It took two years, but Michael Johnson sailed a 44-foot schooner across the Northwest Passage, from one edge of the Arctic Circle to the other.
Now, after anchoring in Prince Rupert, Johnson plans to spend a month sailing down Haida Gwaii to Khungit Island before heading through Desolation Sound and the San Juan Islands to his U.S. home.
With the Gitana tied up at the Prince Rupert Yacht and Rowing Club on Sept. 1, the storied captain took the time to pull out a map and describe his journey in a soft southern drawl.
Johnson left Chesapeake Bay in the Gitana in the spring of 2013.
The first person to sail the Northwest Passage was the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, from 1903 to 1906. Few ships were successful in the crossing after Amundsen until after 2007 when the route was open to ships without an icebreaker.
However, Johnson said it’s a misconception that climate change means less ice along the passage. There is less multi-era ice, but seasonal ice still fluctuates and Johnson and his crew had a tough first year.
“It turned out that 2013 was actually a very heavy ice year, which was the year we got up there,” he said. “In fact, I talked to a barge captain up there and he said he hasn’t seen ice like that up there in 20 years.”
There was a dramatic increase of sea ice in 2013, with 5.10 million square kilometres of Arctic sea ice compared with 3.41 million in 2012, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
When the Gitana reached Pond Inlet, Nunavut, they encountered several boats turning back to Greenland due to ice.
“We persevered and moved on and said we’ll go as far as we can,” he said.
The RCMP stationed at Pond Inlet cleared Johnson and the crew through customs and for an added treat, Johnson said the Mounties allowed them to use the vacant jail to shower and wash their clothes.
They continued through Lancaster Sound, then sailed down Prince Regent Inlet and attempted to mimic Amundsen’s route through Peel Sound — but the ice didn’t open up in 2013.
Instead, they squeezed through Bellot Strait where the ice door closed right behind as the schooner went through.
Once they got to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, they pulled the boat out of the water and flew back to the U.S. until the ice melted and the route opened up the following year.
Johnson thought he had removed most of the glass from the boat, but when he returned in 2014, he found a bottle of hot sauce — all the sauce was standing upright with the glass shattered around the base.
“It was that cold,” he said. “Some of my Inuit friends told me it was -67 Fahrenheit [-55 C].”
Johnson also encountered the research vessel Martin Bergmann, one of the ships involved in the Franklin recovery. After he left, he heard that Canadian archaeologists had found the HMS Erebus, one of the two ships that left England in 1845 to explore the Northwest Passage and never returned.
“The Canadians have quite a big operation going in Cambridge Bay,” he said. “I think they’re bolstering their presence in the Arctic with their claims and counter claims.”
As the Gitana pressed on, the weather took a turn late in the 2014 season but they were fortunate to maneuver their way through the Bering Strait to Nome, Alaska, where they completed the Northwest Passage. He used a construction crane to pull his boat out of the water in Nome and left it there for the winter.
In 2015, Johnson and a new crew went down Dutch Harbour and sailed around the Aleutians to Kodiak Island where they wintered the boat. This year, Johnson went from Alaska to Prince Rupert, where he took a few days before leaving for Haida Gwaii.
Doing the whole voyage in one year might have been possible, sea ice depending, but Johnson wanted to meet the people in the communities he was sailing by. In 40 years of sailing, Johnson has been all over the world but this recent voyage was a highlight.
“One thing I’d like to say is that everyone up there in the Canadian, Alaskan and Greenland Arctic, they all treated us just great,” he said.
This year, Johnson received the Ocean Cruising Club’s Barton Cup for completing the Northwest Passage. It was the second time he received the cup, a feat only two others have accomplished. The first time was for going west around Cape Horn in 85 days without engine power in 1990.
Johnson said he plans to end his four-year journey by arriving in Seattle this October.