Into the Ice
Return to the Northwest Passage
by Roger B. Swanson

The Northwest 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 Bermuda.

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 Bermuda.

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 were breathtaking!

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 world.

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 merchandise.

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.