Loss of three yachtsmen on an expedition branded ‘a fiasco’ may have serious repercussions

There is likely be a clamp-down on yachts sailing to Antarctica following the loss of two Norwegian sailors and a South African last month, fear some of the region’s regular expedition leaders and charterers.

Three yacht crew were lost in February when an expedition led by Norwegian sailor Jarle Andhøy, 34, went wrong.

The former naval diver and instructor for the Norwegian Rescue Company and a self-styled ‘wild Viking’ adventurer had led a crew of four from Christchurch, New Zealand to the Ross Sea in Antarctica on his 47ft steel yacht Berserk.

Here he and 18-year-old Samuel Massie disembarked with all terrain vehicles for a journey of almost 1,500 miles to the South Pole.

Those left on the yacht, Norwegians Robert Skaane, 34 and Tom Gisle Bellika, 36, and South African Leonard Banks, 32, were on their way back and only 17 miles north of the Scott Base when they met a storm and set off their EPIRB on 22 February.

The New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Wellington was able to make their last reported position around ten hours after the distress signal, but found no trace of Berserk.

Conditions at the time were reported to be of winds gusting to 75 knots, seas of 6-8m and temperatures of -20°C.

It is thought that the yacht might have hit a growler and been holed, been crushed or encrusted with inches of ice forming in the rigging, something that can capsize a yacht in sub-zero winds of as little as 25 knots, according to experts.

A very comprehensive search was made by the US wildlife conservation ship Sea Shepherd and HMNZS Wellington. The search by sea and by helicopter helicopter covered some 1,550 nautical miles. No sign has ever been found of the yacht.

The Ross Sea, where Andhøy and his companion were dropped off, is a part of the continent that hardly any sailors visit. This vast region is usually iced in until late February and refreezes in March.

Unlike the Antarctic Peninsula, which sees between 30 and 40 visiting yachts each season, the Ross Sea offers very little shelter or protection and few places to get securely tied in.

Andhøy had not obtained the necessary permit to visit Antarctica and so did not comply with the due diligence and search and rescue plan entailed. He is reported to have loaded his yacht which, according to his website, displaces 25 tonnes with 5 tonnes of extra gear, including all terrain vehicles lashed on deck.

Andhøy apparently ignored much of the advice he was given, including that of polar explorer and former solo racer Don McIntyre.

“I told him to get out of the Ross Sea no later than 20 February as conditions can get very bad after that,” McIntyre reports. “He arrived late and unbelievably was apparently trying to get to the South Pole when the rest of Antarctica, government and private, was shutting down for the season.”

The tragedy may have serious repercussions for cruising yachts intending to sail to Antarctica in the future, believes high latitudes sailor and charterer Skip Novak.

“The ramifications will be enormous,” he tells me. “Antarctica is no longer a wilderness, it’s a managed territory with guidelines that have been in place for decades.

“You have to apply to one of the Antarctic Treaty countries for a permit and you have to meet stringent environmental concerns, a search and rescue plan and you have to have insurance with a very high level of liability. If you don’t you can be prosecuted.”

Novak believes that a system of checking permits before issuing exit papers in key departure points such as Ushuaia in Argentina, Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands and Puerto Williams in Chile could be fast-tracked.

He warns: “Yachts are seen by the Antarctic Treaty as loose cannons. They lurk around and go everywhere in self-mode. Cruise ships especially are looking out for yachts making mistakes,” Novak says.

Antarctic Treaty countries, which issue permits to their national vessels, are determined to crack down hard on yachts that flout regulations. The Norwegian Polar Institute, from which Andhøy should have obtained a permit, is prosecuting him and he is currently awaiting trial.