The fishy smell of whale breath filled the air as we left Shelikof Strait and headed toward the Ouzinkie Narrows on our way to Kodiak, Alaska. We were on the last day of a three-month sojourn through the Aleutian Islands, having left Japan in June. The pod of orcas around us was a grand finale to an outstanding season’s cruising as we prepared to winter over and contemplate our next move.
Betty Mc, our 55-year-old wooden boat—a former commercial fishboat—had done a fantastic job so far. She’d been our base for exploring New Zealand, the central and western Pacific, and the Aleutians during the four years since we’d left Australia. We’d never thought about a different boat until we started to see vessels arrive at Kodiak after completing the Northwest Passage. Meeting the crews gave us the opportunity to learn firsthand the reality of traversing one of the most famous (or infamous) passages on the planet.
There were many different motivations for making the journey. Some were driven by “firsts.” Some just wanted to see such a fabled area, while others saw the Northwest Passage as a personal challenge of their accumulated skills. Some explored as much as they could, while others didn’t even carry a dinghy to get ashore.
But a common thread was something that had bothered us for a while: the need to keep moving, to pass through in one season. Our Betty Mc, being an old wooden boat with a wet fish hold, wasn’t right for wintering over in that kind of environment, and we wanted to spend a few seasons exploring. We realized we’d need something different to make the journey the way that we wanted to make it. We needed a boat that could handle the northern waters and ice; be left in villages so we could fly home during winters; be big enough for us to live aboard during spring seasons; and be easily launched when the water was ice-free.
We thought long and hard about different boats that might do the job, everything from aluminum sportfishermen to Ranger Tugs and C-Dory Boats to trailer-sailers, until one day, while wandering around a boatyard, we came across a heavily built aluminum launch by Argo Marine. She’d been bought at auction years earlier, one of six built for the Canadian Coast Guard’s hydrographic work in the Arctic in the ’80s and ’90s. Their names were Wind, Wave, Storm, Surge, Tempest and Tornado.
It turned out that Wind and Wave had continued life with the Coast Guard but were now awaiting auction as government surplus vessels. They were perfect for what we had in mind: big enough to live aboard, built for the ice, well insulated and positively buoyant. They were too big for trailering but were certainly movable by truck.
So began several months of waiting for the online auctions. Our bid on Wind was too low (we missed out by just a few hundred dollars) but we became the proud owners of Wave and set about outfitting her.
After her work as a hydrographic vessel, Wave had served as a lifeboat for 20 people. The cabin is about 8 by 13 feet. On Betty Mc, we live in much the same space, so that was fine. We added a diesel stove, galley bench and dinette. A fill cushion gave us a double berth. We raised the seating to provide more stowage and a better line of sight out the windows, making the cabin an amazing “wildlife hide” for watching bears, birds and even a wolverine.
She’d been built to military spec and was well maintained, but she was different from what we knew. The staff at the Canadian Coast Guard explained everything from mechanical and electrical details to operational capabilities. We fitted electronics that could be removed when we left the boat for longer periods, bought an extensive list of spares and added a few things. Those included a manual anchor drum of chain and rode, a frame to carry our trusty rotomolded rescue dingy, and two 130-gallon fuel tanks to complement the twin 66--gallon built-in tanks. The package gave us a solid 1,000-plus-nautical-mile range with plenty left for heating.
We wanted the stowage, supplies and ability to self--rescue in almost any circumstance. Eventually Wave was ready, and we began our journey at Hay River on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. This gave us the chance for a shakedown cruise in sheltered waters while exploring the Mackenzie River to the Beaufort Sea.
It was surreal at times, chugging through rapids like a giant canoe and anchoring in 5-knot currents, but we had an absolute ball, and Wave performed beautifully. It was mid-July when we reached Tuktoyaktuk, a settlement north of the Arctic Circle. With plenty of season left for exploring, we headed west to Herschel Island and the Alaskan border. Then, as the ice returned, we left Wave for the winter in a storage yard at Inuvik, in the Mackenzie Delta.
During the next three seasons, we zigzagged our way to Greenland, stopping at more than 100 anchorages with countless miles of dinghy exploring and hiking. We anchored in small bays, behind sand spits, under impressive cliffs, amid breathtaking ice formations. The diversity and richness of the wildlife, culture and landscapes was truly awe-inspiring. History was raw in the landscapes, with remains of Dorset, Thule and Inuit campsites, abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company outposts and wintering sites of whalers.
We saw beluga and narwhal whales congregate, walrus haul-out beaches, and many caribou, polar bears and brown bears. While hiking, we encountered arctic hares, foxes and wolves; ermines and voles; and rich bird life, including countless types that were new to us. We had enough time on our hands to make friends, and the locals were incredibly generous with local knowledge and personal stories.
Cruising the Northwest Passage is not for everyone. It is remote. You need to be self-sufficient and well aware of ice conditions. But it is an extraordinary voyage—relatively sheltered waterways, wonderfully secure anchorages and incredible wildlife, culture, landscapes and history. We consider ourselves fortunate to have experienced all of this at our own pace. After spending three more seasons in Greenland, we just recently sold Wave. Later this year, she’ll return to work as a hydrographic research vessel, mapping the fjords of Greenland and probably beyond.
It’s been seven years since we first headed north for what was supposed to be just a couple of seasons. Now we begin planning our next adventure.