.The permanent ice cover has always hidden the apparent mineral wealth of the region, which is now starting to be exploited. There is already large opencast mining and the recent discovery of diamonds in west Greenland is expected to trigger something of a rush. The largest diamond at 24 carats hardly matches the Koh-I-Noor at 105.602 carats but it is probably valuable enough to keep most people happy.

In 1903 when Roald Amundsen with six companions, set out in GJOA a 48 ton ex herring boat, basically a sailing vessel with a low-powered 13hp auxiliary, to find a way through to the Pacific, it took him over two years to navigate the passage. His route was via Baffin Bay, Lancaster and Peel Sounds and the James Ross and Rae Straits. He spent two winters in a fine natural harbour which he named after his ship. During that time he fixed the position of the magnetic pole, finding that it had moved some thirty miles north since being identified by Sir James Ross in 1831, establishing as we know now, that it is constantly on the move, altering the variation on our charts year by year. At the moment it is on its way to Siberia. Amundsen studied the ways in which the Inuits were able to survive and flourish in such a hostile environment,adopting their clothes, diet, the use of dogs for transport and snow for shelter; all practices which gave him advantages when he made his dash to the South Pole in 1911.

Notwithstanding recent proposals to enlarge the locks on the Panama Canal,or even construct a new route across the isthmus, one is inclined to wonder if within a few years ships to and from the east might be using a route north of Canada as a matter of routine. However they will not follow exactly in the tracks of GJOA as she crossed some very shallow areas. GJOA can be seen in the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo, along with the FRAM, which Nansen had used in his attempt to drift to the North Pole, and Amundsen borrowed for his successful expedition to reach the South Pole.


More recently a 47ft Irish yacht

NORTHABOUT, built of aluminium and specially designed for the job, has set a record by sailing through both the North West Passage and the North East Passage completing a circumnavigation of the world from east to west via Arctic waters. Led by Jarlath Cunnane she sailed from Westport, Co. Mayo, through the passages to the north of Canada from Baffin Bay to the Bering Strait in 2001. In 2004, after cruising in Alaskan waters for two years, she set out from British Columbia to attempt the much longer and more difficult North East Passage which took two seasons; the boat having to be left for the intervening winter at Khatanga in Siberia. The voyage was successfully completed in 2006.

For his achievement Cunnane was awarded the Blue Water Medal by the Cruising Club of America, thereby joining such illustrious names as Alain Gerbault, Bill Tilman, Carleton Mitchell, Eric and Susan Hiscock,Sir Francis Chichester and Bernard Moitessier.On receiving the news of the award he said ‘I am overwhelmed and nearly speechless’ (Not a condition common among Irishmen!)

A book describing the voyages entitled,Northabout: Sailing the North West and North East Passages by Jarlath Cunnane has recently been published by Collins.

from Cruising, Feb, 2008