Wednesday, October 5, 2011

David Cowper aboard POLAR BOUND completes 6th Circumnavigation on October 4th, 2011 at Whitehaven Cumbria UK

July 16th - Dutch Harbor to England via 4th Arctic Northwest Passage to complete 6th circumnavigation!

Moored in Unalaska's small boat harbor is a striking yellow boat that looks like it belongs to a scientist or perhaps a research institute. But it is the sturdy little vessel of David Scott Cowper, the world's premier solo navigator. Mr. Cowper has circled the world five times and soon it will be six. The first two round the world trips were by sailboat, the rest have been in a motorized craft. The pretty yellow boat, Polar Bound, he had built specifically for solo long-distance voyaging. It is all aluminum and when fully loaded displaces almost 50 tons.
"The boat was basically designed for operating in ice," said Cowper, standing in the boat's business-like wheelhouse. "She can take full ice pressure. She's got watertight compartments, she's got double hull in the engine room, and double-bottomed in the forward hold as well as the engine room itself. So there'd have to be a catastrophic failure for the boat to go down or be obliterated. Basically she has 100% safety."
"She's designed for my sole use and benefit. She is self-righting. But in open water it's highly unlikely, even under perfect storm conditions that she would roll. But she has that capability with all her watertight hatches and dogged doors. In a nutshell, she is an all-weather vessel."
"This is the third time she's been around the world. I've gone from the high arctic to the Antarctic. I've been across the southern ocean, around the horn four times, she's done the Northwest Passage three times, she's been to Dutch Harbor and down the Bering Strait a number of times. She's encountered heavy seas and I must say that she's looked after me exceedingly well."
Polar Bound is 48 feet in length with an 18 foot beam and a six foot draft. She's propelled by a Gardner 150 hp 8-cylinder engine.
"On Polar Bound I carry ten tons of fuel which is approximately two and a quarter thousand US gallons. I cruise at about six knots, as that's the economical cruising speed. At that I'm doing about 900 revs through a twin disc, two-to-one reduction box. So you could say 400 or 450 at the propeller end. On average I do about 150 miles a day, 1,000 miles a week, and I'm burning just about two and a half gallons an hour. I've got a range of 5,000 miles, a safe working range." If he were headed south, which he's not at this stage of the voyage, he would motor to San Francisco, and then to Valdivia, Chile, near the southern tip of South America.
What about serious weather? Certainly on his travels Cowper has dealt with storms.
"She's more comfortable in very heavy seas where sometimes I have to lay a hull, and I'm just broadside on to the sea and the pressure of wind against the wheelhouse keeps the boat steady and because this boat is so well insulated against the cold I don't hear the howling wind that's outside. So I can quite comfortably have a cup of tea sitting as we are now in the wheelhouse."
What about sustenance? How does a solo sailor maintain his health and energy on a long voyage yet remain trim and agile?
"I'm told I eat very badly," said Cowper. "I try and eat sensibly. I'm not a good cook and I'm not really interested in cooking. So you've got two negatives thee. For breakfast I'll have cereal and two slices of bread, which I might toast. A cup of tea, or a cup of coffee. Maybe cheese and biscuits for lunch, or I'll have a bowl of soup, or noodles. My main meal is in the evening. I'll try and make a bigger job of that. I'll have either fish or meat and have a curry. Or I'll get some chicken legs and do those in the pressure cooker. I'll have those with potatoes or peas. But I must say, you don't want me to be your chef for a great meal while onboard."
"In the Falklands the farmers would give me geese. I would pluck those and freeze them. And then when I required a goose I would roast one in the oven. I'd have two meals from the roasting, and then I'd have a cold one. Then I'd make soup and stock out of the remainder. A goose would last me about six days. And that was the height of my luxury."
"Another thing I'm keen on is Christmas puddings. When I set off on this last trip I'd been to Marks and Spencers after Christmas when they have the sale of all their Christmas puddings and I purchased about 200. Now I have about 30 Christmas puddings left."
These are the traditional English Christmas puddings which require a good ration of brandy be poured over the dessert and then set alight.
"Certainly the brandy helps to warm one up a bit," he said. "Also brings out the flavor of the currants."
Cowper uses a computer very little on the boat because he doesn't have internet access. But he downloads weather grid files over the Iridium telephone, "at great expense," he says. He expresses appreciation that the USA provides the service free of charge and praises their accuracy.
"When I first did circumnavigation in 1979 there wasn't GPS, there wasn't radio communication apart from amateur radio. But know everything has changed. It's just like as if you're on land."
The Northwest Passage is an interesting topic because of the issues global warming raises. Cowper is now headed for his fourth passage of the fabled route.
"Compared with almost 30 years ago, the first time I went through the Northwest Passage, it took me nearly four years with the boat being iced in. The second time I did it was a full year because the boat was iced in. Then the third time I was held up just 24 hours by ice. This time I hope to make a clean pass."
Will the Northwest Passage become a practical route for commercial ship traffic? Two German freighters accompanied by a Russian icebreaker recently made the trip. Cowper is less than enthusiastic about the prospects.
"It's possible, but they will have to have icebreaker assistance," he said. "They can't take the same route that I take." His route is too shallow for big ships, following the coast. "They might be coming across multi-year ice. But the way the ice is melting at the present moment, it's all going to be first-year ice. This is the difficulty for the polar bears."
When the weather looks good and Cowper makes his way out to the open Bering Sea, he'll head for Nome.
"I go up past Nome and then up to Point Barrow, which is roughly 1200 miles from Dutch Harbor and then I turn right and go along the coast of Herschel Island." With luck he'll reach his home port in Scotland in a few months.
Cowper has spent time in Dutch Harbor on several of his trips and he speaks highly of the port.
"Everyone in Dutch Harbor has been very kind and helpful," he said. "I feel like this is sort of a second home. Over the years I've made some good friends among the fishermen and they've been very helpful."
On land David Scott Cowper is a surveyor, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He has a wife and a grown son who wait in Newcastle, the city where he was born and still lives. He is 70 years old but is fit and lean. Why is he still doing this at an age when most of his peers having chosen more sedentary activities?
"Unfortunately, I have the mind of an 18 year-old," he said. He believes the health and safety culture has taken all the fight out of England. So he sails on. Six knots, 150 miles a day, 1000 miles a week.

James Mason can be reached at, or by phone at 907-581-6850

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