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Sailor Risks Life, Family to Cross Northwest Passage

Becky Kellogg
Published: April 18, 2013

More people have been sent into space than have traversed the infamous Northwest Passage. With that thought in his mind, Sprague Theobald took to the seas in an effort to cross the Northwest Passage. 

It took him five months and 8,500 miles of sailing, but he crossed the ice-filled waterway safely. Along the way he would face potentially deadly circumstances and grow closer to his crew, which happened to be his grown children and step-children.

Theobald documented his 2009 journey with a book and a film, both titled The Other Side of Ice. Along the way he grew to love this desolate landscape. He also witnessed the extreme transormation of the Arctic due to warming temperatures and climate change.

As the tundra is starting to melt, it’s potentially going to be exposing an incredible amount of resources up there. ... These resources are just below the surface. I envision a free-for-all. I hope there’s paperwork in place that’s going to protect this area from mining, excavating, from ripping the land up to get at these resources.
Sprague Theobold, sailor

“A village elder told me ‘This word slush is new to us,'" Theobald said. "The firm, hard ice is still in evidence but it’s not as solid as it used to be. I’m not a meteorologist or climatologist, but slush means higher temperatures.”

Theobald departed from his home in Newport, R.I. and traveled north into the icy waters of the Arctic, which until recently were blocked in winter by ice and glaciers. He used a satellite uplink on his boat several times a day to get updated ice reports, which helped him traverse glaciers and ice floes that litter the waters of the Northwest Passage. He eventually and  eventually completed his journey in Seattle. (You can see a detailed map of his route by clicking through the photo slideshow at the bottom of this article.)

Along the way, he encountered danger from ice, polar bears and severe weather. Theobald said one of the most harrowing moments was when his boat was surrounded by huge chunks of ice, which could rip a hole in his boat in mere seconds.

“It’s one thing to be caught by the ice but it’s another thing to be caught by old ice. The dark, grey, cement-looking ice. It didn’t take much to figure out the new ice , meaning 10-15 year old ice, was melting and moving south out of the way allowing this larger, old ice to come down and that’s what we got caught in," said Theobald.

(MORE: Ancient Glacier Offers Revealing Clues About Climate Change)

"That then begged the question what’s going on with the old ice. It’s been there for hundreds if not thousands of years. If nothing’s replacing it immediately then it’s breaking a dam.”

Theobald grew to love the dark, forboding landscape of the Northwest Passage. He hopes others who are also intrigued by this deadly, beautiful landscape will become active in helping protect it.

"As the tundra is starting to melt, it’s potentially going to be exposing an incredible amount of resources up there. I mean diamond, gold, nickel. These resources are just below the surface," said Theobald. "I envision a free-for-all. I hope there’s paperwork in place that’s going to protect this area from mining, excavating, from ripping the land up to get at these resources.”

The Other Side of Ice was released in March.

The Other Side of Ice

The Other Side of Ice

Sailor and documentary filmmaker Sprague Theobald documented his trip across the Northwest Passage on film and book. (Courtesy: Sprague Theobald)

  • The Other Side of Ice
  • The Other Side of Ice
  • The Other Side of Ice
  • The Other Side of Ice
  • The Other Side of Ice
  • The Other Side of Ice
  • The Other Side of Ice
  • Map of Theobald's Voyage

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