The ultimate frontier: Designing for the Northwest Passage

10 February 2021

In the history of maritime exploration, no other part of the world has been more difficult to conquer, and Vripack has designed the most yachts to have risen to the challenge.

Only the brave

Located 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle and less than 1,200 miles from the North Pole, the Northwest Passage is the greatest maritime challenge known to man. The route was discovered around 1845 by Sir John Franklin, an English Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer, but neither he nor anyone else from his 129-man crew made it home. Several failed attempts followed, until Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, finally conquered it in 1905.

It had taken Amundsen and his crew all of two years, including two harsh winters in a harbor at King William Island. He discovered a series of deep channels through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, starting north of Baffin Island and continuing all the way to the Beaufort Sea, just above Alaska, a route that extended about 900 miles from east to west. The Northwest Passage was the only alternative to the long journey around Cape Horn for passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Most ships enter the Passage from the Pacific, were the polar ice cap presses down on Alaska’s shallow north coast for much of the year, funneling masses of ice into the Bering Strait, the narrow sea passage between Alaska and Siberia.

Following one of the seven routes to the Atlantic exit takes sailors on a hazardous journey that involves the careful negotiation of tens of thousands of giant icebergs between Greenland and Baffin Island, some rising 300 feet or more above sea level, all on their slow, southward drift. 

This inhospitable and undisturbed part of the world is home to an astonishing array of wildlife, which, other than scientific grounds, is the prime argument for attempting the journey. One becomes so captivated by the sight of sharp-clawed, creamy-white polar bears, languidly moving whale pods and large herds of walruses, and so regular are the sightings, that you almost forget the chunks of ice drifting within striking distance of the yacht.

Fit for purpose

Given that the Passage is usually frozen solid and impassable for much of the year, the Captains and crew that have managed to traverse it successfully are among a highly select group of yachting professionals, and have, as a result, earned the respect of their peers, not to mention a fair bit of fame. So rare are these crossings, and so changeable the conditions, that the knowledge required for successful passage isn’t widely available, even in this era of the internet. Consequently, Vripack maintains a detailed record of their vast experience in designing yachts capable of meeting this challenge.

The Vripack-designed explorer Turmoil was the first superyacht to brave the Northwest passage in 2001. “When you step into the tender, assume you’ll be spending the night, and equip yourself accordingly," advises captain Phil Walsh.

Then there's Pioneer, a private expedition yacht with an incredible 11,000-mile range and robust cruising capabilities. She was the first yacht to circumnavigate North America and has tackled many high latitude destinations, from Greenland to Alaska, and British Columbia to the Northwest Passage. Her shared ownership today between two owners and their families means the boat never stands still.

“The place I liked the most was Greenland just because of how beautiful it is and there’s some really interesting human culture there,” says the owner of Pioneer. “But the place where I felt the boat was at its best, where I felt without Pioneer that I would never get to see in this way, was the Northwest Passage. It’s the most remote place that I've been on the boat, reaching 75 degrees North latitude.”

“Vripack explorer yachts are specifically designed for experienced and adventurous yachtsman to sail around and operate in the most extreme conditions. Vripack designed several no-nonsense explorer yachts, to sail through the treacherous Northwest Passage” says designer Pim Dijksman.

To date there have been only nine successful passages by superyachts and five of these were made on the yacht designed by Vripack. In fact, Vripack designed the first superyacht to ever make the crossing; Turmoil pulled it off in 2001, becoming the 87th vessel to successfully navigate the legendary Passage since records began.