Skip to main content

Jarlath CunnaneJarlath Cunnane, retired construction manager, boat builder and adventurer from Castlebar, County Mayo, Ireland was selected by the Cruising Club of America to receive the prestigious Blue Water Medal at the Club's annual Awards Dinner in New York on January 17, 2006.

The award is made to Cunnane as builder and skipper of the Irish yacht, Northabout, which completed the first east to west polar circumnavigation in October 2002. The four year voyage started in Westport, Ireland in June 2001 and took Cunnane and his crew through the Northwest Passage to Alaska and Western Canada where they spent the nest two years cruising. In 2004 they sailed to Russia, wintering the yacht at Khatanga, Siberia when stopped by the ice. In 2005 they completed the voyage to Ireland via the Norwegian coast and the Caledonian Canal.

Through The Fabled Northwest Passage


Construction of the 49 ft. aluminum cutter began in Jarlath's workshop in April, 2000. By February, 2001 the hull was finished and on June 1st the boat was launched and taken to the quay at Westport, Ireland for rigging, final fitting out and loading of stores. Meanwhile preparations in the form of charts, weather and ice information and communication with authorities was well under way. On June 23, 2001 with a crew of six aboard, some final details still to be done and sea trials not yet started, the boat departed for Greenland. Seven days later they sighted the stark headland of Cape Farewell, Greenland's southern tip.

During the month of July they sailed up the west coast of Greenland in increasingly icy conditions, while watching the ice maps for indications that Baffin Bay would be sufficiently clear of pack ice to make the crossing to Canada. On July 29th they had reached Qaanaaq, 70 miles north of the Thule Air Base and now with ice-free water to the west, they sailed to Lancaster Sound and entered the Northwest Passage. By good fortune, Peel Sound, the gateway to the inner sections of the Passage, was mostly free of ice at least two or three weeks ahead of normal. They now entered and successfully navigated the shallow, rock-strewn, difficult portion of the Passage with only a brief stop at two small settlements.

A final stop at Tuktoyuktuk, at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, for fuel and water and a few repairs and they were on their way for the final leg across the top of Alaska. At this point the weather forecasts warned that they could expect colder than normal conditions and indeed they were. With Point Barrow, the most northern point in Alaska still 500 miles ahead, the lead between the shore and the offshore pack ice began to close up and new ice began to form behind them. It became a race against time as they rounded the western tip of Alaska, passed through Bering Strait and entered Nome, AK on September 2, 2002. With the Northwest Passage successfully behind them, Northabout was hauled ashore for the winter.

The Northeast Passage - Part One

Having sailed the Northwest Passage in 2001, Northabout spent the next two seasons cruising Alaska and Canada's Inside Passage. By 2004 the call of the north tempted them again and they set out from Prince Rupert, BC for the Northeast Passage over the top of Russia. The first challenge was to obtain the necessary permits, a difficult process which involved several trips to Moscow. On July 7, 2004 they departed Canada for the 2000 mile voyage to Anadyr, Siberia via Dutch Harbor, Alaska with a crew of 7 aboard. Once through the tedious but friendly formalities of entering Russia they were joined by Slava, the required Russian ice pilot and headed for Bering Strait and the start of the Passage.

The ice reports were favorable as they passed the easternmost tip of Russia on August 4th and headed west. Within four days "ice blink", a white reflection in the sky, was seen denoting the presence of sea ice ahead and prompting a course change toward shore to avoid the heavier pack ice outside. The stopped at a pair of depressing and partially deserted towns along the Siberian coast and at Tiksi caught up with a Dutch sailboat named Campina being sailed solo which had been forced to overwinter in this dreary place on the Lena river.

As they were approaching Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point on the coast and the halfway location on the Northeast Passage, they received a radio message from Campina that she was disabled in the ice and needed to be towed about 30 miles to deeper water to reach a rescue vessel. This was a very difficult and dangerous operation but it was undertaken without hesitation by Northabout and carried out successfully in spite of the heavy ice conditions. It was now September 7th and with new ice forming, the navigation season was clearly over. They now retreated up the Kheta River to Khatanga where the boat was lifted aboard a large steel river barge and secured for the winter. .

The Northeast Passage - Part Two

In June 16, 2005 an advance party of two came to Khatanga to oversee the lift-out from the barge, the stepping of the mast and other preparations. The remainder of the crew would arrive in mid-August when the sea ice was expected to break up. On August 21st Northabout departed and once out of the river found herself in heavy ice which soon brought her to a stop. With help from a large icebreaker nearby she was able to reach open water and proceed past Cape Chelyuskin and on to the west.

Their optimism was soon shattered when the learned a very severe northwesterly gale was imminent and that they would have to retreat to the lee of Bolshevik Island. Four days later the gale ended and they were able to join a convoy of ships headed by two nuclear icebreakers and enter the Kara Sea. With the sea now mostly ice free, they made a brief stop at the dreary, nearly abandoned port of Dickson and a short visit ashore at White Island. As they passed the forbidden island of Novaya Zemlya they were warned of an approaching major storm so they pressed hard to cross the Barents Sea and reach Murmansk.

On September 5th they entered Murmansk where they encountered the "paper curtain" again, spending 1 1/2 days getting their port clearance papers. Now, with the Northeast Passage behind them, Northabout rounded Norway's North Cape and sailed down the Norwegian coast and across the North Sea to Scotland's Caledonian Canal. The final leg down the Irish Sea brought them to Donegal Bay and their home port of Westport, Ireland on October 12, 2005.

Recipient Name
Jarlath Cunnane