Cruise Shipping The Once-Impenetrable Northwest Passage

Captain Birger J. Vorland on the bridge of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity
Captain Birger J. Vorland leads the Crystal Serenity on the first cruise-ship voyage from Alaska to New York through the once impossibly dangerous Northwest Passage.
Photographer: Katie Orlinsky for Bloomberg

By Katie Orlinsky (Bloomberg) On Aug. 16, the Crystal Serenity set out from Seward, Alaska, carrying 1,700 passengers and crew, and escorted by a comparatively minuscule, 1,800-ton icebreaker. She circled west and north around the Alaska Peninsula and through the Bering Strait before heading east into the maze of straits and sounds that constitute the Northwest Passage.

Related Book: In the Kingdom of Ice - The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
Related Book: In the Kingdom of Ice – The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

For centuries, explorers tried to establish a sea route here between Europe and Asia. Many met with ruin. A few stranded sailors famously ate their boots—and each other. When the Crystal Serenity emerged free and clear of the maze on Sept. 5, there were no accounts of scurvy or cannibalism, only tales of bingeing on themed buffets and grumbles from shutterbugs about the Arctic’s monotonous landscape. 

 

Operated by Crystal Cruises, the Serenity became on that day the first passenger liner to successfully ply the Northwest Passage. As climate change melts Arctic sea ice twice as fast as models predicted, more and larger ships have made their way along these fatal shores. In 2013, the Nordic Orion was the first bulk cargo carrier to transit the Passage, hauling a load of coal.

Rates on the Serenity started at around $22,000 per person. For that, passengers were anointed, by Slate, “the world’s worst people”—for venturing into a vulnerable ecosystem in a diesel-burning, 69,000-ton behemoth. Canada’s National Postdescribed the cruise as an “invasion” of indigenous communities. Britain’s Telegraphhinted at Titanic hubris, asking, Is this “the world’s most dangerous cruise”? 

As for the Arctic villages the Serenity visited, they were, depending on whom you ask, either overwhelmed or overjoyed by the ship’s hordes of curious, wealthy strangers. The communities staged dances, hawked arts and crafts, and expressed hope that the Crystal Serenity reaches New?York safely on Sept. 16. Assuming it does, Crystal Cruises plans to offer the route again next year, departing Anchorage on Aug. 15. Edie Rodriguez, the company’s chief executive officer, says that a few passengers have already rebooked.