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Northeast Passage: We’re through!

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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

I guess we weren’t as lucky as I thought we might be. We spent all of yesterday negotiating our way through heavy drifting pack ice that had moved south from Severnaya Zemlya, trying every lead to see if any opened up. At one stage we moored to an ice floe and drifted for an hour to see exactly how fast the ice was moving, in which direction. I never doubted that we would make it through, but you do start making mental plans about what you will do if you do get stuck.

I can assure you that being an ice pilot under these conditions is not fun: standing still on the wheelhouse roof astride the boom for four hours with binoculars glued to your eyes every second, air temperature a few degrees below zero, water at -1.8. You start dancing to imaginary Abba songs just to keep your legs functional, and pretend you are a seagull to keep the blood flowing to your hands despite two pairs of gloves. Really cold. Much colder than I was at -30 at the North Pole, much colder than in a blizzard on Franz Josef Land.

Perseverance pays off. Early this morning Moscow time we passed Cape Chelyuskin, the northern most point of the Eurasian continent, in poor visibility and heavy drifting sea ice. We covered more distance in 2 hours than we had in the previous 24, heading steadily eastwards. We are not clear of the ice yet however, as I can still see floes all around us and in some directions the route is closed. Eastwards it looks really good, and the further we go into the Laptev Sea before turning south the better our passage will be. In some ways that is a pity as I would love to get close to the coast of the Lena delta.

Everyone is really tired now after several days continuous hard work. The boat is quiet, most people sleeping when they are not on watch. We know the hardest part of the journey is over and can look forward to more shore landings, more wildlife, and new and unexpected encounters with things natural and human.

PS: Unless someone corrects me, I’ll claim the crown of “First Australian to pass Cape Chelyuskin in a Sailing Yacht”. Any challengers?

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