Arctic Calling

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From 05.06.2009 to 30.07.2009 - Status: success

Going for the North-West Passage

Going for the North-West Passage

© International Polar Foundation

French skipper Thierry Fabing is attempting to make another crossing of the fabled North-West Passage accompanied by a number of friends aboard his sloop Baloum Gwen (the White Whale in Breton).

Excerpts from the expedition press kit: "... We will be attempting to cross the icy North-West Passage from west to east aboard the sailing boat Baloum Gwen (Breton for ‘white whale'). To recap: last year, the Baloum Gwen succeeded in making the crossing from east to west. The risks involved with sailing a sloop of this kind in these cold waters depend on a series of factors that change on a day-to-day basis: drifting ice, open leads of water, fog, icy winds, cold temperatures, the way the boat itself reacts, getting trapped in sea-ice as it forms, equipment issues (breakages, malfunctions, etc.), logistics (sails, charts, etc.), physical reactions of the people involved (concentration, fatigue, state of mind, reaction to the midnight sun and so on), human decisions made by the crew."

The people accompanying Fabing are: Patrick Reader (41), founder of a polar website and a great lover of nature, Arielle Corre, a sailing enthusiast, Eric John (46), aeronautical engineer and keen sailor, Gilles Durand (61), former maths teacher and keen trekker, Hélène Virlogeux (63), a lover of life who, it seems, adores making new discoveries.

But this voyage is not simply a leisure trip. The International Polar Organisation Arctic 05 and Patrick Reader also want to use the adventure to draw maximum attention to an area of the world's seas that was declared open to navigation by the European Space Agency in August 2007. The route via the North-West Passage now allows fast links between Asia and Europe; but at the same time, of course –and this is the great danger– it also risks becoming seriously polluted one day. In any event, here are some of the risks that Patrick Reader believes face the North-West Passage:

  • Risk that the North-West Passage will become a favoured ‘rat run' by ships from the four corners of the globe.
  • Risk that the North-West Passage imposes no limits on the size of vessels, unlike the Suez and Panama Canals.
  • Risk of ending up with even bigger ships that would cause even greater pollution should there be an accident.
  • Danger of becoming trapped in the ice during the autumn as harsh, cold winter sets in: this would require nuclear or diesel-powered icebreakers to come in and open a channel for shipping.
  • Danger of colliding with drifting icebergs or ice floes: ships' hulls could be burst open to release fuel or other toxic products directly into the ocean, with serious risk of polluting marine life.
  • Risk of having to control, monitor and guide these leviathans of the seas, which would cause new colonies of human beings to spring up along the way, probably disfiguring this virtually uninhabited region and seriously harming an ecosystem that is already so fragile.
  • Associated risk of harming the isolated way of life of the Inuit people.
  • Risk of military, legal or state-related problems in defining the legitimacy of passing through the North-West Passage, as well as its security: does the waterway belong to Canada or international authorities?
  • Danger of ships straying into or deliberately sailing through protected zones or area where there are high concentrations of whales, seals, polar bears, etc.

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