Sprague Theobold took his family on a treacherous journey across the Northwest Passage. He was hoping it would reconcile them. Assuming, that is, that they were able to survive.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker and author Sprague Theobald took his estranged family on a 5 month, 8.500 mile journey from Newport, Rhode Island across the Northwest Passage, the unforgiving Arctic sea route connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. Over the past hundred years, numerous explorers and adventurers made the attempt, only to become trapped–sometimes fatally–by the weather and the ice. The end result? Under extreme circumstances, over the course of five months, Theobald’s family slowly reunites and heals. The Good Men Project is proud to present excerpts from the Prologue and Chapter 17 of the book, The Other Side of the Ice.
The Northwest Passage is a ship killer, and always has been.
I was leading a crossing of the Northwest Passage, an 1,800-mile channel north of the Arctic Circle, connecting, in theory, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Hundreds of sailors had given their lives trying to do the exact same thing. We were a small boat with a small crew. Bagan is a fifty-seven foot long Nordhavn, and she was manned by six of us, three of whom were my children.
As a filmmaker, I hoped to document our passage. As a parent it was a chance for me to try and readjust the past. Since a divorce more than fifteen years earlier, my children and I hadn’t had the luxury of living together and this trip was the first time the four of us were under the same roof for any length of time.
One thought and one thought only kept shouting in my mind, a thought that no expedition leader and especially no parent should ever have to think, a thought that held me in a cold, mental death grip, a thought that I still think about.
“Have I brought us all together just to lead us to our deaths?”
Chapter 17: An Excerpt
Stormy In Seattle
Winter was quickly approaching, fishing boats were leaving their docks with greater apprehension, full gales could and would pop up without notice potentially pinning us down for days if not weeks. This final hellish effort was going to be met head-on by four family members who in that past five months and 4,500 miles had grown together as one unlike any family has ever had the opportunity to do.
Our plan was to leave the dock before first light the next day, around 5:30 a.m. We were hoping to run as far as we could and with the help of a tide, getting perhaps 80 miles to 100 miles farther down the road. Shortly before bed, I had asked Sefton to meet me in the pilothouse. I wanted to present him with something, which for a father at least, was to be the pinnacle of any father-son relationship–something that had me realize what life was all about, an item which would allow me to move into my remaining years knowing that his and my relationship would forever be altered in the most powerful and meaningful of ways.
“Are you kidding? No way…” which was exactly what I expected this now-man standing in front of me to say. “Are you sure??”
Over the journey I’d been watching as my son had grown from a young man into a resourceful and competent man. He had faced the deadliest of adversities with the greatest of equanimity. When needed he had provided the most assuring solace that any man twice his age and experience would. He had faced personal and natural challenges that few, if any, ever see. And each time came through it in a far better standing than I could ever have dreamed of doing at his age. The time had come. As I placed Bagan’s keys in Sefton’s hand his beaming smile of self-assured pride betrayed his eyes of a quizzical concern. “She’s all yours now. You’ll be taking us home. I’ve been watching you all summer and you’re ready.”
The question now: Was I?
I had full confidence in his getting us to Seattle but would my heart allow and let go of this once little boy to step into full-fledged manhood? No more poignant moment existed between father and son and as I write this, my eyes flood with the power of the moment of transfer and transition.
We slipped away from the city docks in Ketchikan on that 27 day of October and found our weather immediately. Despite the NOAA forecast, winds filed in from the southeast peaking at about 30 knots and drove a relentless and freezing rain sideways, slashing against Bagan. We were now heading down Alaska’s famous “Inside Passage” – an area whose cruising season is short and one that we’d missed by weeks. No longer would we have to worry about powering through the night because there were plenty of anchorages to be found along the way. Yet what we did have our hands now full with, the infamous tides in that part of the world. It wasn’t unusual to experience currents that could race through narrows up to 10 knots.
The Inside Passage is a circuitous route from the south of Alaska into British Columbia. From there, it is a direct shot down and into Seattle. At slightly more than 1,000 nautical miles, it threads through some of the area’s most beautiful island grounds rimmed by snow-capped mountains and glaciers. Wildlife is abundant and fellow travelers and cruisers are always a radio call away–during summer that is.
We were now well into the off-season, heading into winter. These were now waters whipped and pounded by storms that produce winds in excess of 40 knots for days on end. Put these 40 knots of wind up against a very adverse and powerful counter current and this area can produce some of the world’s worst and most dangerous conditions. Again we found ourselves in the position of not being able to stop for any extended length of time and wait out one of these systems as a two-day wait could very easily turn into a two-week wait.
As we worked our way south in the passage, we did have our days of sitting on the anchor in some tucked- away anchorage, waiting the passing of the latest full gale, listening as the rain pounded on the deck overhead and the waves crashed against the rock shore just outside of our protected cove. We’d sit tight and watch as wind driven spume would fly up and over us as we’d await a break in the current gale.
The proverbial “cabin fever” was long-gone. To suffer from this ailment of tedium, one has to have a modicum of drive and energy, something we were all lacking.
Even the tease of Seattle being only a few more days down the line couldn’t raise the needed strength to have the feeling of needing to leave –now.
We worked our way south to Petersburg, Alaska. In 1994, I’d brought my Nordhavn 46 Gryphon up from Los Angeles where I’d been living on her at the time, and cruised the passage, ending just north of Petersburg. As we currently made our way past this community and down a long snaking channel called “Christmas Tree Lane,” I noted to myself that I had completed my full circumnavigation of North America. If I had had a bit more energy I would have celebrated, but I couldn’t muster the energy to rise to the occasion.
The Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia marked one of our last open dangers because here the protected Inside Passage opens up to the Pacific Ocean. Storm-driven seas can keep this area in a state of violent and unforgiving conditions. Hundreds of ships have succumbed to storms of inconceivable destruction as they tried to make their way past this island grouping either inside or outside. Trying to protect ourselves from a guaranteed slamming, Sefton plotted a course well east of these islands down into Finlayson Channel where we were hoping to take advantage of a small anchorage, aptly named “Bottleneck,” that the Pilot books called “bomb proof.” But not before the computer crashed yet again.
When it finally came back up we’d lost all but the electronic navigation program and with that, all our routing. This constant crashing was something we’d become used to by this time and had found and perfected many “work- around” solutions. There was a reason we all had Macs.
Perhaps 500 yards in circumference and found at the end of a very narrow, 20-yard wide, quarter-mile-deep cut, “Bottleneck” anchorage was walled in by steep, rock-rimmed cliffs on all sides. It was a steady 30-feet deep all the way up to the water’s edge. No beaches or gently sloping rock formations but sheer cliffs that vertically dropped down directly into the anchorage. With winds and driving rain in excess of 50 knots, Mother Nature ranted and roared outside in the channel not a quarter-mile away. We were snug, secure and well-anchored inside, and after a full crock-pot dinner of beef stew and potatoes, all climbed into their bunks to wait out the gale, which according to NOAA, wouldn’t last more than a few days. Whether cruising the Caribbean or crossing an ocean, if you spend enough time on a boat your senses sharpen and perceptions become more acute. On an anchor or underway, lying still in a bunk you can sense the slightest of wind shifts or even feel that the boat has changed the direction it was pointing when you fell asleep. All senses become alive and responsive, especially your “sixth sense.” I knew that something was deathly wrong the next morning at 4 am, when I was jolted awake from a deep sleep. It wasn’t a mater of laying still and gathering my thoughts. I knew it was far too late for that. I jumped into my sweats and flew up to the pilothouse. The noise of rain being violently driven into the sides of Bagan was apparent as the feeling of her bow being pitched up and down. A quick look at the wind gauge showed a sustained 43 knots with gusts more than 50 knots. It was pitch-black outside and with a blanket of rain covering us, there was zero visibility. The compass was dancing about madly as was the wind point on the wind gauge. Every few seconds I could feel and hear a deep rumble, a short burst of throbbing after which Bagan would seem to jerk spasmodically. By now Dominique was awake and beside me and Chauncey and Sefton scrambling up from below.
No one said a thing. We had all risen from our bunks with deadly concern. What probably took mere seconds seemed like minutes. Chauncey looked up at the wind gauge and said “Holy shit” as he saw the numbers flash up and over 50. Sefton slid open one of the pilothouse doors and the cabin was blasted with what seemed like nothing short of hurricane strength wind, sharp, stinging rain and the wild spume of tortured waves. He wasn’t long in shutting the door. Again, another deep, quick rumble and shudder of reaction.
Bagan then slammed as she had done in the monstrous seas we’d been dealing with for the past month. It made no sense. We were in the most secure of anchorages that was all but sealed off from large seas. Another slam. And once more a sharp and deep rumble told me that we were dragging our anchor—with a rock-faced shoreline not 20 feet behind us. Somehow the demonic winds outside had found us. We were being buffeted by seas large enough to lift and drop all 60 tons of our boat. For waves to grow substantial enough to have this power they need an uninterrupted “fetch” of at least several thousand yards to build up in height.
We had been no more than 50 yards from any of the sheer granite walls that the winds were now pushing Bagan down onto at a great rate of speed. As the deep rumblings told us, the anchor was no longer holding and despite the zero visibility in the blackness of the gale filled night, I knew contact with the jagged and strong rocks to be imminent. All I had to say was “We’ve got to get out of here and now.” Everyone fell into the respective roles they’ve been performing for the past 8,000 miles. I made sure Sefton didn’t mind my jumping in over his command (he didn’t) and started Bagan. Even though the radars and GPS were all active and working, the half-second lag that each one gave as was a deadly half-second. Equally I couldn’t rely on the lag in the compass to show us our way out. We couldn’t see a thing. Bagan could be facing west and the radar would show the distant exit as north. I’d turn her to the north, and by the time the radar showed north, the powerful wind would have pushed us well past our mark and we’d now be facing east.
Checking the instruments and wind-driven over-correction would take no longer than two seconds. But in that short amount of time, we would go from facing the exit shown on the radar to seeing with our spotlight a steep granite-faced wall no more than 10 feet away being pummeled by four-foot wind- driven waves. From the foredeck, Chauncey would call out: “rocks, back her down!” I’d gently push her in reverse then pour on the coals. Dominique from the stern would then holler: “STOP!! Rocks ….!” I’d take a look at the radar, try to anticipate its next swing, put Bagan in forward, crank the wheel all the way to port or starboard and give her a large shot of power to try and swing her stern away from the rocks. Before he’d get a chance to say it, I’d see the rocks lit up by the rain-slashed beam from the searchlight in Chauncey’s hand. “STOP … rocks!” Back and forth we went, each maneuver taking perhaps three seconds. We were driving blind and at any moment a broadside blast of gale force wind would push all 57 feet of Bagan violently sideways, something I could only tell by the new way in which she was leaning and taking the confused seas.
By this point our collective goal was to keep Bagan moving. Getting out was beside the point. With visibility impossible, this futile maneuvering was all done by feel and it was only when we were seconds away from certain destruction on the rocks that I’d know the outcome of the attempt. We were in a very small and prison-like washtub of confused and large seas driven by winds that were cascading down the sheer-faced mountains– winds that came from all directions on the compass at once. The scenario was the same one that we faced a month earlier as we left the Aleutians into the Gulf of Alaska. But there we had room to maneuver, time to try and figure out the beating we were taking. Here we had none.
“Back down, back down, back down… Ledge!” Sefton’s searchlight had seen what Chauncey’s didn’t as we were quickly being pushed down and onto a 20-foot ledge not three-feet deep. I quickly tried to remember the state of the tide. If we were to be pushed onto the ledge, I’d need to know how long we’d potentially be hung up on it and smashed to pieces. I put her in reverse, cranked the wheel to the right, fired up the thruster and leaned on both throttle and thruster toggle, but the thruster appeared to be dead.
Bagan was slammed by a wave on the starboard side that was so large its water blocked out one of the ports on that side’s door. How in God’s name could such a large wave be generated in such a tiny pocket of water? She was again pushed down toward the ledge and this time Sefton didn’t have to alert me. Again in reverse, I tried to move her away from the sharp underwater protrusion. We were holding our own but in each maneuver were losing ground. Imagine being in a 10-by-10 foot, pitch-black room with a blindfold on. You seemed to remember that the door you came in through the previous day was ahead of you. Or was it? As you try to slowly make your way towards the door, people are pushing you, others telling you to not go any farther forward because you’re about to hit a wall, then someone pushes you from behind toward that wall. You pause for the briefest of seconds to get your bearings when no sooner than you stop, someone pushes you from the side, then from in front of you. This chaos continues until your original plan to find the door changes to simply not hitting a wall.
Dropping the anchor was futile. In the few seconds it would take to hit bottom and bite, we would have been pushed up and onto the rocks.
Sefton hollered out, “We’ve a bit of open water ahead. If we go half way across …” Bagan bumped. She bumped again. An invisible hand gently pushed her stern to port as she bumped yet again. My heart was in my throat because I knew what this meant but refused to believe–that the five-month, 8,000-mile trip was going to end this way. I put her in forward and applied the throttle. Nothing but engine noise. She bumped another time and shifted further to port. In the darkness, I felt a slight lean to the same direction. I progressively and with great determination increased the throttle until her RPMs were at 1,500– cruising range. Nothing. In case her forward motion was so subtle in the maelstrom around us that I missed it, I looked at the GPS to see if there was any indication of movement. Nothing. I opened up her throttle all the way, this time maxing out the RPMs. She shifted to port farther and settled. Nothing. Soaking wet and still in his sweats, Sefton came in from outside and through the pilothouse. As I asked him to get me some water to drink, I all but choked on my words. Apart from the hollering of commands, no one had spoken during the past 15 minutes–and as I now did so I found my tongue and mouth bone dry, almost powder. I couldn’t speak for the intensity of the fear and confusion.
Sefton’s eyes were wide open and as wild as the night around us. I mimed that I’d like water that he brought up from the galley. “Are we screwed?” he asked. “Dunno” was as comforting a response that I could manage. I took a sip of the water and the cool liquid felt as though it was cutting my dry and rough tongue. Sefton went back out onto the foredeck and as he did I suggested that he get some lines ready. I think my words were lost in the gale because there was no response from him as he slipped back into the black, wet night. Twenty minutes into this nightmare and I had no idea where we were in the tiny anchorage, I vaguely knew which direction we were heading, and as things seemed now Bagan’s stern was hung up on some rocks. I’d no idea if it was a shelf or a single pointed pinnacle of a rock that would pierce her hull. Slowly I lifted the microphone to the foredeck hailer to call Chauncey and Sefton back in to tell them we needed lines out, life vests, fenders and the dingy prepared. For the briefest of seconds, I allowed myself to feel that it was over, all of it.
Yet reflex found me grabbing the throttle one more time and I laid into it. With unexpected great power, Bagan lurched ahead and blasted a wall of water out onto the rocks behind her as she powered away from where we’d just been hung up not second earlier. At the same time, I could hear Chauncey call from the foredeck “I think I can see the opening!” something that the radar hadn’t yet locked into. From behind me Dominique told me to keep my course. The electronic charts finally had a few seconds to lock in and translate the GPS reading onto the monitor and from what they and the two radars were now showing us we were heading for the tiniest of cuts not 40 yards way. Waves from the sound outside were funneling down through this small, 20-yard wide cut and Bagan was being tossed dangerously close to each steep-sided rock wall on either side. The sky was beginning to brighten and in silhouette I could see our way clear out into what seemed to be a hurricane-churned Finlayson Channel ahead of us.
“Holy shit. That was so worse than the ice. Jesus Christ.
Dominique was standing beside me as we entered the five-mile-wide channel and headed south. “We almost lost her didn’t we?” Not for the first time in the past five months, I was simply beyond words.
“Yeah, I thought we had.” I responded. “Thought that we’d come all this way to sink her 200 miles from Seattle.” Had she gone down in there, the walls were so steep that no radio call wouldn’t have gotten out. So steep that there was no place for us to wash up on. In my mind’s eye, I watched as all four of us were slammed, time and again, onto the rocks with a force and fury beyond anything survivable.
Sprague Theobald has always had an affinity for the sea. From his 3 year stint on the America’s Cup yacht Intrepid to his private voyages spanning the western hemisphere and beyond, Sprague has over 40,000 deep water miles under his belt. Sprague’s passion for the sea is revealed in his award-winning writing and film work, where he has received both national and international recognition for his writing, producing, cinematography, and editing.
As a successful documentarian, he and his production company – Hole In The Wall Productions – have worked from Alaska to Zanzibar. His films have been well received, highlighted by an Emmy Award for his America’s Cup documentary, “The 25th Defense.”
Sprague’s writing and commentary have been published in The New York Times as well as many major national and international magazines. He spent several seasons as a staff writer for two of the Showtime Network’s episodic shows and worked as a successful screenwriter in Los Angeles. Sprague has also worked both in front of and behind the camera as a broadcast journalist/producer for eight years at an NBC affiliate. The book recounting his precarious journey vividly depicted in tonight’s film, and similarly titled The Other Side of the Ice, was noted as an “undeniably thrilling voyage”.