Mike Horn, the professional adventurer who sails his 35-metre ketch to the world’s most beautiful – and inhospitable – corners, speaks to Caroline White
If you’re going to venture to the iciest ends of the earth by yacht you need a chunky steel boat, right? A floating tank sounds about right for navigating icebergs. Well, not according to professional explorer Mike Horn, who chose a nimble 35-metre aluminium sailing yacht to be his constant companion on more than a decade of global adventures. “Aluminium is not as resistant as steel,” he says, “but when I have a massive impact my boat just changes shape – aluminium bends, while steel tears.”
There’s very little that’s conventional about the yacht Pangaea – or about Horn himself. Born in 1966 in Johannesburg, he grew up an outdoorsy, competitive child and went on to study human movement science at Stellenbosch University. He joined the army and served in Angola. Returning from service aged 24, he felt a need to get out and explore away from a politically isolated South Africa. He ended up about as far away as you could get, in Château-d’Oex in the Swiss Alps, where he still resides.
From here he launched a dazzling array of adventures over more than three decades: he’s traversed the South American continent solo by climbing high into the Peruvian Andes, then hydrospeeding (essentially bodyboarding) 7,000 kilometres down the Amazon to the Atlantic; he spent 18 months circling the Equator by foot and sail – the world’s first unaided solo circumnavigation; for more than two years he travelled around the Arctic Circle without motorised transport; and he walked for two months in the total darkness of the Arctic winter, dragging his own sledge from the Arctic Cape in Russia to the North Pole.
At this point in his adventuring career, the idea for his own explorer yacht was born. “I needed to build a vessel that could take me to any place in the world,” he says. “It had to have a shallow draught to sail up the Amazon or over coral, and also a hull strong enough to go into the ice.” What he determined to build was “a light but structurally very strong sailing vessel with ketch rigging”. With a limited budget, he went to the American industrial corporation Alcoa and negotiated enough free aluminium for the build in return for branding rights. It was designed by a Brazilian-Belgian architect and built in the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil. “I wanted a project where we could employ people with a trade, like welders, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, hydraulic specialists,” says Horn. “There’s a lot of guys out there with amazing skills that cannot find work, so we kind of rounded them up.”
With the hull under way, he went to Europe to gather sponsors – he picked up Mercedes-Benz and the Richemont Group (which owns Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Panerai, Chloé, Net-A-Porter and more). What they were supporting was not so much the boat as a plan. “The idea was to build a boat to take young people around the world to show them the beauty of the planet, and then teach them through science how to conserve that natural intact beauty,” says Horn. The project, also called Pangaea – the name of the pre-historic supercontinent – took two children from each continent on an extraordinary five-year adventure, using the boat to install ecological and social projects around the world.
This initial adventure completed, Horn turned Pangaea towards other goals. Departing from the Yacht Club de Monaco in 2016 with a send-off from Prince Albert II, the Pole2Pole expedition was a two-year circumnavigation via the South and North Poles. “Pangaea drops me off on one side of the Antarctic, I solo ski across the continent while my boat sails around the world and picks me up on the other side,” he recalls. “Then, I get back on to the boat, sail to the North Pole as far as I can into the pack ice, get off the boat and walk across the North Pole. The boat sails through the Northeast Passage above Russia to pick me up on the other side.” He racked up a couple of records along the way: the longest unsupported solo north-to-south traverse of Antarctica; and the first full crossing of the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole. They also took Pangaea further north than any sailing vessel in history.
But aside from plaudits, what Horn took from the experience was a concern for the state of nature at the top of the world. “I didn’t see a single polar bear,” he says. “In 2006, when [Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland] and myself did the first ever winter expedition from Russia to the North Pole, we saw polar bears every third or fourth day. A polar bear even sat on the tent on top of my stomach with me inside the sleeping bag.”
The reason for the new lack of bears, he says, was the thinning ice. “A polar bear needs solid ice to hunt on.” They had therefore retreated to Siberia, Canada and Alaska where they were attacking the people and dogs of the Inuit – and getting shot in return.
Horn decided to return to the Arctic in 2020, despite the pandemic, “because I wanted to see life again”. Covid-19 also offered a unique opportunity to record whale songs in the region. “A whale that’s hunted is stressed, and through whale songs, you can record a stressed whale. And when there’s no hunting, you can record a whale that just swims freely. The only opportunity in the history of our planet to compare these data was now, during Covid. Never before have human beings [and hunting] shut down like this.” As well as monitoring local wildlife, Horn had a hair-raising experience on the trip, when an iceberg flipped while he was climbing it.
Horn has learned a thing or two about ice on his adventures. Don’t look for nice big flat plates of ice, he says, look for cracks that you can poke the nose of your boat into (assuming you don’t have an ice-breaker). The way Pangaea works her way through ice is to ride up on to it and crack it with her weight and momentum. For this purpose she has a knife-sharp bow, weight positioned up front, a reinforced impact zone and naval architecture that redistributes the force of a collision. “In the winter when it’s cold, the ice becomes rock hard but it can easily break. If you’ve got a boat going above and hitting it, it cracks, breaks up into small bits and drifts away,” he says. “If you take that same thickness of ice at the end of summer when it’s all soggy, the moment the boat falls onto the ice, the ice gives way but doesn’t crack. It creates slush.”
If you have a boat the engine of which is cooled by seawater, he says, it will suck up the slush, this will break the filters and your engine will, ironically, overheat. Pangaea, therefore, operates a closed cooling system with 1,200 litres of glycol (antifreeze).
Navigating in ice requires calculation and planning as well as force and judgement. “We get the ice charts and it gives us information, but it’s delayed information,” he says. They therefore make calculations based on the time satellite images were taken and estimated drift. They also – rather more simply – have a crew member up the mast at all times while navigating. “To be able to know where there’s open water and where there’s ice far ahead is not easy, so you’ve got to look at the clouds,” says Horn. “If you have a lot of white ice in front of you, the light reflects from the ice and there will be white clouds on the horizon. When white cloud turns into grey cloud, that means the light no longer reflects from the ice, but from water. And that’s what the guy on the mast is looking for.”
For anyone planning an Antarctic expedition, Horn sensibly suggests that just “taking somebody that knows the ice is going to make his life so much easier”. Better still, “Take your boat to South Georgia, and then get on a boat [an experienced charter or tour boat] that would allow you to enjoy what’s happening, and not be stressed with the risk of losing your boat and your life.” He’s serious on this point. “Your life can become very short when you travel there. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, nobody can get to you. So, respect nature and nature will respect you.”
What’s next on Horn’s agenda? He’ll be getting off the boat to climb K2; returning to the Amazon, the place where his career as a professional explorer started; and sailing south to Patagonia to explore the icecaps and mountains. It seems likely he’ll crack those challenges with as much ease as a plate of Arctic ice.
“I was looking at this iceberg from far away. It was one piece of ice in the ocean and it was such a beautiful pyramid,” says Horn. He was sailing 35-metre Pangaea in the Arctic Ocean last year and suggested to his friend that they climb it, knowing there was a chance it could move. “If the wind catches an iceberg at the right angle it sails like a boat, because it’s got a ‘keel’ deep in the water.” When they melt at the bottom, they become top heavy and, at that point, they are also liable to flip.
Pangaea approached the berg and the two clambered on to its near-vertical side. As they began to climb, Pangaea reversed – and that was when the problems started. “The prop wash from the engines pushed the bottom of the iceberg,” says Horn. They didn’t feel it moving right away – they were too close to the pivot point – but those on the boat could see what was happening and shouted to them. The ice was falling on top of them.
“I thought, OK, I’ve got a down jacket on that’s full of air. I’m going to fall into the water and straight away come out. And when the iceberg comes down at that stage, I’m going to be crushed.”
His solution was to stick the two ice axes he was carrying up above his head to take the force. When the iceberg hit the water, his friend was ejected to the side, but Horn, who was closer to the middle of the ice wall, was pushed under. “The water is quite clear. You can see the ice just darkening everything above your head. I said, ‘Shit yeah, it’s done.’”
He somehow managed to get out to the side. But that was not the end. “Now you’re in the Arctic Ocean with crampons, ice axes, climbing boots, no life jacket and the clothes suck all the water. You’re going to get pulled down to the bottom of the ocean.” Knowing that this scenario was a possibility, Horn had already prepped his engineer to have the tender ready to spring into action, and luckily the crew managed to fish them out in time.
Will he be climbing any more icebergs? “The most stupid thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “I’ve been a professional explorer for 30 years. I know that the risks I take can cost me my life. I’m not somebody that does what I do to die – I do what I do because that’s what makes me feel alive.”
This feature is taken from the April 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW