Northwest Passage more congested than ever

Cambay radio man coordinates six boats in one summer



At 3 a.m. on a chilly August day, hundreds of Arctic Bay residents rushed to the beach or launched their boats to watch two Norwegians navigate a final loop around the bay in their 13-metre yacht before leaving the spot where they had overwintered while trapped in ice, and heading westwards, towards their third attempt at the Northwest Passage in the Jotun Arctic.

But even at that point, Knut Espen Solberg, Camilla Gronneberg and their crew of four were not alone on the seas.

Next door to them was a more recent arrival. The Pelagic Australis, skippered by renowned American sailor Skip Novak, was chartered by a wealthy Italian woman, Mariacristina Rapisardi, who paid $3,000 U.S. a day to attempt the passage with her husband and two young guides.

The Jotun would soon encounter and travel with another yacht, Cloud Nine, skippered by Roger Swanson, a retired pig farmer from Minnesota. That boat contained a crew of mainly retirees from the U.S. until one crew member jumped ship at Resolute Bay. Luckily, Cloud Nine managed to add another American who happened to be passing through Resolute Bay on his way home from a volunteer stint with the Mars Society on Devon Island.

The Minke I, belonging to a Halifax man, was also in the area.

On the other side of the ice-clogged Bellot strait were two more boats.

The 17-metre long Idlewild was helmed by 66-year-old Ben Gray of Grande Prairie, Alta., and his son and crew. After selling the family ranch, Gray traveled through rivers all the way from the Peace River to the Arctic, using special wheels attached to the boat during several portages, on an 18-month trip around the world.

Traveling with them after some friendly get-togethers in Cambridge Bay were Phil Hogg and Liz Thompson. This middle-aged Australian couple stumbled upon their Northwest Passage adventure by accident during a sailing voyage around the globe last year in the Fine Tolerance, which Hogg built himself. This was their second attempt at the passage after spending the winter in Cambridge Bay.

In the end, the exciting adventure turned into a rescue mission for four of the six boats, and only two boats made it through the passage — one unmanned. Yet everyone got home safely.

“The quiet hero in all of this is XNR 79,” said Chris Debicki, a crew member on board the Jotun.

XNR 79 is Peter Semotiuk, a marine radio enthusiast who provided daily weather updates and news from other sailors to each of the boats during his spare time from his makeshift radio headquarters in Cambridge Bay.

Among the small group of sailors and adventurers who have attempted the Northwest Passage, Semotiuk must be a minor celebrity, but to outsiders who haven’t relied on his daily weather reports, he is a silent partner.

“It sometimes wipes out my coffee break. It usually wipes out half of my lunch hour,” Semotiuk says. “But I think all of us need to do some things like this or volunteer.”

It all got started in the mid-1980s in the hallway of the Cambridge Bay DEW Line station. John Bockstoce, an archeologist and sailor, was a guest at the site’s residence.

“He was walking down the hallway with a partial carved tombstone and was looking for some packaging materials to send it to the museum in Yellowknife,” Semotiuk says.

Semotiuk helped Bockstoce wrap the artifact and the two quickly became friends. A year or two later, Bockstoce returned to Cambridge Bay, this time to begin a trip across the Northwest Passage in a walrus-hide boat, like the kind used in Alaska to hunt whales.

Semotiuk, whose day job is as an electronic technician, helped Bockstoce set up his electronics on the boat, and provided his first daily weather reports for the voyage, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

In 1988, Bockstoce invited Semotiuk to join him on the 20-metre Belvedeere, which he was attempting, for the fifth time, to take eastwards to Greenland. Semotiuk did join the boat, and was successful in making it to Greenland, where the boat overwintered before heading south to New York the next year.

The Canadian government sends out two weather broadcasts daily from Inuvik and Iqaluit, but for the past 12 years, Semotiuk has improved on that service by downloading daily weather reports and 30-day ice forecasts for a scheduled evening broadcast over marine HF radio to tell other boats in the passage exactly what kind of weather and ice conditions to expect.

Semotiuk also tracks each boat’s position, and relays reported ice conditions or information on currents to other boats in the area, which he himself has travelled.

His services can be expanded. This year he sent regular updates south after receiving an email from a woman in Edmonton concerned about her 24-year old daughter on board the Jotun Arctic.

“That has happened a fair bit,” Semotiuk says. “I don’t know how they find me.”

Luckily, Semotiuk had only good news to report.

The Jotun Arctic, closely followed by Cloud Nine had traveled west from Arctic Bay, down the east coast of Somerset Island, and was waiting for its chance to burst through Bellot Strait and head on towards Gjoa Haven. But the ice kept coming, and the boat ducked into a small cove to escape the ice pack.

They remained trapped for over a week before the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfred Laurier, which happened to be in the area, came to the rescue.

On the western side of the straight, both boats ran into trouble.

On Sept. 1, Hogg and Thompson abandoned ship when their boat was listing heavily to one side while crushed by ice on both sides. It was around 2 p.m. when they walked across the pack ice to the Idlewild, assisted by Idlewild crew three times to cross open leads in a dinghy.

The next day, ice took hold of the Idlewild and did not let go. The Alberta boat was forced up on top of an ice floe — which hoisted the boat out of the air, creating a strange spectacle once the floe moved away from the pack ice.
The Coast Guard guided all four boats to safety, leaving Semotiuk to prepare for more adventurers next year.

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