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Expedition Sailing Vessel Evohe
sunset in antarctic peninsula
Sleeping Quarters
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Steve Kafka        

Steve Kafka 

Steve has owned and operated Evohe since 1984 and they have covered many thousands of ocean miles together. He has the greatest regard for the vessel, which he says, in 28 years has never let him down.

 

   

Alex Kafka 

Grew up on Evohe. He raced Lasers on the international circuit as well as yachts in the 49er class. He is a superyacht captain, holding an MCA Master 3000 license. He has sailed Wild, ( http://www.wildexpeditions.com/ ) his Maxi racing yacht to Antarctica.

 

Murray Watson 

Murray Watson

Murray has spent seven years as Crew, Mate, Engineer and sometimes Captain of Evohe. His very first passage on Evohe was from New Zealand to Chile,  then to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.  Murray is a design engineer.

 

In 2000 Steve skippered Evohe through the Arctic ice from Alaska to Greenland.

This is an article published in Boating New Zealand Magazine :

The entire Northwest Passage has seldom been undertaken by a single vessel because of the shortness of the navigation season and the unpredictability of the ice conditions which can be encountered. Canadian Hydrographic Service's Sailing Directions

Story by Sandra Carrod...

"Bear!" yelled Chris as he turned and ran, his rifle still on his shoulder.

"You're kidding," said Kelly. Chris was the joker amongst our crew of eight.

As Kelly and Steve crested the ridge overlooking the beach, the polar bear stretched to her full height and looked straight at them.

"Shit, he's not," said Steve and they, too, took to their heels. The one thing we had been told was not to run; a polar bear can cover the ground a lot faster. But luckily the bear felt the same way. With her two cubs she bounded off in the opposite direction, towards the sea, where the rest of the bears were feeding.

It was our first polar bear sighting on our voyage through Canada's Arctic Archipelago. Our 25m ketch, Evohe, was lucky to have got this far through the infamous Northwest Passage. Few boats, particularly yachts, have made it through this hazardous northern shortcut between the Pacific and the Atlantic. The ice clears from the frigid straits for just a few weeks in mid-summer. Some years it never clears. It can easily take two or three years to transit the passage. A change of weather can suddenly close any stretch of the 3000 miles of ice-choked waterways, forcing a boat to winter over. We were hoping, against the odds, to manage the transit in one season.

Steve Kafka and his crew were used to the cold. Evohe had spent the preceding months with a documentary film team in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Filming had ended shortly after Midsummer Day. The most direct route home to New Zealand was south, via Hawaii, but the challenge of the Northwest Passage was irresistible. Family and friends advised against it; scores of men lost their lives forging a path through the Northwest Passage. The experts said we were going the wrong way, from west to east. But there was no shortage of volunteers.

Now, three-quarters of the way through the passage, there were still no guarantees we'd make it safely through to Baffin Bay. We were anchored off an Inuit whaling camp on Prince of Wales Island, waiting for favourable conditions to attempt Bellot Strait. This 16-mile long channel is only 400m wide in places, subject to unpredictable rips and currents and liable to become clogged with ice. A nasty submerged rock, Magpie Rock, straddles its narrow eastern end, our exit. As we recounted our polar bear stories from the safety of the boat, the weather closed in and a blizzard enveloped the beach encampment.

Every summer Inuit hunters camp on the shores of this shallow bay where beluga whales congregate to rub parasites off their white skin. So far we hadn't seen a beluga. At least, not a live one. The Inuit strip these whales of their blubber, a delicacy they call muktuk, which was packed in barrels standing amongst the tents. Polar bears came from far and wide to gorge on the carcasses left on the beach. The bears skirted around the line of tents, ignoring the occupants. They had plenty to eat.

It hadn't been an easy ride so far. Three weeks earlier, the Evohe had sailed from Dutch Harbour, Alaska, through the Bering Strait to the Arctic Circle, in the hope of finding a way through the ice-choked Beaufort Sea. Chris had climbed the mast to look for leads, navigable fractures in the sea ice. Sometimes leads turned into dead-ends, forcing us to back-track.

After a few such attempts we found that following the shore lead was the most effective way of making progress. The shore lead was formed by pieces of ice grounding and making a barrier to the pack ice but it was not without problems: we were often in shallow waters, with only a foot under the keel for hours at a time. Nerve-wracking, even though the bottom was soft mud. At the end of our second day in the Northwest Passage we received a severe storm warning. We headed for what looked like a safe anchorage. The chart showed 15ft, just deep enough for us. As we approached, the wind began to pick up. We touched bottom outside the anchorage and, after trying a couple of different approaches, finally anchored outside in 11ft of water, hoping that at least the larger pieces of ice would ground before they reached us. We had nowhere to go; ice on one side and land on the other. The ice kept coming at us, some pieces the size of a car. We used the engines to dodge the worst of it. It was hard keeping a lookout in driving rain and snow, difficult to spot the ice drifting towards us. It was a harrowing night.

In the early hours the anchor chain sheared with a bang after a particularly violent tug. Fortunately the ice had cleared a little by then and we motored off in search of shelter. All we could find was the lee of a small oil-rig which gave little protection; we motored slow-ahead to reduce the strain on the ground tackle. Not a good start.

Our compass became sluggish and erratic, then useless. As we approached magnetic north the horizontal component of the earth's magnetic field became too weak to move the compass. It stayed on 330 degrees for hundreds of miles. Our GPS fixes seldom agreed with the charts, some of which had been produced to an obscure conical projection. Radar became our only useful navigation tool. But, though extremely accurate for position fixing, radar could not be relied upon for ice spotting. Some kinds of ice can easily be mistaken for surface clutter and growlers worn smooth by wave action make poor radar targets. We learned a whole new vocabulary: from frazil and grease ice, (the early stages of freezing sea) via pancake ice and polynyas (patches of open water) to the most formidable of all, glacier ice - growlers and bergy bits!

And then there were pingos, hills with a central core of ice, which pop up from the earth's surface like frozen milk out of a bottle. The Beaufort Sea is peppered with them. Pingo-free corridors have been surveyed and charted, but new pingos constantly emerge from the seabed and they are not always detected by echo sounder.

Three days after the storm, the ice had thinned from seven-tenths cover to two-tenths but it posed no less a threat. The small pieces were the most dangerous because they were the hardest to detect. A piece the size of a kitchen table would have been large enough to hole us. Evohe is a well-built steel boat, but not ice strengthened.

We kept a constant lookout but in the murk of the Mackenzie Delta we met what we had been dreading. Our bow rode up on a submerged tongue of ice and crashed through it. The hull was unscathed but our starboard propeller was wrecked. Chris and Steve dived to take a look. Visibility was only a few centimeters. They tried straightening the prop with an adjustable spanner on the end of a long bar. That didn't work so we motored for 24 hours on one engine, until the water cleared and tied up to an ice floe.

We had a spare prop with us but only one nut. In a depth of more than 1000ft there would be no chance of recovering it if it fell. We held our breath as Steve removed the nut. Once the new prop was in place we had a quick celebration. There was no time to spare.

The central and most southerly section of the passage had been largely ice-free and the weather almost balmy. In Cambridge Bay, a bustling hamlet on Victoria Island, the supermarket was stocked, amongst the usual wares, with an amazing array of furs, some with heads and claws. Supplies come in once a year by barge from Tuktoyaktuk and we happened to arrive when the barge was there. A lucky break because the charts we'd ordered hadn't arrived and the captain kindly lent us some of his. We couldn't afford to wait.

We headed east from Cambridge Bay, watching the sky for ice blink, the shiny glow reflected on the underside of clouds which are above ice.

It was starting to get dark at night. In the early days of our voyage the sun barely dipped below the horizon and an apricot glow lit the sky the entire night. During the hours of darkness we used night vision goggles. In spite of all our layers of clothing, 20 minutes on bow watch was the most anyone could take at a stretch. The kettle was constantly on the boil for hot drinks. We were anxious to make up for time we'd lost in the ice further west but were forced to sit out a gale before attempting the shifting shoals of Simpson Strait.

Now, more than 2000 miles into the Northwest Passage and heading north, we were delayed by bad weather once again. We knew the worst of the ice might be still to come. At 74 degrees north, Lancaster Sound, our gateway to Baffin Bay, had thwarted many explorers of old. Bellot Strait is just on 72 degrees north. Here the flat and featureless western Canadian Arctic had given way to rugged, snow-topped hills and mountains. The blizzard continued. We didn't envy the whale hunters in their tents on the beach. Summer was definitely over. As we waited for the wind to die down and visibility to improve we studied the tide tables, wrestling with time zones.

The Sailing Directions were not reassuring. The best time to arrive at Magpie Rock, at the eastern end of the strait, was slack water but the tides were notoriously flukey. The directions cautioned that any report of a clear strait was valid for a mere 30 minutes - conditions can change that fast. Unless using close air reconnaissance, passage without icebreaker support is not recommended. Over the radio the Coast Guard told us that Bellot Strait was ice-free. But would it remain ice-free for the time it took to cover its 16 miles?

By next morning snow and wind had eased. We swept several centimeters of snow from the deck before weighing anchor. The sea spray froze as it touched the deck. Snowy crags towered on either side of us, just a couple of hundred meters away. Most of the ice in the strait had collected along the shoreline and presented no real problem. A tiny but plump bird, like a severely obese sparrow, hitched a ride on deck. A solitary polar bear, surprisingly yellow against the snow, loped across the mountain. A seal popped its head fleetingly above the surface. We motored without incident through the brash ice and the churning waters at the eastern end of Bellot Strait.

As sea ice ages, growing downwards, partially thawing in summer and then refreezing, it becomes less salty. The lower the salinity, the denser the ice and the more dangerous it is to shipping. Icebergs, which are carved from glaciers, are the densest form of ice at sea and the most dangerous.

Eclipse Sound, at the eastern end of the Passage, was full of them. They towered over us, exquisitely beautiful, turquoise ice palaces, liable to topple and roll at any moment. We arrived at Pond Inlet, our last Canadian port of call, in a howling gale. Next day, when we finally managed to get ashore, we met a Greenlander called Ole. He and two Danes had been making a sponsored power-boat attempt on the Northwest Passage, but their boat had sunk in the gale. We offered Ole a ride home to Greenland, our next destination.

We had completed the Northwest Passage.