Skip to main content

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

Ah for just one time...

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.

Read this next