Monday, 06 July 2020


An adventure of a lifetime

I will soon be travelling to Greenland, the least densely populated territory on earth, with only 55,000 inhabitants. Eighty per cent of the island is covered in ice. My destination is dogsled land, Greenland’s far north. I will be joining the bridge team on board the superyacht Rosehearty for a 45-day expedition into the Northwest Passage. I will be away for two months.

Rosehearty is a 56m sailing ketch weighing more than 550 tons. She was built by the Perini Navi Shipyard in Italy and was designed and constructed for blue water sailing and long-term independence from shore facilities. Eleven crew - a senior captain, two co-captains, two engineers, two deckhands, a chef and three stewardesses - look after the navigation, operations, galley and hospitality on board. 

There will be 10 in the owner’s party plus two local experts - the expedition leader and an ice pilot - responsible for assessing where the yacht can and cannot go based on the quantity and type of ice encountered. With more than 20 hours of daylight in every 24 hours, the owner’s party will explore by day and the crew and experts will sail them to their next destination by “night.”  Rosehearty will run continuously in order to cover the vast distances along her projected route. Senior Captain David Hutchinson has been to the region before and prepared the yacht for this expedition into the Northwest Passage. 

The American owner of the yacht has longed dreamed of visiting the High Arctic, specifically Greenland, and the navigable channels and islands that make up the Northwest Passage. Seeing the wildlife, both marine and terrestrial, are major attractions, as are the historical sites and native communities sprinkled in the area.

But the owner also wants to see first-hand what many scientists consider to be the epicentre of climate study, specifically the effects of global warming at the poles, where the massive ice sheets are. Last year, Rosehearty sailed to Antarctica. This year’s high latitude voyage will bring the yacht to Greenland and then west and north of Baffin Island, placing the yacht about 900 miles from the North Pole.

Greenland is an autonomous Danish territory. It has no internal waters that cut through the country and instead features a rugged coastline indented with fiords and glaciers. The Canadian Arctic on the other hand, just to the west, is a vast expanse of bays, inlets and deep waterways that stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. 

Up until the last decade, the Northwest Passage has remained choked by ice much of the year. Transits were few, during a short window in summer, primarily by ice breakers. But in the last 10 years, more and more of the waters that connect the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean have remained ice free for an unprecedented number of months. 

This has allowed adventure sailors and shipping companies to begin to ply these waters with more frequency and increasing numbers. As one scientist observed, “As melting ice opens up travel routes, it has become a potentially lucrative shortcut for international shippers and a destination for adventure cruises.” 

The search for a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean captivated mariners and wealthy nations for centuries. For the Europeans, it was finding a shorter trade route to Asia that fuelled the exploratory journeys. As early as 1745, the British offered a reward of 20,000 pounds “to such persons or subjects as shall discover a northwest passage to the Western Ocean.”  After numerous failed attempts during the 18th and 19th centuries, costing the lives of many explorers and their ships, Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first to successfully transit from one ocean to the other in the early 1900s. 

Others were not so lucky. Two decades prior, two British ships, the Terror and the Erebus, retrofitted for polar exploration, were sent to the region to gather magnetic data and complete the mapping of the Northwest Passage. Severe conditions hampered the expedition and both ships became trapped in the ice and were crushed.  Stranded, without their ships and without the survival skills of the local Inuit people, all hands perished. Campsites, graves and human remains from these expeditions can still be found. 

Anthropologists confirmed that the indigenous populations had successfully colonised the region for at least 1,000 years prior. The ancestors of these early cultures, now known collectively as the Inuit, inhabited the region from Alaska to Greenland. Seal, whale, walrus, reindeer, muskox and birds made up their diet as well as forming the basis of their materials for tools and clothing. Polar bears, the largest carnivore on land, roam the region and are prized for their hides and meat. An adult bear can reach 3m in length and way in excess of 500kg. 

During a dispute with America in the 1980s, Canada claimed sovereignty over the entire region - all of the land and sea that make up the Northwest Passage, from the border with Alaska on the Pacific side all the way east to the territorial waters of Greenland on the Atlantic side. The United States argued that the waterways themselves were “international” and not subject to Canadian oversite. A loose agreement was reached during the Reagan era, whereby Canada agreed to allow US ships to transit, but these US ships first had to ask permission from Canada. 

This casual understanding has worked for the last 30 years, but now that the potential of a reliable and shorter sea route exists between east and west (sailing via the Northwest Passage instead of the Panama Canal shaves 5,500nm off the voyage to the US East Coast and Europe for a Chinese ship), environmentalists are concerned that an increased number of commercial ships, including super tankers, will start to use this route. 

Unless Canada can successfully assert its sovereignty over these waters and implement suitably strict shipping policies, other countries may claim that the Northwest Passage is an international thoroughfare and not able to be regulated by a single nation. This could lead to poorly manned and underbuilt ships transiting these waters. Increased traffic brings with it an increased risk of a collision or grounding in one of the hardest places on earth to stage a rescue or clean up. 

Pictured: Whitianga resident, Jonathan Kline, will soon be travelling to Greenland to join the bridge team of the superyacht Rosehearty for a 45-day expedition into the Northwest Passage.


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