By Julie Gedeon

Passenger cruise ships are unlikely to frequent the Canadian Arctic until local, regional and/or government stakeholders take a leap of faith and invest in the needed infrastructure, according to experienced ice navigator Patrick Toomey.

Capt. Toomey, who served as ice navigator aboard the planet’s largest private cruise ship, The World, during its epic voyage last fall through the Northwest Passage, made his comments at the 5th Annual Arctic Shipping North America Conference in Montreal.

His contract’s nondisclosure terms prevented him from specifically discussing the voyage, but he related the challenges that other large passenger ships would face.

Some people don’t want cruise ships in the Arctic in the first place, as evidenced by the opposition to The World’s one-time itinerary. “A lot of the resistance was uninformed,” Capt. Toomey stated. “I read stories saying, ‘who needs 5,000 passengers in the Arctic’ when, in fact, The World had only 500 souls on board, including the crew.”

He noted that commercial shipping companies don’t seem keen on Arctic cruise passenger traffic based on the comments made at the conference. The main worry related to a possible mishap involving numerous people that would cast the overall maritime industry in an unfavourable light.

The “condo ship,” as Capt. Toomey dubbed it, lifted anchor from Nome, Alaska, on Aug. 19, heading North through the Bering Strait, then Eastward along the famed Northwest Passage. It arrived in Nuuk, Greenland, on Sept. 12, and in St. John’s, Nfld., five days later.

A lack of infrastructure made for some interesting landings by guides and passengers in zodiacs through rough waters. “It would not cost a lot of money to provide a little bit of breakwater shelter,” Capt. Toomey suggested. “In Arctic Bay, for example, there’s a very good one along with a pontoon where you can put a tender alongside, and I wouldn’t think it’s beyond the financial capabilities of local and/or federal governments to do that.”

The only place the 196.5-metre yacht could anchor dockside was in Nuuk. “And only for six hours because it was a commercial dock that the port wanted cleared for the arrival of container ships,” he noted.

Federal, territorial, regional and local governments, along with the cruise industry and private enterprises concerned with Arctic logistics, should all become involved in creating some infrastructure, according to Capt. Toomey. “Obviously, it cannot be done all at once, but it should involve everyone working together on incremental development,” he said. “Some of this could be piggybacked onto projects being done for mining and other industries, or logistical improvements in support of the steadily growing Arctic population.”

He suggested the ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy would likely work in luring the cruise industry to the Canadian Arctic. “Those familiar with Ushuaia (Argentina), which is now the jumping off point for most Antarctic cruises, know that it didn’t have a usable pier until 1999,” he said. “Ships began to flock there once the pier was built, and it has resulted in tremendous spinoff income with an international airport being constructed to service passengers, as well new hotels and other conveniences.”

Similar conveniences would be essential for cruise lines to offer Canadian Arctic destinations. “They are not going to have ships travel from the South to the Arctic and back again – it’s too long a journey with too many ‘at sea’ days that passengers dislike,” he emphasized. “So you need passenger exchange areas with airports that have paved runways and local hotels.”

Paving the runways in Resolute and Cambridge Bay would be a good start, he added.

Hotel accommodations are essential for when, as so often happens in the North, things don’t go according to plan. For example, Capt. Toomey was forced to abort his plans to board The World in Nome because of four days of bad weather, and had to join the ship farther North in Kotzebue, Alaska.

Exchange areas will also need decent ground transportation to take passengers to and from the plane and boat, as well as on excursions. “An old school bus with broken seats is not such a good idea,” Capt. Toomey said.

While expedition cruisers are basically content with their adventure, most cruise passengers expect all of the modern conveniences. “Broadband communications are alright up to 75° North but beyond that, forget about it,” Capt. Toomey said. “So if we’re going to have large numbers of people who are addicted to the Internet, we have to provide this service.”

Capt. Toomey suggested most of the logistical improvements would benefit both tourists and Northern residents. It would also be a source of new tax revenue for governments.

Seasonal upgrades in safety and rescue capacities would be essential, he added. The World submitted a route that wouldn’t require ice-breaker assistance, but the Canadian Coast Guard prepared to have a vessel escort the yacht through ice, if necessary.

Capt. Toomey recommended that some communities should have pollution remediation equipment at the ready, and serve as ports of refuge where a ship’s crew would be able to dock a boat to do minor repairs either with its own tools and spare parts or those kept in a cache within the community. The only deep-water berth so far is in the mining town of Nanisivik just inland of Nunavut’s Arctic Sound.

“Inability to refuel is one of the reasons that cruise ships do not presently consider the Canadian Arctic,” Capt. Toomey added, "although, if they wanted, refueling could be accomplished through the use of tankers.”

Air freight and storage facilities would need to be available to deliver fresh produce. “Cruise ship passengers are used to having their grapefruit for breakfast,” Capt. Toomey said. “If you provide it, they will come, and cruise lines are always looking for new destinations.”

Better charts and fixed aids would be appreciated, but Capt. Toomey noted that The World did not venture anywhere – charted or uncharted – without first setting down a safety boat to obtain depth soundings for a 20-kilometre radius. “I don’t see why this couldn’t be adopted as standard practice,” he said.

Establishing passenger landing zones in remote areas for wildlife encounters would also facilitate journeys. “If you have designated sites, as we do in Antarctica, then you have one ship typically arriving in the morning and then another in the afternoon,” Capt. Toomey explained. “While not exactly a convoy, having ships only 15 or 20 miles away from each other provides some backup facilities.”

A seasonal presence by prepared Canada Border Services (CBS) personnel is also essential at key locations. “The agency flew a team from Winnipeg to Herschel Island (Yukon Territory) for our arrival from Alaska, but the officers didn’t have the proper rubber boots to come out to the ship in a zodiac,” Capt. Toomey recalled. “Fortunately, they were able to do so with a helicopter that showed up within the hour.”

Having sailed the Russian Arctic and the Northwest Passage, Capt. Toomey says the most likely area for large-scale cruising would be in the Eastern Arctic, but it probably won’t happen for some time. The cruise industry is not that interested at the moment, and might remain so unless key stakeholders make that leap of faith by investing in some infrastructure.

Capt. Toomey personally favours opening up the Arctic. “Few people have actually been there, but when asked, they say that if they had the chance they would go,” he said. “Relatively inexpensive large passenger cruise trips would be an introduction to expedition cruise adventures.”

More tourism would benefit Arctic communities not only financially, but through the infrastructure that would be established for everyone’s use. The visits would also make people more aware and possibly more caring when it comes to making decisions regarding the Arctic. “Having their own personal experience of the Arctic, they could relate better to the challenges in the Arctic,” Capt. Toomey suggested.