Looking back on the 2 passages

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13 October 2013

As part of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition, Tara crossed the Northeast (Russian) and Northwest (Canadian) Passages in just 3 months. It was one of the major challenges of this expedition around the Arctic Ocean, which included a complete sampling of marine organisms at the edge of the ice pack. Captain Loïc Vallette, and Roman Troublé, Secretary General of Tara Expeditions (who embarked at Pond Inlet, Canada) look back on the 2 most critical points of this adventure.

How do you view the 2 passages accomplished by Tara in the past months?

- Loïc Vallette : “It’s difficult to compare them. In both cases, we had to wait a week due to ice conditions. For the Northeast Passage, we had to wait for the ice to open up, to let us pass through.   The Northwest Passage was the opposite: we had to move fast before the ice closed in. In both cases, the solution was easier than expected. For the Northeast, we sailed constantly for 3 days without ever turning back to find our way through 300 miles of pack ice. For the Northwest, the ice covered an area of only 50 miles, and we were escorted by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. But this was not a good  year to do what we did.”

- Romain Troublé : “We always think about all possible scenarios. For the Northeast and Northwest Passages, we even considered (for a short time) stopping the expedition, but our doubts were quickly dispelled. The big difference between the 2 passages is that we traversed the Northeast in permanent daylight, and the Northwest after the return of the night. This makes a huge difference for navigation.
There were also the administrative aspects to take into account. For the Northwest Passage (Canadian), there were no administrative formalities, whereas for the Northeast Passage (Russian) we had to apply for a permit, and provide all of Tara’s papers to obtain it. Throughout northern Russia, there are restricted or prohibited areas. It’s important to note that – compared to our previous Tara Arctic expedition in 2006 – I saw a lot of progress in organization and transparency on the Russian side. During the 2 passages, the main difficulty for a relatively small boat like Tara was the ice.”

From what you say, besides the passages themselves, the difference in functioning between Russia and Canada creates a big contrast between the 2 passages.

- Romain Troublé: “In the Northeast, security is ensured. The Russian fleet of icebreakers and their infrastructures are more efficient than the Canadians for example. Commercial navigation is more developed, but it’s important to know that security is reserved for large ships. Small boats are not a priority. In Canada, for the Northwest Passage, this service is free. They track boats closely, and even provide daily satellite photos. It’s another way of functioning, probably due to having less traffic.”

- Loïc Vallette: “The Arctic Highway is not yet a reality. On the Northeast side, once the ice opened up we traversed with the first boats; for the Northwest Passage, we were among the last boats. The dialogue with the Russians was difficult, while the Canadian welcome was very warm. There’s a real difference in scale: in Russia, Murmansk, Dudinka and Pevek are cities with commercial ports. But on the Canadian side, there are only villages. “

What were the best moments of these 2 passages for you both?

- Loïc Vallette : “We were very lucky with the weather in both cases, and we traversed under good conditions. We enjoyed fabulous scenery, with beautiful light on the ice and islands. Bellot Strait was really beautiful, with Port Ross at the end. There was plenty of current and water turbulence. I didn’t expect so much snow. Before Bellot, for a week we used the motors to sail through very thick fog.”

- Romain Troublé : “I like adversity in the projects we organize, and during the 2 passages, I’ve had quite a dose. In any case, it’s typical of the Arctic. To sum ​​up – on one side you have the Russians with ships and infrastructure that ensure service over a long period and require remuneration in exchange. On the other side, you have the Canadians with almost non-existent port infrastructure, and a smaller fleet than the Russians. But as Loïc said, this apparent difference in means is partly offset by very good satellite photos, associated with daily, personalized security monitoring by the Canadian Ice Service. These routes are still risky, and only a few shipping companies have been testing them for a year now. The first successes will encourage their development, and it’s urgent that international authorities set new technical, polar standards for vessels sailing these routes. We are waiting patiently for the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code.”

Interview by Vincent Hilaire