Irish adventures in the North-West passage

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Entering new territory

Once upon a time there were career adventurers and there were quiet adventurers, before social media changed the game. Though we can all be famous now, some people still manage to make little of lots and lightly shake off the stardust that is their due.

Máire Breathnach is one of those people, and perhaps it runs in the family. Over three years ago, she and her niece, Sibéal Turraoin, became the first two Irish women to navigate the North-West passage, the ice-bound Arctic route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

And are they household names? That’s not quite their style. When I first came across Máire, she was circumnavigating this island solo, while I was making a bit more noise about a similar voyage for this newspaper. Even as the last report from our sunwise sojourn was transmitted on a mobile phone the size of a brick, Breathnach was planning further and farther escapades.

In recent years, the music teacher has crossed the Atlantic several times, and circumnavigated South America, for which she was honoured by her peers in the Irish Cruising Club. In 2010, she set course and compass for Arctic waters with her partner, Andrew Wilkes, and her niece, Sibéal, from the Ring gaeltacht on board. Two years before, they had sought out ice in the 67ft boat Arctic Tern , sailing up to Greenland and beyond to Baffin island. When Turraoin heard of plans to head north again, she was determined to be on board.


Young Larry was the name of the 44ft gaff-rigged steel yawl acquired for this journey. In spring of 2010, only 96 vessels had transited the North-West passage successfully – including the Irish crew of aluminium yacht Northabout in 24 days in 2001. As with the first such voyage, recorded by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, some of the transits had taken place over several seasons, but shrinking sea ice in recent years has made it much more navigable.

Two weeks and 1,700 miles after leaving Dingle, Co Kerry – where they had waited for north-westerly winds to ease – the Young Larry trio berthed in Nuuk in Greenland to stock up with supplies, fuel and water, and to buy a rifle. Although two of the three on board had run marathons, they were aware that polar bears could cover 40km an hour and swim for up to 50 miles.

Humpback whales, Arctic terns, seals, snow buntings greeted them on their day sails up the west Greenland coast, encountering spectacular icebergs in Disko Bay. Crossing Baffin Bay, of Lord Franklin fame, they began to study ice charts and welcome a fourth crew member on board, Dermot O’ Riordan.

Matthieu Bonnier, a Frenchman attempting to row the same route in a 20ft boat with a dog, was one of many fellow travellers that they encountered. A five-metre aluminium pole for fending off floes became their best friend – along with the musical instruments, including her concertina, that Máire had “smuggled” on board. One evening at Beechey island, as Wilkes recorded in his log, O’Riordan was cleaning teeth before hitting bunk when he glanced out of the port hole and caught the eye of a polar bear looking straight back. “Armed with the rifle and cameras, we watched the bear swim around the boat for 20 minutes,” he wrote.

On August 22nd, they sailed into King William island, where they were served raw and cooked Arctic char, Muktuk or raw whale, caribou meat and more. Many nautical miles later, they made landfall at Nome, where they found launderettes that doubled up as bars. By the time their target of Kodiak island in Alaska was reached, it was time to winter the boat and sail the following year to San Francisco. Wilkes and crew played down the hazards, played up the fun of it all, giving most detailed advice in their log for those of us who might decide to follow in their wake.

In her locality, and on her website, Turraoin has exhibited spectacular photographs, ranging from icebergs and floes, to swimming polar bears to images of the Northern Lights. “You can sound like a muppet, especially in Ireland, if you go on too much about something like this,” she says, admitting that neither she nor her aunt have publicised their achievement. “Surrounded by absolutely nothing, it was the most beautiful seascape.” She adds that she left a little bit of her heart up in the Big White. See