Featured, Maritime, Outdoors, Travel

“You can’t do that.” A short story of two that sailed the Northwest Passage

Jean Baptiste Cornet and Remi Folelto aboard Ratafia

By Jessica Hetwer for Seward City News –

During break up season its easy to forget that Seward is an amazing place to live in. Especially when its tough to see beyond the mountains of dirty snow and flooded streets. Caught in time when I long for more snow or none at all, I was reminded how stunning Seward is by a couple of young French men passing through. Before Jean Baptiste Cornet and Remi Folelto untied their lines and set sail for Kodiak, they let me interview them about their expedition from France.

Like a lot of good ideas this one was hatched over a bottle of red wine. Jean asked Remi if he would like to join him on a trip through the Pacific Northwest Passage. Remi only let a second fade away before answering yes. Up until that point Remi’s sailing experience was one week on a sailboat in Italy. Jean however started learning how to sail at the ripe old age of three on his fathers boat. Between 14-18 Jean skippered different boats. I asked Jean why he choose the Northwest Passage and his response was “It was free. You have to pay to go through the Panama Canal.” The two young men met at university while studying metal mechanical engineering.

After two years of exhaustive planning and preparing, they set sail on the 30th of May 2016 for the Northwest Passage and beyond. They didn’t wait until they had everything in order and all projects on the boat completed. They also didn’t listen to those whose advice was “You can’t do it” and “Your going to die.” With 180 bottles of red wine, 10 kilos of cheese, and enough food for four months, they set sail for an unforgettable trip on their 32 foot aluminum boat, Ratafia. They made it from France to Seward in five months without a heater or radar. Yes you read that right. No heater. It only got cold enough to snow on them once. The last 3,000 miles they had no engine. In Tuktoyaktuk, Canada their engine seized. From there they sailed to Cape Aialik where they got a tow the last 25 miles into the Seward harbor.

While underway they did not consume the nectar of the gods and safety was a number one concern. During the night, watches were split with three hours on and three hours off. In poor visibility one would steer and the other would be on the bow as a look out. Now would be a good time to mention that their autopilot stopped working in Tuktoyaktuk as well. Three times they encountered ice. The first was in Peel Sound which is usually the last place for ice to melt. In Johansen Bay they passed a swimming polar bear and cub. Shortly after they saw a Narwhal.

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Ratafia in the Seward Small Boat Harbor

After arriving in Seward the boat was hauled out. There Ratafia sat and waited for its new engine to arrive. Jean and Remi’s visas were about to expire and they needed to leave the state. Funds were tight so they couldn’t fly home. Remi came up with the idea to pedal out of Alaska into Canada. They tried to purchase bikes at a large outdoor store on Northern Lights in Anchorage. The attendant told them they couldn’t do it and then tried to sell them a fat tire bike for $3,000. Back in Seward Ron from the bike shop got them set up. In November they started pedaling north on Kona mountain bikes with snow tires. The bikes set them back $500 each. Their goal was to keep pedaling until the engine arrived. On average they covered 45-50 miles a day.

When they were pedaling through Tok, which is the farthest north they went, there was only five hours of daylight. That limited how far they could travel. A lot of time in daylight was needed to set up camp to hide from the life threatening temperatures. Some nights the temperatures dropped down to -40. They got good at building a quinzhee, which is a snow shelter made from a large pile of snow. Four months into biking across Canada they stopped and built a sled for the bikes. Instead of riding around Lake Winnipeg they opted to pull their bikes over the 12th largest lake in the world. It only took six days. Winnipeg, Manitoba is where they ended that chapter in their expedition. They gave their bikes to someone who helped them out and headed back to the boat in Seward.

Sailing south down Resurrection Bay

On March 26th the engine arrived. Within two weeks it was installed and Ratafia was back in the water. Provisions were bought and the next day they cut loose and sailed away. As of now their plan is to be in San Francisco in July. There they hope to sell Ratafia and fly home to France. Before they left France last spring there was a fisherman who told them that they could not sail across the English Channel. If they had listened to him they wouldn’t have seen swimming polar bears or Canada by bike in the middle of winter. In life there are people who will say “You can’t do that”, and they are right if you listen to them. It’s up to you to decide what you can do. What is your English Channel? Don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Go. Just go. You only get one life so make it epic.

For pictures and videos of the trip go to expeditionratafia.esy.es

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