Northwest Passage: The Making of a Documentary

On June 17, 2009, Emmy award-winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald, 58, left Rhode Island on a 57-foot Nordhavn powerboat with a crew of four to document a maritime expedition through the Arctic’s storied Northwest Passage. Once impenetrable, the ice-covered seafaring route became fully navigable for the first time in 2007 when the sea ice dramatically retreated. In 2008, the passage was also clear, and in 2009, Theobald embarked to make a film showcasing the stark wilderness. Able sailors and divers, the crew had never before braved the Arctic. They encountered significantly more ice than expected, but five months, many polar bears and one perilous ice trap later, they emerged safely in Seattle on November 5, 2009, with 250 hours of high-definition footage. This winter, Theobald will distill his material into a full-length documentary. Theobald sat down with us and reflected on his journey.

The Northwest Passage. Sprague Theobald's trip originated in Rhode Island and ended in Seattle five months later.

Polar Field Services: When did you first get the idea for this project?

Sprague Theobald: Years and years and years ago. I was very inquisitive as a kid and when I learned about the Northwest Passage in school, the first thing they said was that man can’t go through it. I hate the word “can’t.” Since then the passage has intrigued me, in part because I knew as I was growing up that if no one was up there going through it, no one had yet left their footprints. 

No footprints here. Theobald and crew make tracks in the Northwest Passage. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What was your intention/mission when you set out from Rhode Island?

Apart from simply documenting this great expedition, I wanted to show daily shipboard life of a family. But once we got to Greenland and saw the ice and got away from humanity, I saw that nature is so much bigger than any story we could tell from the boat.

What interaction did you have with native communities?

I was hoping to show the life in the communities we went to, but it was very hard to depict daily life. I was also thinking about doing more on the environment and climate change specifically, but then I thought the pictures spoke for themselves.

Would it have enhanced your experience to discuss climate change more and interview more experts?

Well, we interviewed two elders, hunters and two young geologists. Their anecdotal information differed. The elders both said the winters are getting longer and the ice is getting thicker, and the geologists said the ice was changing, seeing more run off. I didn’t want to make a climate change documentary. I wanted to show the pristine place in its rawness.

We do have footage talking about the potential impacts of oil and gas, and prospecting for diamonds and gold and nickel underground.

Were you already a fan of the Arctic or polar places?

Other than a scouting trip in 2008, I had never been there before. But the passage had such a legacy of expeditions trying and, if they made it back, saying it’s hell. My sense of adventure goes deep, and when someone says, “you can’t go there,” I think, “Why not?” 

The view from the boat—for five months. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What were your first impressions as you reached the Arctic by boat?

It was much different than I expected. I knew it would be isolated and desolate, but it was like the backside of the moon. There was no plant life; we went two months without seeing another boat or another person, and every time anyone went ashore onto the ice, two of us had to go together and we had to have guns.

Describe the environment.

The midnight sun was ethereal with a bluish cast to it. Human faces don’t look pink and healthy—they look blue and gaunt. It is really powerful. The wildlife was stunning.

Describe a typical day.

You wake up four different times and are always busy. You stand watch, are briefed as to what is going on, check the engine room, download the ice charts, weather charts, keep your eyes open for anything—a rogue piece of ice or whales getting ready to jump

What was typical progress and how much fuel did you use?

A good day would be 200 miles and we’d travel between 7.5 and 8 knots. The tank holds 2,200 gallons of fuel and we used a little less than 8,000 gallons, total. We got fuel in Greenland, and topped off the tank in Nome and in Sitka, and that lasted us to Seattle.

What were some of the more interesting shots you filmed?

It was all really stunning. And the underwater footage is incredible. Everyone has seen life above the ice. Seeing the hull of the boat coming through the ice is amazing.

You were stuck on the ice for several days. What happened?

That was horrific. Our options dwindled very slowly and inexorably. We had been anchored off of a small island downloading the ice charts, and saw a lead open in the ice. The next chart came down, and the lead was even bigger, so we went for it. We were halfway in it, when we saw a white wall coming toward us. The wind doesn’t drive the ice, the currents do, and the currents had changed.

On the first day we were trapped, in 18 hours we moved 17 miles. The next day we made two miles in five hours. I went to bed thinking the next thing I was going to hear was the crunch of the ice decimating the boat. But four hours later I woke up, and we were seven miles off the coast, had a small lead, and we pushed and pushed and began to work our way out of it. 

Icebergs show up on the radar. Theobald and crew were trapped in the ice when changing currents closed leads (openings in the ice) that previously looked open. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What were the potential consequences of being trapped?

We couldn’t move. It was the first time in my life I had ever been without an option. We felt hopeless. We were trapped, caught, not moving. In the worst-case scenario, we would have had to abandon the ship and make our way to the closest civilization over ice.

Did you film during this crisis?

With great precaution we went out onto the ice and got some magnificent footage of the boat trapped. We also dove under the boat and locked in some great shots.

What was the most dangerous aspect of being trapped?

The ice felt like an avalanche in very slow motion, the compasses were all deviating because we were so far north, so we had to rely on GPS to navigate. We dropped anchor on the ice floe, and so we would move with the ice, but the current changed yet again and at one point, instead of being a mile and a half off shore, we were a quarter mile off shore. We were either going to wreck on the rocks or on the ice.

How did you get out of the situation?

Luck. The current changed again, and then we saw a small opening and we went for it as aggressively as we could. When we were finally liberated, there weren’t whoops of joy or loud yahoos. Everyone was so depleted.

You said you have an interest and eagerness to support or inspire the educational/scientific communities with your footage and experiences. What are some ways you envision doing that?

The goal for any documentary is for someone to sit there at the end and say, “I never knew that.” I want to open their eyes a little bit, and if I can develop partnerships with any scientists or educational outlets to use some of my footage to accomplish that, then that would be good.

When will we see the documentary?

It will take about three months to log all the footage, and by the beginning of the summer we’ll have a good rough cut. A lot of people have expressed an interest in seeing the footage, so right now I am working on creating a good five-minute teaser.

Much of your crew was related to you.

Yep, it didn’t start off as a family trip, but my crew included my stepdaughter, Dominique Tanton, 28, and stepson, Chaunce Tanton, 32, and their half brother and my son Sefton Theobald, 22.

This expedition pulled the family back together in a way that was totally unexpected.

When did you decide to make this expedition a reality?

In 2007. I was out to dinner with friends in New York and was asked if there was a trip I hadn’t yet done as a filmmaker, and the words “Northwest Passage” flew out of my mouth and were there on the table. And it was realistic, particularly with the ice opening up that summer. I had a boat, I had crew people in mind, and—this was before the economy fell apart—I had potential sponsors lined up to underwrite it.

Who were your sponsors?

Nordhavn, the boat manufacturer (and I owned a Nordhavn) signed on right away. But last September (2008) the economy began to crumble and they and my other sponsors had to pull out. I completely understood. They didn’t have the money.

How did you pay for the expedition, and what was your budget?

I used the proceeds from the sale of my home several years earlier. It was completely self-funded and cost me about $300,000.

What are your final thoughts on the expedition?

It was an astounding trip. I hope that whatever happens in the future with the Northwest Passage, we all use our brains about it. It truly is one of the last wild adventures.

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