Scott Polar Research Institute – Transits 2020

Transits of the Northwest Passage up to the end of the 2020 navigation season

Atlantic Ocean   ↔   Arctic Ocean   ↔   Pacific Ocean

R. K. Headland and colleagues, revised 1 December 2020

Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Lensfield Road, Cambridge, United Kingdom, CB2 1ER. (rkh10@cam.ac.uk)

The earliest traverse of the Northwest Passage was completed in 1853 but used sledges over the sea ice of the central part of Parry Channel.  Subsequently the following 313 complete maritime transits of the Northwest Passage have been made to the end of the 2019 navigation season, before winter began and the passage froze. 

These transits proceed to or from the Atlantic Ocean (Labrador Sea) in or out of the eastern approaches to the Canadian Arctic archipelago (Lancaster Sound or Foxe Basin) then the western approaches (McClure Strait or Amundsen Gulf), across the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean, through the Bering Strait, from or to the Bering Sea of the Pacific Ocean. 

The Arctic Circle is crossed near the beginning and the end of all transits except those to or from the central or northern coast of west Greenland.  The routes and directions are indicated. 

Details of submarine transits are not included because only two have been reported (1960 USS Sea Dragon, Capt. George Peabody Steele, westbound on route 1 and 1962 USS Skate, Capt. Joseph Lawrence Skoog, eastbound on route 1).

Seven routes have been used for transits of the Northwest Passage with some minor variations (for example through Pond Inlet and Navy Board Inlet) and two composite courses in summers when ice was minimal (transits 149 and 166). 

These routes are shown on the map below:

1:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, McClure Strait, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  The shortest and deepest, but difficult, way owing to the severe ice of McClure Strait.  The route is preferred by submarines because of its depth.

2:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, Prince of Wales Strait, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  An easier variant of route 1 which may avoid severe ice in McClure Strait.  It is suitable for deep draft vessels.

3:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Peel Sound, Franklin Strait, Victoria Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  The principal route; used by most larger vessels of draft less than 14 m.

4:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Peel Sound, Rae Strait, Simpson Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  A variant of route 3 for smaller vessels if ice from McClintock Channel has blocked Victoria Strait.  Simpson Strait is only 6·4 m deep, it has shoals and complex currents.

5:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Bellot Strait, Franklin Strait, Victoria Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  This route is dependent on ice in Bellot Strait which has complex currents.  Mainly used by eastbound vessels.

6:  Davis Strait, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Bellot Strait, Rae Strait, Simpson Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  A variant of route 5 for smaller vessels if ice from McClintock Channel has blocked Victoria Strait.  Simpson Strait is only 6·4 m deep, complex currents run in it and in Bellot Strait.

7:  Hudson Strait, Foxe Basin, Fury and Hecla Strait, Bellot Strait, Franklin Strait, Victoria Strait, Coronation Gulf, Amundsen Gulf, Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait.  A difficult route owing to severe ice usually at the west of Fury and Hecla Strait and the currents of Bellot Strait.  Mainly used by eastbound vessels as an alternative is practicable.

Transit Routes:

Statistics:

Complete transits have been made by 240 different vessels. 

The Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov has made 18 tran­sits, the largest number of any vessel. Hanseatic has made 11, Bremen 9 (2 with the former name, Frontier Spirit), Polar Bound 7; 4 vessels have each made 3 transits, and 28 have made 2 transits. 

More than one year was taken by 32 of these vessels, mainly small craft, to complete a transit wintering at various places along the route (complements of some of these vessels left for winter returning in a later navigation season).  Return transits in one summer have been made by 6 vessels. 

The vessels are from 41 registries: 47 from Canada, 35 France, 34 United States, 28 Bahamas, 26 Russia, 25 Britain, 15 Netherlands, 14 Cayman Islands, 12 Germany, 8 New Zealand, 6 Australia and Sweden, 5 Austria, Belgium, Finland, Norway and Poland, 4 Marshall Islands and Switzerland, 2 Antigua and Barbuda, Denmark, Malta and Panama, 1 from Barbados, China (Beijing), Cook Islands, Croatia, Curaçao, Czechia, Greenland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland (Eire), Israel, Italy, Japan, Nouvelle Calédonie, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, and Spain. 

Specific passengers vessels have made 63 transits, but only 16 transits were transporting commercial cargo.  Others were for repositioning and supply, or other work, in the Arctic. 

Several of the vessels have transited through the Panama Canal and circumnavigated North America, a few have circum­navigated all America, and others have circumnavigated the Arctic Ocean by also using the Northeast Passage from or to the Pacific Ocean. 

David Scott Cowper and Viktor Vasiliev have commanded 8 transits, Heinz Aye and Piotr Golikov 6, and Thilo Natke 5; 26 others have commanded more than one.

An analysis of the transit routes used through the Northwest Passage to the end of navigation in 2020 shows:

Route 1    West 3 East 0 Total 3
Route 2 West 12 East 4 Total 16
Route 3   West 56 East 32 Total 88
Route 4 West 46 East 11 Total 57
Route 5  West 24 East 38 Total 62
Route 6 West 35 East 43 Total 78
Route 7  West 4 East 9 Total 13
Composite West 1 East 1 Total 2
All Routes  West 181 East 138 Total 319

The list is in alphabetical order of Vessel Names in the years of completion of the transits (the transit numbers do not indicate precedence). Numbers (in brackets) are the cumulative number of transits, masters, flags etc.

Sources:

Sources include a compilation by Thomas Pullen and Charles Swithinbank published in Polar Record (1991), with advice from Lawson Brigham (USCG), Peter Capelotti (USCG), David Cowper (Fort Ross visits), David Fletcher, Chris Havern (USCG), Jean-Pierre Lehnert (CCG), Guus van der Linde, Brian McDonald (CCG), John MacFarlane, Peter Semotiuk, Tony Soper, Patrick Toomey (CCG), Victor Wejer, and Christopher Wright, personal observations made during several transits with Quark expeditions, many publications, advice from persons directly involved and several internet sites (with various degrees of reliability).  Advice of subsequent voyages, corrections and additions, or similar details is appreciated.

List of Transits