May/June 2011 | by Monika Witkowska
Why didn’t I just sail in the tropics, I’m often asked? Not only because I’ve already been there. The main reason is that the expansive Arctic fascinates me much more than warmer seas. Simple. Here [along the Northwest Passage] there are so many interesting, beautiful scenic places… and people… it would be a pity to just simply bypass them.
— Börje Ivarsson
Outwardly, to those who might not know him well, Börje Ivarsson is a calm person, projecting a somewhat taciturn nature. An insular and self-sufficient man not known for bravado, he spends much of his free non-work time at or near his home in Sweden, in quiet pursuits; hunting, fishing and hiking through the woods. He started sailing early in life at the age of seven, and from that moment on it became his biggest passion. In 1980, he purchased Anna (so named after his beloved grandmother). Anna is a compact, capable and sturdy 10.5 metre steel hulled, double masted craft, with the ideal bones for sailing in icy northern seas despite her 30 years. Over time Ivarsson adapted her to be a solo sailing craft able to tackle oceans everywhere.
Knowledgeable, serious sailors will attest that the fast-flowing straits running through Canada’s famed Northwest Passage rank high amongst the most challenging nautical routes in the world. It is surpassed only by a few, such as the famed Drake Passage in the Southern Hemisphere. So daunting can sailing these waters be, that in the over 100 plus years time span that has elapsed since Norway’s Roald Amundsen’s world-first, historic navigation through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago (1903-1906), the number of sailing yachts that have dared to match his feat still number less than 50 in total.
That said, modern seafaring knowledge, better navigational technology and equipment such as GPS and SAT links, faster, sturdier and more sophisticated sailing craft, aided to some measure by the major reductions of ice-pack due to accelerated climate change melt, now make it entirely possible for a select number of daring blue water enthusiasts to emulate Amundsen’s three-year feat in the short span of a single summer season. Provided of course those attempting to do so, press on through the Passage and don’t dally too much along the way.
On a personal level, Ivarsson has no interest in staking a place for his name in the record books, or aligning his achievement alongside hubris-coated “I did that” bragging rights some yachters lust after. His motivations to guide Anna through the difficult Passage are well defined and far more altruistic. Ivarsson prefers sailing in an unhurried manner, stopping often along the way to enjoy naturally pristine anchorages, or study those occasional landfalls he encounters in greater detail.
This cruise was not only an opportunity to add to his sailing adventures repertoire, or ship’s log, but also the chance to truly experience the Arctic seas and landscape — to savour all the Arctic had to offer: the wildlife, the people and of course, the personal satisfaction that would be derived from successfully navigating the ice bestrewn dark sea that would lay before his bow days on end. Ivarsson is above all else, a conscientious and pragmatic yachtsman.
Out at sea the most important thing to a sailor is his boat’s reliability. Instead of owning a fancy DVD player I would prefer buying a better compass.
After rescuing Anna from the hard in Labrador to launch her in the North Atlantic, Ivarsson would set sail for the cold (but somewhat familiar) waters off the southwestern coast of Greenland. As if by some sort of pre-ordained coincidence, he and Anna would not be navigating the seas off the Labrador coast alone as he had originally planned. Ivarsson fondly recounts how he acquired his amenable, but entirely unexpected, crewmember just in time to leave on the first leg of his passage North.
For the two weeks we sailed along the coast of Labrador, Anna and I had an Inuk companion onboard. His name was Amos. We met by chance in Hopedale, where I was waiting for engine parts for Anna. In the meantime I had been keeping myself busy stapling the sails. Amos, who accidentally showed up one day port side approached asking if I needed any help. It was the unexpected start to our good friendship and the surprising discovery too — that I found him to be really great crew, even though it was the very first sailing cruise in Amos’s life. He fared really well, and it was very hard to tear him away from the helm.
After dropping Amos off in northern Labrador (to see his sick father), Ivarsson embarked on his solo northward progression to Greenland to pick up his next crew – member (this one planned), fellow Swede, Nils Jönsson. Together, after several days dodging giant bergs ‘running the alley’ in Davis Strait off Greenland, they made Lancaster Sound, the best known, most used eastern entranceway to Canada’s Arctic archipelagic maze and the Northwest Passage.
One of the great advantages of not setting an ambitious sailing schedule, or bold objective in terms of nautical miles per day, is that a loose relaxed itinerary affords travellers the opportunity to really appreciate their surroundings, to stop and relax at enticingly idyllic Arctic anchorages, or put in to shore on a whim, at a small Inuit community to meet the locals and develop an understanding of their culture.
Ivarsson experienced all of that along the way, over the period of two months sailing, including friendly people, beautiful scenery, fair seas, nights sailing under the stars and spectacular aurora and more…but when asked what impressed him the most, after some hesitation (indicating deep thought) he begins by first naming those… and then there’s another longer pause…
No, no wait, I think our meeting with the polar bear! We stood at anchor just off Somerset Island, and Nils and I had just returned from a short little foray ashore. Suddenly, we saw him, a huge white shape, there on the shoreline. We were separated by no more than 30 metres! The bear stood exactly in the spot where we’d had our dinghy pulled up just minutes before. As befits the King of the Arctic, he was a beautiful and dignified animal. And from the perspective of our yacht he seemed so cute and innocent.
Ivarsson’s passage however, would not always be so entertaining or joyful. Prepared as he was for his Northwest Passage cruise, Captain and crew had to forego a visit to Resolute, (a goal of Ivarsson’s) due to heavy ice pack. Still, he was able to visit Gjoa Haven, Cambridge Bay, Tuktoyaktuk, and finally then make it all the way North to Inuvik.
It was then when I got stuck in the ice fields. Of course I was prepared that this route would have a lot of ice, it is normal here. Along the coast of Greenland, we were met by huge icebergs. The Canadian straits are illusively dangerous for a boat — with many growlers — large fast flowing hard-tospot chunks of fragmented icebergs or pack ice that often lurk just below the surface.
We also encountered expansive ice fields that we were unable to cross. Not a surprise for us. We did have Internet that gave very good maps prepared by the Canadian Ice Service so we knew when and where to expect difficult conditions. That’s the way it is in the Northwest Passage. There is really no option — sooner or later, every yacht will encounter this.
The worst situation for Ivarsson’s Anna occurred near Bellot Strait, where the ice pack was most dense, as well at their approach to Cambridge Bay, where he and Anna were nearly trapped in the thick of a massive ice field. To make matters worse, the timing of his arrival at Cambridge Bay was inopportune in that it was in the dark of night — and any visibility he might of had reduced even further by very thick fog.
I found myself trapped in an extremely stressful maze. Each tiny lead of open water appeared as a dead end with no way out. Finally, after a few hours, we managed somehow to find a lead that took us out of the ice-pack.
Dangers aside, Ivarsson also remembers the good times and the rewarding social contact he had throughout his trip.
I encountered friendly Canadians in the Arctic communities everywhere I made landfall. Most often they would be meeting me for the very first and likely last time in their lives. Still, they were always warm and welcoming, completely selfless, inviting me into their homes to take a shower, use their washing machines, or their Internet. For sailors arriving to unknown places after many days at sea, this was all very helpful. There were many good memories of meeting wonderful people all along the way, but of course there were those whom I remember especially.
There was a really wonderful young couple who invited me into their home for dinner in Cambridge Bay. ( I‘m so sorry that I lost the card with their names and address). Perhaps they will read this and contact me. He is a local Inuk, she a young woman from the south of Canada. Their happy relationship and gentle existence was very interesting to me. On one hand, they had a very modern lifestyle, a typical existence. On the other — their life was very much guided (with great pride) by strong Inuit traditions and practices. For my farewell they generously gave me a piece of musk ox meat… which frankly speaking I did not know how to cook…
Ivarsson laughs while noting that country food novice chef though he was, the final result was actually pretty good. He continues:
I was very fortunate to meet the nice people I met in Inuvik. After taking my yacht out of the water there, I could no longer live on Anna, so I moved to a residential barge that moored in the harbour. It was easy to adapt to living there and while there I gained many good friends.
And when it comes to the subject of wintering Anna in Inuvik, I want to give recognition to Willie Moore, the owner of a local shipyard. He was an extremely helpful man, even though he’d never met me before. He not only organized everything, but in the end he drove me all the way to Whitehorse in his car.
But of course, the sailing season in the Arctic is all too short, especially for 35-foot sailboats. In October, after five months away from home, Ivarsson’s 2010 Canadian Arctic sailing adventure came to its necessary end. Leaving Anna once more on the hard, this time in Inuvik, he returned to his native Sweden.
Now, during the winter and spring months of this year he will run the family business, cultivating flowers in a greenhouse while saving the funds necessary for the continuation of his next leg in a very personal Arctic adventure.
There is no hiding the fact that Ivarsson is anxious to return for more Arctic seas adventure. At the beginning of summer 2011, he plans to arrive again in Inuvik to launch Anna. And as soon as the ice situation permits, he, Anna and crew member (and author of this account) Monika Witkowska, will once again embark on a cruise through amazing Arctic seas.
Unlike Amundsen’s return journey of over a 100 years ago, however, they will head west from Inuvik, to explore small Inuit villages along the Alaskan coast and then venture across the confluence of several Arctic Seas on track for famed Wrangel Island, then on to the small Arctic port of Pevek, on Russia’s Arctic Coast and then back to Alaska.
above&beyond would like to thank Börje Ivarsson for the story and also his friend, fellow adventurer and occasional Anna crew, (Cambridge Bay to Tuktoyaktuk leg) Monika Witkowska of Poland, for interviewing Börje, writing this account and providing the English translation. To find out more about what adventures are planned in 2011, please visit www.monikawitkowska.pl/arcticocean/eng