LEWISPORTE - Lewisporte harbour is the launch point for an expedition that could see a first in Arctic Ocean exploration.
A sailing team hopes to be the first to make it through a new route in the Northwest Passage. They will navigate further north, attempting to sail through a critical point in McClure Strait, where the crew of the McClure Expedition of 1850-54 saw their vessel lodged in ice and crushed.
Team members Nicolas Peissel of Montreal and Edvin Buregren of Sweden, both in their early 30s, spoke about their plans and preparations.
Their research indicates that only an icebreaker (they differ on whether it was Canadian or Russian) has gone over the McClure Strait.
"That was done from west to east, but that's the only recorded boat that's gone through there," said Peissel. "No one has ever gone that route east to west, nor in any sort of pleasure craft.
"If we complete the entire route we are planning, then nobody's ever gone that route to date."
Their mode of transportation is a 31-foot sailboat, Belzebub II. Last year they sailed from Sweden to Scotland, to Iceland and then Greenland, "playing in the ice," testing the boat out and giving them an idea of what changes were needed to prepare it for this expedition.
One of the first things noted was the need to cap the bow of the fibreglass boat with some kind of stainless steel structure for extra protection.
"Normally when people go up north they go in steel boats because it takes on the ice much better than plastic," said Buregren.
They will also have a sealed compartment in the front of the boat; if they spring a leak, that area of the boat won't sink. In addition, they will put a prop cage around the propeller to protect it from ice.
The team took the boat across the Atlantic last summer to the Lewisporte Marina. They decided on Lewisporte after doing some research and hearing a glowing review of the marina from another Swedish sailor.
"He said to come here to Lewisporte because it has everything you need, especially in terms of the Yacht Club," said Peissel. "We have access to the kitchen, all the amenities, the yard, people like Peter Watkins and others who have loaned us tools.
"Even the guy at the marine store opens up for us when they are closed. Everyone has kind of bent over backwards for us, so we couldn't imagine a better place. Lewisporte has treated us very, very well."
Added Buregren, "We haven't regretted the decision to come here one bit."
Belzebub II was put into storage at the local marina over the winter.
The sailors started work on the boat two weeks ago. They've availed of the expertise of people from the area, including a skilled welder.
Buregren said they hope to depart by early to mid-June.
Keeping to a specific timeline is necessary for this expedition. Peissel said they want to be near Resolute during the first week of August because that's when the Northwest Passage starts to break up. He noted that the latest they want to be around the end point at the top of Alaska at Barrow Point is the first week of October. After that the ice moves in and closes the passage once again.
"So we have between that period to get through," he said. "We think it's going to take close to all that time to do so. We hope to arrive in Vancouver the end of October, early November."
A third crew member, Peissel's cousin Morgan Peissel, will join them in Greenland. Documentary filmmaker Rana Ghose will be with the crew at least from Newfoundland to Greenland, and may join them on the journey through the Northwest Passage.
While the expedition is one of adventure and exploration, it is also meant to draw attention to the depletion of the polar ice caps over the last decade due to global warming.
"The depletion has been so advanced that the ice is receding to the point where we believe this year that a new northern route ... is going to open," said Peissel. "We are going to attempt to be the first people to try and punch through this new route.
"We'll see. Nothing is guaranteed. We think we are intelligent individuals and if we see that the ice maps are telling us that it is impossible, then. ..."
"It's not a suicide mission," added Buregren.
"You always hear about polar ice cap depletion and global warming," Peissel said. "It's become this background hum that we are sick of hearing and we haven't really been able to put it into something we can recognize.
"We feel that if we are able to sail the boat through a passage that just within the last couple of years was impossible - except for a nuclear icebreaker - to go through, then that is pretty damning evidence that there's some severe changes taking place."
Aside from a couple of grants and some product sponsorship, 98 per cent of the cost for the expedition is coming out of the team members' own pockets.
"We realized early on that with these sorts of expeditions, there is a reason why millionaires like Charles Bronson are the ones who take something like this on," said Peissel.
They wrote to different companies, who have sponsored them in terms of products, recognizing them on their website with a company logo, but there have been no contractual obligations.
Within the last month, they were successful in receiving two exploration grants. One is from Gortex and the other from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.
"The geographic society, their whole mandate is to bring greater awareness of the Canadian Arctic for Canadians and the world abroad," said Peissel. "They only fund expeditions above 55 degrees latitude. It was nice to hear we received this. It is quite prestigious to be considered by a geographic society."
They have also launched a crowd sourcing campaign on IndieGOGO through their website. Through this, the public can contribute different dollar amounts that can earn them "rewards" related to the expedition. They include everything from a mention on the website, to photos of the Arctic scenery and the chance to sail for a couple of days with the team.
With the past two years of their lives invested in planning for the expedition, Buregren said it's hard to believe it's finally about to happen.
"The whole process of planning this has been so intense," he said.
One of their biggest concerns, Buregren said, is overloading the boat.
"Everything we put into the boat now, including ice reinforcement and extra equipment, is making the boat heavier," he explained. "We also need to bring a lot of food."
He noted that along the coast of Greenland, there will be a few points of provisioning, but the food there is very expensive, since it is flown in from Denmark by helicopter. Nunavut also has pricey food, and some of the places they might want to go into may be blocked with ice.
"So we have to plan to be self-sustaining for three to four months or more," he said.