Northwest Passage

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The Northwest Passage is the sea route of the North American continent between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via Canada's Arctic Archipelago. A dream of explorers and merchants since the 15th century to find the shortest route to the riches of the Far East, the Northwest Passage was successfully navigated in 1906, after years of hardship and tragedy in one of the world's harshest environments.


The Northwest Passage begins in Baffin Bay, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Baffin Island, some five hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. West into Lancaster Sound north of Baffin Island the route splits: a northern route follows the waterways south of Devon, Bathurst, and Melville islands before turning south into Prince of Wales Strait between Victoria and Banks islands and entering into Admundsen Gulf; the southern route enters Peel Sound west of Somerset Island, and enters Queen Maud and Coronation gulfs, and ultimately Admundsen Gulf. The route then continues along the north shore of Canada and Alaska (Beaufort Sea), then enters the Bering Strait for the Pacific Ocean. From its eastern entry to the Beaufort Sea the route is about 900 miles long.

The major hazard for ships attempting to sail the passage is free-floating ice. Within Baffin Bay icebergs calved from Greenland's glaciers drift south by the thousands; much of the central portion of the route as well as the Beaufort Sea suffers from the polar ice cap pushing ice south; this can funnel a mass of ice through the waterways within the archipelago as well as the Bering Strait during much of the year. Many ships that have sailed within this area have found themselves trapped by the ice and forced to "winter-over" until the spring thaw.


Prior to Columbus, trade goods came to Europe from China and India via overland routes like the Silk Road, which had its terminus in Constantinople. The conquest of that city as well as much of the Middle East by the Ottoman Turks in the mid-15th century prompted the first series of explorations westward by sea. Before the 1490s had ended it had been realized that the new lands found by Columbus were not part of the Far East; this prompted Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama in 1498 to sail to India by way of a southern voyage around Africa, and another Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, to sail to what was then called the East Indies (Indonesia) by going around the southern tip of South America and into the Pacific Ocean.

It was also realized that a northern route to the Far East would be shorter in terms of distance (about 8,000 miles) and time. John Cabot was sent by King Henry VII in the first search for a northwestern passage, reaching Newfoundland in 1496, and making an attempt for Japan in a second, ill-fated expedition in 1498. Exploration for the route would be in small steps; the Frenchman Jacques Cartier would chart the eastern Canadian coast and St. Lawrence River; Sir Martin Frobisher explored the northern areas around Baffin Bay and attempted a colony at Frobisher Bay; and Henry Hudson would search for the passage in 1610, entering the vast bay which bears his name before being cast adrift by a mutinous crew in 1611.

Two centuries of trial and error at sea by explorers John Davis (1585), William Baffin (1615, 1616), Sir John Ross (1829-33), Sir William Parry (1819), Frederick William Beechey (1825-28), and Sir George Back (1836-37) did much to add to the knowledge of the Canadian Arctic; this was supplemented by overland explorers Henry Kelsey (1688-91), Samuel Hearne (1770-72), and Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1789) as they explored much of Canada west of Hudson Bay to the Arctic.

In the west James Cook's last - and fatal - expedition (1776-1780), followed by George Vancouver's meticulous coastal search during the summers of 1792 to 1794 failed to find a Pacific outlet for a passage.

The most tragic loss of life occurred during the Franklin expedition which began in 1845. The British ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin, made an attempt to complete the navigation of the passage; documents and evidence found later revealed both ships were trapped by ice within Victoria Strait west of King William Island and were subsequently abandoned, leaving 129 men to die of a combination of disease, starvation, and exposure by the time the first organized searches had begun for them in 1848[1]. Franklin's ships would not be seen again until Erebus was discovered in 2014[2], and Terror in 2016[3][4].

In the 12 years from 1848 a total of 36 search expeditions were mounted - mostly by the Royal Navy - these included a number of support efforts: supply, relief and dual purpose expeditions. They did not find Franklin but they filled in gaps that shed much light on the geography (and dangers) of the Arctic north. One of these expeditions, one sponsored by Lady Jane Franklin, was a rarity in the nineteenth century, an Anglo-French humanitarian effort, that combined ship borne efforts with a journey by sledge south and west through the Bellet Strait that while not appreciated at the time became a part of the Passage in later years after its initial negotiation by the RCMP schooner St Roch in 1942.

The first one-way completion of sorts was begun by one of these Franklin searchers, Robert McClure, who had entered the passage from the Pacific in 1852 aboard Investigator; his sailing progress was no better than Franklin's, having been icebound for two winters before he and the crew left the ship to sledge overland and meet up with another rescue ship that had come in on the Atlantic side in 1854. The rescue ship - HMS Resolute - was herself part of a larger expedition that had hoped to find Franklin and his men; this expedition was itself locked in ice, and four of the ships, Resolute included, had to be abandoned.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen - who would later be the first to reach the South Pole - became the first man to make a successful navigation of the Northwest Passage by sea. Onboard Gjöa, a converted herring trawler, Amundsen set sail in 1903 on a journey that lasted three years, ending in 1906 in r

The first uninterrupted journey by sea across the top of Canada - a transit from east to west - was made by the icebreaker, HMCS Labrador in 1954.

In 1969 a super-tanker, the Manhattan, all 115,000 tons of her, was turned into an ice-breaker, (adding 35,000 tons) to test the feasibility of carrying oil from the Alaskan North Slope to southern markets via the Passage thereby saving the cost of a pipeline. She had trouble getting to the oil and had to be rescued on the way back out. Today, there is a pipeline.

the first yacht, the 43ft ketch Wiiliwaw, made the transit from east to west in 1977.

A passenger vessel, MV Imblad Explorer, successfully made the passage in 1984. Today, modified cruise ships do it every year; often in both directions in a single season.


The Northwest Passage is claimed by Canada as an integral part of its territory; the United States claims the waterways surrounding the islands are international, and therefore can be transited by anyone. Changes to climate have resulted in less ice during the summers recently, allowing for increased shipping traffic of various sorts; however, icebreakers are always present, and many commercial ships have been outfitted with ice-breaking bows. Transits of the passage have begun in the 1980s, with about 4 per year during that time to 20-30 per year from 2009-2013[5].


  5. 4 per year in the 1980s to 20-30 per year in 2009-2013

Historical source:"Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History". Volume 3. pp111-115