Into the Ice
Return to the Northwest Passage
by Roger B. Swanson
Passage has been a goal of mariners since 1497 when John Cabot first attempted
to reach the orient by a northern route. Since then many have tried but few have
succeeded. In recent years with global warming a few boats have gotten through
tempting others to try. It has been eleven years since I attempted to transit
the Northwest passage in 1994. At that time Cloud Nine with its crew of six was
turned back by ice near Resolute, high in the Canadian Arctic. This year we did
better but the goal still eluded us.
My wife, Gaynelle had expressed an interest in sailing to Greenland. Although it
wasn’t in her plan, it didn’t seem right to go that far north and not make
another try for the elusive Northwest Passage. A total of eight boats attempted
the passage this year, but in spite of all the reports concerning global
warming, no one succeeded in making it through unassisted. Four boats retired
early for a variety of reasons and the other four held out as long as possible,
two attempting the passage from west to east and the other two, which included
Cloud Nine, from east to west. We almost made it, but the ice prevailed and we
had to turn back.
After months of planning Gaynelle and I returned to Cloud Nine in Trinidad on
March 18 and prepared for our departure. All systems needed to be in good
working order along with backup plans and parts in case of failure later on.
There are no boatyards in the Canadian Arctic. Polar bears have been known to
destroy rubber inflatables so we carried an extra dinghy as well as 220 gallons
of additional diesel fuel on deck in drums and jerry cans. The few fueling
points that are available in the Arctic are sometimes inaccessible because of
ice concentrations outside the harbors.
On April 6 we were sailing from Trinidad with a crew from the San Francisco
Station of the Cruising Club of America (CCA) including the present and two past
commodores. We certainly didn’t lack for cruising experience. Heavy weather the
first two days required us to beat to windward giving us a good shakedown after
which we stopped at the Isles of the Saints just south of Guadeloupe. The
historic Battle of the Saints took place a few miles offshore where the British
fleet defeated French Admiral DeGrasse giving the British control of the waters
in the Eastern Caribbean.
|Don with his 27 pound mahi mahi.
The smoking volcano of Monserrat loomed on the horizon as we sailed past enroute
to St. Barthelemy arriving on April 10. This French island has become a stopping
place for the rich and famous. The harbor was crowded with vessels of all kinds
including several multi million dollar mega yachts lining the quay. The town is
filled with fashionable shops with prices to match the clientele. St. Barthelemy
came under Swedish rule from 1784 through 1877 giving the island and its
population a Scandinavian influence not normally present in the Caribbean. After
a day’s visit in the quaint capital city of Gustavia that included both sight
seeing and a search for boat parts, we were underway the next morning bound for
On the first day out a pod of humpback whales entertained us by swimming close
to the boat with a few frisky individuals breaching several times. A few days
later Don caught a magnificent 27 pound mahi-mahi providing excitement for
everyone as well as fresh fish for several delicious meals. It was an enjoyable
870 mile passage to Bermuda during which time we experienced all kinds of
weather. The final 24 hours were difficult because we were hard on the wind
again. It was a relief to reach the shelter of scenic St. Georges harbor, clear
customs, and anchor in clam conditions again.
The next day we motored 20 miles around inside the long circular barrier reef to
the inner harbor at the capitol city of Hamilton and moored at the Royal Bermuda
Yacht Club. The national CCA spring meeting was held here and our trip was timed
to coincide with this event. In addition to the meetings, we toured much of
Bermuda including the Royal Dockyard that contained a splendid museum showing
many fascinating displays concerning Bermuda history.
During both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Bermuda was the principal
base from which the English fleet operated during hostilities with the fledgling
American nation. Using the Royal Dockyard as a repair and replenishing facility
they could conveniently blockade the American coast. During the American Civil
Way, England was officially neutral, but sympathetic to the South because of its
dependence on cotton imports to supply its textile mills. Blockade runners based
in Bermuda were one of the primary sources of arms and ammunition for the
Confederacy. Some local businessmen played both sides of the war by providing
repairs and supplies to southern blockade runners and then selling this
information concerning Confederate ship movements to Union ships calling at
During WWII Bermuda played an important role as a strategic base for aircraft
patrolling the Atlantic for German submarines. It was also a communication
center monitoring trans Atlantic radio traffic. It is a little known fact that
all overseas civilian mail traveling in both directions across the Atlantic was
routed through Bermuda. Every letter and parcel was opened and examined in a
special room at the Princess Hotel in downtown Hamilton, then carefully resealed
and sent on its way. The Germans would sometimes transfer information by
condensing it into what appeared to be nothing more than incidental ink dots on
a hand written sheet of paper. By intercepting these letters, the Allies were
able to detect and decode much of this microdot communication. Other valuable
intelligence information was also obtained and processed in this way without
revealing the fact that we were monitoring the mail.
On April 30 after a crew change, Cloud Nine departed Bermuda and headed west
toward Norfolk, Virginia. A fair amount of rain and rough weather accompanied us
on this passage also, but conditions improved as we neared the coast. As we
approached the Virginia Capes outside Norfolk we saw several naval vessels
entering and leaving the area including an aircraft carrier fueling from a
tanker a few miles out. A destroyer on security patrol near the capes contacted
all vessels including ourselves warning us to stay clear of all naval ships as
we approached the entrance channel.
The Thimble Shoals channel into Norfolk harbor passes the historic Hampton Roads
area where the first battle between ironclads took place on March 9, 1863. USS
Monitor and CSS Merrimac battled for several hours before both ships withdrew.
The battle was inconclusive, but after this event, naval warfare was never the
same again. On our way into the harbor we were met by my navy friend, Toy
Graeber, in a motor boat who guided us past the ships moored in the Norfolk
naval base, the largest naval base in the world, and on into the Norfolk Yacht
and Country Club where we received a warm welcome.
Out visit to Norfolk was scheduled to coincide with a reunion of the officers of
USS Henley DD-762, the U.S. Navy destroyer I served aboard from 1953 to 1956.
This was another three day affair that took place at Toy’s home, the yacht club
and aboard Cloud Nine. This was an exciting time for all of us because we had
not met for fifteen years and our group had never seen Cloud Nine. Twelve of our
original twenty officers were able to attend along with spouses creating a
source of sea stories that continued far into the night.
|This crew shared nearly 5000 miles with us through the ice.
Our group toured WWII battleship USS Wisconsin BB64, which is now on display in
Downtown Norfolk. The last time I saw her was in 1953 at Sasebo, Japan, after
she returned from operating as a unit of Task Group 77 off Korea. A tour through
the new destroyer, USS Mason DDR 87 was a special interest to this group of
former destroyer officers. The sophistication in electronics and weaponry was
almost beyond belief causing one of our group to comment, “It makes me feel
better about paying my taxes.” We saw many ships at the naval base including
three attack carriers, three helicopter carriers and about 15 destroyers. I
could not help but wonder why the Navy was willing to concentrate so much of its
fleet in such a small geographic area. It made me think of Pearl Harbor.
Several days were spent in Norfolk fine tuning Cloud Nine for our passage north
because this was the last place we planned to stop for any length of time. On
May 16th a friend arrived from Minnesota with our station wagon packed full of
cold weather clothes, parts, and equipment that we would need in the north.
Gaynelle did most of the major provisioning for the next four months here at
Norfolk. As a result our home away from home had food items stuffed in every
available space including the bilges and the sail locker.
With a new crew we left on May 22 and started north through Chesapeake Bay.
Persistent rain and headwinds required a lot of motorsailing, but northerly
progress continued until anchoring off the Naval Academy seawall at Annapolis.
None of us had previously visited the Academy so this was a first for all of us.
It was graduation week making it a festive time to visit. While on the grounds
we were lucky enough to witness a superb demonstration by the Blue Angles. I
don’t know if the Naval Academy graduation calls for an especially fine
performance, but it seemed like it. Six aircraft took part and the maneuvers
Another highlight was dinner at the Annapolis Yacht Club. The finish line of the
Wednesday night race series was located directly outside and below the second
story dining room window. We looked down and watched 135 race boats cross the
finish line with brightly colored spinnakers flying to the accompaniment of
signal guns booming to announce the winners of the various classes. Just beyond
the finish line was a bridge too low for the boats to pass under, so they had to
immediately douse their sails and clear the way for others finishing behind
them. It was a grand spectacle!
From the north end of Chesapeake Bay, Cloud Nine passed eastward through the
Chesapeake and Delaware canal, south through Delaware Bay and then north again
along the outside of the New Jersey Coast. Since none of us had visited Atlantic
City we anchored in the outer harbor at 0600 on May 28 and spent the day on the
“Boardwalk.” It was Saturday on Memorial Day weekend. It was crowded with people
enjoying the fun and good weather. I’m not sure what we expected, but we were
not disappointed. I think we saw it all, people of all sizes, shapes, and dress
enjoying the merriment offered by the Boardwalk. Carnival rides, restaurants,
shops of all kinds, carnival booths, and of course, the extravagent Trump
casinos. It was great fun.
But one day was enough and by 1730 we were back aboard and hurrying north
because we needed to catch the flood tide as we entered New York harbor. The
weather was perfect as we passed under the graceful Verrazano bridge spanning
the Narrows, past the Statue of Liberty, and on up the East River. It was
exciting to see Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, South Street Seaport, the United
Nations building and all the rest from the east river. Having caught the tide
right, we had no problem with the notorious currents at Hell’s Gate and passed
on into Long Island Sound in late afternoon.
|Charles W. Morgan, the only original whaler remaining in
The following morning we had to wait for the tide outside Mystic, Connecticut,
to enable us to negotiate the narrow winding river crowded with Memorial Day
boat traffic leading to the Mystic Seaport Museum where we were able to moor
inside the museum grounds. This is a fascinating replica of a traditional New
England shipbuilding harbor including large and small ships, piers, many
shipbuilding workshops and waterfront houses. I was particularly impressed with
a lathe designed to turn spars up to 80 feet long. The only original whaling
ship left in the world, the Charles W. Morgan is at Mystic and open for
visitors. There were several other traditional sailing vessels in the museum
harbor including the full rigged ship Joseph Conrad, often used as a training
vessel. We watched excellent demonstrations showing many shipboard operations
including setting and furling sails.
Newport, Rhode Island was our next stop. We arrived late in the evening. Without
realizing it, we anchored next to Kotix II, whom I last saw in Ushuaia,
Argentina, on our Antarctica trip in 1992. Surprise! This is one of the joys of
cruising, meeting old friends in unexpected places. The next morning we had an
exciting time visiting with Oleg and Sophie catching up on past events and
future plans. A visit to the Vanderbilt mansion known as The Breakers, and also
the Rosecliff mansion, gave us a bit of insight into the grand style enjoyed by
the wealthy in past years at Newport.
The failure of our main engine fresh water pump required an unexpected stop near
New Bedfored, Massachusetts. Fortunately we carried a spare and were soon
underway again passing through the Cape Cod Canal leaving U.S. waters on June 2.
We soon ran into fog, something that would become a familiar companion during
the next several weeks. Fortunately it lifted as we entered the harbor at
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
For centuries Lunenburg has been a prominent fishing and shipbuilding center.
Sadly, overfishing has destroyed the industry resulting in unemployment and a
depressed economy all along this coast. At the dock we saw the graceful Bluenose
II, built as a duplicate of the original Bluenose that won all the annual
schooner races between the United States and Canada during her lifetime from
1920 through 1939. Both schooners were built at Lunenburg. The Canadians are
justly proud of their schooner heritage and Bluenose is displayed on the back of
the Canadian dime.
An afternoon at the outstanding fishing museum at Lunenburg taught us much about
the history of this industry. One of many fascinating sidelights was a
description of the active rum running trade carried on from Lunenburg during
prohibition. The expression “The real McCoy” originated here resulting from a
local bootlegger named McCoy who had a reputation for always delivering quality
|Antenna repair - cabin heater in right foreground
A new Cloud Nine crew met us at Lunenburg and we were soon underway to explore
St. Margaret’s Bay. This included anchoring near the home of Neil Hughes, a ham
radio operator who maintains a relay station for shipboard email communication.
He told us that active sunspot activity this summer might give us radio problems
at high latitudes. It turned out he was prophetic because we had many
communication difficulties in the far north. We spent the day fine tuning our
radio equipment and left with everything in good working order.
This has been an excerpt from Roger Swanson’s book Into the Ice.
In the next installment Swanson and his crew head to Greenland.
Roger Swanson is from Dunnell, Minnesota. He has cruised Antarctica twice, almost
the northwest passage and circumnavigated four times. He has received numerous
international awards for cruising and seamanship.