Smash open your piggybank and get your credit card ready, because this week’s Avid Cruiser Voyage isn’t for the faint of heart. But while it may be on par financially with a World Cruise, a transit of the fabled Northwest Passage arguably offers more than a voyage around the globe: It is an experience few have ever done, but one that is becoming increasingly more accessible.
Two hundred years ago, the Northwest Passage was the object of fascination and desire for numerous countries. Securing a passage in the largely unmapped areas above northern Canada would allow the country that claimed an express passage to profitable Asian shipping routes, without the time and expense of sailing around South America.
An astonishing number of countries sent their best polar explorers to try to source out a passage, with no success. Perhaps the most famous expedition to fail was the one commanded by Sir John Franklin, who led two ships — HMS Terror and Erebus — on what was to be a monumental effort by the British to “conquer” the Northwest Passage.
When the expedition became locked in ice, they were forced to spend two gruelling winters trapped in this barren no-man’s-land. They were so far north that they were enveloped in continual darkness during the winter months. When the ice refused to budge, the remaining members of the crew of Erebus and Terror set out on foot for Back’s Fish River. Their eventual goal: the fur trading outposts set up at the Hudson Bay.
No one survived.
Interestingly, the first person to conquer the Northwest Passage and prove that it was, indeed, navigable — if not the panacea of open water the British had envisaged — was Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen. Between 1903 and 1906, he managed to traverse the entire passage by land and sea and using knowledge provided to him by the local Inuit people. But he discovered the pass — or what little there was of it — was a maze of ever-changing ice conditions coupled with unusually shallow depths on some straits.
Five years later, Roald Amundsen would be the first man to set foot at the South Pole, beating Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition by mere weeks.
The first commercial ship to actually navigate the entire Northwest Passage was the supertanker SS Manhattan, which completed her voyage in 1969. Like Amundsen some 60 years earlier, the Manhattan’s owners determined that the time and relatively short window where the ice was thin enough to navigate through made shipping oil by tanker impractical, and led to the construction of the Alaska Pipeline.
Today, there is a narrow window during late July and early August in which ice-reinforced passenger ships can transit the fabled Northwest Passage. German-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has, for years, offered either full or partial transits of the pass each summer aboard the intimate and luxurious Bremen and Hanseatic. Other adventure lines like Quark Expeditions have also offered transits of the passage, many of which take place aboard the nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory.
In 2014, ultra-luxury line Silversea will send its elegant explorer, the 132-guest Silver Explorer, through a full transit of the Northwest Passage for the first time. The voyage, just announced, is already wait-listed.
So why would you want to spend 20 or even 30 days in one of the most remote areas of the world? Simply put: The Northwest Passage is teeming with marine life and history; Beechy Island, for example, hosts graves of three of the first members of the Franklin Expedition to die.
It is an area few have ever been to, and remains as deeply mysterious as a voyage to outer space. That, in and of itself, makes it a true Avid Cruiser Voyage.