Sailing into a new era

  • Article by: Jon Tevlin
  • Star Tribune
  • October 8, 2007 - 7:56 AM

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."

Swanson said he "isn't qualified" to judge whether the conditions are part of a trend caused by global warming. "But in my opinion, the last two years have been the most open we've ever seen it," he said. "Something has changed."

About 30 boats have made the entire trek through this part of the Arctic Circle, but Meier said most of them had ice-cutting abilities. He said he wouldn't be surprised if climate changes make the passage more navigable in the future.

The crew left July 19 from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and sailed around-the-clock, rotating with four hours on duty and eight hours off, unless there was severe weather. They took turns cooking, and Templin, a sailor who has a boat on Lake Superior, handled weather and communications.

They headed to Newfoundland, then north to the west coast of Greenland. By Aug. 1, they'd reached Erebus Bay, Canada, then on to Cambridge Bay in the Northwest Territories by Aug. 21.

Supplies, from frozen meat to canned goods and beans, were stockpiled in case Cloud Nine again was stranded. Of the 73 days at sea, only about eight were spent harbored because of weather, he said.

"People wonder what we did with our time," Swanson said. "But between sleeping, being on duty and doing maintenance, you really don't have much free time. And because everyone is doing something else, you don't see much of the crew, except at lunch and dinner."

Unprecedented ice conditions

"We expected to see less ice, but we didn't expect almost no ice," said Thoreson, who kept a blog of the journey, adding entries whenever he reached a place he could write.

"I feel strongly that we have witnessed the end of an era and the beginning of a new one," he wrote at one point. "The golden age of exploration, Amundsen's era, has come to a close, and a new era of exploration involving study and change in the Earth's climate is just beginning.

"We on Cloud Nine have experienced both eras. Frozen in and stuck in the ice twice over 13 years, and now sailing through unscathed and witnessing an ice-free Northwest Passage. We have bridged the two eras."

The lack of ice made the trip easier, but it was by no means easy, Swanson and Templin said. They sailed under the constant fear that ice from the north would descend and trap them. Occasional reminders of the danger included the icy graves where other sailers had died.

As if they needed any more reminders, the final stretch of sailing through the Bering Straight to Kodiak was fraught with storms that brought 20- to 30-foot swells and winds of 80 miles per hour.

Swanson, who will return home to Dunnell this week, has sailed around the world three times and was prepared for bad weather. But he thinks he's finally done with the Arctic.

"No. I don't see any reason to ever do it again," he said.

Jon Tevlin • jtevlin@startribune.comJon Tevlin

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