Discovery Channel (DStv 121) documentary series Expedition To The Edge takes us on a dazzling arctic adventure aboard the Infinity, as Captain Clemens Gabriel Oestreich and his motley international crew of old salts and newcomers brave the Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Canadian Arctic archipelago.
Their mission: to draw attention to the realities of climate change in the high Arctic. “We were planting a flag for Earth in the Arctic, which is melting away due to climate change, to raise awareness of the state of our planet,” says Clemens.
Navigating the Northwest Passage is a journey that requires skill, good timing and fair weather to navigate the ice before winter freezes it over – and those things seldom coincide at sea. The Infinity is one of only 2 ships that managed the passage that year. 22 others turned back, and one sank. We spoke to Clemens (who was at home in Amsterdam at the time) about how they made the journey…
A sea of ice
Before you went to the Northwest Passage, you did a trip to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. What did you learn that was useful for navigating the ice?
Clemens: Well, I learnt to be afraid. I learnt to respect ice, and to respect also the vast temperature changes that can fuel weather changes very rapidly. I also learnt about identifying ice. I learnt a lot. But the Arctic is really a very different environment. That was told to me by some people that I interviewed, by some materials that I read beforehand. But now I also know from first-hand experience that the North and the South both have ice, but the environment – the dangers – are very different.
In Antarctica, you have the big Southern Ocean, and no continental land masses are blocking the winds and the currents and the seas from building. There are very large glaciers calving icebergs, or breaking up ice – the sheets from the continent (Antarctica) – that then drift around the planet basically in this very rough Southern Ocean, also fuelled by extreme temperature differences. The dangers there would be mostly hurricane-force winds with ice in the water. That means sails can freeze up or machinery becomes inoperable. Simple tasks that normally wouldn’t be very difficult for people to do with their hands can get extremely difficult when the windchill and the temperatures are so low that you can’t be exposed for longer than a few seconds or a minute or so.
In the Arctic, it’s much more locked-in places, a lot of land masses with large amounts of ice moving in currents and pushed by the wind and current through this region. It blocks the way, and then the ship gets trapped by ice. The mass behind the ice, the weight of the ice is just so ginormous that it would push any size ship either onto the shore or the ship could get crushed between the ice. So, it’s much more being aware of where the ice is, how it moves, and trying to be at the right place at the right time.
You were trapped by ice between July and August. What were you doing while you were trapped?
Clemens: We were trapped in Demarcation Bay by ice. We were in a relatively safe bay for most of that time, but we couldn’t leave. We couldn’t go back or forward. So, we were locked in that time. And then trying to escape that situation, to be able to continue the Northwest Passage, we actually had to go through a lot of ice as well. We could have gotten trapped on that route and we almost did because, at some point, we got caught up in bad weather. And we had to actually tie off grounded icebergs. But we managed well, and escaped at the end. And yeah, that’s just part of the fun, I think.
(I learnt) reading ice charts, and making better predictions about the movement of ice. I would say that’s a skill. And, of course, personal skills, like the situation among the crew was not always easy. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, and how we really can pull together through this. I learnt a lot about unity, and what it takes to work together even when people have different opinions. It helps to have a common mission, and we had that. So yeah, I think I learnt a lot personally.
A long voyage
Delays complicate voyages in all sorts of ways. How long were you planning to be at sea, and how do you supply for that, logistically?
Clemens: We were hoping that it would take 4-and-a-half months. And in the end, it was maybe a little bit more, just because we went all the way to Amsterdam, which we hadn’t planned out exactly at the end after Greenland. So, it became a very large trip. Of course, we also knew from the beginning that if we didn’t get lucky, we would be stuck for the year. We were prepared to basically spend a whole extra year on top (up North), and we had the food to do that. But we didn’t want to rely on rescue if we did get into trouble. We wanted to rely on our own resources. Everybody had signed up for this also to be – everybody was ready that that could happen. We all didn’t want this to happen, and it didn’t at the end, but yeah.
(In terms of supplying) there’s always the ideal and the real. Ideally, you have a whole restaurant worth of supplies for 365 days onboard. But we can’t, neither financially nor would we have the ability to, store all that stuff. So, we actually banked on the cheapest, most nutritious food that would somehow allow us to survive in case we had to stay the whole winter. That meant a lot of beans, a lot of rice, a lot of peanut butter, a lot of rich all-vegan, but high-protein, high-energy food that can be stored over long periods of time without spoiling. That would make for quite a grim diet. But actually, during the 4-and-a-half months that we did spend up there, we had a much broader range of food.
A land of stories
Clemens, growing up what were some of your favourite stories about the Northwest Passage, and the people sailing in it?
Clemens: I was always – since I was a little child – fascinated by it all. It started with fairytales. And then I always liked the story of the young boy or the prince or whoever that went out into the world to make his luck. And so, I’m sure I came across some stories like that. A little bit later in life, I read about for example John Rae (the Scottish surgeon who explored Northern Canada during the mid-1800s and learnt the fate of the Franklin expedition from the Inuit people he met) and other great explorers. There’s much inspiration to be found there, especially with somebody like John Rae, who managed to survive on his own in the most difficult environments just listening to nature and being connected and learning from locals and so forth. Yeah, so probably John Rae when it comes to the Northwest Passage.
Were you able to make stops along the way in the passage and speak with the Inuit people?
Clemens: Yes, absolutely. We did on several occasions. That was always very interesting and inspirational. Some of it was very sad. I was shocked to find out more about the dire history of the Inuit people. Terrible things had been done by colonialists until up to quite recent years ago. Even in the 1950s, still they were separating children from their families and bringing them into government schooling. A lot of atrocities were committed during that time. That lifestyle has changed so much already. The environment is changing a lot. People are trying to adapt, but it’s all very fast.
And people are somewhat missing the traditional life that the native people had lived a century ago, let’s say up until about a century ago. Due to this intervention of let’s call it the white men, this intimate knowledge of knowing how to live there, a lot of that had been ripped out of these communities by forcing sort-of the Western Christian lifestyle onto the people, and that just doesn’t work in the environment. We had a lot of conversations where people are trying to reconnect to that old wisdom. But it’s difficult when you grow up with being out of touch with your own culture because your parents aren’t there.
Alone on top of the world
You were one of the only ships to make it through that year. What were you thinking as the other 22 ships turned back?
Clemens: As they turned back, we were already basically beyond the point of return. We came from the West and they came from the East. So, we were trying to exit the Arctic at the same time as the other ships tried to enter. It’s no surprise that when it got late in the season, and this area that was our exit still didn’t open up, that those ships gave up because it would have been too late even if that exit (or for them the entry point) did open up. For us, the choice wasn’t should we enter or not. At that point, the choice was are we managing to escape or will we stay the winter? So that was very easy. I didn’t think much of it, other than being bummed out a little bit that we wouldn’t meet anybody else, other sailors. That would have been fun.
Beauty at sea
Infinity’s painted sails are absolutely exquisite. What was it like seeing them unfurl for the first time?
Clemens: Oh, that was stunning. That was amazing because Carlito Dalceggio, the artist who painted the sails, he’s a close friend now. A wonderful man, and you should check out his artwork He painted them in Dutch Harbor (the harbour on Amaknak Island in Unalaska, Alaska). The first time we took the sails out, it took quite a bit to install them back into the rigging. And then we basically took Infinity out for a sail in the bay. And that bay was filled with feeding humpback whales that day, so we had humpback whales all around us. It was actually difficult to manoeuvre the ships, we had to kind of slow the ship down as much as possible because we had mountains around us, humpback whales everywhere. And then we raised these beautiful sails with these tribal images. And it was just stunning, and really felt like it was meant to be. It felt to us like the whales came to greet the sails. Of course, that’s a story in my head.
Looking for Infinity?
If watching Expedition To The Edge gives you a thirst for adventure and leaves you longing to find out more about Infinity and its travels, check out earthtoday.com/infinityexpedition.
“Earthtoday.com is a social media platform I co-founded here in Amsterdam with the aim of increasing nature conservation,” says Clemens. “There’s great little treasures to be found about Infinity and other cool things. We have a lot of great content about Infinity and prior journeys. And there’s a children’s television series on there called Message In A Bottle, and all kinds of old clips and articles and whatnot. So, you will find all kinds of content there about Infinity. Users can protect square metres of nature with accredited nature conservation organisations from around the world. So, for the price of a cup of coffee, you can create your own nature conservation area. And we’re actually bringing in large companies to donate square metres of nature for their consumers or on behalf of their customers as a loyalty programme. So, it’s a very interesting project.”
Watch Expedition To The Edge S1 on Wednesdays on Discovery Channel (DStv 121) at 20:00
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