The Allures 44 Opale crossed the Northwest Passage
The Allures 44 Opale crossed the Northwest Passage:
4/5 — On the notion of risk in navigation
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.
Fourth part of this long format story – you can read part one (here), part two (here) and part three (here).
Also find all these five articles from one unique page displayed here.
What were the main navigational difficulties encountered?
It quickly becomes clear that navigation is not an issue for Marc, who declares: “I learnt to navigate with nothing, at the time there was no GPS, only RDF, and so I acquired the basics of navigation with instruments, in autonomy, but I also like to use modern means and technologies. And in any case, the Northwest Passage is accessible by a predefined route, which doesn’t leave much latitude in terms of overall trajectories“. It is true that in these regions, as in most of the remote sailing areas frequented by long-distance cruisers, common sense encourages people to adhere without reserve to the precepts set out by the Italian astronomer Cassini (1625-1712), who said: “It is better to ignore where you are and know that you don’t know, than to believe you are confidently where you are not“.
Wise words that Marc Pédeau, for sure, would not deny: “We crossed the North-West passage in conditions that allowed us to do real navigation, at least on the first part of the journey, as for example on the west coast of Greenland, where we only used inland passages with a rather symbolic but nevertheless efficient sea marks. We had to be very scrupulous with our navigation, including on sight, because digital cartography is sometimes imprecise, even false, to the point where we were relying on two distinct cartography systems. We navigated outside on sight, aided by digital tools”.
“You also had to rely on this route with fairly significant currents. In Greenland, in that respect, they were quite favourable to us, then in Nunavut it was still manageable, and then we ran into always opposing currents from Cambridge Bay onwards. That’s all the way to the end of the course, which is still quite long with about 1,900 miles from Cambridge Bay to Nome. On this segment of the route, we sometimes had to deal with very strong currents, and even more so as we approached the Bering Strait, where we had to deal with counter-currents of 5 knots and more to cross certain Capes“.
“For a sailor, quantifying risk is a permanent challenge, and multiple factors have to be taken into account: weather, currents, sea, ship and crew conditions, bunkering, energy autonomy, knowledge of the environment, and even the reliability of the information… To this, in the case of this crossing of the Northwest Passage, we must add the study of ice conditions, which represent a criterion of central importance at these latitudes“.
It should be noted that venturing close to the 75th parallel North, through the maze of Nunavut’s islands requires some prior knowledge, as the terminology and standards for describing these “ice conditions” are quite complex. The data is standardized by the World Meteorological Organization, and is used in a very didactic way by the reference website created by the Canadian government for the Canadian Arctic zone (link). There is a fairly advanced level of knowledge about Arctic glaciology, how to describe the ice, its formation, age, evolution, characteristics… all this accompanied by monitoring systems marked by the regular issue of very operational forecast bulletins, which require a good preliminary study to be understood and correctly interpreted.
How does the presence of ice increase the risks involved?
“The main risk is of course to get stuck in the ice, mainly due to bad information, or by misinterpretating the available information. In Greenland, we didn’t have any particular concerns from this point of view because there was little ice. The icebergs were concentrated mainly around the Bay of Disco, where many glaciers pour out blocks of all shapes and in astonishing array of colours, each one more beautiful than the next. In Nunavut, we were able to take advantage of the information issued by the Canadian Ice Service and accessible via the Iridium network. These were mainly ice charts indicating the concentration and quality of the ice (younger ice, older ice, ….); these charts are essential for navigation in this area. The Canadian Ice Service also issues a light text document, giving ice opening forecasts: the document published at the beginning of July gave us opening projections for the entire passage. It turns out that this document gave less optimistic forecasts than the reality actually observed on site. The accessibility of this data represents an obvious asset for those who want to make a successful crossing of the North-West Passage, with a very interesting level of information, but this does not guarantee success. And in any case, if you’re not in the area at the time when it is practicable, you will not be able to present yourself at the right moment. So we have to agree that we were lucky enough to benefit from favourable conditions that summer. In fact, if we look at the state of the pack over the last 20 years, we can say that it was an average year in terms of ice“.
The summary of the Seasonal Outlook of the North American Arctic Waters (link) for the summer of 2019, published after the season by the Canadian Ice Service, does not say otherwise: “Due to early fracturing of the ice in the southeastern Beaufort Sea, northern Baffin Bay and northwestern Hudson Bay, ice conditions were below normal during the first part of the 2019 season. In fact, the rapid decrease in ice extent in the southeastern Beaufort Sea region was due to strong and persistent southeasterly winds during the latter part of May. As a result, this caused the ice pack to move northwestward. Temperatures over the region were also well above normal during this month (of May). (…) From the end of August to the beginning of September, most of the Northwest Passage was bergy water (note) or open water“.
And what about the cold in all this?
“We didn’t suffer too much from the cold on the part of the North-West Passage itself. We had been much colder before, in Maine and Nova Scotia, because our Reflex diesel heater was not working properly due to a defect in the air supply. In the morning it was 2°C and during the day a maximum of 8/10°C in the boat. When the stove was repaired by an amazing friend from St. Pierre and Miquelon, we were able to put the heater on when anchored. While sailing, it was quite mild, say between 5 and 8, or even 12 to 15°C, so the cold was not a real problem, even though we were very warmly dressed. But beware, an efficient heating system is essential for anyone attempting this journey. We were also very careful of the water temperature, knowing that it is a precious indicator of the proximity of ice. And of course, when you look at the temperature of the water surrounding the hull at 1.5°C, it is clear that it is not very hot inside, but this was never that hard to bear in Greenland and in the Passage”
Note : Bergy water describes “An area of freely navigable water in which ice of land origin is present. Other ice types may be present, although the total concentration of all other ice is less than 1/10” (link).
Note: the various geographical elements mentioned in this text appear on the map reproduced above, a large-format version of which can be viewedhere.