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Cruising Tales: The Ultimate Charter – Halifax to Kodiak

Seventy-three days through some of the harshest waters and weather in the world for 6,640 miles with the same crew-guests.  Could you do it?

Roger and Gaynelle Swanson did, completing their third attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage last fall from east to west in Cloud Nine, their Bowman 57. Three of the four crew had joined their second attempt in 2005. Cloud Nine is believed to be the first American sailing boat to complete the passage in one year; the first American sailing boat to complete the passage from east to west; and the first boat of any flag to make the passage east to west in 2007.

Roger and Gaynelle Swanson have probably logged more miles on charter than anyone else, having accomplished three circumnavigations, two trips to the Antarctic, one north of Norway and two attempts and one completion through the Northwest Passage.

This last trip started badly when Gaynelle fell and broke both wrists while they were hauled out in Trinidad in March. She flew home (a tiny town of southern Minnesota, as far from any ocean as you can get) to get fixed up while Roger and family members took the boat up to Halifax. Gaynelle met them in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with 90 days of provisions for six people and boat parts for the trip. The waterline on Cloud Nine must have gone down six inches!

The trip to Greenland was often in heavy fog through which they dodged numerous icebergs. Relying on the radar to spot them, Gaynelle came up to take her watch and was startled to see a huge one—dead ahead—which had not appeared on the radar. After a quick heart-thudding dodge, the radar was checked again. No iceberg.

After a brief stop at Upernavik, Greenland they headed west through Baffin Bay, avoiding the abundance of pack ice while trying to stare holes in the fog. When the fog cleared and they found many “icy citadels” floating nearby not visible on the radar, they could only wonder how many they had unknowingly narrowly missed.

Deciding a break was needed and because reports indicated ice closing the narrow Franklin Strait through which they had to pass, they anchored at Port Leopold (Canada) where James Clark Ross wintered with his two ships for 11 months in 1848-49 while searching for evidence of the John Franklin expedition.

Underway again, they passed the area where they had been icebound in 2005 but could not see it. Hand steering was required as the magnetic compass was not dependable so close to the north magnetic pole. Only the GPS could be used to determine their course.

Further along they entered James Ross Strait where Amundsen had gone aground in 1903 and nearly lost his ship, Gjoa. Carefully passing through, they anchored off the village of Gjoa Haven.  A major milestone—they had been trying to get to it for 13 years!

Reaching Cambridge Bay they had about 600 miles to go along the south coast of Victoria island into the Beaufort Sea to reach Tuktoyaktuk, most of it in fog. They had to hurry because pack ice starting to move south might cut them off. At 0200 Roger came up for his watch and saw the Moon for the first time in about a month. Much to his surprise the total lunar eclipse on August 28th occurred—a truly awesome experience in the Arctic darkness.

They entered Alaskan waters and discovered they were no different from Canadian or Greenlandic waters:  FOG again.  Strong winds from astern required awkward sail reduction in 32-degree temperatures on slick, wet decks in cumbersome heavy Arctic clothing. But by September 2nd they passed Point Barrow where all ice threats were behind them and the temperature rose. Passing Icy Cape they recalled that this was the farthest north point reached by Captain Cook in 1778 during his third and last voyage.

On September 5th, Cloud Nine re-crossed the Arctic Circle, concluding its transit of the Northwest Passage. Their distance from the Arctic Circle heading north, to the Arctic Circle heading south, was 3433 nautical miles taking 34 days to complete.

The hardest part of the trip was yet to come.  Their next landmark was Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point of the mainland continent of North America which is actually west of the Hawaiian Islands. Continuing to Nome, severe weather kept them ashore for nine days. With another huge low approaching in a couple of days, they made a run for it, bashing into headwinds and seas but happily making their safe anchorage at Nunivak Island. Finding another good weather window between the lows, they dashed for Dutch Harbor, leaving the rough Bering Sea behind them.
With east-northeast winds expected on a course to Kodiak, they ventured out again but a gale caught them, gusting to 70 knots. A reefed mizzen and a small jib made for exciting deck steering as the helmsman worked to avoid broaching or burying the bow (Roger tends to understate such conditions although he did mention that in 46 hours the barometer had fallen 32 millibars).

Finally the sea gods smiled upon them, the winds dropped and they reached Kodiak on September 29 about 1700 after 73 days and 6640 miles from Halifax.

In March 2008, Swanson was awarded the Royal Cruising Club Tilman Medal in London for his success, his high standards, and his determination.

CONGRATULATIONS to Roger, Gaynelle and a stalwart crew!

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