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Northeast Passage: South to Alaska

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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

The Gulf of Anadyr on Google MapsThe Gulf of Anadyr on Google Maps

South to Alaska! We head out into a beautifully calm Gulf of Anadyr and the current is going our way, giving us a small boost in speed. This is a perfect way to start our trip across the Bering Sea. Our planned route will take us just south of St Mathew Island and along the edge of the continental shelf that separates Russia from Alaska.

The boat is strikingly different with only three crew members onboard. Instead of tight quarters for eight, we now have room to roam and spread out a bit. It is noticeably quieter and we feel a sense of freedom as we head back to sea with the last of our tight deadlines behind us. The atmosphere is instantly relaxed and happy with two men who feel more at home on the sea than land, and one that could easily learn this sailing lifestyle.

Fulmars keep constant company with the boat, soaring and darting around the main mast. The seas remain calm into the evening as we ease into our new watch schedule. Anders will keep the night and midday watch and I move to the 8-12 time slots. Niklas takes over the captain’s room since he will stay on the longest.

The sea is virtually still when I take over the watch at 8 PM. Niklas gives me a few pointers on the radar and reviews the basic duties I used to share with Anders: hourly check of the engine systems and basic navigation. I periodically poke my head up through the hatch to get a better view and enjoy the evening air. I can hear the fulmars still following along with us in the silence of the night.

At about half past ten, I have a ship on the radar and quickly make visual contact with binoculars. She is abeam the port side and will pass well behind our route. As I scan towards the bow I pick up a second ship at the one o’clock position and not yet on the radar. It is initially hard to discern her course or direction, so I wait patiently to see if it gets closer. The two most dangerous things for sailboats such as the Explorer are shorelines (things you can hit) and other boats (things that can hit you). Luckily the night is clear and we have excellent radar onboard to help my novice eyes. Even though we are heading south into somewhat busier seas, rescue is still far away and the waters quite cold.

With a ship on both sides of me, I suddenly hear a loud “swoosh!” and a “thunk”. It sounds like something has come up alongside the boat so I quickly pop up for a look and only to see nothing. I look around the dark cabin and suddenly worry we may be passing through fishing grounds and have tangled in some gear. Great I thought, my first solo night watch and now this mysterious noise and in the middle of ship traffic. I finally notice an odd bulge in the pile of life vests sitting in the port locker. One of the self inflating vests had gone off by chance – mystery solved!

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