North West Passage – Day 36 – 37 – Herschel Island to Kaktovik

8th September 2023 – Day 36


Yesterday we arrived in Pauline Cove, Herschel Island late afternoon.(Population of Herschel in the summer is just 4 rangers, in the winter the island is deserted).

Map thanks to RCC Arctic and Northern Waters Pilot. I haven’t asked permission so I really hope they don’t mind. Great book! etc

We pumped up the dinghy and went ashore. We wandered around the preserved historic buildings from the old whaling port and met Alan, one of the Rangers who care for the land and buildings.

An old whaling building
The Heads!

He showed us around and introduced us to Richard, the Head Ranger, who had worked here for 30 years. He was working with Sam at the 310 m long “airport”.

The 310 m airport!

Richard was super friendly and was very interested when Will told him about the parts of the shipwrecked boat they had stored in a shed.

He invited us to their house and we chatted until late. He told us of the struggle they had to gain a licence to hunt a single bowhead whale. That involved travelling to Japan, Greenland and Glasgow to obtain the permit. They eat the skin and blubber which is called Muktuk. One of the Rangers was cooking a venison steak on the outside grill. The small steak cost $60! Beluga and Bowheads are often seen in the bay.

He told us that this year the temperature reached 30°C in the sun and it caused the topsoil on the hills to slip away and slump into the sea.

The topsoil is sliding off the permafrost into the sea

The warming climate is having a massive effect on coastal erosion. A German research group called Wagner (I think, not to be confused with the other Wagner group) have been monitoring the situation over many years. (OK, I got that wrong. The actual name is the Alfred Wegener Institute). We heard from one Ranger that SeaBelle, the NZ boat we saw in Tuk, had broken a crankshaft due to water in the exhaust and was towed into Tuk. That will be a mega expensive stop-over. They also told us that the Crew from Magnus had deserted ship leaving the Skipper alone. Magnus was anchored in front of us but we saw no sign of life onboard.

The Polish yacht anchored in the bay with Integrity behind

Of course all the above may just be hearsay.

A Musk Ox Skull

We left the cove at about 12:30. Take all my times with a pinch of salt as everyone’s phones and watches tell a different story. I just trust Dan to shake me awake 15 minutes before my watch. The temperature today is only just above freezing and it certainly feels a bit nippy in the wind. After about an hour at sea Will realizes that he has left his gloves in the Rangers’ house. We head back and contact Richard on Channel 69. He very kindly offers to meet us half way in their fast work boat.

We exchange sketches of boat parts, freshly baked brioche and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk for the gloves and wave goodbye. The gloves, like mine, were double thumbed mittens knitted for him, so they were precious possessions. (Link to my thoughts on gloves)

I have never seen a live musk ox so I was out the hatch in a shot when Arthur spotted some grazing on the island. My first musk ox!

As we approached Workboat Passage (see chart above), the depth sounder showed 2.8 m. The draft of Integrity is 2.28 m so that is tight. Once inside the passage the recorded depth dropped to 2.1 m so we were theoretically scraping the bottom. Arthur sounded with a lead line which confirmed around 2.2 m. Very gradually the depth increased. Going aground would have been quite troublesome as we were unaware where deeper water could be found without reversing our passage. Kedging off would have taken a while by the time the dinghy was inflated etc. There is only 200 mm of tide up here so of little help. Luckily we haven’t gone aground, at least not yet, as I am writing this while we are still in the Workboat Passage!

Famous last words, suddenly we were hard aground. Will banged Integrity into full reverse and Dan and I rocketed on deck to try to get the boat swaying to release the keel. Soon we were off, but where to go? We tried two more times further east. Each time running aground in 1.9 m. The last time we touched it was quite hard to get the boat off. Our final try was to totally ignore Navionics and head the boat “overland” very close alongside the spit. At last we found deeper water only to see a line of heavy breakers out to sea. Going around on the bar would be catastrophic.

You can see breakers on the horizon, the depth sounders were showing just a few metres. This was a pretty hairy moment but we made it!

There was an opening in the white water so we headed towards it. The depth started reducing again but now we were in 2 m swells. If we were to touch the bottom it would be with an almighty thump, only to be repeated time and time again until we either freed the boat or were overwhelmed. After a tense half hour we eventually passed over the bar and into the open sea. On reflection there were some tell-tale signs that this could be a tricky route. The name Workboat Passage hardly implies deep water. The Rangers said all the yachts go to the north of the island but they did say that we could probably get through the south passage if we stuck close to the island shore. However, later on, Will showed them a picture of Integrity out of the water. They looked on with wide eyes, aghast at the sheer depth of the boat that was under the waterline. Maybe they would have warned us against the passage had they known?

9th September 2023 – Day 37


It is 02:00 and Will and Arthur have just changed down the jib and put two reefs in the main. Quite an operation on a pitching deck. There is still a surprising swell running. The reefs are in ready for stronger weather ahead. We have decided to skip Demarcation Bay and continue to Kaktovik but it is a race against the weather, hence the precautionary reefs. At 08:50 we are zooming along at about 6 knots. That means we should out-run the strong weather and get to anchor a couple of hours before it hits Kaktovik. Kaktovik is a major fishing and whaling centre with a population of 250. It is advised to listen to Channel 68 when passing the hunting grounds as the hunters use it to communicate. Best not to get harpooned. It is well known for polar bears who come to feed off the remains of whale carcasses after a traditional hunt.

We eventually reached Kaktovik and doused the sails ready to anchor. There was a 70 m barge at anchor but we could see breakers surrounding it. There didn’t seem to be a way through. We spotted two polar bears swimming near the boat.

We decided to try and find an anchorage a couple of miles further west but that too looked like it was surrounded by breaking water. The American Charts, for we are now in Alaska, are marked in feet, it would be an easy mistake to read them in metres and make a massive cock up! There was a comment on the chart near the town anchorage saying “depths of 3ft recorded 2008”. That was a while back and the bathymetry could have changed further by now. We hoisted the stay sail and decided to push on. It means we will  need to find somewhere else for diesel and we must ration water to under 3 L per person per day. If the strong wind dies down we may be able to anchor near a stream to top up with water.

2 responses to “North West Passage – Day 36 – 37 – Herschel Island to Kaktovik”

  1. Hi Alasdair, it’s Mark from MoFit,Greenwich Park. It’s great to hear you are doing well on your voyage.

    Do you have any photos you are able to share like you do when you go on your solo trips with Sumara of Weymouth?

    1. Hi Mark, Good to hear from you! It has been hard to get any internet connection up here. Sometimes we are anchored hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement so posting pictures has been a struggle. I will need to add them afterwards which is a bit dull but the best that I can do. Looking forward to seeing you in the park soon!

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