Willem Barentsz was a 16th Century Dutch navigator and explorer, particularly famous in The Netherlands for his search for a Northeast Passage around the top of Siberia to China. He survived an epic winter stranded on Nova Zembla, an island at the north eastern tip of Russia, but died on the journey south the following summer. This was the story that inspired the new owner of Lars, a 36.4-metre polar-exploration superyacht, whose rebuild from tugboat into a very serious expedition yacht we featured. He wanted to visit Nova Zembla, and Lars would be the boat to take him there.
By the time the Lars _purchase and refit was complete, the goal had slightly changed the new objective was Spitsbergen, an Arctic island upon which, appropriately, Barentsz had landed and named in 1596. The reasons for the new goal were largely that Nova Zembla is fog-bound most of the year, and because Russia doesnt make it that easy to visit a former nuclear test site. You need a licence, the owner of _Lars tells us, so you have to go to Murmansk, and wait there for a few weeks. Lars needed a licence to visit Spitsbergen, too, but the owner felt that the process of getting one would mean less wasted time.
Both destinations required the same high level of practical preparation and a very seaworthy boat. Lars fitted the bill perfectly, and the rest of the owners plans were just as thorough. He has been involved with boats and the sea since childhood. My first boat was a canoe, an old sailing canoe that I found in a canal, and we repaired it and put a little sail on it, he recalls. A succession of vessels followed, all motor yachts, with each one usually a little bigger than the last. The boat previous to Lars was a custom built 33 metre CBI Navi called Baloo, in which the owner and his family cruised the Mediterranean and the Caribbean extensively. Over a period of five years, they spent about eight months each year afloat.
When Baloo was sold in 2008, the owner decided Nova Zembla was their next goal. He planned a six-month cruise to the Arctic in 2012, and although it was a struggle to find the right boat as reported last issue _ Lars_ was purchased and finished just in time. Fittingly, she was launched into a Dutch snowstorm on the coldest day of the year. Just as fittingly, Lars is named after a polar bear cub who featured in books written by the Dutch author Hans de Beer.
They left in April 2012 and spent three months cruising up the Norwegian fjords. Its an undeniably beautiful part of the world, but whats special about this trip was the next two months Lars spent on a clockwise circumnavigation of Spitsbergen a part of Norway, with a Norwegian governor. The Governor is responsible for the rules, and he is very strict, explains the owner. If you play according to the rules, they (the Norwegian authorities) are very, very helpful. If you cheat with the rules, they are very strict, which is wise.
The capital is Longyearbyen, which has most of the trappings of civilisation and is the only place to stock up with fresh food and a range of other essential supplies. Away from Longyearbyen Spitsbergen is an extreme environment. The sea comes up from 3,000 metres deep to 50, 60 metres in less than half a mile, so if the wind blows from the wrong direction you have a pretty rough sea, says the owner. Unsurprisingly, visiting yachts are carefully monitored by the Norwegian authorities, the Sysselmannen, who maintain a fleet of helicopters and light planes. They will land a doctor on a boat in an emergency, and were keen to do training exercises with Lars to keep their skills sharp.
They keep in contact with you, says the owner. After three weeks without seeing anybody I heard somebody on the VHF and thought, where is this coming from? It was a little plane from the coastguard; the weather had been pretty rough the last couple of days, so they just did a trip to see if everybody was all right. The wide-ranging, proactive emergency cover was reassuring, but no one wanted to use it. Spitsbergen is very well organised, but if they have to come to you for whatever reason if its your own fault I understand that thats pretty expensive.
Boats go up to Spitsbergen, but many stay on the west coast, the owner continues, and not many go around to the east. The more north you get, the less boats you see. Once you have left Longyearbyen there is only one place left to the north, which is Ny-Ålesund. Its the most northern post office in the world. When we went around [Spitsbergen], that last part of the trip took about four weeks and we didnt see anyone. You see whales, polar bears, walruses (pictured above), seals, but no people.