Huge thanks to our friends at Sailmon for this very cool article.
80°33.161’N. Not the latitudes you would expect on a sailor’s bucket list. For the Firebird crew, however, sailing on the 80 degrees North latitude was a long cherished wish. Last summer, their dreams finally became reality. After intensive preparation, the Russian superyacht departed from mainland Norway to make its way through the rough polar ice. Heading to the land of untouched nature, polar bears and winter hardships. A report of a magical adventure … not without danger
It’s early 2018 when the captain of Firebird boards a plane. Flight destination: Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen. The main goal of the visit is to get informed by local authorities about the possibilities and dangers of the extraordinary Northern expedition. A long awaited journey according to crew member and creative director Mike Jones: “Firebird has spent three seasons exploring the Norwegian coastline well above the Arctic Circle. Traditionally, we had a winter/spring season there and would go to the Adriatic for the summer. However, the dream of venturing further north to the ice-clad rocks of Spitsbergen was lingering in our minds from the very beginning.”
The visit to Spitsbergen marks the start of an intensive preparation. In Palma and home base Hamble, the 27.08m boat is being prepared for the most Northern trip ever.
An unusual journey with logistical challenges, considering the Fireb is used for different purposes. “Firebird operates a mixed program that includes owners expedition and sail and ski trips together with a vibrant outdoor-focused charter series, the Svalbard trip had broken down into three distinct parts,” Mike says. ”Delivery to/from Svalbard over the 600 NM or open Arctic seas that separates the archipelago from the European mainland. Owner’s trips focused on going 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.”
The logistical challenges were not the biggest concerns for the crew. Harsh weather, with wind chill temperatures far below zero and floating ice, required an immaculate plan. ”We were fortunate that the IFMGA mountain guides we cooperate with, had extensive firsthand experience of the islands. Peter, our skipper, had about five years of polar sailing experience to reflect on while putting together the sailing plan for Firebird regarding GRP construction and feature seascape windows.
While the first local yachts depart from Lyngen, Norway, to Spitsbergen at the end of April, the Firebird crew decides to stay in the harbor. A departure during the second week is considered to be safer. ”We’ve had first hand experience from previous years on how long it can take for an appropriate weather window to arrive. We had already failed two consecutive attempts to reach Jokelfjord as the swell and sharp winds kept the local fisherman in port for a week. The delivery crew consisted of three two-handed watches aiming for a 3-hour On-Standby-Off rotation while our chef prepared the most delicious warm dishes to keep everyone going.” After the appropriate safety and MOB drills, the crew was finally ready to leave at 69°.34’N. Unfortunately, it took another three days for a weather window to open before the hoisted sails.’ ‘
The trip to the southern point of Spitsbergen appears to be one without significant problems. The ice east of Bjornoya (74°.29’N) is avoided with a margin of 50+ NM. The constant breeze ensures pleasant sailing conditions and the cool temperatures, to put it mildly, are considered acceptable. ”We had some freezing temperatures, especially when the weak polar sun was hiding behind the clouds. The land breeze accelerating off the glacier fields and valleys of the island came as a bit of surprise topping 30 KN as we were entering Isfjord with two reefs in the main, sailing and close-hauled. Longyearbyen at 78°.14’N became our base for the summer season in what’s the most northerly cruising ground in the world.”
Arriving at Spitsbergen, the daily updated ice maps and weather forecasts are closely monitored. Possibilities for leaving are presented, but the crew decides to continue their journey at the end of August. Not without reason. “It’s historically assumed to offer the best chances to venture as far beyond 80 degrees as possible without being an icebreaker,” Mike says. ” The right conditions for an attempt require not only excellent visibility and a calm sea but also at least a few days of prevailing southerly winds that ensure that brush ice and debris sit as close to the pack as possible. ” The crew needs not to be entertained in the meantime. The unspoilt and silent Woodfjord is a picturesque view. Commercial cruises do not come here which leaves the crew with more time and room to enjoy the whales in large numbers. It’s 79°.37’N when the anchor is raised before departure.
“On the BIG day we started early with a full day of sailing ahead of us, with the wind just west or south it looked like a fantastic downwind sail,” Mike says. “What we did not anticipate, was the amount of fog that creates the warm, moist, southerly air on meeting the cold air or the ice pack. When about 45 NM off the northern tip of the island the visibility started to drop heavily, and we had to bring the Sailmon mast this continuing to deteriorate and brush ice becoming consistent and regular at 80°.33.161’N. Our skipper called for the alteration of course to ensure the safety of the vessel and the crew. ”
Without reaching the ice pack, Firebird returns to a safer area. “After 18 hours under sail, we finally dropped anchor for the night at Smeerenburg (79°43′), the capital of Dutch whaling in the area. The view of polar bears looking for food on the Northern solid ice remains a distant illusion.” The crew looks back on an exciting and, above all, educational trip, with the passing of the 80 degrees Emergency Width as the absolute high point. “This season allowed us to learn a great deal more about Firebird’s performance and vulnerabilities when sailing in high latitudes”.
The trip certainly left the entire crew wanting more. And although the impressions have barely been processed, the next trip is already waiting around the corner. “Right now we have returned to Southampton for our annual maintenance. In addition to the regular works, we will be installing a few enhancements onboard including a more robust arctic bimini, solar panels capable of delivering 70A and Kevlar ice rudders. The next chapter of Firebird’s adventures will take us south reaching Ushuaia mid November 2020.” Final destination? Antarctica.