Maiden cruise gets hung up on Koksoak River

Ship stranded for two days after getting stuck on sand bar


The Koksoak River in Kuujjuaq gave passengers on the first cruise organized by Makivik-owned Cruise North Expeditions a more exciting journey than they bargained for.

Known as a tricky river to navigate, the Koksoak is riddled with sandbars, whose locations change from year to year.

On the morning of Sunday, July 17, the Ushuaia traveled downriver and anchored near Kuujjuaq’s wharf just as the tide was falling. Then it was decided to change the ship’s position a bit. Wind pushed the Ushuaia in an unexpected direction, and the ship stuck on a sandbar.

“It settled and sat there. The only problem is that it took two days to get off,” said Dugald Wells, who was on board the ship. “We had to wait until the tide got high to take us off.”

Earlier this year, Makivik officially launched its new subsidiary, Cruise North, teaming up with Wells, an engineer and cruise industry veteran who began his career on Arctic icebreakers.

To travel the 30-kilometre stretch of the Koksoak River, the Ushuaia’s captain has relied on the expertise of a father-son local navigation team.

Johnny Watt was named the 2001 recipient of the Transport Canada Marine Safety Award by the federal transportation department. Until 10 years ago, when guiding posts were set up, Watt’s services were essential for ships to travel the river safely, and under his guidance no ships ever ran aground.

His son, David Watt, was on board as a navigator the morning the Ushuaia hooked up on the sandbar.

Wells said passengers found the experience was “kind of exciting.” They disembarked by lifeboats instead of zodiacs, as planned, because the ship’s list of seven degrees meant the gangway to the zodiacs was left dangling about two metres above the water.

Passengers for the next week-long Expeditions North Cruise, set to head out later on July 17, boarded the ship, but they didn’t go far.

“We were all set to leave, but we had to cancel the cruise because we didn’t get the ship off [the sandbar] until Tuesday. That was very difficult. It hurt,” Wells said.

And Transport Canada requires a safety check be carried out on all vessels beached for that length of time.

Last week, most of the 45 passengers booked on the cancelled cruise left to head back south on Tuesday and Wednesday. One intrepid couple decided to fly north to Kangiqsujuaq, to see more of Nunavik. Some even stayed on the ship and planned to leave on the next cruise scheduled to start on July 24.

Last week, transportation officials checked the ship from the inside and divers also examined the hull from underwater to ensure no damage was done during the encounter with the sandbar.

Wells said the Ushuaia may anchor further out in the river next time. He said, apart from the mishap, “we had a fabulous first cruise.”

Despite heavier-than-normal ice and fog conditions in Ungava Bay, the first cruise was able to stop at Akpaktok Island, home to seabirds and polar bears. Several polar bears were spotted during the trip, much to the satisfaction of amateur photographers on board.

As well, the cruise called on Kangiqsualujjuaq and spent an entire day in Kimmirut, where passengers went kayaking and hiked to the Soper Lake. There, a zodiac made trips to the entrance of the Katannalik Park and the nearby reversing waterfalls.

The presence of many local Inuit guides, including Jessie Annanack, Bruce Qinuajuak, Jimmy Audlaluk and Emily Emudluk, on the cruise ensured a warm welcome when passengers and crew went on shore, Wells said.

“There’s something about being Inuit-owned: we show up in the communities and the people are extremely helpful,” Wells said.

Until the end of August, Cruise North is running back-to-back weekly cruises, including the “first ever Arctic marathon cruise” planned for late August in Kangiqsujuaq in collaboration with the Toronto Marathon. Kangiqsujuaq’s marathon will head out from the community along a road and overland to a nearby bay.

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