Around the Americas Voyage Sails the Northwest Passage

Around the Americas Crew Enjoy Portland Welcome

When skipper Mark Schrader set in motion his plan to make a voyage “Around the Americas,” he knew he’d need a strong, versatile vessel built to withstand the rigors of the Arctic Circle, the Northwest Passage, and later on Cape Horn and the Chilean channels. The ambitious goal of the voyage is the first continuous circumnavigation of North and South American continents–and raising public awareness about the condition of the surrounding oceans.

So Schrader made an extensive search for the perfect boat on both sides of the Atlantic, but found what he was looking for in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. For the last decade, the 64-foot Ocean Watch (ex-Danzante III) functioned as a marine-science research platform and live-aboard cruising boat off the coast of Baja California. It is a center-cockpit fin keel 44-ton cutter designed by Bruce Roberts, built in Maryland in 1988 of ¼-inch steel plate, and outfitted for extensive long-range voyaging and expedition-style sailing.

Schrader and a delivery crew sailed the boat from La Paz, Mexico to Seattle’s Seaview East Boatyard in 2008. There it underwent a complete, stem-to-stern refit by a talented group of local craftsmen. The boat was re-powered with a new 135-hp. Lugger diesel engine and a 12-kW Northern Lights generator. The new suit of working sails comes from sailmaker Carol Hasse and her colleagues at Port Townsend Sails. North Sails built the spinnaker.

Three years after the planning began; the Ocean Watch set sail from Seattle at the end of May on the 25,000-mile voyage. The departure from Shilshole was a great success as the crew was sent off to the sounds of bagpipes and welcomed to open water by the Seattle fireboat spraying great plumes of water. The founding partners of this voyage are Pacific Science Center of Seattle and Sailors for the Sea, a non-profit organization that educates the boating community to protect and restore our oceans and coastal waters.

Captain Mark Schrader of Stanwood, WA, 62, is the first American to complete a single-handed circumnavigation of the world via the five southern capes–an epic voyage in 1982-83 that began and ended in the Pacific Northwest. The Ocean Watch permanent crew consists of highly experienced sailors who have all been long-time supporters of ocean conservation: David Logan, 60, Seattle, WA, veteran ocean cruising and racing sailor and skilled boat refit manager; watch captains Herb McCormick, 53, Newport, RI, former editor of Cruising World magazine and sailing correspondent for the New York Times and David Thoreson, 49, Okoboji, IA, a photographer with extensive experience in the Arctic and Antarctic, who was the first American sailor to transit the Northwest Passage east to west.

The demanding schedule includes time for research with scientists and educators on board during the various legs, plus stopovers in over 30 ports with public events to publicize their mission. David Rockefeller, Jr., co-founder of Sailors for the Sea, said “This project is definitely an expedition for our times. The health of our oceans is important to all of us, not just those who live by the sea. Our food sources, our climate and even the air we breathe are dependent on the vast ocean systems. Around the Americas will demonstrate both the current deterioration of the ocean condition and what we as individuals can do to reverse or at least slow the negative effects.”

Finally on Their Way After a hectic stop in Victoria, the Ocean Watch embarked on the familiar waters of the Inland Passage. A quick stop in Alert Bay to visit an old friend of Mark’s turned into an amazing opportunity to witness the students at the Alert Bay Elementary School presenting their annual Cultural Celebration. The whole community was gathering at the “Big House” to watch the children perform the traditional dances that have been passed down through the generations. The crew was astonished to find they were the honored guests!

After a four-day layover in Juneau that seemed to go by in minutes, the cutter was off towards Icy Strait and the next scheduled destination, the port of Dutch Harbor. Instead, they tied up in the fishing village of Hoonah. This unscheduled stop led to one of the more remarkable events of the voyage thus far, a sighting of literally scores of humpback whales. The next day, passing Point Adophus, there wasn’t a fishing boat in sight, but the humpbacks were everywhere.

Navigating the Northwest Passage After eight weeks and 3,400 nautical miles at sea, the Ocean Watch left the west coast and the Bering Sea behind and turned east into the ice-filled waters at the top of North America. Captain Schrader wrote in the log what the boat and crew faced as they entered the Northwest Passage:

“At Point Barrow we make a sharp turn east, exit the Chukchi Sea, enter the Beaufort Sea and finally point our bow into the Northwest Passage. With Cambridge Bay roughly 1050nm due east and still blocked by ice in Amundsen Gulf, we’ll make several stops along the way while waiting for the forecast mid-August breakup.”

“The next community with a sheltered harbor, fuel and services with enough depth for OW [Ocean Watch] is Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk), 490nm down the line. All of our ice reports indicate the passage from here to Tuk is currently open. The predicted winds for the next few days should keep the ice away from the shore and leave plenty of room for us. Herschel Island with its long and rich whaling and over-wintering-for-stranded-sailors-history is on our ‘must visit’ list.”

On this leg, the crew completed the deployment of three NOAA Global Drifter Program buoys, each weighing approximately 45 pounds. The buoys are tracked by satellite and equipped with sensors to measure air pressure and surface temperature–data widely used by both weather and ice forecasters. Since 1979, nearly 1000 buoys have been deployed. After two years, they stop transmitting their location and are typically lost. However, the crew of Ocean Watch retrieved one buoy deployed in 2006 from an island near Barrow, Alaska. The tracking device on the buoy was still working.

In Amundsen’s Wake The highlight of the voyage along this desolate coast came on August 21 (Day 69), when the crew reached Gjoa Haven (pronounced “Joe-ah”) in the new Canadian province of Nunavut .after negotiating 60 miles with countless rocks, shallows and low-lying islands, and passing an anchored Nordhaven 57 motor yacht from Newport, R.I. on its way west, they arrived in the harbor at night (again) in 30 knots of wind and were unable to get a bearing on the unlit range markers The two chartplotters both put them on dry land!

In the morning the crew identified the boat anchored in the haven as the Westsail 42, Fiona, also westbound, captained by Eric Forsyth, and received excellent advice on the next leg of the voyage. Then they set off to explore the village. The settlement is named after the 72′ ship of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. His epic inaugural voyage through the Northwest Passage took three years, from 1903-1906. Amundsen based his ship here while he explored the route in the summer and passed two long, dark winters on shore.

They saw numerous references to Amundsen on plaques and in the small museum – all of them positive. As fellow sailors, they recognized that Amundsen navigated these waters with a 13-hp. auxiliary engine, a lead line, no chart and a useless compass! The great explorer had embraced the local language and culture, engaging in the first real trade with the natives. Then they were stunned to learn that Amundsen had “embraced” the culture literally.

They met the DJ at the Gjoa radio station who casually mentioned that she was Amundsen’s granddaughter! As one of the crew wrote: “Here in Gjoa Haven, it’s all Amundsen, all the time!” On August 28, Ocean Watch reached its most northern position at latitude 73°53′ N. From here, the course would be south and east toward Cape Horn, approximately 8,000 nautical miles. The water temperature had risen to four degrees above freezing, suggesting that they had seen the last of the pack ice. Until then, it was by no means certain that they would make it through this year…

In the history of the passage, only six small boats had made it from the west to the east in one season–pretty thin company and significantly poor odds. Ocean Watch’s Northwest Passage achievements included eight planned ports of call, anchoring in protective inlets and harbors along the route to escape bad weather, meeting and sharing views with many native people. Return to Civilization

On September 8, almost 14 weeks since departing Seattle, the Ocean Watch arrived in St. John’s, Newfoundland to successfully complete the challenging transit of the Arctic around the top of the continent. St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, has a long and prosperous history in the fishing industry. It is the oldest established city in North America and has long been a port for European fishing fleets, and a safe haven for ships of all nations.

Since then, they have stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, returned to US waters to visit Boston and Newport before arriving in New York October 3 for a big week of onshore events and activities. By January, the 64′ exploration yacht Ocean Watch had rounded Cape Horn. They followed the sun north up the entire west coast of the Americas as far as Astoria-the last stop on the Pacific coast. Finally, the whole of Portland had the chance to meet the boat and its stalwart crew led by Captain Mark Schrader when they docked at OMSI next to the submarine USS Blueback (SS-581).

It was a brief visit to Portland-just one day-because the crew had a tight schedule and were due in their homeport of Seattle a week later. Fortunately, the Freshwater News had been following their progress up the Oregon coast and into the Columbia river, so I was waiting on shore in Astoria to greet them. But I must admit I was not the the first local sailor to meet them, since the Astoria Yacht Club Tuesday night racers were out in force in the river.

After a quick visit to the Portway Tavern, where the crews meet after the race, I was lucky enough to spend an hour with Captain Schrader on the boat. It was dark by then, and raining hard. Sitting below deck, I could easily imagine the boat in some remote anchorage on the northern edge of the continent. I listened attentively as Mark gave me a brief history of the whole project and recalled some of the most outstanding days of this extraordinary 27,000-mile voyage for marine research and education.

The 64-foot steel cutter Ocean Watch stood up to all the demands that were made on it, and all the new equipment fitted during the refit like the cabin heater and Lugger diesel engine proved their worth in the high latitudes. There were many dramatic moments in the Northwest Passage at the north end of the continent, and the rounding of Cape Horn is never without drama. They were going against the prevailing westerlies, and were hit by a storm with gusts over 100 knots. They pulled into a small cove, secured the boat to a Navy buoy and waited about 30 hours until the winds died down. They rounded the fabled cape in an easterly with their big gennaker flying.

But every passage had its surprises, some scientific rather nautical. Instruments atop the mast recorded weather conditions, and a probe dropped 120 feet underwater took twice daily water samples. On the last tropical leg in the Pacific, they found the ocean temperature averaged 94 degrees during 45 days of sailing, and encountered huge swarms of jelly fish that thrive in those conditions.

As demanding as the long passages were the 51 visits to ports (half of them Spanish-speaking) where they were interviewed by the local media and crowds of children descended on the dock, many of them stepping on a boat for the first time. They left the Chilean port town of Valparaiso about 24 hours before it was hit by one of the biggest earthquakes every recorded on Feb. 27. The marina they were moored to was badly damaged. “At sea, the tsunami went under us. We didn’t feel a thing,” Schrader explained.

The transit of the Columbia river was the only time during the 13-month voyage that the Ocean Watch diverted from its coastal route to travel inland, and the four days devoted to the OMSI appearance showed how much the crew valued Portland’s interest in the project. One of the founding partners of this voyage was the Pacific Science Center in Seattle (a similar organization to OMSI) that was responsible for coordinating the research program and producing an educational curriculum for the crew’s schools outreach program. In fact, the crew were so busy in Portland, they actually had more free time ashore in Astoria.

The Lugger engine was essential in getting the boat to Portland on time, because a three-knot current was running in the Columbia River! On the 100-mile stretch to the Willamette River, the Ocean Watch’s speed over the bottom was reduced to just four knots, and when they reached Swan Island, they were unable to go any further because of repair work on the Steel Bridge. So they spent the night at the Swan Island launch ramp!

The open-ship on the OMSI dock gave hundreds of people the chance to tour the boat, and the presentation they gave that evening attracted some 350 people to OMSI. I knew that Mark Schrader was feeling the strain of getting the boat and crew safely back to Puget Sound on time, but he was in good form on the stage and immediately captured the audience’s attention with his motto for the voyage: “one ocean, one island, one community.” (He thanked one local company SSI, and , its president Thomas Garnier, for their help in re-engineering the yacht’s intricate radar arch/davit and fabricating a sturdy stainless steel anchor roller.)

From the north to the south of the continent he outlined the plight of the oceans, the evidence they had found of the degradation taking place, and the response to their message in the different countries they visited. “It was pretty sad in the south,” he said. “There’s a lot more pollution from fish farms and a lot more plastic pollution than we had expected to see. That was a bad surprise. But the kids renewed us,” said Schrader.

“They immediately get that we haven’t taken good care of our oceans. Just from the questions they asked, we felt like there was hope.” All the Portlanders present were struck by their passion and determination to make a difference, and later the crew described the city as providing “the largest and arguably the most enthusiastic crowd” of the entire trip.

I drove to Portland to see the program and was invited to ride back down the river on Saturday, starting at 5.45 a.m. I jumped at the chance, although it meant leaving my vehicle parked under the Hawthorne Bridge. Fortunately, there was room for my bike onboard, so I pedaled across the bridge at 5.30 am and climbed aboard as the engine was being warmed up.

At 6 a.m., the Hawthorn Bridge rose, followed by the next four lifting spans, and the Ocean Watch was on its way back to the ocean, now helped by the current for an effective speed of 10 knots! I was hoping to hear more about the voyage from the crew, but quickly realized that they were hoping for a new topic of conversation, having spent the last 13 months together, so began pointing out some of the landmarks along the banks, and even predicted that we would spend all of two hours passing Sauvie Island-which turned out to be a very good guess!

The trip ended for me in St Helens, where the crew had decided to stop to pick up groceries, fill up with fuel, made a supply run, and empty the holding tank. I biked 31 miles back to Portland on the hottest day of the year, coincidentally I saw 92 degrees on several signs, the same as the super-hot water in the eastern Pacific.

I arrived In downtown Portland while the dragon boat races were taking place, and stopped to take a few photos of the finish line before loading my bike into my truck. Then I drove back to Astoria and caught up with the Ocean Watch crew at the marina. That night I gave them a short tour of Astoria before they dined well at Fulio’s and were impressed by the crowds that turned out for the Second Saturday artwalk, unanimously finding Astoria “a cool coastal community.”

The protected, tree-lined shores of the river meant home was not far for skipper Mark Schrader, mate Dave Logan and oceanographer Professor Michael Reynold. McCormick lives in the sailing center of Newport, RI, and photographer David Thoreson resides in the unlikely town of Okoboji, Iowa. The woman in the crew for the NW Passage, and the onboard educator for the entire trip was Zeta Strickland from the Pacific Science Center.

You can learn about the trip and its conclusion at On June 14, when the Ocean Watch rounded Cape Flattery at the NW tip of Washington and spent the night Neah Bay, Herb McCormick, the man who had faithfully posted a blog almost daily, wrote this: “We’ve seen our fair share of capes and points on this voyage Around the Americas: At the tippy-top of North America we gazed upon a glorified sand spit called Zenith Point, and at the very end of South America we took in true glory in all its wild majesty at wild Cape Horn.

For heaven’s sake, along the eastern seaboard alone we negotiated Cape Cod, Cape May, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Cape Canaveral. It took us forever and a day to get past Punta Calcanhar on the east coast of Brazil, and on the other side of the Americas, we got our hats handed to us soon after losing sight of, first, Cabo San Lucas, and later, Point Conception.

But today on Ocean Watch, we rounded perhaps the most momentous cape of all. That’s because it was the last one. Let’s air out a few more clichés: Ocean Watch is on the back nine, headed down the stretch and smelling the barn. Yes, the great, big boat that has taken us all on the greatest, biggest adventure of all our lives, is around the corner and on the way home.

For June17, Herb was in a more philosophic mood: Personally, I’m having trouble figuring out if this has been the longest year of my life or the shortest, and if today is the happiest one ever or the saddest. Okay, one revelation as we roll out the door: Surprise, surprise, we went out to try, in some very small way, to help change the world, and we ended up changed ourselves. Thanks for reading. The circle is closed. Herb McCormick

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