Scattered ice floes in Larsen Sound, in the Northwest Passage, in October of 2006. Douglas Struck, The Washington Post

This year, we’ve seen yet another Arctic milestone — sea ice covering the top of the world reached the lowest maximum extent yet observed in winter, when ice is at its peak. That means that in the last four years, Arctic sea ice has seen a new low both for its seasonal winter peak (in 2015) and for its summer minimum (in 2012).

We often hear about how damaging this will be to Arctic ecosystems and cultures — but many people see new opportunities in a less icy Arctic. It’s not just shipping and industry, it’s also competitors and adventurers. One case in point: Sailing the Arctic Race, an “extreme yacht race” that is being proposed for the summer-fall of 2017, when crews would race 7,700 miles through the fabled Northwest Passage on a trip from New York to Victoria, British Columbia via the top of the world.

“The more ice that’s being melted, the more free water is there for us to be sailing,” says Robert Molnar, a lifelong sailor, entrepreneur, and the founder and CEO of the race. “Normally we should not be able to do that, but we can.”

The race lists, among its partners, Harken, a major U.S. based maker of sailboat gear. But it’s also drawn skepticism in sailing circles – Mark Pillsbury, the editor of the sailing magazine Cruising World, recently called the idea “ambitious and improbable.”

For now, then, Sailing the Arctic Race would seem to have a considerable burden of proof resting on its shoulders. Yet even if not this particular race in the particular year of 2017, the core premise — that the Arctic is changing rapidly, and that one principal effect of this change is to make it more easily navigable by boat — is tough to dispute.

To show as much, consider this visualization (click to enlarge) from the Post’s Kennedy Elliott:


Kennedy Elliott.

In the image above, blue and white combined shows Arctic ice conditions in September 1979, and white alone shows conditions in September 2014. Clearly, there is considerably less ice at the time of year when the race is being planned.

And now consider a map of the planned route, provided by Sailing the Arctic Race:


Credit: Sailing the Arctic Race.

The critical part of the proposed journey, the famous “Northwest Passage,” is the same route successfully sailed by the explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906, says Mark Serreze, head of the Boulder, Colo.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center. Before Amundsen, some explorers died along this route, which is characterized both by stunning beauty — Molnar speaks of how the sea and the sky become almost the same color in the Arctic — but also unpredictable ice conditions.

So if yachts arrive here in 2017, will they really be able to get through?

“Although end-of-summer ice conditions in the Amundsen route of the Northwest Passage (the route they would take) have become milder over the past decade,  ice conditions have been, and will remain, highly variable,” says Serreze by e-mail. “At the end of summer 2017 the route might be more-or-less completely ice free. It may be choked with ice. A great deal will depend on the summer weather patterns.”

Still, there’s little doubt that getting through the Northwest Passage in summer is getting easier and easier. Data from Environment Canada suggest that since 2000, the minimum level of ice cover in the passage (usually seen in August, September, or October) has been below 5 percent most years.

“From the 1980s on, voyages through the Passage have become an annual event,” adds the Department of Environment and Natural Resources of Canada’s Northwest Territories. “The number of transits increased from 4 per year in the 1980s to 20-30 per year in 2009-2013.” Thirty-two percent of the ships making transits, continues the agency, were “small vessels – adventurers,” a class that’s probably the closest to what ocean yacht racers would be.

According to a statement from the Canadian Coast Guard, “yachts and pleasure craft” transiting the waters in the Canadian Arctic do not have to tell authorities they’re there, but are “strongly” encouraged to do so nonetheless. “Vessels transiting through the Northwest Passage should be prepared for rapid changes in weather and ice conditions,” the statement noted. “Mariners may encounter extreme variability from year to year, and are responsible for navigational decisions and safety of their ships.”

So can this race really happen?

When I asked for a reference from the sailing world, Sailing the Arctic Race sent me to Guillaume Henry, who served in 2012-2013 as CEO of the Vendée Globe, a global ocean race that has been called the “pinnacle of ALL ocean racing” due to its requirement that a single sailor, alone, circle the globe. In a statement, Henry commented that “the loss of sea ice allows a short time window to cross this legendary Arctic area while it was absolutely impossible a few years ago.”

When I followed up and asked about if the race will really happen, Henry replied, “Many items need to be checked of course, mainly the real ability to cross the Northwest Passage by sailing. That’s the main job to do during the next two years.”

Katy Campbell, a spokesman for STAR, says that if conditions aren’t favorable, the race can shift its schedule — or the course of the race – for safety reasons. “Each year since 2007, several dozen private yachts sail the same route through the Arctic that we are taking,” she said by email.

The bottom line, then, seems to be that even if not this particular race in this particular year, people will surely be navigating more boats through the Arctic, for both business and for pleasure. And the idea of adding a little competition to that is probably to be expected. Adventuring and exploring are, after all, one of the things that allure us — it may even be genetic. If the world opens up a new challenge, some people will always stand up and say, “I accept.”

“Going to the Arctic is the first time ever, and that’s the great fascination to the sponsors and the people involved,” says Molnar. “There’s only once in your lifetime you can say, ‘I was there, I was part of the first.’”