The Polar Passage Expedition

My role in the expeditions early phase, focused on the design and manufacture of various clothing items and personal flotation devices that were used. These items employed the latest available technology in fabrics, insulators and design. Not all proved as successful as I had anticipated; however, my expectations were realized in that both Jeff and Mike came back safely with all of their fingers and toes in good working order.

Gore Texä fabrics supplied by W.L. Gore
Thinsulateä insulators supplied by 3M

About the expedition ...
The Northwest Passage has presented a formidable challenge to explorers and scientists for over four centuries. Beginning with Sir Martin Frobisher in 1576, sailors attempted to find the elusive northern route to the Orient. Many courageous men lost their lives striving to navigate the ice-choked waters. The unsuccessful search for the celebrated arctic-maritime explorer Sir John Franklin, who died while searching for the Northwest Passage, resulted in more discovery than Franklin could have accomplished in two lifetimes.

It was not until 1906 that the first men, Roald Amundsen and his crew, were able to complete the first transit of the Northwest Passage in their small vessel. Their ship, the Gjoa, utilized a motor to aid in propelling them through the arctic waters. Every vessel that successfully followed Amundsen's lead has been, to some degree, motor powered. Until Jeff MacInnis and sailing partner/photographer Mike Beedell completed their journey, the original goal of 'sailing' the Northwest Passage, using only wind and human power, had not yet been accomplished.

Cat on an Ice Cold Sea
By Jeff MacInnis and Mike Beedell - Sail January 1990

One of the greatest sailing adventures of the past 20 years was the conquest of the Northwest Passage, powered by sail, human muscle, and determination. In 100 days, over three summers (1986-88), Canadians Jeff MacInnis and Mike Beedell accomplished the first wind-powered crossing of the Northwest Passage.

The 2,500 mile west-to-east journey took them from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. Their unlikely vehicle was a stock Hobie 18 catamaran, to which they added a spinnaker and additional foam to balance the 250 pounds of food and gear they carried. It had, in Jeff MacInnis's words...

"all of the outstanding qualities necessary for success in one of the harshest environments on earth. Its speed under sail plus the ability to be hauled over the ice allowed us to adapt to the constantly changing conditions.

"Crossing Icebreaker Channel, a 35-mile stretch between Victoria Island and the Royal Geographic Islands. Our second season. Twelve days of fear and frustration. From our deck-level perspective, the ice stretches on infinitely. The maze is constantly in motion, a crushing confusion of pack ice; multiyear ice thrusts skyward over 25 feet in places in an undulating frozen landscape. We pick what looks like a promising lead and sail into it, only to reach a dead end. Time and again our efforts prove futile. The open water ahead is rapidly being filled in, and we realize that the wind and current are conspiring to imprison us in the grinding, moaning ice. Desperately we drag the boat across the drifting pans to where the water is still open and sail down a fast-closing lead.

"Now we are stranded. Our only option is to haul our Hobie onto the ice and wait for conditions to improve. With the ice constantly shifting, the only safe place for us to sleep is on the cat's trampoline. We point Perception's bows into the wind to present the smallest possible profile and erect our tent securely on the tramp. The only place of relative comfort is inside the tent, burrowed deep in our sleeping bags. Even as we drift off to sleep, we have uncomfortable thoughts - ice breaking beneath the hulls or a polar bear coming too close.

"We wake often during these nights adrift on the ice and cast an eye outside to assess our situation. The uncertainties of this frozen world make our insides burn. Morning brings an endless ocean of ice in all directions, reaffirming the helpless feeling we went to sleep with.

"Ten days of sailing, drifting, and hauling the cat around brings us to the point of utter dismay. Mike sweeps the horizon with his 500mm telephoto lens, seeing nothing to the east. Finally he spots land off to the west. Our hearts sink. The ice has forced us far off course in huge semicircular arc, leaving us farther behind than when we started. We are numb with frustration; our summer seems over almost before it has begun.

"While Mike starts off to scout for other options, I duck into the tent to retrieve a small stuff sack I'd packed in Toronto in anticipation of needing a morale booster. I pull out a red top, red pants, red hat, black belt, and a white beard and slip the clothes over my drysuit. Presto - Santa Claus! Mike stands in speechless surprise as I run toward him. We are reminded that humor is an important part of our survival kit.

"Two days later the ice reluctantly permits us a passage to the Royal Geographic Islands.

"Our final haul into Gjoa Haven on King William Island during the second season is an epic one. Miserable in the frigid, shallow water, we've pulled the heavily loaded Hobie across miles of rotten ice. Our challenges seem meager when we compare ourselves with the poor souls of the Franklin Expedition in 1848. The British seamen, emanciated and desperate, had trudged along this very spot. One by one they dropped in their tracks, and with them died much of the British spirit for finding the Northwest Passage.

"The haunting thought of Franklin's men, half-mad from starvation and lead poisoning, gnawing on their shipmates' flesh in a last, desperate attempt to survive, has an eerie effect on us as we sit exhausted but sated after our freeze-dried meal. The powerful lessons of history had come too late for these men. Their attitude of superiority, their ignorance of the land, and their failure to observe and learn from Inuit ways sealed their fate.

It was not until 1903 that a man splendidly prepared for finding the Passage set off on his quest. Roald Amundsen, sailing the little motorized Gjoa, was a meticulous planner. He cycled, jogged, skied, and even slept with his window open on cold Norwegian nights to prepare himself for his three-year journey. His relations with the Inuit were rewarding, and the wealth of knowledge he gleaned from these highly skilled people paved the way for his attainment of the South Pole by dog team.

"We are excited to see the lights of Gjoa Haven, where Amundsen spent two winters, in the distance. He described it as "the loveliest little harbor in the world," and it looks very lovely to us after floundering through the rotting ice for days.

"The first person to greet us is Voytek, a crewmember of the Vagabond, a beautiful steel-hulled ship that has been attempting, unsuccessfully, to sail the Passage for five years. He invites us aboard for a sumptuous meal of meat, real potatoes, and freshly baked rolls. Scanning all the marvelous instruments and creature comforts makes us realize that we are sailing the wrong boat - but we quickly decide it would be too heavy to drag across the ice!

"Our third season. We weave our way through the labyrinth of ice, and in the distance we hear an unmistakable sound. A mighty bowhead whale is nearby, and its rhythmic breaths fill us with awe. Finally we see it relaxed on the surface, its blowhole quivering like a volcanic cone, but it senses our presence and quickly sounds. We are very disappointed. We had only good intentions - to revel in its beautiful immensity and to feel its power. Mike thinks how foolish it would be for this mighty beast to put any faith in us. After all, we are members of the species that had almost sent the bowhead into extinction with our greed for whale oil and bone. It is estimated that as many as 38,000 bowheads were killed off eastern Baffin Island in the 1800s; today there are about 200 left.

"The fascinating and sometimes terrifying wildlife keeps us entertained during our explorations. Bearded harp and ring seals greet us daily. The profusion of bird life is awesome; at times we see and smell hundreds of thousands of thick-billed murres clinging to their cliffside nests.

"Our charts show we are on the edge of a huge shoal where the frigid ocean currents upswell and mix nutrients that provide a feast for the food chain. Before long we see the head of a hefty bearded seal pop to the surface; its square face and profusion of whiskers are comical looking, but its 750-pound frame has the agility and speed of a consummate fishing machine. At times these animals scare the living daylights out of us. They have a knack of sneaking up behind us and then shooting out of the water and belly flopping for maximum noise and splash. A horrendous splash coming from behind has a heart-stopping effect in polar bear country.

"We have many encounters with the "lords of the Arctic," but we are always cautious, observant, and ever so respectful that we are in their domain. On one occasion we rocket out of a deep sleep as a bear hisses only a foot from our heads. Mike grabs our gun, loaded with rubber bullets, snaps off the safety, and listens for the bear's footfalls. Nothing. Then he sticks the nose of the gun out the tent door, followed by his own nose, and looks right into the eyes of a young bear about 40 feet away. One look is enough; the last we see of him is his bulbous rear end as he thunders down the beach. "I guess we need a shower," Mike jokes. "He sure didn't like our smell."

"In some regions the land is totally devoid of life, while in others the pulse of life takes our breath away. Such is the paradox of the Arctic; It's wastelands flow into oasis' that are found nowhere else on the face of the earth. Many times we find ancient signs of Inuit people who lived here, superbly attuned to the land. We feel great respect for them; this landscape is a challenge at every moment.

"Our third season. We face a 35 mile open water passage across Prince Regent Inlet on Baffin Island that will take us to our ultimate goal - Pond Inlet on Baffin Bay. The breakers look huge from the water's edge. One thing is certain; if we do manage to launch the boat, we'll never be able to land it should anything go wrong. With a burning feeling on doubt in our stomachs, we yell "Go!" just at the tail end of 10 foot breakers.

"Leaning into the hulls, like bobsledders at the starting gate, we push as hard as we can down the gravel beach to the sea. We catch the water and keep pushing until we have plunged waist deep, then drag ourselves aboard. Immediately, we begin paddling with every ounce of effort. Inch by agonizing inch, Perception moves offshore. Sweat pours off our bodies. Ahead of us, looming gray-white through the fog, we see a massive iceberg riding the current like the ghost of a battleship.

"There is no wind to fill our sails and steady the boat, and the chaotic motion soon brings seasickness. Slowly the wind begins to build. Prince Regent Inlet now looks ominous with wind and waves. The frigid ocean hits us square in the face and chills us to the bone.

Mike writes in his journal: "We were on the fine edge. Everything the Arctic had taught us over the last 90 days was now being tested. We funneled all that knowledge, skill, teamwork, and spirit into this momentous crossing... If we went over in these seas we could not get the boat back up. For a moment I envisioned our flipping over, the sickening feeling of terror, the frigid ocean engulfing us. Then the quick, deadly numbing of the our bodies and the absolute desperation before being swallowed up in the maw of an Arctic sea.

"I quickly wiped the thought from my mind and yelled to Jeff as the salt spray enveloped us. 'Fantastic job, Jeff, hang in there!' Suddenly the wind speed plummeted to zero as quickly as it had begun.... Now we were being pushed by the convulsing waves toward sheer 2,000 foot cliffs. Two paddles were our only power. Nausea and faintness overtook me. I dropped to my knees and warned Jeff that I was feeling wretched. Right on cue, I threw up all over the tramp while clinging to the boom. But my misery was over. I felt elated after my deed, and I smiled up at Jeff and said, 'I feel great!' Jeff managed a tight smirk.

"For an hour or so we heave in the water like a brilliant yellow peapod and pray for wind. The wind finally freshens from the west and blows away our anxiety over being smashed into bits of flotsam on the cliffs. We are under sail once more with a light breeze, heading for the refuge of Elwin Inlet. When our bows kiss the pebble beach of the Borden Peninsula we leap ashore and hug each other with a profound sense of relief. We prepare a freeze-dried spaghetti dinner while reveling in our good fortune at still being alive and in one piece - but slightly insane, we agree.

"Sailing past glacier capped mountains, we approached the end of our journey. At 05:08 on the morning of our hundredth day, speeding into Baffin Bay, the spray from our twin hulls makes rainbows in the sun as we complete the first sail powered voyage through the Northwest Passage. We have journeyed through these waters on their terms, moved by the wind, waves and current. The environment has always been in control of our destiny; we have only tried to respond in the best possible way.

We've been awake for nearly 23 hours, but we cannot sleep. The joy and excitement are too great. Our Hobie Cat rests on the rocky beach, the wind whistling in her rigging, her bright yellow hulls radiant in the morning sunlight. She embodies the watchword for survival in the Arctic - adaptability.

Dear Helmut,
Let me again extend our sincere appreciation for the critical role you played in the success of the Polar Passage Expedition. Without question your design expertise and project concepts were invaluable during the hardest part of any endeavor; the preparation stage. I firmly believe our ultimate success in becoming the first vessel to sail the Northwest Passage in 400 years of effort, hinged on our outstanding development team who provided technology and ideas to survive one of the harshest environments on the planet. Thank you for sharing our dream of the possible and helping to make it a reality.

Jeff MacInnis

Photographs by Mike Beedell