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 owner of Lars, a 36.4 metre polar-exploration superyacht, whose rebuild saw it go from tugboat to very serious explorer yacht. 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 doesn't make it that easy to visit a former nuclear test site. You need a licence, the owner of expedition yacht 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 owner's 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 , 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. It's an undeniably beautiful part of the world, but what's 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 it's your own fault - I understand that that's 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. It's 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 didn't see anyone. You see whales, polar bears, walruses (pictured above), seals, but no people."
The island is home to a glorious range of wildlife, but the polar bears are so dangerous that everyone ashore needs the protection of a rifle. In the case of Lars, the rifle (a licence is also required for the weapon) was carried by the guide, Maarten de Vries, who has 10 years experience on the island. "You need them, the guides know everything about the place," says the owner. "We tried to read as much as possible about Spitsbergen, and I spoke a lot to Maarten de Vries about what we could expect for clothing. But the most important part was that he knew a lot about Spitsbergen, what to find on the beaches, where were the whale stations in the past, and so on. Spitsbergen has a long and sometimes dishonourable industrial history, including now deserted mining and whaling stations. We killed a lot of whales, the Dutch, it's not something to be proud of, but we did, and so did the English."
While de Vries guided them ashore, responsibility for the navigation of the icy Arctic waters, dramatic northern weather and rocky, glacier-ridden coastline came down to others aboard Lars. "The naval part of it I knew myself," says the owner. "We had a good Dutch captain and a good Australian engineer, and I have a lot of nautical miles myself, I mostly drive the boat myself. You have to be careful but that gives you the best experience."
He is keen to emphasise how much planning and preparation had gone into the expedition. "It's not a holiday, it is an expedition, and you have to be very careful because of the floating ice and the glaciers. There are not many places to anchor off, there are some bays, but they are always tight. Sometimes they are pretty shallow, and they are not always correct on the chart. The weather circumstances in Spitsbergen can differ from one hour to the next. It's nice and sunny, and then it changes, it gets foggy, windy, the wind changes and suddenly you're in the middle of an old black and white movie."
The most extreme part of the journey was probably a diversion north into the pack ice (pictured above). "I wanted to go north, as far as possible, as far as the boat would take us," says the owner. "We went up to the pole from a little island in the north where we stayed overnight, and then up to 81.46 degrees north. I thought you would run from water into ice, but that's not the case. You see big pieces of ice, and then bigger pieces of ice, and then massive pieces of ice and suddenly you have to push it away, or cross it. We could break up to 1.3 metres thick, but after a while and quite suddenly it's quiet and you lie there. You put a couple of pegs in the ice and step off the boat and play football," he says with a smile, before adding more seriously, "It's a very, very impressive place."
"It took about 12 hours to travel the 60 miles from open water into the ice pack. The ice closes behind you," the owner remembers. "When you look back at the end of your trip, you are in the middle of a white football field and there is nothing else. And that's the most frightening part of it - you cannot go backwards because that would ruin your propellers immediately." No-one on board had any previous experience of navigating the pack ice. "It was something we learned," says the owner. "I had the choice to hire a Norwegian crew, but decided not to do that because I wanted a Dutch crew. You have to be careful, you have to watch out, but it was a big chance to do it myself and see how far we got."
Asked for the high points of his adventure, the owner offers a long list. "Crossing the polar circle and actually swimming there; a few very, very beautiful fjords in Norway; then in the ice, in the middle of nowhere; in Ny-Ålesund we had a party on the boat with people from the village, the harbourmaster and some German yachtsmen - [we were] in the middle of nowhere but making new friends; and in the north east of Spitsbergen we met a pod of humpback whales - they are so impressive; and we saw a group of killer whales in Lofoten, Norway ."
The owner adds, "I would definitely go back. That world is unbelievable, so quiet and unspoilt. I'd like to go back in the next two to five years, but I wouldn't do anything differently. And to anyone else I'd say, go for it. You can do it in a smaller boat, or in a bigger boat - but just do it." Nor is he finished with his own polar ambitions, "We are planning to go to Greenland next year - up the west coast between Greenland and Canada - and see how far we can get through the Northwest Passage. That will be marvellous."
Originally published in Boat International May 2013
Photography courtesy Lars