Annals Of The Once Improbable: Circumnavigating The North Pole

Global warming has opened up a brand-new Arctic racecourse, writes Tim Zimmermann in "The Wetass Chronicles."

Say what you will about the perils of global warming, it is opening up some bizarre adventure-sailing possibilities as what was once ice becomes water.

Case in point No. 1: There are two (not one, two!) sailboats currently sailing around the Arctic Ocean, hoping to circumnavigate the North Pole in one season, via the Northwest and Northeast Passages.


One crew consists of noted polar explorer, Borge Ousland, who is used to slogging his way across the ice pack to a Northern or Southern Pole. This summer he is doing something completely different, doublehanding a light, 31-foot trimaran around the Arctic Ocean, in the hopes that it will give him enough speed to sprint through both passages (and pull up onto the ice if necessary) before the approach of winter ice locks up the route. Ousland and his co-skipper, Thorleif Thorleifsson, left Oslo earlier this summer, and have to cover 10,000 miles to succeed. They need to finish off the Northeast Passage and get past the Bering Strait quickly, because now is about the time that ice starts to close it down. Then, it’s off to tackle the Northwest Passage, which conveniently opens up in September.

Currently, Ousland is in the Chukchi Sea, the last Northeast Passage body of ice, I mean water. He just crossed the International Date Line, and his report makes it clear that Northern Ocean sailing is just as white-knuckle as Southern Ocean sailing:


“The weather has calmed down, which is very good after a rather special night with a stiff breeze and lots of waves. It gets very dark at midnight now, so we do double watches: one to keep a lookout for ice while another steers the boat. It is tiring, but absolutely neccessary. We are only a single accident away from failure … we must never forget that. In such conditions we reduce our sails to a minimum, in order to control the boat and sneak ahead, more or less in the right direction until the light returns. A half moon between the clouds helped us a bit last night.

We decided to sail through the ice belt rather than around it. We are now actually in the middle of a belt of drift ice that streches from Wrangel Island southwards. In tomorrow’s report we’ll tell you more than I can now. I assure you it’s quite exiting sailing!”

In fact, about a week ago, he was sailing in a gale:


The second crew is all-Russian, and they are doing their Arctic Ocean sailing in the conventional way, aboard a heavy, steel, monohull—the 59-foot Peter 1.

The Google translation of their website is a bit obscure, so it’s hard to know what the hell they are really up to. But they also are approaching the Bering Strait, so we have ourselves a race (sort of).


And we know that they have had to battle at least SOME ice:


It’s pretty extraordinary to start thinking of the Arctic Ocean as, well, an ocean. But the climate and earth are ever-evolving (even if the climate is evolving in a dangerous direction), so it’s fascinating to imagine that sailors may soon be as familiar with Arctic Ocean geography as we already are with Southern Ocean geography.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the first polar circumnavigation that involves two crews trying to do something significant (and the best place to keep tabs is Explorer’s Web.

And while the Arctic is a very big place, all the sailors did manage to run across one another in the Russian port of Pevek, at the eastern end of the East Siberia Sea.

Looks like a beautiful, warm day, doesn’t it?

Which gets me thinking…If it already looks that nice, it could only be a matter of time before the Sunderlands or some other reality TV-addled family decides that the title “Youngest Ever To Circumnavigate the North Pole By Sail” is a tempting and ripe target. Abby? Jessica? Zach? Mike P.?

Move along. Nothing but some weird and fascinating It Should Be Ice But Instead It’s Water sailing going on here.


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