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Northwest Passage

Summer 2014

In mid July I was off on an unpredictable journey. From Nuuk, Greenland, I crossed the Arctic Circle and found myself in another world, a place of polar bears, cracking glaciers and eternal daylight, where sunrise chased sunset with barely ten minutes to spare.

Since 2010, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of 5 Gyres Institute global study into the count and weight density of plastic pollution in the five subtropical oceanic gyres. Via Pangaea Explorations sailing vessel Sea Dragon, we’ve traversed tens of thousands of miles of ocean, trawling for plastics. In particular, it is the microplastics (less than 5mm) that show up in our nets and often we find thousands of pieces per sample. Even in places where there are meant to be none, like the equator, we still find hundreds. It's an eerie thing, to look out at the perfect blue sea and find plastic lurking under the waves...

So, the burning question was what would we find in the Arctic?! I was going to be travelling through some of the most pristine waters on this planet, heading into the Northwest Passage, a channel only recently opened due to changes in the Arctic pack ice. Would I find pollution even there? It was time to see just how far into the polar regions our plastic waste has travelled.    

Whilst battling the extreme conditions of the far north, being chased by ice and storms, winds and rain, I ran nine trawls over 3000 miles. And guess what? Good news for the planet! Other than a few samples of plastic on beaches in Devon Island, and some microplastics in the trawls off the West coat of Greenland, the Northwest Passage was surprisingly plastic-free. What a joy to pull up my trawls and find - nothing!    

The crossing of Baffin Bay was the opposite of any sea I'm used to. I know palm trees and tropical islands, but we were weaving our way through island-sized towers of ice. We couldn’t even tell the icebergs from the white caps. After a week of battling sloppy seas, we entered Lancaster Sound and could finally say we had reached the High Arctic (drumroll please).

Despite being at anchor in Dundas Harbour for over two weeks, everyday was a new insight into life in the Arctic – polar bears roaming the shoreline, deserted Inuit settlements, walrus colonies and lots of bones. After coming across the graves of two young men, I also started to understand the turmoil caused by moving from a traditional culture to a modern society. And also what a difficult and unpredictable place the Arctic is.

After long weeks at sea, we needed to resupply our fuel. The ice was blocking our path in almost every direction, but the ice charts showed that a tiny little Inuit Settlement called Arctic Bay might be our best bet. So we set off aiming for Admirality Inlet. Sailing along, we noticed the sea temperature had dropped below zero and ice was starting to form all around us. The gaps in the ice became narrower, and the ice floes become more joined up.

Sailing through a sea that can’t decide whether it wants to be ice or water

We found ourselves beset in the ice. We were not going anywhere for a while. On top of the fact we couldn’t move, the mist had set in making visibility close to impossible.  We were so close to the magnetic north that our compass wasn’t working, so we just had no way of knowing which way was safe water. Over a period of a few hours we realised the ice floe was actually moving into the wind rather than with the wind – the complete opposite of what we expected. It seemed there was a strong current and just to make matters worse, we were being pushed straight towards land.

We were locked in that ice for 14 hours. When we finally freed ourselves, we were just 1/2 mile from land. Having started 12 miles away, it was a pretty close call! But we found a lead out to open ocean and retreated back to Dundas Harbour, which was starting to feel like home, to wait for some more melting to happen. I should probably move to Dundas Harbour considering I’ve spent more days there than in any other location this year! With so many boats waiting, we were even holding pancake mornings to share and discuss the latest ice chart, which arrived at 6pm everyday, after 24 hours of clock watching. It turned into a little ritual as it was the only thing to break up the day!

Then, completely lulled into a false sense of security, I found myself on the floor next to my bunk at 4am one morning. We had gusting 60 knots coming down from the glacier to our anchorage - hitting us on the nose and the beam. I’ll never forget the moment I stepped on deck and saw our neighbouring yacht knocked down by a gust and lying on its side in the water.

After the longest 28 hours putting Aventura through her paces, we made it to the Arctic Bay and managed to stock up on fuel. But even though we were now all set to go - we weren’t stuck in the ice, we weren’t stuck in a storm, we still had to wait. And this wasn’t normal for this time of year. But what was normal? Before 2007, you definitely wouldn’t have guaranteed passage through the NWP. But then suddenly, from 2007-2013 it was possible to make a fairly easy transit. And then it became difficult again – had someone turned off the heat?

In fact, someone had turned up the heat! Usually the North West Passages are full of first year ice (ice that has been there for one winter), which in the past six years, melts readily in the summer. However this year, instead the passages were blocked with old multi-year ice that had melted, carved away, moved down from the Arctic ocean ice sheet, and then got stuck. So instead of waiting for first year ice to melt, we were waiting for ice blocks the size of mountains to melt. Oh the joys of the Arctic - guess we won’t be home for Christmas then!

The scientists' analysis was that a big storm would be the only thing to shift this big ice. But with such different weather this year there were no storms predicted (of course!), so there was lots of debate as to whether the passage would even open for us.

The window to make the passage was quickly closing and, even if we made it through, it would mean facing stormy season on the other side. As a result, one by one each of the boats was making the decision to abandon their attempt and head home. After a humbling trip to Beechey Island where we took a moment to pay our respects to the resting place of several early Arctic explorers, Aventura decided to turn back as well. So I had to make a very quick decision. I defintely wasn’t ready to leave. I had to reach the Franklin Strait, so I jumped ship! And managed to catch a ride on a sailing vessel called Drina with a bunch of strange Aussie blokes and close to no comms. Never a dull day…

First morning aboard, we were covered in snow – just to make me colder than I already was. Immediately we got up close and personal with the bird colony at Prince Leopoldo Island, which was incredible. Large numbers of thick-billed murres, northern fulmars and black–legged kittiwakes northern breed on the cliff ledges. With large numbers and immense diversity, this is a hot spot for bird conservation in the Canadian Arctic. There were millions and it was so loud you could hear them from miles off – a proper gathering that almost looked like birds stacked on the shelves of a supermarket!

Yet again, the ice did exactly the opposite of what we thought it was going to do. When we woke up one morning, our safe haven (think we needed to stop thinking anything would be safe!) was barricaded by ice. So what more could we do but go for a swim in an ice floe – especially after having not washed for months. I had all these visions of bombing into the pool, but after dipping in one toe I’ve honestly never been in so much pain in my life!

We managed to anchor to an ice floe that was deeper than us – I’d definitely never read any manual about how to anchor to a bloody ice floe! But as long as we stayed close to this floe we were safe from getting crushed into the shore. After two whole days in that anchorage, totally surrounded, the skipper started to worry that we would be locked in the ice for months. He had dreams - or nightmares - of his crew being air lifted off, and him having to make the decision to stay on his boat, his home, all winter. Tensions were running high and game plans were being thought out. But when we woke up in the morning, the panic was over – all the ice had miraculously gone (hurrah!). After everything that had happened so far and the scare of being stuck again, we started to retreat in the direction of home.

On August 28th, just as we had reached a safe anchorage, the ice chart came through with a beep. And on it we saw a sliver of space through the plug of ice we had been waiting to shift! This was it! The passage was open to the Franklin Strait! And we weren’t there! So we turned around and raced our way back down Prince Regent Inlet.

The final hurdle was the Bellot Strait. There’s a lot of sailor talk that you have to go at certain times, at certain speeds and at certain states in the tide, but on arrival at Bellot our skipper, Michael, decided we should just go for it! We dove in and were greeted by the custom 8 knot current, whirling waters, submerged rocks and roving icebergs. We decided to hug the shoreline to avoid the stronger currents and there was grounded ice there so easier to dodge – the roving ice in the middle couldn’t touch us in the shallows.

After about six hours of navigating the Bellot Strait we hit another wall of ice.  Thick, multi-year ice, guarded by two polar bears! We had been making such good progress, and this final barricade felt like a punch in the stomach. It hadn't crossed my mind, in this last rush towards the finish line, that we might not make it. There was now open water in sight, but a massive wall of ice stood in our way. And I suddenly realised we might have to turn around. This ice was deep and old, not the sort of stuff we could casually navigate through. So what did we do? Cook pancakes of course! And after that and a scramble up the mast, the tide turned, the pressure released and gaps had opened just enough to squeeze our way through.

As if by magic, the ice had gone. Franklin Strait was clear. After weeks of staring at this spot on the ice charts - as the area that was blocked and inaccessible for anyone to reach - it was extraordinary to come out and see a flat millpond of water, without a drop of ice. This just shows how quickly things can change. The Arctic is synonymous with unpredictability - you can be stuck one second and sailing the next. It’s a truly extraordinary place with extraordinary conditions. And we had made it through!

An interview with Emily before she set off on her journey

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