A complete guide to high latitude sailing (and avoiding icebergs)

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Andy Schell shares essential advice for how to tackle a first high latitude sailing adventure

I’ve just returned home from skippering 59º North’s Farr 65 Falken from Annapolis, Maryland, to Isafjordur in north-west Iceland. We covered over 3,000 miles, sailing via the stupendous Prince Christian Sound in southern Greenland. And we did it all in safety and style, managing a tight passage schedule through fog, ice, unpredictable weather and everything else you come to expect when high latitude sailing.

I’m proud of the fact that my first mate and I made it look easy for the paying crew who joined us this summer. In truth, like every big ocean passage, the ‘making-it-look-easy’ part is all down to preparation, the part our guest crew don’t get to see. With the right prep, all that’s left is the execution.

I should start with the disclaimer that I’m no high latitude sailing expert. I’ve made two major voyages further north: this most recent one via the Viking Route in Greenland and Iceland; and in the summer of 2018 my wife, Mia, and I sailed our Swan 48 Isbjørn to 80°N in Spitsbergen, then south to Iceland, also with paying crew. So what follows is my thoughts on high latitude sailing in ‘normal’ conditions – meaning transiting known routes with reasonable chart accuracy and manageable ice conditions (3/10th coverage or less).

I’ll leave the really serious ice navigation discussions to more experienced folks like Skip Novak and Bob Shepton. But this article is aimed at sailors looking to sail a little further afield, rather than planning an extreme expedition.

What I’ve learned from those two voyages, though, is that high latitude sailing isn’t all that different from any major voyage. How you prepare your boat and yourself will remain much the same, save for a few key differences. High latitude sailing can seem intimidating – and, rather like celestial navigation, it’s becoming increasingly popular, though I’m convinced that some folks who teach it unconsciously over-complicate it.

There’s certainly a heightened sense of danger and skill required when you sail up north or far south. The stakes are higher, there’s no denying that — colder water, less predictable weather and being further removed from any assistance or emergency help, should you need it. But if you can safely cross an ocean, you can safely sail to the ends of the earth.

Isbjørn motoring slowly in ice. Photo: 59° North Sailing

High latitude sailing seamanship

Sailing to the far north or far south requires advanced seamanship, as the margins for error are tighter and the consequences of mistakes higher. I like to boil seamanship down to two principles — anticipation and adaptation.

Anticipate

Anticipation leads to proper planning and preparation. Expecting ice and fog? Install a good radar, learn how to use it. Challenging weather conditions likely? Be confident in how to really read and understand weather models ahead of time.

Anticipation, in other words, can be learned. You can study weather models, attend a radar course, speak to folks who’ve gone before, read all the books etc. High latitudes sailing is not the place to wing it or figure it out as you go. The Captain Ron school of seamanship, “if anything’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen out there!” – well, I think that’s foolhardy.

Our finest example of anticipatory seamanship came on landfall at the small village of Nanortalik in south-west Greenland in heavy fog and surrounded by icebergs. Two days prior we spent 12 hours hove-to in order to let the weather advance such that we’d be properly set up for landfall. The wind had gone on the nose and was heading us, forcing our course more to the east.

Driving hard downwind in chilly northern waters. Photo: 59° North Sailing

The forecast models suggested the wind would soon back and increase, with 25 knot north-westerlies just as we’d enter the 60-mile wide iceberg belt. Had we continued sailing close-hauled, we’d have not only arrived at the ice limit in the dark, but we’d also have had a much tighter angle on the wind, limiting our manoeuvrability under sail in limited visibility and with lots of ice around. By waiting, we allowed the wind to back while we sat hove-to, enabling us to sail a higher course once we got underway and position the boat to windward of our landfall waypoint.

We made the final approach broad-reaching, in daylight. The fog was thick and we navigated around icebergs on the radar, deeply reefed, but being in that windward position and in daylight made the difference between a tense but manageable landfall and a potentially dangerous one. Anticipation paid off.

Adapt

No matter how well you anticipate, however, you’ll encounter surprises here and there. Adaptation requires flexibility in the moment, during the execution stage. As weather and conditions change much more rapidly in higher latitudes, adaptation becomes a more valuable skill.

On our 2018 passage north to Spitsbergen on Isbjørn we’d found what appeared to be a snug anchorage on the chart in Hornsund, the southernmost (and arguably most spectacular) fjord system on Spitsbergen’s west coast. We dropped the hook to windward of a small sandpit in calm conditions, launched the dinghy and sent a party ashore to get some footage with the drone.

Not long after, a large slab of sea ice broke loose from the shoreline and began drifting down towards Isbjørn’s position. Thanks to the attentiveness of those on anchor watch and the quick action by the crew, we calmly weighed anchor and sought shelter in an adjacent, ice-free harbour a few miles away. Up north you can never fully relax, and must be willing and able to change plans at a moment’s notice.

Drone shot of Isbjørn dwarfed by a megaberg. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Essential gear

First off, anything you’d already have aboard a well-equipped boat heading off on a standard ocean crossing will be needed for a high latitudes passage, so we won’t rehash that here. Instead, we’ll talk about additional pieces of kit that come in especially handy far north or south.

Heat

Both Isbjørn and Falken have Eberspächer forced-air type diesel heaters on board and while not absolutely essential (you can always add layers and buy a heavier sleeping bag after all), they really made the difference between enduring and enjoying the passages.

Forced-air systems aren’t as efficient as a radiator setup, but for boats like ours that don’t sail permanently in the high latitudes, they’re a much easier installation and, crucially, they keep the boat dry. Ours have a fan mode so can also circulate air when you don’t need the heat, and when you’re in warmer climates, they don’t take up any space in the accommodation.

The heaters ran not quite continually, but were on anytime it was particularly wet or cold outside, and almost always at night. I compare standing a watch in the high latitudes to sitting on a ski lift for four hours — you’re not moving your body much, so the cold seeps into your bones by the end of a shift.

Time for supper – hot food wherever possible is essential for crew morale and wellbeing. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Coming below decks to a warm, cosy and, most importantly, dry cabin becomes really important: heat below also allows you to change out of your thermals and into shorts and a T-shirt and climb into a dry sleeping bag, which leaves you better rested for the next watch. On Falken, we ducted heat into the wet lockers port and starboard, so the oncoming watch can look forward to warm and dry foulies and boots.

Radar

For many people radar would fall into the category of essential gear on any well-equipped offshore vessel, but not all yachts have it – I’ve crossed oceans on several boats that didn’t have radar and we managed just fine without it.

But radar is truly essential anywhere you might encounter ice, so you need a good one and you need to know how to use it.

Both our boats have a Furuno 1835 commercial radar, equipped with full ARPA (Automated Radar Plotting Aid) capability. I prefer this standalone-style radar as opposed to the more common MFD-style, which is normally part of a networked electronics package. It adds a level of redundancy and forces you to really understand how to use radar (as opposed to overlaying onto charts).

An iceberg makes an appearance on radar. Photo: 59° North Sailing

I became really confident in using radar around ice on the Svalbard passage in 2018, so when Falken approached the coast of Greenland in heavy fog, I was less stressed than I might have been.

The larger icebergs showed clearly on the radar screen at six miles range, and while the fog was very thick – we had 100m visibility, max — by slowing down the boat and putting a bow watch at the front, we found it quite easy to spot the dangerous growlers and bergy bits with plenty of time to alter course if needed to avoid them.

The ARPA capability of our 1835 radar made it easy to lock onto a target and track it. Once acquired, the target will show course, speed, CPA (Closest Point of Approach) and TCPA (Time to Closest Point of Approach), much like AIS does.

VHF (with loud hailer)

This one may seem silly, but operating in fog around the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, which are heavy with other marine traffic, made it essential for us to have a way to broadcast fog signals. Falken has a loud hailer mounted near the middle spreaders and our ICOM radio can automate fog signals whether we’re anchored, sailing or motoring. It’s amazing how well you can hear fog signals from ships and lighthouses in low visibility, so being able to answer with our own signals offered peace of mind when there was traffic around.

The VHF itself is an essential tool when operating in fog – we’d often simply call an otherwise unidentified radar target or AIS target and have a conversation about each other’s intentions. Don’t be shy of using it.

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Bulletproof ground tackle

The shallowest anchorage we used in Greenland was about 60ft, and all anchorages were covered in kelp forests. Solid, reliable ground tackle is essential on any cruising boat, but there’s a difference between anchoring in sand and 20ft of clear water in the Caribbean and rocky kelp in Greenland in 75ft.

By ‘ground tackle’ I mean the entire system, from anchor to rode to windlass. As much as you want to stay put in those tough conditions, you also need to be ready to move at a moment’s notice if ice intrudes into your anchorage. It happened to us again this past summer, when a big iceberg encroached on Falken at the eastern terminus of the sound, forcing us to re-anchor on the other side of the fjord, then set anchor watches to keep an eye out for more unruly ice.

I’m a fan of the rope/chain rode combo – which I know is blasphemy among most high latitude skippers, but both of our boats use this, with 40m of chain spliced to another 100m of 8-strand plaited polyester rode. Isbjørn has a Rocna 40kg anchor, while Falken carries a 55kg Vulcan, but I’d feel confident with most of the ‘modern’ style anchors. Just find one that fits your bow roller properly.

By using a rope/chain combo, we’re saving a bunch of weight in the bow when sailing, and providing an easier way to bail out in a hurry if we need to buoy the rode and ditch the anchor (say if a boat is dragging down on us, or up north if ice is approaching faster than we can haul the anchor up safely). It’s much easier to cut rope than veer a whole bunch of chain to the bitter end.

Ice poles or ‘tuks’ are essential gear for fending off bergy bits both large and small. Photo: Daniel Hug

Ice tools

You’ll inevitably come across the ‘tuk’ or ice pole – simply a long wooden pole with a spike or screw in the end of it – in your research on high latitude sailing. We had a pair on both Isbjørn and Falken which come in handy, mainly when anchored and pushing away small bergy bits that drift around and past the boat. Small pieces grazing the sides of even a fibreglass boat (which both our boats are) are no cause for concern, but in Greenland on Falken we had a much larger piece, about the length of the boat itself, get alarmingly close to the rudder. With ice of this size, you end up using the tuks to push the boat away from the ice, not vice versa.
We also carried a climber’s ice axe on both trips to the ice, though we ended up mainly using it for fun as a way to break chunks of iceberg off for use in our evening rum tot.

Fleece lined fisherman-style rubber gloves are perfect for long stints at the helm – here crew Laura Gale steers Isbjørn in Norway. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Clothing

Don’t overthink this – if you’ve been skiing you can pack for high latitude sailing. Even in summer the temperatures are cold, and the wind chill is a real issue. A lot of people advocate the one-piece insulated suits, which are ubiquitous among fishermen up north, but I actually prefer to just simply layer with the same foulies I wear on a normal ocean passage, and underneath I bundle up with merino base layers and down midlayers. I wear insulated leather ski gloves on my hands (and keep two pairs, as they’re impossible to keep dry), and Dubarry boots with wool ski socks on my feet. Rubber fisherman-style gloves with fleece liners are perfect for long stints at the helm, but not for handling lines. I’ve never been cold, even in Falken and Isbjørn’s relatively unprotected cockpits, which are big and have only a small companionway dodger for protection.

Non-essential gear

It can be surprising to realise how little you need to sail off the map. About two-thirds of our way through the 70-mile Prince Christian Sound fjord system we encountered another yacht out ahead of us.

As we approached Letitia II, a tiny Contessa 32, we saw it had hanked-on headsails, a windvane on the stern and a little inflatable in tow behind. A young French-Canadian couple were in the cockpit, with their very large golden retriever. They were trying to sail in a dying zephyr while we approached them under power.

Layer up with clothing – you can get cold through inactivity. Photo: 59° North Sailing

John and Sophie, and their dog Nine, have been cruising on a shoestring for three years. They were trying to sail because they wanted to conserve the tiny bit of diesel fuel in their tank for getting into and out of harbours. Their heater below decks was a homemade wood-fired stove, the fuel broken bits of pallet wood they’d scavenged from the small villages dotting the west coast of Greenland. Most of their food was foraged for – and they ate like royalty dining on mussels and fresh herbs, even in barren Greenland.

We took them under tow for the last 20 miles of the fjord (saving them at least two days in the process) and invited them aboard Falken, to ride in the cockpit in the sunshine.

My point is that what matters most is attitude. Bob Shepton, one of the greatest high latitude sailors of recent memory, did it all in a production Westerly 33 with minimal creature comforts, and folks like John and Sophie are following in his wake. So don’t think you need a metal boat and all the latest tech.

Essential knowledge

“The more you know, the less you need.” Yvon Choinard, founder of adventure clothing company Patagonia, was talking about climbing when he wrote that line, but it just as easily applies to sailing, especially in high latitudes.

alken offers a tow to the Contessa 32 Letitia II in the Prince Christian Sound. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Weather

Understanding weather forecasting models and their limitations is in my view the single most important piece of knowledge for any offshore passage. This is the most important piece of the anticipation element of good seamanship. If you can anticipate the weather – or, importantly, anticipate the uncertainty of any weather forecast – you will have more successful passages.

To start with, weather in the high latitudes is inherently harder to predict. Weather models rely on data input in order to create a forecast output. In lesser travelled parts of the ocean, less data is available to input and therefore less certainty in the output should be expected.

I prefer the word ‘certainty’ to ‘accuracy’ when it comes to weather forecasting – if you can learn to gauge the certainty of any given weather forecast it will help you make decisions about your own future sailing strategy, whether planning for a departure or working on a weather route in mid-ocean. The less certain a forecast is (and you can interpret certainty by how much different models disagree, and by how much a single model changes from one run to the next), the more conservative your routing decisions ought to be. And vice versa.

Heavy weather tactics

Cold air is denser than warm air, and so 20 knots up north will exert more force on your sails than it would in the tropics. And don’t forget that everything happens slower on deck when you’re covered in layers and wearing gloves.

Having a real heavy weather strategy and understanding how your boat reacts to different techniques like heaving-to or setting a series drogue is essential. The weather changes much faster and more often than it does in temperate latitudes and being able to transition from full sail to storm sails and back again smoothly will make life more enjoyable at sea. Practise different heavy weather techniques before you depart.

Enjoying the unknown

The recent boom of high latitude sailing is about finding new adventures, and really, what’s an adventure without a little bit of the unknown? If you’re tempted, do the research, prep your boat. And go.


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