2011: “Around the Americas” Voyage Comes full Circle

It was the end of May 2010 when the 64-foot steel expedition yacht Ocean Watch set sail from Seattle on the 28,000-mile “Around the Americas” voyage–the first continuous circumnavigation of North and South American continents. One year and one week later, Captain Mark Schrader and his valiant crew returned to the Pacific Northwest when they sailed over the Columbia Bar and into Astoria.—where I was lucky enough to catch up with them.

Having maintained an exhausting schedule of over 30 port visits on the east and west coast of North and South America, raising public awareness about the condition of the surrounding oceans, they were about to make a one-day visit to Portland–the only inland destination on their itinerary–and were not about to be defeated by a 100-mile trip against three-knot current!. After a night’s rest, they made the long trek upriver for a standing-room only presentation at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on June 11.

As I write this on June 15, they have returned to the Pacific Ocean, clawed their way north along the Washington shore against a strong headwind, then raced east along the Straits of Juan de Fuca and into Neah Bay for a night’s respite before continuing to Port Townsend, the last official shore call before the end of the voyage in Seattle.

From the ship’s log: June 14, 2010 – Neah Bay, Washington (Herb McCormick)

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. The late, great Johnny Cash once observed, “I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere.” Now we know what he meant. For at just a little after four this afternoon Pacific time, the 64-foot steel cutter that’s taken us just about everywhere rounded Cape Flattery at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca – entering the newly designated Salish Sea, so named in honor of the “First Nation” Americans of this wondrous coast – and in the process exited once and for all the big, beautiful Pacific Ocean on this long, strange trip around the continents. At last, we’d entered the relatively protected, tree-lined corridors of the Pacific Northwest.

For skipper Mark Schrader, mate Dave Logan and oceanographer Michael Reynolds, these were home waters, too. 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.

The permanent crew consists of three 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, Iowa, 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 fifth man is oceanographer, research instrument designer and “scientist in residence” Michael Reynolds. The first lady and onboard educator is lovely Zeta Strickland, with other stalwarts joining the boat when needed. 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 that began and ended in Puget Sound, and was the director of the Around Alone singlehanded round the world race for 12 years.

From the word go, the Ballard boating community believed in the Around the America’s project and really stepped up, Logan told me. “There’s a long history and real spirit of maritime adventure in Ballard, and the Ocean Watch refit is the latest example of the local professionals coming together and working towards a common goal.”

In preparing the boat for the journey, Logan, systems genius Paul LaRussa, and the rest of the highly-skilled team addressed, overhauled or replaced Ocean Watch’s wiring, plumbing, systems and electronics. The boat was been 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.

Many more local marine businesses contributed time and products to the Ocean Watch, and had their names or logos on the boat, including the Seaview Boatyard. Partners the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory; the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, RMR Co., MIT Sea Grant College Program and the NASA Student Cloud Observations On-Line are all internationally recognized for their leadership in the fields of polar science, oceanography, atmospheric sciences and climate research.

Another founding partner was David Rockefeller, Jr, co-founder of Sailors for the Sea–a non-profit organization that educates the boating community to protect and restore our oceans and coastal waters. Before the voyage, Rockefeller 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.”

NW PASSAGE-The transit of the Northwest Passage was undoubtedly the voyage’s greatest achievement, with the rounding of Cape Horn against the prevailing westerly winds and the passage through the Chilean Channels a close second! Here is my adaption of the daily logs that superbly describe the great adventure at the northern edge of our continent.

  1. Finally on Their Way

On June 1, 2009 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 were astonished to find they were the honored guests.

After a four-day layover in Juneau that seemed to go by in about twenty minutes, the 64-foot cutter was off towards Icy Strait–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.

  1. Navigating the Northwest Passage

After eight weeks and 3,400 nautical miles at sea, the Ocean Watch left the American west coast and the Bering Sea behind and turned east into the ice-filled waters at the top of North America. Mark Schrader wrote in the log what the boat and crew faced as they entered the Northwest Passage: “At 0745 the anchor was up and Ocean Watch headed to Point Barrow, approximately 8nm (nautical miles) to the north. 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.

    1. 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 had arrived in the harbor at night (again) in 30 knots of wind and were unable to get a bearing on the unlit range markers while their two chartplotters both put them on dry land!

In the morning the crew identified the boats anchored in the haven as the Canadian 40 footer Silent Sound, and the small French expedition yacht Beloum Gwen. (They also met a Westsail 42, Fiona, going west and 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 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 for Ocean Watch. Their Northwest Passage achievements included eight planned ports of call, anchored in protective inlets and harbors along the route to escape bad weather, met and shared views with many native people.

It was during the open-water passage south through the Davis Strait that the Ocean Watch encountered the worst weather of the entire voyage. Winds to 50 knots and big cross seas coming from both sides pounded the boat and knocked it down, with the spreaders touching the water. The canvas sides to the deckhouse blew out, but other than that, there was no damage. (Fortunately, the two kayaks on the stern rack and the inflatable dinghy stayed put!)

    1. Return to Civilization

On September 8, almost 14 weeks since departing Seattle, the Ocean Watch arrived in St. John’s, Newfoundland to successfully completes 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.

After that, they have stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and returned to US waters to visit Boston and Newport before arriving in New York in early October for a big week of onshore events and activities.

My Brief Encounter with the S.V. Ocean Watch

If I still had any doubts about the importance of a marine science story, it disappeared after my encounter with the 64′ sailing research vessel Ocean Watch in early June. Skipper Mark Schrader and his three permanent crew arrived in Astoria after a tough leg up the Oregon coast from San Francisco, having already covered some 27,000 miles on their unprecedented research voyage “Around the Americas.” They were determined to make the last scheduled appearance at the Oregon Museum of Science Industry in Portland, before completing their voyage in Seattle on June 17.

The author sailed down the Columbia with the Ocean Watch crew, then biked back to Portland.

The author sailed down the Columbia with the Ocean Watch crew, then biked back to Portland.

Their trip upriver ought to have been a cakewalk after the Northwest Passage and Cape Horn, but unfortunately the long wet spring had caused the Columbia River to rise dramatically, and the current was running at four knots and more! (This too could be part of a climactic trend that was most conspicuous in the Arctic, where the team observed the shrinking icepack, and in the Caribbean where the coral reefs are under stress from unusually warm and alkaline water.)

Along with several of the team members who had sailed on part of the voyage, I was fortunate enough to be on board the Ocean Watch (with my faithful touring bicycle) at 5.45 am when the bridges of Portland began to open. It was a fast ride back down the Columbia on a 90-degree day, but a long slog motor-sailing up the Washington coast to their last stopover in Port Townsend.

The Ocean Watch program was mainly concerned with measuring conditions within 140′ of the surface, but the effects of the pollution and temperature change that they observed went much deeper in the water column. The deeper you go, with nets or sampling devices, the more cable and winching power is needed, which ultimately demands an RV with the right type of winch. Markey Machinery is a South Seattle company well-known for its modern tug winches; it also produces research winches with a line capacity up to 45,000′ of 1/4” wire rope.

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