The Allures 44 Opale crossed the Northwest Passage
The Allures 44 Opale crossed the
1/5 — A bit of history
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. Before going into more detail about the story of this crossing, let us first of all evoke the conquest of this famous passage, endowed with a mythical status in the history of navigation.
The question of crossing the Northwest Passage has long remained central to the community of European navigators and explorers, convinced that they could reach Asia by bypassing the American continent from the north.
For three hundred years, most of those who ventured from the North Atlantic into these waters, bordering the islands of Canada’s far north to the east and the coast of Alaska to the west, were guided by economic considerations and most often had their businesses financed by their respective states. Although the North-West Passage alone represents a journey of 4,500 miles, which represents three times the distance across the Atlantic Ocean, it is the shortest route between Europe and the Far East, considering that, with 8,500 miles from London to Tokyo, this maritime route represents a saving of 3,000 miles compared to the route through the Suez Canal (11,500 miles) and more than 4,000 miles compared to the route through the Panama Canal (12,600 miles).
Many of these explorers, even renowned ones, although leading expeditions with large numbers of men and ships, were unsuccessful. Most often, they were taken by ice, hunger or scurvy, without excluding other difficulties, linked in particular to the inaccuracies of geographical knowledge and the errors of cartographic science, still in its infancy from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Such was the case with Henry Hudson who, in 1611, was convinced that he had reached the coasts of Asia when he reached the immense bay to which he had given his name and where he finally lost his mind and his life, ending up abandoned in a rowboat after a mutiny.
Failure also occured a few years later for the explorer William Baffin, an Englishman like his unfortunate contemporary Hudson. This emeritus discoverer and pilot first attempted the adventure in 1615, exploring the northern part of present-day Hudson Bay without finding the way west – which did exist. Then, in a second attempt the following year, in 1616, he meticulously explored the outline of the Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada (the northern part of which was renamed the Baffin Sea in his honour) and was finally convinced that such a passage was a chimera. Baffin’s mistake was to have given up on sailing in “Lancaster Sound”, the wide channel that faces the west coast of Greenland (on the west shore of the Baffin Sea, in fact) and leads very indirectly westwards, permitting to cross the North-West passage – but at least Baffin will survive these two expeditions.
Third expedition of Captain Cook
One hundred and sixty years later, the Englishman James Cook made the search for the famous Northwest Passage the focus of his third and last expedition, between 1776 and 1778. The glorious captain, explorer and cartographer had the particularity, in the eyes of his peers, of attempting the route in a west-east direction, exploring the American West Coast in the process. Cook set out in search of a strait and therefore did not aim to circumnavigate Alaska and the Aleutians from the north. He was misled by a Russian map published in 1773 by the German academician Jacob von Stählin, which, highly speculative, showed Alaska as an island separated from America by a wide strait. With no passage for his ships Discovery and Resolution and soon confronted with a cruel glacial reality, Cook had to give up: he headed west and then joined the Pacific to Hawaii and the Sandwich Islands, where the explorer died in 1779 without ever having seen his native land again.
John Franklin expedition
Another major conquest project that ended badly, or even catastrophically, was the Franklin expedition, from 1845 to 1846. Setting out from London at the head of two ships and 130 sailors, all of whom were very well prepared for the ardours of the far North, John Franklin tried to find the route so hoped for by the already famous Lancaster Sound, but in April 1846, the ice trap closed on his two ships Terror and Erebus, which were blocked by the pack for more than a year. Franklin himself and more than twenty men having died, the survivors led by Crozier left the ships and tried to reach the south, in vain. The loss of this expedition was a failure for Victorian England and its Admiralty, at the same time as it allowed unexpected advances in the cartography of these lost territories, which had been scrutinised by several relief expeditions. Scurvy, disease, cannibalism, or simply coldness: conjectures about the causes of the loss of these men and of several members of expeditions launched to their rescue were so lively that in 2016 the Franklin expedition was still carrying out archaeological research around the remains of the crew, then the wrecks of the two ships, found in scattered order between Beechey Island, in Lancaster Sound, and the approaches to the island of King William, 300 km further south.
It was finally with the 20th century and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen that the Northwest Passage question was finally solved. This expedition was conducted between 1903 and 1905; the future winner of the South Pole (in 1911) was at the head of a small crew and aboard a small boat – the Gjøa – which gave its name to Gjøa Haven, a shelter where he wisely decided to winter. This option in “light” style (possibly equivalent to the alpine style among mountain lovers) would be the right one, allowing Amundsen not only to overcome this major difficulty and thus open a new sea route, but also to deepen Western knowledge of Inuit culture, while conducting scientific observations of the magnetic North Pole. Amundsen was thus the first to demonstrate, on this expedition, that the Magnetic North Pole does not have a permanent geographical position, but moves in a regular manner..
Having made a connection on 26th August 1905 with an American whaling ship that had cruised from the American West Coast, Amundsen can soberly mention in the Gjøa’s logbook: “the question of the Northwest Passage is solved“. What the explorer does not know is that this exploit will stir the dreams of many amateur sailors towards the far North, so much that it is estimated that around 200 leisure boats have ventured into these waters since the beginning of the XXth century. Among them, close to 100 boats have attempted to cross the famous Passage since the year 2000, a sign of the strong craze for this maritime route which, in a few years, has become a popular destination, now offered by specialized cruise lines and on which more and more intrepid people venture, sometimes unconsciously, on jet skis, kayaks or other rowing boats, relying on the Canadian Coast Guard’s icebreaker to ensure their safety in case of an incident.
We will see very quickly that Marc Pédeau and Bénédicte Michel, who successfully crossed the North-West passage in August 2019 aboard their Allures 44 Opale and finally reached the Pacific, with a certain determination to make their way through the maze of islands, bays and channels that this passage really is, are not to be classified among these inconsequents.
Note: the various geographical elements mentioned in this text appear on the map reproduced in a larger-format version of which can be viewedhere.