The Allures 44 Opale crossed the Northwest Passage
The Allures 44 Opale crossed the Northwest Passage:
3/5 — The conditions for success
In August 2019, the Allures 44 Opale crossed the Northwest Passage. The success encountered on this 4500 mile route is the culmination of years of passion for sailing in the far North by Marc Pédeau and Bénédicte Michel, the discreet authors of this performance. Read part one (here) and part two (here).
Which sailboat to choose?
The motivations of Marc Pédeau and Bénédicte Michel to attempt the North-West passage were, as we have seen, solidly anchored several years before they set out for their adventure. Back in 2014, it was now time for them to choose a boat.
Two key elements were included in the specifications for the purchase of this yacht, carefully selected from the opportunities offered by various specialists: “The construction material had to be aluminium; this was a completely spontaneous choice, for elementary questions of safety and mechanical resistance to the possibility – always to be taken into account – of heavy friction or even a violent impact with the ice. Similarly, we were looking for a centreboarder, to be able to take shelter in the furthest parts of anchorages and be as well protected as possible in case of bad weather, or even if a katabatic gale occurs“. As a result of this process, Marc and Bénédicte acquired Opale, a second-hand Allures 44, an aluminium shaped hull centreboarder built in 2011 and bearing number 43 of this series born in 2003 with the beginnings of the Allures Yachting shipyard: “The last of the Allures 44“, notes Marc – and it is true that this model was replaced after 2011 by the Allures 45.
Once this crucial question of the choice of the yacht resolved, and without dwelling on the technical preparation stages of an Allures for extreme cold conditions, the sailors still had to decide on the overall project schedule and therefore on a departure date, a key factor in the success of the operation.
When to leave?
“A key point for the journey’s success is to plan a significant overall duration, with at least two and a half to three months of availability, set to coincide with the end of summer in the northern hemisphere. Thus, we sailed from Nuuk on July 1st and arrived at Sand Point on September 22nd. Above all, you have to consider that going to Greenland is a navigation in and on itself, which can mean several weeks of a demanding crossing for the crew of a boat leaving from France, and that, at the other end, leaving the boat in Alaska, as we did at Sand Point, isn’t something you can improvise. Our luck is that, being retired, we have time; thus, in June 2018, we were in Cape Verde, we spent Christmas 2018 in Martinique, then 3 months in the Caribbean and Cuba and reached the east coast of the USA at the end of March 2019. From there, we undertook the Northwest Passage“.
“As far as this attempt is concerned, the previous year, the passage had remained closed, a sailboat even sank at the entrance of Bellot Strait, caught by ice and drifting very quickly because of the very strong current in the strait; the two sailors had to be rescued by helicopter. In 2019, we passed through Peel Sound south of Resolute Bay and not through Bellot Strait, which this year did not open before Peel Sound, contrary to what happens most often. At the beginning of June we left St Pierre and Miquelon; on July 1st we were in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. The important thing is to be clear with the idea that we have to leave, but remaining aware that nothing is guaranteed. We had given ourselves a deadline to see if it opens up in the hard zone: we set this cut-off date at August 18th 2019, kind of what Jimmy Cornell did in 2015 on board his Garcia, after a first unsuccessful attempt. And we were through!”
“In Lancaster Sound, the ice opens progressively from the east towards Resolute Bay in the west from early to mid-August, and then it opens either towards Regent Inlet to Bellot Strait or through Peel Sound. The real heart of the passage, between Bellot Strait and up to Cambridge Bay, normally opens around mid-August – it can be the 8th or 12th or 20th of August or even later. We started from Burnett Inlett, in Lancaster Sound, on August 12th, we sailed without stopping so as not to get stuck by the ice, we passed through Peel Sound, and arrived in Cambridge Bay on August 18th, 6 days of intensive navigation and watchfulness to cross the key area“.
This “typical” expedition calendar seems to be a valid basis for all the successful Northwest Passage attempts in recent years. It was also the one chosen by crews who had to give up, such as those who scheduled their attempt for the summer of 2018, the year in which the ice did not open up.
It remains to be seen whether these theoretical dates will be subject to upheavals with the issue of global warming. Marc Pédeau: “Global warming certainly plays a global role: it has been established that the global volume of the ice pack is steadily decreasing over the medium term (the year 2020 is the second year with the least amount of ice around the Pole since data collection began), and this tends to increase the chances of being able to pass, but local weather phenomena are added to this, such as depressions that break up the ice and therefore favour melting, or on the contrary displace the pack and can locally block any exit to the west. Nature is in charge; it is essential not to forget this.”
“And so you have to start with the idea that there is no guarantee of success, and then you have to think about scenarios of withdrawal if the hard zone doesn’t open up. For example, in 2019, in these alternative hypotheses, one of the options was to aim for Hudson Bay, accessible by a very narrow passage, the Fury and Hecla Strait, which in the end we didn’t need to look for (the same passage that, in his time, William Baffin didn’t manage to find)! That’s why you have to try, hope it opens up, don’t ask yourself any questions, thinking that these escape routes are also exceptional navigations, even if you can’t claim to have crossed the North-West Passage itself in this case. It’s also very important to make sure that you don’t set a deadline too late, because if you arrive too late in season in the Bering Sea, it can be dangerous.”
“We wanted to do the passage with a crew so that we could have the opportunity to take turns, which otherwise would have been very trying in such an area when sailing with only two people. I alternated the direction of the 4-hour watches with a very experienced friend who had already sailed in the ice. The other members of the crew alternated a fixed watch slot between Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and Pont Inlet (there were six of us) and overlapping watch slots between Pont Inlet and Nome (five people on board)“.
Note: the various geographical elements mentioned in this text appear on the map reproduced in a larger-format version of which can be viewedhere.