Under an impossibly blue sky, the motor yacht Arctic powers her way at a steady six knots through the 40 to 50 centimetres of fast ice in the frigid waters of Bourgeois Fjord, Antarctica. Before her the beautiful mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula rise as a barrier to the Weddell Sea, with only the wisps of cloud on their ridges betraying the strong katabatic winds raging high above the vessel. As Arctic draws abreast of an iceberg providing refuge for a couple of crab-eater seals, the captain throttles back, glides to a stop and signals ‘finished with engines’. Silence
Silence, however, soon gives way to cries of joy. Arctic has arrived at 67.50 degrees south, thereby setting the record for the furthermost southern latitude of any private expedition vessel on the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years. Surrounded by ice, she looks entirely within her element. Soon, guests and crew step on to the ice for photographs and a giddy toast to their capable vessel. Halfway into a 3,500 mile odyssey a year in the making, the captain and the expedition leader exchange knowing looks and proud smiles; Arctic has truly arrived in Antarctica.
The last continent discovered, Antarctica is by far the most pristine, and is considered by many as the rite of passage into the world of bona fide expedition cruising. Synonymous with the iconic explorers Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton, Antarctica offers unsurpassed scenery, wildlife, icescapes and a sense of exploration and isolation rarely found in today’s world. Only a tiny percentage of the worlds superyachts come here, and they rely heavily on specialist guides to help navigate these waters safely and look after them when ashore. EYOS Expeditions runs about 20 expeditions per year to remote polar and tropical destinations.
Arctic’s journey began a year earlier with a meeting between her captain and Rob McCallum of EYOS Expeditions. As a result, I requested preparations for an Antarctic voyage encompassing the Falkland Islands, the remote wildlife paradise of South Georgia and the full length of the Antarctic Peninsula. ‘Arctic is a great vessel,’ says her captain. ‘She was constructed with an Ice Class and endurance of more than 8,000 miles. She is a private yacht, but the facets of luxury are built over a solid foundation of strong and proven performance. She is ideal for polar cruising or exploring remote coasts.’
Arctic was built by Schichau Werft in Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1970. At time of launch, Arctic and her identical sister Oceanic were the strongest and largest all-weather salvage tugs in existence and both had distinguished international careers. Arctic has even been to Antarctica before; in 1972 she famously rescued commercial expedition vessel Lindblad Explorer, which had run aground at Plaza Point.
We purchased Arctic in 1993 and from 1994 to 1995 undertook an extensive rebuild and conversion in Malta, overseen by Claus Kusch, to make her into a private yacht. Several refits and upgrades have yielded impressive results. The 88-metre, Ice-Classed hull (GL 100 A4 E3) complements a robust structure, a 17-knot cruising speed, classic lines and modern facilities. She is at home as much in the tropics as in the polar regions. Power is provided by her twin supercharged Deutz SBV 12 M engines producing over 9,700kW.
All this gave us great confidence as we prepared for our voyage. EYOS would lead the expedition; over the previous year, it obtained permits and permissions, undertook a technical evaluation of the vessel to determine its suitability for polar waters, produced a full itinerary and technical schedule, and sourced specialist equipment. Arctic’s crew transformed the vessel from ‘tropical mode’ (after a stay in French Polynesia) and prepared her for polar cruising.
A key task was offloading and storing kit: 11 jet skis, four 12-metre tenders and two nine-metre tenders. Just one of the 12-metre tenders was retained and two Zodiacs brought on board. ‘Whilst Mk4 and Mk5 Zodiacs are rare in yachting, they are proven workhorses of the polar regions,’ says the captain, ‘easy to launch and recover and at home in ice as they are on a rocky shore.’
‘We supplemented the Arctic’s crew with an ice navigator, an expedition coordinator and a naturalist,’ says McCallum. ‘Any voyage to the high latitudes takes a vessel towards the limits of its capabilities, so it’s important to have solid polar experience on board. There is no substitute for decades of experience in and knowledge of these regions. Our ice pilot for this voyage, Captain Alexander Golubev, has three decades of polar cruising experience to draw on; that’s a powerful supplement of knowledge to any bridge team.’
Arctic’s southern sojourn begins in the Falkland Islands. ‘The Falklands is one of the best places on Earth to see the wildlife of the South Atlantic, such as the black-browed albatross,’ says EYOS naturalist Matt Drennan. ‘At sea they are zipping along on a gale, but in the Falklands we can get feet away from a nest with a chick underfoot. You’re standing in vast colonies, and spending an afternoon with these massive, gentle birds is something you never forget.’
From the Falklands, Arctic voyages 800 nautical miles southeast to South Georgia. On arrival at Grytviken, Arctic is met with the rare sight of giant tabular icebergs. Time in Grytviken is spent visiting the old whaling station, museum, and the original Norwegian church. The highlight is a visit to Ernest Shackleton’s grave where we toast ‘the boss’. Remote and little-visited, South Georgia boasts unforgettable scenery and wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of charismatic king penguins crowd the wild sandy beaches, sharing space with fur seals, while 2,500-metre peaks create a stunning backdrop.
Arctic voyages on, traversing 850 nautical miles south west past Elephant Island (where Shackleton’s men were marooned) to the Antarctic Peninsula. Here 12 days of intensive polar activities begin. ‘The guests wanted to sample every experience,’ says McCallum. ‘They embraced landings ashore to see penguin rookeries teeming with life, or Zodiac cruising with leopard seals. They jumped at the chance to visit a scientific base at midnight after an invitation for a Christmas drink. Hiking, kayaking, walking on fast ice… And in what is perhaps the ultimate test of true enthusiasm; every single guest and most of the crew undertook the polar plunge into waters with a temperature of minus one degree centigrade!’
The highlight is the day Arctic is joined by a curious humpback whale and her calf. Adrift on a mirror calm sea, we enjoy a rare lunch outside as the whales explore Arctic’s stern; diving and resurfacing at the aft platform, nosing the hull and inspecting the boat for hours. It is simply magical, a truly natural and genuine experience.
Even transit is rewarding, with endless vistas of mountains and ever-changing icescapes. ‘Ask our clients what their enduring memory of Antarctica is, and it’s often the light,’ says McCallum. ‘Below the Antarctic Circle the sun barely dips for two to three hours and slowly rises again in a drawn out, vibrant sunrise. Between 10pm and 3am, the light yields colours of crushed apricot, fiery copper and gold. It is spellbinding, and unforgettable.’
After 21 days, Arctic’s voyage comes to an end at King George Island, one of the few places in Antarctica with a serviceable runway. The guests bid sad farewells to captain and crew, before heading to Chile and on home. There is something about Antarctica that grabbed my heart: the ice, the mesmerising light, the vastness of space and the infinite sky. It’s an amazing place; every day brings a magical adventure. I can’t wait to return.
‘It’s been a pleasure to work with a vessel as capable as Arctic,’ says McCallum. ‘We always design an itinerary to the limits of the yacht’s capabilities, but Arctic is one of the most capable expedition vessels we have seen in a while, so we were able to really expand the itinerary and do things beyond the reach of many vessels.’
Arctic’s captain agrees: ‘Arctic’s successful first foray to Antarctica paves the way for other polar voyages: the Ross Sea, Northwest Passage, and Svalbard. We know what she is capable of; she has proven herself a true expedition yacht. She can go anywhere the owner desires.’
Photography by EYOS Expeditions; courtesy of Arctic