Ice foils Jet Ski adventurers in Northwest Passage

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GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut - An American adventurer is promising to try again after his plan to cross the fabled Northwest Passage on a Jet Ski went the way of so many Arctic dreams — cold, wet and stuck in the ice.

"Humbled, 110 per cent," said Steve Moll on Friday from his warm and dry room in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, after being plucked out of the freezing waters of the Franklin Strait by a coast guard icebreaker.

"We'll come back. But we'll just have a little bit more respect for the environment."

Moll is the leader of a seven-man team attempting to circumnavigate the globe on personal watercraft. Their adventures are chronicled on a U.S. reality show called "Dangerous Waters" and in the first two season they made it up the west coast of North America, around the top and as far east as Inuvik, N.W.T.

This season, the goal was to cruise the passage, round the southern tip of Greenland, jump off Iceland and the Faroes and ultimately rev their engines up London's Thames River.

It started well enough. After extensive briefings from the Canadian Coast Guard on weather and ice conditions, the four specially equipped Jet Skis and a nine-metre fuel boat took off from Inuvik in early August.

They made great time through the Amundsen Gulf, cruising up to 27 hours at a stretch through the long northern days and stopping only four or five hours to catch some sleep and a hot meal.

But by Cambridge Bay, midway through, the Arctic weather was starting to go south.

Heavy winds delayed their departure until about Aug. 20 and again stranded them on Jenny Lind Island for four days. Still, they pushed on to Gjoa Haven.

After five days of preparations, they left Gjoa Haven on about Aug. 27 — and headed into the teeth of some ugly conditions.

"It had been snowing. It was freezing cold. The wind had whipped up," Moll said.

After only about 70 kilometres, they were forced to hole up overnight on another small island. Light winds the next day enabled them to make it farther up the coast of Boothia Peninsula, where they spent a night in a polar bear research cabin.

A good thing, too. During the night, a bear came through and tore up the expedition tent the crew had erected.

"That was concerning," said Moll. "Now I've got seven guys in my crew and one tent I can put four in. Things were starting to deteriorate."

Last weekend, the team mounted a push to get through the Bellot Strait, a tiny sliver of water between the peninsula and Somerset Island that was to be the gateway into the eastern Arctic and calmer seas.

"We got about 15 miles short of Bellot and the ocean was literally freezing beneath us. The ocean starts forming little pancakes about the size of a quarter and there's millions of them underneath you. It's like you're riding on top of a Slurpee."

Ice clogged their engines and covered their drysuit-clad bodies.

"We were covered in suits of armour, of ice."

Again, they ducked into the lee of an island, planning to break for the strait at first light. They spent the night huddled in sleeping bags, crammed into the fuel boat "like sausages in a package," sheltered by a tarp from the falling snow.

"We wake up in the morning and we're locked in the ice. The ice has moved in, it's completely around all the Jet Skis and the boat."

Moll consulted with the coast guard and the weather news wasn't good. More snow, cold and 40-knot winds. And now, one of the fuel containers in the boat began leaking, adding to the water that had accumulated from two days of snow.

"The bottom line is we're there stuck in the ice and the weather's getting worse and worse and the crew and I started to talk about what could happen."

The coast guard icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier was about 15 hours away.

"By that time, I could have guys in hypothermia," said Moll.

He made the only decision he could. He called for help.

"It was the hardest, most difficult call to make."

Before long, the seven men were warm, dry and safe aboard the Laurier. Their Jet Skis, fuel and remaining supplies were also hoisted aboard.

Moll has no regrets. He talks about watching a pack of wolves chase caribou into the sea, about water so clear that cruising it felt like flying, about scenery that will haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.

"When it was good, it was gift from God," he said.

In two years, Moll said, he'll be back. Minus, perhaps, a little hubris.

"We will be back. There is zero doubt.

"But we're going to come back with a little bit different expectation. This year we thought we'd make it through. We were prepared.

"We'll come back equally as prepared, but we'll have to see what happens. Coming up here, it's not a game. You have to accept that failure could happen."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

Organizations: Canadian Coast Guard

Geographic location: GJOA HAVEN, Passage, Arctic Nunavut Inuvik U.S. North America Greenland Iceland Faroes London Thames River Cambridge Bay Jenny Lind Island Boothia Peninsula Somerset Island Edmonton

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