Passage Maker - - Gear Products - BY DAG PIKE

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.


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.


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.


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.

David Cow­per

The pilothouse of Po­lar Bound has great sight­lines.

This po­lar bear ig­nores the ship’s pass­ing.

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