Capt. Maiwenn Beadle had a fairly “normal” yachting career to start. Her latest endeavor, however, is worthy of the history books — she was the first woman to captain a superyacht through the Northwest Passage and the first female commercial master to do so.
She’s in rare company. The first person to discover the Northwest Passage — a trip through the waterway from Arctic Circle to Arctic Circle in either direction — was Roald Amundsen in 1903–06, and it’s a relatively short list after that. Only about 30 superyachts have made the trip and by the end of the 2022 season, a total of 351 transits had been completed through the Passage. Beadle was captain aboard the 328th vessel to transit.
“It’s quite overwhelming being up there. It’s a completely different environment and a lot of it’s the preparation ahead of time and the trip itself ran into a blur in lots of ways,” Capt. Beadle says.
While we cannot mention the vessel’s name, Beadle arrived on board in Iceland, and they traveled on through Greenland, playing “COVID roulette with the crew,” she says. “We went from Ilulissat, [Greenland], up into the passage through the ice in the middle of the Baffin Sea. We pushed on into the passage fairly early because we were looking for ice.” They went through in the beginning of August, and they pushed through Bellot Strait where there’s a strong current and lots of ice.
“It was extremely concerning that the ice would close behind us, and we wouldn’t be able to go forward or backwards....”
“It’s enormously stressful,” Capt. Beadle says, explaining that she checked the ice reports, weather, and the satellite images multiple times a day to determine whether it was safe to keep going. Finally, they ended up in Gjoa Haven, where they spent some time. This is also where Sir John Franklin’s boats, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebusand all their crew, disappeared in their search for the Northwest Passage in 1848. The wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered in 2014 and HMS Terror in 2016.
Beadle pushed through Cambridge Bay and then ran along the Alaska shore and finished the transit in September 2022, approximately seven weeks in total. While a challenging voyage, to say the least, it is obviously a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “It was extremely concerning that the ice would close behind us, and we wouldn’t be able to go forward or backwards. But the light was incredible, and it was like a magical, mystical fairy wonderland — pinks and purples and it was midnight, but it was daylight,” she says.
“It’s like your brain can’t process it because it’s so very, very different from how your brain works by receiving cues from things you understand. And you don’t understand the Arctic. And so everything there is alien — the light, the fact that sun is running along the horizon the wrong way. The fact that there’s nobody and nothing around you. The silence, but it’s not quite silent because there’s the ice moving, which is just totally surreal all the time.”
It's eerie, Capt. Beadle says, and it can be uncomfortable, especially when you’re the captain and trying to balance the wonder and amazement with the stress and concern. This was Beadle’s third trip up to the Northwest Passage but the first time that she was able to complete the transit as Canada had closed parts due to COVID previously. She plans to head back if she can this summer, but in the meantime, she continued to take freelance gigs from her home base in Antigua.
If you think that’s quite the contrast, you’re not alone, but Capt. Beadle has spent most of her career in the tropics before she discovered her love for the ice. She calls herself the accidental ice queen — she grew up in the UK, discovered yachting years ago, and was in the middle of looking for a new gig when she went to work for UNC Cruises, who run small passenger vessels from Seattle to Alaska. “I went there actually as a second mate and then a chief mate. And then I ended up captaining their smaller boat,” she says, which is like a stepping stone to the Arctic, she explains. “That’s where I started getting experience driving through ice, watching wildlife in that manner, and being off the beaten track — more explorer than yacht crew in some ways.
“What this taught me is that I’m an explorer first and I drive the big boat second,” she says. “I’m not your average yacht captain. I’m never going to be your average yacht captain. I can play the game and put my stripes on, but I’d rather be looking for polar bears, honestly.”
Capt. Beadle offers consulting services and is also available for ice pilotage. She will be on board 72-meter M/Y Nansen Explorer, which is available for charter in the area. You can follow her on Instagram @theaccidentalicequeen.