Kiwi beats Everest of sailing

By Bevan Hurley

Graeme Kendall. Photo / Supplied
Graeme Kendall. Photo / Supplied

Fifty-seven years after Sir Edmund Hillary scaled Everest, Kiwi sailor Graeme Kendall has knocked another bastard off.

The 63-year-old Aucklander has become the first person to sail solo non-stop through the Northwest Passage, which is sealed by ice for more than 10 months of the year.

Sailors have dubbed the narrow stretch of water north of Canada and Alaska the "Everest of the sailing world" and it is said to be one of the final stretches to be conquered by a solo seaman.

Kendall, who spent eight years planning the journey, said he celebrated with a beer for breakfast.

Speaking by satellite phone 480km south of the tip of Alaska, the father of four said: "I have sailed all my life and for me the world is round and there to be explored. You wouldn't want to look back and say 'why didn't I sail round it'."

Kendall, who had to contend with temperatures well below freezing, sailed for 15 hours straight at one stage to negotiate the treacherous, ice-filled waters.

"I have a happy hour every night - I don't get written off but it gives me something to look forward to," he said. "I talk to myself, discuss the day's events."

Kendall set off from the Greenland capital of Nuuk last month and completed the Northwest Passage in 12 days.

It is thought that his time could also be the fastest even against crewed vessels that have sailed the passage.

The route has only opened to regular shipping in the past year, after global warming melted away the Arctic pack ice.

Sailors use satellite technology to monitor the ice.

Kendall prepared meticulously for the voyage. He designed and helped to build the boat, the 12.5m Astral Express, and said his "boat, body and mind" mantra has kept him in high spirits.

"If you are experienced you know what to expect. If something happens that you don't expect, you haven't done your homework."

Kendall said the boat survived a collision with pack ice. He awoke one night when the boat struck ice and said it sounded like "it was ripping the boat to pieces".

"I panicked, I thought 'oh shit what's this'. And when I got out there was just a small mark. It's a strong boat."

As well as spotting whales, walruses and Arctic bird life, Kendall came across a Frenchman trying to row through the passage on a high-tech, seafaring canoe.

"He had a dog with him and he let him out into the water each night for a pee. He got the shotgun out in case any polar bears tried to eat the dog. He didn't make it through."

Kendall has now passed through the Bering Sea and is just over halfway through his trip from Greenland to Auckland. He is still encountering rough seas in the northern Pacific.

He wrote on his blog: "I'm a bit battered and bruised and nerves are a bit frayed but a couple more days like this and I'll be in great shape.

"I'm half way and have half water, half fuel and half rum so things are looking good."

He is due to arrive back in Auckland at the end of next month. Kendall's first attempt to sail the passage during a round-the-world voyage five years ago had to be abandoned after waters iced over.

Conquering the Northwest Passage:

* Between the end of the 15th century and the 20th century explorers searched for a possible route through the Arctic waters above Canada.

* In 1845, 129 men from two ships, the Erebus and Terror, disappeared..

* It was not conquered until 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

* Other ships disappeared or had been "crushed like a nut on the shoals and buried in the ice", said one 20th-century Canadian captain.

* On September 14, 2007, the European Space Agency stated that, based on satellite images, ice loss had opened up the passage "for the first time since records began in 1978".

- Herald on Sunday

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