Full sail on the frontier: Family of 6 prepares for long voyage through the Northwest Passage

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NOME, Alaska (KTUU) — In the town of Nome, Alaska, berthed among the fishing vessels and rusty gold dredges, a lone sailboat lies in wait.

Dogbark, a 60 foot ocean-going race boat from Seattle, is the first sailboat to arrive in Nome this year planning to transit the Northwest Passage, a sea route through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago to the Atlantic Ocean. But winds have driven a large swath of sea ice towards Utqiagvik, blocking Dogbark’s intended course.

The crew of six; Graeme Esarey and his wife Janna, their daughters Talia and Savai, and longtime friends John and Becca Guillote will have to wait until the sea ice clears. While the Bering Sea around Nome is clear of ice for miles, the crew will stay in Nome where there are more services, rather than continuing to a more remote anchorage further along the Seward Peninsula.

“We’re early in the season so I think it’s probably pretty normal that we’re waiting for ice right now,” Graeme said. “Historically, they say August is when the entrance to passage begins to clear.”

The extended stop in Nome is not unwelcome, as it gives the crew a chance to catch up on chores like replenishing their fresh water supply and stockpiling smoked salmon, caught fresh from the Nome harbor for the long journey ahead.

Originally built to be raced single-handedly around the world, Dogbark has undergone several modifications, particularly below-deck to make its living arrangements more suitable for a larger crew.

“Dogbark is a really unique boat. It was built for the 1990 BOC Challenge which is an around-the-world single-handed race in the Southern Ocean. So roaring 40s, big weather, huge storms, one person,” Becca said. “So it’s a really stout boat and it’s really fast.”

While Dogbark is at the mercy of regularly changing sea ice reports, it wasn’t so long ago that a trip like this would have been nearly impossible for any vessel except an ice breaker.

“The Northwest Passage really started being passable for typical cruising boats like ours about the time our daughters were born in 2006 and 2008,” Janna said. “So this is the new reality for them.”

Summer sea ice in the arctic has seen record lows in recent years, giving more boats a chance to travel this famous sea route. Last year, 26 boats successfully made it through, but even today a trip through the passage is full of uncertainty.

Drying salmon for the stovetop smoker, caught in the harbor in Nome,AK

A post shared by Graeme Esarey (@saildogbark) on

“In 2013, I don’t think many boats were able to get through at all, many boats were forced to overwinter,” Graeme said. “And that’s a possibility. I don’t think we’re too excited about that but there are risks associated with the Northwest Passage even with the changes that we’re seeing.”

While in Nome, the crew met with lifelong resident Pat Hahn, a local expert on the Bering Sea and the Northwest Passage. Hahn's mother was the first woman to cross the passage, and he made the journey himself once in an open-skin Umiak boat, an endeavor that took him about three years.

Since then, Hahn says he's also noticed changes in the Bering Sea's temperament.

"The Bering Sea is a fairly dangerous place. Those storms aren't nearly as frequent or severe," he said, referring to large weather systems. "We get more storms, just not as bad."

Still, the Dogbark crew knows that a journey into this vast swath of wilderness is not to be taken lightly.

"More people have been on the top of Everest than have gone through the Northwest Passage at this point," John said.

But when the opportunity to travel this renowned sea route presents itself, it's hard to say no.

"I like to say we're here because if Graeme tells me to go sailing, I don't ask questions. I just go, and here we are," Becca laughed. "We couldn't miss this opportunity."

If you want to follow along on Dogbark's journey, be sure to check out their blog, which includes a real-time tracker of their progress.

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