The Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage: 135 years of navigation history
This summer Tara will circumnavigate the Arctic taking the Northern Sea Route via the Northeast and Northwest Passages. Let’s look at the navigation history of these two legendary passages.
The first to sail the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Siberian coast was the Finn Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld aboard the Vega. Departing on July 4, 1878 from Gothenburg, the ship was stopped by ice just one day before reaching the Bering Strait that separates Russia from the American continent. After spending the winter there without complications, the vessel resumed its course and reached Yokohama, Japan on September 2, 1879.
The first to cross the Northwest Passage via the northern Canadian archipelago was the Norwegian Roald Amundsen aboard the Gjøa. Departing from Oslo on June 16, 1903, he reached Nome on the Pacific coast of Alaska on August 31,1906, after three winters.
Less well-known is that in 1918, Amundsen, triumphant from his conquest of the South Pole, chartered another boat, the Maud, in an attempt to re-do the Fram’s Arctic drift. He didn’t manage to pick up the transpolar current which would have made him drift towards the pole. But after two winters, Maud crossed the Northern Sea Route and reached Nome on July 23, 1920. Amundsen, as well as one of his teammates, Helmer Hanssen, became the first men to have crossed the two mythical passages.
It was not until 2003 that Eric Brossier and France Pinczon du Sel aboard the French sailboat Vagabond managed the feat in two seasons without wintering.
During the summer of 2010, the Norwegian trimaran Northern Passage, owned by Borge Ousland, with Thorleif Thorleifsson at the helm, and the Russian sloop Peter I skippered by Daniel Gavrilov, departed on the same day, and both crossed the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage successively. Initially seen as a competition, the administrative and technical obstacles quickly transformed the race into a friendly cooperation between the two teams.
This is the same route that Tara will take this summer, in the hope of meeting as favorable conditions as those found three years ago.
Christian de Marliave, consultant for many polar missions, and scientific coordinator of the Tara Arctic expedition (2006-2008).
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