The "holy grail
" of sea passages, the Northwest Passage is a sea route from the Atlantic
to the Pacific
through the ice fields of Canada
. For centuries, European explorers searched for this route. With the only known routes to the Pacific requiring a ship to sail around the southern tips of Africa
or South America
, and the Ottoman Empire
in firm control of the land route to the Orient
, the successful navigation of this passage would cut thousands of miles off any journey to Asia.
Henry VII of England commissioned Henry Cabot to look for it in 1497, but he failed. Sir Francis Drake, Jacques Cartier, Sir Martin Frobisher, and Captain James Cook all searched in vain as well. Sir Humphrey Gilbert drowned in 1583 trying to find the passage. The worst tragedy, however, came when Sir John Franklin and his 128 crew members vanished in 1845. The rescue party for the expedition got trapped in the ice as well, and had to hike across the frozen wasteland to another ship.
After several hundred years, however, information trickled in from the voyages of, among others, William Baffin and Sir John Ross. The first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage came in 1906, when Roald Amundsen sailed a 47-ton herring boat from Atlantic to Pacific - in just over three years.