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Braving the Northwest Passage
May 23, 2009
In just four weeks, a Nordhavn 57 owner will embark on the journey of a lifetime.
That phraseology gets used a lot with Nordhavn owners, but this journey is linked to such significant political, environmental and historical ramifications that the outcome could considerably impact the way everyone – from world leaders to the general public – views the precious, enigmatic, economical goldmine that is the North Pole.
Sprague Theobald, on board his boat, Bagan, will be departing Newport, RI on June 15 bound for the Northwest Passage. Throughout history only a handful of sailboats have ever tried to transit the frigid and remote Northwest Passage; nearly all have failed. Today the only vessels found prowling the frozen mass are large submarines and icebreakers. But because climate changes have caused the ice to recede, the strait will be exposed allowing non-specialized boats to pass through it. Not just Theobald’s boat – which becomes among the first privately owned powerboats to attempt the transit – but also container ships which will be able to eliminate thousands of miles and expense from their current less direct lines of travel. And, perhaps most importantly, the opened pathways will pave the way for international expeditions intent on exploiting the rich natural resources of the area, said to be the last untapped boon for oil, gold and diamonds. Five countries currently lay claim to the region: Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the United States, and many analysts say the verbal sparring amongst the nations to this point is, well, just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come.
Behind the scenes of the political drama are concerns over the impact an industrial invasion would have to the already endangered Polar Bears, the native Inuits who inhabit the area, and the land itself, which to this point has remained virtually untouched.
So inspired by the multi-faceted story that exists behind the Northwest Passage, Theobald, an Emmy™ award-winning filmmaker, and his team have committed to producing a documentary film about the area – to the point where the perilous, ice-enshrouded waters of the trip’s route have almost become an afterthought. Despite recognizing the obvious risks of the voyage, Theobald is up to the challenge. After all, the journey combines many of his greatest loves: boating, film making, nautical history, and making a difference. He plans to shop the project to a number of private and independent studios as well as television networks. Needless to say, there has already been considerable interest. For many Nordhavn fans, Theobald’s name may have a familiar ring to it. It was Theobald who, in 2006, produced the award-winning movie, “Welcome to Nordhavn”, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at the company, the factories and the faces responsible for Nordhavn’s success.
“This is a documentary that’s just waiting to be made,” said Theobald, who has spent years fascinated by the history and the possibilities of the Northwest Passage. Nearly two centuries ago, his great (x6) grandfather ran a shipping fleet out of Boston bound for San Francisco and the Orient. “I can only imagine how he eyed that route,” he said. Not to be outdone, Theobald’s great (x8) uncle became the first person to sail a sloop around the world. A full captain at age 19, he skippered the sloop Union (which, coincidentally, also departed from Newport, RI) to a full circumnavigation – and completed the task in just 22 months despite being shut off from navigating the Northwest Passage. For Theobald, the transit will honor the quest left unfulfilled by his ancestors. Personally and professionally, Theobald had the motive to make the film, and following the purchase of Bagan in 2006, he had the means.
“Without pounding the company line, I truly wouldn’t do this on any other boat,” says Theobald, for whom Bagan is his third Nordhavn. “I know all I have to do is call the company if I get into trouble.”
The past year has been spent preparing for one of the most epic voyages undertaken by a single pleasure powerboat. Already, Bagan had been outfitted with a film studio, but to allow for the freezing climate and remote locale, endless spares and upgrades were added. Although Nordhavns are not known for major failures, the possibility of a significant equipment breakdown still exists – and in the middle of the Arctic Circle, help is not readily available. But like any Nordhavn owner, Theobald shrugs it off. “Yeah, it may fail. But it’s all part of the adventure.”
The crew which Theobald has assembled is comprised of experienced yachtsmen, divers and a noted film director, each an integral piece to the creation of what is sure to be one of the most compelling documentaries of the little-explored region. With a working title, “Arctic Grail: The Northwest Passage”, the film will contain footage of the Arctic as it currently exists including spectacular underwater photography, interviews with international ecology ministers and with the native people whose lives are likely to be sacrificed in the name of sovereignty. The film’s website, www.northwestpassagefilm.com features the navigational and geographical history of the area, crew bios, details about the ship and its route, as well as blog entries and film clips from underway.
A bon voyage party will take place June 12 in Newport where sponsors and guests will be able to view a 10-minute trailer of the film and attend a Q&A with Theobald and his crew, as well as tour Bagan. Two days later, the boat will depart for Halifax. Bagan will be sticking to a strict schedule since the icy Arctic will only become circumnavigable when thewarmest temperatures occur in mid-summer.It is this reason that one of the most dangerous parts of the trip will come as Theobald and his crew continue their journey toward Seattle, forcing a late September crossing of the Bering Sea, deemed to be a risky time of year to traverse. Bagan will eventually make its way south to Nordhavn’s headquarters in Dana Point, CA, whichwill mark the completion of a North American circumnavigation for Theobald, who purchased the boat there and brought her around to New England on her own bottom in 2007.
The Northwest Passage voyage comes on the heels of another precarious adventure, The Great Siberian Sushi Run, currently being undertaken by a trio of Nordhavns. Traveling together from Alaska to Japan, the high stakes of the GSSR are a result of the west to east path they are taking through the dangerous Bering Sea and the remoteness of stops such as Siberia. Naturally, comparisons are being drawn between the two trips. “Neither of these journeys is going to be a cake walk,” said Theobald, although the lack of company during his excursion certainly ups the bold factor of his trek.
There was a point during the early planning phase when PAE president Dan Streech had considered accompanying Theobald on his mission to study the elusive maritime route. But a packed schedule won out over Streech’s desire for adventure; still his heart will be on board with the crew.
Says Streech about the trip: “In this modern complacent world of air bags, child safety seats, handrails and warning labels, few events match the drama, excitement – and yes, the delicious dread – of an ocean passage aboard a private yacht. Sprague and his able crew will be taking their trusty Nordhavn on a granddaddy of voyages, an assault on the infamous Northwest Passage. Over the centuries, the Northwest Passage has broken ships and taken the lives of hundreds and today is still capable of showing her evil side. Sprague’s crew is superb, his ship sturdy and his planning impeccable...but still the danger is real and failure is possible.
“I envy Sprague for the great adventure that he is about to experience and know for sure that he will not have any regrets when he is confined to the rocking chair some day.
“Godspeed Sprague. See you in November!”
Depart Newport, RI - June 14
Arrive Halifax, NS - June 20
Arrive Labrador, NS - July 1
Arrive Baffin Island, Greenland (will base out of Upernavik)