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Ocean Watch makes port in Halifax after successful Northwest Passage trip

The 64-foot sailboat tied off at the Halifax docks on Sept. 18.

The boat is circumnavigating the continent to raise awareness about environmental issues and gather scientific data.

The crew of the Ocean Watch is collecting atmospheric and ocean data for NASA and the University of Washington. The Pacific Science Center in Seattle develops education materials intended for primary and secondary school classrooms.

Zeta Strickland works for the centre and is the on-board educator for this leg of the trip. She works with school groups who visit the boat. “There’s a curriculum on our website and teachers can download it,” says Strickland. “There’s different lessons on all the different science topics both on this boat and also that pertain to just ocean health in general.”

It’s early in the school year but a lot of teachers have downloaded the curriculum for their classrooms, says Strickland.

The vessel completed a shaky navigation of the North West Passage in Northern Canada.

It was enough to make Capt. Mark Schrader nervous.

“We would just go, night and day, 24-hours a day,” says Schrader.

Traversing the passage requires vessels to spot openings in the metling ice – called leads – big enough to put the boat in. The crew had to wait for openings using ice maps before moving quickly through.

The ice in this part of Northern Canada has only been made passable in recent years by the warming of the planet, says Schrader. The Ocean Watch isn’t fitted for breaking ice, but these conditions allowed it to pass through.

“The danger is if a lead opens up and there is big pack ice and you take it and it closes and the win changes you’ve just lost your boat.”

When a sheet of ice cracks it can disintegrate opening leads.

The leads in the passage ranged from 10 feet to half a mile, says Schrader, but when gaps opened up and the conditions looked right they slipped in and hoped for the best.

The Ocean Watch crew sailed off the coast of Labrador in the first week of September, surfing down 30-foot ocean swells among high-rise sized icebergs.

“This boat has a normal hull speed of about nine knots and we had surfs in excess of 14 and 15 knots … that’s way too fast to stay under control,” says Schrader.

Icebergs form in the Labrador Sea when chunks of the North American ice sheet collapse and float south.

Schrader has 35 years of sailing experience, but he says the combination of rolling waves and towering icebergs made him anxious.

“At one point there was 33 of those ‘bergs around the boat on the radar screen and it was getting dark,” says Schrader.

“All of those ‘bergs would cave off a small piece and a small piece is certainly capable of sinking this boat if you got close to it.”

The crew will sail down the east coast of the Americas stopping at ports along the U.S. east coast spreading its message.

Their trip will eventually have taken them across 44,000 kilometers of ocean.

“Look at a map. Draw a circle around North and South America and call them an island,” says Schrader.

Everything that happens inside that circle absolutely affects the ocean and everything that happens in the ocean, really affects our daily lives,” he says.

This article was originally published in issue 142-04 on October 2, 2009.

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