Monday, January 31, 2011

Set sail for adventure - Pilot joins boat’s crew to experience the chills of the Northwest Passage

Set sail for adventure
Russell D. Roberts on watch in Peel Sound. With only three crew members aboard the Fiona, sleep was in short supply. Overnight, each man pulled two hours of watch duty.

As a boy, Russell D. Roberts’ heroes were Arctic explorers.
Growing up in FairbanksAlaska, he was familiar with the way snow squeaks underfoot and how the wind can take your breath away when it’s 40 below zero. So when he was reading about men like Sir John FranklinHenry Hudson andRoald Amundsen, he had something of an understanding of what they had endured while looking for the Northwest Passage.
Finding the long-sought trade route to Asia through a maze of ice-gripped islands in the lower reaches of the Arctic Ocean had captivated explorers for centuries. Some, like Franklin and his crew, suffered and perished in the attempt.
Set sail for adventure
An iceberg off Disko Island, Greenland, illustrates the dangers faced by Russell Roberts and his colleagues. Roberts called the west coast of Greenland "the world's greatest nursery for icebergs."
Reading the biographies of such men familiarized the youngster with the lore and dangers of the Northwest Passage. It also sparked in him an interest in sailing the waters of the world.
Roberts was 12 years old when he first took the helm of a sailboat and heard the wind and canvas sails sing their enchanting duet. As an adult, he had the exhilarating experience of being a crewmember on the square-rigged tall ship HMS Surprise.
Then, two years ago, while surfing the Internet in his Charlottesville home, Roberts saw an opportunity as large as an iceberg appear on the screen.
“I had started getting the idea that sailing the Northwest Passage was something I could do one day,” saidRoberts, who is a pilot with Delta Airlines. “While shopping for sailboats on the Internet, I ran across Eric Forsyth’s blog.
“He was planning a trip to circumnavigate North America, which included an attempt on the Northwest Passage. I e-mailed him and said if he needed a crewmember, I could give him a couple of months.
“He accepted my offer, and I joined him on his 42-foot sailboat Fiona on July 15, 2009. I was on board until August 28, 2009.”
At 7 p.m. Tuesday at Unity Church in CharlottesvilleRoberts will present a free talk about his sailing adventure. Among the subjects he will address is why he would take on such a dangerous challenge in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth.
“I’ve asked myself why I wanted to go up there,” said the 56-year-old pilot. “All I’ve come up with is a quote from the Greek poet Lucian of Samothrace.
“He said, ‘It was merely a curiosity of mind, and a desire to find out the bounds of the ocean.’ That about sums it up for me, as well.
“We based the trip on the fact that, with climate change, the ice has started to melt a lot more than what it had in decades past. It has only been in recent years that a fairly ordinary pleasure boat like Fiona stood a chance of making its way through that part of the world.”
The skipper of Fiona is a former Royal Air Force pilot and retired engineer who had spent his career building supercolliders and superconductors at Brookhaven Institute on Long Island, N.Y. Forsyth had purchased the hull of Fiona in 1974 and spent the next eight years turning it into a first-rate sailboat.
Forsyth was 77 years old when Roberts joined him and first mate Joe Waits in NuukGreenland. Although the waterways through the Northwest Passage have become more navigable during summer months, it’s still an arduous trip rife with danger.
It was too much for one crewmember, who had signed on for the entire circumnavigation of North America. But by the time the sailboat reached the western coast of Greenland, the fog, cold and potential danger sent the landlubber heading home.
The departure made Roberts’ timely arrival all the more important. His sailing and navigational skills, as well as his upbeat spirit, quickly became appreciated.
“Russ proved to be a great companion for the voyage through the Northwest Passage,” Forsyth said via e-mail. “Like all experienced pilots, nothing bothered him.
“Russ’ familiarity with modern navigation systems took a burden off me when it came to the tricky navigation through the ice and rock-bound straits that form the passage. I was very pleased to have him along.”
Having just a three-person crew ensured that no one ever would get a full night’s sleep. And with only a little heater onboard, which Roberts said put out about as much warmth as a candle, it always was pretty nippy.
“The average temperature during the time I was onboard was around 40 degrees,” Roberts said. “At night, from 10 p.m. on, we would each pull two hours of watch.
“The fog was with us about 90 percent of the time, so our visibility was often restricted to 100 yards or less. The west coast of Greenland, where we were sailing, is the world’s greatest nursery for icebergs.
“We saw icebergs up to 300 feet above sea level. We had radar, but icebergs can be stealthy and radar doesn’t always pick them up. So there was always the worry that a big iceberg that hadn’t shown up on radar was going to loom up and we’d hit it.”
When an iceberg was spotted, the crew had about 45 seconds to steer away from it. The crew didn’t hit any, but they got stuck twice in moving ice packs.
“Because there are thousands of islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the ice that breaks off the polar icecap starts moving down into those water passages and clogs them up,” Roberts said. “That’s the great barrier to passage up there.
“Even in the summer, when you get breakup of ice, that moving ice can create ice dams in any number of those straits. Although there’s a melting of ice, there’s still a lot of it, and it moves in very strange ways that’s hard to predict.
“We were stuck in ice in Resolute Bay and again in Franklin Straits, when we were 125 miles from the nearest human habitation. We drifted along in the ice pack for three days before we finally got free.”
While stuck in the ice in Franklin StraitsRoberts passed the time reading and writing in his journal. He was doing one of these activities when he heard a nearly inaudible pinging sound.
“It turned out that it was the sound of beluga whales making their living far below us,” Roberts said. “They were sending their sonar and you could hear it go, ping, ping, tick, tick, tick.
“It was awesome. Here we were prepared to be crushed by ice and sunk, and all of a sudden we hear this life from down below. It was so beautiful. I wrote that it was like listening to a harp playing.”
For nearly two months, Roberts helped sail the trusty Fiona through the treacherous waters. What little hot water there was was used for brewing tea, and the food consisted largely of Spam and macaroni and cheese.
No complaints there, considering the skipper picked up all expenses, including food and fuel.
Roberts ran out of vacation time and had to leave the sailboat at Cambridge Bay, on the southeast coast of Victoria Island.
From the bay, it’s pretty much open sailing to the Bering Straits and NomeAlaskaNome is considered the western terminus of the Northwest Passage.
Forsyth and Waits continued — and successfully completed the circumnavigation of North America in 2010.Roberts still is shopping for a sailboat, and said a return to the fabled Northwest Passage isn’t out of the question.
“Being cold and tired for two months wasn’t fun, but it was a challenge,” Roberts said. “When I first got back, it was like, ‘OK, done that. Don’t need to do that anymore.’
“But then I started thinking about what I would do differently commanding my own boat. Eric was very mission-oriented and was intent on getting from point A to point B.
“That was fine, and he was very efficient, but I would like to spend more time with the Inuit people who live up there. So, given the right circumstances, I would do it again.”
Russell D. Roberts will talk about his travels through the Northwest Passage at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Unity Church at 2825 Hydraulic Road.
The event is free, but a small donation for the church’s lights will be appreciated.

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