16th May 2023 – London
Reading time: 15 minutes
Clearly there is no straightforward answer to such a wishy-washy question. It depends so much on whether you, and your boat, have made previous high latitude voyages. Even the location of your boat in the UK could affect the timing.
To stick my neck out, I would say one year would be tight but maybe doable, two years would be better, but three years could be needed if starting from scratch – and by “scratch” I am assuming you can already sail a yacht in heavy weather and are not starting as a total novice!
Probably the first thing to do to prepare for your adventure is to purchase a pilot book covering the area that you hope to explore, assuming one has been printed! The initial research will inform you whether your journey is feasible and if you need special permits and visas. As these can take a long time, it may be best to get these underway as soon as possible. If a permit is refused, you may need to modify your plans.
You may decide, having read the pilot book, that the whole thing is rather daunting. There are companies who have a great deal of experience sailing in high latitudes who can offer you tailored advice regarding your plans and your boat. Obviously there will be costs involved, but if you are the owner of a large vessel, it could be money well spent.
Once word gets out that you are planning a grand adventure, friends will probably contact you asking if you saw the programme about narwhales, read a book by Nansen, seen the article in the papers about a yacht stuck in ice etc. It all helps to build up helpful background knowledge.
Below I have listed some of the tasks that may need to be considered before heading off to the High Latitudes.
I am assuming you are sailing from the UK with a UK Passport and you have a yacht or vessel capable of ocean crossings.
Visas These are not always an issue but if you are thinking of attempting the North West Passage then you are going to need a Canadian Tourist visa which is easy-peasy, but if you arrive by private boat in Alaska you will also need a full US B1/B2 visa. This will involve an interview at an US Embassy and the appointments can take ten weeks (London). Cancellations are possible to speed things up but there is no guarantee. There is no way to phone and plead for a quicker appointment – that just will not happen. The interview is straightforward, but the online application form is rather clunky and takes an hour or so.
The queue outside the US embassy is open to the elements so wear suitable outdoor clothing or hypothermia may set in before you have even done your first aid course. If your youth involved the firm hand of the law on the scruff of your neck, things might not be so simple. Everyone was very friendly and helpful so I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture. Ideally get your visa before booking any flights, just in case.
Permits and Permissions Do not dive in here without some really thorough research. If the authorities refuse a permit, then you are completely stuffed. There are several Arctic areas which have been designated National Parks. Access is harder in these areas. Jan Mayen and areas to the north of Scoresby Sund spring to mind. I have heard that permits for sailing to Svalbard are getting more difficult. Try to get up to date knowledge, things change. Inside knowledge will help you. Try to make contact with people who have been there recently. Read all the small print in the rules and regulations. There may be a work-around by linking up with a local guide before applying. The worst thing to receive is a refusal, so take care that your vessel and crew are compliant BEFORE applying. If you are contemplating the North East Passage, then obtaining a permit from the Russian authorities could be “interesting”.
Firearms You can normally hire riffles in the larger Arctic settlements, but you will need to return the riffle to the same hire depot, which is not always ideal. You may also find you make landfall outside the main settlement. If you are sailing to Svalbard, it seems a shame to sail right past Hornsund just to collect your riffle in Longyearbyen , especially if you want to shelter from poor weather.
My preference is to carry a powerful riffle onboard. That way you can train with your own weapon, and you know it is ready just in case you may need it – and that could be anywhere where polar bears roam. Getting a firearms licence in the UK is a long process, it could easily take over a year. If you do hire a rifle, try it out before departing. If you buy your own, ensure you undergo thorough training, these high calibre rifles pack a punch. I have a little reminder sheet. You will need to consider bear scaring techniques too.
Crew You will probably need to recruit some crew. It may not be as easy as you hoped. Flying to Resolute, for instance, involves six airplanes and is not cheap. Often flights don’t link up, so hotel costs need adding in. Crew should be made aware of insurance costs which may add up to several thousands of pounds. Unfortunate life events can happen to crew, like to all of us, which can cause a sudden cancellation. You may need a back up, unless you are able sail with one crew member down.
Don’t leave recruitment too late, the crew will need visa’s too and you will need all their details for your permits etc.
Insurance This can be divided into four key areas. The yacht, search and rescue, medical insurance and holiday insurance.
Yacht Insurance Your current broker may refuse to provide cover for your yacht in certain areas. You may decide to go without, but it is possible the authorities will ask for third party cover. There are quite a few brokers but not many underwriters. Many yachts go uninsured.
Search and Rescue cover is often mandatory or you will need to leave a huge cash deposit with the authorities. There are ways to obtain SAR insurance at reasonable costs.
You can read more about this here. Don’t forget that Search and Rescue insurance covers just that, you will need to pick up any hospital bills that may be incurred. A word of warning about trips that receive sponsorship. On some policies if the trip has been sponsored to over £2,000 overall, or to over £500 to the person seeking insurance, then the policy becomes void. A last minute sponsorship by the skipper could void your policy.
Medical Insurance is rather different to holiday insurance which will probably have various exclusions unless you are going on an organised package holiday. Full medical insurance gets more expensive as you get older or if you have any medical issues. You may have to pay several thousand pounds to get a month’s cover. Some companies will only provide a quotation thirty days prior to departure.
Holiday Insurance These policies will cover having personal items stolen, flight cancellations etc but be aware the exclusions are extensive and the cover is highly unlikely to cover medical or repatriation from an expedition yacht.
So insurance is complex and takes time to research. Read all the small print – boring but crucial. Be honest!
Communications, Ice Charts and Grib Files You will probably need to download ice charts and grib files while at sea.
The Iridium sat phone has been the traditional way, but Starlink is the latest kid on the block. I know nothing about Starlink, but it seems to be getting popular. Setting up the sat phone to receive ice charts will involve getting a service provider such as Mailasail. Reception will be improved with a yacht antenna. You will probably require someone ashore to reduce the size of the ice charts so that they can be sent over the sat. phone. The method we use on Sumara can be found here. You may need an IT savvy person to help set things up. It is complicated because Windows 10 will automatically send updates and thus use up all your data. There are ways around it, but it all takes time, and costs money. It would be preferable to spend a season testing everything before needing to use the set-up in anger. If you are reluctant to take your expensive Apple laptop to sea, then this is a brilliant machine at a decent price.
Drones, Crows Nests and Mast Cameras
Even if you have the finest ice charts you will still need to see ahead to find the leads. If you have a spare member of crew, then a drone would probably be the most effective method. However, you will need to dedicate that crew member to flying the contraption and you will still need someone on the helm and someone up front. If you are relying on the drone, then you will need to buy two because one will almost certainly hit the rigging and land upside down in the sea. A proper William Scoresby type barrel up the mast is probably not going to be great for your yacht’s righting moment, but some mast steps or ratlines could achieve a similar result. Alternatively, a mast camera could be explored. I haul a GoPro up to the upper spreaders and blue tooth to an iPad, but the GoPro batteries only last an hour or so.
Heating Sailing in the summer in the Arctic is like sailing in the winter in the UK. Cabin heating will improve crew morale. However, probably the primary function of the boat heater is to dry clothing, so warm blown air is ideal. If you are thinking of installing an Eberspacher type heater, be aware that they rely on good batteries to get them started. You may need to review your battery bank and charging method. One thing leads to another.
Engine and Fuel You will probably be using this more than you hoped. You should carry extensive spares. For reliability and for environmental reasons, it would be worth considering having your engine fully serviced by a reputable engineer. Nevertheless, you should carry all the relevant handbooks and tools to carry out repairs yourself. You may need extra containers on deck to increase your range. Don’t buy crap containers, if they leak you will pollute a pristine environment.
Propeller. If you can, carry a spare. If you are having a new one made, consider requesting aluminium bronze for extra strength. Fixed blades will be the most reliable. Never reverse in ice!
Clothing Everyone has their own ideas, but it would certainly be ideal to test everything on a few winter sails in the UK. I always go for merino base layers, wool pullovers and fishermen’s oilskins. If you are climbing, it is a whole extra subject. Crampons will need to fit your boots, belay jackets, mitts, snoods, hats. There is no end to it. It needs researching and testing!
Research, Local Culture and History While you are planning your trip it is worth reading about the history of the area, and the culture of the local people.
You may want to send a letter in advance to introduce yourselves. It is vital to respect the local values.
Rigging If your rigging is due for replacement soon, maybe now is the time to have it replaced. Do not use synthetic rigging which will go slack in cold weather. My strong preference is for hanked-on sails to avoid windage in the rigging. Be aware that if you do replace your rigging, the most likely time for a rigging failure, following the bathtub theory, is either during the very first year or towards the end of the rigging’s life (10-15 years?). On this basis it would be best to replace your rigging at least one year prior to your voyage.
Sails If they are getting on in age, it will be prudent to have them professionally checked. It seems that the stitching starts to fail before the fabric. Get spare sail slides and consider using stainless steel slugs at the head and clew. Take a comprehensive repair kit. Test the storm jib, the sheets may need diverting.
Ice Poles You will need a couple of long poles with a spike to push small ice flows away from the hull, or in the case of small boats, push the boat away from the ice flows! Mine are carbon fibre and light enough to store against the shrouds.
Gizmos You may want to upgrade your camera equipment so you can record your adventure. Even scary polar bear experiences look pretty pathetic without the aid of a telephoto lens. Try not to spend a fortune on your camera, it will be out of date next year, and you will probably drop it overboard before that. Wind noise can be annoying if you are thinking of some video, so get a dead cat for your mic. I like to take a hydrophone just in case I can hear a narwhale singing. It all takes time to research.
Training First Aid, Firearms and Survival training are probably the only things on this list best left until near to your departure time. The knowledge will be fresh in your mind ready to put into action without having to follow crib sheets.
General fitness training is a different thing. If your journey involves serious climbing, then I would recommend at least a year of fairly intensive training unless you are already super active. I use Military Outdoor Fitness, which, as the name implies, involves training outdoors in any weather and right through the winter. We also enter as many hilly trail half marathons as we can fit in.
Survival Equipment You need to decide whether to take full survival suits, floatation jackets or dry suits. They will need fitting and testing.
If you go for the full insulated survival suits you will need to find somewhere to store them! If they have built in mittens, be aware you won’t be able to use your VHF!
Dentistry and Opticians. Get spare glasses and have your teeth checked. If you ever suffer from toothache or gum disease, ask your Dentist to supply some antibiotics or suchlike. Toothache is no fun.
Doctor If you are feeling fit, I wouldn’t bother with a check-up. They might find something that you would rather not know about! However, if there is something worrying you, then it may be best to discuss it with your GP. If you are relying on the National Health Service, it may take several months to get a GP appointment. Allow even more time if it involves a hospital scan. Be aware that your insurance could sky rocket too.
Departure Point Setting off from the Thames Estuary to go to Greenland will add a lot of miles. You may find it hard to get crew for an extended time.
Why not position your yacht in Scotland or Northern Ireland during the year before the departure date and make use of the positioning voyage as a shake down trip. The coastal voyage may be an opportunity for non-sailing friends to join you on the adventure.
So you can see why it is useful to have a bit of time up your sleeves. Crew meetings can be great fun, and they help to hold the team together. If your journey involves camping and climbing then there is even more kit to chat about. The planning is part of the fun, best not to rush things!