Photography by David Thoreson
There’s a rule of thumb veteran ice skippers like Roger Swanson come to understand about the Arctic: You don’t know what to expect until you get there, and—here’s the tricky part—if you wait until you know what to expect, you might be too late to get what you expect.
During Swanson’s second attempt at transiting the Northwest Passage in 2005, his 57-foot Bowman ketch, Cloud Nine, became trapped in Arctic Sea ice. He escaped with the help of a Canadian icebreaker and later learned that the threatening ice pack blew out two days later.
“September 13 was too late in the season to wait. I decided I’d had enough,” he said.
Swanson still dreamed of crossing the top of the world through the infamous route in his sailboat.
Tantalized by emails from an Arctic friend that the Northwest Passage might be open, he sailed Cloud Nine north from the Virgin Islands on June 28, 2007, even though another report said the central part was only “slightly better than normal.”
The Northwest Passage, a long-sought sea route through waterways in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, has been tantalizingly open enough at times to lure sailors, but the water routes remain unpredictable, with shifting ice and winds building up vessel-crushing ice packs.
After searching for a maritime route for centuries, explorers finally discovered a southern passage in 1854. Norwegian Roald Amundsen made the first complete transit from 1903 through 1906. His technique involved sailing as far as he could until his heavily reinforced wooden boat became frozen in ice and then waiting until the area thawed the following year to sail again.
Not so fortunate was the ill-fated 1845 attempt by Sir John Franklin in his lavishly equipped two-ship expedition. The boats were found a century and a half later—under the ice. A grim story emerged: Franklin’s ships were unable to break loose after becoming icebound in 1846 near King William Island. All aboard perished. There were reports of cannibalism.
After a stopover in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Cloud Nine left on July 19 with Swanson’s wife, Gaynelle Templin, and four other crew members. The explorers encountered their first ice in the Strait of Belle Isle; gale-force winds hurried them around Cape Bauld. Fog plagued them, and caution was necessary. Although large icebergs usually show up on radar, smaller ones and bergy bits don’t.
On this third attempt, Cloud Nine crossed the Arctic Circle on August 2 while headed north in the Davis Strait off the west coast of Greenland. On one occasion, Swanson recalled, “We counted 79 bergs all visible at the same time. Motoring through these magnificent castles of ice is a humbling but incredibly exhilarating experience.”
Working around the northern edge of the ice pack at Baffin Bay, the sailors reached 74 degrees 53 minutes north latitude, the northernmost point of their trip. Their radar failed, and their proximity to the magnetic North Pole caused the ship’s magnetic compass to become undependable.
“Steering was difficult with fog, no compass, no radar and only our GPS,” Swanson said.
According to Swanson, Cloud Nine was an ordinary cruising sailboat with no extra reinforcement for protection against the ice. For power, it had a single diesel engine.
When the ship was constructed, the boatbuilders in England did not know the strength of fiberglass, so they added extra layers. Templin thought the sailboat had fiberglass thicker than most boats. Old-fashioned solid fiberglass from the keel to the gunwales, the hull had no foam core.
“The ice just bounced off,” she said.
It was quiet, too. “We did not hear that much noise from ice scraping along the hull in the ice fields,” she said. “It was more like the sound of skaters on an ice rink.”
With towering bergs around them, the crew often couldn’t sail and had to run the diesel engine, a small four-cylinder that chugged faithfully along. “It sounded like it would drone on forever,” she said. In the ice, they usually powered at a conservative 4 knots.
Ice presented a unique problem. Once, when Cloud Nine was running through fog banks, Templin checked the belowdecks radar screen. It showed all clear. Nothing ahead.
But when she arrived in the cockpit to take over the helm, a giant iceberg loomed out of the patchy fog. She could not determine its height because of a fog layer around its bottom and another layer around its top.
“That got my attention,” she said.
Immediately, they changed course. Templin rechecked the radar: Again, the huge berg did not appear on the screen. “We knew icebergs showed up sometimes—and sometimes not.”
In Cambridge Bay, on the southeast corner of Victoria Island, the crew picked up a new radar and set off in the fog, hurrying because northerly winds still could bring down the ice pack. Dodging heavy storms, they sailed through the Beaufort Sea, the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Strait, and the Bering Sea to get to Dutch Harbor at Unalaska, Alaska.
They took 73 days to complete the 6,600-mile passage, including 3,433 nautical miles between their northward and southward recrossing of the Arctic Circle.
Cloud Nine became the first U.S. sailboat to transit the Northwest Passage from east to west. It was also the first American sailing vessel to complete the passage in one year.
At age 76, Swanson, who lived in Dunnell, Minnesota, and described himself as a hog farmer, became the oldest skipper to make the problematic passage across the top of the world that had eluded navigators for centuries. He did it with an “ordinary sailboat,” a down-home crew and no professional sailors.
A note from the author:
Roger Swanson was 50 when he began his long-distance voyaging career. He bought a 57-foot Bowman ketch and started sailing. Swanson had sailed around the world three times and put over 217,000 nautical miles under Cloud Nine’s wake when the lure of high ice beckoned. Was he ever frightened? I asked. No, he said. He never had time in an emergency. He was too busy. To sailors wanting to cruise, Swanson gave this advice: “If you want to go cruising, do it. If I had waited until I had the time and could afford it, I wouldn’t have left Minnesota.” Portions of this story originally appeared in Cruising World.