How to plan and prepare superyachts for cruising in extreme destinations

20 January 2015• Written by Nigel Sharp

Warm weather destinations continue to be popular for superyachts, but many owners are increasingly keen to go somewhere different. The motivation for this might be the desire for something more challenging, more remote or more spectacular – by their very nature these places are likely to provide unusual difficulties. But challenges bring solutions, and one organisation in particular knows most of these solutions.

Yacht consultancy and management service High Latitudes, specialising in Antarctica, the Arctic and other remote destinations, was created to ensure owners and crew get the very best enjoyment from their destinations. The company is owned and run by Richard Haworth and Luke Milner, who based the idea for High Latitudes off of their own sailing and mountaineering expedition experience in Antarctica.

Sailing yacht Hetairos off Spitsbergen, in Arctic Norway

In 1999, Richard Haworth and Luke Milner bought a 13.4-metre steel ketch and began an 18-month adventure, a lot of which was spent indulging in their passion for mountain climbing in Antarctica. In coping with the extreme conditions they had the occasional minor mishap but, as Haworth puts it, ‘We had to have these learning experiences. There was no one there to teach us. I couldn’t begin to list the things we learnt on that trip.’

He then went to work as a skipper on charter yachts such as Pelagic and Pelagic Australis, taking people to the Antarctic and the Arctic. After six years, eager to spend time leading a ‘normal life’, he and Milner saw an opportunity to use their experience to help other people visit these remote places, and created High Latitudes.

The process

When Haworth and Milner meet owners or captains, initial discussions are about where they would like to go and when, and what they would like to do when they get there. It is not uncommon for small changes to be proposed, perhaps for reasons of safety but often in an attempt to maximise potential enjoyment.

The next stage is to consider the yacht intended for the voyage. In an ideal world this discussion would occur before she is built, to ensure all High Latitudes’ proposals could be incorporated. Although this has been the case on a handful of Oysters – semi-custom sailing yachts with fundamental limitations regarding potential alterations due to their standard GRP hulls and decks – only recently has an opportunity occurred to significantly influence a boat’s design.

When Haworth first met the owner of Bougainville, a 22-metre aluminium cruiser-racer currently in build at Claasen Shipyard in Holland, he suggested, as he often does, that the waterline should be raised to allow for the extra weight of equipment needed for the proposed voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula. But the owner went one better – asking designer Berret Racoupeau to redraw the underwater lines and give the boat more buoyancy to carry the increased payload.

Superyacht Itasca navigating tabular icebergs during its extreme cruising adventures

Good insulation is obviously vital to cope with extreme temperatures, and Bougainville’s insulation specification was upgraded on Haworth’s advice – but it would be a huge job to make any such improvement on an existing steel or aluminium boat.

There were no such problems on the timber-hulled Hetairos, the 43 metre Bruce King ketch that visited Iceland and Spitsbergen – the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, which is under Norwegian sovereignty – in 2010. ‘We didn’t make any major alterations to the boat for the trip,’ explains Bill Lawrence, the captain. ‘She had already been around the world several times. We knew the watermakers would not be so efficient in the cold waters, and luckily we had the benefit of diesel heating throughout – the water is too cold for reverse-cycle air-conditioning – and a wood-burning stove in the main saloon.’

‘We are particularly interested in things like stabilisers, to make sure they don’t protrude too far and [to manage] what would happen if they hit something with one of them,’ Haworth comments, ‘and propellers as well.’ Another major consideration is ground tackle – anchors need to be much heavier and chain much longer than for conventional anchoring situations (see later for exactly why). But it can sometimes be the case that, even if there is room for more chain, it would seriously affect the trim of the boat.

The Nicholson gaff cutter Merrymaid – built in 1904 and so an extreme example of a boat High Latitudes couldn’t get involved with early enough – is currently undergoing an extraordinary eight-year, 90,000-mile circumnavigation. Haworth advised on the preparation for parts of this voyage, and joined the boat himself in the Falklands, spending six weeks on board as they sailed through the Beagle Channel and up the west coast of Patagonia to Puerto Montt. ‘All the changes Richard proposed were carried out, except for the wooden covers of the doghouse windows that proved to be too bulky on a boat with little storage space,’ Merrymaid’s owner remarks.

There was very little advice High Latitudes needed to give regarding the suitability of 54-metre motor yacht Itasca for her 2009 voyage to Antarctica. Not only was she built as a salvage tug, but had also been there on three occasions since she was converted to a superyacht. But they could advise on preparations for the trip, if not how to refit the Itasca for the cold.

‘We talk to the chefs and stewardesses about provisioning,’ says Haworth. ‘What they can and can’t get in these places, and what they need to fly in from elsewhere. In places like the Falkland Islands, Chile, Patagonia, Argentina, and Greenland, there are certain things you can get and some you can’t.’

‘We also encourage sailing yachts to fit mast steps [so crew can] get aloft to look at what the concentration of ice is and what route you might take,’ Haworth says. The real danger, however, can be ‘growlers’, which form when pack ice disintegrates. They are less visible – typically no more than a metre above the water, which means a further five metres lurk below. ‘That’s a transit van,’ Haworth points out, ‘and not many of us are driving boats that don’t mind hitting a transit van.’

Merrymaid's guests braving the cold water by waterskiing in Patagonia

In Baffin Bay, for instance, it is relatively easy to purchase provisions on the west coast of Greenland where most settlements have a state-run supermarket, but less so on the Canadian side. In Antarctica, however, every boat has to take everything with it, as it isn’t possible to buy anything – food, water or fuel – at all. This was not a problem for Itasca, however, as ‘the boat always operates pretty independently regarding food provisioning’, remarks her captain Dale Winlow.

Fuel can be a common problem, especially for a boat like Merrymaid, whose normal range under power is just 900 miles. This was slightly extended by fuel bladders stowed on deck, and High Latitudes made advance arrangements to buy fuel on two occasions, one of which was from drums on the deck of a fishing vessel in Puerto Natales.

‘Provisioning in the middle of nowhere is another challenge,’ Merrymaid’s owner admits. There have also been occasions when High Latitudes arranged for 200-litre drums to be towed from the shore through the water, craned on board and then siphoned into a yacht’s tanks.

Into the ice

Ice is one of the biggest problems encountered in the Arctic and Antarctic. High Latitudes offers the services of ice pilots who have experience on cruise ships that regularly visit the areas, and ‘who know where to anchor and what you can and can’t do in the ice,’ says Haworth. Furthermore, the pilots are often able to enhance owners’ and guests’ enjoyment by sharing their extensive local knowledge. Pack ice is not necessarily a problem as it is relatively easy to see with the naked eye and with radar.

‘We encourage sailing yachts to fit mast steps [so crew can] get aloft to look at what the concentration of ice is and what route you might take,’ Haworth says. The real danger, however, can be ‘growlers’, which form when pack ice disintegrates. They are less visible – typically no more than a metre above the water, which means a further five metres lurk below. ‘That’s a transit van,’ Haworth points out, ‘and not many of us are driving boats that don’t mind hitting a transit van.’

Converted superyacht Itasca off Brown Bluff at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula with penguins in the foreground

The presence of ice often necessitates a change of plan. ‘We had wanted to visit the east coast of Greenland,’ Lawrence reports, ‘but this is rarely possible due to the ice travelling down the coast with the current from the Arctic. After studying all the ice information for days, Eric our pilot decided it just wasn’t possible for us at that time.’

High Latitudes can also provide specialist wildlife guides, whose first priority is one of safety. In the south, the only likely danger is from leopard seals, although attacks on humans are rare, but in the north there is a potential threat from polar bears. ‘Eric was also our shore guide,’ adds Lawrence. ‘You must carry flares and a rifle when going ashore outside the designated safe areas near settlements in case of polar bear attacks. To shoot a polar bear is a very serious matter, leading to autopsy and inquest, and the authorities have to be convinced it is only a last resort and in self-defence.’

A naturalist guide’s main role is to maximise owners’ and guests’ enjoyment, and in a responsible way. In Antarctica, where the wildlife can be numerically spectacular, guidelines exist within protected areas. ‘The naturalists we send down there make sure we respect all the local rules to do with our permit,’ says Haworth, ‘and make sure we do it all correctly.’ The wildlife in the Arctic can be more diverse, but only in certain areas: more on the Canadian side of Baffin Bay, for instance, than in Greenland.

‘We had a great guide called Belinda Sawyer,’ Winlow says. ‘She was well liked by the owner, guests and crew. She has extensive experience in Antarctica and was able to tell us lots of stories and history, which took pressure off the crew.’

And then there are the fishing opportunities. ‘Richard also arranged the permits and guides for the salmon fishing,’ continues Lawrence. ‘This is tightly controlled in Iceland. We ended up with two guides whose knowledge was second-to-none. I doubt you’d have a bite without them. The owner was delighted with the service they provided’ Haworth adds, ‘We might take other owners where they can catch Arctic char in Greenland, or to the rivers of Patagonia, or near Cape Horn where we know we can catch trout.’

The paperwork

For any yacht to visit Antarctica, and indeed many places in the north, permits are needed, and part of High Latitudes’ service is to deal with this increasingly complicated and often long process. In particular, Winlow explains that ‘High Latitudes also managed to get us permission to visit Port Lockroy (a UK post office and museum), Palmer Station (a US research base) and Vernadsky (a former UK base now owned and operated by the Ukraine).’ Lawrence adds that, ‘Months prior to our departure Richard had arranged the required visas and permits for visiting Jan Mayen Island and Spitsbergen – these are not hugely complicated, but do take time.’

Sailing yacht Merrymaid anchored in icy water off Patagonia

Extra planning

The company can also help owners and guests with their alternative travel plans. ‘Some owners like the idea of going across Drake Passage, which is a famous, exciting place,’ comments Haworth, ‘but others prefer to look at the interesting places when their boat gets there without that discomfort.’ One such arrangement was to charter a plane to take an owner to the South Shetland Islands where he met his yacht before going on to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Clothing is important, and especially so on an exposed deck such as Merrymaid’s. Haworth has found that ‘yachtie’ clothing is often not the best. He recommends heavy-duty rubberised fishing gloves, for instance: ‘Anything else will get wet, the wind will evaporate the water and then it’s like wearing a fridge.’ Ski goggles were found to be particularly useful in a Patagonian blizzard; and a type of boot designed for working on oil rigs, or even ‘cheap Chilean gardening wellies’, are good for standing on steel or aluminium decks.

Expedition superyacht Beothuk cruising in the Northwest Passage

In many remote areas, mooring takes on a new dimension. Massively deep gorges, the threat of being trapped by ice (Haworth recommends the use of one big anchor rather than two in case there is ‘a need to move very quickly’), uncharted areas and very strong winds often make anchoring particularly difficult. Sometimes the answer is to take lines to the shore, which also requires special techniques.

Once an owner has developed a taste for this sort of extreme cruising, the possibilities are almost limitless: South Georgia is probably Haworth’s favourite destination, with its awesome scenery and curious wildlife, including 800,000 penguins in one colony (‘The noise is deafening and the stink is amazing. You can’t imagine it.’). Patagonia has thousands of anchorages – Haworth has a guide book on the area but thinks that for every one mentioned in it, there must be two more as yet undiscovered. ‘Patagonia is really great,’ reports Merrymaid’s owner. ‘To sail in these waters with a nice boat is hard to top. And the bar of the yacht club of Puerto Williams (an old, half sunken freighter) is fantastic.’

The Northwest Passage is becoming generally easier to navigate, although in some years it is still impassable, with no way of knowing how it will be in each following season. Haworth made this voyage for the first time last year in the 31-metre motor yacht Beothuk and will be helping Merrymaid to attempt it in 2016. He describes Spitsbergen as ‘the UK’s local part of the Arctic – a spectacular place with lots of amazing wildlife….’ For the adventurous owner, these fabulous, un-touristed destinations await.

Originally published in Boat International May 2013.

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