Additional Equipment

The most important piece of ancillary Arctic sailing gear for a high latitude voyage is an ice pole or two.  These are immensely useful for pushing bits of ice out of the way as they drift toward your anchored boat, or for shoving them aside as you wend your way through pack ice.  As can be imagined, these are not commercially available, and every boat up there had something different: some a piece of aluminum tube, some simply a boat hook.  Thinking it through beforehand, I had a friend with a plasma cutter cut me some pike heads out of 3/8” bronze plate stock, and I laminated two twelve-foot poles (anything shorter would have been too short) out of ¾” doug fir with unidirectional carbon fiber strands sandwiched between.  With the pole ends reinforced by adding carbon fiber sock before bolting the heads on, we ended up with some strong, light, easily-handled ice poles that saw heavy use whenever ice was nearby.

When in ice, like the above pictures show, it’s often desirable to attach the boat to a floe. Ice screws such as used in mountaineering are very useful: the longer the better. With an ice axe to prepare the spot, and a few slings and carabiners to equalize the load between several screws, the boat can be securely attached.

Ice screw in an ice floe
Ice screw in a floe.

Paper charts, of course, go without saying—the usual downfall of chartplotters, mostly useless at the best of times, is exacerbated by the paucity of soundings and other information.  As soon as you zoom in enough on the screen to see soundings along a route, you can no longer see the route.  It’s got to be the dumbest and most inconvenient way to navigate ever devised.

Of great necessity also are Coast Pilots and Sailing Directions.  The Canadian ones are in series: ARC 402 and ARC 403 are needed.  401 and 404 only if you’re going into Hudson Bay or up the McKenzie River. It’s useful to have the ATL series as well: 101 and 102 if leaving Newfoundland to Port; 104 and 109 if to starboard; 120 either way.  They can be downloaded as PDFs, but it’s very useful to have a physical book to look at while puzzling over portions of the route.  For Alaska, US Coast Pilot 9 is necessary, and for Greenland, Coast Pilot 81 should be brought.  The RCCPF guidebook is helpful as well, and for the early (or late) portions of the trip, the CCA cruising guides to Newfoundland and Labrador will be useful.

Coast pilot
Coast pilots, plotting sheets and paper charts.

While navigation would be very difficult without a GPS, given the uselessness of the magnetic compass between Baffin Island and Tuktoyaktuk, it’s wise to have not only a sextant, but a properly mounted Pelorus that can also be rotated on it’s base.  With this last feature, True North can be determined once the azimuth of the sun is found during a celestial observation.

Sextant and pelorus
Sextant and Pelorus

A sounding lead will be very useful when feeling out a route through ice with the dinghy, if marks are put on an ice pole, that makes as excellent shallow water sounder as well.

Sounding lead
My trusty homemade sounding lead. Thousands of casts over thousands of miles, and it still works perfectly.

As far as electronics, their usefulness is questionable: the radar never detected an iceberg before we had seen it, and it’s useless at finding pack ice unless in conditions so benign you can see it by eye anyway.  A forward-looking sonar never detected any sort of ice, and was useful only to confirm the soundings straight below.  My opinion of the chartplotter is already known.  A little more useful was the AIS, though it was never needed for collision avoidance; it’s just fun to know who’s out there.

An Iridium satellite receiver with which we could receive and send text messages was very valuable, and with it we received daily ice updates from someone on land who downloaded the daily ice charts from the Canadian Ice Service, compressed the file into something send-able, and shot it along to us.  This was the most useful bit of electronics that we had onboard, since cell towers and internet signals are very few and far between once you leave Greenland behind.

A way to heat the boat is critical.  Even a well-insulated boat will have condensation with people breathing inside, and nothing militates more against comfort and well-being than being clammy.  On a difficult and rugged trip like the NWP, every scrap of warmth and comfort will be a huge morale booster.  Polar Sun was fitted with a small wood stove, which didn’t do much more than take the edge off.  In the northern wastes, though, where there are neither trees nor driftwood, a bigger stove would have used up more fuel than we could easily carry anyway.  When the engine was running, a buss heater connected to the cooling system pumped some serious life-giving warmth into the boat, and was a real lifesaver.

The most comfortable boats, of the few we met beyond the Arctic Circle, had a diesel heater that was kept always on at low heat.  On the ideal boat, a diesel cookstove of the sort designed to be left on for heat, and turned up when cooking, would be the best use of space and fuel.  Because of the cold in winter, propane is not the best fuel for the arctic.  In Greenland it’s hard to find and harder to adapt to American fittings; in arctic Canada it’s scarce—we didn’t find a single place to fill or tank exchange that had any in stock.  Diesel, however, is the most readily available and affordable fuel in northern waters, and the most efficient source of heat where wood cannot be found.

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