2011-09-28 06:40:00Basic Rebuttal #199 : Northwest passage has been navigated in the past
John Murphy

"Anyone relying on the fact that the Northwest Passage was navigated in the 1940s, to claim that the Passage obviously must have been ice-free then (as it is more regularly now), is not being truly sceptical, but is relying on half-truths to confirm a pre-conceived belief. If you read the original sources, a very different picture reveals itself."


These are the basic details, from the original account given in the sources listed at the end.

The first voyage through the Northwest Passage by the 'St. Roch' took about 28 months (850 days), between June 23 1940 and Oct 11 1942. The voyage itself certainly wasn't meant as a non-stop attempt, because they had duties to perform as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police ship, but it did get frozen in on two occasions (from mid/late September to July/Aug 1940 and 1941), and the description of the journey refers often to heavy, packed ice and a scarcity of consistent open water - as well as the use of gunpowder to create breaks in the ice. In fact, the overall description of the conditions experienced during the journey (given by Henry Larsen, the Captain of the boat, in his autobiography - see below) reveals how bad it was :

 "The three seasons of the short Arctic Summers from 1940-42 had been extremely bad for navigation, the worst consecutive three I had experienced as far as ice and weather conditions were concerned, and in my remaining years in the Arctic I never saw their like. Without hesitation I would say that most ships encountering the conditions we faced would have failed. I also believe that had we missed the single opportunity we had to get out of Pasley Bay, we most certainly would still be there, in small bits and pieces."

So, not ice-free at all.

The second journey took a total of 86 days (from July 22 to Oct 16 1944), although it actually involved 43 days of actual sailing. That certainly sounds like it was more straightforward and sounds like it may have involved steaming through an ice-free Passage, doesn't it ? Well, the reality is rather different. The description again is of heavy, tightly-packed ice and atrocious weather - so much so that the only really fine day was actually noted in the account. Again, most of the open water they experienced consisted of leads between the ice, which they had to follow as far as they could before anchoring on the ice to shelter from the persistently bad weather. It was reported by Larsen that that particular season was "the worst in years."

Again, hardly ice-free by any description.

In fact, as Larsen himself later acknowledged, the only reason the voyages were attempted had nothing to do with any widespread opening-up of the Passage and everything to do with WWII and Canada's determination to re-iterate its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, and its concern to show that there were no physical obstacles to prevent it defending its territory.

Compare those voyages above with more recent ones : such as the 'St. Roch II'catamaran, which did the journey in 2000 in three weeks and encountered very little ice; the 'Cloud Nine' ketch, which completed the journey in 45 days in 2007, encountering "hardly any ice"; the 'Babouche', which completed the journey completely by sail for the first time; the Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) which completed the journey in two weeks in 2010; and the yacht and trimaran which traversed both the Northwest and Northeast Passages in one season. You can eventake a cruise along those waters these days, if you fancy it.

And compare those 1940s conditions with those more usual now : such as 2007, when the Northwest Passage demonstrably opened up for the first time officially recorded; 2008, when both the Northwest and Northeast Passages demonstrably both opened up at the same time for the first time officially recorded; 2010 and2011, when the Northwest Passage was officially open again. Have a look at the satellite pictures here and here to see what it looks like.

All in all, the Northwest Passage has most definitely been open and ice-free in recent years (and is now more regularly open and navigable); and there is no proof whatsoever that it was ice-free back in the 40s (or, indeed, in any other recent period) - but definitely wasn't open and ice-free when the 'St. Roch' made its difficult transits.


Sources :

**The Conquest of the North West Passage : The Arctic Voyages of the St. Roch, 1940-44 – Inspector Henry A. Larsen, R.C.M.P.                                                                                          The Geographical Journal, Vol CX Nos 1-3, July – September 1947                                       (The first page is accessible for free at : http://www.jstor.org/pss/1789190)

**The North-West Passage, 1940-42 and 1944 : The Famous Voyages of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Schooner “St. Roch”
Sergeant Henry Larsen, F.R.G.S., Commander Edmond Cloutier, C.M.G., 1958

**The Big Ship : An Autobiography by Henry A. Larsen, in co-operation with Frank R. Sheer and Edward Omholt-Jensen, 1967



2011-10-29 03:18:37Corrections/amendments & some ideas.
MA Rodger


Hi JMurphy

There are three small amendments I'd suggest. And there's some further ideas you may find useful. O/a however you've nailed the myth rather well.

Second voyage, second line - you have the St Roch "steaming." Perhaps "sailing" would be better for a schooner with diesel motor.

Second voyage, the 'only really fine day' bit I found confusing. Perhaps something like 'Indeed the one really fine day during the entire voyage was the welcome exception as noted in Larsen's account." (Assuming it was Larsen's account).

Final line of post I'd add a word for emphasis/scan "...made its two difficult transits."


Futher ideas below may (or may not) add to the word count but the NW passage is a good yarn - succinctness is less important.

I thought putting a bit more before the 'details' begin would help present the two voyages being discribed. Something like:-

During the 1940s, the St Roch an ice-reinforced schooner under Captain Henry Larsen twice sailed the Northwest Passage, first in 1940-2 and again in1944. These voyages were the second and third successful transits at the Northwest passage.

(Before Larsen, only Roald Amundsen had successfully sailed the NW passage. Amundsen took four summers (1903-6) to complete the transit although one of those summers was spent surveying the magnetic North pole).


As a contrast to the accounts of St Roch, I found a good quote for St Roch II on my bookshelf (Arctic Labarinth by Glyn Williams) but stumbled onto an even better one here.I think Burton's describing about after the passage opened up & they started the transit. The links you have for St Roch II, one shows pictures of ice & the other mentions being initialy blocked by ice.


"Concern should be registered with the fact that we didn't see any ice," the vessel's skipper Sgt Ken Burton reported last week. "There were some bergs, but nothing to cause any anxiety. We saw some ribbons of multi-year ice floes, all small and fragmented, and we were able to steer around them."

The Williams book also mentioned the fourth NW Passage transit which may help with context. Perhaps a final paragraph before the contrast - After Larsen's two voyages, the fourth successful attempt of the NW Passage was in 1954 when HMCS Labrador a naval icebreaker of 6,500 ton displacement sailed through the NW Passage to carry out survey work.

2011-11-02 00:31:53
John Murphy

MA Rodger, thanks for your suggestions and The Guardian link - which I will include in the Intermediate version, I think. Have you looked at that version too ? Any suggestions for that one would be welcome too.

I will be making relevant changes in the very near future.

Thanks again.