Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nate Littlejohn, Lt. Lisa Hatland and Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Armstrong
The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Maple arrived to Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore after a journey of more than 7,000 miles through the Arctic from Sitka, Alaska.
Cutter Maple spent 27 days above the Arctic Circle, first navigating Alaskan waters then through the Arctic to the Atlantic Ocean. Coincidently, the summer of 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the Coast Guard’s first Northwest Passage expedition that departed Seattle, July 1, 1957. Cutters Storis, SPAR, and Bramble—along with the Canadian Icebreaker HMCS Labrador— convoyed through the Passage to chart and record water depths and install aids to navigation.
It was clear from the beginning that in order to safely complete the transit through the Northwest Passage, Maple’s crew would need assistance from the Canadian coast guard. The 225-foot seagoing buoy tender wasn’t designed to break through miles of thick, multi-year Arctic sea ice; making the transit alone was out of the question. To help deal with a variety of possible ice conditions, Maple employed an ice navigator to advise the unit.
Maple’s command embraced the challenging voyage preparations and felt they were in good hands after learning that Marc Rothwell, a retired Canadian coast guard captain and prior commanding officer of Canada’s heaviest icebreaker Louis S. St. Laurent, was selected to be Maple’s ice navigator. Thanks to unwavering support from Canadian coast guard crews aboard ships Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Amundsen and Terry Fox, the knowledge Rothwell provided, and the tireless effort of Maple’s crew, the cutter arrived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, Aug. 21, 2017.
Maple departed Sitka, July 12, 2017, and arrived to Nome, Alaska, July 19, to welcome aboard Rothwell, who first began navigating Arctic waters in 1982. During Maple’s journey, Rothwell assessed daily ice charts looking at ice coverage, thickness and age to help determine the safest route for the cutter.
“It was a pleasure to have a professional mariner like Capt. Rothwell on board,” said Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Armstrong, commanding officer of Cutter Maple. “The wealth of knowledge he brought not only helped us navigate safely but enriched our understanding of the region, Canadian maritime policies and our Canadian partners. He is welcome to sail with us anytime!”
“I’ve always enjoyed working in the Arctic, the historical significance and the navigational challenges associated with transiting the Northwest Passage,” said Rothwell. “Over the years I’ve sailed on numerous vessels with sailors of different nationalities and learned that all sailors share a special regard for the ocean and adhere to similar professional standards. I’ve sailed with Russian sailors, British sailors, and now have had the honor to become a part of history and join the U.S. Coast Guard on this special voyage.”
On July 24, Cutter Maple, led by Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier, homeported in Victoria, British Columbia, encountered their first field of floating ice, in dense fog, approximately 100 miles east of Barrow, Alaska. The two ships along with a third vessel traveled together for two days through the ice field. Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Maple then anchored together off Herschel Island and conducted a morale crew exchange for dinner.
“For most of our crew, this was the first time seeing a high volume of floating ice, much less navigating through it,” said Armstrong. “It was crucial to have the Laurier crew there to offer support while our crew became comfortable operating in those conditions.”
Later in the journey, Maple’s command decided that despite having enough fuel to reach St. John’s, it would be beneficial to take on a little more if the opportunity arose. Extra fuel would keep the ship heavier and more stable in rough seas during the open ocean transit in the northern Atlantic where storms can quickly move in. The Canadian coast guard ship Amundsen provided that opportunity in the waters of Queen Maud Gulf on Aug. 8.
“It was such a great experience to moor alongside another ship in the middle of the Arctic,” said Lt. Lisa Hatland, executive officer of the Maple. “Amundsen was on a scientific research patrol for a Canadian university so aside from receiving fuel, it was an opportunity for our [doctorate] candidate Joshua Jones to speak with their chief science officer and exchange research information. The fuel we received was just enough to provide a little buffer in case we encountered any rough seas on the transit south after Pond Inlet. It’s all about networking and helping each other in this remote part of the world. ”
Beginning Aug. 11, the crew of Canadian coast guard icebreaker Terry Fox led Maple through the icy waters of Victoria Strait, through Larsen Sound, into Franklin Strait. By Aug. 12, the ships made it to Franklin Trough and finally into Bellot Strait, past Zenith Point, the northern most point of land in continental North America, in Nunavut, Canada. For 48 hours, Terry Fox broke through up to six feet of ice for a total of 230 miles, leading the way for the Maple.
“The type of ice we encountered on this leg of the patrol requires a specialized Arctic icebreaker to break up the thick, multi-year ice,” said Armstrong. “We could not have proceeded through without their help.”
The primary reason for the long journey is that Maple is scheduled to enter a mid-life maintenance dry dock at Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore to receive repairs and upgrades before being reassigned to North Carolina waters. Along the way, the crew supported marine mammal research conducted by Josh Jones, a graduate student researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) in San Diego.
In addition to the 60th anniversary of the last transit by a Coast Guard cutter through the Northwest Passage, 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the Coast Guard’s presence in Alaska. On Aug. 12, 1867, the Revenue Cutter Lincoln transported the first federal officials to Sitka for the formal transfer of proprietorship from Russia on Oct. 18, 1867. Since then, the Coast Guard’s duty to protect the people and waters of Alaska and the Arctic has grown alongside the 49th state’s ever-increasing role in U.S. commerce, Arctic exploration and national sovereignty.
Editor’s note: Read more about the 1957 Northwest Passage expedition here.