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Insights into expected 2023 Northwest Passage activity

by Port Officer NWP, Victor Wejer 1 May 2023 16:27 UTC
Admiral Bellingshausen will undertake a crossing of the Northwest Passage in 2023 © Ocean Cruising Club

There were no crossings by sail of the Northwest Passage during 2020 & 2021 due to the pandemic and the closing of the waterways to prevent any interactions with the local population of Canada.

The Government of Canada announced a one-year ban for pleasure craft and cruise vessels in 2020 and extended it to March 2022. The "right of innocent passage," as defined by the United Nations, is a vessel's right to enter and pass through another's territory as long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the other state. This right was not observed by Canada during that time.

Hence a lonely New Zealand yachtsman, who entered 'innocently' and through the halfway point was tracked by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker despite having an initial permit that was later revoked, eventually answered a judicial call. He had to hire a specialty maritime lawyer from Halifax with help of an OCC representative for the Americas. All in all, it drained his pockets immensely. That news spread widely holding back any other attempts for the next two years.

The 2022 NWP was not so certain when Canadian authorities were mute on the issue until nearly the last minute. An easing of the pandemic at that time encouraged yachtsmen to move forward, albeit with a welcome at the first Arctic settlements by local police.

Those two navigation seasons created a massive void and the expected makeup is now very visible. As of mid of April 2023, there are 16 sailboats reporting to attempt the crossing, with another 20 expected by July which would be the formal record. Few of them are OCC.

The most prominent will be the 24-metre steel ketch from Estonia s/v Admiral Bellingshausen. The vessel is named after Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen who is credited with the discovery of Antarctica in 1820. I was asked by its expedition leader to guide them through the Northwest Passage. Estonia as a country celebrates the life of Admiral Bellingshausen as the place where he was born (see notes below).

Apparently, Estonia's Prime Minister was supposed to sail aboard Admiral Bellingshausen through the NWP in 2020 heading west to round the Americas; but due to the pandemic, it didn't happen. Instead, the vessel sailed directly to Antarctica with its Estonian President.

Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen was born in 1778 to a Baltic German family in the Lahhentagge manor, Ösel, now in Salme Parish, Saare County, Estonia — then part of the Russian Empire. While he was born in Estonia, he was actually of German descent.

He enlisted as a cadet in the Imperial Russian Navy at the age of ten. After graduating from the Kronstadt naval academy at age eighteen, Bellingshausen rapidly rose to the rank of Captain. As a prominent cartographer, Bellingshausen was appointed to command the circumnavigation of the globe in 1819-1821, intended to explore the Southern Ocean and to find land in the proximity of the South Pole.

The expedition was prepared by Mikhail Lazarev, the captain of the sloop Mirny, while Bellingshausen himself commanded the sloop Vostok. During this expedition, Bellingshausen became the first explorer to see the land of Antarctica on 28 January 1820.

They managed to twice circumnavigate the continent and never lost sight of each other. Thus, they disproved Captain Cook's assertion that it was impossible to find land in the southern ice fields. Returning to Kronstadt on 4 August 1821, Bellingshausen was elevated to the rank of Admiral.

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