MODERN DAY EXPLORER
stick to the tried and tested option of cruising along well-traveled coastlines and taking relatively safe ocean routes. Englishman David Cowper is different. He seeks out the difficult, revels in the challenge of sailing where others dare not go, and has traveled the world seeking adventure. Cowper probably travels more miles in a single voyage than many passagemakers will in a lifetime, and these voyages take him to some of the most remote parts of the globe. This is extreme passagemaking.
Cowper’s list of achievements is incredible. This quiet, unassuming man has traveled the world, completing several circumnavigations under both power and sail. When Cowper, a chartered surveyor, talks about his next adventure, it sounds as though it will be a pleasant day-cruise along the coast. In fact, he will be taking his purpose-built boat, Polar Front, into the Arctic once again to complete his goal of transiting every channel through the Northwest Passage, a feat not yet achieved by any mariner. In recent years the Northwest Passage around the top of Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific has become something of an obsession for Cowper. This summer he hopes to get it out of his system and start looking at new oceans to conquer.
For Cowper, going to sea has been a lifelong passion. It started when his father used to take him out fishing in the North Sea. “The North Sea is not a place to take lightly, and it can change its mood in a few hours,” Cowper said. “This was where I had my grounding in seamanship, something that many modern cruisers seem to have abandoned. When you go to sea single-handed you have to learn to be self-reliant, knowing that if things go wrong you are the only person who has to sort them out—and this is particularly the case in the remote areas that I visit.”
From his father’s small fishing boat, Cowper graduated to a 30-foot sailing yacht and took part in the 1974 double-handed Round Britain Race. From there he graduated to the singlehanded trans-Atlantic race in 1976. By 1979 he was sailing an even larger yacht, a 41-foot Sparkman & Stephens design, on which he completed the fastest single-handed circumnavigation of the world, taking the tough Southern Ocean route around the Capes. Just two years later Cowper completed a reverse circumnavigation, again setting a record time for the voyage.
SWITCHING TO POWER
After his sailing successes, Cowper felt he had exhausted the possibilities of the wind and turned to motorboats with the aim of completing the first solo motor voyage around the world. For this epic voyage—which took him nine months to complete— Cowper purchased a redundant lifeboat from the British lifeboat organization. (Incidentally, the boat he bought, the Mabel E. Holland, is one I know well as it was based at one of the lifeboat stations for which I was responsible during my lifeboating days.) When Cowper acquired it, the Mabel E. Holland had spent over 20 years at one of the toughest lifeboat stations in Britain. “Powered by a pair of slow-running Gardner diesels, the Mabel E. Holland was designed for the toughest seas, and apart from [my] fitting extra fuel tanks and [adding] a fully enclosed wheelhouse, she was pretty well original when I started cruising in her,” said Cowper.
“On these voyages, navigation was by a sextant and a watch with none of the luxury of GPS instant position fixing,” Cowper continued. “Radio communications were also pretty basic, using HF radio, but we made the voyage without too many dramas.” Cowper seems to cope with adversity quite casually, though, and dramas that might have destroyed lesser people he seems to take in stride. When he talks about some of his Arctic incidents, he makes them sound more like bad days at the office than the lifeor-death situations that they were.
THE ROUTE LESS TRAVELED
Cowper’s obsession with the Arctic and the Northwest Passage started in 1986 when he set off on another circumnavigation, taking the route to the north of Canada instead of the southern route he had previously sailed. This was an epic voyage that took three years to complete after the Mabel E. Holland was damaged after getting stuck in the ice. “Despite having an extra 1-inchthick skin applied to the wooden hull, she got damaged in the ice, and it was a major logistics exercise to get her hauled out and repaired. Mabel was never designed to work in such conditions, and after getting her afloat again at Fort Ross we completed the transit of the Northwest Passage to effect more permanent repairs in the Mackenzie River.”
Even after those substantial repairs, Mabel was still leaking. But that did not deter her owner. Cowper set out on the long run from Alaska, all the way down the Pacific, and then back to Europe via the Indian Ocean. This was the first time a circumnavigation had been completed by using the Northwest Passage. “I had to constantly pump the boat on this long voyage,” he said, as though it was just a day trip out from harbor.
“The Mabel E. Holland had looked after me well, but I was keen to return to the Northwest Passage and realized that I needed something stronger and specially designed for the job,” Cowper said. The result was Polar Bound, probably the ultimate cruising motorboat. She was designed by Dennis Davidson of Murray, Cormack Associates and built in one of the former minesweeper sheds at the old McGruer’s yard at Rosneath in Scotland. When the yard went bust during the build, Cowper was yet again undeterred. He purchased the yard and completed the job himself.
Polar Bound was designed with a tapered, well-rounded hull so it would lift in the ice rather than get crushed by it. The hull plating is a massive ½-inch aluminum, increasing to close to ¾-inch in places, and the stringers and frames are welded continuously. She has a double hull and every inch of the welding has been ultrasound-tested. “It was worth all the effort,” said Cowper. “Nothing has failed in three circumnavigations.”
The first of these three circumnavigations on Polar Bound he began by heading south from the United Kingdom to the Antarctic, around Cape Horn, and back up the west coast of the United States before starting on the Northwest Passage from the western side. He became the first person to navigate the McClure Strait, which is the most northerly of the routes through the islands.
After a full refit, Polar Bound again started a circumnavigation that began with the Northwest Passage then continued down the west coast of the United States and across the Southern Ocean to Australia. He transited the Pacific before returning once more to the Northwest Passage. It was a bit like a “circumnavigation plus,” but Polar Bound did not let him down.
After a two-year break, Cowper’s fifth transit of the Northwest Passage was again via the McClure Strait. Most of his voyages were carried out solo, but for this voyage he went with Jane Maufe, his companion and a very experienced sailor in her own right. They made the return voyage to the United Kingdom the following year.
In 2016, accompanied by his son Fred, Cowper successfully navigated one of the most difficult routes of the Northwest Passage: the Fury and Hecla Strait. Polar Bound became the first vessel to navigate this passage since William Parry discovered it in 1822. It is considered to be one of the most challenging routes in the world, and Cowper describes it like this: “Conditions were ferocious at times, with strong tidal rips, seas of 25 feet and more, and winds gusting to over 60 knots.” Fierce tides added to the drama, and Cowper likened it to being inside a washing machine with solid water sweeping over the 48-foot boat. Escape came when the tide turned, but father and son emerged severely bruised from the encounter.
That was another Northwest Passage channel ticked off his list, and this year Cowper will be making what is likely to be his final visit to the area, navigating the channels between the islands that he has not done before. Several of these channels have not seen boats before, so it will be another voyage into the unknown.
“Things have changed in the Arctic since I first came up here,” Cowper said. “Thirty years ago there was sunshine and light winds but more extreme cold and the challenge was to find a route through the ice. Now the winds are stronger and there is a lot of fog, and even navigation has changed.
“We had no GPS in the early days, so it was mainly visual navigation with charts that were not always reliable. Because we were so close to the north magnetic pole, the magnetic compass was very unreliable and so my autopilot would not hold a course. Now we have GPS, which makes life much easier, and I use a GPS compass for reliable steering. A lot of the ice has disappeared, which sounds as though navigating through the twisting channels is easier, but this is not an area where you can relax your guard.
“There is no backup if anything fails. Polar Bound is probably the strongest boat ever built, and it is self-righting in the event of a capsize. I have thrown out many of the ‘luxuries,’ such as the desalinator and the water heater; they were always going wrong. Now it is just a deep freezer, a diesel-powered stove, and a matching diesel heater.”
At the heart of Polar Bound is a jewel of engineering—a Gardner diesel engine—which has never let Cowper down. This eight-cylinder engine turns at just 900 rpm at its maximum rated 150 horsepower, and it is built to last forever. The same engine performed sterling service in London’s buses, and since it has two separate cylinder blocks, Gardner specialists reckon it could run on just half of the cylinders if there were problems. This engine turns a four-blade propeller that is three feet in diameter, and Cowper carries a spare prop on board just in case. The fuel tanks hold 1,200 gallons, which is enough for 6,000 miles of passage with the economical engine.
SURVIVAL AT SEA
Cowper’s accomplishments and survival rate are no accident: To cruise in such extreme conditions, Cowper arms himself with meticulous preparation. All of the seacocks have been dismantled and greased, everything that might corrode is fully protected, and the electrical systems are installed to the highest standards. “Fuel is one of my biggest problems when cruising. Ensuring that the fuel is clean is essential. When you are operating miles from any assistance in extreme conditions, you do not want failure,” said Cowper, articulating a lesson that every bluewater cruiser might do well to heed.
Polar Bound itself is a lesson in serious cruising boat design. “I feel that I have stripped out all but the essentials, [removing] the things that sound nice to have but which can cause all sorts of problems. You have to concentrate on reliability when you are 1,000 miles from help, and I am constantly looking for better ways of doing things,” said Cowper.
His years of cruising have brought acclaim from organizations such as the Cruising Club of America, the Cruising Association, the Royal Cruising Club, and the Royal Institute of Navigation. Cowper was also named Yachtsman of the Year by the Yachting Journalists Association in 1990, but his name is barely known outside these serious cruising circles. Perhaps because he has not sought out sponsorship for his voyages, Cowper has stayed largely below the radar. But his achievements are a testament to his determination and brilliant seamanship.
So what is next for this 75-year-old? After he completes his Northwest Passage odyssey this year, he is talking about the one bit of the oceans where he has never traveled—the Northeast Passage, or the Northern Sea Route as it is better known. This long and arduous route north of Russia is now opening up in the late summer months, and Cowper is already seeking out some Russian talent to accompany him.
He is concerned, however, that his voyages into the Arctic may lead others to think it is simple and easy. “Cruise ships are now taking to these waters, and we will probably see some very unsuitable boats seeking to make the passage. This is not a part of the world where you will get an instant response if you send out a mayday, and I can see disaster looming. Only tough boats and tough crews have any place in these hostile waters.”
“So what prompts you to make these challenging voyages?” I asked.
“I love the idea of being totally self-sufficient, relying on my skills and experience to find solutions,” he replied. “In the modern world, we are far too reliant on having help at hand when things go wrong.”
You get the feeling that Cowper is a man born out of his time, a man who would have been at home among the explorers of 400 years ago, seeking out distant lands, sailing uncharted seas, and experiencing wild storms. He is the ultimate longdistance cruising man.
Polar Bound emerges from its building shed in Scotland.
The pilothouse of Polar Bound has great sightlines.
This polar bear ignores the ship’s passing.