Skiing Arctic ice by yacht

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Taking a luxury cruiser to the margins of Arctic ice, photographer Mike Jones experienced true wilderness sailing

A single walrus raised its frosted head, eyeing Firebird as we dropped anchor at Tynarebukta on the Isfjorden. Rugged mountains were enveloped by a glacier that spilled out onto the sea ice filling the bay.

This was the crew’s first stop after setting out from Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, and the most northerly city in the world. We retired to our bunks that evening with the blinds firmly closed, blotting out the still glowing sunlight reflecting on the snow late into the evening – this far north, there is 24 hours of daylight in July.

The following morning we gathered extra layers, skis and boot crampons, ice axes, shovels, and probes, carefully loading the Zodiac tender. Skis, poles and our essential guide, Massimo Candolini, went ashore in the first run, after captain Peter Madej and first mate Tim found the best landing spot and checked for bears. We landed the Zodiac on a black sand beach, where a small tide had cleared just a metre or so of snow away from the water’s edge.

After scrambling to the top of the snow ‘beach’, we clipped into our skis and took a moment to take in the beauty of this white world. A constant flutter of birds surrounded us, including geese and guillemots, as we began the long climb to the summit of Sten De Geerfjellet.

looking for polar bears using binoculars and a drone. Photo: Mike Jones

The building wind picked up loose snow, creating dramatic whirls and vortices. As we climbed, the wind increased further and we donned ski crampons for the final pitch. Then, the descent, swooping back down to Firebird through a landscape that looked like it had been torn from a fairy tale book.

Firebird is a customised Oyster 885, that has spent three seasons exploring the Norwegian coastline well above the Arctic Circle. Usually, the crew alternates between a winter/spring season in Norway, returning to the Adriatic for the summer. However, venturing further north to the ice clad rocks of Spitzbergen has been in the owner and his family’s dreams from the very beginning and this expedition was years in the planning.

Ice ambitions

Firebird’s skipper flew to Longyearbyen to meet the authorities of Sysselmann, the governing office of Svalbard, and gather first-hand information on operating so far north. The intelligence from this recce, coupled with our experience operating in Lyngen for two consecutive seasons, formed the core of the jobs list that was drawn up to prepare the yacht for this expedition.

Walrus on an ice floe. Photo: Mike Jones

The boat work was completed over eight weeks, first in Palma, and then at our home base at HYS, in Hamble, England. Special modifications included ski-boot heaters fitted into the lazarette, and a substantial enclosed cockpit tent, complete with heater.

As Firebird operates a mixed programme that includes owners’ expeditions and sail-and-ski trips, together with charter, the Svalbard trip was broken down into three distinct parts: a delivery to/from Svalbard over the 600 miles of open Arctic Sea that separates the archipelago from European mainland; excursions for the owners to go seriously off the beaten path; and a charter itinerary that would allow some of our regular guests to explore the beauty and biodiversity of the area.

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I find high latitudes sailors tooled up with a great selection of ‘shoot-to-kill’ heavy duty yachts

Immersed and weightless in the warmth of the endless blue, I looked down and could see only fathomless depths below…

We were fortunate that the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) mountain guides that we cooperate with have had extensive first-hand experience of the islands and Peter, our skipper, had over five years of polar sailing experience to reflect on when putting together the sailing plan for Firebird, with due regard to her GRP construction and feature seascape windows.

The ice usually opens up around the end of April or first weeks of May, and this is when the local yachts from Lyngen and Lofoten start to head north. We decided to be conservative and make our delivery the second week of May.

Picking a route in sea ice. Photo: Mike Jones

When reaching, the 90ft Firebird easily covers 200-plus miles per day, and with westerlies and southerlies being the prevailing winds in May in the Norwegian Sea the delivery itself should not have taken us more than three days. However, we knew from experience how long it can take to wait for an appropriate weather window from previous years, when we failed two consecutive attempts to reach Jokelfjord as the swell and sharp winds have kept even the local fisherman in port for a week.

The delivery crew consisted of three two-handed watches aiming for a three hours on/standby/off rotation, with our chef left out of the watch system, which allowed her to come up with some amazing hearty hot bowls to keep everyone going.

After safety and MOB drills we were ready to leave Lyngseidet in Troms, Norway at 69° 34’N, but it took another three days for a weather window to open before we hoisted sails.

Summer at 78°N

Bear Island, or Bjornoya, at 74° 29’N has been a navigational mark from the times of first whalers making their way to Spitzbergen and the local belief goes that a sailor who goes for a swim there will return home safely from the Arctic. However, on our trip the previous week of easterlies had seen the ice move west, way past Bjornoya, and we had to keep 50 miles clear so as not to take any risks so early in the season.

Set up for high latitudes cruising, Firebird spent three seasons cruising in Norway before heading to Svalbard. Photo: Mike Jones

Finding a band of steady breeze we had a very pleasant reach all the way to the southern point of Spitzbergen, even allowing for the rather refreshing temperatures, especially when the weak polar sun was hidden behind a thick layer of cloud.

However, the land breeze accelerating off the glacier fields of the island was a surprise, topping 30 knots as we were entering Isfjord with two reefs in the main, sailing close-hauled.

Longyearbyen at 78°14’N became our Spitzbergen base for the summer season in what is the most northerly cruising ground in the world. I have always been a keen explorer and truly thrive on being in the wilderness, as far away from cities and settlements as possible.

I have been so fortunate to embark on some memorable adventures with Firebird and her owners, who are passionate sailors, skiers and mountaineers. We also share a love for photography, so the chance to visit such a savagely beautiful destination like Svalbard is a dream come true.

Svalbard reindeer. Photo: Mike Jones

After a substantial safety briefing (and a quick exercise in donning a survival suit), we cast off from the dock in Longyearbyen and within minutes we were being buzzed by Arctic terns and Arctic skuas, as well as other species I had yet to identify.

Instantly it felt like we were somewhere truly wild. From the very beginning, I could barely put my camera down (I keep a Hasselblad H5D 50C to hand for landscapes and art, and a Nikon D850 for action and wildlife images). It felt like every sight was worthy of being captured, with the weather, wildlife and landscape ever-changing as we sailed to our first anchorage.

After climbing Sten De Geerfjellet we headed on, to Olsson Fjellet, Firebird motoring across a millpond-still sea, in a silence interrupted only by the cracking of glaciers and calls of teeming birdlife.

skiing back down to the anchored Firebird. Photo: Mike Jones

Each location was more unknown than the next, the maps and charts becoming sparser the further we explored. After spending several seasons inside the Arctic circle Firebird’s crew were well drilled in the beach landings to drop us skiers off. Nevertheless, it was a novelty every time – and not always that simple, especially when on constant polar bear watch too!

What was new territory was sailing in such uncharted waters, where anchorages were just blank spaces on the charts. For safety, we’d often launch the tender and, armed with a handheld depth sounder, would plot the depth in the bay, having to dodge large chunks of ice in doing so.

Photo: Mike Jones

Another unique experience of cruising so far north was the occasional ‘ice watch’, when we’d take watches through the night (often in glorious midnight sunshine) with a long steel-tipped carbon pole to shepherd the larger bits of ice away from the yacht. This would be necessary when we were anchored in a bay (usually near a glacier) where ice was flowing and a change in wind direction could then bring an ice flow in our direction.

Climbing Kronprins Olavs Fjelle. Photo: Mike Jones

Our ski touring guests donned crampons and ice axes to climb the challenging Kronprins Olavs Fjellet, deep in the Nordvest Spitzbergen National Park. Here the mountain face was steep with hard packed, slippery snow and steep gullies lined with ridges of rocks.

The descent was just as intimidating, like an Alpine black run in the midst of the wilderness, to be navigated on soft touring skis rather than downhill skis. Later we sailed past the vast Lilliehookbreen glacier, then headed west to Prins Karls Forland island.

Stopping at Poolepynten we found a huddle of walrus on the beach, the giants dozing amid piles of driftwood from old whalers’ huts that had long been abandoned while their young splashed in the shallows. Ungainly on land, they are streamlined underwater, diving hundreds of feet and using their substantial tusks to prise clams and other seafood from the sea floor.

Preparing for a day on the ice. Photo: Mike Jones

Magnificent predator

But a lifelong highlight for me will always be my first in-person sighting of a polar bear. We were preparing to go ashore to explore the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden, a dystopian scene which looks like a movie set, inhabited only by hundreds of birds, when another vessel in the vicinity hailed us on the VHF to let us know they’d just sighted a polar bear nearby.

We dropped what we were doing and with everyone on deck and every pair of binoculars in service we scoured the ice pack and shore line. With a potential sighting in the distance, we sent up a drone to investigate further, only to realise we had been looking at a bear-shaped rock.

Firebird sailed among some breathtaking scenery in the far north. Photo: Mike Jones

Motoring another mile along the shore, there was a sudden shout of “bear, BEAR!” This time there was no doubt. We picked our way through a field of ice that had dislodged itself from the sheet in front of a glacier to motor along the shore, loosely shadowing this incredible animal as it elegantly padded along the beach. It’s a sight that will live with me forever.

Despite having watched many nature films and television documentaries featuring these magnificent predators, there is no substitute for seeing one in the flesh, close enough to observe how their fur shimmered and their muscles shuddered with every footstep, and the sheer power they exude. I took as many photos as I could, but also spent time just watching through my own eyes, capturing a priceless memory.

The final stage of our Svalbard adventure was the most ambitious: an attempt to sail to the Arctic ice pack. While the exact location of the ice pack wasn’t known, it was a long-held ambition of the owner to reach the edge of the Arctic ice.

Seeing a polar bear was a highlight. Photo: Mike Jones

The Norwegian Polar Institute issues ice charts daily that are at least as important as a weather forecast when sailing above 70°N. For our attempt to reach the ice pack we chose the last week of August, which historically seemed to offer the best chances to venture as far beyond 80°N as possible without being an icebreaker.

The right conditions for an attempt require not only excellent visibility and calm sea, but also at least a few days of prevailing southerly winds to ensure that brush ice and debris sit as close to the pack as possible.

Over the previous week we set ourselves up in Woodfjord, which cuts into the land over 30 miles directly from the north at the top of the archipelago and is rarely visited by commercial cruises. It offers amazing opportunities for whale sightings, which we too had plenty of, right where we dropped anchor for the night at 79° 37’N.

Firebird carries a steel-tipped carbon pole to shepherd ice away from the hull. Photo: Mike Jones

On the day of departure we started early with a full day of sailing ahead of us, with the wind just west of south it looked like a fantastic downwind sail. What we did not anticipate, however, is the amount of fog that the warm, moist, southerly air creates on meeting the cold air of the ice pack.

When about 45 miles off the northern tip of the island the visibility started to drop heavily and we had to bring the Sailmon mast displays to full brightness to ensure they were still visible from the helm.

Photo: Mike Jones

With visibility continuing to deteriorate and brush ice becoming consistent and regular at 80° 33’.161N our skipper called for an alteration of course to ensure the safety of the vessel and her crew, and we peeled away. We did not quite reach the ice pack this time, and instead were left to wonder just how many polar bears were strolling on its edge, but the sheer experience of going far beyond the 80°N latitude remains a highlight of Firebird’s many adventures.

After 18 hours under sail we finally dropped anchor for the night by Smeerenburg (79° 43’N), once the capital of Dutch whaling in the area when that industry allowed for a settlement topping 1,000 inhabitants to sustain their livelihoods, and now since deserted.

But our ambitions to reach the Arctic ice pack have not been abandoned. Our season in Svalbard allowed us to learn a great deal more about Firebird’s performance and vulnerabilities when sailing in high latitudes.

When back in Southampton for Firebird’s annual maintenance, in addition to the regular works, a few more enhancements are to be installed on board that include a more robust bimini, Kevlar ice rudders and more. Firebird will return to the ice.

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