Jane Maufe can trace her lineage to Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer who died trying to find the Northwest Passage in 1847—an expedition that saw the loss of both ships, the Erebusand the Terror, as well as the entire crew of 129 men. As a longtime friend of David Cowper, she was invited to be his crew on a voyage that recreated the fateful journey, so that she could visit the place where her ancestor was claimed by the unforgiving ice.
IN DECEMBER 2011 I RECEIVED A Christmas card from David Scott Cowper, a man who had once kissed me over forty years earlier. In it, he asked me to accompany him on his next expedition to the High Arctic to transit the Northwest Passage, departing at the end of July 2012. His ambition was to attempt the most northerly route, via the frozen McClure Strait north of Banks Island, and, if successful, his would be the first private vessel ever to make the passage, a goal that had been eagerly sought for more than four hundred years.
I was hesitant. Did he really want his bachelor stronghold invaded by a woman? I had not been in touch with David since I was about 29, so there had been a lot of water under the bridge. He thought that since I am the four-times great-niece of Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin I might like to see the area in which, back in 1848, he and his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, and their entire crew—a complement of 129 men—were engulfed by ice and perished from cold and from rotten-tinned food. Had they survived being iced in during that winter, they were on track to unveil the secrets of the Northwest Passage the following summer.
My life had come to something of a standstill following the death of my husband from Alzheimer’s after 12 years of deterioration. This would be a new challenge and a big adventure. I did not sit on the fence for long.
David had a great desire to add another ‘first’ to his already impressive list of transits of the Northwest Passage. He had only two more to win to have completed all seven possible transits, and to be the first to do so. All his earlier records had been made solo, and it didn’t stop with the Arctic; he was the first to sail solo around the world in both directions, and the first to motor around the world alone. In all, he had completed six solo circumnavigations of the globe, two under sail and four under motor.
This time the goal was to be the first vessel ever to pass through the Northwest Passage by the most northerly, most ice-bound route, the McClure Strait, and quite possibly we might even be the first vessel of any description to have transited the entire Northwest Passage by this route. The ice in the strait makes the passage fickle and uncertain. For most of the year its dense layer of ice is ventured upon solely by polar bears and seals, and accessed only by the occasional icebreaker. In late summer, the grip of the ice might weaken enough for the passage to open up for a few hours. It did in 2011, but only for a matter of hours. We hoped for the same in 2012.
David’s custom-built 30-ton aluminum, self-righting, all-weather vessel, Polar Bound, is twelve times the required Lloyd’s specification and regarded as the strongest surface vessel for her size in the world. Based on the lines of a lifeboat with lower deck level at her waist midships, she has an upswept bow,rounded stern with fixed center ladder down to the water to facilitate boarding from a dinghy, and has knife edges at the bow and stern to protect her from ice impact. She has four watertight bulkheads, is double-hulled in the engine room, and double-bottomed in the forward section. She is very distinctive, with center wheelhouse and coachroof painted bright yellow with gray hull below, and is instantly recognized in the Arctic and Antarctic and many places around the globe.
This was to be a major expedition. The boat had to be prepared for every eventuality as we had no idea whether this was going to be the year when a transit might be possible, the worst scenario being that we get frozen in with no escape until a thaw the following year.
Gallery: The Frozen Frontier
DAVID WAS BUSY WITH THE PREPARATIONS for our departure. This included organizing his vast library of charts, putting together his specially printed logbooks—which were enormously cumbersome and heavy—and gathering and sorting electronic equipment, tools and audio devices. Also among his equipment was a rifle.
Meanwhile I had my own agenda: closing my house, seeing to necessary paperwork, making a new will and notifying my relations of my plans. I also felt very vulnerable about the rifle. I did not have the slightest clue how to load it, how to cock it, and least of all how to fire it. And I didn’t like the idea of facing up to a polar bear without one. I was not going to provide Brumas with dinner without at least an attempt at self-defense. So I went to what I thought was a shooting school to ask if they would give me lessons in handling a rifle. The place I had in mind turned out to be nothing more than a rifle range, and they were not able to help. All I could do was hope that David would be on hand to come to my rescue.
The layout of the after-cabin was fairly conventional, except that against the hull on either side were two out-berths, which David chose to refer to as “coffin berths.” These are specifically designed to embrace you snugly. Any attempt to turn over is not to be too readily undertaken as you are virtually packaged in a box. Should the whole ship be thrown over, you would quite likely remain in position, only inverted. The salon area was otherwise fairly standard with settee berths in a semi-circular curve around a fixed, drop-flap salon table with fiddles.
I took more of an interest in the cooking arrangements and the storage of the galley essentials. There were two stoves, neither of them gimballed to remain horizontal when the boat is not, but they were athwartships, considered to be the steadiest place, and located as near to the midships position as space would allow. There were also four detachable curved stainless steel arms that could be screwed on to a surrounding rail to firmly embrace the pan you were using. The Dickinson cast-iron stove was to be the hub of our home, giving out heat around the clock, should it be needed, and fed by diesel; this had two hobs and an oven below, the door of which was warped. Adjacent was the Wallis, a paraffin stove with single ring. There was a double stainless-steel sink with cupboards below. The sink had a fresh water pump and a saltwater pump too. To one side was a stainless steel lifting worktop secured with a piece of shock cord on a nasty, sharp hook; below was our very small fridge. Softening the general feeling of masculinity was a carpeted cabin sole, which had seen heavy usage, and four small watercolors of old paddle steamers.
Opposite the galley was the head—a stainless-steel sink with cupboard below and a shower hooked above. We only carried 65 gallons of fresh water, and I washed in the galley in saltwater. As for the loo, it was always something of an embarrassment to retreat there on an important mission. However, we were soon to get used to one another, and the noise of the Gardner engine could be relied upon to drown out everything anyway.
There is nothing quite so uncomfortable as living aboard a boat up on dry land with no facilities. Every visit to the loo had to be a long descent down the ladder alongside, being careful not to put one’s feet into the securing ropes, and usually with hands full of buckets, and then a walk across the sharp stones of the yard to the washroom area, which the yard was kind enough to allow us to use. These sharp stones are what are laid on railway tracks, and are extremely uncomfortable to walk on.
There was a plentiful supply of Christmas puddings which had made the journey around the world at least once, quite probably twice, and vast quantities of apple dumplings with custard in razor-sharp foil packs. These were apparently ex-Army rations. David kept telling me that the British Army went to war on them, so they should be good enough for me. There were also a number of extremely heavy boxes full of Frugrains, which resembled dried twigs and were packed in cellophane. These were to prove a real challenge; they were chewy and unpalatable, and impossible to surreptitiously stuff back into the aged packaging, which crackled and tore. David said how good they were and tucked in with gusto, though I noticed that even his enthusiasm waned as time went on. He reminded me that Sir John Franklin had eaten his own boots on a sledging expedition he had made in the early nineteenth century. For the sake of family honor, I would keep my feelings to myself about the Frugrains, though I could easily imagine they were made of dried leather. Some of the stores had a ‘best before’ date of 2002, and David looked horrified when I suggested that perhaps these should be replaced.
We moved off at first light the following morning, a cold, gray day with incipient drizzle. I busied myself trying to coil up the vast ropes David uses. These are a far cry from the lovely smooth lines in a sailing boat; I was still a greenhorn and had a lot to learn about ‘little ship’ handling. We suddenly noticed the lonely figure of our friend Tony, muffled up with scarf, woolly hat and jacket in the watery dawn light, walking briskly in the direction of the sea lock for a last photo opportunity. We were both touched that he had made such an effort to get up early as he is normally a late riser and not usually on parade until around 11:00 am.
We entered the holding pool and approached the jetty to tie up alongside. The keeper closed the lock gate and flooded it with water to bring the level equal to that of the sea outside. All I had to do was to ‘take a line ashore and tie up’. It sounded easy, but we had approached obliquely and there was a large gap between the shore and Polar Bound, and I was out of practice with pier-head leaps, particularly with large coils of hairy rope in my hands. David has large hands and I don’t think he realized that I wasn’t used to such great coils of rope. And although he was emphatic about detail, he hadn’t explained whether it was to be the stern line or the bow line he wished to have tied up first, nor was there any particular indication inside the shelter of the lock where the wind was coming from. In my effort to please and get everything right, and with frantic gestures to him to get closer, I scrambled for the nearest bollard I could see. This involved diving down under a couple of railings, in the course of which I managed to tear some muscles around my ribcage. I was fairly sure I hadn’t cracked a rib, but I could hardly breathe and I found it excessively painful. David looked impatient and shouted something, which was snatched away by the wind. However, my efforts were not in vain and we were eventually secured to David’s satisfaction. Once the water levels were equalized, I then had to untie our lines and scramble back aboard.
As we passed the lockkeeper’s lookout station, we waved to him, and at that moment noticed the rather touching sight of our farewell committee: Tony, balancing on the end of a brick wall to get a good shot of Polar Bound’s departure. We felt quite tearful, but there was a lot of deck tidying to do and David was already giving orders and telling me to be quicker. And then there were the fenders to think about. I was rather in the dark as to where to stow those away. Apparently they were to be lowered down into the forward hold. The huge, heavy hatch cover had to be lifted and lowered backwards—‘Gently!’ (As if I would even think of dropping it, I thought crossly.) I then had to turn around and descend backwards into this large space where everything was so neatly stowed, and all the while the bows were beginning to plunge up and down over the waves. David came out and took over the final tidy-up. Knowing what we were about to encounter, he had been keen to get everything stowed away and secured before the plunging became paralytic. He had seemed unduly anxious about our departure, and in retrospect I think he was aware of how the conditions were going to be and wondering whether this would be make or break for his newfound crew.
With the lock gates opened remorselessly to the gray, uninviting Irish Sea, and with one last wave to Tony, we stood in the wheelhouse (as David calls the bridgedeck) in contemplative silence and pulled away from the shore and out into the swell and white horses.
IT WAS NOW SUNDAY, AUGUST 26, 2012, and we had had a fairly sleepless night peering into the diaphanous gloom of intermittent blanket fog. We also had our first sighting of pack ice—shelf-like shapes of soft ice, some looking like wrecked ships, others slabs tipped on their sides. Enormous concentration was needed to weave Polar Bound between these floating hazards. Her rudder weighs half a ton, but even so she is finely balanced and only needs a touch on the wheel to correct her course—or so I was told. Most of the time since leaving Whitehaven, Cumbria on July 29, she had been on autopilot, so I had little practice at steering her. As a result, when I did, I tended to over-steer, which meant turning the wheel excessively, first in one direction, then the other to counteract the first, resulting in a wild swing, which in turn put a big load on the rudder.
We reached Barrow Strait, and David decided not to waste time going into Resolute. Not only would it have meant delay, we should also have had to inflate the rubber dinghy, which would have been quite a palaver just when we were wanting to press on. The pack ice came in rafts and there were myriad leads, areas of clear water that opened up as the ice pulled apart then constantly changed formation, like the endless patterns of a kaleidoscope. You could easily get led astray by following a lead only to find yourself in a cul-de-sac and be forced to retrace your steps. I saw my first Arctic seal—a ringed seal, David told me; in fact, there were two of them and they both lumbered off their ice shelves and dropped easily into the sea. Some delightful little black and white birds, like bobbing coots, fluttered around in groups—I wondered if they were sea petrels. There were also arctic terns, and a large, pure white, swooping bird that soared effortlessly in front of the boat before making a banking glide.
David rang his friend and weather forecasting expert Peter Semitouk for a further ice report as our circumstances were becoming critical. We were now just off Steffanson Island and heading into Viscount Melville Sound, and hoping against hope that we could avoid being engulfed by the pack ice, which was on the move. We had had a brief encounter with an ice floe at lunch time, when we jolted poor Polar Bound forward and back in an effort to turn her round and extricate her, all most undignified. A sailing boat, on the other hand, would have been crunched to pieces.
What a night that Sunday turned out to be! To start, there was not even the ghost of a breeze, but gradually the open areas of sea took on a ruffled appearance, and before long wavelets gave way to bigger seas. As we scrutinized the pack ice with binoculars for open leads to pass through, David reconsidered his strategy. Instead of going due west and maybe getting stuck in Viscount Melville Sound surrounded by blocks of pack ice, he decided to take a southwest-by-west course, obliquely traversing the sound so as to be one jump ahead of the ice, and head for the corner of Banks Island in the Parry Channel. Here a little refuge offers a space in which to hide should that be necessary.
There we could await the right wind, which would chase the ice out of the final hurdle, the McClure Strait, or so we hoped, into the Arctic Sea, which becomes the Beaufort Sea.
Meanwhile, or so we heard from Peter Semitouk, Belzebub II had headed into the central area of Melville Sound and might well be hemmed in with ice. However, it was possible that this news, as relayed to Peter, might have been deliberately leaked in an effort to throw us off the scent. They were, according to Peter, “hell bent on beating that ‘Cooper’ man” to be the first private vessel to make this transit. In David, with his wonderful sense of timing and equal determination to achieve yet another record, they had formidable opposition. It was getting late in the season now and if we did not get favorable conditions for this challenge he decided that, having waited a few days, we would proceed down the Prince of Wales Strait, and exit the narrow section of the passage via the traditional southerly route.
I seasoned and scored some Bressingham duck breasts and made an apple sauce, but the conditions were deemed unsuitable for such a meal. David perhaps should have warned me, but he was far too preoccupied with the avoidance of ice packs. We ended up eating spaghetti. The ice pack was moving with a strong southeasterly, which was not the direction we wanted it from. I went below to my bunk and had a couple of hours’ uneasy sleep, but felt as if I could have done with at least another six—my ankles and legs were quite swollen and felt heavy. All this bracing of unfamiliar muscles to keep on balance, and the constant sorties up and down the companionway, all took their toll. David said he felt wakeful too—I am sure he was. He now had the bit firmly between his teeth and was giving it everything he had. With just two of us aboard, we had no extra reserves to call up so we could not get proper rest.
When I re-emerged from my bunk, the scene was like Dante’s Inferno. A full gale was blowing on the ship’s beam and the entire frozen sea appeared to be on the march. Great rafts of pack ice proceeded with remorseless power on their individual trajectories. Some looked like huge, delicate lotus flowers in full sail, others like stacked-up railway sleepers; then there were the fantasies of the funfair: giant gondolas and rocking ducks, carnival floats, even a double pedalo with circular viewing hole through the center like an old-fashioned plate camera. Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the World of Oz all intertwined. Every conceivable resemblance to something or other imaginable was there.
After giving me a short time to acclimatize, David went below to get some sleep, entrusting me with our safety. I hoped I could justify his trust. I could hardly keep my balance; even the seat behind the wheel felt unsafe. After a few minutes to orientate myself, I realized that the only rogue pieces of pack ice that needed evasive action were the ones directly in our path. The rest were traveling in chaotic fashion on a parallel course, some appearing to gain, and others to collide with their brethren. To avoid these hazards necessitated the disconnection of the self-steering mechanism and then wrestling with Polar Bound’s big wheel, which seemed to have a mind of its own and tended to go into a wild swing when I was behind it.
I had never seen such an amazing sight. I wouldn’t have believed it possible that so many square miles of thick pack ice could be broken up and moved so quickly by the combined action of wind and waves. The effect of this heaving mass was like walking briskly along the moving walkway at Heathrow where, disconcertingly, you can see walkers to either side of you who keep pace and occasionally go even faster. Dawn came, revealing a heaving gray sea with a few of the more cumbersome outriders still marching resolutely on their chosen track in pursuit of their long dissolved or relocated companions, with smaller debris scattered across the ocean, like the aftermath of a storm in the mountains.
In the next notification we had from Peter, we heard that the Swedish contender in this two-man race had liberated himself from the pack ice (if, indeed, he had ever been stuck), and arrived a few hours earlier at the entrance of the Prince of Wales Strait. Following advice, he was heading up a narrow lead of clear water up the coast of Banks Island in the Parry Channel. We were disconcerted by this news. David had been convinced that the Hallberg-Rassy boat would have been, by now, firmly stuck to the northeast of us. We were right to have doubted the story that they had headed into the central area of the Melville Sound.
All along we had thought the Hallberg-Rassy boat, after leaving Resolute following repairs to her steering, had become caught in pack ice somewhere well to the northeast of us out in the Parry Channel. It seems now that, following advice, they were instead heading up a narrow lead of clear water close to the shore of Banks Island. The question now was whether they were ahead of us, or behind.
Originally David was taking a middle of the road route through Viscount Melville Sound, until we were confronted by this huge quantity of redistributed ice which had been broken up and then blown by the wind, piling up on top of itself. This was when we consulted Peter as to where he thought we might find a lead. He suggested that we would find several channels if we headed more to the southwest and crept round the back of the ice pack, close in up against the northeast side of Banks Island, in the vicinity of Russell Point. All this time we were shrouded in intermittent fog which was most hazardous at this particular juncture.
At this moment, another pall of blanket fog settled over the whole area. The difficulties to making forward progress seemed endless, and doubly hard through exhaustion from lack of sleep. I cannot imagine how David managed on his own on earlier voyages. He certainly has no shortage of courage—some would say foolhardiness. He has told me how a few people he has met over the years professed a willingness to accompany him, but when it came to the point, there always seemed to be a good reason why they were unable to. It crossed my mind that the characteristics of Polar Bound must have proved daunting. With her rounded shape, and only drawing 5 feet, 6 inches, she does roll; it is, of course, this shape that makes her eminently suitable for this kind of expedition.
We crept along the Parry Channel heading toward Banks Island with an endless sea of frozen ice shapes stretching beyond the horizon. We strained our eyes trying to catch fleeting glimpses of the shoreline we knew was there if only the fog would lift. At one moment it did thin and we saw the low, black shoreline of Banks Island. It had an icing of smoky katabatic mist drifting in diaphanous pockets over it. We felt very uneasy, even frightened. We couldn’t trust our eyes anymore; we couldn’t be certain whether we were looking at landscape or cloud.
In the midst of all this, David turned on the radar and, after silent contemplation for quite some time, announced he had spotted a tiny yellow blob on the screen, keeping its distance behind us—in other words, traveling at the same speed. Whereas we had been convinced the Hallberg-Rassy had stolen a march on us of many hours, there was no doubting that what he was looking at in these hundreds of miles of empty wilderness could only be one thing: the Swedish contender, and, more importantly, not ahead of us, but behind.
This was wildly exciting. Exhaustion fell away; we were galvanized. You’d have thought it was the race between Scott and Amundsen! Tired, aching limbs were forgotten. We chuffed on, as indeed Belzebub II was doing, with David steering and me peering through the glasses in search of leads and helping him to locate them. We crawled up the remote and uninhabited coastline of Banks Island in the Parry Channel that gave way to the McClure Strait. Captain McClure was the nineteenth-century explorer who discovered this channel; he witnessed the frozen waste from the shore after his ship had foundered and, sledging across it, recognized it as the missing link in the shortest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This most northerly route we transited turned out to be only a few miles different to the more conventional southerly route via the Amundsen and Coronation Gulfs, which had been the accepted route hitherto.
As global warming proceeds, one day, in a few years to come, you probably will be able to sail through. Where a sail could help is to give a little steadiness to the boat and stop her from rolling; and of course on open water, if the wind is favorable, you could then take advantage of a long stretch and sail with a free wind. This is the reason why David, eighteen years earlier, had built an immensely strong, wooden prototype for Polar Bound, two feet shorter in length, and had made provision for a gaff-rigged mainsail. However, he then set his heart on having a Gardner engine, the complexities of which he thought he could manage, should it break down thousands of miles from land. He discovered that the Gardner would not fit into the engine room of his prototype and so, reluctantly, he had to abandon the plan and start again. Potential adventurers reading this account should take note that his lovely prototype, looking as sturdy as Noah’s Ark, two-thirds completed and lying under wraps in Scotland, is now available to a suitable buyer and on completion would make a marvelous, strong vessel...
Finally we emerged from the blanket fog and for the first time had clear sight of the waterways we had been groping our way down, scattered with floating rafts of pack ice. The sea was mirror calm, reflecting the clouds and the dramatic 1,400-foot-high escarpment about two-thirds of a mile off to port, a prominent peak named Cape Vesey Hamilton. We both went out on deck to take photographs, David snapping shots in quick succession with two different cameras—one huge, multiple-lens Canon and a handier Lumix with a zoom lens—while I persisted with my humbler “point and press.” This was the most northerly point of our voyage at 74 degrees, 32 minutes north.
Cape Vesey confronted us like the forbidding headquarters of mountain trolls. Its convoluted rocky face has four distinct, horizontal seams of rock, the whole crossed by great striations as though made by giant griffin claws. The seams perhaps mark different ice ages, successive glacial flow wearing away the softer material. These are the guardian rocks to the western end of the McClure Strait. The eastern end, on Devon Island, shows similar strata. We re-emerged from putting on warmer clothing and continued to take pictures of this towering, defiant façade, soaring in silent majesty as if it were the last bastion of an extinct world, long to remain when mankind has been vanquished by its own greed.
The sky of soft pinks, grays and blues was exactly mirrored in the calm waters of the strait, in between floating lumps of ice. The solitude was immense, immeasurably powerful and all-embracing. Belzebub II had disappeared off our radar screen, probably because she had altered her position and there was no longer her angled beam from which to glance off—end to end with Polar Boundshe would not show up on the radar. David calculated that she was about 26 miles behind us.
This, for us, was an historic moment. We had succeeded in making a passage that had been sought after for the last four centuries, and we had beaten a close contender too. In the short window of weather, with David’s charts and navigational aids and, most importantly, his knowledge and determination, and with the help of our ice captain, we had done it. I like to think that my four-greats uncle Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin was celebrating in the firmament of the Great Beyond.
Three or four hours later we encountered yet another seemingly impenetrable wall of multi-year pack ice. We had to scour the face of it with glasses as we motored along, keeping our distance off, heading to the far horizon where David had a hunch we could find our way around. Sure enough, after quite an anxious time, we entered clear water and came out into a glorious, golden red sky, having lost all track of time. Finally we had quite a good supper of the long-awaited Bressingham roast duck breast with all the trimmings—this had to be eaten in relay as we could not relax our vigilance. We were both exhausted, and David went to his self-termed coffin berth for a good sleep. I remained on watch, but I am ashamed to say that for the first time ever I fell asleep sitting bolt upright on the quarter berth near the wheel.
We passed out of the McClure Strait, leaving Cape Crozier, Cape McClure, Cape Wrottesley and Cape Prince Alfred to port, and finally entered the Arctic Sea—more accurately the Beaufort Sea—on Wednesday, 29 August 29, 2012.
From The Frozen Frontier: Polar Bound Through the Northwest Passage. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. All rights reserved.