Captain Sven Borge Johansson – Successful Challenger of the Northwest Passage

by John M. MacFarlane (2013)

Sven Joahnsson

Captain Sven Johansson - happiest when he’s telling stories! (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

This remarkable Swedish-born mariner and Arctic explorer was the first to take a yacht on an West to East transit through the Northwest Passage. He was born in 1924 at Seffle, Sweden, on the North shore of Lake Vanern (the largest freshwater lake in Sweden.) The son of a wood carver (mainly decorating furniture). In 1941 he entered the Swedish Army and left after three years ending with the rank of Sergeant. With the exception of a year working in a boatyard working with his father to fit out vessel interiors he spent most of the ten years in the wilderness. In Lapland he was involved in a freighting business running a small diesel–powered freighter on a northern freshwater lake in summertime and in the winter running a trap line, hunting.

He emigrated to the Canadian Arctic in 1962 and received the Federal Government contract to reorganize the Reindeer industry 1963–68. Johansson had a little airplane in those days, living at Reindeer Station for five years. He discovered the North Star on the beach at Sachs Harbour on Banks Island and got to know its owner – Fred Carpenter. They became good friends and eventually Carpenter sold him the vessel.

On leaving the reindeer herd Johansson obtained a General Hunting Licence and obtained what was at that time the most northerly area for outfitting and guiding in 1968. Using his small aircraft he started transporting supplies and equipment into the wilderness to start a new career. Johansson later moved to a site 180 miles south of Arctic Red River on the Red River (just to west of the Ramparts River.) That is 100 air miles west of Fort Good Hope. There wasn’t any development there when he resigned the reindeer operation. Johansson had the area to the west of Fort Good Hope as a big game outfitting area and trapping area. At that time there wasn’t anything there, in the beginning, except a teepee ring so Johansson built a 20’ x 24’ cabin which he called Arctic Mountain House. The first winter he and his little family lived in a tent until the cabin was completed the following year. In the summertime Johansson would fly down to Inuvik where he was fitting out The North Star of Herschel Island. Then he would work in the Beaufort Sea all summer and by the fall he was back living in the mountains.

In 1974 he left the Arctic taking the North Star down to Vancouver BC from Tuktoyaktuk NT. Local skipper Sven Johansson, skipper of the US yacht Belvedere, was the first to sail a yacht from west to east during the six-year expedition led by John Bockstoce (1982-89) from Victoria to New York via Greenland. The voyage of the Belvedere was one of the most accomplished passages. Johansson stated proudly that "on no occasion was the vessel trapped by ice nor was she at the mercy of the ice without a viable alternative". Other yachts, which have transited, placed themselves in situations of dire danger and anxiously waited opportunities to make forward progress. If conditions had worsened their little ships would probably have been lost.

Johansson took six years to complete the voyage. The expedition leader, John Bockstoce, was investigating whaling sites and forward progress was governed by the need to visit specific sites and local ice conditions. At the end of each navigation season, in August or September, the little vessel had to be hauled out of the water and stored for the winter to escape the crushing ice. On August 25th 1988 there was a veritable "traffic jam" of cruising yachts transiting the Passage when within four hours four small privately owned yachts met in the most difficult part of the Passage at Ross Strait. The yachts Belvedere and Vagabond II sailing from the West met the yachts Northanger and Mabel E. Holland (a retired RNLI lifeboat sailing from the East. Such a concentration of yachts in a perilous and remote part of the world is a remarkable and rare occurrence which indicates that the spirit of adventurous seamanship is still very much alive.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1979. He lived on board the sailing ship North Star of Herschel Island in the Inner Harbour at Victoria BC. In 1996 he sold the North Star and moved ashore in Victoria BC to pursue a new career as a ballet choreographer and film maker. He was appointed to the Order of Canada on October 23rd 1993, and Invested on February 16th 1994.


  • -MacFarlane, John M. (1992) Northwest Passage Challengers. In The Resolution, Spring Issue. Maritime Museum of British Columbia
  • -Johansson, Sven (Personal Communication with John MacFarlane, Victoria BC 1992)
  • -Governor General of Canada, Website, Home:Honours.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2013) Captain Sven Borge Johansson – Successful Challenger of the Northwest Passage. 2013. Johansson.php

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