The Northwest Passage is behind us


29 September 2013

Since 15h (local time) this Saturday, Tara is sailing again on ice-free open water. Early in the morning, the weather was good as expected thanks to a stable anti-cyclone, and we were navigating along the Brodeur Peninsula through scattered ice floes.

Two hours later, we received a radio message from the Canadian Coast Guard’s Louis S. St-Laurent inviting us to follow in her wake. This escort helped us negociate this 60-mile barrier in half a day, which would have taken us perhaps more than a day with a crucial night-slalom between new and old ice floes.

While standing on the bridge at 5:30 am, with Baptiste Regnier, the sailor on watch, we shared one of these sunrises that reminds you how nature and life are sometimes beautiful on this earth. As the minutes passed, the blue sky turned pink, then orange and finally golden yellow with hues that only the palette of a master could render. Tara was slowly advancing between “pancake ice”, * which gradually took on the same colors.

Daniel Cron, chief mechanic with his legendary good humor and conversation, Céline Dimier-Hugueney, biologist and Lars Stemmann, chief scientist for the mission and myself were like children, amazed by so much beauty. Lars told me that he had not seen anything like it for eighteen years. That was when he had participated in a mission to Spitsbergen aboard Antarctica, Tara’s first christened name.

It was in this atmosphere, floating between magic and wonder, that the Canadian Coast Guard’s Louis S. St-Laurent contacted us by radio. It was a short formal exchange in English and we learned that the icebreaker had received orders to guide us. Our captain, Loïc Vallette complied and Tara navigated into the wake of the red-hulled giant with a maple leaf on its white funnel.

At a safe distance of eight hundred yards we progressed behind our guide. For fifty miles on the starboard side we had the Brodeur Peninsula and snowy mountains. We made our way through a water channel opened up by the Coast Guard. Mile after mile and we found ourselves easily crossing the Northwest Passage behind this protective escort. Without this help, we would have been at the limit of energy and fatigue, and perhaps more if we had made our own way between these plaques which made a thick white line on the horizon.

Just after the Coast Guard took leave to continue its mission of securing the area for maritime traffic, we were already involved in the next stage. On this late afternoon in Tara’s mess hall, the scientific team was preparing a long station for the next two days in Lancaster Sound.

Tara now continues with a jib-sail and a motor and there shouldn’t be any icy obstacle floating in her way. The Northeast and Northwest Passages have now been crossed in the given time for this expedition around the icy Arctic Ocean and we’ve dispersed the hypothesis of over-wintering or retracing our path.

Vincent Hilaire

“pancake ice” *: ice plaques up to a few meters in diameter.