Last summer we ran a series of articles in real time about a Nordhavn 57 powering from Greenland through the Northwest Passage to Nome, Alaska. This summer a Frenchman has decided to do the Nordhavn one better by rowing through the passage. At press time he had already made it to Resolute, Canada, some 550 nm from his starting point in Greenland. The intrepid boater, Mathieu Bonnier, is accompanied only by his trusty Alaskan Malamute, Tico. Mathieu is no stranger to rowing, having rowed across the Atlantic in 2009. Already he has become the first man to row across Baffin Bay from Greenland to the Canadian border, a 230 nm voyage that took him 12 days.
All of this illustrates that the far north in the summertime is not as inhospitable as some might think. For example, a high pressure system usually hangs over the Hudson Straits between northern Labrador and Baffin Island in the month of July. Typically, July and August are great months for fishing and boating up to nearly the Arctic Circle in Canada and Alaska. We recently returned from a three week cruise from Ketchikan, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington through the Inside Passage and enjoyed some of the most comfortable cruising we have ever had.
Mathieu Bonnier began his voyage July 9th from Qaanaaq on Greenland's north coast in Smith Sound, the historic starting point for many polar expeditions.
On August 15th we anchored in Secret Cove on what is known as the "Sunshine Coast" of British Columbia, just about 60 miles north of Vancouver. No sooner had the hook gone down than a 36' Grand Banks came in near us and dropped its anchor. Since the sun was below the yard arm we invited the newcomers over to our 42' Grand Banks for some afternoon cheer. We have found that it's always good to get to know the folks one is spending the night with in an anchorage.
Mathieu Bonnier set out from Qaanaaq, Greenland which is near the famous American airbase in Thule. He doesn't look crazy, does he?
The GB 36's skipper was Thomas Bonnier and we already knew from listening to his VHF transmission that he was French. He was chartering the boat with his family for a week or so and cruising the islands around the Straits of Georgia. During the course of the conversation he mentioned that he had sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic three times. We immediately opined that he was "crazy."
"No, I am not crazy," Thomas said, "but my brother is. He is rowing through the Northwest Passage as we speak."
Launching the French rowboat was a three-step process. Note freighter in the background. Not shown is the landing craft which brought it ashore.
And so that is how it was that we came to know about Mathieu Bonnier and what is man's first attempt to row through some of the most daunting waters in the world. People have rowed across the Atlantic and Pacific, but never through the Northwest Passage. (In 1980 John Bockstoce's expedition paddled from west to east and got as far as Resolute in a 35' Umiak) Not only does this speak to the effects of global warming, but also to the fact that boating adventures are becoming harder to find when it comes to racking up a "first." It also illustrates the sea-keeping abilities of small boats if they are properly designed and purpose-built to the task.
April 2009, Mathieu Bonnier, arriving at Cayenne, French Guiana, after crossing the Atlantic from St. Louis, Senegal. He came in second in the Bouvet Rames Guyane Transatlantic Rowing Race, 15 minutes after the winner, Patrick Hoyau.
Since a number of people have successfully rowed across oceans the general design of an ocean-going rowboat has been pretty much standardized over the years. But there similarities to other rowboats andTico Expedition end. Mathieu Bonner's boat -- named after his trusty companion -- has to withstand cold and possible grounding on rocks, to say nothing of ice. It also must carry enough food for both the rower and his companion -- Tico.
Google map showing the relative locations of Qaanaaq ("A"), a village of 150 people which is actually on the coast, not inland, of Greenland, and Resolute, Canada ("B") some 550 miles away. Between the two points is Devon Island, the largest uninhabited (by man) island in the world. Musk ox roam there, however.
The boat also must carry "self-rescue" equipment which means not only a life raft but also plenty of signaling and communication equipment. There are solar panels aboard to feed lithium batteries to power the GPS and chart-plotter, a VHF and a Sat phone. Mathieu is in touch almost every day with his brother on the Sat phone.
Qaanaaq is the northern most village in Greenland and was the jumping off point for early explorers of the arctic ice cap, including Peary.
As we sat in the warm glow of Canadian twilight, Thomas related how his brother had made it from Qaanaaq to Resolute without serious incident. Along the way he had seen seal and polar bear, and had stopped on Beechey Island to pay homage to Sir John Franklin and his lost crew at their last known over-winter camp. He had stopped in Resolute for a number of days because of packed ice in Peel Sound, and was eager to get on with his voyage before the onset of winter.
Some people have all of the fun! Mathieu and Tico pose here showing the extent of the cockpit for locomotion.
The Cork in the Northwest Passage
Now Mathieu would start the truly hard part of his voyage, because historically ice flows down into Peel Sound, jamming it up, and making passage to his next stop in Cambridge Bay problematical. He is following the route of Roald Amundsen who was the first person to navigate through the NWP, from 1903 to '05. He had a small gasoline engine aboard his 47-ton steel sailboat Gjoa. Bonnier also figures that it might take him three winters to get through the passage as the ice-free window is relatively short -- something on the order of a month in the normally ice-packed areas. Global warming, of course, is having its effect.
Not mentioned on Tico Expedition's official website is the fact that this is also the place where Sir John Franklin's 1853 expedition, and several of his would-be rescuers, came to grief. It seems that ice has opened up from time to time in Lancaster Sound for over 150 years, at least, but currents and winds take it south through Peel Sound where it piles up and backs up prohibiting passage through the Northwest Passage in all but the warmest summers. Mathieu is banking on global warming to get him past the ice cork.
Sea ice makes for slow progress as Mathieu must wait for leads to open up in the ice. Polar bears hang out on these ice flows waiting for seals.
Regular readers might recall that this is precisely the area where the Nordhavn 57, Bagan, owned and skippered by Sprague Theobald, hit ice and was temporarily stopped last summer. Theobald, thanks to his bulbous bow, plowed through the light sea ice which might well stop the Tico Expedition. Even at that, Theobald had to run close to shore taking advantage of an offshore wind that blew the ice a few dozen yards offshore to slip by and make it to Cambridge Bay. (See our first report...http://www.boattest.com/Resources/view_news.aspx?NewsID=3601)
This is the saloon of the good ship Tico Expedition. Both skipper and mighty dog sleep together, thus sharing body heat. Mathieu says he gets the mattress.
The PM Up North
Mathieu was looking forward to the prospect of meeting the Canadian Prime Minister who was planning on stopping in Resolute before flying on to Grise Fjord to apologize to the Inuit there for Canada's brutal relocation and detention of 130 native people to Ellesmere Island during the Cold War. They were relocated from Hudson Bay in 1953 and not allowed to leave for over 20 years. The wonder is that they survived. (Read the "The Long Exile" by Melanie McGrath.)
By mid-September ice will begin building up again in the Arctic and Mathieu's passage will have to be postponed for the rest of the year. In fact, he may not be able to get underway again until next July or August, depending on how early the ice begins to break up. We will you keep you posted.
Satellite picture showing the intended route for Mathieu across Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound.
Mathieu keeps in touch with the outside world via Sat phone. His brother, Thomas, says he hears from him almost every day.
The captain of a Canadian icebreaker invited Mathieu to dinner one day in Lancaster Sound.
Locals on both sides of Baffin Bay say that 80% of their diet comes from "country food," aka seal, whale, rabbit, and an occasional polar bear (by permit).
If you ever wondered how rowers navigated going backwards, now you know. A Garmin GPS lets Mathieu know where he is more precisely than any early explorer could ever divine with celestial navigation, as it is often overcast for days on end.
By hoisting his boat onto a small berg Mathieu can get a good sleep (there is virtually no night), knowing that the current and wind are taking him in the right direction.
This picture was taken as Mathieu entered the bay in front of Resolute, Canada, thus completing this first important leg of the Northwest Passage. Most early explorers got this far.
Trusty companion Tico shows his gratitude for being taken ashore at Resolute. Note the gravel beach which is typical of the high Arctic. Early explorers nearly always brought along man's best friend, which occasionally provided them their last repast.
This is downtown Resolute, Canada, a village of 150 people which is serviced by jet aircraft as well as a couple of supply ships per year. Note the solid mass of sea ice to the south of town in Peel Sound, which kept Mathieu stranded in the village for many days.