By KAREN WELLS
LEWISPORTE — Setting out from Lewisporte Harbour on June 21, the crew of the Belzebub II began a journey that would see them achieve a first in Canadian Arctic exploration.
“A Passage Through Ice” sailing expedition has become the first to cross the infamous McClure Strait in a sailboat.
The past three months have seen the 31-foot boat sailing from Newfoundland to Greenland and through the Arctic in an effort to track the depleting polar ice cap and bring awareness to climate change.
The Pilot spoke with two of the crew members, Nicolas Peissel of Montreal and Edvin Buregren of Sweden (they were later joined by a third crew member, Morgan Peissel of Boston) in May about their plans to travel through a new route in the Northwest Passage. They had spent five weeks at the Lewisporte Marina preparing the sailboat for the expedition.
“We couldn’t have done it without the support of everyone in Lewisporte, specifically the Yacht Club,” Nicolas wrote in an e-mail response last week to questions posed by The Pilot after the successful sailing of the McClure Strait.
As noted, the expedition set out from Lewisporte on June 21, arriving in Greenland on July 1. Nicolas wrote that they tracked the western coast and fjords for over a month, all the way to the most northern hamlet of Qannaq at 78 degrees latitude where they were stopped by ice. They then headed west into Canadian waters and Grise fjord, Canada’s most northern community.
From there they went through Lancaster Sound to Resolute where they staged attempts on McClure.
“It took two attempts,” he noted. “The first time we had equipment failure, but the second time we made it through the ice of Viscount Melville and then across the top of Banks Island to become the first sailboat in history to achieve this route.
“We then stayed north tracking the polar ice cap across the Beaufort (Sea) until we reached the Bearing Sea and crossed the Arctic Circle to accomplish the most northern Northwest Passage.”
He says they were “absolutely ecstatic” but also exhausted when they finally made it through.
“We really realized what we accomplished when the Canadian ice services reconnaissance plane flew over us and filmed us rounding the Strait. We had spent the last 48 hours awake and concerned about becoming trapped while sailing the Strait. The previous night we spent in a gale negotiating 15-foot waves with pieces of ice in them, so we were happy to find a natural harbour, drop anchor and treat ourselves with pancakes and a nine-hour sleep.”
Nicolas felt the expedition went extremely well, minus some equipment failures that were difficult to deal with in the remote Arctic. Sailing in thick ice took on a whole new meaning for the crew in Viscount Melville as they dealt with two gales while negotiating ice.
“We are certainly better sailors and people after that experience,” he wrote.
Even with all the modifications and reenforcements that the crew made on the Belzebub II, Nicolas wrote that in hindsight, while the modifications were helpful in putting their minds at ease before leaving, in reality they would have done very little or nothing in the ice they encountered.
“A 31 foot sailboat made of fiberglass stands little chance if crushed by ice no matter what you do.”
Thankfully there was never a need to seek any emergency assistance, and the Belzebub II crew completed the journey 100 per cent independently. Nicolas noted that the Canadian ice services, supported by the coast guard, provided the crew with timely weather and ice information. While this could normally be accessed online, without those capabilities on board it was done for them over the radio, making the expedition much safer and possible.
While there are full details online of the journey at the website noted at the conclusion of this article, the crew essentially followed a thin lead of water about two miles wide between the north shore of banks and nine tenths ice. The ice in this “open” lead was anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent ice.
“We had a 48 hour window before we would become trapped and possibly crushed from the ice,” Nicolas wrote.
This expedition confirmed for the crew that there is depletion of the polar ice caps occurring.
“When we crossed Baffin Bay there was absolutely no ice, which was unheard of,” he noted. “Also, the Arctic reached the lowest sea ice extent in recorded history this summer.
“The fact that we became the first sailboat in history to complete this route is very visual proof that there is serious sea ice depletion taking place in the Arctic.”
The crew has been sharing their story with global media outlets to share their experience and findings.
The last leg of the journey is still a treacherous one. Nicolas wrote that the sail from Nome to Dutch Harbour is “extremely dangerous” with shallow waters constantly bombarded with storms. Nicolas noted this is why the Discovery Channel films Deadliest Catch in these waters. From Dutch Harbour they will have a perilous sail during storm season. All told about 16 days at sea in order to reach Vancouver around Oct. 20.
Their plans from there? Nicolas said they will go their separate ways and on to their own sailing projects. Edvin will continue on to the Pacific, Morgan to Europe and Nick back to the Arctic.
For more details and photos from the expedition visit “A Passage Through Ice” website at http://belzebub2.com.