Armed with a high-powered rifle, Sefton Theobald stands on polar-bear watch near Barrow, Alaska, while his father, Sprague Theobald, films a site where the American Inuit still drag humpback whales ashore and "reduce" them.
Northwest Passage: once is enough
Sprague Theobald, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker, has returned to his Newport, Rhode Island, home after completing an arduous five-month, 8,500-nautical-mile filmmaking expedition through the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. While the high-definition footage that leaked through the filmmaker's blog has been deemed "stunning" and "other worldly," the biggest treasure Theobald found in the Arctic was renewed family ties.
Aboard Bagan, his specially outfitted Nordhavn 57, Theobald brought with him a team of professional divers, sailors and filmmakers. He also hired three family members—son Sefton Theobald, stepdaughter Dominique Tanton, and stepson Chauncey Tanton. The four family members had not lived together for many years and grew close amid the danger, desolation, and close quarters of the five-month voyage across the Arctic. In the end, the family aspect added a profound dynamic to his story.
"Words cannot express how proud I am of you,” said Theobald, at a final crew meeting in Seattle. "Every one of you did your job above and beyond what was expected... and you kept it together and looked after one another when we were stuck in the ice."
By "keeping it together" and "stuck in the ice" Theobald refers to a harrowing two-day experience as the crew made their attempt through Canada's ice-clogged Northwest Passage. No sooner did they enter the 30-degree water as it began to freeze around them. They were trapped and frozen in. They tried everything to escape the ice and at one point Bagan was being driven towards a rocky coast and the crew prepared to abandon ship.
“The sound was horrific,” Theobald said about being trapped in the ice. “I thought it was the hull. Itʼs that grinding, cracking noise (like) youʼd think fiberglass would sound like if it was breaking . . . It finally dawned on me. It’s the ice around us thatʼs making that all that noise,” not the boat.
Chart shows the track of Bagan while she was trapped in ice for two days. The area shown is about 3 miles by 1.5 miles. Said Sprague Theobald: "The compass was useless; we were so close to the North Pole that it was simply swinging in circles . . . as were we! Also note that there are no soundings, as that part of the world simply has none on its charts!"
Ultimately, skillful maneuvering and a bit of luck got them out of the ice jam and safely to the western end of the Passage where they proceeded across the Bering Sea, around Alaska and down the coast to their final port of Seattle in October. They had departed Newport, Rhode Island, in June.
Theobald's expedition included dramatic events that pitted the crew against foul weather, technical issues, icebergs the size of Manhattan skyscrapers, wildlife encounters, personality conflicts, and so on, all of which, Theobald said, are driving interest from several TV networks.
Theobald asks we keep an eye on his blog for developing news about the project, and for readers who want to chime-in to vote for scenes to be included or excluded from the documentary and TV series. Visit www.NorthwestPassageFilm.com.
In all, he returned with 250-hours of stunning high-definition video footage including underwater shots, surreal landscapes, active glaciers, wildlife, and historical landmarks including grave sites from the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845.
“It was worth the risk, but I would not do it again.” Theobald said in an interview with Yachting Magazine. "We have yet to talk publicly about the more terrifying moments of the trip."
MotorBoating Magazine also captured the expedition in a four-part series. A feature presentation will appear in the next Circumnavigator, the Nordhavn magazine.
Click here to listen to an interview with Theobald at Soundings Online.
Theobald interviewed Inuit elders, other sailors attempting the Passage, politicians, and conservationists from the region regarding changes and issues in the Arctic. “The documentary will show the beauty and power of the Arctic and what the world risks losing if its not properly cared for.” Theobald said.
Bagan was the first Nordhavn and the first production powerboat to transit the Northwest Passage. The first trawler yacht to do so was Idlewild, a purpose-built aluminum 57-footer designed by George Buehler and sailed by Ben Gray and his two sons.
The first powerboat to transit was David Scott Cowper with Mabel E. Holland, a 42-foot converted lifeboat, who circumnavigated the world via the Northwest Passage in 1986-1990—singlehanded.