The Northwest Passage is a legendary sea route through some of the harshest conditions on earth which captured the imagination of explorers over many centuries. Many ship and men were lost in attempting to find a navigable route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean around the North of Canada: most famously the Franklin Expedition in the 1840’s, consisting of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which disappeared with 134 men.
The official list of transits of the Northwest Passage is kept by the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University. A transit of the Northwest Passage is defined as a trip through the waterway from Arctic Circle to Arctic Circle in either direction via any one of a number of routes through.
From the first transit by Norwegian, Roald Amundsen in 1906, until the end of 2022, only 351 transits have been recorded by around 240 ships under 260 skippers. Of these, only a handful have been achieved by women and only around 30 superyachts have made the trip. Captain Beadle is the first woman to captain a superyacht throughout the Passage and, it is believed, the first woman to captain a vessel through as a commercial master.
Born and brought up near Reading, England, Maiwenn Beadle studied fine art in Newcastle. Her life at sea began when following her studies in the early 1990’s, she took up the offer of a trip on a sailing yacht whilst travelling from California to New Zealand. From there she began working on yachts, rounding Cape Horn in her 20’s and sailing her own 18 foot converted lifeboat the length of the Caribbean islands single-handed. Gaining in experience she went from steward, to chef until eventually she gained her ticket as a Captain. As master of a 29m sailing yacht she made several Atlantic crossings and cruised in the Caribbean, the East Coast of America and the Mediterranean.
In 20** she made the switch from sail to power and began working for a small cruise ship company cruising the Inside Passage between Seattle and Alaska. This gave her a first experience of working in ice and was a valuable introduction to the wildlife of the North.
Out of the blue, at the end of 2018 she received the invitation to captain a 36m ice-class tug, converted to a superyacht, to make a journey through the Northwest Passage. Picking up the vessel from refit in Holland, she sailed it via Scotland and Iceland to Greenland and to Pond Inlet in Canada, traditionally regarded as the eastern gateway to the Passage. The vessel was set to make the trip through the following year but Covid intervened and all plans were put on hold.
In 2021, the Canadian Arctic remained closed to traffic, however Captain Beadle managed to get the ship into Greenlandic waters and she arranged a voyage up the West Coast of Greenland until she reached the edge of the polar ice sheet at 79 degrees north, around 600 miles from the North Pole. After a return to Europe and a winter in Southampton, the way was finally clear to make the attempt to sail to the Pacific in 2022.
The vessel crossed the Arctic Circle on 17 July and recrossed it into the Bering Sea on 28 August, following in the footsteps of Amundsen. From leaving Southampton to arriving in Victoria for the winter she had sailed 10,000 miles – equivalent to halfway round the globe in a straight line.
Reflecting on the challenges, Captain Beadle explained, “Although global warming means that the Northwest Passage is more open than in Amundsen’s day, the ice only clears for a matter of weeks in late summer and, in some years, cold weather or strong northerly winds men that the Passage remains blocked to all but the largest ice-breaking ships.”
The logistics of the two-month trip are demanding: ensuring provisions of food and fuel in an area where there is almost nowhere to take on extra supplies en-route.
“Over the long central section of the route there is no-one around and, far beyond the range of search and rescue services, very little support available in the event of mishap. The constantly moving ice and the constant presence of polar bears add enormously to the risks of such normal yachting activities of anchoring for the night. “
Having completed the epic journey that she was hired to make she is now spending some time relaxing in the warmth of Antigua while she looks for her next adventure.
“It was an exhausting and exhilarating experience to carry the responsibility for the vessel and crew over that time and distance and I need some time out to reflect on it all… but I can’t wait to go back to the North”
Is she an Ice Queen? “Maybe an accidental one”, she laughs.