The Arctic sea ice melts due to climate change and many areas become more and more open. This attracts people who not only see the negative effects on the Arctic ecosystems but also opportunities for entrepreneurs and adventurers. One of the ideas that has been presented now is the “Sailing the Arctic Race”, a yacht racing that is being proposed for the summer / fall of 2017. The plan is to race from New York, USA, to Victoria on Vancouver Island, Canada through the fabled Northwest Passage. A more than 12’300 kilometer long race in extreme conditions.

Last summer 2014, the sailing yacht Aventura had waited for a month at the eastern end of the Northwest Passage to sail through, but had to give up eventually.
Last summer 2014, the sailing yacht Aventura had waited for a month at the eastern end of the Northwest Passage to sail through, but had to give up eventually.

We often hear about how damaging the ice loss will be to Arctic ecosystems and cultures — but many people see new opportunities in a less icy Arctic. It is not just shipping and industry; it is also competitors and adventurers. One case in point: Sailing the Arctic Race (STAR), an “extreme yacht race” that is being proposed for 2017, when crews would race 12’391 kilometers through the fabled Northwest Passage. “The more ice that’s being melted, the more free water is there for us to be sailing,” says Robert Molnar, a lifelong sailor, entrepreneur, and the founder and CEO of the race. “Normally we should not be able to do that, but we can.” The race lists, among its partners, Harken, a major U.S. based maker of sailboat gear. Nevertheless, it has also drawn skepticism in sailing circles – Mark Pillsbury, the editor of the sailing magazine Cruising World, recently called the idea “ambitious and improbable.” For now, then, “Sailing the Arctic Race” would seem to have a considerable burden of proof resting on its shoulders. Yet even if not this particular race in the particular year of 2017, the core premise — that the Arctic is changing rapidly, and that one principal effect of this change is to make it more easily navigable by boat — is tough to dispute.

According to the organizers, the yachts will start in New York with stops in Halifax, Nuuk, Cambridge Bay, Tuktoyaktuk, Dutch Harbor (Aleutian Islands) and end in Victoria, BC, Canada. Credit: Sailling the Arctic Race
According to the organizers, the yachts will start in New York with stops in Halifax, Nuuk, Cambridge Bay, Tuktoyaktuk, Dutch Harbor (Aleutian Islands) and end in Victoria, BC, Canada. Credit: Sailling the Arctic Race

The critical part of the proposed journey, the famous “Northwest Passage,” is the same route successfully sailed by the explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906, says Mark Serreze, head of the Boulder, Colo.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center. Before Amundsen, some explorers died along this route, which is characterized both by stunning beauty — Molnar speaks of how the sea and the sky become almost the same color in the Arctic — but also unpredictable ice conditions. So if yachts arrive here in 2017, will they really be able to get through? “Although end-of-summer ice conditions in the Amundsen route of the Northwest Passage (the route they would take) have become milder over the past decade, ice conditions have been, and will remain, highly variable,” says Serreze by e-mail to the Washington Post. “At the end of summer 2017 the route might be more-or-less completely ice free. It may be choked with ice. A great deal will depend on the summer weather patterns.”

Roald Amundsen was the first to find a way through the Northwest Passage 1903 - 1906. He used the small sailing vessel Gjøa that had a very shallow draft, was equipped with a small paraffin motor by Amundsen and was ice-strengthened.
Roald Amundsen was the first to find a way through the Northwest Passage 1903 - 1906. He used the small sailing vessel Gjøa that had a very shallow draft, was equipped with a small paraffin motor by Amundsen and was ice-strengthened.

Still, there is little doubt that getting through the Northwest Passage in summer is getting easier and easier. Data from Environment Canada suggest that since 2000, the minimum level of ice cover in the passage (usually seen in August, September, or October) has been below 5 percent most years. “From the 1980s on, voyages through the Passage have become an annual event,” adds the Department of Environment and Natural Resources of Canada’s Northwest Territories. “The number of transits increased from 4 per year in the 1980s to 20-30 per year in 2009-2013.” Thirty-two percent of the ships making transits, continues the agency, were “small vessels – adventurers,” a class that is probably the closest to what ocean yacht racers would be. According to a statement from the Canadian Coast Guard, “yachts and pleasure craft” transiting the waters in the Canadian Arctic do not have to tell authorities they are there, but are “strongly” encouraged to do so nonetheless. “Vessels transiting through the Northwest Passage should be prepared for rapid changes in weather and ice conditions,” the statement noted. “Mariners may encounter extreme variability from year to year, and are responsible for navigational decisions and safety of their ships.” So can this race really happen?

Katy Campbell, a spokesperson for STAR, says that if conditions are not favorable, the race can shift its schedule — or the course of the race – for safety reasons. “Each year since 2007, several dozen private yachts sail the same route through the Arctic that we are taking,” she said by email.

The most famous attempt to sail through the Northwest Passage was conducted by Sir John Franklin in 1845 with two navy ships, Erebus and Terror. The expedition failed and all men perished in the course of the expedition.
The most famous attempt to sail through the Northwest Passage was conducted by Sir John Franklin in 1845 with two navy ships, Erebus and Terror. The expedition failed and all men perished in the course of the expedition.

The bottom line, then, seems to be that even if not this particular race in this particular year, people will surely be navigating more boats through the Arctic, for both business and for pleasure. Thus, the idea of adding a little competition to that is probably to be expected. Adventuring and exploring are, after all, one of the things that allure us — it may even be genetic. If the world opens up a new challenge, some people will always stand up and say, “I accept.” Robert Molnar says: “Going to the Arctic is the first time ever, and that’s the great fascination to the sponsors and the people involved. There’s only once in your lifetime you can say, ‘I was there, I was part of the first.’”

Source: Chris Mooney, The Washington Post