Northwest Passage Sailor Ignores Arctic COVID Restrictions

Every summer, a half dozen cruise ships and a few small yachts traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage, but not this year. Because of COVID, foreign pleasure craft are barred from entering Canadian arctic waters, in order to keep the tiny northern hamlets virus-free. The territory of Nunavut remains mostly closed to southerners, except essential workers.

But last week, an observer in Cambridge Bay, at the western end of the Passage, spotted a yacht offshore, which was later identified as the Kiwi Roa, piloted by 72-year-old New Zealander Peter Smith.

In spring, Smith tried to get permission to sail the Passage. In late July, he learned that his request was refused. He decided to ignore it and proceed east from Alaska anyway.

“I am 72 [years] old with a history of lung problems,” he wrote in response to a journalist’s email. “I am much more at risk from the villages than they are from me.”

The issue is less about the rules and the dangers that a solo sailor, isolated on his yacht, might spread the novel coronoavirus than it is about ignoring the wishes of the local communities. “I am not a tourist,” he says, presumably to explain why the ban on pleasure craft should not apply to him.

Most Northwest Passage sailors respect the arctic environment, but a few have flaunted a sense of privilege and more ego than good taste. Some erected plaques to their own journeys at historic sites like Beechey Island, where three of Sir John Franklin’s men perished in 1846. Another hovered his drone two metres over the head of a polar bear for better footage, which disturbed the animal and violated territorial wildlife laws.

Smith says that he is on track to set a record for the fastest transit of the Northwest Passage with no fuel stops, having sailed “90 percent of the way.”

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. Canada's premier arctic traveler, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and is currently working on a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada.

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Alex Hibbert
1 year ago

My expedition was granted permission to use a boat in these waters this summer, after dialogue with Transport Canada. They were prompt and reasonable, although required additional equipment and proof of insurance that a private, small boat usually wouldn’t need.

This will be an interesting political matter, as many countries reject Canada’s claim that the NWP is their internal waters. Note, there’s no way to sail the NWP without being within Canadian 12nm territorial waters.

Alex Hibbert
1 year ago

No, there was no request or permission to land, whether near or far from settlements. Our route wasn’t a full NWP route, but still triggered the ‘north of 60N private boat’ ruling. There was a slight headache regarding insurance. The ban exception is designed for commercial shipping requesting innocent passage, so they want to see proof of commercial insurance. If you’re a private vessel, you can’t get this, so it took a little explaining. Agree with everything you say, and my final point refers to the islands that you’d need to pass near in the middle of the Parry Channel.… Read more »

Voyage Adviser
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Hibbert

Get over the 12 miles – its just a number… Innocent passage is Law of the Sea and well defined. Peter Smith would be at sea for C19 isolation. Would like to see your Canada Authorization paper. Be safe!

Alex Hibbert
1 year ago
Reply to  Voyage Adviser

My priority in making contact with authorities was not because I’m caught up on the number 12. It’s because I consider it responsible to have a dialogue with the people who, in an emergency, may be called upon directly or indirectly to be a friend.

There’s plenty of debate over the law, and whether this guy and his boat matter, over on CBC and Nunatsiaq.

Jane Maufe
Jane Maufe
1 year ago

Do you know Jerry, whether a transit is permitted this year via any of the routes, including the most Northerly ? The sole remaining transit not yet completed is via the Prince of Wales Srait


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