North America (Change)

2020 is record year for commercial transits of the Northwest Passage while one rogue yachtsman tweaked the government’s nose in support of the Law of the Sea. Meanwhile, cruise ships and pleasure craft were banned from the Arctic this season by Transport Canada as a COVID 19 measure.

Peter Smith, 72 with his 52 ft New Zealand yacht KIWI ROA, defied the Canadian government, and citing a backgrounder in Transport Canada’s May 14 press release, claimed the right of innocent passage.  He had been en route to Nome, Alaska when the ban was imposed. In an email exchange he told the CBC that when Canada refused permission six days after sailing Nome, he quit reporting his position and sailed on anyway.

KIWI ROA was spotted sailing past Cambridge Bay August 20. After that, Transport Canada huffed and puffed, threatening $5,000 per day in fines. He ignored the threat, but did comply with a demand to report his position daily.

In an email response to the CBC, Smith wrote the story is one of bureaucracy “out of control and gone mad,” adding, “I suspect it is also motivated toward gaining political points in support of Canada’s claim to have control of the [Northwest Passage].”

The New Zealander is the first to challenge the government’s right to control the route since the US Coast Guard took on Canada with its icebreaker POLAR SEA in 1985 and 1990. In those cases, a Canadian icebreaker was dispatched as an escort.

KIWI ROA completed her voyage through Canadian waters entering Baffin Bay September 3 and is sailing on to Lisbon.

On the commercial side, Royal Wagenborg of Delfzijl, Netherlands and its Montreal office, Wagenborg North America are making Northwest Passage transits appear almost routine.

In a cooperative agreement, the line has contracts for monthly sailings from Asia to Baie-Comeau, Quebec with Alcoa carrying carbon anodes for its aluminum smelter and the Matane pulp mill, 37 miles across the St. Lawrence, owned by Sappi Global, to ship pulp to Korea and China. While usually via Panama, in 2016, Wagenborg made its first sailing via the Northwest Passage. This was followed by a second in 2017. Heavy ice blocked a 2018 attempt. However in 2019, there were three sailings.

This year, there have been five completed transits.

TRINITYBORG sailed Matane August 9 with pulp. The ship passed through Bellot Strait, between the northernmost tip of North America and Somerset Island, August 20 and arrived in Onsan, Korea September 9.

On August 16, ADRIATICBORG sailed from Lianyungang, China to Baie-Comeau, arriving September 14. The icebreaker PIERRE RADISSON escorted ADRIATCBORG for about 60 miles in Victoria Strait on September 5 arriving Baie-Comeau September 16.

ARNEBORG sailed Matane with 12,500 tonnes of pulp on September 19, passed through Bellot Strait September 28 and was due in Onsan, Korea October 15. The Coast Guard’s HENRY LARSEN escorted her in Victoria Strait.

ADRIATICBORG, after unloading at Baie Comeau, shifted across to Matane for wood pulp and a return trip to Asia. She departed Matane October 4, was escorted through Victoria Strait October 13 by the AMUNDSEN and dropped off her ice pilot at Nome October 20. She is now in the Pacific with an ETA Ulsan, Korea of November 2.

AMSTELBORG which sailed from Lianyungang September 27, picked up her ice pilot at Nome October 10. Having waited off Cambridge Bay, the AMUNDSEN joined AMSTELBORG October 16 and escorted her  through Victoria Strait October 16. As both were headed south, they stayed in company through Bellot Strait and Fury and Hecate Strait into Foxe Basin.  AMSTELBORG exited Hudson Strait October 21 and arrived at Baie-Comeau October 25. 

Written by Frederick McCague, CMILT, originally published in Western Mariner magazine and updated in the November 2020 issue.