Canada's northwest passage lures British explorers

On 19th May 1845, two Royal Navy ships sailed from Britain to Canada (then British) to explore its Northwest Passage. Led by Sir John Alexander Franklin, the expedition's two ships - HMS Terror and HMS Erebus - went missing in the Passage for around two years. All of the 129 of the sailors perished and were buried there in the ice.

Today, their well-preserved bodies can still be seen.

Inspired by that ill-fated expedition, the British are back there, trying to become the first in the world to sail through the Passage from east to west, relying solely on wind and oars.....

Northwest Passage lures British explorers

By Jasper Copping
The Telegraph

The mummified remains of Royal Navy sailors from HMS Erebus and HMS Terror - John Hartnell (left) and William Braine - who perished during the Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage in 1845/46

The Northwest Passage is one of the most fabled, and treacherous, sea routes in the world. Many sailors have perished in its freezing Arctic waters after their ships became encased in ice.

Now, as climate change takes hold, British explorers are trying to become the first to sail through the Northwest Passage from east to west, relying solely on wind and oars.

Bob Beggs: Inspired by Britain's "Franklin Expedition" of 1845/46

The expedition will demonstrate the advance of climate change, which scientists say is thawing out the Northwest Passage for longer periods each summer.

This has raised the possibility that the route could become an important shipping channel, in a move that would revolutionise trade by offering a short cut between western Europe and the Far East.

Boom times could be on the way for backwaters such as Iqaluit, in the far north-east of Canada, where a deep-water port is planned.

Sir John Alexander Franklin FRGS (April 15, 1786 – June 11, 1847) was a British Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer who mapped almost two thirds of the northern coastline of North America. Franklin also served as governor of the British colony of Tasmania (now an Australian state) for several years. The well-preserved bodies of some of the Royal Navy sailors who perished during the expedition to the Northwest Passage of of 1845/46 have been found

A crew of former and serving soldiers will use a lightweight 28ft catamaran with reinforced hulls which, if the sea freezes over, can ride up on to and sail across large stretches of ice.

Setting out from Plymouth, the crew plans to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Greenland, go through the Northwest Passage to Alaska, then return to Britain via the Panama Canal.

Not only does the voyage go against the prevailing currents, and the lethal ice floes carried on them but it will also amount to the first full ­circumnavigation of the North American continent without engines.

Increased use of the Northwest Passage has led to international disputes. Canada claims full rights over those parts of the route that pass through its territory, while America and European Union say it should be an international strait open to any vessel.

The Northwest Passage offers the prospect of a becoming a "Panama of the North". Explorers spent about 500 years searching for the potentially lucrative seaway.

Many died, most notably Sir John Franklin, a British sailor whose 1845 expedition ended in the deaths of all 129 members when their two ships were caught in the ice.

The first successful navigation was in 1907, when Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who would later beat Robert Scott to the South Pole, completed a three-year passage in a 70ft converted herring boat called Gja, using sails and a 13-horsepower engine.

Only a handful of yachts have passed along the route. These have mostly been large, fitted with engines to push ahead in light wind and when threatened by encroaching ice. Even with the aid of motors, most have been overwhelmed by the ice, taking more than one season to reach the end.

The British crew will use a small, fast, ocean-going vessel which is being built in Plymouth.

The challenge, called "Against the Floe", is led by Bob Beggs, 48, a former soldier from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and a winner of the Clipper Round the World Race.

"I love adventure and was inspired at an early age by the tales of Franklin and the many other early explorers," he said. "My background with 29 Commando has also been a major factor.

"I spent 10 winters in Norway and loved it. That, combined with my passion for the sea, make this the perfect challenge."

He will be accompanied for different legs of the journey by three former colleagues from his unit, Ian Rivers, Shaun Robertson and Darren Thompson, and is still seeking crew for some stretches.

Mr Thompson, 42, said: "We all have Arctic experience and have developed a love of the area. The attraction is the chance to do something that has never been done before and the thrill is the chance to sail against the flow, with all those hundreds of tons of ice coming at you.

"I love the idea of the British doing something first."

The Northwest Passage is only passable for a few weeks of the year, when the ice retreats enough to open up channels of water. The team must set off from Britain in early June in order to reach Alaska by September, when the route will freeze over.

The region remains one of the most inhospitable on the planet, and the crew will have to cope with sub-zero temperatures, dense pockets of ice floes and frequent storms, as well as polar bears.

"We will carry a weapon, but we want to shoot bears with cameras, not guns," Mr Beggs said. "We hope that noise should be enough to scare them off."

The vessel will not be equipped with any kind of engine or generator, and all power will be provided by solar and wind energy. In very light winds, the crew will maintain momentum by rowing.
I don't have much of an issue with other Commonwealth countries passing through our territory, but the dispute of who owns what is silly. Look right at the map above and you see it cuts halfway through our artic territory. That's like us planning on passing through the Mississippi river just because we think "it should be an international strait open to any vessel" because it'd benifit us in some way. It doesn't work that way, nor should it.

Now about this adventurous bunch and their excitment of the upcoming journey, I hope they spent some time in our part of the artic to know what it's like. Norway isn't like Canada's Artic, nor is Canada's Artic like Norway. They may have a good idea what to expect, but they'd have a better idea if they visited the area first hand before setting out.

And they'll be pretty boned if it's mostly cloudy up there and their solar generator doesn't get enough energy.

And on top of that, considdering the winter we just had, and still having.... I think they might be biting off more then they can chew and they end up with much more ice then they are predicting from the last couple of seasons. They could wind up with all their predictions being thrown out the window and then being stuck out there, waiting for rescue before they sink or freeze to death.

For some reason my spidy senses are telling me they've delved more into the adventure/record breaking aspect then they did on practicality.... we might end up with more frozen bodies to look at.

Similar Threads

Arctic ice melt opens Northwest Passage
by hermanntrude | Sep 23rd, 2007
Cosmetic surgery lures away GPs
by CBC News | Jan 31st, 2007
no new posts