The North-West Passage Conquered

Sailing the North-west Passage around the coasts of the American continent was for long an explorer’s ambition. George Woodcock describes how Amundsen realized it in 1906; Sergeant Larsen, R.C.M.P. in 1942-44.

After three winters in the ice, Roald Amundsen in 1906 was the first explorer to navigate the North-west Passage. In 1942, after two winters in the ice, Staff-Sergeant Henry Larsen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police guided his ship, the St. Roch, into Halifax harbour, having been the first to sail through the Passage from west to east. He had followed roughly the same direction as Amundsen.

In the summer of 1944 Larsen returned in the opposite direction, using a more northerly route than Amundsen, and performed what was perhaps the most striking feat of all; in eighteen days he threaded through the great northern archipelago which had taken his predecessor three years, and became the first explorer to navigate the Passage within a single season.

One reads the accounts of these journeys with admiration, but at the same time with a sense of the tragic irony that the journey hundreds of men strove for more than three hundred years to complete, and on which so many of them died, should have been achieved in the end with so much ease.

Yet, as we shall see, the reasons are fairly simple, and have surprisingly little to do with the advances modern technology has brought to the art of navigation. On the extraordinary voyage of the St. Roch in 1944, Larsen did not even have the advantage of the simplest instruments, since his magnetic compass had given out and continuous snowstorms prevented him from using a sextant to determine his position. He sailed by instinct and dead reckoning. The only advantage he had over the Norsemen was that he had charts, even if they were not always accurate.

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