Quest for a True First: Crossing the Arctic via the North Pole

Our buddy French explorer Vincent Colliard (right), expedition leader Sébastien Roubinet (center), and crew member Eric André (left) just set sail in a custom catamaran mounted on skis to attempt to cross from Alaska to Svalbard, Norway, via the North Pole. The expedition, Quest Through the North Pole, is a daring 1,750-mile, 3-month adventure of ice and open water only conceivable thanks to climate change. The team hopes to pull off a true prize in Arctic exploration.

But it’s going to be insanely difficult—members of the team have made two previous attempts and failed. Using just human power and the wind means progress North is slow and the potential to drift away from the target is high. “For now, the zig-zag party continues, sometimes North, sometimes East,” writes Vincent on Day 19, when forward progress was limited to one nautical mile. Still they are optimistic that their progress will improve as the summer season warms and the ice releases the choke-hold on their boat.

Tune in for our updates here.


Day 1

Last Saturday, my girlfriend Léa and I left each other at the Paris airport. We had been working the whole week on a commercial shoot for Mercedes. The week was intense and suddenly Lea was travelling to Tahiti and myself to Alaska. Lea will be working on another shoot, documentary style this time, as she is the protagonist of the episode two of a TV series Living Simply. On my side, I am getting ready to commit to my longest expedition, crossing the Arctic Ocean from Alaska to Svalbard, Norway, via the North Pole.

Couple of days ago, I joined Sébastien Roubinet, Eric André, their families, and Arnaud, the cameraman, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Sébastien is the captain of the trip and Eric is his good friend. They have been on a sailing expedition together in back in 2007. I am glad to join these guys as I feel we will be on the same page regarding safety. When I see their wives and kids, I can only think of two adventurous persons with the right attitude toward safety.

It’s Tuesday, June 19, our day 1. We still need to wait for a rifle delivery before the official start. The day before, I checked the rifle we already had and realized the bullets weren’t fitting the rifle. Instead of being long cartridge, the rifle has short cartridge insert. Our bullets don’t fit! Better to see it here and now than later and in he middle of the Arctic Ocean.

It’s 18:30, our delivery is here. We are moored on the Sag River. After giving our GPS position to some locals, we finally meet them and collect the rifle. The adventure officially starts!

We go down the river for few hours either paddling or walking in the current. There is water in our boots. It’s now 00:43, time to sleep. We are still moored along the Sag River. It’s raining…

Day 2

It’s difficult to control a situation you can’t control. We descended the Sag River for about 28 nautical miles. We sailed and paddled. Two in the front and one in the back. I am together with Eric in the front, paddle in the hand. Seb is in the back steering and dealing with the sails.

It’s the first time of my life that I sailed down a river. The wind was blowing straight in the nose so we had to zig-zag down. What a unique set up. I imagine the birds seeing us and wondering, “What are these guys doing? Weird humans…”

It became more tricky further down when both sides of the river were covered of a short wall of ice with sharp edges. Eric and I paddle and Seb steers, until he says, “There’s nothing we can do here!” The boat goes down nearly backwards and we head straight towards the ice edge. The boat hurts the ice. Fortunately, the bow isn’t damaged, but there is a pipe of carbon on the left that cracked.

“Merde!” says Seb. I imagine the frustration when you build your own boat and it gets damaged on Day 2. However it’s not a major issue and he is very good at fixing. It’s 8 p.m. Time for “Choux Rouge avec Agneau.” Dinner is good and served. We are moored along the Sag River. Two ice axes are holding the boat in place. We are 5 nautical miles from the ocean. Looking forward!

Day 4

Through the fog. 15 nautical miles, half on open water and half on the ice. And 6 nautical miles in the right direction toward the Pole. For the ones following the journey, we are trying to cross the Arctic Ocean from Alaska to Svalbard (Norway) via the North Pole. It is about 3,300 kilometers from where we are to the village of Longyearbyen.
It feels good to be out of the muddy delta and its shallows waters. However, I am the weak one at the moment. My stomach hurts. I nearly vomit in the morning. Hopefully, I’ll be able to identify the reason of that ache, and soon. Being sick on expedition sucks!!

It’s 8.41 p.m., sun just burnt the fog. Time for delicious Magret de Canard 😉

Day 5

Last piece of land, an island called Narwhal.

We covered 6 nautical miles. Our legs and arms work out hard as we progress through a beautiful day. Warm though. The very low wind barely helps moving the boat.

The coastal ice between the land and the outer island is flat. We have the impression to walk in the middle of an ice sheet. Eric is in the front pulling with the help of a strap, Seb and I are in the back pushing on their legs like rugby players in the pack. The we change position. It is mainly hard surface. From time to time, we go through the ice. Lots of ponds are around. They are fortunately knee-high max which allows us not to wear the dry suits. Our dry suits are such a great piece of gear in case we would go all the way deep down through a thin layer of ice. However, all the sweat is kept inside! It’s a matter of knowing the terrain and judging when to wear the full dress. Sébastien is good at it.

Goal reached! We are on the side of a last piece of land. It’s Narwhal Island. Let’s leave the boat and go explore! We saw bear tracks. I love the feeling about being on a polar bear territory. It makes the atmosphere so unique. I touch the ground with my hand and enjoy the warmth of it. Hopefully, the next time this happens, it will be in Svalbard, on the other side of the Pole…

Day 6

Impressions from the first pressure ridges. We leave Narwhal Island on a pretty smooth ice. The sky is clear, the day is warm and the wind pretty low. It promises to be a sweaty day. Seb decides to launch the spinnaker to take advantage of what the wind is offering. The sail is up, and its red color contrasts the tones. Off we go! Where? Plenty North this time. One in the front pulling, two in the back pushing. We are improving our routine. The zig-zag game starts as we can’t go straight all the time. We are surrounded by icy ponds. The water inside these mini pools is crystal clear.

We are nearly at the first pressure ridge when a part of the steering set up breaks. We continue slowly towards the ridge… “Let’s call it a day!” goes Seb. Eric and I agree. It is a good day to make repairs and that sun will help drying the resin. The gps indicates 2 nautical miles covered.

Meanwhile, we leave the boat behind and decide to see over the ridge. Seb is still at the boat when I see him sitting in the ground. We run back to him. The safety pin of the pepper spray used for bear protection came off. The orange spray is over the walls mainly. Seb recovers well. However, we taste the spice of the spray for the rest of the day… I had a similar situation last year on a shoot with my girlfriend Léa. We ended in the tent with pepper spray all over our stuff! We actually got scared as we didn’t know how far it would go…

Over the ridge, the ice is broken. We push it, walking, to the second ridge which seems even higher. The ice is dense and even more broken… We go back to the boat, thinking… Is it too early in the season?

We plan to head back to Narwhal Island, get an AirDrop of food and wait there for few days hoping for a changing landscape. I get in touch with my good friend Molly. She is back in the lower 48 but she has a friend in Fairbanks, Kent, who could help us… It’s nearly midnight.

Day 7

Let’s wait for a change. We still think of yesterday’s pressure ridge. All these blocks compressed going in all directions. Looked like these guys had too much drinks last winter! Above all, not a wise place for a vessel…
We pulled the boat, like a dog-sledge team, back to Narwhal Island following our 2 nautical miles tracks from the previous day. We are going to wait here for the next days… In the meantime, we have organized the food to be shipped tomorrow from Fairbanks to Prudhoe thanks to our friends Kent and Molly. Let’s now continue the discussion regarding bush planes with Mike and Bob to get the boxes all the way to Narwhal.
What I like in Alaska is that everything is possible!

Day 8

Stand by in the fog, Narwhal Island.

We spend the day mainly in the boat. The wind increases and the boat becomes suddenly noisy. The visibility is poor.

After this morning breakfast, my stomach hurts. Since the beginning of the expedition, I had some stomach issues. Progressively, I have reduced the amount of porridge, day after day. I was hoping to improve and get used to it. It looks like my body is not able to process it. It’s a shame because these rations are rich, well prepared, and correctly packed.

The three of us goes walking on the island. Some fresh air could help. It doesn’t. I have to vomit to feel better. I am weak and feel bad for my two other companions. Seb and Eric are of great support. “We must find a solution!”

Fortunately, we are on stand by here anyway waiting for the ice to cooperate better. So I get back in touch with our friends Kent and Molly from the mainland, order some more food to cover my breakfast needs. I notify Mike and Bob to wait for that second supply before bringing it over by plane. Talk tomorrow…

Day 9

Standby at Narwhal Island, still.

We are nearly hibernating spending long hours in our sleeping bags. Books, music, sleeping, cleaning the inside, adjusting the outside, walking on the island and looking round…This is our program of the day.

All the food has arrived in Prudhoe! We are now hoping for a plane delivery. Fingers crossed for tomorrow!

But life is good up here. Jack Johnson is playing tonight and chef Seb is preparing pasta carbonara. Yummy!! Talk tomorrow 😉

Day 10

Three eggs make our day.

Yesterday during dinner, we sat in the cockpit of the boat. I received a message from Mike, “We come tonight.” It was 8.38 p.m. Happy, I share the news with Seb and Eric. Mike or his friend Bob is going to deliver all the food supply we have ordered.

We went out and prepared the landing area. Some cleaning and some marking needed to be done. We did so. “All clear for landing,” but Mike went “no landing, air drop.” He continued “1 jour.” That’s fine with us. We sat in the sand scouting the horizon, waiting. At 11p.m., our hopes slowly disappeared. “We just got fog. Not coming tonight. Give me your weather at 10 a.m. tomorrow please.”

Today 10 a.m. “Hi Mike, report from Narwhal Island. Visibility is poor. Wind 15 knots from East. Will keep you updated.” The day goes by. The program of the day? Same as yesterday…

We decide to get out of our sleeping bags around noon and take a walk on the island. On the way, a female duck flies away from us. Late take off! Is she hiding some fresh eggs? Wow! 3 eggs are lying here, still warm, inside the ground nest. Later on, we decide to call her “Madame Canne.”

Even though we are still waiting for that food resupply, there is a great atmosphere between the three of us. I have the feeling that we could form a strong team!

Oh yes! I forget. Thank you “Madame Canne,” your eggs were delicious! 😉

Day 11

Air drop!

Instead of progressing on the ice, we are still in the bag. It’s 10 a.m. Would you like a cup of tea?

The weather outside is still grey, foggy, and our chances of resupply this morning can be forgotten. It is what it is. We still hope though! Our outdoor activity is to go walking on the beach and look for duck eggs. Two “Madame Canne” have been generous, we collect five eggs! One for each of us and the two others for tomorrow.

Again in the bag, we are now reading. “It’s clearing outside!” The sun breaks through! Wrong alert. Back to grey and back to reading. Hmmm…

Later in the evening, the weather starts to get better again. We don’t give much attention to it, pretending we don’t care. But hoping so bad the good weather will stabilize. That evening, the clouds disappear one after the other and it becomes blue bird. I am texting Mike and Bob the pilots sharing some weather updates. On their side in Deadhorse, it’s bad. No visibility. 9:48 p.m., the GPS beeps “We are on the way. Be ready”. At 10.15 p.m., the bush plane is above us and drops more than 10 bags, 2 by 2 to along the beach airstrip.

The adventure starts! We leave Narwhal Island tomorrow. Where? North! Yeewww!!!

Day 12

Straight towards broken ice.

Morning. It’s time to leave Narwhal Island and head North. At the beginning, we follow a crack in the ice. Eric falls in the water, I fall twice. “Good that we have the dry suits today” declares Seb.

It’s our first pretty physical day. The terrain is smooth until the afternoon. Short bumps and small ridges are surroundings us. “1,2,3!” One pulls, two push. And again, one pond of ice after the other. “1,2,3!” Pause, play, pause, play, and repeat.

We stop the day before the terrain gets worse, anchor the boat with an ice axe facing the wind, and leave her alone for a while. We go scouting the pressure ridges in front of us. It’s a vast chaos of ice, broken. What’s next is bound to be tough! Let’s keep it for tomorrow and get back to the boat for a warm chili con carne!

We were at 70’23” North this morning, we are now at 70’28”. 5 nautical miles. Good enough for the day.

Day 13

1 nautical mile, 9 hours.

The time of flat and smooth ice is over. We encounter small bumps in the morning. When we were in the flat, I looked at the small bumps thinking how challenging they were going to be, specially with a sailing boat. Now that we are in a pressure ridge area, the small bumps were actually nothing. After scouting the terrain we come to the conclusion that we have to commit towards the major ridge.

To get there, we now use ice axes and tallies. The one in the front, ice axe in one hand, walk away from the vessel and look for a place with good enough ice. He hammers the ice axe and secure it in the ground. It is connected with a rope to the front of the boat and goes through a tally. Two of us pull on the system while the other orientate the boat.

When the pack is too intense and the vessel ends up skies in the air, one is the front, one in the middle close to the side of the vessel and the last one is in the back belaying. We must stay focus and control her when she goes down from a block of ice. It’s like climbing but horizontal and with a sailing boat stuck in the pack ice. Hmmm 😉

Tomorrow promises to be another intense day. The major ridge lies in front of our camp.

10.51 p.m., it’s “dodo” time. Bonne nuit!

Day 14

1.2 nautical miles. And 100 meters on the water like a proper boat ;-).

It’s calm here on the Arctic Ocean. The sun is up and shining its magical morning light.

This is no place for a sailing vessel in the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean. But we still progress! We unload some heavy bags and carry them like donkeys to the next ridge in order to work with a lighter vessel. We spend 2.5 hours going over the ridge this morning. Our ridge where we commit is the lowest one we find in the suburbs.

At some places, huge blocks of ice are pushed up against each other forming 15- to 20-foot pressure ridges. The power of Mother Nature leaves me speechless.

We zigzag in the pack ice, pushing and pulling. Our hands are feeling the pressure. We stop, drink a tea, eat some nuts. Seb takes advantage of the good weather to fly the drone. This helps us a lot finding our way, but the ice is anyway pretty broken all around us. He might have found a short stretch of water though. Later today, we even crossed a “lake” where our speed goes to 2.5 knots!

It’s 6 p.m. when we finally call it a day. The boat needs some repairs.

“Apéritif!” Eric cuts some cheddar and some carrots. For dinner, we have some pastas and even the third of an apple each. Apple doesn’t grow well around here so we take the time to appreciate each bite.

10:10 p.m., click, click, click, click, click… the rain starts. Let’s hide in the bag.

Day 15

Click, click, click, click… The light rain continues to drop until we wake up. The mist surrounds us, but the sun isn’t far. It’s time to go.

Nothing is better than starting the day pulling a sailboat on a broken ice terrain, right? We wear our drysuits and already we feel the sweat. Yummy!

However, the boat is where it belongs—on the water! We spend the rest of the day navigating through the floating ice. From time to time, Seb flies the drone to find the way. It saves us a lot of time! Despite our efforts, we only cover 4,5 nautical miles towards the North by the end of the day. Fingers crossed for more open cracks tomorrow. It is still ice country here. The good news is that we are currently drifting northeast, 300 feet just the time to eat dinner.

Sweet dreams while we drift! North please.

Day 16

This morning the weather is grey, the visibility is poor, and the wind blows 15 to 20 knots. The boat is moored on an ice patch. We are on the fine line between: “Should we go or should we stay”? We have to progress but there are lots of floating blocks drifting all around us. The boat is heavy loaded. Eric and I aren’t yet comfortable in these conditions. We call it a day for now.

Around noon, the conditions improve, and we decide to give it a try. On the way out, a part of the steering set up breaks. We stay ashore, and Seb does a great job repairing.

Finally, we leave our camp and sail. It is about finding passages of water, jumping from one ice floe to the next, helping the boat to navigate, one floater riding the water the other grinding the ice… 2 hours later, we call it day. Better be wise.

It is a slow start, yes. There is a big belt of ice on the northern coast of Alaska. The boat and the three of us are now part of it. However, it’s still the beginning of the summer season, we are in a good position for when the ice opens up. There is a great energy with Seb and Eric, and the boat is dam good!

It’s 10 p.m., we just move the boat 100 feet because a big patch of ice just dislodged the one we were camping on.

Welcome to the Arctic Ocean! Talk tomorrow 😉

Day 17

A short day. Imagine going to sleep in one place and waking up on another. It’s pretty much what happened last night. Our patch of ice is still here but the surroundings have completely changed. Some blocks of ice crushed against each other and small ridges are growing.

Today, we experience few places with water, not enough to sail though. The vast majority is still raw ice. Our progress slows down in the afternoon so by 3:30 p.m., we decide to camp and wait. Pushing it on this type of terrain doesn’t make a big difference distance wise.

Patience is key on that chest game…

Day 18

4 nautical miles today, minus 2.3 nautical miles drifting = 1,7 nautical miles in the North.

The fog is here in the morning, so we sleep a little longer. In these conditions, we have the impression to be lost in space as it’s tricky to know where the North is.

We progress through difficult terrain. Because we didn’t take the right angle, we get the boat stuck in a tricky passage. Pulling her out takes us one hour. However, later in the afternoon, we encounter some flat spots and enjoy walking in between the blue pools. It’s 6.30 p.m. when we stop. We rehydrate and warm the food. Two hours later, the “confit de canard pommes de terre” is ready! Ooo-lala

Day 19

The right dose of exercise. In the back of the boat this morning, we drink “un café en terrasse” while the sun warms the atmosphere. No rush today as we are still surrounded by ice. We have to progress but not worth being exhausted. In these kind of conditions, we still need to be patient. We will have some longer days when the ice opens up.

For now, the zig-zag party continues, sometimes North, sometimes East. “Let’s do a reco!” “Yeah, it looks to be doable here!” The workout is intense. The fun part comes when we have to jump from one unstable ice floe to another. It’s definitely a matter of knowing what weight it will support before sinking. Better be quick!

We do 1 nautical mile towards the North, again. Ouhhhh! Looking forward to cover some bigger distances ;-).

Day 20

It’s another short day for us here from the sea ice of the Beaufort Sea. We’ve made some progress but the ice is still tough! So we decided to stop the day earlier in the afternoon.

We take advantage to empty the boat in order to re inflate the flotter on portside and correct a ding in the front affecting the shape of the hull. Seb does a great job and manage to get the form back to its original position. During that time, Eric and I go for a walk looking for a decent passage for the next day. We scout. No water for now but we’ll get there!

9 p.m., the box of candies is open…