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Northwest Passage: More small boats attempting to sail Arctic route

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic
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Sailing through the Arctic's Northwest Passage is a romantic idea, bringing to mind the adventures of Arctic explorers from years past, but it's a risky adventure more and more people are taking, and in smaller boats.

Australians Chris Bray and Jess Taunton are attempting to finish their Northwest Passage journey -- which they began last year -- this summer.

"We believe we were playing it a lot safer with splitting it up into those two seasons," said Bray.

Last summer, they got as far as Cambridge Bay in Canada's eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut before having to store their vessel for the winter.

This year's journey will take them through the rest of the Passage. They will stop in Ulukhaktok, a community in Canada's Northwest Territories, then hopefully make it to Banks Island if the weather holds and past the Northwest Passage's western boundary.

They will make their last Canadian port of call in the Northwest Territories.

Increasingly ice-free waters

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, only a handful of yachters attempted the voyage. But in 2009, it took off. In 2011, 16 sailboats or yachts made their way into Northwest Passage.

Sailors are encouraged by increasingly ice-free water and improved technology, but it's still dangerous.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Henry Larsen can plow through ice like a battering ram. Its captain, Terry Frost, said that's not the case for smaller yachts and sailboats, especially when the wind pushes ice floes together.

"So they might be going through an area of ice, and things are fine," said Frost. "Tide or wind turns, suddenly they're trapped, maybe even crushed."

Frost said that some adventurers don't notify NORDREG, the Arctic ship reporting system, that they are in the area.

"So you don't always know where they are or even that they are there. So sometimes it's kind of hard to know, if they are reported overdue, where do we start looking? Where were they last seen? Where were they planning to go?"

Frost advised boaters to file a sail plan with the Canadian Coast Guard and let them know a planned route and destinations.

Bray and Taunton have a GPS tracker on board their vessel which plots their position on their website.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media.