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 used.

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 goods.

Viking longship - model

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.

A replica of the Matthew in Bristol.

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.

James Cook's ship, Resolution

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 names include:

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 1859.

Amundsen's ship, Gjøa

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 only.