Polar Circumnavigation by Sail

Sailing the Ice-free Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage around the Pole (at least that is the plan…)

Planned route of the voyage

Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland and Thorleif Thorleifson have set off in a 30 ft trimaran to circumnavigate the polar ice sheet.  Leaving Oslo on June 23rd they were provisioned for a non-stop voyage, however waymarks on their planned itinerary are:

  • July 25 Murmansk, Russia, sailing through the Barents Sea, South of Novaya Zemlya and into the Kara Sea, passing between Cape Chelyuskin and Ostrov Dikson where the ice is most likely to block the Northeastern Passage in early August, then sailing on into the Laptev Sea.
  • August 15 Tiksi in the Siberian Sea.
  • August 25 Pevek then crossing the Chuckchi Sea
  • Sept 1 Point Barrow, Alaska, then along the Canadian coast to Banks Island where conditions will dictate if they can attempt the passage
  • Sept 25 Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, then across Baffin Bay
  • October 1 Nuuk, Greenland, after which they will head back to Norway round the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland.

Map of the Northwest Passage (Source: Canadian Geographic)

According to the publicity blurb this is a world record attempt to sail both passages of the North Pole in a single voyage, which has been impossible for 400 years [Ah! an allusion to the Medieval Warm Period].  Global warming has now melted the polar ice cap to the point that a voyage is possible.  They plan to use the expedition to…

“create a global platform for empowering people to better understand climate change”

It will be “reality television meets climate change” – Google is one of the sponsors. Links include Børge’s website/blog, Facebook and Twitter.

“The issue of global warming, and the fact that our voyage passes through some of the least charted waters on Earth, is sure to generate added interest.  […] When we sail the Arctic Ocean, we’ll witness everything first hand.”  Aaargh!

So what are their chances? It is a bit difficult to tell from the images below, but the last three years have allowed limited access through both passages.

Arctic sea ice at minimum extent 2006-2009 (Source: Cryosphere Today)

Not Lewis Pugh in his kayak this time, these guys know what they are doing, with a double skinned, kevlar-reinforced hull and Thorlief is a veteran sailor and former Naval Officer.  Still it will be interesting to follow: plenty of weather reports are available for the areas in question and satellite images of ice conditions, never mind the tweets and clucks and, no doubt, media crowing.

So, I wish them well. I hope they have a safe voyage – I really do, but do I wish them success? Well let me say this, if they do succeed I hope it is despite the ice conditions not because of them (I mean only that I don’t want to see another record melt season). Although doubtless a message of another ‘record’ ice melt will be sent out with such success by the media regardless.  [Updates: July 31; August 16]

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2 Responses to Polar Circumnavigation by Sail

  1. tonyb says:

    Hugging the coast was a common way for Arctic travellers to get around. The Ipiatuk-3000 years ago, the Inuit over the last 1500 years and the Vikings all used this method.

    During the melting around 1820-1860 explorers also got around large parts of this area in the same manner. More recently various exploreres also picked their way through large parts of this route in the great melting from 1920 to 1940. This is captured on Pathe news reel from the time as celebrity boat trips to look at the melting ice cap were as popular as they are today.

    With modern equipment and navigation aids I’m sure this area would have been even more travelled than it has been during the frequent extensive ice melting that occurred periodically even through the Little Ice age.

    • Verity Jones says:

      Tony, as I refered in the comment on the previous post, there is so much past evidence of our eyes (and cameras), which doesn’t lie and is conveniently ignored. I think you do a great job of providing a very readable narrative based on such material.

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