I am going to sail the Northwest Passage in this boat sim

Hello. I know absolutely nothing about sailing, so I am going to sail the Northwest Passage. You may scoff at my ambition, taking on an infamously difficult sea route that has killed hundreds, but I have something those pioneers did not – a completely fake boat. Sailaway [official site] is a sim that is both friendly and (like many sims) weirdly relaxing. It’s still in early access but already allows you to sail all the seas of the globe, and uses realtime data to recreate the weather wherever you are, from dangerous storms to windless expanses of flat water.

This journey is likely to take me several months in real time, if I do not run aground on King William Island or get locked in ice, that is (I still don’t know if getting trapped like this is possible as I refuse to do any research, for maximum adventure). So look out for updates every month or so. For now, here’s how my first day went.

Day 1

It is launch day and I am floating “in irons” in Disko Bay, Greenland. That means, the game tells me helpfully, that the ship is not moving at all. I can see from a display which reads “0.0 km/h” that this summation of my ship’s condition is correct.

I’m planning to follow the route of Franklin’s expedition, because it is probably the most famous and I too have a gift for abject failure. When (if) I reach the point at which they became stuck in the ice and had to eat each other, I’ll just take whatever route I imagine they might have gone. Here’s what my overall course looks like.

If there are any sailors looking at this and thinking “oh god no”, please refrain from telling me your opinion. There are some voyages one must make alone.

In Disko Bay, the wind is very light. I fiddle with the ropes to see what I can do. Sailaway doesn’t let total beginners do much except steer and set a course, so I have to pump the difficulty settings way up to ‘advanced’ and trust in my own capacity to learn. With this sense of pride and confidence, I try to get the sails up by randomly pulling a variety of coloured ropes, all with completely alien names. They’re called stuff like “the Main Vang” and “Cunningham”.

I pull at the jib. But that’s wrong. I tug at the genoa, but that doesn’t seem to have worked either. Let’s have a yank at the traveller. Nope. It won’t budge. The mainsail sounds promising. But it is glowing red and unusable. The 1st reef? No. The 3rd reef? Extra no. I clamber from point to point on the boat, hovering my mouse over each rope like a kitten inspecting an ice cube. What is it? WHY is it?

Eventually, the game coughs politely at me with a tooltip. It must notice I’ve been floating helplessly for the last fifteen minutes. You need to point the ship against the wind before raising the main sail, it says. Otherwise, we won’t let you do it.


I steer the ship around verrrry slooowwwwly, and when we are pointed against the wind, I raise the mainsail. There it goes!

I turn the ship back around to catch some of the wind and, finally, we’re on our way. We are travelling at a blistering 1km per hour.

But that’s only one sail. Typically, these boats work with two at a time. Once again, my stalwart companion and first mate, Mr Tooltips, is there to give me advice. You need to use the gennaker, it says.

The “gennaker”. Right. I can find that.

After fumbling around the ship looking at each rope in turn, I discover the line my computerised companion means. It raises the big flappy parachute of a sail that is useful for catching the wind from behind. I raise it up and fiddle with the ropes. It seems to work, we’re now going at an unheard-of 2 knots.

It has been almost an hour and I have probably travelled a total of 1 kilometre. Even with my enthusiasm I have to admit that I’m not having much luck. And then I realise – as I cycle through the game’s different viewpoints – it’s because I haven’t named my ship. We are sailing under the default name of “My Boat”.

This is surely the computer game equivalent of sailing in an unnamed vessel. I quickly find the customisation menu and get to work, giving the ship a lick of red paint at the waterline for some personality and colouring the different sails so I might better remember them. When I’m finished, she looks much better. There she is, the Bluster & Guesswork. She is a fine vessel.

A couple hours of sailing have now gone by. I eventually discover that I could get more speed and, more importantly, get on course, if I use a different type of sail. Mr Tooltips has been quietly trying to remind me of this, by whispering in the corner of the screen, but I’ve been too busy cycling through different colours and choosing the most pompous font imaginable for my ship’s name. I finally notice his entreaties and begin fiddling with another sail – the genoa. The game has helpful diagrams that instruct you how to adjust the trim of your sails bit by bit, and I dutifully do so, in spite of not really knowing what “trim” is. I think it means “shape”.

The genoa is much better than the gennaker, which I have rolled away and scolded for being far too flappy. I’m now barrelling across the bay at a whopping 3.8 knots. There is no stopping the Bluster & Guesswork. She is a beast. Time, I think, to put on some music.

The great thing about Sailaway, apart from the fact that you can listen to a sea shanty playlist as you sail, is that you can set your boat to stay on course even as you turn the game off. There’s no way I’d be able to attempt this journey otherwise. You click a little auto-pilot style button from a drop down at the top of the screen and when you log off, the ship will keep on sailing, adjusting itself to match the course you’ve set, and even emailing you if it gets frightened (this is why Alice calls the game a “Tamayachtchi”). You can turn the autopilot off, of course, and instead just “drop anchor” every time you leave the game. But there’s no way I’ll get to the Bering sea with that lazy attitude. The ship must sail, even when I am sleeping or eating pizza in a nice restaurant. The Bluster & Guesswork must always continue. Mr Tooltips! Full sail.

I sit in my boat and listen to the lapping water as I adjust the rudder and watch the sun set. It transpires that travelling at approximately 4km/h past Greenland on a crap boat is very relaxing. Sometimes I pull the ropes and the sails flap a bit. Sometimes I pull the ropes and the sails stop flapping. The map says I am off-course. But I’m not. I’m exactly where I ought to be.

I log off for now and leave Mr Tooltips at the helm. Hours later, I will check back in with him and the Bluster. The sun will have gone down. The moon: dead ahead.

We’ve cleared the bay and the wind is picking up. “You have 3782 miles to go on your voyage,” says Mr Tooltips. He is trying to worry me by stating plainly just how vast this distance is, how absurd the thought of completing the journey really is. But I am not faint-hearted. We’ll be there in no time.

We are travelling at an adrenaline-pumping 6 knots.


  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Nautical terms are all utter nonsense to me.

    This looks like the start of a fun feature. Though maybe a bit content-light once you get the hang of things. There’s only so much to see out on the ocean.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      Here are some of the nautical terms I just found on Wikipedia, which amused or otherwise interested me:

      A soft covering for cables (or any other obstructions) that prevents sail chafing from occurring.
      Pledging a ship as security in a financial transaction.
      Captain’s daughter
      The cat o’ nine tails, which in principle is only used on board on the captain’s (or a court martial’s) personal orders.
      The “valley” between the strands of a rope or cable
      Foo-foo band
      An impromptu musical band on late 19th-century sailing vessels, made up from members of the ship’s crew.
      Watered-down rum, issued to all seamen over twenty.
      Harden up
      Turn towards the wind; sail closer to the wind.
      Kissing the gunner’s daughter
      Bending over the barrel of a gun for punitive beating with a cane or cat.
      Poop deck
      A high deck on the aft superstructure of a ship.
      Shaft alley
      Section of a ship that houses the propulsion shaft, running from the engine room to the stuffing box.
      Greasy substance obtained by boiling or scraping the fat from empty salted meat storage barrels, or the floating fat residue after boiling the crew’s meal.
      Slush fund
      The money obtained by the cook selling slush ashore.
      Splice the mainbrace
      A euphemism, an order given aboard naval vessels to issue the crew with a drink, traditionally grog.
      Acknowledgement of an order, or agreement. Also aye, aye.

      I hope all nautical terms will make sense to you from now on.

      • poliovaccine says:

        Hahaha, great list, thanks for that. Incidentally, I picked up “slush fund” off my father, in his broader but still contextually faithful usage to refer to profit you get by selling off worthless dregs in general. Never knew it had anything to do with sailing, but I know he did, so that makes some sense.

        Also, nice to know wtf “grog” actually is, outside of an RPG item.

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Isn’t a ‘main vang’ a Cuban’s best friend?

  2. Jerppa says:

    I hope Brendan won’t have to eat Mr Tooltips.

  3. GrumpyCatFace says:

    I stand with you on this epic voyage. And by stand, I mean check in once a day for updates, and laugh at your progress. Great stuff!

  4. Canadave says:

    According to here, Disko Bay is currently iced over, so I’m going to say the accuracy of that side of the sim is not very high.

    That said, I’m in favour of anything with a Stan Rogers reference in it, so carry on.

    • Hyena Grin says:

      Tsk. You don’t give the game enough credit! It merely takes place after 50 more years of climate change.

    • RabidLime says:

      very glad to see i’m not the only one that is aware of ol’ Stan. he’s a foot-stompers delight.

  5. Father Ted says:

    Let us know when you reach the urine-drinking stage…

  6. Synesthesia says:

    This is wonderful, I chuckled a lot. I hope you don’t eat your absolute best second mate.

  7. stratoschedl says:

    I see Sir John Franklin facepalming in his grave. But nevertheless I´m as curious as him how this voyage will continue……….

    • Rainshine says:

      I dunno, seems in the spirit of proper Franklin — going in way over your head with no real clue of what you’re doing, throwing money and British attitude at problems. All it seems to be missing is a widow with vast sums of money and a penchant for slander and racism.

      Excellent music choice! Might check out Lady Franklin’s Lament as well; Jefferson Hamer has done a nice back to back of those two pieces live

  8. Hidoshi says:

    This is one of the games I’ll never play, but enjoy reading a lot more. Thanks for making me laugh the whole article through :D

  9. Alistair says:

    Seems like it needs VR. Free nausea and everything.

  10. DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I feel like this is a more appropriately foreshadowing song choice:

    link to youtu.be

  11. Eldritch says:

    Great stuff, Brendan! Always like your writing and this is very funny.

  12. IaIaFhtagn says:

    I’m so very pleased you linked the Stan Rogers song; it was – unsurprisingly – the first thing to pop into my head, and it’s a great piece.

  13. teije says:

    Impressive speed, considering the vast majority of the passage is iced over at the moment. Hey, at least you’re not waiting too late like Franklin did!

  14. moriarty70 says:

    Had a good friend who was on the sister ship of the one that found “The Terror” last summer. While he was up there, a cruise ship was taking the Northwest from the Alaska side, and song this popped up on my Spotify discovery list

  15. daver4470 says:

    This is a cool idea. Of course if you declared you wanted to do this route in real life, it could only be interpreted as a desperate cry for help….

    Interested to see how you like the game, too. I’m right on the fence over getting it. I actually tried to write a sailing simulator when I was about 12 (in BASIC, no less!), so I’ve been waiting for something like this for quite some time….

  16. Captain Narol says:

    I’m tempted by this game but still on the fence, you’d better be convincing !

  17. Warduke says:

    “like a kitten inspecting an ice cube” – I lol’d, nice

  18. The Bitcher III says:

    6 knots is nothing to be sniffed at. 168 miles per day. 20 days would be an amazing achievement.


    But I’m hooked. This might be the one game I buy in EA.

    One question, does it have an onscreen anemometer / wind direction thingumagic?

  19. Jernau Gurgeh says:

    This seems a highly appropriate place to share this joyous maritime-flavoured little video…

    link to youtu.be

  20. Ben King says:

    Ah this is splendid! I just read your second captains log. Do keep us posted as your voyage continues :-)