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Northabout comes home as part of epic global voyage


BACK HOME Original crew members and part of the team that built Northabout in Knock, Jarlath Cunnane and Michael Brogan, are pictured in front of the boat at Westport Harbour last week, with crew members David Wynne-Davis, Rob Hudson, Ben Edwards, Mike Stewart and Andrew Coulthurst on board.

Expedition to highlight effects of global warming yields frightening results

Neill O'Neill

IT was a homecoming of sorts for one of Mayo’s most famous vessels of recent times, when Northabout arrived back in the county last week, following yet another around the world voyage. With Jarlath Cunnane, who built the boat in Knock before setting out on his own adventure 15 years ago, at the helm one final ceremonial time, the distinctive aluminum hulled boat docked in Westport on Thursday evening, having made the relatively short trip down the coast from Blacksod Bay. Northabout was back in Mayo on what would be the last days of an epic voyage, which has shone a spotlight firmly on the issue of global warming.
In 2001 Cunnane set off on an expedition with like minded adventurers to travel the North West Passage, through the Arctic Circle above Canada, but by the time Northabout returned to Mayo with the entire Arctic circumnavigated, three years had passed.
In June this year Northabout’s new owner, renowned British adventurer David Hempleman-Adams, set the boat on a course from its new home in Bristol in the UK to do a similar around the globe trip, albeit in the opposite direction. That the boat was back in European waters by mid-October tells a frightening tale of their ease of passage through melting and disappearing polar ice, certainly a consequence of the greatly accelerating effects of global warming.
The trip was completed in one phase, with different crews for the various legs. One person onboard, 14 year-old Benjamin Edwards, completed the entire journey, having been given special permission to leave school to do so. The skipper for the final leg of the trip from Greenland back to Bristol was Mike Stewart, who explained that having made landfall in north Mayo, they realised that it was the county where Northabout was built, and then Jarlath Cunnane got in touch, so they decided it would be appropriate to also sail down to Westport, the port where the boat was first launched.

Three year trip
Speaking on the harbourside in Westport last week, the visit of his former boat, the vessel that brought him on his greatest adventure, was clearly bringing back great memories for Jarlath Cunnane.
“It took 15 months to build. In 2001 we set off and sailed through the Northwest Passage, over the top of Canada, we overwintered in Nome in Alaska, and had another year sailing around the Gulf of Alaska down as far as the Columbia River, and then we decided to do the North East Passage over Russia. We came home every summer, we left the boat in dock and returned the following season to recommence the expedition. We docked in Prince Rupert in Canada the second year. The ice used to only melt for about six weeks so essentially it took us three years to complete the journey, as the route was impassable a lot of the time.
“A group of us sailors and adventurers got together and we wanted to do an expedition like this, to have an adventure. I had built several boats previously but nothing like Northabout or as big, it was designed for sailing in ice, the bow is specially designed for that and the boat is strengthened.”
He added that having sold Northabout two years ago, he never expected to be back on board his greatest project again, and certainly not in Mayo.
“I never expected it to be back here. These guys did the same trip we did but it only took them a couple of months because there is so much less ice there now. We did bout 30,000 miles on it and they have thousands more, if it was a car it would be worn out,” he said. Also in Westport were other crew members from the original Northabout expedition, Michael Brogan and Rory Casey, with Casey also fondly remembering his time of board and the remarkable places they visited in what was clearly an experience of a lifetime for all involved. Northabout made several other voyages under Jarlath and his various crews, but the arctic circumnavigation was the greatest of them all.

Making waves
Northabout is 15 metres long with a mast rising 17 metres over the deck. Its now owner David Hempleman-Admas is a renowned and famous explorer and is the first person in history to reach the Geographic and Magnetic North and South Poles as well as climb the highest peaks in all seven continents, a feat known as the ‘Adventurers Grand Slam.’ With all this considered, Northabout has likely not yet been on its last great adventure.
Skipper Michael Stewart grew up in New Zealand, and having taken early retirement developed his hobby for sailing and passion for the high seas into a new career. He was the third skipper of Northabout on the recent expedition, on the fourth port leg - the Atlantic leg.
“The expedition is to raise awareness of global warming. In Greenland there is much less ice than normal and we didn’t see much ice at all. We spoke with locals about it also. The fact the expedition circumnavigated the arctic in one season is significant as I don’t think that has been done before. Northabout set out from Bristol, went up across the north of Scotland up to the top of Norway, across the top of Russia, they had a Russian skipper for that section, which was a great help with the paperwork and the local knowledge and connections. From there it was across the top of the Bering Strait, across through northern Canada and to Greenland and back down towards Bristol, via the west of Ireland.”
The boat is a proven vessel he said, describing how it is ‘ice specified’ and ‘extremely well built by Jarlath and his team here’.
“It has a cut away bow and is designed for thumping into ice. Jarlath sold Northabout to David Hempleman-Adams who bought it specifically to use for this expedition to raise global warming awareness. He was on board for part of it. The crew has been volunteers, some professionals, some amateurs. I’m a professional skipper and I’ve been contracted to move the boat from Nuuk in Greenland to Bristol so I am leading this section of the expedition.”

During the trip, there were five crew berthing on board per leg, using both sail and motor to travel around the world in about 120 days. Stewart said it was a ‘fantastic expedition’.
“It has been a great experience for all involved, punching through ice and having to deal with the difficulties of those conditions. Some of the icebergs are the size of the hills around here, and you have growlers (parts of ice bergs) in the water, clear blue ice that is as tough as iron.
In Jarlath’s time you wouldn’t be able to do it in one season so it looks like the ice is opening up and melting. There is less and less of it every year. There were no scientists on board so it was an expedition to see if the circumnavigation could be done and to highlight the effects of global warming.”
The tail end of Hurricane Matthew which ravaged parts of the Caribbean delayed their Atlantic leg, knocking them to the north, towards Ireland. They lost five days with the headwind and found themselves off Blacksod and the Mullet Peninsula.
“We made some some calls and then I realised that the boat has a huge connection with Mayo and Westport and then Jaralth came up on the e-mail and invited us in to where the boat was originally launched. He came in on the last leg [from north Mayo] and piloted us in on this section to Westport.”
After Westport, where the crew enjoyed the hospitality of The Helm, their next stop was Dingle for a quick change of some of the team before sailing for home in Bristol. Travelling between 100 and 120 miles per day, the circumnavigation saw them sail 10,264 nautical miles to Westport. By the time they arrived back in Bristol the Northabout will have left a wake trailing approximately 21,000 kilometres.
“We were stopping each night in anchorages on the way down to Cape Farewell which is on the tip of Greenland,” said Stewart, “but there are no ports between Greenland and Ireland. It took ten days to get from Greenland to Mayo, it should have been seven but we got knocked back by the storm. I can tell you the whole crew are looking forward to the hospitality tonight in Westport,” he added with a smile.