Fog, Wind, and Ice: Navigating the Northwest Passage

By Master Chief Petty Officer P. J. Capelotti, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve

Since the time of John Cabot, explorers had imagined the route as a shortcut to the riches of the Orient, as a pathway to scientific achievement, as the glory road of Arctic exploration, and as the first line of defense for the continent of North America. In the last century, since Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen first accomplished the complete transit from 1903 to 1906, vessels from 18 different nations have made more than 100 voyages through the various passages.

Even to reach the entrance to the Northwest Passage requires a difficult and dangerous feat of navigation. From the east, thousands of enormous icebergs challenge the way. From the west, vessels reach the passage through the Bering Strait, where the mass of the polar ice cap leans its bulk on the north coast of Alaska and has, until the recent warming of the polar ocean, blocked passage by surface ships for much of the year.

The construction of the DEW Line brought thousands of military and civilian personnel onto remote Arctic shorelines in the 1950s. The construction of more than 50 radar sites and weather stations required a massive sealift by MSTS that delivered more than 2.5 million tons of cargo and 12 million barrels of fuel to the Canadian Arctic. It was one of the largest and most complicated construction projects ever undertaken.

MSTS Arctic operations in 1957 were to be the capstone of this enormous effort. Besides DEW Line construction, bases would be resupplied in Greenland, Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland. More than 100 ships and 12,000 military and civilian personnel from the U.S. and Royal Canadian navies, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Merchant Marine, and the U.S. Coast Guard would be involved. But if U.S. naval ships were trapped north or east of Point Barrow, as had almost happened in the summer of 1956, they would need some way to break out. The only option was to the east, through the classic Northwest Passage, toward escape into the North Atlantic.

A Triple Mission

The Coast Guard cutter Storis (WAG-38) had already participated in two previous summer operations, in 1955 and 1956, operating as a hydrographic survey unit with the Navy survey ship USS Requisite (AGS-18). But the Requisite was not in any sense strengthened for work in the ice. In 1957, two specially ice-strengthened Coast Guard buoy tenders would accompany the Storis . The Coast Guard was given a special triple mission: find a usable Northwest Passage through which deep-draft ships could escape from the Arctic; conduct a detailed hydrographic survey of it (extending the hydrographic sounding tracks begun by the Storis and Requisite in 1955 and 1956); and then mark this new passage with aids to navigation.

The expedition would be anything but simple. Early-season operations in 1957 had already seen the worst ice conditions many Arctic veterans had ever experienced. Despite the use of helicopter reconnaissance and portable automatic weather stations placed on the polar ice pack north of Alaska, ice damaged six different transport ships before the Coast Guard task unit appeared on scene. Other difficulties involved the lack of adequate charts; continuous daylight conditions that limited the use of celestial navigation; magnetic shifts caused by the proximity of the magnetic North Pole; and shifting winds that transformed open lanes of ocean into ice-clogged barriers in a matter of minutes.

The first of the three cutters to start the continental circumnavigation was the buoy tender Spar (WAGL-403), which left her homeport of Bristol, Rhode Island, on 19 May 1957. This followed modifications at Curtis Bay, Maryland, where the hulls of both the Spar and the Bramble (WAGL-392) were strengthened with additional steel ice-belts at and below the water line. The Spar steamed for Jamaica, arriving at sunrise on 25 May. The Bramble left her homeport of Miami, Florida, on 26 May and connected with the Spar in the Panama Canal Zone.

Continuing north along the western coast of the United States, the two vessels reached Seattle on the morning of 27 June and moored alongside the Storis, which herself had just arrived from Ketchikan, Alaska, to have a helicopter landing platform placed on her decks.

In Seattle, the "three stubby little ships," as Newsweek referred to them, were attached to Task Force 5 under the command of Navy Rear Admiral Henry S. Persons, commander of the MSTS Pacific Area. Task Force 5 was responsible for supply of DEW Line stations on the Pacific side of Bellot Strait. The Coast Guard element itself was designated as Task Unit 5.1.5 and operated under the command of Commander Harold Wood, skipper of the Storis .

A newcomer to the Storis in the fall of 1956 was a young ensign just graduated from the Coast Guard Academy, Richard Rybacki. He recalled the first meeting between a stoic, pipe-smoking Commander Wood and Admiral Persons. When the Coast Guard officers entered the room, Persons quipped that it was "good to have the Hooligan Navy here at the meeting." Wood, in a laconic reply his officers would retell for years when speaking of him, answered "We don't mind you calling us ' hooligans,' but it's the ' navy' part that we find objectionable."

The expedition had already gained considerable publicity. That in turn generated numerous requests for more interviews and for any chance that might exist for interested parties to come along. Wood had already been warned, as he wrote in a letter home, that "the brass hats are lining up like crows, in Washington, waiting for a chance to climb on board. . . . Send me my bottle of chlorophyll Aspirin . . . I'll need it!"

The Journey Begins

Leaving Seattle, the convoy crossed the Arctic Circle and arrived off Point Barrow on the morning of 12 July. There they made a rendezvous with the U.S. Navy icebreaker USS Burton Island (AG-88)—after 1966, a Coast Guard vessel—and made preparations for steaming to the east. Continuous daylight made for generally mild weather conditions, and the cutters began what would become their regular routine of following narrow openings, or leads, in the ice fields. Transiting these leads, often discovered by helicopters scouting ahead of the convoy, initially allowed the vessels to maintain regular daily mileage toward the east.

For the next two weeks, the Spar began her oceanographic work, while the Storis and Bramble lay in thickening ice just off Mackenzie Bay, Canada. Often the two cutters drifted in ice-free lakes, or polynias, while surveying ice conditions ahead and waiting to continue the expedition eastward.

From 23 July through 2 August, as the Spar continued her soundings, the three ships struggled to maintain headway through heavy ice in Dolphin and Union Strait and Queen Maud Gulf. The situation came to a near-crisis on 29 July, when the Storis , ramming through ice floes, met hard, fast ice that would not be moved. The Spar , just astern, slowed to avoid a collision, and the Bramble in the rear stopped as well, trapping all three vessels for two days.

As northerly winds pushed more ice down onto the immobile vessels, ice floes forced their way under the Spar , jamming her rudder. Ice continued to press into the Spar , pushing the cutter upward and into the hull of the Storis . The Spar 's logbook recorded the scene on the morning of 30 July: "Extreme ice pressure holding Storis in contact with this vessel's port side. Fenders rigged. Unable to maneuver. Propellers and rudders blocked by ice." The floes pushed the two vessels so close together that men passed cigarettes back and forth to each other.

On board the Storis , the crew attempted to maneuver the larger ship to keep from crushing the Spar . Wood cautioned his officer of the deck to oscillate the ship fore-and-aft to keep a small polynia around the vessel and prevent the ice from gaining control of her. But it was no use. "We were stuck," recalled Jim Loback, a petty officer on board the Storis , "and there were rumors that they were going to start taking people off."

Ensign Rybacki, who kept a personal diary of the expedition and still had it in his possession in 2006 almost 20 years after his retirement as a rear admiral, remembered the day vividly.

One of the lessons we learned along the way is emphasized in the notes I kept throughout the trip. And that was the power of the wind on the ice, and the fact that if you watched it carefully you'd be able to take advantage of the weather. It would make it a lot easier on you and the vessel, rather than just putting your head down and battering your way through the ice. The wind and the weather had such a great impact on the forces of the ice.

One of the gunner's mates appeared with dynamite charges and attempted to blast the Storis free. "I don't think they were that familiar with the dynamite," remembered Loback, "because they set the charges off quite a ways from the ship—which we were grateful for." The Storis was not able to free herself until the afternoon of 30 July, and only after ice had lifted the ship more than 6 feet. Her normal draft was 15 feet, 6 inches. In the middle of the emergency, the crew could plainly see the 9-foot draft marks. As Wood later wrote, "only our strenuous efforts at the very outset, when the wind shifted and we immediately recognized the danger, saved the three ships."

When the Spar restarted her engines and turned her propellers, the crew felt a shimmy throughout the stern of the ship, evidence of a broken blade. Limping through the pack ice, the Spar followed the Storis on 1 August in splitting a path in the ice to free the Bramble , trapped and unable to maneuver two-and-a-half miles astern. "We had 5,000 yards to go to get to them," Rybacki wrote in his log. "At midnight, we just reached them and started chipping them out." This was also the same day that the DEW Line was declared operational.

Three Abreast

Lieutenant Commander Harry H. Carter, the Bramble 's skipper, recalled that after the near-entrapment, the captains decided to proceed through the ice abreast of each other as much as possible. If one of the ships was stuck, then one or both of the other ships could try and force a passage to free the trapped cutter.

Carter remembered that swinging the Bramble 's buoy crane back and forth with a suspended buoy mooring weight to rock the vessel back and forth was ineffective. So was using explosives to break a path through the ice. "You had to simply wait for the wind to shift and clear the ice. It never occurred to us that we would be stuck there. We just figured that sooner or later things would open up." If they were beset in the ice, the plan was to use an on-board supply of plywood to enclose the house and airlift most of the crew to safety. A skeleton crew would remain behind for the winter.

The convoy continued east and resumed work around the ice-filled edges of tiny Arctic islands, ferrying men and supplies ashore for the construction of navigation aids. Drilling through permafrost and rock, crews anchored steel bases for tripod towers that held navigational beacons and radar reflectors. Old buoys were repainted and reset, and new ones emplaced, including one on the spot where the Storis touched bottom in Simpson Strait on 14 August.

"It's a very shoal body of water," Rybacki wrote in his personal log that day, "as was experienced by Storis today as we spent four hours on a shoal. Storis went aground." After they floated free, the Storis completed setting a series of channel markers and then escorted the task force through the channel.

Some towers needed removal, and one such incident remains in Carter's memory to this day:

We were operating in an area where the fog rolled in very quickly. Our shore parties had installed many aluminum towers for navigation, and the Storis sent us back to remove one of them. I didn't have any radar. We sent a crew ashore, they tore the tower down, came back to the ship, and by then we were about 25-30 miles behind the convoy. Dense fog, no radar; so we just started plugging away. You could look over the side and see the bottom. I don't think we had more than three or four feet under the keel. So we moseyed along at about three knots and finally caught up, but I can tell you I didn't get much sleep that night.

During the deployment of a personnel landing craft (LCVP) from the Bramble , Carter realized the quickly changing operational environment in which he and his crew were navigating. The LCVP was sent to do some work on an island, but without supplies to sustain the crewmen if they were caught there. Carter recalls:

We learned that shore parties in the Arctic have to be self-sustaining, because you never know if you are going to get them back or not. You can put them ashore and they can be working there when the next thing you know the fog shuts everything down and they can't find you. And if they can't subsist by themselves until you find them, then you have a real problem. We came very close once. We put an LCVP ashore to take down a tower when the fog shut in. They didn't know where we were, and since we didn't have radar we didn't know where they were. It could have been very dicey, but suddenly the fog lifted and they found us.

Ensign Rybacki recalled the roar of ice as it pressed down on the Storis when the vessel was anchored in Queen Maud Gulf. "Being the OD (officer of the deck), I thought, " I've got to do something quick. I don't know whether the anchor is going to hold us here.' It was a time for learning to do some significant shiphandling, learning to react quickly to what was going on."

The Final Leg

On 23 August, the Spar ran aground while surveying Douglas Bay, and the Bramble towed her free. The same day, Commander Wood made an ice reconnaissance flight from the Storis all the way to Bellot Strait and back. A week later, with their hydrographic and construction work in Simpson Strait concluded, the convoy commenced its long-awaited transit of the final leg of the Northwest Passage.

Waiting for the American convoy at the western approaches of Bellot Strait on the morning of 3 September was the Canadian icebreaker HMCS Labrador , which was similar in design and construction to the U.S. Coast Guard's Wind-class icebreakers. Wood went to pay his respects to Captain Thomas C. Pullen, the Labrador 's commanding officer, and was surprised to find himself piped aboard. Two days later, after surveys of the western entrance to the strait, Pullen's staff held a formal mess dinner organized by Commander Anthony Law, the Labrador's executive officer and president of the mess.

The following morning, 6 September 1957, the four ships, led by the Labrador , steamed 17 miles through an ice-free Bellot Strait and anchored at its eastern end. Following a centuries-old Arctic tradition, shore parties from each vessel landed at abandoned Fort Ross located on barren and rocky Somerset Island to place historic documents describing their achievements under a rock cairn.

Pullen's crew discovered the cairn a week earlier and found that it contained a series of messages from previous explorers, including one written by Henry Larsen of the St. Roch in 1942. They also located artifacts from HMS Fury , the British Arctic exploration ship wrecked on Somerset Island in 1825. Wood, well aware of the significance of the site, later visited Fury Beach to pick up nails from the wreck site, "enough for each man in the crew to have one." He had been on the Greenland Patrol in 1940 when he saw the Master of the Hudson's Bay ship Nascopie give Coast Guard Commander Edward H. "Iceberg" Smith a deadeye from the wreck of the Fury .

"Anchored in False Strait just north of the entrance of Bellot Strait," Rybacki wrote in his personal log that day. "The Labrador is moored alongside to port and the Bramble and the Spar to starboard. . . . It was foggy in the morning so the episode was delayed until noon. I luckily had the noon watch so I have the privilege of saying that I was the first American OOD to go through Bellot Strait."

History Is Made

By that afternoon, the Spar , Storis , and Bramble , had sounded, charted, and marked a route from Point Barrow to Bellot Strait and became the first American vessels to make the transit of the Northwest Passage. Lieutenant Charles V. Cowing, the Spar 's skipper, recorded the moment in a special entry into the vessel's log:

1320: Arrived eastern point Bellot Strait having completed transit of Bellot Strait and the Northwest Passage in company with CGC Storis (WAG-38) and CGC Bramble (WAGL-392) and the HMCS Labrador . 109 days out of Bristol, Rhode Island.

Eighteen days later, when the Spar docked alongside her home pier in Bristol, she became the first American vessel ever to circumnavigate the North American continent. In addition to being the first vessels to accomplish a convoy through the passage, the Bramble and Spar became the first buoy tenders (and the only American ones) to make the Arctic voyage.

Master Chief Public Affairs Specialist Capelotti serves in the Office of the Coast Guard Historian. In civilian life he is assistant professor of Anthropology at Penn State University Abington College. His most recent edited volume is Life and Death on the Greenland Patrol, 1942 (University Press of Florida, 2006).


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