Crystal's Serenity is set to sail into history

The voyage will begin Aug. 16 in Seward, Alaska, and end Sept. 17 in New York.
The voyage will begin Aug. 16 in Seward, Alaska, and end Sept. 17 in New York.
Richard Turen
Richard Turen

It must have been an interesting meeting when someone at Crystal Cruises' headquarters in Los Angeles suggested that the 1,070-guest Crystal Serenity be launched on a 32-day itinerary straight through the legendary Northwest Passage, beginning in Seward, Alaska, and ending in New York.

The trip sold out in 21 days, one of the fastest-booked sailings in recent cruise history. And it is wise to think about history when considering traversing the Northwest Passage, since more than a few explorers died trying to complete the voyage.

This will be a journey into the record books. It will begin on Aug. 16, and I have to wonder if many of the passengers or 645 crew members on this expedition, where no luxury ship of this size has ever gone before, are aware of the storm of controversy swirling around this sailing and Crystal's planned repeat voyage next year.

Before we talk about the sailing, allow me to state my bias. This is a true expedition in an age when the word has been watered down to include a visit to a Chick-fil-A in a dicey neighborhood. I admire the people who have booked it, and I wish I were among them. But I do wonder if they have been adequately informed about the risks that many experts see in this itinerary.

Outside magazine began its account of the sailing with, "If successful, the trip, which ends in New York City, will mark the first crossing of the passage by a luxury cruise ship." 

Actually, Ponant sailed Le Soleal through the passage in 2014 and 2015, and Abercrombie & Kent brought passengers aboard Le Boreal through, also in 2015. But – “if successful”? I don’t believe I've ever seen a luxury cruise itinerary described as, "Well, it will be adventurous, it will be memorable, it will be fun for all involved if it actually works and avoids disaster." Some of the doubt is coming from some rather impressive sources.

To put the voyage in perspective, the route will include 23 waterways. It is doubtful that the captain has sailed all of them. There is a good deal of land and ice, because the ship will be passing through the unforgiving Canadian Arctic.

This is a water route that has been attempted since the 15th century because it was seen as a potentially profitable trade route by countries in Asia and Europe. None of the attempts were successful until 1906 when Roald Amundsen did the passage in a fishing boat with a crew of six. He managed to hug the coast and avoided icebergs. But it was slow going and took him three years. The Serenity is too big to hug the coast, and she will be on a schedule.

Global warming (save your letters, deniers; I don't read them) has created some substantial increases in Arctic temperatures. This has tended to break up some of the ice with a good deal of softening. In 2012, the World, the floating luxury condo building, made the passage successfully. Private yachts have made the journey every summer since then. Last summer, 20 smaller vessels made the trip. So it would be unfair to characterize Crystal's voyage as uncharted territory.

The issue, and the source of the controversy, is the size of this ship. If something goes wrong, a massive rescue operation would be required that local facilities could be totally incapable of handling.

Thus, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s CBC News reported on April 3: "Arctic rescue fears loom as massive cruise ship prepares to sail Northwest Passage."

Yes, it is true that the ice pack has been shrinking, some would say at a fairly alarming rate, and warming trends have continued. This has opened up the passage for commercial shipping and some small-ship expeditions. But it remains one of the most remote places on Earth and one of the most poorly mapped. Though part of its charm, the unknown is also part of the risk for a luxury cruise. The bottom line is that during major portions of its itinerary, the Serenity will be out of range of Canada's search-and-rescue teams.

Professor Michael Byers, who holds the Canadian research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, has taken to Canada's talk-radio circuit to warn that the Canadian Coast Guard is not equipped to handle a disaster in the passage. In an interview with CBC News, he said, "If the ship sinks, then that would actually break the Canadian search-and-rescue system. They would not be able to get to those people and retrieve them in time."

There had been a previous small-ship disaster in the passage. In 2010, Clipper Cruise Lines Adventurer struck an uncharted rock shelf near Kugluktuk, Nunavut. It took the nearest Coast Guard icebreaker two days to arrive.

Crystal has been extremely proactive in preparing for this voyage. The ship's captain and bridge crew attended ice navigation training, and two certified ice pilots will be aboard the Serenity. In order to ensure maximum protection for its guests, Crystal has leased the Ernest Shackleton, a logistics and research vessel operated by the British Antarctic Society. The ship carries helicopters and will provide some ice-breaking muscle if needed. It also carries sophisticated thermal-mapping equipment to detect trouble ahead.

From a public relations perspective, I would have asked that the ship's name be changed. Shackleton, the famed Antarctic explorer, managed to trap his ship, the Endurance, in 1917 in pack ice. It was crushed before help arrived. The crew camped on the sea ice and then launched small lifeboats when it melted. After a stormy ocean voyage of 720 nautical miles they reached the inhabited South Georgia Island.

The U.S. Coast Guard seems to feel that it need not get involved unless forecasts indicate a particularly icy sailing. The issue is a tad delicate because Canada claims the part of the passage that winds through its Arctic Archipelago, while the U.S. asserts it is an international strait.

Charles Michel, vice commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, told the CBC, "I don't want a repeat of the Titanic."

Even so, our Coast Guard seems to be impressed with the level of Crystal's preparations for this voyage, many taken at great expense. They seem less concerned about any risk posed to Crystal guests than they do for future megaships that might attempt the passage with less preparation and professionalism.

Jeff Hutchison, a commissioner in the Canadian Coast Guard said, "What I'm more concerned about is ship owners who might be looking at this voyage and saying, 'Well, that looks profitable. Why don't we think about that?' And they may not bring the same level of planning and forethought."

Byers said he turned down an invitation to lecture aboard the Serenity, telling the environmental magazine Living on Earth that the ship has a large carbon footprint, and in his view the Arctic is "on the edge of a precipice. The sea is melting, and the ecosystem is being overturned." Byers termed the sailing "extinction tourism."

A number of environmental groups are concerned with the impact of the cruise on the small towns that dot this precarious, ice-strewn route. In Nome, Alaska, it is said you can throw a snowball from one end of town to the other. How will residents handle 1,000 disembarking guests intent on an authentic shore encounter that some of them paid up to $156,000 to experience?

Among the environmental concerns is the presence of large numbers of beluga, bowhead and narwhal whales in the Arctic. These animals are extremely sensitive to noise, and the giant ship will be passing through as they are mating.

Then, of course, there is the environmental-disaster scenario. What would happen if there were to be an oil spill in this extremely isolated region? The Serenity will be carrying thousands of gallons of fuel, and the number of icebergs is increasing as meltwater sends glaciers into the sea. Small chunks of icebergs, called growlers, populate the waters, are very difficult to see and are dense enough to puncture the hull of a cruise ship.

Crystal has arranged to have polar-navigation specialists and ice-spotting radar and lights installed on the ship.

On Aug. 18, the Serenity will sail into the Bering Sea for the passage. I'll be thinking about it that day and in the days that follow. May the Serenity live up to its name.

Clarification: Luxury ships smaller than the Crystal Serenity have sailed through the Northwest Passage.

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI