An Introduction to the Northwest Passage
The Arctic is a vast, ice-covered ocean, surrounded by tree-less, frozen ground, that teems with life, including organisms living in the ice, fish and marine mammals, birds, land animals and human societies.
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Sailing above the Arctic Circle was everything we’d hoped it would be: challenging, frightening, beautiful, fulfilling. We’d been hypnotized and dazzled by the stark landscapes, the whales and polar bears, the never-ending daylight. We’d been humbled by the notion that we were passing through the same historic waters where the heroic Roald Amundsen triumphed and the tragic Franklin expedition came to grief.
But stepping ashore in Pond Inlet was also bittersweet: due to the diminished Arctic ice pack, we were one of many cruising boats that have transited the once impassable Northwest Passage in recent years in record-setting numbers. The Passage remains one of the most remote and difficult voyages on the planet, yet it is also a place that seems forever changed.
What is the Northwest Passage?
The Northwest Passage is a sea route in the waters between the Davis Strait and the Bering Strait which connects the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Passage lies mostly inside the Arctic Circle and winds its way through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. For most of the year the harsh Arctic climate means that the sea is frozen solid, however in the last few years rising global temperatures have increased the sea-ice summer melt, so smaller vessels such as yachts have been able to navigate their way through in one summer season, for the first time in human history.
A brief history
The Arctic lands of the North American continent were populated by humans from about 50,000 years ago as people crossed over the Bering Strait land bridge from Siberia to what is present day Alaska. The people today known collectively as the Inuit, who inhabit the Arctic region stretching from Alaska in the west to Canada and Greenland in the east, arrived here from around 1000 BCE. For centuries they survived in this harsh climate of extreme cold through their skills at hunting and whaling, traditions which still continue to this day.
First contact with Europeans was probably with the Vikings who colonised Greenland in the 10th century BCE, and named the people they found there ‘skraelings’ which may have meant skin-wearers, or perhaps, weaklings. By the early 15th century the Vikings had abandoned their settlements, and Europeans knew almost nothing of the Arctic regions.
After the successful voyages of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the late 15th century, Pope Alexander VI split the discovered world in two between Spain and Portugal. Denied a sea route to the trading opportunities of Asia either around Africa or America, England, France and the Netherlands were desperate to find a solution to the north. The idea of a passage north west or north east across the top of America, or Europe and Asia, became something of an obsession, and the following centuries saw a succession of unsuccessful attempts, many of which ended in tragedy.
It was only in the first years of the 20th century that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally managed to navigate this treacherous waterway in the sloop Gjøa, but even he could only accomplish this feat by overwintering twice between seasons. A number of specially reinforced ships made the transit in subsequent years, but it was in the summer of 2007 when the Northwest Passage became first open to ships without the need of an icebreaker.
The Challenges of Sailing the Northwest Passage
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea; Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
Stan Rogers, Northwest Passage
Compared to other high latitude voyages, such as passages to Antarctica, Spitsbergen or Alaska, which are areas where I have sailed myself, the challenges poised by the Northwest Passage are entirely different. Whereas in the former cases, the success of a voyage depends primarily on the experience of the skipper and crew, as well as the suitability of the vessel, in other words, on objective criteria, in the case of the Northwest Passage, there are several subjective criteria which are entirely out of your control and therefore can result in failure unless you are prepared to do all in your power to minimize those risks.’ Jimmy Cornell
During the short summer season, the sea ice which has formed over the long winter, as well as the ice left from previous winters, melts to a greater or lesser extent. The ice usually retreats from west to east which means that in most years the eastern approaches to the NW Passage are the last to become free of ice. If planning an east to west passage, the way to overcome this problem is to plan on arriving at the chosen point of departure in the second half of July, and be prepared to wait until the ice has started retreating to such an extent that a transit may be safely attempted. This tactic can entail a long wait, and also means that yachts must be ready to go as soon as conditions look favourable, as the situation can change rapidly.
Weather conditions in the Northwest Passage can be unfavourable, with either contrary NW winds, or light winds and calms, when the only solution is to proceed under power. This means having a good reserve of fuel and, although there are fuel depots along the way, being able to refuel cannot be taken for granted for a variety of reasons. Some locations may not be accessible because of weather conditions, the depot may be out of fuel, or the route may need to be altered because of weather conditions which would mean missing the nearest depot. For this reason it is strongly recommended that every vessel should carry sufficient fuel to be able to cover 1200 miles under power.
Unless the transit is completed in the early part of the summer, the days begin getting shorter and nights longer, and sailing, or motoring, in the dark, may not be advisable or possible. A late arrival in the North Pacific may result in unfavourable conditions for the continuation of the voyage to British Columbia and the US west coast.
The Route from Greenland
Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is the last stopover for provisioning and crew changes.
From here it is 180 miles to Sisimiut, another good place to provision, and the last good place along this route to fill up with diesel.
From Sisimiut, depending on the ice situation in Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, there are two route options, either sail directly to Pond Inlet to await the ice retreat, or continue along the west coast of Greenland (usually free of ice by early July) to Upernavik. Here you can await favourable conditions to sail to Eastern Canada, and depending on the state of the ice, this could be either to Pond Inlet or to Lancaster Sound and beyond.
There are about seven possible routes through maze of islands and channels which make up the Arctic Archipelago, although the most commonly used is that which runs from Barrow Strait into Peel Sound and Victoria Strait, from there more or less following the coast of the mainland until Alaska and the Bering Strait through to the Pacific Ocean.
The Canadian Ice Service (CIS) publish daily ice charts indicating the position and concentration of ice, as well as Seasonal Outlooks and Summaries, 30-Day Ice Outlooks, Ice Forecasts and Iceberg Bulletins. They also have comprehensive explanations on how to interpret the latest Ice Charts, using the ‘Egg Code’ which shows ice concentrations, age and floe size in a simple oval form.
Ice charts are invaluable to sailors attempting the Passage as wind and currents move the ice around as it breaks up, making it impossible to plan which way to go until the final moment.
- RCCPF Arctic and Northern Waters (including Faeroe, Iceland and Greenland) by RCC Pilotage Foundation, published June 2014. Available from Imray
- The RCCPF also has a useful page on Passage Planning in the Arctic and you can read RCC members’ logs about previous NWP passages.
- For the history of the early explorations –
Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage, Glyn Williams
- For a sailor’s account of making the transit –
The New Northwest Passage, Cameron Dueck
- Canadian Ice Service website
- The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center
A wealth of information, with year-round scientific analysis and daily image updates of Arctic sea ice.
ArcticWeb is run by the Danish Maritime Authority to improve maritime safety in the Arctic region. Ice charts and weather updates available. Designed for vessels to access using a low internet connection.
- Fisheries and Oceans Canada, including Canadian Coastguard
- NOAA’s Arctic Theme Page
- National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
The museum has a collection of relics from expeditions to the Northwest Passage, some of which are on display. The Museum’s website has some informative online pages about the melting of the Arctic ice cap as well as details of all the main historic expeditions:
- Arctic Council
The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.