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Northeast Passage: Waiting in the sun

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Neil Hamilton

Last night was special: the farewell dinner, with the wives and families of some of the crew.  Foie gras for entree (a gift from a friend), Norwegian pork fillet in cream and pink pepper sauce, served with rice coloured with 3 kinds of red peppers, finished up with (wait for it) ready made caramel pudding out of a box.  Champagne, Valpolicella, and some chateau cardboard kept the conversation flowing until well after midnight.  The occasion was as intellectual as it was spiritual, the final sign to ourselves that we are actually going to do this expedition.

Having spent the past grey and rainy day in Kirkenes trying to get all our approvals and the necessary forms for our entry into the Port of Murmansk, today has been quite a contrast.  Ola Skinnarmo showed why he is leading this expedition, ordering, prioritising, and making sure that everything was done to his satisfaction. I ended up cleaning the toilet, bailing out the last of the bilge water, wrapping the ice axes, changing an oil filter, washing up, vacuuming the floor, and a few other things.

The sheer number of activities that have to be completed before leaving on the expedition later today boggles the mind:
– stock up on all the last minutes supplies and equipment we need
– check all the sailing gear, accessories, safety and rescue equipment
– test the communications gear
– wash and dry all the clothes (the rails, halyards and every available piece of deck was covered!)
– change the oil and filters in the outboards, and the main boat engine
– wash the boat from top to bottom
– clean the inside of the boat (which looked like 8 guys had lived in it for two months, something close to the truth)
– tidy up everything into its proper place so that you can find it at 4am in a storm
– and of course, fill in more forms, talk to our agent in Murmnansk, and read the pilot book for this stretch of coast.

And then spend the last few hours alone.  For the next couple of months we will be unable to get more than a few metres from each other so just wandering around Kirkenes by ourselves is a luxury we all need.  Somebody even tried to get a haircut.

Being alone was also a way of lessening the tension which had been growing by the minute all day.  We are all aching just to get out to sea, to begin this voyage of discovery.  Even the short 150 nautical mile trip to Murmansk is an adventure: we literally don’t know how easy or hard it is going to be to negotiate the authorities, despite being well prepared.  And we are all waiting to see exactly what the ice conditions will be like.  Watching the daily images on the internet doesn’t tell you enough to be able to predict whether we will have an easy sail through an ice free Arctic Ocean (heaven forbid) or an intense experience, having to watch every minute of every day to avoid hitting floating fragments.

So at 2000 tonight local time (1800 UTC) we will cast off and head out of the port of Kirkenes into the Barents Sea. The wind is gentle (hopefully we can sail instead of motoring) and the weather is fine.  There is no one here to see us go, quite a contrast to Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Oslo earlier on the trip.  After that, everything is uncertain, depending on the weather, the Russian authorities, and us. It’s 4 hours to the Russian ‘border’, then several more sailing southeast before we reach the pilot point.  And then more hours before we finish our first day, in the Port of Murmansk.

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