The first to navigate the Northwest Passage waters were the
Inuits, i.e. the indigenous people inhabiting the Arctic regions of
Canada, Denmark, Russia and the United States. Inuit
describes all of the Eskimo peoples in Canada and Greenland, while
in Alaska and Siberia the term Eskimo is commonly
The natives used qajaq, a single-passenger, covered
seal-skin boats. The design was copied by Europeans and Americans
and it still keeps the original Inuit name, kayak. the
Inuits also used umiaq, larger open boats made of wood
frames covered with animal skins, to transport people, dogs and
IX-X Century - Vikings
Throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, the Vikings made epic
exploratory voyages in the cold waters of the North Atlantic,
reaching as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland.
Vikings used longships, intended for warfare and
exploration. These ships were designed for speed and agility, and
were equipped with oars to complement the sail as well as making
them able to navigate independently of the wind.
The arrival of the Little Ice Age is considered one of the main
reasons why further European explorations ceased in the Northwest
Passage, until the late 15th century.
1498 - Giovanni Caboto
Giovanni Caboto, known in English as John Cabot (c. 1450 - c.
1508) was an Italian navigator and explorer who reached North
America in 1497 and who most probably explored the NorthWest
Passage. The Canadian and United Kingdom governments' official
position claim he landed on the island of Newfoundland; the exact
location is disputed.
Cabot was commissioned by England to do this trip - from 1480
onwards several expeditions had been sent out to look for an island
said to lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, according to Celtic
legends. Known sources suggest that he used a 50 tons ship called
the Matthew of Bristol, leaving from this city which was the
second-largest seaport in England at the time.
XVI Century onwards - Several European Expeditions
Since the 16th Century and for more than 300 years, Europeans
have made several attempts to explore the Northwest Passage. Major
1576-1578: Sir Martin Frobisher (ca. 1535-1594)
1585-1587: John Davis (1550?-1605)
1607-1610: Henry Hudson (d. 1611)
1615-1616: William Baffin (d. 1622)
1631-1632: Thomas James (1593?-1635?)
1746-1747: William Moor and Francis Smith
1769-1772: Samuel Hearne (1745-1792)
1776-1780: James Cook (1728-1779)
1789: Sir Alexander Mackenzie (d. 1820)
1818: Sir John Ross (1777-1856)
1819-1820: Sir William Edward Parry (1790-1855)
1819-1822: Sir John Franklin (1786-1847)
1845 - Franklin's lost expedition and subsequent search expeditions
In 1845 a very well equipped two-ship expedition led by Sir John
Franklin sailed to the Canadian Arctic to chart the last unknown
parts of the Northwest Passage. Franklin sailed in the
Erebus, a Hecla-class bomb vessel constructed by the Royal
Navy in 1826, and outfitted with 20 ihp (15 kW) steam
engines, plus iron plating to their hulls.
Franklin's ships were ice-locked in 1846 near King William
Island, about half way through the passage, unable to break free.
Franklin died in 1847. In 1848 the expedition (around 130 men)
abandoned the ships and tried to escape south by sledge. No
evidence has ever been found of any survivors.
When the ships failed to return, relief expeditions and search
parties explored the Canadian Arctic, which resulted in a thorough
charting of the region along with a possible passage. The Franklin
search expeditions were led by John Rae (1813-1893) and Sir Francis
Leopold M'Clintock (1819-1907), and took place between 1853 and
1906, Roald Amundsen - First Successful Transit
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen raised money, acquired
equipment, and bought and outfitted a former 47-ton herring-boat
named Gjöa, casting off from Oslo (called Christiania at
the time) to the Arctic Sea on June 1903.
The little sailing ship boasted a 13-hp engine, stowed enough
food and supplies for five years, and carried an experienced Arctic
crew of seven. He completed a three-year voyage, excluding three
winters simply trapped in ice.
1906 onwards - Later expeditions
1921 - 1924: Greenlander Knud Rasmussen and two Greenland Inuit
completed the first traversal of the Northwest Passage, travelling
from the Atlantic to the Pacific, via dog sled.
1940: Canadian officer Henry Larsen was the second to sail the
passage, crossing west to east, from Vancouver to Halifax.
1969: the SS Manhattan, a reinforced supertanker sent to
test the viability of the passage for the transport of oil, made
the passage. The route was deemed not to be cost effective.
1977: sailor Willy de Roos left Belgium and crossed the Northwest
Passage in his 13.8 m (45 ft) steel yacht Williwaw,
reaching the Bering Strait in September.
1984: the commercial passenger vessel MS Explorer became
the first cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage.
July 1986: Jeff MacInnis and Wade Rowland set out on 18-foot
catamaran Perception on a 100-day sail, west to east,
across the Northwest Passage.
July 1986: David Scott Cowper set out from England in a 12.8 m (42
ft) lifeboat, the Mabel El Holland, and survived three
Arctic winters in the Northwest Passage before reaching the Bering
Strait in August 1989.
July 2003: a father and son team, Richard and Andrew Wood,
sailed the yacht Norwegian Blue into the Bering Strait.
She became the first British yacht to transit the Northwest Passage
from west to east.
May 2007: a French sailor, Sébastien Roubinet, and one other
crew member left Anchorage, Alaska, in Babouche, a 7.5 m
(25 ft) ice catamaran designed to sail on water and slide over ice.
They navigated west to east through the Northwest Passage by sail