Sails on the horizon in the Northwest Passage as tall ship plans summer voyage

The first tall ship in more than 100 years will sail through the Northwest Passage this summer, according to voyage organizers.

The SSV Oliver Hazard Perry looks like a traditional 19th century sailing ship with three masts and square sails, but its steel hull and twin engines will give it better odds of making the journey than explorers from the 1800s.

"It's about as state-of-the-art, and about as far away from Sir John Franklin, as you can get," said David Clark, the director creating a documentary film of the voyage. 

Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen sailed the Gjoa, a square-sterned fishing vessel, through the passage between 1903 and 1906. According to the Canadian Coast Guard, since 1903 "no tall ships have made either a full, or partial transit, of the Northwest Passage."

Clark originally conceived of a trip through the passage to explore the varied implications of an ice-free Arctic with a documentary.

"It's a real turning point, I think, for this very unique place in the world, that was for so long unapproachable and now is quite approachable."

He contacted the University of Rhode Island's Inner Space Center and the project grew.

With their expedition partners, Clark and the Inner Space Center won a nearly $3 million US grant from the National Science Foundation in the United States.

"The fundamental focus is looking at a changing Arctic because of warming climate, but now it's going to engage students, and be doing some actual science as well as the documentary film," Clark said.

Students and science

A group of 34 high school, undergraduate and graduate students, including three from Nunavut, will learn science and sailing on the trip.

The scientists on board will examine the composition of the water, measuring greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, as well as freshwater flow from melt in the Arctic Ocean into the North Atlantic.

Students will also help with animal surveys. 

In addition to the science, the trip will be guided by marine historian Ken Burton of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

"The Northwest Passage is iconic for the struggle of mariners. I mean it's been a quest for 400, 500 years for someone to chart, to map, to navigate, to go through the Northwest passage," said Clark.

The ship will visit historical sites along the way. That history will help frame how the documentary tackles the Arctic's current challenges.

The organizers have applied to Parks Canada to visit the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and are awaiting approval for that application and their application to make the trip from the Nunavut Impact Review Board.

If approved, the ship will leave Pond Inlet on July 28 and arrive in Cambridge Bay a month later.

The two-hour documentary will be released in 2018.

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