What It’s Like to Travel By Sailboat Through the Arctic
In 2016, a family of seven—including a baby—sailed through the Northwest Passage on a 50-foot boat to document climate change.
Image: Dario and Sabine Schwörer
Dario Schwörer, a Swiss mountain guide and climatologist, his wife Sabine, and their five children have been sailing around the world for the past 15 years documenting human impacts on the environment and the effects of climate change. But no leg of their ongoing voyage has provided such stark examples of our ever-warming world than the latest, a journey that wouldn't have been possible just a decade ago: a trip through the Northwest Passage.
This storied route through the Arctic Ocean was, for centuries, thought impassable, because it was entirely locked up in ice. Ships that tried to make the crossing were lost at sea. But now, the ice is melting, opening the North up to exploration and exploitation.
The Schwörer couple, whose expedition is part of their charitable organization TOPtoTOP, broke some records along the way. Their 50-foot expedition vessel, the Pachamama (an Incan word meaning Mother Earth),became the first sailboat to cross a particularly narrow section of the Northwest Passage, through the Fury and Hecla Strait. According to the Schwörers, their seven-month-old daughter, Mia, most likely became the youngest "sailor" ever to make the trip. (Sabine gave birth to all five of her children on different oceans, with nothing but the support of her husband and a Swiss army knife.)
I met the Schwörer family during their stopover in Portland, Maine for a presentation on climate change at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
"We've had a long day, so forgive me if I sound tired," said Schwörer, addressing the crowd. The family had been busy sailing all day from Bar Harbor to make it on time for their evening lecture that had Maine scientists, environmental advocates and curious locals in eager anticipation.
"Some adventurers say the Northwest Passage is like 'the Everest' for sailors"
The next morning, the Schwörer family invited members of the press to tour the vessel that had just taken them through the Northwest Passage: a 50-foot, aluminium sailboat docked alongside Portland's working waterfront.
Their boat is designed to be fairly self-sustainable. It's equipped with solar panels, water filters, energy efficient batteries and wind turbines. An image of a Swiss army knife is emblazoned on its sails. Their trip has also depended on muscles and will-power: they've covered thousands of miles on their bicycles, hiked up the tallest mountain on each continent and braved storms on every ocean in the world in the name of environmental-sustainability education.
When I asked if feelings of nervousness and fear preceded their launching from the coastal city of Nome, Alaska towards the labyrinthian Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Dario Schwörer told me, "we've had worse."
"Some adventurers say the Northwest Passage is like 'the Everest' for sailors," said Schwörer. "I don't agree. It all depends on the situation. You can be caught in a big storm in the Mediterranean that's much worse than one in the Arctic."
According to Dario, sailing the Northwest Passage doesn't really require any extraordinary skills: any family can do it. That is, as long as they are patient, respectful of the environment and savvy enough to take advantage of natural systems like wind and ocean currents.
The family had to sail close to the coast because of dense concentrations of ice
"Nature always plays fair. Just to learn to read its signs," said Schwörer. "We thought it would be cold and nasty, and we were concerned for our kids, but it was actually the opposite. We had good weather, good wind, and even sunshine. If you go in the rhythm of nature and wait when it tells you [to wait], you are really safe."
For the Schwörer family, that meant taking the voyage slow, right from the start.
Although most people who attempt the voyage shoot for a departure date of mid-July, they waited two weeks for fairer weather and wind conditions before launching their vessel from Nome on August 5, 2016. From there, they sailed to Point Barrow (the Northernmost point in the US) and landed on Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea, a historic whaling community, where they met with southern scientists who were stationed in the area doing research, and the local Inuit.
After a brief respite, the Swiss family continued with a non-stop leg to Cambridge Bay and then onwards to Gjoa Haven, a spot where the famous pioneer of both the North and South Pole, Roald Amundsen, spent a winter. Along the way, the family had to sail close to the coast because of dense concentrations of ice. They also dealt with shallow waters and heavy fog.
"We feel the safest in the most remote places on the Earth," said Schwörer. "There we just have to handle nature."
At that point, they had a decision to make. Instead of sailing farther North to Baffin Bay and Greenland, the Schwörer family took a shortcut through the Fury and Hecla Strait to the Gulf of Boothia, after observing a "dramatic lack of ice" there. Until 2016, only three icebreakers had accomplished this particular passage. Dario outfitted his sailboat with his own icebreaker, crafted himself in an Inuit village back at Herschel Island with $40 worth of supplies. Dario said that he hardly felt the ice breaking beneath his boat, after he fortified the vessel's aluminum bow with nothing more than foam, rubber and alloys.
"It was a great shock absorber," said Schwörer.
By the time they reached the Hudson Strait and eventually the Atlantic Ocean, their voyage through the Northwest Passage was a success.
But it was a bittersweet one.
"The Northern Lights said goodbye to us on our way out," Schwörer recalled. "We wouldn't have been able to make certain parts of our journey if it wasn't for climate change."
Along the way, Dario and Sabine Schwörer were tasked with collecting ocean water samples and temperature data, which they'd later drop off at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. They also recorded huge tracts of mud and soil from where ice shelves had collapsed into the ocean, polar bears looking for ice shelves to hunt seals much farther North than they're typically found, and orcas immigrating from other seas using the newly opened Northwest Passage to hunt narwhals.
According to Schwörer, one place where the effects of climate change have become all too obvious, is in the changing lives and culture of the Inuit people. They, he said, are living on the front lines of global warming.
"They've learned to survive for centuries with such harsh conditions, but now they are faced with climate change," said Schwörer. "They are stuck. We [in the south] have so much to learn from the Inuit."
According to Schwörer's conversations in the Arctic, some parts of the permafrost shoreline that the Inuit depend on to hunt is receding by up to 30 meters a year.
"Their hunting grounds are shrinking and they're are struggling now to get the food they need to survive," said Schwörer. As for the tourists who traverse the Northwest Passage in cruise ships, "they don't spend any money on the Inuit," he continued. 'They just leave their garbage. Instead, we should learn how to build bridges between our culture and the Inuits."
The Schwörer family believes in the power of personal responsibility when it comes to fighting climate change.
"This is last call," said Schwörer. "We need to act now."
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