The harbour in Lewisporte has played host to the 31-foot cutter-rig Belzebub II since last August. The boat’s quiet winter belies her passage of last summer, which saw her launch from Sweden in May and visit Scotland and Iceland before settling into the sleepy Newfoundland town.
She is owned by Edvin Buregren, one of the three men aboard when she left Lewisporte on June 21, this time to attempt a passage through the icy Arctic Ocean to the Pacific coast of Canada.
The crew call themselves ‘The Exiles’, an appropriate name considering their extensive travels and propensity for adventure.
I had the chance to sit down with crew member Nicolas Peissel to discuss his experiences and plans for Belzebub II before he set off on the expedition. He had just arrived in St. John’s for the weekend and, having put in three weeks of 16-hour days repairing and reinforcing the boat, was exhausted but visibly excited to blow off some steam in the capital city.
A trip of this magnitude doesn’t come together on its own. Peissel and Buregren have been planning the voyage for over two years, during which time Peissel says it became the “obsession” of his life.
“I’d work until four or five every night, and then work (on the trip) until midnight – finding sponsors, researching, studying ice-maps, looking at satellite images,” the 35-year-old Montrealer explains.
Beyond the practical aspects of planning the trip, a great deal of mental preparation was also involved.
“I think what Edvin and I have done quite successfully,” Peissel says thoughtfully, “is making ourselves completely self-sufficient (and) independent for survival in the Arctic, so we won’t need to rely on anybody.
“Edvin and I have…developed a plan,” he tells me without a hint of a smile, “so if our boat gets crushed by ice, we’ve agreed we’re not going to call the Coast Guard. We decided to take this trip knowing the risks, so it’s our responsibility.
“Just because your boat is crushed or sinks doesn’t mean your life is in danger, and we have the provisions to walk for a month until we reach a community and can be helicoptered out.”
Peissel points out that, if they did need to use the Coast Guard’s rescue services, the media would likely portray them as irresponsible risk-takers. Their plan is an attempt to avoid such an outcome.
a risk worth taking
As much as the expedition puts their own lives at risk, The Exiles perceive a far greater danger threatening humanity on a global scale. Not content to sit idly by while politicians and big business negotiate the future of our planet, they hope to cast a light on the drastic effects of climate change and the changing ice-scape of the Arctic by attempting a new route through the Northwest Passage – one that has never been navigable by sailboat before. “It’s dramatic,” Peissel says of Arctic ice-loss. “Some people say as early as 2020 there will be no ice at the North Pole during the summer months.”
Dr. Joel Finnis, a Memorial University climatologist with research interests in sea-ice and Arctic climate, warns that although diminishing sea-ice is one of the clearest indicators of climate change, an ice-free North Pole may not be the milestone one might expect.
“It’s not about whether that one location becomes ice-free. We think about it as the most extreme because it’s the furthest north.” But because sea-ice is always moving, it isn’t that simple, he says. “It’s not a static feature. Instead we’re talking about drifts and ice-flows that are interacting, moving around with one another, breaking up, melding together as they glide – it’s a really dynamic structure, and it’s always moving in response to things like wind.”
If the North Pole becomes ice-free, “[Y]ou might still have a large concentration of sea-ice, but winds could shift that sea-ice away from the pole,” Finnis explains. “In (that) case…you’d inevitably see a bunch of media reports that the North Pole had become ice-free, and that makes it sound like we’ve hit some sort of threshold, which we probably haven’t.”
forest for the trees
What concerns Finnis more than an ice-free North Pole is the Arctic’s potential to become “almost entirely or entirely ice-free on an annual basis,” he says. “Even if it’s just for a couple of weeks, or a month or so…starting some time in the next couple of decades.”
Such an event would represent a significant turning point; one that would alter the ocean structure, the ecosystem and, he continues, “the way that animals interact with the ice”.
The implications of such major changes to the seascape are far-reaching.
In an article published in the March 16, 2007 edition of Science Magazine, leading climate scientist and National Snow and Ice Data Center Director Mark Serraze reported: “As ice retreats from the shore, winds have a longer fetch over open water, resulting in more wave action. This effect is already resulting in coastal erosion in Alaska and Siberia. “Ice loss is also affecting traditional hunting practices by members of indigenous cultures and contributing to regional declines in polar bear health and abundance.”
The opening-up of the Arctic has already piqued the interest of the shipping and oil industries. With the likelihood that, within the next two decades, the Arctic will become completely ice-free for part of each year, Finnis speculates, “it’s almost inevitable that we’re going to see (extensive) oil exploration in that area.”
Finnis explains sea-ice movement could exacerbate the already catastrophic effects of an oil spill. “The idea of drilling for oil in an ocean area that will consistently, every year, get covered over by sea-ice again, is really unnerving,” he says, looking pained. “The real concern here is that if you don’t get to clean up that spill fast enough, and it gets left there when the ice reforms, then it’s gonna get caught under the ice and then you can’t even see it,” he continues. “And then as the ice moves around over the course of the ice season it’ll get transported to all kinds of places, and then trying to track it down, isolate it, trap it and clean it up is basically an impossible task.”
That economic interests appear to be taking precedence over stewardship of the Arctic is deeply troubling to Peissel. In an effort to make the beauty of the Arctic accessible to more people and advocate for its conservation, The Exiles will have a documentary filmmaker on-board for the first leg of the expedition. They are also maintaining a blog with photos and videos.
The crew has also received an Expedition Grant from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and will be visiting historic sites and comparing their experiences with those of explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
the “no guarantees” voyage
The boat will harbour in Greenland before attempting the Arctic passage. From there, Peissel says, “the biggest challenge is definitely going to be the ice we encounter before going through the M’Clure Strait – multiyear ice.” At that point, “we’re not sure if we’ll be blocked from entering, if we’ll be blocked inside, or if we’ll be able to enter and the ice will close in behind us and we’ll be trapped. This will be around mid-August. We’ve gotta figure out how that’s gonna go down – there will be a three-week window that will be the most important three-week period of the trip.”
During that time, the Canadian Coast Guard will have multiple ice-breakers in the Arctic region. “We would like to keep in touch (with them) to get up-to-date information on the ice conditions, and to keep them updated on our position in order to fulfil our obligation to complete this trip as safely as possible,” Peissel explains.
Further, he is adamant there are no guarantees the trip will go forward as planned: “If we get to Greenland and it turns out the ice-conditions are too bad, we’re going to take the traditional route.”
Recklessness is sitting in your living room and watching TV all night.
– Nicolas Peissel
So are The Exiles being reckless? Peissel prefers the word ‘adventurous’. “It’s human nature to be adventurous,” he observes. “There are places in the world where very few or no people have been to – and we’re excited to see this place and raise awareness of the environmental factors, and to promote stewardship of the Arctic. Recklessness is sitting in your living room and watching TV all night. Our whole global economy – our whole history – has been based on exploration. I don’t know why people think this is crazy; we have one of the most beautiful natural ecosystems in the world. We’re off-setting all of our carbon, and have made our boat as environmentally friendly as possible. I think we’re being responsible.”
Between sips of wine, Peissel shares the sobering fact that he estimates up to a 40 per cent chance the boat will be immobilized by ice – but fear won’t stop them from going forward with the expedition. “I think that Edvin and I are very aware of the dangers,” he says, “but at the end of the day you have to do what makes you happy.”
Belzebub II and The Exiles launched from Lewisporte on June 21 and the crew expects to arrive in Vancouver, B.C., in September. As of June 29, they were just over halfway to their first stop in Kangerluarsoruseq, Greenland. You can follow their progress and learn more about their journey by visiting their web site: belzebub2.com.
Click to watch A Passage Through Ice, a short video introducing the Belzebub II crew.