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Northabout Passage

Enduring subzero temperatures while navigating narrow passages through pack ice, eight Irishmen in the summer of 2001 sailed the 49-foot aluminum cutter Northabout from the Atlantic, north around Greenland’s west coast and through Canada’s Arctic archipelago, to the Pacific — the route known as the Northwest Passage.

Enduring subzero temperatures while navigating narrow passages through pack ice, eight Irishmen in the summer of 2001 sailed the 49-foot aluminum cutter Northabout from the Atlantic, north around Greenland’s west coast and through Canada’s Arctic archipelago, to the Pacific — the route known as the Northwest Passage.


For more than two months the men marveled at arctic sunsets, sailed past massive glaciers and visited some of the most remote places on the planet.

After cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage for the following two seasons, the sailors decided the quickest, albeit not the easiest, route back to their home port of Westport, Ireland, was through the Russian Arctic by way of the Northeast Passage. When they returned to Westport in 2005 they had completed what turned out to be the first westward polar circumnavigation.

For the feat, the expedition’s skipper, Jarlath Cunnane, was presented the Cruising Club of America’s prestigious Blue Water Medal, bestowed annually upon a sailor for meritorious seamanship and adventure. “I was speechless with surprise when I got the call telling me I had been awarded the Blue Water Medal,” says Cunnane, who is 62 and from Castlebar, Ireland. “This is the highest accolade one could receive as an amateur sailor.”

The idea to sail the Northwest Passage was hatched in 1999 by Cunnane and his friend Paddy Barry — himself a Blue Water Medal recipient — over drinks at the Cobblestone pub in Dublin. (Barry received the award in 1990 for an expedition he led that included Iceland and the Norwegian Arctic.) “Occasionally we met to have a couple pints and listen to the impromptu music sessions for which the Cobblestone is renowned,”Cunnane says.

That night Cunnane and Barry were joined by Frank Nugent, an experienced sailor and mountain climber. After a few drinks, Nugent sang a version of the “Ballad of Lord Franklin,” Cunnane recalls. The lyrics tell the story of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to transit the Northwest Passage in 1847. Cunnane for years had dreamed of sailing the Northwest Passage, and the conversation turned to planning an Arctic expedition.

“For me, the attraction lay in seeing the pristine snow-covered landscape, in visiting remote areas seldom seen by man, and in meeting the people who carved out an existence in those inhospitable regions,” Cunnane says.

In 1997 Cunnane, Barry and Nugent were part of a crew that explored the Antarctic in a re-creation of the voyages of early 20th-century explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean. So, Cunnane says, the inherent obstacles of sailing the Northwest Passage didn’t seem insurmountable. “This route, with its reputation of impenetrability, had intrigued and appealed to me for many years,” he says. “The adventurous spirit of the first explorers and the myths and lore of the Northwest Passage all gathered in my mind as I listened to the imagery of Frank’s song.”

As the hours grew late at the Cobblestone and the conversation drew to an end, the three men stopped wondering if they could do the Northwest Passage and began planning how they would do it.

Getting started

Cunnane, Barry and Nugent met again in January 2000 and began assigning the tasks associated with organizing a polar expedition. Barry took on the roles of project leader, navigator and general organizer. Nugent was in charge of raising money. Cunnane, a retired construction manager, set to work on building a boat designed specifically for a polar expedition.

“I have always been interested in boatbuilding,” says Cunnane. “In my spare time I have built more than 50 boats: dinghies, kayaks, catamarans and yachts. When I was younger I worked in England [building boats] for a time.”

Cunnane chose French designer Gilbert Caroff’s Nadja 15 polar sailboat because of its lifting centerboard and shallow draft (4 feet with the centerboard raised), protected rudder, accommodations for eight, and raised bow like an icebreaker. It also was designed and strengthened for sailing in ice-strewn waters. Despite the cost, Cunnane decided to build Northabout of aluminum rather than steel.

“Aluminum was chosen as it doesn’t rust, is easy to work and, as I was working mainly single-handed, its light weight was an attraction for its ease of handling,” he says. (See companion story.)

After taking a course in welding, Cunnane spent 15 months between 2000 and 2001 building Northabout at his workshop on Ireland’s west coast. The cutter rig caries 476 square feet of sail, and both headsails have roller furling. She is powered by a 92-hp Perkins diesel, and her five fuel tanks hold nearly 500 gallons.

Northabout was launched June 1, 2001, and transported to Westport for rigging and provisioning. She was loaded with 2 tons of food and water (enough for two seasons), 1,000 cans of beer and 36 bottles of Irish whiskey. Equipment included ice gear, fixed and hand-held VHF radios, SSB, fixed and hand-held GPS, radar, a life raft, EPIRB, dinghies, survival suits and “spares for everything,” Cunnane says.

The Northwest Passage

The eight-man crew set sail from Westport June 23, 2001, bound for Greenland. Pushing into the Labrador Sea off southwestern Greenland just days into the expedition, they experienced some of their most anxious sailing. “Northabout was all but blown into an iceberg,” explains project leader Barry. “We were running northwest before 40 to 45 knots of wind, about 10 miles offshore of Arsuk Fjord. There was little or no sea ice, but there were large to medium icebergs.

“We attempted to alter course, gradually at first. Then as we were blown closer, with engine at full revs and sails sheeted, we were still being blown on,” he continues. “Within touching distance of the berg we seemed to catch a backwind, or maybe a clapotis-type backwash, and made it round without touching, but only about [7 feet] to spare.”

About a month later Northabout arrived in Qaanaaq on Greenland’s northwestern shore. Located 70 miles north of the Thule Air Force base, the town has fewer than 700 residents. With ice-free water to the west the men headed into Lancaster Sound and the Northwest Passage, which extends from Baffin Bay on Canada’s east coast to Lancaster Sound, into Peel Sound, to Simpson Strait and north through the passage to Point Barrow in the Bering Strait. As Cunnane led Northabout around ice floes and through narrow passages in pack ice, he and the crew ate dinners of canned meat and vegetables, and sang Irish songs, accompanied by guitar, fiddle, mandolin and harmonica.

“We carried a variety of musical instruments, and we played traditional Irish music wherever we went,” Cunnane says. “In turn we were entertained by local musicians ashore. We were always welcomed, no matter how poor the people we met were.”

Cunnane and his crew navigated the shallow, rock-strewn portion of the passage without incident and made only two stops at small settlements. Northabout put in at Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Aug. 20 for a few minor repairs and to take on fuel and water. With pack ice closing in ahead and behind them, Cunnane brought Northabout around the western tip of Alaska, through the Bering Strait to Nome, Alaska, Sept. 2. With the Northwest Passage completed, they hauled Northabout for the season and returned to Ireland.

The Northeast Passage

With Northabout back in the water the following year, the Pacific Northwest’s snow-capped mountains and lush forested islands lured Cunnane and crew to the Inside Passage for two seasons of cruising. At the end of each season the men hauled the boat and flew back to Ireland. In the summer of 2004 the sailors were yearning for a new adventure. The ice in the Northeast Passage, the route through the Russian Arctic also known as the Northern Sea Route, breaks up each year for a few weeks from August to September. The crew decided this would be their course home.

“For us it was simple,” says Cunnane. “Having done the Northwest Passage, the nearest way home was through the Northeast Passage.”

A number of sailors rotated on and off Northabout over the years but Cunnane, Barry, Kevin Cronin and Mike Brogan crewed both the Northwest and Northeast Passages.

Over several weeks Cunnane and other crewmembers made trips to Moscow to obtain the permits required to enter Russian waters, and to make arrangements to take on an ice pilot to guide them through the difficult sections. In July 2004 Northabout set sail from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, on a 2,000-mile voyage through Dutch Harbor to Anadyr, Russia, in the country’s northeastern region of Siberia. They arrived in Anadyr July 27 and were joined by ice pilot Slava Samoilovich and set off into the Bering Strait bound for the Northeast Passage.

Cunnane pushed Northabout around the easternmost tip of Russia and headed into the Russian Arctic. By Aug. 14, with sea ice forming because of an early onset of cold weather, Northabout was less than 200 miles from Tiksi, Russia, where the crew planned to put in and pick up supplies. “There were times, especially when we were stuck, making no progress, that were very challenging mentally,” says crewmember Rory Casey, 42. “It felt like being stuck in a traffic jam. You feel that valuable time is ticking away, except this traffic jam has a very tragic end. If the winter closed in we could be there for months. But overall this teaches you patience and that there are greater forces at work.”

The crew waited for the icebreaker Kapitan Babuchef and followed it to Tiksi. There they took on water, fuel and food and were amazed by how deserted the town was. “Much as we were glad to reach Tiksi, we’re even more pleased to leave it behind,” the men wrote in a log on the expedition Web site (www. “It’s pitiful, this once-busy town now virtually empty.”

Another setback in terms of time, Cunnane says, was when Northabout towed the disabled 57-foot steel cutter Campina — also a Caroff design — 30 miles to deeper water so its crew could be rescued. By Sept. 7, with the sea freezing around them, Cunnane decided to sail up the Kheta River to Khatanga, Russia, and haul Northabout for the winter.

The men picked up the Northeast Passage again Aug. 21, 2005, and Cunnane led his crew through heavy ice and gale-force winds (with assistance from ice breakers) to Bolshevik Island and the port of Dickson, Russia. By early September weather forecasts were calling for a major storm. Cunnane pushed Northabout hard across the Barents Sea and on Sept. 5 arrived at the northwestern Russian city of Murmansk, completing the Northeast Passage.

Northabout rounded Norway’s North Cape and sailed along the coast, across the North Sea and through Scotland’s Caledonian Canal to the Irish Sea. She sailed into Donegal Bay, and the crew was greeted at Westport Quay Oct.12 by an enthusiastic crowd.

“It was great to bring Northabout back into Westport,” says Cunnane. “Over four years since departure we traveled nearly 20,000 miles and experienced no major breakdowns. Northabout sailed better than I hoped for. The welcome home, for all of us, was overwhelming.”

Since completing the Northabout polar circumnavigation in 2005, skipper Jarlath Cunnane has been busy writing a book about the voyage. Out in October, “Northabout: Sailing the Northwest and Northeast Passages” (The Collins Press) chronicles Cunnane’s building of the 49-foot aluminum cutter, Northabout, and his experiences during the expedition.