The Cutter Maple became the sixth Coast Guard vessel ever to transit the famed Northwest Passage last summer, when it completed the 8,000-mile trip from Sitka to Baltimore, Maryland.
Despite almost a year of planning, the trip was no cakewalk. Although the Arctic is undergoing significant changes due to climate change, the Maple’s historic voyage demonstrated that major challenges remain for ships attempting to cross the northern edge of the continent.
Lt. Lisa Hatland discussed some of the difficulties in a presentation to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce (1-31-18).
We’ve all heard that there is less ice in the Arctic than in the past — but less is still a lot, when you’re new to it.
Lisa Hatland served as executive officer of the Maple during the voyage. It was smooth sailing until the ship was about 100 miles east of Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow.
“It was only about three-tenths ice, but then again if you’ve never seen ice while navigating you’re like, Oh my god this is it! The visibility dropped to less than 100 yards of course and I was actually on watch dodging through that — it was a blast! We were staying behind the Laurier and Frosty — we let Frosty go in between us. They weren’t really breaking an ice path, it was more of picking the best route.”
The Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the research ship Frosty were the first of four Canadian ships to escort the Maple on its voyage. A veteran “ice pilot” from the Canadian Coast Guard also served on board with the Maple’s bridge crew.
And it turns out the northern patrol in Canada is a little more mellow than its US counterpart, as Hatland discovered on a visit to the Laurier.
“So they’re allowed to drink underway. They can have their beers, and so we’re like, No we can’t drink, but they opened their cantinas and we all got all sorts of Canadian swag. We all got our Laurier T-shirts and ball caps. Swapping ball caps out there is everything.”
And the Maple took on more than swag. After parting ways with the Laurier, the ship met the CCGS Amundsen in Queen Maud Gulf and loaded 11,000 gallons of fuel. The Amundsen — primarily a research vessel with 80 scientists on board — came down the channel that the Maple was heading up. After an exchange of information between the two vessels (the Maple had one researcher, Josh Jones, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography), the Maple turned north to rendezvous with its true ice-breaking escort, the CCGS Terry Fox.
Hatland says this is where things got serious.
“So 8,000 miles of a transit came down to these two days. Terry Fox would break ice in front of us. The problem was that this ice would just fill right back in the path that they just broke for us. And we had to transit at a particularly high rate of speed — about 6 knots, which you don’t think of as very fast — but when you’re only 200 yards behind the guy it’s kind of nerve-wracking.”
Hatland says the Maple used radar ranges to keep its distance from the Terry Fox, which was equipped with a type of brake light, to alert following ships that it had stopped. And it did stop, Hatland says, two or three times.
“We didn’t even have to back down. All we had to do was bring the throttles to stop and the friction of the ice would literally stop us within a couple of hundred yards.”
With a single screw and rudder, the Maple was also less maneuverable than her twin-screw escort, and Hatland says it was difficult to make the tight turns around larger pieces of ice. The Maple’s hull is ice-strengthened, but the constant scraping required engineers to inspect the bilges for flooding ‘round the clock. Those factors, combined with unreliable electronic navigation in some parts of the passage made for the “most stressful two days” of the voyage.
And if those 230 miles of Icebreaker Channel, in Victoria Strait, are stressful for the Coast Guard, what does that mean for the commercialization of the Northwest Passage?
“So the Arctic is not open yet… and any ship going up there needs to be aware of the environmental conditions, the hazards. And don’t go up there blindly, otherwise they will become a SAR (Search and Rescue) case.”
The Maple was home-free by the time it reached St. John’s, Newfoundland, where the crew spent 3 days ashore after 31 days without touching land. From there it was a quick run down the eastern seaboard to Baltimore.
The crew has since come home, but in April they’ll return to Baltimore to pick up the 225-foot Kukui, a near-copy of the Maple, which will have been refurbished and ready for a voyage — this time through the Panama Canal — to its new homeport in Sitka.