The WHY and her crew have been sailing in the mythical Northwest Passage. Emmanuelle and Ghislain give us their views on this exceptional sailing route.

  • Could you tell us what kind of conditions you’ve been facing so far on the WHY?

The WHY has been exposed to many different sailing conditions. The challenging weather conditions were not only sequential but also combined sometimes: wind, swell, fog, icebergs and sea ice have been our daily routine.
The tricky part in the polar region is the combination of bad weather elements, especially when were approaching the Baffin Bay. Whilst we were about to come to the shore and sailing near a very concentrated ice pack, the barometer fell, meaning that strong winds were on their way and the fog arrived suddenly. The very close monitoring of the ice maps and of the weather forecasts allowed us to make it through this tricky situation by always being able to move away or find a shelter in case things would go sour.

A few weeks later, we were in the middle of the Peel Sound, which was still very much packed with ice. We knew that only a few more days were needed for it to open up. We wanted to make sure that we would be there when it would. We have therefore spent 4 days, stuck in the ice, far from everything, diving and spotting polar bears. Things could have been a lot more dangerous if we hadn’t managed to reach a sheltered bay in order to protect ourselves from the strong winds.

Currently, we are in the Bering Strait, and we are facing some big swells pretty and some strong winds… but in the right direction!

The Northwest Passage and the polar regions are highly rewarding, but they require some rigour, an acute sense of anticipation and sometimes a bit of courage & guts!

Emmanuelle manoeuvering  – © Franck Gazzola

  • How do you plan a navigation through drifting ice?

The key is to be a step ahead. Before every leg, we check all the relevant and most updated forecasts. We cross check and compare all the different sources of information so that we derive the most reliable conclusion we can get to.

It is also highly critical to have survival suits for each and every team member, and the required gear for survival too: rifle, bullets, sleeping bags, satellite phone, etc.

The ice map that we download daily where ice is widely present, gives us the concentration of the ice, its thickness and its age.
This year, we have sailed through ice that was estimated 1/10 (meaning 1/10th of the ocean’s surface is covered in ice) up to 9/10 (in the Peel Sound, where we got stuck).

Sea ice map – sea ice concentration in the Perry Channel (21 august 2017)

  • What are the safety requirements whilst sailing?

As soon as the wind or the swell is strong, we use a safety line to move around on the dec of the boat. We also wear a life jacket with an integrated light and whistle.
The sailing teams are composed of 2 or 3 people who take a 2 to 3 hour shift. We prefer to do short shifts in order to stay alert.

When the ice is getting more concentrated, one of the team mate would get into the crow’s nest with a pair of binoculars in order to find a way through the ice. We would sail at a very slow speed in order to protect our boat when we hit the ice.

  • Why did you decide to go down the Peel Sound and did not go through another way?

Good question! Our stop in Resolute Bay was for us the start of the Northwest Passage and the start of the complications. Before entering the Peel Sound, we had made a complete refill in food, water, diesel and gas.

It would have probably been easier to go through the Bellot Strait. But even though the Peel Sound ended up being quite challenging, it will stay as one of the most memorable parts of our expedition through the Northwest Passage. And besides, this has allowed us to meet a few locals, like the polar bears.

The WHY stock in the ice – © Franck Gazzola

  • What are the dated to go through the Northwest Passage?

To sail through the Northwest Passage, you need to allow more or less one month, depending on the conditions. We left Pond Inlet early August. Given that the Peel Sound was completely packed with ice, there was no need to us to leave earlier anyways.

Once we were trough the Peel Sound, it was then a race against the clock to leave Gjoa Haven and avoid the autumnal storms in the Bering Sea. Our window was short!

Even though conditions seem to have changed since Amundsen and McClintok, the Northwest is far from being a highway.

  • What will be the conditions like for the future of Under The Pole?

We are currently in the Bering Strait. The conditions are difficult but are still manageable. We will feel a bit better when we’ll reach Kodiak Island. We are still looking for the best place to winter the WHY: it will my most likely in Kodiak or further South, if the conditions allow us to reach Sitka.

The WHY in waves – © Franck Gazzola