Sailing into the coldest waters the planet has to offer is becoming increasingly popular. But finding a suitable yacht for high latitudes sailing requires additional – and sometimes very different – considerations. So, where should you begin when looking for a used yacht that’s capable of sailing to some of the world’s most inhospitable places?

Merf Owen, of Owen Clarke Yacht Design, has designed many a high latitudes yacht for cruising, while his wife Ashley Perrin is a professional ice pilot, formerly working for the British Antarctic Survey. He advises: “Choosing a yacht to cruise in high latitudes is inherently more complicated.

“The first thing to consider is where in the high latitudes you are likely to want to explore, weighing up the boat and the experience you will have on board. Lots of people cruise in high latitudes on yachts some would deem unsuitable, but many of these people are very experienced. A well-found GRP yacht or even a wooden Bristol pilot cutter could be a great contender for cruising northern Norway and Svalbard – but wouldn’t be suitable for the Northwest Passage. It is about what you’re planning to do, your expedition strategy and your level of experience.

It doesn’t have to be metal: Merf Owen and Ashley Perrin cruise a lightweight but fast GRP yacht into high latitudes, but with great care and a lot of experience behind them. Photo: Merf Owen

“Also, would a stronger boat perhaps one day give you a false sense of security, meaning you go somewhere that you really shouldn’t? That’s worth considering too.”

High latitude cruising grounds have something of a hierarchy, Perrin explains. “People can put them all into one category, but each area has different characteristics. For example, Norway is a great training ground to see if you like the high latitude style of sailing. While also being wonderful cruising, it is well supported by good search and rescue and is (relatively) easy to get to. Greenland is a step up from that, then perhaps the Patagonian canals.

“The Antarctic peninsula is serious high latitude cruising, but by far the most extreme of them all is South Georgia. Extremely exposed, far from help and hard to get to! Each requires different things from the yacht.”

As a yacht designer, Owen’s view on what characteristics are important counter some conventions. “The stability curve is important to look at, but more important than the righting angle of the yacht is the amount of hull physically in the water, the mass that’s going to stop you tipping over, which of course also has a correlation with hull speed. Speed is safety in the high latitudes and, as there can sometimes be no wind preceding a gale, motoring range and speed aren’t dirty words either!

Ice from the top of a mast on a high latitudes yacht

Climbing the rig while conning for ice – hull material choice is just one factor when it comes to specc’ing a yacht for high latitudes. Photo: Sophie O’Neill

“‘Expedition yachts’ are also a new trend, and it’s a look of yacht that is becoming more popular, but not all are actually that well suited. Lifting keel yachts have many good attributes for high-latitude sailing, but [if they have] little fuel and water capacity, they are limited. You need to consider yacht specification sheets, correlating them carefully to the mission you have in mind.”

Choice of hull material is a big question, however, going for the toughest ice-proof design might not be advisable: “If you’re starting out you shouldn’t really be allowing yourself into a situation where you might be iced in, so perhaps it shouldn’t be your primary concern.

“A centreboard is useful in high latitude anchorages but being able to sail to windward off a lee shore is a fundamental characteristic. Balance everything out, rather than take a sales description at face value.”

A niche market

Jildou Huisman is experienced at selling in the high-latitudes yacht market, dealing in new and used yachts for KM Yachtbuilders in the Netherlands. Working mostly in aluminium, the yachts they build are often fully custom projects, specified for a specific high latitude mission. Their brokerage department also re-sells many high latitude-equipped yachts they have built as well as undertaking refits.

“We have seen a big increase in the number of people looking for a yacht that’s happy in the high latitudes,” says Huisman.

“The main thing that differentiates an aluminium yacht we build for high latitudes from one for more temperate sailing is the thickness of the hull. For simply cold weather sailing we would build around 6mm thick, but for high latitudes 10-15mm is needed for strength and rigidity. To overwinter iced in, as some of our customers have done successfully, a very strong hull is needed to withstand the pressure of the ice. We have built up to 25mm thick.

“Redundancy in systems such as heating, autopilot, etc are important as well. As a lot of our builds are completely custom, they are sometimes very specific aesthetically, largely because owners can spend a very long time living aboard.

High latitudes yacht Tranquillo in thick ice

2006 Bestevaer 56ST A custom build for high latitude sailing, Tranquillo is a veteran of extended expeditions. Photo: KM Yachtbuilders

Tranquillo, a Bestevaer 56, for example, has a classic look on the outside but is very modern on the inside, it was the owner’s way of making it his long term home. He completed the Northwest Passage twice on that yacht, spending 10 months iced in in Canada.”

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The Surveyor’s View

Marine surveyor Ben Sutcliffe-Davies on steel vs aluminium yachts:

• Aluminium tends to be a much more consistent and predictable material for a hull than steel and requires very little maintenance. Steel, although strong, is inherently prone to rusting which tends to occur in places that are hard to reach.

• The ‘grade’ of construction material is fundamental. Yachts are occasionally built with a non-marine grade metal, despite this compromising the vessel.

• Whether steel or aluminium, welding is likely to be the weak point in the structure. Quite a few high latitude yachts are ‘home built’ so quality of welding will be a big factor.

• Poor bonding and isolation in metal yachts can be fatal to the hull structure. Even production aluminium yachts come out of the yard with features that will eat through the hull because isolation between two incompatible metals has been overlooked.

We bought a second hand high latitude yacht

Sophie O’Neill and Chris Kobusch recently purchased a steel-hulled Rekere 36 Ocean Wanderer. As skippers for Skip Novak’s Pelagic Expeditions, they are experienced in sailing at high latitudes and plan to cruise both the Arctic and Antarctic while making videos for their YouTube channel Seas & Summits.

Sophie O’Neill and Chris Kobusch standing in the ice

Sophie O’Neill and Chris Kobusch. Photo By: Sophie O’Neill

“Experience sailing Skip’s carefully designed yachts taught us that dependability, which could also be called simplicity, should lead the search for our own yacht,” explains Chris. “That said, it is hard to find a high latitude yacht on the used market, so there’s likely to be a degree of compromise whatever you buy. An aluminium hull is great if you can afford it as it’s maintenance free, but steel is much cheaper and still extremely strong as long as it’s properly maintained.”

Sophie and Chris had a list of essentials. “A pilot or doghouse is important in high latitudes. A constant and reliable source of heat also becomes crucial if you’re cruising for any length of time, so we were looking for a Refleks stove already on board, or the possibility to fit one. Originally conceived for fishing boats, unlike hot blown air diesel heating, you tend to turn the Refleks on and just leave it ticking over. Diesel consumption isn’t as much as you might think and we leave a kettle on the top so there is constant hot water for drinks.”

Due to how small the market for used high latitude yachts is, and worried they would lose the boat to another buyer, Sophie and Chris purchased Ocean Wanderer without a survey. “We actually came across her in the Azores. We’d been looking for about two years online, but no boat came as close as a prospect for us. There was already someone else interested but we got to know the owners, who had circumnavigated twice on her.

High latitudes yacht Ocean Wanderer after an Atlantic delivery to the UK.

Ocean Wanderer after an Atlantic delivery to the UK. Photo: Sophie O’Neill

“They could see we would take her on the adventures she was built for, so we did a deal.
“As they’d lived on board we didn’t have the concerns we might have had about a yacht that was only used part-time. Their lives had depended on her. There is also a great benefit to having common ground with the previous owner: they have spent a lot of time handing over to us and that has been invaluable.”

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