adventure sailing yacht antarctica exploration

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Credit: Ignacio Palacios via Getty Images

Where sailors dare: Sailing over the world's most challenging waters

5 October 2023 • Written by Georgia Boscawen

Most owners are satisfied with a gentle cruise, but there are a brave few who yearn to push their limits. Georgia Boscawen weighs up the allure of the world’s most challenging waters...

The Northwest Passage

Walruses, polar bears and beluga whales are some of the wildlife encountered on this passage
Credit: Paul Souders via Getty Images

With swaths of icy tundra and unpredictable conditions, this perilous Arctic route is one serious sailing challenge.

Perhaps the most intriguing stretch of water on the planet, the Northwest Passage, with its infamously gruelling conditions and unpredictable bodies of ice, isn’t for the faint-hearted. This treacherous sea lane, which arcs over the north of Canada connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, is a journey that few have conquered. In 1906 the passage was successfully sailed for the first time by Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, and since then fewer than 400 vessels have completed one of the passageway’s seven routes, few of which were sailing yachts. Over the years, however, some have risen to the challenge – including 55-metre Kamaxitha and 66.9-metre Hetairos. But why is it that so few vessels have completed the route, and what gives this sea lane its reputation?

Hetairos is one of the few sailing yachts to have completed the Northwest Passage
Credit: Nicklas Storbjörk via Getty Images

While many mariners find their thrills in the challenge itself, there are a multitude of factors along this congregation of more than 36,000 islands in the Canadian Arctic that draw people in. Those who sail these straits are guaranteed breathtaking icy scenery, high Arctic fauna and blissful isolation. Otherworldly ice cliffs soar hundreds of metres into the air and the high summer season can attract great gatherings of white beluga whales and polar bears patrolling the ice sheets. But this mesmerising scenery comes at a price.

While most of the Northwest Passage extends through Canada, there really is very little here by way of civilisation. Provisioning, medical help and any kind of resources are remarkably limited, which makes the route even more difficult. For much of the year, ice covers the channels so there is only a small window in peak summer when passage is possible. Navigating is also a challenge because the ice is constantly shifting, which alters the route. In short, there are obstacles aplenty, but its successful completion is a high achievement.

Chilean Patagonia

Hoste Island, one of the spectacular anchorages in the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve
Credit: Posnov via Getty Images

The wild seas off Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America are the stuff of legend for true adventure sailors.

Famed for its tangled fjord system, vertiginous coastline and mesmerising scenery, Chile is a maritime paradise. With more than 6,000 kilometres of Pacific coastline, the country is a yacht owner’s dream, with pleasant conditions, waterside cities and good yachting infrastructure. In the south, sailors can admire the glacier-cloaked peaks of the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park and the Torres del Paine National Park on the outskirts of the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve.

Too tall to pass through the Panama Canal, Aquijo rounded the Horn
Credit: Stuart Pearce via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine that this yacht-friendly country is also home to one of sailing’s toughest challenges. Cape Horn is considered to be the nautical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest; navigating this body of water is reserved only for those intrepid sailors who enjoy pushing their limits in seriously tough weather, unpredictable sea states, extreme low-pressure systems with 60-knot gales that take you by surprise, and vicious currents at the point where the Atlantic and Pacific meet. Despite this, a number of sailing yachts have taken on the challenge, such as 45-metre Gitana (ex Salperton) and 85.9-metre Aquijo.

Cape Horn conjures up high-level excitement for thrill-seeking sailors – a bucket-list expedition that many yacht owners dream of accomplishing. Those who take on the challenge will also be able to visit the most southerly yacht club in the world, Yacht Club Micalvi, and etch their name into the Cape Horn logbook, reserved only for those who complete the route.

Papua New Guinea

The Port Moresby capital
Credit: Gen Deschenes via Getty Images

Its waters may be uncharted, but this country boasts verdant landscapes, volcanic coastlines and mesmerising culture.

Papua New Guinea is high on the bucket list of most adventure sailors, and increasing numbers of vessels are heading this way to explore these waters. For example, 42.9-metre Guillemot has just completed a tour of the region.

More than 600 indigenous groups live in the country, which is about twice the size of the UK, and many of them are endangered. It would be helpful to bring a guide with you who can speak with these local communities (there are around 850 languages in the country!).

Credit: Peter Cade via Getty Images

Sailing here presents its own challenges as the charts can be inaccurate or outdated, so careful planning is crucial. In the waters surrounding Papua New Guinea there are points where sailors will have to rely on sight to determine whether the route is viable. The waters here may be clear, but it is still difficult to confidently determine the position of a reef when it’s not accurately depicted on a chart.

In this part of Melanesia, you can’t expect to turn up and find superyacht-worthy provisions readily available. This is something that should be arranged in advance, though buying fresh produce is a good way of supporting the local communities. The nearest place for the best provisioning is Australia. Medical attention is also limited in PNG and tends to be concentrated around the capital, Port Moresby. It’s worth remembering that, in the tropics, it’s common for small cuts and bruises to get infected relatively quickly.


Humpback whales, Adélie penguins and elephant seals share these waters with yachts
Credit: Adam Cropp via Getty Images

Cruising here can be a tough odyssey in a vast frozen landscape, but it’s one that promises sublime natural beauty.

If there is one thing adventure sailors are drawn to, it’s ice. This is why Antarctica has become an increasingly desirable destination for those who want to go well off grid and explore a place that few of us will ever have the chance to experience. This continent is like nowhere else on the planet.

It’s not so much the weather that makes this part of the world a challenge (in the summer the climate here is mostly dry), but rather it’s the desert-like conditions, unruly ice and a dearth of civilisation. But those who cruise these parts can enjoy some incredibly serene sailing through gently breaking ice or indulge in adrenaline-fuelled skiing across untouched snowy ridges or down remote polar plunges.

Credit: David Merron Photography via Getty Images

The ice here is not to be taken lightly, however, and sailors are advised to have an expert on board who fully understands it. Dropping anchor for the night isn’t as straightforward as it might be in the Med. To ensure you don’t wake up to a mass of detached ice nudging against the hull, there will be times when you will need to relocate or indeed push through whole sections of ice.

Cruising here also means sailing for extended periods of time with few opportunities for provisioning, so efficient storage and being fully equipped are, of course, essential.

First published in the September 2023 Life Under Sail supplement. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.


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