The stout Brolga 33 sailed up the River Derwent to Hobart late on the afternoon of 1 March 2010, becoming the first yacht to circumnavigate the world via the North West Passage under sail. She is also the only yacht to have ever sailed around the world twice to contest both the Rolex Sydney Hobart in Australia and the Rolex Fastnet in England.
The Royal Ocean Racing Club subsequently presented them with the prestigious Seamanship Trophy, the previous two recipients having been famous British sailors Ellen MacArthur and Pete Goss. The two Aussies have since received many other awards, but the one they most cherish is the "Sailors of the Year Award" from the widely--watched and often satirical website, Sailing Anarchy--two punters chosen over a rocktstar line--up of racing and cruising sailors
That is, of course, other than by them!
Alex Whitworth, a former Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and survey navigator in Australia, and Peter, a teacher, have been sailing together since the 1998 Sydney Hobart when they took Berrimilla through the savage and tragic storm to an overall PHS victory. Since then they have logged some 80,000 sea miles in cruising and racing, enjoying the challenge of the sea and each other's company. "We beg to differ on occasions ... bite the bottom lip," Crozier commented diplomatically, as I enjoyed a beer with the two sailors in Tasmania after their recent arrival.
"Throughout our long days and weeks at sea we maintain a three hours-on, three hours-off watch system, but we always get together for a gin and tonic in the late afternoon," added Alex. "And we always have enjoyed a hot evening meal together."
The Brolga 33, designed by Melbourne university professor and part-time yacht designer Professor Peter Joubert, had proven itself a most seaworthy boat in, at times, the toughest of sea conditions. "We have seriously rolled three times, but only once have we lost the mast, and that was between Hobart and Sydney," said Alex.
The modest old salts describe themselves in various unprintable terms, but mainly as "two people doing what they like to do." They obviously remain good friends.
The second circumnavigation Sydney Hobart/Fastnet double and the remarkable cruise through the North-West Passage began as a result of a few drinks with a group of astronauts in the United States. During their first circumnavigation. Alex and Peter had linked up with the crew of the International Space Station, their nearest neighbours every 90 minutes or so. A number of interesting physical, psychological and planning similarities were apparent. As a result of this contact, Alex and Peter were invited by Leroy Chiao, who was the Commander of the ISS during their contacts, to give a presentation about Berrimilla's voyage to a Symposium on Risk at Louisiana State University, using the voyage as a simple analogue for a journey into deep space.
After the Symposium, in a bar on the edge of LSU Campus, one of the participants, Pascal Lee, drew a map in Alex's notebook and, perhaps foolishly, signed it. This became an invitation to undertake another, rather more symbolic voyage through the North West Passage to link up with NASA's Haughton-Mars Project on Devon Island, which Pascal runs, in time to observe the total solar eclipse on August 1 2008.
It seemed like a good idea and there were lots of suggestions about how it could be used for educational purposes--the whole concept was full of opportunities to demonstrate aspects of science, history, environmental change, planning and human relationships in difficult circumstances.
Peter Crozier was unable to sail this time, for family reasons. His place was taken by Scotswoman Corrie McQueen, also a circumnavigator and who had sailed from the UK to the Arctic.
Leaving Sydney on Yuri's Night, April 10, 2008, Berrimilla sailed north into the Pacific to Dutch Harbour, Alaska, a distance of approximately 6000 miles.
A third crew member, Tasmanian-born Kimbra Lindus flew into Dutch Harbour for the North West Passage attempt. From Dutch Harbour, Berrimilla sailed through the Bering Strait, the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and along the north Alaskan coast into Canadian waters. Because Berrimilla's hull is fibreglass and not. ice strengthened and she draws nearly seven feet, great care was needed to avoid dangerous ice and shallow water.
Berrimilla entered the North West Passage from the Amundsen Gulf and sailed south of Victoria Island, through Dease Strait, Victoria Strait and Peel Sound and out into Barrow Strait and Lancaster Sound. On the way, she sailed through Simpson Strait, once crossed on foot over the ice by the last starving stragglers of the 1845 Franklin Expedition. One of these men is thought to have been Francis Crozier, the Captain of HMS Terror, one of the two Franklin ships. Alex said that the eerie presence of the ghosts of these men reminded him of the hardship and suffering of the early explorers and that he was lucky to be able to follow them so easily.
The original plan was to meet Pascal and his team at Beechey Island, the site of the graves of other Franklin crew members, but ice delayed them until after the eclipse. Drifting icebergs and freezing rain when they were within 40 miles of Beechey convinced Alex to cancel the rendezvous. Berrimilla continued past more ice into the Baffin Sea and Davis Strait, where she completed the North West Passage transit at the Arctic Circle.
Berrimilla was mostly self sufficient for the whole journey through the North West Passage, leaving a minimal environmental footprint and without recourse to the limited supplies and facilities of small local communities to sustain the voyage.
Berrimilla continued across the Davis Strait where they passed several polar bears swimming, and into Nuuk and then Paamiut in Greenland, finally sailing across the Atlantic to the UK where Peter Crozier joined the yacht at Falmouth for the Rolex Fastnet Race and the return leg to Australia.
"We were the 77th boat to sail through the North West Passage since Amundsen in 1903, although this was the 114th recorded voyage as several have done it more than once," Alex recalled with pride. "And we are certain that Berrimilla was the first yacht to circumnavigate the world twice, once via Cape Horn and the other via the North West Passage."
Following the 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race, Berrimilla set sail on the return voyage to Australia on 11 September that year, with the crew's intention being to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific west to east through the North East: Passage and Russia's Siberian waters.
However, protracted difficulties in obtaining permission from the Russians delayed them, until too late to make a safe NE Passage before winter and they decided to stay in England for the Fastnet race. They left Falmouth on 11th September, intending to sail down the Atlantic to South Georgia but generator problems forced them to stop in Lisbon.
Subsequent radio failure sent them to Cape Town and they decided that South Georgia was perhaps a bridge too far. They set off for Kerguelen Island on 23 December and anchored in Baie de L'Oiseau about a month later in the wake of Kerguelen, (1773) Cook, (1776) and Francis Crozier (once again!) (1840). "An amazing place and you can feel the history," they both agree.
The little sloop Berrimilla and her intrepid crew of Whitworth and Crozier have sailed into a notable place in the history of Australian yachting as, to quote cruising writer Nancy Knudsen, "cruising yachtsmen that race a little."