Captain Russell Pugh regales Rachel Ingram with tales of adventure on board Arctic P.
The Antarctic is a magnificent yet treacherous place – and the further south you sail, the greater the challenge. This is something that the crew of Arctic P discovered when they broke the Guinness World Record for the furthest south any vessel has ever travelled – 677 nautical miles from the South Pole.
Arctic P is a true one-off, as evidenced in another memorable trip, to Icy Bay in Alaska. “That trip was something else,” says Captain Russell Pugh, who led the mission. “It was incredible. Because of Arctic P’s ice capacity, we were able to get into a bay, which even the pilot said he’d never taken a vessel into before – they usually anchor outside and tender in. Because we can anchor in very deep water, we were able to anchor overnight in the bay itself – it was amazing to have these giant icebergs moving around us all night. And it was an incredible feeling waking up to the sight of massive waterfalls coming off glaciers. It was very special.”
The 87.57-metre Arctic P is renowned for her sturdiness, endurance and flexibility. “She is special because of her seaworthiness,” says Pugh. “A lot of new vessels have modern stabilisers, but due to the sheer weight of Arctic P – she’s an 87-metre vessel [with] a seven-metre draught – she’s incredibly sturdy. She was designed to rescue boats, so you’re never overly concerned about weather conditions or what you may encounter as you know you’re on a very safe platform.”
Considering the areas that she often travels in, safety is key. The best way to protect yourself on an extreme expedition is to prepare for – and be able to handle – all conditions, says Pugh. “There’s no denying that weather is your greatest challenge. There are other challenges, like satisfying the guests’ needs and desires, but, to me, the underlying challenge is weather. That’s where Arctic P holds its own – she can handle extremes comfortably,” he says.
“One time in Antarctica, we were driving into an ice cliff and I looked over the side. Instantly, I could see the water freezing – ‘pancaking’ they call it – so I turned to the other pilot and said, ‘I think it’s time to go.’ Another time, we were in Alaska, in a place called Cold Bay, battling 60 to 70 knots of wind and we had to get the guests off, but we somehow managed to berth and do it.”Read More/Everything you need to know about the 2022 Explorer Yachts Summit
These extremes are nothing new to Pugh, who cut his teeth working on cargo ships around 30 years ago. He spent the first eight years of his nautical career working on them – and bulk carriers – before moving into cruise ships with Windstar Cruises and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises for four years. Following this, he secured a position leading the crew on 126 metre Octopus, one of the world’s largest yachts, built for the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. He spent the next three years embarking on exploration projects and scientific research expeditions in some of the world’s most far-flung destinations.
In 2007, Pugh joined Arctic P, which has been owned by the Packer family since 1994. He’s since guided it through various refits and piloted numerous expeditions across the globe from Alaska to the Galapagos.
To Pugh, working on board the vessel is a dream come true: “Arctic P has always been a vessel I wanted to be on – I actually told the owner at the time that I’d written to his father when he was alive, asking for a job. It’s the crossover between commercial and yachting, so you’ve got the best of both worlds.”
Much like Octopus, one of Arctic P’s strongest USPs is that she can travel almost anywhere. She has excellent fuel capacity, which means she has the endurance to do lengthy cross-seas trips – something not many yachts can do. “A lot of yachts can do the peninsula out of South America, but not many yachts can do the Ross Sea out of Australia and New Zealand – that endurance is unusual,” he says.
Arctic P is for people who love the feel of being on a real boat. In fact, this is something that her current owner, Australian investor and philanthropist Gretel Packer, likes the most about her. “She loves to be on board and she loves the motion of the vessel,” says Pugh. “Arctic P is an old tug. You can hear it running, you can hear the engine – unlike on a modern yacht when you don’t even know the engines are running or not – and she loves that. She loves the whole feeling of the ship vibrating and that feeling of being alive.”
When Packer is on board, she usually goes on trips of several weeks, staying on board for crossings, such as the Panama Canal (right), rather than flying to meet the crew at the final destination.
“[Arctic P] was one of the first – possibly the actual first – expedition yacht in the world, and that extraordinary conversion was undertaken by my parents,” says Packer. “So, for me, there is just so much history. Plus, I find her very beautiful.
“I have so many special moments on board, [such as] travelling through the night from the Galápagos to Panama on a glassy quiet sea with an escort of petrel seabirds, who accompanied us for 24 hours and roosted above the monkey deck.
“Possibly the most breathtaking experience was the extraordinary, bracingly cold day in Antarctica when a humpback whale and her calf became curious about us. They spent about two hours alongside us, diving beneath us, popping up at the bow, disappearing and then reappearing at the platform at the stern while we were at anchor. It was one of the most sublime experiences of my life.
“My ultimate travel bucket list at this moment is to circumnavigate Antarctica, circumnavigate the British Isles – up into Scandinavia, through the Northwest Passage, and down into Alaska, or the other way around – and explore the Pacific more.”
Currently, the yacht is in French Polynesia, one of Pugh’s favourite destinations. “The greatest thing about French Polynesia is that even with a vessel the size of Arctic P, you can go from atoll to atoll. No matter what the weather is doing outside, you sail into these amazing, beautiful atolls.
“It’s scenic, the people are lovely and friendly, and it’s got a very interesting culture and history with the Polynesian, the French and the Chinese nationalities there,” he says. “The other great thing about French Polynesia is that you’re linked to the world – there are amenities if you need them.”
Arctic P has been used as a private yacht since Australian businessman and media proprietor Kerry Packer AC (Gretel’s father) bought and converted her in the 1990s. When Gretel took over ownership from her brother James Packer in 2018, she decided to repurpose her for charter.
“The owner is extremely passionate about Arctic P. We’ve done four major refits to get her up to a better and better standard, but now she wants to take it to the next level, which is chartering,” says Pugh. “This is very interesting for a lot of us, after doing so many years working for private owners. Managing charter guests is a very different mindset. We’re a family-orientated boat. When they’re on, you’re involved with the owners. When you become a charter vessel, however, you’re offering a service, so you change to the service industry mentality.”
The expedition yacht, built by shipyard Schichau Unterweser in 1969, can sleep up to 12 guests in seven suites plus 28 crew. Alongside dining and relaxation spaces, she has a beach club, a gym and a cinema. Arctic P can also carry a wealth of toys – a 14-metre Endeavour tender, 12-metre Donzi tender, 10-metre Riva tender, plus jet skis, water skis, Seabobs, kayaks, scuba diving equipment and more. A helipad also doubles as a sunbathing or play area when not in use.
She will appeal to a client who wants to travel to places “out of the normal reach” rather than those seeking luxury indulgence. “We can offer to go anywhere our guests want,” says Pugh. “This is unusual because people tend to stick to the same set – an Antarctica season, a Greenland season, a Caribbean season. We wanted to be more open to whatever charterers would like to request.”
As Packer and her family have experienced, it’s clear Arctic P has many more fascinating voyages in store. “We want people to be able to fulfil their dreams,” says Pugh.
Arctic P is one of a growing number of vessels capable of reaching the furthest corner of the earth. Each year, we celebrate these yachts, their builders and their almighty voyages at the Explorer Yachts Summit, held in association with Damen Yachting and ExplorerYachts.com. Find out more here.