The Northwest Passage: 600 Years of Exploration

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Polar exploration and the Northwest Passage has fascinated Master Mariner John Simpson since he attended nautical school in Hull as a boy. As part of Solis Marine’s support for the Northwest Passage Expedition, John outlines the challenges facing the modern day explorers as they prepare to row the 2,300 mile ocean to ocean Arctic route. The very fact that such a quest is possible is yet another climate wake-up call.

Aerial photo August 2013

Aerial photo summer 2016

Since Europeans first began to survey and explore the Americas in the late 15th (Cabot 1497) and 16th centuries there was a hope that there might be an open passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would reduce the sailing time to the riches of the spice islands of the far East.

It was soon discovered that there was no central passage through the continent, so a route through the archipelago of islands in the far North was the goal. With almost no understanding of what would be encountered, knowledge was gained painfully slowly over the following centuries.

The harsh conditions imposed by the climate, the vast distances and then, as now, the sheer logistical challenge of mounting and maintaining an expedition was formidable. Not surprisingly, most were doomed to failure and many ended in tragedy.

Having had the privilege of working on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Canada, John become fascinated by the determination of those explorers who endured the hardships of voyages that could last for years in the pursuit of this most elusive of passages. It would perhaps be of interest to consider what the passage plans of those navigators contained and what a modern ISM auditor might make of them!

After spending many years at sea, often in severe weather, John has the greatest respect the courage of the seaman that undertook the exploration of those northern seas and lands.

The skills and the systems developed for surveying, navigation and sheer survival were daunting in an age when going to sea on any voyage carried significant risk. The challenges of volunteering to man a voyage into the unknown waters of the far north deserves the admiration of all modern seafarers. Perhaps not quite knowing what on earth you are getting into can help for a time at least.

The first successful passage by ship alone, was made by Roald Amundsen (1903-06) and took three years. It was however, achieved using a very small, shallow draughted, vessel so was not a route that could be used by any commercial vessel.

Later transits in the 20th century were achieved in both directions, usually taking months, but increasingly in a single season.

An interesting thought for the 21st century is raised by the author of the book ‘Voyages of Delusion’ by Glyn Williams. The first draft was written in 2000 and considered the voyage of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police vessel ST ROCH II, in the same year, which completed the transit in a little over a month, meeting none of the feared pack ice.

The first ST ROCH undertook the passage in the early 1940s and took 27 months. The question Williams posed, was whether 2000 was a freak year for light ice, or perhaps the shape of things to come due to global warming?

Given the rapid environmental changes that have taken place over the ensuing 20 years, perhaps we already have the answer.

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