West Devon Boatbuilder Sails the Northwest Passage

In 2012 Will Stirling from Buckland Monachorum literally and metaphorically launched his wooden cutter Integrity at the Plymouth Mayflower Marina. According to Classic Boat magazine:

The 62 ft / 18.9 m (LOS)  larch on oak, 1880s-inspired, gentleman’s yacht is due to debut at the British Classic Yacht Club regatta in July. Will has spent two years building Integrity which represents a departure from the replica Pilot Cutters that have been the standard wooden replica yachts from various British boatbuilders in recent years.

Our first impressions were a bit: wow! The lines of the 7 berth yacht are very sweet on the eye. She seems destined for the Med regattas or maybe the Caribbean where she would not look out of place among her ‘original’ sisters. Classic yacht broker Barney Sandeman (selling her) agreed that her £300,00 (sic) price tag was probably a bargain, but Stirling’s view is that as a first yacht of her type she acts as a prototype for what he is trying to achieve. He was joined by four boatbuilders who had helped him on the project.

However, according to a more recent article in Classic Boat, written by Will Stirling himself, thoughts of the Caribbean couldn’t have been further from his mind:

After a number of years of what could be termed extended sea trials and fine-tuning close to her base in Plymouth, she has gone north. The fine tuning included installation of a coal- and peat-burning stove, copper sheathing of the entire hull under the water and understanding what tools and spares would be needed for voyages that are beyond support.

There are three principal attractions of sailing in the north: the scenery is beautiful; all decisions are significantly consequential; and there is no one else there…

Integrity off East Greenland. Photo: Will Stirling
Integrity off East Greenland. Photo: Will Stirling

Our first voyage in 2019 was to Jan Mayen with the aim of climbing the volcano Beerenberg. We sailed in mid-May. This was relatively early in the year in terms of climate and weather but had the benefit of crisp snow conditions with firm snow bridges over the crevasses on the mountain.

Having found Jan Mayen we initially anchored on the southeast side in a small bay called Batvika. This soon proved untenable as an anchorage, so when the climbing party set off towards the mountain, the boat watchers moved the boat around to Kvalross Bukta on the northwest side of the island. Conditions were considerably calmer here and the boat watchers were able to spend time ashore among the whale bone graveyard on the beach…

Integrity off East Greenland. Photo: Will Stirling
Integrity off East Greenland. Photo: Will Stirling

The second 2019 voyage, which was in July, visited the coats of east Greenland to the north of Angmagsaalik. While we had seen no ice in Jan Mayen, this voyage was outlined in ice, which defined the route of the voyage and the parts of the coast we could reach. The voyage became an ice negotiation.

When moored to a floe for the night among loose pack ice, we set an ice and bear watch on a one-hour rotation. While it did not get dark, the sun did go below the horizon with a prolonged sunset/sunrise. Although the air was still, the floes and bergs were gently moving. There were several individual seals on floes surrounding the boat. At about 0345 the seals started behaving strangely and as a group. Just before 0400 a polar bear hove into view among the nearby bergy bits. He was several miles offshore and swimming towards the boat. We were prepared for firm action, but he swam away after gentle gesticulations and calls from us…

This summer Will and Integrity are attempting to overcome a greater challenge than mere ice and polar bears. Together they are attempting to sail through the formidable Northwest Passage, the graveyard of many a stout sailor including Sir John Franklin. According to a June 19th article in Practical Boat Owner:

Will Stirling and three crew set sail on 1 June aboard Integrity, a new boat built to an 1880s Victorian cutter design by his team at Stirling & Son.

Their 6,000-mile east-west transit of the Passage began in south-east Canada and will pass through western Greenland, northern Canada to Alaska, where they hope to finish in mid-September.

Roald Amundsen was the first to sail through during his 1903-1906 Northwest Passage expedition, and there have been numerous attempts – and failures – in various types of boats since then.

The first woman to sail single-handed through the Passage was German skipper Susanne Huber-Curphey in 2017 aboard a 39ft Koopmans cutter with a full keel, oversized hull and rigging.

Although Will Stirling favours traditional navigation, using dead reckoning on the way to Newfoundland, and keeping a full set of paper charts on board, he also has a charting app on his iPhone.

From Greenland onwards, the crew will be using a satellite phone to download ice charts from the Canadian coastguard. There is a 50/50 risk of getting trapped if ice conditions are heavy or deteriorate.

Fortunately in all the circumstances there is very little chance of Integrity becoming trapped by sea ice this summer. Almost all the ice on “Amundsen’s route” through the Northwest Passage has already melted. Here today’s Canadian Ice Service chart of sea ice concentration along the Northwest Passage:

Here too is Integrity’s current position, right in the heart of the infamous Passage:

Finally, for the moment at least, here is the late, great Stan Rogers singing “Northwest Passage”, sometimes referred to as Canada’s second national anthem:

To be continued…

Jim Hunt

I've been programming computers since the late 60s. In those days they didn't have computers in schools, so we had to build our own. What can I program next? Will I have to build it first?

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