The owner of sailing yacht Firebird had his sights set on a daring high-latitude double, taking in both the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, but when the pandemic hit he had to rethink his plans. Andrey Yakunin tells BOAT about how his ice tour turned into a tropical trek.
The 27.1-metre Firebird may have the outward appearance of a traditional Oyster sailing yacht but her owner, Andrey Yakunin, has never sought a traditional sailing programme. Yakunin is a skiing fanatic, so the yacht has spent much of the past five years in Norway’s Lyngen Alps peninsula, providing the ultimate “chalet” for those wanting to ski pristine powder directly from the boat. However, in 2019 he decided it was time to push Firebird’s credentials one step further, seeing her take to the northern latitudes of Svalbard before heading all the way south to the icy realms of Antarctica.
More than a year’s planning had gone into the route, as well as extensive work on the yacht to ensure she was up for the challenge. “We have worked very hard for three years to adapt Firebird so that she is ready for the programme we are undertaking,” explains Yakunin. “We have Kevlar rudders, which are ice proof, we obviously have the heating systems on board, and we have also developed a Kevlar nose cone, which we can put on the bow to protect her from drift ice and slush.” Unfortunately, none of this preparation could mitigate against a global pandemic, which would see lockdowns imposed and borders closed.
The first part of Firebird’s itinerary went exactly to plan as she headed for her maiden trip to Svalbard in May 2019. “We left Norway in the middle of April and went to Svalbard as early as we could to take advantage of the ski conditions,” says Captain Peter Madej, who was on board to assist with this section of the trip. Svalbard provided different skiing opportunities than Yakunin and his family are used to in Norway. “The main difference was that the days were much longer, so we could do things like midnight skiing,” says Captain Madej. “You also have to take extra care to not bump into the wildlife, especially bears."
The yacht was predominantly based near Longyearbyen until the ice opened up and allowed her to safely head further north. “We had a nice shot at going the maximum north we could,” says Captain Madej. “We managed to make it to almost 81 degrees so that the owner could experience the proper sea ice.” For Yakunin, the new terrain didn’t disappoint. “When we went past the main towns and commercial routes the sheer vastness was incredible,” he says. “The family and kids on board got to do some pretty exciting descents.”
The wildlife was also plentiful. “You can spend hours and hours just watching the wildlife,” says Captain Madej. “There is a family of belugas close to the town of Pyramiden and we managed to spend a couple of hours barely moving through the water surrounded by them. There were polar bears as well, of course, but the real highlight was seeing a blue whale. It wasn’t something I was expecting to see; it was magnificent to see the biggest animal on earth.”
From Svalbard, Firebird made her way back to the UK before heading down to the Canaries and across to the Caribbean for the winter season. Yakunin was unable to join for the crossing but returned to the yacht to cruise St Lucia and the Grenadines. In March, as Covid-19 started to hit the headlines, he joined Firebird to partake in the Superyacht Challenge Antigua. “My wife and I flew out for a week of racing, so we had a wardrobe of two pairs of shorts and three T-shirts,” he says. “We won our class, which was very nice. What I didn’t realise at the time is that we would remain unbeaten for a whole year as it was the only superyacht racing event that would occur.”
The pandemic then started to take a firmer grip on the world and Yakunin is the first to admit he underestimated the impact it was going to have on his global voyage plans. “All the travel restrictions started to come in and my wife and I thought how long can it last? A week? Maybe two?” he recalls. Deciding that they were better off in Antigua rather than quarantined in London, they opted to stay with the yacht. “Hindsight has shown that my prediction was slightly optimistic,” he admits. “We got stuck there and the whole of the Caribbean went into major lockdown. On the plus side, it gave us a good chance to explore the island inside and out, to the point where I think we could now write our own travel guide!”
Alongside exploring the island – including diving and testing the yacht’s equipment with local expert Leigh Cunningham – Yakunin and Firebird’s team were desperately trying to come up with a plan so that they could still reach Antarctica. “We spent effectively a month in Antigua making itinerary after itinerary as more of the world was shutting down,” recalls Yakunin. All options were considered, including heading down the Atlantic coast via Brazil and relocating from Antigua directly to Easter Island. However, eventually the realisation began to set in that visiting Antarctica wasn’t going to be possible. “When [polar sailing expert] Skip Novak announced he was abandoning his trip that was a pretty clear message,” says Yakunin. “If he was saying it is unreasonable, then who were we to try and prove a point against that?”
However, with hurricane season fast approaching, Firebird needed to move somewhere. At this point Plan C was hatched, and the yacht was prepared to head for French Polynesia. As part of the preparations, relief captain Daniel Hardy flew out with a delivery crew to meet the yacht for the next stage of the voyage. “It was quite tricky to get out there,” he recalls. “We weren’t allowed to transit through Miami, so we ended up having to fly to Paris and then to Guadeloupe. We then used a private plane to get us from Guadeloupe to Antigua.”
With Hardy and the new crew safely on board Firebird left Antigua, unsure of where or when she might next be allowed to return to shore. “I can say a lot of countries that we sailed past where we were not allowed to land,” says Yakunin. “We sailed past the ABCs and weren’t allowed to land, we sailed past Colombia and were not allowed to land, we sailed past Panama and were not allowed to land.” Fortunately, the yacht’s agent was able to negotiate for Firebird to stop for a refuel and to take on provisions prior to transiting the Panama Canal. “We were put in a quarantine dock with police tape and guards around us. The provisions were delivered to a pontoon and then after 20 minutes we were allowed to go the pontoon to pick up the provisions,” explains Yakunin.
After transiting the canal, the crew were faced with nearly 4,000 nautical miles of ocean to reach the Marquesas Islands. The journey is nearly double that of an Atlantic crossing, but good winds helped their cause. “It’s downwind the whole way basically and the conditions were great,” says Captain Hardy. “We got the opportunity to sail for a quite a few days under the Code Zero and spinnaker; it was lovely.” The passage was an intense experience for the owner and crew, and the longest most of them had ever undertaken. “Of course, 25.9m is a vast boat but it is still quite a confined space,” says Yakunin. “I think all the time we had invested into team building and making sure everyone had similar interests paid off in spades. We also had a designated solo spot on the bow, so when you got sick and tired of everyone that was where you could go.”
The wind did drop over the equator zone, which was expected, but this gave the owner and crew the opportunity to fully appreciate the moment. “It was the first time for me and a lot of the crew crossing the equator, so we performed the inaugural ceremony and paid homage to Poseidon as we crossed,” says Captain Hardy. “We actually had a complete shutdown of wind when we were crossing, so quite a lot of the crew swam across the equator, which was cool.” During the passage Firebird also ticked more than 50,000 nautical miles since her launch in 2016. This milestone was another event that was celebrated by everyone on board despite it happening in the middle of the night.
After another crew change, Yakunin and his wife were able to head off to explore French Polynesia. With restrictions starting to ease, some friends and family were also able to fly in. “We did hiking in the Marquesas, we did diving in the Tuamotus and then we did diving and hiking in Tahiti and Bora Bora,” says Yakunin. The boat relied on local guides to show the best of what French Polynesia had to offer and for the first time, Covid-19 worked in their favour. “We were lucky we were able to experience it when it was not packed,” he says. “In some of the diving hotspots sometimes we were the only dive group there. Our dive guide said it was the first time in his life that he had seen the Tiputa Pass in Rangiroa with just one boat there. It was pretty amazing.”
As autumn began to approach the hopes of continuing the journey westwards began to fade, with a cruise straight to Japan the only available option. “We decided that there is a fine line between stupidity and persistence and that the journey had probably run its course,” says Yakunin. Fortunately, a transporter ship was heading back from Tahiti a few weeks later and Firebird was able to be safely returned to the UK.
Despite loving his foray into tropical waters, it is still the high latitudes that hold the real allure for Yakunin. “You don’t need to fight for a barbecue spot on a beach. You are more concerned whether a polar bear is going to join you,” he jokes. With that in mind, Firebird is currently undergoing further ice preparations in Southampton before she heads north for another season of her ski and sail programme in Norway. She will then move onto Iceland and Greenland before hopefully making the crossing to Alaska. “We are all excited to start sailing again,” says Yakunin. “Hopefully this time we won’t be taking any wrong turns which end up with a 5,000-mile detour.”
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First published in the October 2021 issue of BOAT International