In the summer and fall of 2009, Emmy-winning director, writer, and veteran mariner Sprague Theobald took on one of travel's greatest challenges: sailing through the fabled Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Circle. Only 24 other personal craft have completed the harrowing, often ice-bound journey since explorer Roald Amundsen did it in 1903. Untold ships and hundreds of lives have been lost in the attempt. So when Theobald and his crew set sail in the 57-foot trawler Bagan on the five-month, 8,500-mile sea-trek from Newport, Rhode Island, to Seattle, there were no guarantees that they would succeed--or even live to tell about it.
On the Other Side of the Ice, the resulting documentary (and accompanying book, available on Amazon), opens March 8 at New York's Quad Cinema before making the rounds of the country's film festivals. But for all its derring-do, the film is far more than a simple tale of adventure. Ice is also an emotional dissection of one family's sometimes strained relationships (the crew included Theobald's son, stepson, and stepdaughter and her husband), compounded by long periods in cramped quarters, not to mention the risk of death at sea. Without giving too much away, not everyone completes this once-in-a-lifetime voyage. We asked Theobald what led him to start such a journey.
T+L: You and your crew could have died on this treacherous expedition. What the heck were you thinking?!
Sprague Theobald: It seemed like a good idea at the time. I'm the sort who, after weighing all the odds, would rather face the end "out there," doing it, than reading about it. I had a boat that was more than capable [of] such a trip. I had a crew raring to go. The amazing and wonderful part of adventuring is that life never goes as planned. Three months before the trip started I lost all my funding, a recurring bone infection began to take its toll, and the budget was shattered by unexpected problems. As the trip unfolded and the dangers increased tenfold, that was when this "good idea" changed slightly to something more like "daunting."
You made a pact with the crew members that "short of a severed limb" you would not call for help in the event you were in danger. Why did you make that decision?
ST: Very simply, no one asked us to go up there. This was my idea and mine alone. So, as such, if we were to get in trouble--which we did--it was up to us to get ourselves out.
What was the most euphoric or emotionally satisfying moment of the trip?
ST: There were so many, but perhaps none more poignant than diving under the ice where the lost Franklin Expedition spent two years locked-in, its two 100-foot ships frozen in the ice. That was akin to being alone at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, without anyone around for miles. Just you and the ghosts of those brave and courageous supermen. The actual exit of the Passage was also pretty euphoric. By the grace of whomever it is that watches over us, we had managed to do what hundreds had lost their lives trying to do.
What advice would you give travelers who want to go on the adventure of their dreams, but one that could ruin their finances and even put their personal safety at risk?
ST: Do it! Do it, do it, do it! Make sure that you're not acting (entirely) selfishly and leaving those you love wanting, but do it! We all have our dreams, our hidden passions. Allow them to live. I have found nothing--and believe me, I've searched high and low--that fulfills one as much as recognizing these passions and acting on them. It's what makes us--me, anyway--a better person, more in tune with life and all its mysteries.
What's next for you? Do you consider yourself an adventurer, looking for the next thrill?
ST: I think challenge is a better word than thrill. I have my eye on kayaking the length of the Connecticut River, from Canada to the Atlantic, in the summer of 2014. The wonderful thing about life, though, is that I could end up doing something entirely different that summer. But I'll always be keeping my eye out toward the next horizon.
Mark Orwoll is the International Editor of Travel + Leisure. Follow him on Twitter.