KODIAK, Alaska — Sailing through the Northwest Passage is like taking a history course, or so says Mark van de Weg, who just did it.
Van de Weg and a crew of five others sailed the 49-foot sailboat Jonathan through the Northwest Passage over the summer. He arrived in Kodiak on Oct. 5 after completing the four-and-a-half month journey.
“It’s really great because you sail through history,” van de Weg said. “All these expeditions tried to find the Northwest Passage. Some failed and some succeeded.”
Until Roald Amundsen traveled from Atlantic to Pacific through the Arctic in the first decade of the 20th century, the Northwest Passage was deemed impassable because of ice. Since the start of the 21st century, melting ice has allowed even sailboats to travel where hardened Arctic voyagers once died.
Van de Weg and his crew saw remains and graves from the failed expeditions in addition to the expected sights like whales and polar bears.
Van de Weg and his companions started in Spitsbergen, a large island that is part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago north of the mainland.
Van de Weg, a Duchman, lived and worked in Spitsbergen for 10 years running a charter sailboat business that took scientists, photographers and film teams around the island. This year, he decided it was time to take the trip he had always dreamed of.
The trip began in mid-May. From Spitsbergen he and his crew sailed south to Iceland, south and around Greenland’s west coast, then through the Northwest Passage’s southern route to Barrow.
“I’ve been thinking about doing it for many, many years,” van de Weg said. “Now I got the opportunity to do it.”
When the Jonathan was built, van de Weg designed it with extra strengthening for sailing in the Arctic. He installed thicker hull plating and extra frames.
“When the boat was first finished, I stayed with the boat the whole winter in ice,” van de Weg said. “It is very well insulated.”
Ice was a major challenge during the voyage. Van de Weg and the crew had to watch for ice shards, ask for information about the ice from people who flew over the area and navigate through tricky spots.
“You have to decide how you might be able to sneak around the ice to find ways to go through,” van de Weg said.
Van de Weg and his crew ran into serious issues with the ice two times. One time they were sailing in a bay, and the ice blocked the entrance so they had to wait three days until the wind shifted and took the ice away.
Van de Weg said since the area is seldom visited, the maps and charts he had were not very good and made navigating more challenging.
Overall, the trip went well, and van de Weg accomplished his goal.
“For me it was doing it,” he said of the trip. “Not many boats do it. It’s only in the last five years that it’s getting easier because of the ice.”
Now that he’s completed the trip, van de Weg is trying to decide where to stay in Alaska for the winter.
“Next year I want to cruise around this area because it’s very beautiful,” van de Weg said.
Van de Weg eventually plans to sail to Cape Horn, the southernmost point of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in Chile, near Antarctica.