Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven

August 6, at 6:30 p.m. we motored off the dock at Cambridge Bay and made our way to Gjoa Haven. The weather was perfect for our shakedown sail – clear skies with winds at about 15 knots on our tail, and forecast to remain so for 36 hours. The ice was not completely clear from our route, but was sufficiently thawed for us to be able to contemplate getting all the way through.
During the first few hours aboard, Jesse shows me the boat under sail. We raise the main, and the jib for a while, and make steady progress under sail out of Cambridge Bay and into the Queen Maud Gulf. (Queen Maud, former queen of Norway, had this particular body of water named in her honour due to Roald Amundsen. Amundsen, a Norwegian, was the first to go through the Northwest Passage in 1905.) We fire up all our navigation systems – a paper chart, an excellent Ipad app for an electronic chart plotter, a depth sounder with a GPS position, speed and track display and a handheld GPS for backup. Jesse’s iPhone also has another copy of the chart plotter app (Navionics) installed as a redundancy for the iPad.
After 24 hours, I get comfortable with the rhythm of the shift schedule: two hours on, two hours off from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., then three hours on, three hours off during the warmer daytime hours. I sleep well each between each shift, though not for long, 2 hours at the most, but feel rested and relaxed. The hours roll by, slow at times but steadily. From my diary I see the note “Must remember to brush teeth.” Jesse describes it as having 10 mornings a day.
The woodstove has become my new best friend. Cleaning the stove becomes my task. By keeping her clean and well-stoked, she rewards me with a warm and cozy heat that shakes off my chills at the end of a two hour shift spent outside in just-above-freezing temperatures. The woodstove heats the kettle, and also the pot of salt water that fills my hot water bottle. Yes, a hot water bottle, the very same kind that old ladies knit covers for and put over their feet at night. I call my hot water bottle “Old Salty” and joke with Jesse that “He ain’t much to look at, but he sure do keep me warm.”

The next day the winds pick up out of the northwest to be quite strong, 25 knots gusting to about 30. Word gets to us that there is quite a lot of ice along our route from the strong northwest winds. (We get weather reports, ice condition reports and basic news of the outside world from our Delorme InReach device. It sends and receives text messages via satellite.) We decide to head to Jenny Lind Bay, to wait it out until the ice conditions improve.
Jenny Lind Bay is the site of a DEW (Distant Early Warning) line station, now abandoned. These stations dot the Arctic in a line from Alaska to eastern Baffin Island. The Americans set them up during the Cold War to detect any missiles launched from Russia. There is one in Cambridge Bay, and three more along the way to Gjoa Haven. The distinctive giant golf-ball shaped radome make them easy to spot on the flat horizon of the tundra, and we see Jenny Lind from miles away.
We set anchor and a watch schedule to make sure we don’t drag anchor in the strong winds. Both Jesse and I sleep, cook, write and catch up on chores – I clean the chimney. The winds ease slightly and we relax about our anchor, slightly, too.
After 12 hours pass, we get word that the route to Gjoa is ice-free and the weather again favourable for this passage. We tidy up, get dressed to sail and then it’s anchors aweigh! We’re off again.
We see the first patch of noteworthy ice shortly after leaving Jenny Lind.

The first ice we see just south of Jenny Lind

The first ice we see just south of Jenny Lind

The winds are still strong but forecast to diminish throughout the night. They are on our stern and the boat is rocking and rolling about. Not a bad feeling, but it is tough to do any cooking or tasks that require a level surface. I love the rolling motion of the boat – kind of like an amusement ride crossed with a camel.
We resume our 2 hour on/2 hour off shift, and throughout the night the winds die off slowly but the seas hold the same roll-y state, conditions Jesse describes as “obnoxious.” The sea power is greater than the wind in the sails, especially given our double reefed condition. I elect to change course by 10 degrees on my shift – at 3 knots, the difference in course is marginal but the boat helms much more obediently, without the boom slapping around. It also puts us away from the closest lee shore.
I finish my shift and shortly after changing out of my foul weather gear (quick note – I always wear my foul weather gear when at the helm, even if the conditions are “fair”) I hear the rumble of the engine. The winds had dropped off so that we weren’t even making 2.5 knots.
The next morning dawned fair, with very light winds again on our stern. This day stands out as the one where we encountered the most ice, so far. Oddly, the start and finish of each of my shifts were made in ice-free waters, and yet each shift I found myself picking a path through pack ice up to a mile wide.

Picking our way through the ice.

Picking our way through the ice.

The recommended route was the only one with charted waters, and with rumours of reefs and shoals about, neither of us was keen to stray too far off the safety of the recommended route.
I hit one very small chunk of ice off the starboard side, just after successfully navigating through a particularly dense section of pack ice. With dismay I saw it glancing off the hull, with a dull “thump” and a strip of bright blue paint now adorning it.
As we passed Hat Island, we discussed our plan to enter Simpson Strait at slack high tide, on a recommendation from one of our contacts.
(Another note to the readers on the route – you’ll have to do some searching with Google Maps or the like to find these places that I am talking about …but it might make the narrative more comprehensible.)
So. Simpson Strait, described in the “Sailing Directions for the Western Arctic” as one of the most challenging parts to navigate due to the narrow passage, many shoals and strong currents. We hove-to for a few hours to time our entrance to the Strait correctly. (Yet another note: Hove-to is a means to stop the forward motion of a sailboat while still leaving the sails up…essentially a way to pull over without drifting aimlessly). After a nap and dinner, we are ready to run the Strait.
Our passage through the Strait was marvellous.


Sunrise in Simpson Str.

Sunrise in Simpson Str.


At times it was possible to feel the current tugging at our rudder, and we could see our speed decrease on the chart plotter, but the weather was beautiful and the winds nil. We saw all the range markers and landmarks, including Gladman Point DEW line station.
We motored at about 5 knots through the Strait, with both Jesse and myself ‘on’. I took the helm from time to time but mostly kept track of our position in the log.

Our Wake in Simpson Strait

Our Wake in Simpson Strait

The rest of the journey to Gjoa Haven was uneventful – ice-free waters on a finally gloriously sunny, WARM day. We pulled into beautiful, historic Gjoa Haven harbour, set the anchor, confirmed it was holding and then slept soundly.
We’ve been in Gjoa Haven for 4 days now. On our second day here, we took a day use room to have a shower, do laundry and connect to the internet. Among our emails was an invitation to dinner from a family who spotted our boat in the harbour and googled “Empiricus.” Thanks to their gracious hospitality, I am able to upload this blog post, after enjoying a great dinner. 


An Unexpected Journey.

I would like to tell everyone that it is my lifelong dream to sail through the Northwest Passage.  But frankly, that just isn’t true.  I have never dreamed of Arctic exploration, rather, I dreamt of sailing to exotic locales in a bikini, not a parka.  But this summer, through an improbable set of circumstances, I will join my fiancé to do exactly that.  In late July, we plan to set sail from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to Iceland.  And a bit unexpectedly, I am really, really excited about it!

I am not a stranger to the North.  When I was six (a few decades ago, now), I crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time to spend Christmas on Little Cornwallis Island.  It is right smack in the middle of the Canadian Arctic, just north of Resolute Bay.  My dad was stationed up there as a pilot and he had the opportunity to bring my mom and me along with him over the Christmas holidays.  I remember the darkness of the days, the biting, dry cold, and seeing fluffy arctic foxes prance in front of the windows of the camp.   Another Christmas a few years later, my family joined my dad in Iqaluit (the capital of Nunavut on southern Baffin Island).  As we were above the treeline, my mother, unable to secure a real tree (the few that were flown in – amazing! – were sold out quickly) reluctantly erected a “fake” tree.  The near 24-hour darkness stymied our sleep schedule and I think we ate Christmas dinner at 4 p.m.

I have lived in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories for 23 years.  It is a sub-arctic town, just skirting the edge of the treeline.  It boasts long summer days and many, many inland lakes, full of fish.  It is a gateway to the remote hamlets that dot the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Pretty typical summer view near Yellowknife.  Lakes, trees, rocks. Aircraft is a Beaver on amphibious floats.

Pretty typical summer view near Yellowknife. Lakes, trees, rocks. Aircraft is a Beaver on amphibious floats.

I work there as a pilot, flying people to various communities and remote destinations across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.  Right now, I am writing this post from a mining camp on Northern Baffin Island. One of the places I fly to regularly from the mine site here is Pond Inlet, about 100 miles away.  It is hard to imagine that in another two months, I will sail into this little town, beside icebergs and the glaciers that pour into the ocean from their mountain origins.


About 14 miles south of Pond Inlet, May 2014.

The same view, July 2013.

The same view, July 2013. The ocean was ice-free in this picture.

When I met Jesse, I told him that I like to go fast in my sailboat, and I wasn’t up for puttering around, tourist-style, through life, whether on a boat or on land.  That is still true.  I like to have a mission: a race to win, a destination to get to, a schedule to keep, cargo to deliver. The best part of my job as a pilot is that it is mission-oriented.  I get to balance many factors to have a safe, successful mission.  Weather, aircraft performance, facilities at the destination, my skill set, my first officer’s abilities, customer expectations, company expectations and government regulations all come into play in my decision-making.

My sailing experiences are fairly limited, compared to my flying background.  For a few years, I did own a 25 foot racing sloop (a Kirby 25) called “Knot Krazy”.  She’s now sold to an enthusiastic new owner who will love her quick response and sporty performance as much as I did.  I raced her regularly on Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife, but I didn’t go outside of the 5 miles of race course, ever.  Last fall, before heading to Alaska, I spent 4 days on a Bavaria 32 called “Arcturus” in the Gulf Islands between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island.  This trip was the first time I had sailed more than 6 hours in a row, and the first time I overnighted on a boat.    So I have much to learn; I need to hone my sailing skills, learn more about navigation, ocean weather, trip planning and ice avoidance.

Sailing Knot Krazy.  Photo credit Darren Jacquard

Sailing Knot Krazy. Photo credit Darren Jacquard

About Empiricus:  she is a gaff-rigged yawl (this means she has a mizzen mast, a little mast on her stern). She weighs 38,000 lbs and is about 50 feet long.  I haven’t spent any time aboard her under sail, so I really don’t know much about her.  We will get to know each other this summer.

I am ready to take in the view from the boat, sailing at 6-8 knots, and seeing the world from the horizontal.  It will differ from the speedy, bird’s eye view of the aeroplane.

My goal is to post weekly updates on our preparations and subsequent voyage through the passage.  I welcome comments and questions – I hope you enjoy the blog.