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Northeast Passage: A day on the Explorer of Sweden

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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 Geoff York

I sit anchor watch alone tonight in the lee of Pushkaryov Island. In the tradition of the expedition, Ola held a team meeting following dinner to decide whether we should push ahead immediately in moderate seas, or to get some rest on the hook and depart at first light. No one is eager for a restless night of fighting the headwinds which now gust to 30 knots, so we will set sail again at 4 AM. I will wake Anders when it is time to make the boat ready and will try to fall asleep in my bunk before the rollercoaster begins! We hope to make Pevek in less than 32 hours and in the early morning as we have papers to arrange with the authorities and we plan to make it a short visit.

The wind whistles through the rigging and rattles the side curtains of the wheelhouse as I type. It is pitch black and we sit off a small uninhabited island. Despite sitting in a comfortable boat, we are truly on the edge of civilization here. Aid is a long way off.

What is a day on the boat like? First off, I am the 8th man of a crew that has been together since Murmansk. Ola Skinnarmo is our gregarious expedition leader. Hannibal Thorsen is his right hand man and veteran of numerous polar expeditions. He runs an outdoor school in the mountains of Sweden when not out in the wild himself. Victor Boyarsky is the head of the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Museum and a third veteran of polar land expeditions to the north and south poles. Anders Eriksson is the captain and a professional sailor who earns his living in charge of trans-ocean cargo ships when he is not lending his skills to more exotic adventures. Anders has also sailed around the world solo – twice – and in his spare time runs a small resort on an island off Brazil with his wife and daughter. Niklas Roselius is essentially our first mate, master mechanic, French trained chef, and a seasoned mariner in his own right. He will be taking the boat from Dutch Harbour, Alaska back to Sweden with a new crew. Per-Magnus Sander rounds out the sailing experienced onboard. Per owns and runs the tour company Polar Quest and is a lifelong sailor with excellent arctic credentials, and another very good cook. Last but not least is Fredrik Blomqvist the expedition videographer and photographer and a passionate off road rally racer (think Africa and Land Rover). He is responsible for producing all of the video and photography for the trip. A very experienced and impressive team and I am truly honoured to share this experience with them.

The gregarious expedition leader, Ola Skinnarmo, at the top of the Explorer's mastThe gregarious expedition leader, Ola Skinnarmo, at the top of the Explorer's mast

The Explorer is a steel boat originally designed for research. She is well rigged for sailing and motoring through a variety of conditions. The wheelhouse is mid ship, enclosed, and large. It contains a large foldout table and is the location for boat operations and most meals. It is not heated and the outside temperature since my arrival has hovered between 2 to -1. We routinely wear full long underwear and outdoor gear during meals and watches and it is common to see your breath indoors.

Below deck you enter the salon and main dining/office area. The table is usually filled with laptops, external hard drives, and camera equipment. There is one bunk in the salon and we do have oil heat in the lower compartments. The majority of berths are forward of the salon including my bunk in the bow. Aft of the salon is the galley, engine room, head, and stateroom. Space is comfortable but tight for 8 guys, but everyone is accommodating and interruptions frequent for all as people squeeze past in route to their daily routines.

We have a rotating list of daily chores from cleaning to cooking, top to bottom. Breakfast is generally muesli, cereal or oats, and is self serve. Lunch is made on rotation and is typically a big pot of soup with crackers. Dinner is also on the rotation and given the skilled cooks onboard, has been quite diverse and good – something very important for morale on long trips in cold places!

We do have hot water and can shower at least every four days – a real luxury.

It is about half past one in the morning now and the light is starting to return. The boat rocks gently in the wind as I sip my tea and type in the dark wheelhouse. The boat is quiet and I am glad to have this peaceful watch.

We pull anchor and hand off our watch at 4 AM. I try to fall asleep quickly as it will be rough shortly. I sleep well but sporadically as I learn to brace my body in the bunk to avoid falling out. As we assume our afternoon watch, it is also my turn to make lunch. Quite a challenge in a rolling and pitching boat for a novice sailor!

2 PM and we have falling water temperature, fog, and seabirds – all signs of ice. By half past 3, we are in heavy drift ice looking for a path. Everyone is quickly on deck as the boat becomes suddenly still in the ice calmed waters. We download a fresh ice map and Victor makes a phone call to see what he can learn of this unexpected ice. It turns out to be a large area of drift ice and we cannot go through, so we must turn around. As luck would have it, Victor raises a nearby Russian icebreaker which has just left Pevek. It is the ’50 years of victory’, the world’s largest nuclear-powered ice breaking ship. They advise us to head south and then make our course into Pevek. We will likely see them along the way. It will be a long night of sailing through ice-infested waters and the forecast is for gale force winds from the Northwest.

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