*This article appeared in the November issue of 48 North*
Sailing through the arctic is tough, there is no doubt about that. The winds blow hard and cold, ripping across Siberia unimpeded by any significant topography (or even trees). The route ahead is often choked with slabs of ice, swirling unpredictably with invisible currents. The charts are inaccurate at best, showing 30 feet of depth when there is 10, or a small sliver of sand where there is a 2-mile long island. The depths are grippingly insufficient for a racing sailboat that requires 10 feet of water. It often snows, even in August. Standing watch is intense and humbling in the face of ice mazes and dense fog. Sailing through the arctic is exhilarating and nerve-wracking and incredibly tough.
For a month, DogBark! picked her way through the arctic with careful attention from her crew of six, ranging in age from 9 years to adult. On the days we could make progress, we spent our time weaving through fields of ice, squinting into the freezing fog (an actual weather condition in which the water that is suspended in the air and blocking all visibility freezes, then the wind or boat movement spits these sharp icy crystals at your face). There were many days that precluded forward progress, either because of high winds or ice conditions (or often both). On these days, we hid from steep abrupt wind chop behind almost imperceptible slivers of sand called “islands” and played hours of card games with the heater cranked up while awaiting the next report that would show clear water instead of clogs of ice ahead of us.
But that report didn’t come. The days ticked by. As our stockpile of vegetables (and bread and milk and coffee and peanut butter) dwindled, so did our optimism. We did the math on how quickly we would have to go, assuming we could break through the ice barrier defiantly blocking our passage into Canada, to transit the 1,500 miles still ahead in order to reach Greenland before the gnarly Atlantic winter storms set in. With each passing day our chances of sailing through the northwest passage diminished, even faster than our coffee supply.
Sailing through the arctic is hard, yes. But it turns out not sailing through the arctic is even harder.
Our self-imposed turnaround date loomed on the calendar like a lurking monster under the bed; easy to ignore in the bright bustling day, but impossible to avoid in the dim quiet hours of anxiety and frustration. It was the evening of the in-between day – the day after deciding on our (still hypothetical) alternate route if we were unable to proceed and the day before our looming lurking self-imposed turnaround date – that the last blows to our optimism struck in three brief emails.
The first contained the updated report that showed no improvement in the barricade ahead of us. The second was an official statement from the Canadian Coast Guard advising pleasure craft to avoid transiting the waterways of the Northwest Passage this season due to unusually high concentrations of ice. The third was a note from our advisor confirming what the first two had dispassionately conveyed; the season was closing in and 12 of the 18 boats attempting the passage from either end had turned back while three more were perilously caught in ice floes.
With our nerves frayed from waiting and hoping and defending our anchor chain from menacing slabs of ice, with dramatic tales from other boats of gut-wrenching nights spent caught between a literal rock and hard ice sheet, with the probability of a completed passage rapidly deteriorating, we made the decision to turn back. I thought the waiting and the ice navigating and the anxiety of not knowing was hard, until the reality of defeat plowed over me like a mac truck. We were turning around. I cried as I went to bed that night and again the next morning as we hauled the anchor and turned our back on the stubborn barricade to the east that had beleaguered us for so long. I was devastated.
But as we retreated, rounding Point Barrow and sailing south quickly in the strong autumn winds of the Bering Sea, distance offered better perspective and my grief and devastation slowly – slowly – melted into relief. It became increasingly clear as we shed layers of clothes and regret with the decreasing latitude that we had made the right decision. The ice did not yield a path across the border of Alaska and Canada on the west side; and stayed thick and determined all through Franklin Strait on the east side. A few boats held tight, still hoping for a late season melt, and some of them got into trouble with the ice. We suffered with them, their hope and anxiety and fear and optimism palpable through our own experiences.
It had been the hardest choice we could have made. But we made it, and we stuck to it. I am still recovering from the disappointment, fighting down the little voice that whispers regret and failure at me in the quiet moments, but visions of warm clear lagoons and lush tropical hillsides and juicy fresh pineapples aid in my recovery. Because we have new goals and expectations now. We are trading in our puffy jackets and wool socks and fleece blankets for bathing suits and snorkels and gallons of sunscreen. We are sailing to Hawaii.
Instead of ruminating on our “failed” attempt to transit the northwest passage, we have realigned our ambitions with the opportunities before us. It is not a silver lining or a conciliation, but a new journey entirely, a different adventure. Life is dotted with these moments of choice, and the best options are often obscured by emotions, pride, fear and our inability to predict the future. On that in-between evening in the arctic we made the best decision for our circumstance with the information we had, despite the demanding feelings of failure and frustration. We made the tougher choice, and we are stronger for it.