Aussie adventurers sail the Northwest Passage

By Lauren Cella 25 September 2012
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Australian Geographic Young Adventurer of the Year, Chris Bray and partner Jess have sailed the Northwest Passage.

YOUNG AUSTRALIANS CHRIS BRAY, 29, and fiancé Jess Taunton, 24, have successfully sailed the dangerous Northwest Passage across the top of Canada and Alaska in a ‘junk-rigged’ yacht.

With their 29-ft wooden yacht dubbed Teleport, Chris and Jess split their 5500 nautical mile (about 1,100km) journey over two years, beginning in Halifax, Canada in 2011 and finishing in Nome, Alaska this month.

By breaking the trip up they were able to avoid most of the bad weather and stop to explore along the way, Chris says.

“As our yacht’s so small, we’d for sure get beaten up on the way even, if we did try and race through without stopping. So by breaking it into two meant it was much safer, and being photographers, the whole point of being up in such a magic part of the world is to explore and experience it, the wildlife, the people, the landscape.”

Northwest Passage: the ‘Everest of sailing’

Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Canadian Arctic, the Northwest Passage is ice-bound and poorly charted, earning it the title of the ‘Everest of sailing’. It was first navigated by Polar adventurer Ronald Amundsen in 1903-1906.

With one failed and one successful expedition across Canada’s Victoria Island with Clark Carter, Chris is not new to the Arctic, so in 2008 when the opportunity to buy and sail a junk-rig yacht from Canada came up he jumped on the chance.

“Jess and I are adventurers at heart, and I’d already fallen in love with the Arctic from my two previous expeditions there. This was a great excuse to go back and experience it in a completely different way, and have an amazing adventure [and] challenge,” Chris says.

Challenges of the Northwest Passage

But the trip was not all smooth sailing. The couple came across a number of major challenges, including the ever-present fear of running into an iceberg if they didn’t keep a good-enough watch.

There were also times when they thought they would not be able to complete the journey. A huge storm while they were sailing Canada to Greenland resulted in a broken engine; they had to fight 70km/hr winds through the Bering Strait; and they were kept busy with fixing leaks.
“I was never completely sure we’d make it, but that fear and realisation I guess is what kept us on our toes so much and working so carefully and hard to ensure we survived,” Chris says.

Jess had also never been sailing and had to deal with seasickness.

“I’ve never met anyone with such determination, positive energy and trust,” says Chris. “What she went through with the seasickness alone was just horrendous – I’ve never seen anyone that sick… But she never once complained or said a word against the adventure or her resolve to keep going…I can’t imagine how completely out of her depth Jess must have been, but she learnt fast, and never gave up.”

The beauty of the Arctic

Despite the challenges the beauty of the landscape and wildlife – and a surprise wedding proposal to Jess – made up for the hardships.
“All the wildlife we experienced along the way, for sure, was the highlight. Also all the wonderfully friendly and interesting people we met, and the beauty of the landscapes. It’s just such a stunning part of the world.

Chris is the 2004 winner of Australian Geographic Society Young Adventurer of the Year Award with Jasper Timm for their Tasmanian wilderness expedition, a Trustee of the Australian Geographic Society and chairman for the Australia and New Zealand chapter of the Explorers Club.