We were caught in some of the most difficult weather conditions ever experienced at that time of year - supposedly summer!
I’ve been away at sea for most of my life, sometimes on whalers out of North Shields but for a lot of the time I worked on dredgers.
One of the most memorable trips I made was in 1975 when I was deckhand on the dredger Beaver Mackenzie (nicknamed Beaver Mac) as it made a historic trip from Merseyside to Tuktoyaktuk in the Canadian Arctic. The trip was 12,000 nautical miles and she sailed under her own power via the Panama Canal and around Alaska. The journey took four months altogether, but it’s the last 79 days (6th July – 22nd September) that I wanted to tell you about, the time when the winter ice floes moved in unexpectedly and left us caught in the ice. We were caught in some of the most difficult weather conditions experienced in that part of the world at that time of the year – supposedly summer.
The final leg of the voyage began at Dutch Harbour (an old American naval base) in the Aleutian Islands, and in Port Clarence Bay we sighted our first ice on the shoreline. We had to wait eight days before receiving favourable ice reports from an ice reconnaissance plane. Then we moved out through the Bering Straits. Once into the Arctic Circle, we had our first sight of drifting ice and as we went further north the ice floes became more frequent until half of the surface of the sea was covered.
The Beaver Mac was not ice-strengthened, and an impact, if we hit one of the larger floes, could cause considerable damage. When we reached Wainwright a fresh westerly wind brought continuous heavy snow and shifted the black ice towards the shoreline – and this was at the height of summer!
Within hours Beaver Mac was completely surrounded by ice floes, a solid mass of ice as far as the eye could see. For eight days we were stuck there; the ship was stationary in the ice and we were able to put a ladder over the side on to the ice and take photographs of the ship’s unusual situation. Although the ice pack loosened daily, ice reconnaissance reports still reported no break in the pack ice and the wind was very erratic. Being stuck in the ice for so long put a strain on our supplies, but the company came to the rescue by flying in provisions from Anchorage, 1,600km to the south of our position.
On 2nd September the ice reports improved and the decision was made to move north and attempt to complete the passage. We had to slowly weave our way through the ice, being guided by the reconnaissance plane. The seasons were changing and the nights were getting longer, which slowed us up but also meant we could see the wonderful phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. We were now heading into the main Polar pack ice, which is a beautiful deep blue shell green colour. It was here that Beaver Mac was damaged for the first time. Two plates cracked below the waterline but the pumps were able to cope with the water.
We still had 260 n/miles to go to reach Tuktoyaktuk but the temperature was still falling and new ice was forming on the surface of the ice-free water that was around us. At this point, the Master radioed for ice-breaker assistance. On 11th September the ice-breaker Camsell, herself ice-damaged by the extreme conditions arrived to our aid and we were able to continue our voyage via the channel she cut. Shortly after this we entered Canadian territorial waters and were joined by the Kelly Hall, a Canadian tug also bound for Tuktoyaktuk and which had also been ice-damaged.
On the third day of escort, Beaver Mac suffered more damage. A large piece of old ice slipped under the hull and twisted the blades of the port propeller, a serious blow to the ship! It meant a 50% reduction in the power necessary to manoeuvre the ship through the ice, an essential in ice navigation. Our speed slowed so that in one day we only managed six n/miles. A further blow occurred when Camsell damaged her shell plating and frames as she attempted to clear a way through for us. At least she was still able to land her helicopter and bring us some mail from home!
More efforts were made to get us assistance but at least one other tug was seriously damaged trying to get to us. Although we were only 135 n/miles away from our destination it didn’t look as though we’d get there quickly. For two days we waited for help and while beset in the ice took the opportunity of taking close-up photographs of the polar bear population. The larger ones would stand on their rear legs with their front legs on the ship’s plating poking huge heads over the middle rail of the bulwark.
Help eventually arrived in the shape of John A MacDonald, although we had managed to make 5 n/miles of progress in ten hours because of a change in wind direction. With the assistance of John A MacDonald, we managed to make 11 n/miles, our best day’s run for over a week. On Friday 19th September, Beaver Mac was in open water, having taken 17 days to cover 560 n/miles of the North Slope shoreline. The relief could be felt all round the ship and we felt a huge amount of gratitude towards all the people who had helped us. Without the co-operation and assistance of the Canadian Coastguard Service, the outcome of the voyage could have been very different.