Traditional Western Arctic Ocean Seamanship Skills

by Captain Sven Johansson 2014

Ship in Ice

Sailing Vessel in Arctic Sea Ice (Photo from the August Brabant Collection.)

Recently I had a discussion about the navigation techniques used in the Western Arctic Ocean to successfully navigate a larger vessel (and even a small one) in northern waters. I thought that the ‘wisdom’ of this local knowledge might prove interesting to readers. I have navigated a number of vessels in high Arctic waters (including the Belvedere through the Northwest Passage) and I have tested all of these techniques first–hand.

Arctic Traditional Knowledge – Even today, the Inuit seldom use sea charts (and never in the past). Traditionally they would never leave the sight of land in their travels. To do so was generally considered too risky and the possibility of becoming disoriented and unable to make a landfall too great. To make a major voyage the Inuit used the local knowledge gained by individuals exchanged in each community where they may have visited locales in their region. They often would take one of these local guides to show them the way to the next destination. These guides knew the configuration of the coastline, currents and the sailing directions to the other nearby destinations. They also knew about ice behaviour and the local weather signs. One particular exception was Fred Carpenter ... a Bankslander who was arguably the best Arctic navigator of his day, who had accumulated exceptional knowledge which enabled him to ‘eyeball’ the passages to islands over the horizon.

Dead–reckoning in the Arctic – The techniques used in the north are very similar to those in other areas, involving measurement of direction and distance travelled. The very shallow water of the North Alaska–Yukon–Mackenzie basin and east to Cape Bathurst make dead–reckoning important. The shallow silt bottom extends far out from shore. East of Cape Bathurst the shoreline is cliff–like with deep water all the way to the Atlantic. The importance is that in the West one could navigate in an open water shore lead with 6–7 feet of water beacuse the sea ice would become grounded in shallow water. In the east one have to get well off the shore as any shore lead could close quickly and the ship would be crushed between ice and cliffs. Sounding is one of the most important dead reckoning aids, especially in northern waters which have been well charted in recent times. While there are relatively few shoals in northern seas the water tends to be very shallow so it is still important to avoid grounding by monitoring the depth recorder. If the vessel is in ice the sound of the echo returning from the bottom may be lost in the noise of the ice against the hull but in shallow water this is usually not a problem. Vessels trapped in the ice can use a hand–lead while they drift by cutting a hole in the ice near the vessel. The Karluk was lost because Captain Bartlett had no experience in shallow waters. In East he always kept far off the coast. In the West a wise skipper would never go far off the shallow coast line. Stefansson was asleep when Bartlett took an open lead off the Alaska coast and tied up Karluk with an ice anchor and said "Now she is where she has to be". An Alaska man on deck hand said to himself, "I do not think so". The Karluk never moved free of that ice until she drifted North of Wrangell Island, got crushed and sank. The native people earlier navigated with very light skin boats that could be pulled on the ice or ashore by hand. Water depth was determined by the paddles sounding for the bottom. In my time the locals never knew of charts - only local knowledge passed on by story telling.

Navigating In The Ice – In the Western Arctic the sky is used to detect the approach of ice. By observing the appearance of the horizon and sky a glare from ice gives a sort of map in the sky of water and ice conditions far from the vessel. The reflection of open water onto the open sky gives a dark appearance while the reflection of ice and snow is light coloured. A knowledge of bird life and sea mammals, such as seals, can also indicate the presence of ice when certain species are observed. Ice produces a poor target for radar but this technology is still useful in detecting large masses. The main technique of ice pilotage is to go around the ice whenever possible. Entering pack ice can be undertaken with great caution and only if the vessel is constructed to endure the potential threats from contact and pressure from the ice.

Water Sky – Open water may be indicated if there are dark patches on low overcast clouds that appear almost black compared to he other clouds. Dark patches on fog can be another indicator. A dark band on high clouds can indicate the presence of a ‘lead’ of open water in the ice at some distance.

Ice Blink – The reflection of ice on low clouds over the ice on the horizon. It is a streak of dazzling brightness on the underside of distant clouds where they are lit from below by sunlight reflected up from a surface of snow on ice. Important to ice navigation as leads and open water can be detected by the darker reflection on the clouds. If the pack ice is present it will be indicated in the clouds contrasting with dimly lit clouds around it.

Natural Patterns – There were some signs and patterns which were used to predict the weather. It was believed that the weather in the first quarter of the moon was believed to be generally poor and in the last quarter was generally good. When the wind died down from a storm there would be good travelling. If there were sun dogs then mariners thought they should ‘stay behind’. If there was a halo around the moon bad weather and wind were coming. If the moon was clear and there were no sun dogs then there would be good weather for at least 24 hours.

Mirages – They are caused by refraction of light that can cause images of cliffs or mountains to appear to indicate the presence of land where none actually exists. These are frequently caused when comparatively warm winds pass over cold ice surfaces or when cold winds blow over open water.

Visibility – During the Arctic winter or during periods of snow there is little opportunity to navigate by visual means or to establish navigational fixes.

Ionospheric Disturbances – Severe magnetic storms and the Aurora Borealis can play havoc with electronic navigation aids. Uncertain atmospheric conditions make electronic navigation and radio communication erratic.

Permafrost – When there is permafrost in the bottom material anchoring can be a chancy business. Although mud or sand bottoms may be abundant they are usually frozen solid under a small loose layer of mud making penetration by anchors difficult. High winds and drifting ice are added hazards for vessels at anchor causing dragging.

Arctic Sea Transportation – The Hudson’s Bay Company had lost two ships in quick succession so their insurance costs were quite high. They thought the risks to be too high so they looked to inland routes which might be safer. There was also an experiment in alternate routes – and Fort Ross was established so that a link with the Nascopie could be made from the Western Arctic. Bellot Strait is so narrow that it is unreliable from an ice viewpoint. If the experiment with the Aklavik had been a success they would have made Fort Ross a depot. "Some years you are lucky and some years not there!" recalled Scotty Gall. The HBC termed it "Extension of the Trade Routes". Barges turned out to be the best alternative to big ships because tugs and barges can be towed around the edge of the ground ice with a tug drawing 4’ – 6’ of water. A barge drawing 3’ – 4’ of water with 1000 tons of cargo can get through. There is always a shore lead. The little ice is all broken up there and the big stuff is grounded."

Artificial Arctic Islands – They were created for oil exploration include: Adgo P–25 (in 1979), Adgo J–27 (in 1979), Adgo F–28 (in 1979) all lying south of Garry Island were relatively intact with remains of plastic sand bags, pilings, pipes and debris visible. Arnak (L–30) located in Kugmallit Bay was (in 1979) awash. Ikattok J–17 (in 1979) was a crescent-shaped sand bar about 150m (492’) long with an elevation of about 1.5m (5’). There is some driftwood and grass on it. Immerk B–48 (in 1979), located 5 miles east of Pelly Island, was two shoals awash. Isserk B–37 (in 1979), 9 miles north of Pullen Island had disappeared and was no longer visible from an aircraft. It was estimated, at that time, that the depth of water in it’s location was 20’. Issungnak O–61 (in 1979) was located 13 miles north of Pullen Island and was still occupied under construction. Netserk B–44 (in 1979) and Netserk F–40 (in 1979), located 7 miles from Pelly Island were awash. Pelly B–35 (in 1979), located 2 miles east of Pelly Island, was no longer visible from the air. Pullen E–17 (in 1979) was located close east of Pullen Island. Sarpik B–35 (in 1979) was a sand bar.

Alaskan Navigation – The Alaska coast is extremely difficult and hazardous to navigate. The part around Prudhoe Bay is so shallow that it can’t be reliably navigated even with an outboard boat. For miles out to sea there is only a foot of water. They had to build a jetty out into the bay miles long until it reached water deep enough to allow vessels to berth. Barges were anchored in deep water and lighters were used to carry cargo to the jetty and removed to trucks by forklifts.

Continuous Daylight – This causes a problem for arctic navigators employing celestial navigation. Stars are not visible during the periods of continuous summer daylight.

Arctic Lighthouses – There are no lighthouses in the north. The only fixed light in the Western Arctic was a light buoy at the mouth of the Mackenzie River. A system of floating and fixed visual aids is established and maintained by the Canada Department of Transport and the United States Coast Guard. Air radio beacons can be used for direction finding if the vessel is in proximity to the, usually weak strength transmitter site.

Mercator Charts – They are inefficient for normal chart navigation techniques because of the convergence of meridians at and near the Pole. Longitude lines on a Mercator projection chart are place in parallel to the sides of the chart, North and South, without regard to their actual convergence at the pole. Land masses become hugely distorted in polar areas due to this effect. Great Circle charts can overcome this problem but there are tables for correcting measurements from Mercator charts.

Arctic Navigation Season – It is short and cool, the summer is the only practical navigation season for vessel which are not seriously ice reinforced. Ice in the Mackenzie Waterway is broken up mainly by rising water levels due to melt water from the far south reaching still-frozen river ice in the north and buckling it from below. This also results in an area at the mouth of the Mackenzie which is open for at least a month more in the Spring and Fall to navigation. The long periods of daylight enable around the clock operations by vessels. The winter darkness season tends to inhibit operations with the around the clock periods of darkness.

Navigating and Piloting In the North – The absence of detailed maps and charts in the north limits the usefulness of landmarks for navigation. Much of the coast exhibits a uniform sameness and to an unskilled mariner, makes the bays and high points of land difficult to identify. Inaccurate charts and maps may also cause bearings taken on several landmarks to fail to intersect. Landmarks in the Western Arctic are composed mainly of silty materials which are not sharply defined. It is only in the parts of the coast in the Pre–Cambrian Shield that the landmarks are large enough and clearly enough defined. The pingos at Tuktoyaktuk are a good landmark as they occur only there and in a few other places.

Navigating In The Ice – In the Western Arctic the sky is used to detect the approach of ice. By observing the appearance of the horizon and sky a glare from ice gives a sort of map in the sky of water and ice conditions far from the vessel. The reflection of open water onto the open sky gives a dark appearance while the reflection of ice and snow is light coloured. A knowledge of bird life and sea mammals, such as seals, can also indicate the presence of ice when certain species are observed. Ice produces a poor target for radar but this technology is still useful in detecting large masses. The main technique of ice pilotage is to go around the ice whenever possible. Entering pack ice can be undertaken with great caution and only if the vessel is constructed to endure the potential threats from contact and pressure from the ice.

Permafrost – When there is permafrost in the bottom material anchoring can be a chancy business. Although mud or sand bottoms may be abundant they are usually frozen solid under a small loose layer making penetration by anchors difficult. High winds and drifting ice are added hazards for vessels at anchor.

Sea Room in the Arctic – The situation of islands and permanent polar ice packs makes the sea room space available for navigation limited. This is important because masters used to large amounts of maneuvering room in other areas find themselves confined and limited in their ability to react to navigational situations.

Compasses – The Bankslander, Fred Carpenter, had a very large magnetic compass fitted in the North Star. A good compass would be of some help West of Tuktoyaktuk and a bit East of there. At Cape Bathurst and North and East of there it was useless, being so close to the effects of the magnetic north pole. On a clear day one can see between Cape Parry and Banks Island. The Bankslanders would get a sight bearing before setting out. The compass was of no use to them. One would have to go to Baffin Island before a magnetic compass would be useful again. When I transited the North West Passage in the Belvedere I had a ‘sun compass’ made in Victoria BC. I took a gimbal–mounted compass – removed all the magnets and a 24 hour clockwork followed the sun and I could get a shadow pin on the compass rose that followed sun. The helmsman held the shadow on a dial and we held a steady course. Bingo – it worked fine! Today a GPS will give you a course and location fix. However that can cause trouble. On Belvedere we had an early satellite navigation system that gave fixes at intervals. The charts were all so inaccurate that an accurate fix was far off what the chart showed. I got fixes up to three miles up on dry land – so one has to be careful with old charts and exact GPS fixes.



To quote from this article please cite:

Captain Sven Johansson (2014) Traditional Western Arctic Ocean Seamanship Skills. Nauticapedia.ca 2014. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Arctic_Seamanship.php

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