Captain Mark Schrader is no stranger to adventure sailing, but this expedition is different.
On Sunday at noon, Schrader and his crew will set out from Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle in the 64-foot steel boat Ocean Watch on a 24,000-nautical mile journey clockwise through the Northwest Passage, down the east coast, around Cape Horn and back to Seattle.
It’s a journey few have made—only about 100 ships have ever traversed the Northwest Passage, though the melting Arctic ice pack is making the trip increasingly accessible.
The expedition is also ambitious in another way. Dubbed “Around the Americas,” it aims to raise awareness about the troubling state of ocean health and mobilize people to help. Schrader hopes the project will be the catalyst to cultivate a new generation of marine conservationists.
“My hope is that people will understand that the ocean is absolutely key to our health and well-being,” said Schrader, 62. “We want to reach millions of kids, primarily.
“But we also want people of my generation and the in-between generation to become activists and understand that if the ocean isn’t healthy, we’re toast in a number of different ways. If we’ve advanced that, we’re successful.”
Around the Americas is a collaboration between Pacific Science Center, the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory and Sailors for the Sea, a Boston-based nonprofit founded by David Rockefeller, Jr.
The 13-month expedition will take Schrader and crew members David Logan, Herb McCormick and David Thoreson to 30 ports in 11 countries. At each stop they’ll provide ship tours, demonstrate the scientific equipment being used and host educational events focused on the impact of global climate change on marine environments.
Along the way, scientists will join the expedition to conduct research projects ranging from water sampling to studying jellyfish populations and measuring solar energy. Using a 64′ boat as a research lab presents challenges around space and power use, but Schrader said Ocean Watch was chosen partly because its nine-foot draft allows it to access places larger research vessels can’t, such as openings in the ice pack along the Northwest Passage.
“We intend to go to a lot of different places and do a lot of exploring,” he said.
Since education is an integral component of the project, teachers will join the expedition along various legs. Bilingual curriculum materials and a K-8 teacher’s guide developed by Pacific Science Center will be freely available on the “Around the Americas” website, likely in late July.
The Northwest Passage is a world away for a farm boy from Nebraska who studied in a one-room schoolhouse.
Schrader left Nebraska at 16, moved to California and got involved in Berkeley’s social activism of the 1960s. He became fascinated with the ocean and twice sailed solo around the world, in 1982-83 becoming the first American to singlehandedly circumnavigate around the five Great Capes.
Through sailing he met Rockefeller, a philanthropist and avid sailor. Schrader was thinking about a trip through the Northwest Passage, and he and Rockefeller developed the idea of combining sailing, education and science to increase awareness about marine conservation. For Schrader, it was time to move from ocean enthusiast to sea steward.
“Sailors and boaters use the water, but we haven’t been active in trying to tell people what’s wrong and what we can do to help,” he said.
As departure day approaches, Schrader’s main worry is meeting critical weather windows to get through the Northwest Passage in August and around Cape Horn in December and early January. Few vessels attempt the fearsome passage around the cape from east to west, commonly referred to as “the wrong way” since it requires traveling against prevailing winds and currents.
“The scheduling is a concern, because sailboats and schedules don’t work well together,” Schrader said. “If we can make those two ends work, I’m not so worried about the in-between.”
Ocean Watch will be open to the public between noon and 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 30 as part of Shilshole Marina’s Open Boat Weekend.