Sailing through a world of ice

'Polar Bound' threading her way through leads in the pack ice in Prince Regent inlet.

'Polar Bound' threading her way through leads in the pack ice in Prince Regent inlet. - Credit: Jane maufe

In 2012 Jane Maufe set out on a boat trip with her old friend David. But what a trip – and what a friend. Trevor Heaton hears the story of their 22,000-mile voyage through the fabled Northwest Passage, which has now inspired a book.

'Fill her up...!': Jane Maufe and David Scott Cowper refuel 'Polar Bound' at Dutch Harbour in Alaska

'Fill her up...!': Jane Maufe and David Scott Cowper refuel 'Polar Bound' at Dutch Harbour in Alaska. - Credit: Archant

It was the sight of a sea full of pack ice that brought home to Jane Maufe the sudden realisation that here she was in the distant and hostile seas north of Canada. And all that stood between her and disaster was a 48ft motorboat – and a very special friend.

The pair were aboard David's vessel, the Polar Bound, in the Prince Regent Inlet, to the west of Baffin Island. '[I felt fear] when I saw that ice pack,' Jane recalled. 'This was a big, serious patch of ice in every direction.'

Northwest Passage explorers David Scott Cowper and Jane Maufe. Picture: Ian Burt

Northwest Passage explorers David Scott Cowper and Jane Maufe. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

In the end there were four patches of ice to negotiate. 'There was ice, more ice, more ice – would we get out into Lancaster Sound?...'

Not that David was ever likely to be fazed. You don't tend to be when you are one of Britain's most experienced sailors, a man who has sailed single-handed round the world not once, not twice, but a remarkable (and record-breaking) six times.

The two friends are talking about their 22,000-mile journey through the Northwest Passage and back, which has inspired her new book.

And here we are in a room in Jane's elegant North Norfolk Georgian house in Burnham Market, in front a country-house wood burner so toasty-warm it would melt a chocolate Labrador.

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It seems a long way from the ice- and fog-haunted northern Canadian seas but it doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine yourself there. For Jane and David are dab hands at conjuring up the life aboard the good ship Polar Bound. And they might both be in their seventies, but have the sort of get-up-and-go that puts most of us to shame.

What makes Jane's book even more fascinating is that it is really three books in one. Alongside the story of their adventures is the account of their own connection, which goes back to when they were both in their twenties, and it is also the story of Jane's illustrious forebear (her great-great-great-great-uncle), explorer Sir John Franklin.

First, their own links. I can think of no better way of setting this up than quoting Jane's opening words in Chapter One… 'In December 2011 I received a Christmas card from David Scott Cowper, a man who had once kissed me over forty years earlier…'

Jane had first met David when she was 23 or 24 and working in London. They had been introduced by a mutual friend, and Jane was impressed with the slim and athletic 25 year old with a voice 'that made me go weak at the knees'. They went on a date, which concluded in that kiss, but then they went their separate ways. Both Jane and David subsequently married other people and stayed in touch via the occasional card.

Both were keen sailors. In fact Jane met her future husband, also called David, after volunteering to crew on a 43ft ketch crossing the Atlantic. They were married for 38 happy years until he succumbed to a long illness.

That 2011 Christmas card included an invitation from David to join him the following summer on his next expedition to far northern seas. The Northwest Passage is not one route, but several – in fact seven possible.

His plan in 2012 was to tackle the most northerly route, through the frozen McClure Strait north of Banks Island, and become the first private vessel ever to make the voyage.

So the two old friends met up... and the years just fell away. As Jane writes: 'We have a strange telepathy.' And that was so essential for the success of their trip together. When you are cooped up together on a 48ft boat, even a boat as well-designed as Polar Bound, then there really is no hiding place – you simply have to get on.

And David Scott Cowper really is a good person to have as skipper. Although most people's knowledge of solo sailors probably starts at Sir Francis Chichester and ends at Dame Ellen Macarthur (mine certainly does), he more than deserves his place in that pantheon.

His six circumnavigations are only some of the achievements which have earned places in the Guinness World Records list.

Not that he's in it for the glory. Jane paints a picture of a self-effacing and supremely self-reliant man, and meeting David in the flesh he is as far away from a brash self-publicist as you might imagine. Time and again during our chat I found myself pondering on the fickle nature of fame. Our media is stuffed with the vapid musings of Z-list 'celebs', and yet here is a man who has dared to pit himself against some of the most unforgiving oceans and weather in the world – and won.

So why haven't we heard more about him? Jane writes: 'David doesn't seem to realise how to make capital when the opportunity presents itself, which is probably why he had not received the recognition he deserves.'

David shrugs. 'It's because I don't go down the sponsor route,' he ventures. You get the impression too that he would be happier – much happier – being on the high seas than appearing on a chat show.

Or planning his next voyage. Because for David preparation is the key to just about everything. Polar Bound itself is the perfect example of that. He explained how two years of work had gone into making the motorboat as robust as possible for the arctic conditions. 'We reckon it's the strongest surface vessel of her size in the world,' he said.

The other strand in the book is the tragic story of Jane's ancestor, Sir John Franklin. The explorer's efforts to try to find the Northwest Passage ended in disaster – see below – and it is a legacy that Jane has been aware of all her life. She was bound to - Jane was named after Sir John's indomitable wife, who refused to give up on her hopes that her husband was still alive, somewhere, somehow, in some of the most inhospitable conditions on Earth.

Remarkably, Sir John is not the only famous name in the family tree, which also includes General Gordon – who died at the Fall of Khartoum in 1885 – and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, co-founder of the National Trust… and encourager of a certain young writer and talented artist called Beatrix Potter. 'She shyly showed my grandfather her Peter Rabbit stories. He encouraged her to have them published.'

Sir John and his crews were simply not prepared enough for what weather, seas and nature could throw at them. That is not something you could accuse David of. As he says: 'You've got to think of it as a cold desert.'

But even the best-prepared voyager can be flung off-balance by contrary waves and break a limb – painful at any time, but disastrous at sea. Jane writes about being bruised in head and body by such mishaps on the voyage.

And the hazards aren't just on land either. Jane's other fearful moment was at Fort Ross, on Somerset Island in Canada. 'David went for a walk up the hillside, and I was all alone. I just had a gun but no idea how to fire – and he'd got all the ammunition.' The gun was protection against polar bears, which are a real potential hazard in such regions. David encountered one at close quarters years ago when deep in concentration while repairing a previous boat – he had to scramble into the hull until it had disappeared.

But these tricky moments are outweighed by the memorable ones. 'One thing I'll always remember was in McClure Straight,' Jane recalled. 'The sea was perfectly still – like a millpond, a perfect reflection.' Another magical memory was spotting her first-ever iceberg, ten miles off the coast of Greenland. Or a whale surfacing near the boat.

So what special qualities did they each bring to the voyage? Jane on David: 'In David I find immense calmness in any sort of situation in which other people get flustered.

'He is very stoical about doing long stints at the wheel. He always seems to manage with very little sleep.'

And David on Jane: 'Jane's an excellent cook – we ate like royalty. When I'm on my own it's all prepacked food.

'I find Jane very easy to talk to, even if we're just talking rubbish! There's always something we can chat about – we're at ease in each other's company.

'And she was a great help on watch, especially in Lancaster Sound.'

The sharing of the watches is an important point. After years of solo voyages David has developed the knack of taking power naps for a few minutes when in open waters, which can keep him going for hours at a time. 'I can put the autopilot on but there's lots can go wrong.' So he has that maritime sixth sense too – able to detect, and instantly wake on changes in wind direction or in the vibration from the engine.

Or, indeed, icebergs. On an earlier voyage he had just taken such a nap when his boat encountered a floe from the Jacobshavn glacier in Greenland. 'The boat weighed up to the iceberg, and the next moment the ice came up against my windscreen.' Fortunately, the danger passed, but it was a sobering moment and reminder of the potential dangers of the thousands of icebergs, large and small, which litter the seas at high latitudes.

Their adventure took them all the way to Petersburg in the southernmost part of Alaska. The pair then sailed back through the Passage – by a different route – and made landfall at Portrush in Northern Ireland on October 10 2013.

The voyage had meant that Jane entered the record books too, as the first woman to sail from the Davis Strait to the Bering Strait.

'My son is rather envious,' says Jane.

And while Jane spent the next couple of years writing her story, and enjoying trips along the North Norfolk coast in her dinghy, the Sorceress, David was notching up another milestone, by becoming the first person ever - at the age of 73 - to transit all seven routes of the Northwest Passage.

These old friends, who are so close that they complete each other's sentences, have more adventures planned. 'We want to finish off the Arctic…' says David.

So what do Jane's children think of her adventures? 'I think my son was rather envious... although he did think at first we were going to the Antarctic.'

Well, they're not heading there yet - but give them time, give them time...

The Frozen Frontier: Polar Bound Through the Northwest Passage, by Jane Maufe, will be published by Bloomsbury on Thursday February 9, £18.99

Sir John Franklin: Icy fate of a gallant explorer

The story of Sir John is one of the most stirring and tragic in the vast catalogue of Victorian derring-do. The British Empire's lifeblood was trade, and the lure of discovering the shortest possible route between the Atlantic and the Pacific – and thereby eliminating the long and hazardous journey round Cape Horn – was a powerful one.

The problem was that this short route, the Northwest Passage, involved voyaging along the extreme north of Canada, threading a way through a maze of ever-changing channels, constantly at risk from icebergs, storms, numbingly low temperatures and other dangers.

Sir John set out in May 1845 with the ships Erebus and Terror, crewed by 129 officers and men. The last record anyone had of him was his being moored to an iceberg in Lancaster Sound towards the end of July. After that: nothing at all. Sir John and his ships had apparently vanished off the face of the earth.

Expeditions set out from 1848 to try to discover what had happened. One included Samuel Gurney Cresswell of North Runcton, whose story is told in Mark Nicholls' 2008 book Norfolk Maritime Heroes and Legends.

In his search for Franklin and his crews, Gurney Cresswell was to be the first man to navigate the passage. But he never found a trace of Franklin or his crew.

It was not until yet another expedition, funded by Sir John's determined wife Lady Jane in 1857, that news came. In 1859 its captain, on one of his many sledging expeditions, discovered a cairn with a record of the Franklin expedition up to April 1848. This note said that Sir John had died in June 1847. The crews of his ice-bound ships eventually perished from a combination of starvation, scurvy, cold and poisoned food.

It took modern technology to finally locate the wrecks of the Erebus and Terror, 60 miles apart, in 2014 and 2016.

Jane Maufe and her sister have donated Sir John's posthumous Arctic Medal and other items to the museum in Stromness, Orkney, as most Arctic expeditions set out from that port.

It is their own personal, and poignant, family tribute to a gallant man and his crews.