Sailing to the Arctic is on many a sailor's bucket list, but how possible is it for the average cruiser? Seasoned high latitude skipper Brian Black shares his knowledge
Planning a voyage to the Arctic is a mix of considering what might happen and preparing to reduce the risks that await in a hostile but compellingly beautiful environment.
So why go there in the first place when there are so many wonderful sailing areas closer to home?
For me, the answer lies somewhere between challenge and reward.
The challenging bit is about testing oneself both physically and mentally.
After all there is little obvious appeal in spending long hours on a cold deck dodging icebergs and the occasional Atlantic gale and even when you get near to where you’re going, an ice strewn shore might prevent you getting close.
Perhaps the answer lies in the reward, which in my case is about gazing on a landscape that few, if any, have seen before.
There is a sense of achievement at sailing a small boat from the green gentle coasts of Ireland into a wilderness of awesome spectacle and when you get home, sharing a pint or two with those who have been with you, changed forever by the experience of the high north.
That’s why I’ve now had nine Arctic seasons ranging from Svalbard in the east across to Greenland and, for those who may be like-minded, I can now offer my thoughts on where to go and the essential elements that need to be considered.
Setting out & routes to reach the Arctic
Plenty of skippers over-winter their boats in Norway or Iceland to extend the following year’s cruising.
However, if you’re starting in UK waters and want to get there and back in the same season, that restricts the cruising area to somewhere between the Norwegian Arctic and east Greenland.
Svalbard lies about 600 miles north of Norway with rewarding opportunities on the way such as the Lofoten Islands, the North Cape and Bear Island at the halfway point.
Svalbard is in reality a group of islands, the main one being Spitzbergen.
Typically you would make landfall somewhere near Hornsund at the south-west corner but the fjord can be tricky, especially if the wind is pushing ice out to sea from the glaciers at the top end.
On my first voyage there we had to retreat and then clear the coast by several miles to avoid shallows on the way to Longyearbyen, the main town.
From there you can head on up, either close to the outside of Prins Karls Forland or through the Sundet into Ny Alesund and then on round to the unbelievably beautiful Magdalenefjord.
Depending on ice conditions, a circumnavigation of Sptizbergen is possible by returning south through Hinlopen and then on to Norway’s North Cape.
Iceland abounds with great cruising, fascinating scenery and is an adventure in itself.
A current runs clockwise around the coast but it’s not strong and need not be a major issue in planning a circumnavigation.
I have always left from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides when bound there.
Weather dictates the passage with reasonably accurate forecasts available from a variety of sources.
If the jet stream and weather pattern seem disturbed I opt for the short run to the Faroes and then when conditions are right, leave from Vagar or Eidi with the prospect of about two days at sea before reaching the east coast of Iceland.
Seydisfjordur is the best place if you are changing crew but don’t dismiss the area known as the East Fjords a little further south – they’re great for walking and are less populated.
From there the obvious direction is northabout with some long hauls and the unpleasant prospect of adverse conditions at Langanes, a long peninsula that juts out to sea with tide race conditions at its point.
On the north coast, Husavik makes a good jumping-off point for Jan Mayen – a long way and with no secure anchorages it could be a hard slog with little reward.
Any difficulties you may encounter while heading round the coast are more than compensated for by the Horn with its spectacular cliff scenery and then Isafjordur, a pleasant town with all the repair facilities you may need and a perfect jump-off for Greenland.
An alternative route is via the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), a passage of about six days from Scotland.
Heimaey, the only town, is a real hurricane hole where you can re-provision before rounding the Reykjanes peninsula.
I have changed crews by docking briefly in the small port of Keflavic on the east side only a few minutes drive by taxi from the international airport.
Reykjavik, the capital city, has much to offer and justifies several days’ stop-over.
All the Icelandic spectacles of pulsing volcanoes, historic sites, waterfalls, thermal vents and glaciers are accessible by hire car or bus from there.
The passage from Isafjordur to east Greenland is about 300 miles and takes you across the Denmark Strait which can be as nasty a place as you will ever find.
That said, when we crossed in 2016 it was in a flat calm with dense fog.
You may encounter icebergs about 100 miles from Iceland but the main concentrations generally occur about 60 miles off Greenland with the prospect of pack-ice shortly afterwards.
The obvious place to head for is Ittoqqortoormiit in Scoresbysund.
This is the largest fjordic system in the world and has just about everything you could wish for in Arctic sailing.
An alternative after re-provisioning is to head back out to sea and up the Liverpool Land coast – splendid, isolated and poorly charted – but is a world of adventure all in itself.
From Reykjavik the recognised route is across to Tasiilaq with an airport nearby at Kulusuk handling direct flights from Iceland.
The surrounding area makes for an ideal cruising ground in reasonably sheltered waters.
What kind of boat for cruising the Arctic?
The starting point in all this is, of course, the boat itself.
Is it strong enough, properly set up with spares on board to meet every eventuality, fuel, water, and food?
The list goes on, so here is a breakdown to summarise my thoughts:
Increasingly, standard production yachts are voyaging to the Arctic but careful consideration must be given to hull strength.
Boats that were built for the marinas of Brittany were not designed to take the stress of pack-ice.
Any skipper considering Greenland or Svalbard should first of all ask the question, is the boat capable of dealing with extreme conditions?
Arctic voyagers with deep pockets favour aluminium or steel hulls.
My sailing has mostly been on the sort of yachts that were built in the late 70s and early 80s when GRP lay-up was on the heavy side compared to today’s standards.
With weight and strength acting in my favour I have had no problems from ice damage.
Checks & preparation before leaving for the Arctic
Do a stem to stern inspection and be honest with yourself, make notes and if you doubt something, have it double-checked.
Chainplates and rigging should have special attention.
Everything breakable on deck should be stress tested – there’s nothing like some competitive club sailing earlier in the season with a bunch of gorillas pushing the boat to its limits; this will soon expose the weak points.
Work on the assumption that anything which can go wrong will go wrong, so gather as much repair and replacement parts as possible.
I have a box of bottle-screws, toggles, bits and pieces of incidental stuff that just might come in handy.
I also carry lengths of rigging wire, bulldog clamps and a couple of lengths of stainless steel threaded rod.
Examine the steering and have a jury rudder ready to install if needs be.
Include a few tubes of construction adhesive – CT1 for instance works under water.
Engine & propeller
Have several fuel filters on board as well as a couple of oil filters.
Although I have never had any problems with contaminated fuel, you just never know so best to be prepared.
Bring enough lube oil for at least two oil changes.
A spare propeller makes sense, as there is always the danger of bending a blade when weaving through leads in the pack-ice.
And don’t forget a spare impeller, if the old one is going to fail you can be sure it will happen when the water temperature drops.
Permits for cruising to the Arctic & bureaucracy
Greenland is relaxed about formalities but it would be wise to check with the customs or police at any port of entry.
Stopping in Norway, the Faroe Islands or Iceland while on passage requires you to check in – the formalities are generally straightforward.
I have found the officials doing the paper work to be helpful and friendly but they get upset if you ignore them.
The rules change, however, if you intend entering a national park.
Svalbard is governed by Norway and a permit from the Syssleman’s office is needed.
This requires advance notice of three months, a non-returnable bond, SAR cover and regular radio check-ins.
Much the same applies to the east Greenland national park.
There are severe penalties for failing to comply with the regulations.
Insurance cover & Medivac
This is a major issue and at the time of writing there is no clear and simple way around the refusal by Lloyd’s of London to underwrite cover for what they deem to be ’risky’ areas.
Let us assume that insurance for the boat can be arranged, then you should give serious consideration to a personal medical health policy.
It would be prudent to find out what provision is made to have you flown home if necessary.
Clothing & gear
Yes, it’s the Arctic and getting there can be brutally cold at sea so be kind to yourself, bring plenty of layers but bear in mind that it can be relatively warm ashore.
My preference is to start with Merino wool next to the skin and work outwards with good quality fleeces and windproof outers.
Pay particular attention to headgear, balaclavas to protect face and nose and make sure to cover your neck.
It’s hard to beat a nice big woolly buff.
Choose bigger boots than usual so you can wear several pairs of socks, and get the best available.
Hands are a problem as it may be difficult to do some jobs wearing gloves but fingers will get painfully cold in seconds.
Fingerless mitts may be part of the answer and fleece-lined fishermen’s gloves do a great job of keeping the hands warm and dry.
All sorts of hand-warmers are available and I strongly recommend you bring plenty with you.
Once ashore it can be seriously warm so T-shirts and shorts will often do.
But beware of the mosquitoes and black flies.
I have a head-to-toe mosquito netting suit which works well and be sure to carry stocks of antihistamine ointment.
Don’t forget insect sprays for the boat and have nets ready to cover your hatches.
Stores & fuel
For a long passage in Arctic waters, a deep freeze on board makes sense with meals prepared at home and kept frozen for when needed.
However, I suggest you top up with fresh provisions on the way when possible.
Generally speaking, supermarkets in Norway, Iceland and Greenland will be more expensive than back home but with tinned food as the alternative, the expense is justified.
The golden rule is to make a plan, work out your meals and stock up in your local supermarket before departure.
The initial cost can be frightening but when you work it out, feeding a crew over a period of weeks it is cost-effective.
Bake your bread fresh – there’s nothing quite so homely as the smell of a loaf coming out of the oven but be warned, it will disappear in no time once a hungry crew gets a whiff of it.
Food for warmth and energy is essential but there may be times when cooking will be difficult.
A rising wind, big seas and somebody feeling sick can present a real hazard.
Energy levels drain fast and that can lead to dangerous conditions on deck.
Packet soups can be heated quickly but have little nutritional value so have some quick-to-cook pasta ready, add a little oil, use a vegetable-based sauce (meat can be hard to digest) and insist that everyone eats something.
Morale and efficiency sag rapidly when people are cold and hungry.
The rules about what kind of diesel you can bring are changing so you should keep up to date with guidance in the yachting press.
In the past I have carried as much red diesel as stowage permits and never had a problem with the authorities but who knows what will happen after Brexit?
Major ports will probably have fuelling docks that are available to leisure boaters.
Be sure to check with the harbour master in advance and check on the internet to see what kind of debit or credit card you will need as most pumps are automated and will not take cash.
Staying in touch
I have found that a Satphone backed up with someone at home keeping an eye on weather systems developing in your sea area makes for an ideal combination.
Ice conditions change, sometimes rapidly, so careful study of the relevant ice charts is needed.
Detailed descriptions and expert advice is available in Arctic and Northern Waters Pilot along with its equivalent publication for Svalbard and the Norwegian coast.
A recent bit of kit is the InReach receiver and transmitter – much cheaper than the Satphone and does a similar job.
Understanding ice conditions and how to cope
This is an area of endless debate amongst those who sail in ice-encumbered waters so I offer my thoughts on a personal basis – others may disagree.
Firstly bergs; my golden rule is to go ahead of them, going around behind can bring you into contact with a trail of growlers and bergy bits that have broken off the main iceberg.
Big ice will show on your radar, the smaller bits probably won’t – especially if any kind of sea is running – so a sharp look-out is essential.
Fog often accompanies ice and that plus wind is a bad combination.
When in doubt, change tack, head out to sea and heave to until conditions improve.
Icebergs are endlessly fascinating but they are unstable and can roll with little warning.
Dealing with pack-ice can present problems.
Again, my view is that anything above three-tenths concentration should be avoided but if you do get beset, don’t force your way out – sit tight, hope for the best and wait for a lead to open.
Some skippers like to anchor bow out from the land and as the fjords are deep you will need plenty of chain – 50 metres if possible and a couple of long lines to attach to something solid on the shore.
This assumes you have chosen a spot clear of passing bergs.
If there is any danger of ice drifting into your anchorage, lie to anchor and be ready to buoy the chain and cast off if you have to.
Carry a tuk – a long pole with a pointed end – to push off any chunks of ice drifting in the anchorage.
Maps & charts
Charts for some areas, especially east Greenland, frequently lack detail and are being overtaken anyway by freshly exposed coastline as global warming accelerates the ice melt.
I have a selection of land maps which in some cases give old sledging routes but are useful to get a ‘feel’ for the landscape.
Electronic charts are based on the most up-to-date hydrographic charts and consequently repeat whatever errors may have been there in the first place.
The Danish Meteorological Service publishes regular Egg charts.
These show ice concentrations and direction of drift.
My approach is to use every source of information available, travel with care and keep a lookout in the fjords or near land.
Arctic and Northern Waters Pilot published by IMRAY (RCCPF)
Norway, Oslo – Spitsbergen Pilot published by IMRAY(RCCPF)
VIKING Polar Cruise Series Saga Maps
Admiralty, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic charts
You can expect extended motoring calms in Arctic waters during July and August interspersed with occasional periods of strong winds and local katabatic howlers.
Conditions can go downhill very fast as more turbulent Atlantic weather starts to dominate from about September onwards.
I exercise caution and get as far south as possible before things change for the worse.
Sailing to the Arctic isn’t for everyone
I’ve been fortunate in my choice of ship-mates.
It’s not always easy to find crew, both male and female, who combine a taste for adventure with self-reliance and compatibility.
But, so far none have jumped ship and most have come back with stories to tell about wild and wonderful places, the challenges and the cold.
Even so, there have been times when we all sat and stared open-mouthed at a glacier collapsing or tried to block out the awful graunching of pack-ice when the boat was beset, waiting for a lead to open.
Lying to anchor with a soughing wind that just keeps on rising until the rigging begins to wail is unsettling enough in familiar waters but it is different in the loneliness of an Arctic fjord.
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Here, high and hostile mountains frame the horizon emphasising your utter insignificance in the vast emptiness of uncharted waters and massive wilderness.
It is stunningly beautiful but just as the cold, the fear and the sense of remoteness are part of the thrill, they can also test resolve.
How can you explain this to someone ‘signing on’?
Perhaps you can’t; in my experience, it’s the daily run of 100 miles northward that helps to make the adjustment from the familiar to the frightening so by the time boat and crew have reached the high latitudes most people have become conditioned.
A pal who has shared many Arctic adventures with me, Eric Degerland, is a keen photographer.
After a trip, especially in the dead of winter, beside a crackling log fire, he digs out some of those images and just sits there dreaming of the next time.
One of my own pictures hangs in the hall at home and when people come to call and ask about the Arctic I just point at it and say: ‘That’s what it’s all about!’