Up against a wall of ice

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15 August 2013

The Vilkitsky Strait is blocked. For 4 days, the phrase resounds like a leitmotif aboard the schooner. And ice maps confirm the rumors. Tara will not be able to cross the Northeast Passage in the coming days. We have to be patient, enjoy the winds that make for great sailing, remain flexible, and constantly review the scientific program. Faced with this wall of ice, we are sailing into the unknown.

“The icebreaker asked the cargo ship it was supposed to accompany to wait another week.” According to the sources of Sergey Pisarev, Russian scientist on board, even the biggest ships can not pass. In the Vilkitsky Strait – the passage between the Kara and Laptev Seas – blocks of ice are still 3 meters thick. Only a Russian nuclear icebreaker could make its way through in these conditions. But the ice is still so dense that behind the monster’s passage, the opening could easily close up again, paralyzing any other ship trying to follow behind it. “Man thinks he can control everything, but in the Arctic, nature shows us who is actually in control,” states Diana Ruiz Pino, a scientist aboard, experienced in polar oceanographic campaigns.

After the passage in 2011 of the oil tanker Vladimir Tikhonov – the largest ship ever to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific via the north, and the 26 other ships that followed the same year – the northern maritime route seemed a sure thing for the coming years. Reassured by the data on global warming, ship owners were already imagining how much money they could save. Rotterdam – Tokyo: 23,300 km via the Panama Canal, 21,100 by the Suez Canal, and only 14,100 km via the Northeast Passage! The balance sheet is clear: less fuel consumption, fewer taxes, and zero risk of falling into the hands of Gulf of Aden pirates.

It seems however that the Arctic has not said its last word. Cape Tchelyouskine is still surrounded by ice, so we’ll just have to be patient and wait – and maybe even enjoy the situation. The polar bears we’ve encountered may have gained a few more years of peace. The legendary Northeast Passage – the dream of so many explorers – has not yet become a maritime highway.

Swedish baron, Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld can be reassured. He was the first explorer to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Siberian coast in July 1879. Embarked upon the Vega in July 1878, Nordenskjöld and his crew spent 10 winter months among the Tchoukotes people before achieving their goal. It was not until 40 years later that Roald Amundsen, pioneer of the Northwest Passage, accomplished a second passage. And in 1935, the Soviet expedition led by Professor Otto Schmidt was the very first to go through the Northeast passage without spending the winter.

In view of past history, and confronted with a wall of ice, we realize that circumnavigating the Arctic Circle on a sailboat in just one summer is more than an epic. It’s a real feat!

Anna Deniaud Garcia