A Minnesota couple completed a 6,600-mile voyage by sailboat through the Northwest Passage.
They had been on the water for more than a month, "staring holes through the fog" and expecting the ice to finally come.
Retired Minnesota hog farmer Roger Swanson and his wife, Gaynelle Templin, were nearing the spot on the Franklin Strait where their attempt to travel the Northwest Passage ended in 2005.
But this time a ham radio operator called Swanson's 57-foot sailboat, Cloud Nine, with good news. The gap in the ice was still open.
"At that point I knew we had a chance," said Swanson, who is returning to Minnesota this week.
Assisted by climate changes that have made the Northwest Passage ice-free into September, Swanson and his six-person crew completed the 6,600-mile journey through the Passage in 73 days, setting several firsts along the way.
Cloud Nine was the first American sailboat in history to transit the Passage from East to West, according to David Thoreson, an Iowa photographer who was on the boat's crew. It's the route taken by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who needed three years to complete his voyage, in the early 1900s.
Also, Cloud Nine is thought to be the first American sailboat to sail the passage in a single year; others have gotten stranded in ice and completed the journey the following summer.
And the 76-year-old Swanson is believed to be the oldest skipper to make the passage.
"It's quite remarkable," said Walter Meier , a scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. "I'd heard about this guy."
Third time's a charm
Like many sailors before him, Swanson twice failed to make the passage. The first time was in 1994, when the voyage was blocked by ice at the outpost of Resolute, Canada.
He failed again in 2005 when ice surrounded Cloud Nine while it was harbored off a remote island. A Coast Guard ice cutter was needed to rescue Swanson and three other boats that were frozen in.
In a phone call from Kodiak, Alaska, this week, Swanson said he was tired but thrilled about the accomplishment. He credited his crew, as well as volunteers along the way who assisted him by radio with information about ice conditions.
"We worked hard to get here," said Swanson, who lives in the southern Minnesota town of Dunnell when he isn't sailing. "But I don't know if it was persistence or we were just lucky."
Evidence of climate change
The good news for Cloud Nine may be "bad news for the planet," as Thoreson put it.
The almost complete absence of ice may be unprecedented, according to Meier.
"This is the lowest the ice has been since anyone's been watching officially (1972)," he said. "Annually there has been a downward trend, an accelerating trend, but this year was exceptional."
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