Setting Sail on the First Summer Crossing of the Arctic Ocean

Arctic Poles
The Babouch’ty', a 7-meter ski mounted homemade Catamaran for the Quest Through Pole expedition. Photo: Vincent Colliard

French polar guide Vincent Colliard, along with fellow French adventurers Sébastien Roubinet and Eric André, are 20 days into an ambitious journey to sail across the Arctic Ocean, from Alaska to Svalbard. Roubinet leads the expedition.

This Quest Through the Pole project has been six years in the making and includes two previous failed attempts. In 2013, Colliard and Sebastien Roubinet ran into thick ice around the 82nd parallel and had to be rescued by a Russian icebreaker. In 2011, Roubinet and Vincent Berther turned back a quarter of the way into the journey when the boat’s on-board battery failed.

The Quest through the Pole route. Image: Sebastien Roubinet

To cover the estimated 3,000 kilometres, the team are using a customized seven-meter catamaran, christened Babouch’ty. Pontoons mounted on plastic sled runners allow them to manhaul when the ice is stable enough. In the main, they hope to sail through mostly open water, dodging ice pieces. However, the 2013 expedition came across ice they labelled “molasses”, too thick to sail/paddle through, yet too flimsy to walk across: the bane of all summer travelers on the Arctic Ocean.

The Babouch’ty on more solid sea ice, captured by a drone. Photo: Vincent Colliard

The trio left on June 20 from the Sag River, which runs into the Beaufort Sea in northeastern Alaska. On Day Two they first hit ice, and by Day Four were out into the Beaufort Sea, still heavily ice-choked in early summer. When hauling the almost 500kg catamaran across the ice, they have had one man up front pulling and the other two pushing from the rear.

Over the past 20 days, they have dealt with pressure ridges and thick fog. At one point, they retracted their steps a little to a small island where they received a resupply by plane on Day 11.

On Day 13, the team could only manage one nautical mile in nine hours of hauling across pressure ice. Photo: Vincent Colliard

After days of hauling through jumbled pressure ice, they have found open water and are making better mileage. However, an obstructive belt of pack ice still envelopes much of the north coast of Alaska. Noted Colliard:

Day 14

It’s no country for a sailing vessel in the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean. But we still progress! We unload some heavy bags and carry them like donkeys to the next ridge in order to work with a lighter vessel. We spent 2.5 hours going over the ridge this morning…

At some places, huge blocks of ice are pushed up against each other forming 15-20 foot pressure ridges. The power of Mother Nature leaves me speechless.

We zigzag in the pack, pushing and pulling. Our hands are feeling the pressure. Not only does the ridges pressured but our hands are also…

Writing yesterday July 10, Colliard anticipates more pack ice ahead as they edge away from the Alaskan coast.

The Babouch’ty with her sails up. Photo: Vincent Colliard


About the Author

Ash Routen

Ash Routen

Ash is an outdoor and adventure writer from the UK. He juggles a day job as a public health scientist with a second career in outdoor writing.

His words have featured in newspapers, magazines, and on various brand websites. Major bylines include Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Porsche, Outside Magazine, Rock and Ice, and Red Bull.

He holds two degrees in Exercise and Health Sciences, and a PhD in Public Health.

His areas of expertise are polar expeditions, mountaineering, hiking, and adventure travel. In his spare time Ash enjoys going on small independent sledding expeditions, outdoor photography, and reading adventure literature.

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