This summer a fuel tanker loaded with 9 million liters of diesel got hung up on a sand bar southwest of the community of Gjoa Haven in the territory of Nunavut. It was the second time in less than a week a ship had run aground in the Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic archipelago. A few days earlier a tourist vessel with about 130 passengers, struck an uncharted rock. So why are these ships running aground in the arctic so frequently?
The majority of charted Arctic waters were surveyed with obsolete technology dating back to the 1800s and along with the massive retreat of ice there is so much more navigable water that has never been charted. In fact charting is so bad that sailors and ships report stone pillars (reaching up to near-surface from very deep water), sand banks and rocks are not charted at all or are charted out of place. Islands can be charted up to a 1/4 mile out of place on the chart. In addition, the land is still rebounding from the glaciers so charted depths are wrong by quite a bit.
The formal announcement of a joint Canada-U. S. survey of Arctic waters is mapping a large swath of ocean floor. Updated charts are needed to give the few ships that visit the north sufficient information for navigation – such as sea level rise or movements of the seafloor – that are not yet tracked. Ships will examine seafloor features, measuring ocean depths and supplying data for updating nautical charts but it is estimated that it will take more than 25 years to map the prioritized areas of the Arctic seafloor!
We are planning on taking what precautions we can to avoid getting ourselves into trouble since we will be sailing some uncharted waters. We will not only have radar but are looking into forward horizontal sonar scanning it operates like underwater sonic radar, scanning a moving beam over a 90-degree arc either vertically or horizontally ahead of the boat. In the Forward Vertical scanning mode, this gives the navigator an underwater sonar image of what’s ahead from just under the surface 1200ft to directly below the boat 600ft.
We will also have different charts on board electronic, and paper from various mapping agencies so that we can cross-reference. At the moment we also have three different pilot looks and sailing directions; Canadian, British and American, most are 10-20years old. Most important is our remaining vigilant one keeping watch off the bow for ice and other visible objects while in known poorly charted areas.