Frontlines

Sailing on top of the world

November 13 1978
Frontlines

Sailing on top of the world

November 13 1978

Sailing on top of the world

Frontlines

Rêal Bouvier, skipper of the first Canadian sailboat—and the smallest vessel— £ ever to navigate the Northwest Passage, i recalls the last day of his 9,300-mile trip: “For the first time in many weeks, I purposely neglected to wind the ship's clock. I decided to let it run down by itself. ” That was Sunday, Oct. 15, as the 32-year-old Bouvier, looking monkish with his bearded face cut by deep lines, was approaching Vancouver in the 35foot J.E. Bernier II. He and the eight crew members he carried at one time or another had accumulated 300 varieties of Arctic plants, 10,000 still photos, 60,000 feet of film and many fierce and beautiful memories of the North. Maclean’s asked Bouvier to recall his experiences, and he begins with his arrival in Vancouver.

As I looked out over the odd sight of pleasure boats and high-rises instead of the tugs, barges and Quonset huts we had been used to, I could only reflect back to the night three years ago, anchored in a sheltered cove on St. Vincent Island in the West Indies, when I decided that I was too young to retire to the Caribbean and not enthusiastic about ending my vacation to go back to pounding a typewriter at Montreal’s La Presse.

Years before I had excitedly read about the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s discovery of the Northwest Passage between 1903 and 1906. My interest was revived in 1969 by the U.S. supertanker Manhattan, which plied the passage, aided by the Canadian icebreaker John A. Macdonald. In 1975 I made up my mind to interrupt my career in newspapers for the longest assignment of my life.

After nine months of planning, public relations and shipbuilding, I decided on June 23, 1976, that the J.E. Bernier II was about ready to go. [The $70,000, steel-hulled boat, subsidized by a grant from the Canada Steamship Lines, was named after Joseph Elzéar Bernier, the French-Canadian Arctic explorer who claimed Canadian sovereignty for the Arctic Archipelago at the turn

of the century.]

On June 30 we started from Lachine, Quebec. Three days later first mate and good friend Jean-Guy Lavallée had to resign for personal reasons. There was no time to find a replacement. We would go as three: Jacques Pettigrew the cameraman, MarieEve Thibault the photographer, and myself. Delayed by multiple stopovers to restow gear and make minor repairs, we finally sighted the magnificent coast of Greenland after six days of alternate calm and savage storm.

Fighting our way north along the Greenland coast through 70-knot winds, snow and hail, we reached Holsteinsborg, a town a few miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was November; with ice accumulating on deck and in the lower rigging we decided the boat would have to winter there and we returned to Montreal.

With a new oceanographic research program, another 30,000 feet of 16mm film, better equipment and two new crew members, the J.E. Bernier II set off the following spring to explore the Greenland coast. At the end of July, we were launched across Baffin Bay. For a time we sailed with the Williwaw, a Belgian sailboat skippered by Willy de Roos, but in Nanisvik where we had to pull the boat ashore for major repairs,

we were forced to part company. De Roos carried on through the passage and arrived in Vancouver last year.

We knew we would encounter ice but had no idea how much. One year, break up can occur early—that is, the middle of July—and the next year, the straits and sounds can remain solid all summer. And early break up doesn’t necessarily mean open water. In fact, too massive a break up can choke the narrowest straits, and make them inaccessible to even the most powerful Canadian icebreakers.

Ice reconnaissance flown by Canadian government planes proved almost useless, since ice tended to move faster than patrols could gather and report the information. We finally had to rely on our own judgment, and on stories of whalers from the last century who used to go as far north as they could in Baffin Bay to bypass the ice pack. We had also read about many ships that had perished by going the direct route

through the ice pack. But at latitude 75 degrees 50 minutes north, the Bernier found open water and sailed southwest into Lancaster Sound, entrance to the Northwest Passage. From there we nosed our way through the long Arctic days passing within 140 miles of the magnetic North Pole before reaching Tuktoyaktuk, where the Bernier wintered on four oil drums. Once again, we returned to Montreal. In the spring, Marie-Eve Thibault and Jacques Pettigrew stayed behind to begin editing the 60,000 feet of film [$20,000 from the Quebec Film Institute helped subsidize the film]. With three new crew we began the last leg, around Alaska and down the beautiful B.C. coast where, at one stage, 25 humpback whales splashed and sounded around us for three hours.

Looking back over the entire voyage, I remember especially the day we experienced the hard reality of the North for the first time. When we ventured into

Baffin Bay, we encountered the ice pack. Without thinking, we entered a crack, or lead, in the ice, stopped and anchored ourselves to a floe. A few hours later the pack closed on us and we were trapped. The ice squeezed us for several hours—long enough to produce frightening noises in the hull. That night I jumped off the boat and walked on the ice. With no real darkness, I couldn’t tell if it was morning or afternoon. All around me was a white prairie of ice, and the horizon was just haze joining the overcast sky and the icecovered sea. I felt like a prisoner in a dome cut off from the rest of the world, the silence so overwhelming, it was almost audible. It was like walking on the earth one year after the end of the world. After a few minutes walking, I turned around and realized I could onh see the top of the mast. Sheepishly, l hurried back. After a while the North relented, the boat was freed by the ice and we continued our journey.