Pelagic 77, the extreme expedition yacht designed in collaboration with Skip Novak, has hit the water. Elaine Bunting sails onboard the yacht, which was built to sail to the ends of the earth in safety and comfort

The latest and largest Pelagic design, Pelagic 77, the 77ft Vinson of Antarctica, created in collaboration with legendary adventurer and expedition sailor Skip Novak, has hit the water after years in the building.

Sailing on the Solent, this 77ft colossus makes every other yacht looks flimsy and destructible. The designer, Tony Castro, even calls his creation ‘a beast’. As the big schooner heels to the breeze he chuckles gleefully, clawing the air with his fingers like a creature on the rampage. This is a boat designed for the wilds.

The case for split rigs on a 77-footer was to break up the sailplan into smaller chunks in order to operate all sail control systems manually. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Named after the continent’s highest mountain, Vinson of Antartica has been built to meet the world’s harshest conditions. It has everything required for voyages of six weeks or longer to the most remote places, where there are no repair facilities and no medical help.

It was built for Chilean businessman and adventurer Nicolas Ibañez to use for science, filmmaking and sail training voyages, and designed in a collaboration between Tony Castro and sailor explorer Skip Novak.

Although new, it is a boat with a history. It inherits the philosophy and experience Skip has gained from 33 seasons sailing and mountaineering in the Antarctic and South Georgia on his own expedition yachts, the 54ft Pelagic and the Castro-designed 74ft Pelagic Australis (recently sold to Greenpeace).

The result is this first of a new marque, the Pelagic 77. It is sized to fit into the MGN 280 code for small commercial vessels of up to 24m, yet be able to comfortably carry 10 guests and four crew (three sailing crew and an expedition leader).

For Skip, a no-nonsense kinda guy, a proper expedition boat is a ‘taxi to the snowline’, not a yacht in the conventional sense. It is a work boat, pure and simple. Maintenance must be as easy as possible. Visible wear and tear that is purely cosmetic is irrelevant.

Moving around on deck is easy on a single level from stem to stern. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Nonetheless, Skip appreciates his comforts, as I discovered when I sailed with him in 2013 on a Yachting World expedition round Cape Horn on little Pelagic. We were always warm and dry, exceptionally well fed and watered, slept well, and enjoyed good conversation and fun. His type of boat, tough and uncompromising on the outside, has everything needed for the time of your life. Just nothing more.

Pelagic 77: all-manual sailing

It takes a fair bit of grunt to get Vinson’s foremain and mizzen up. There are no push button winches, and no hydraulics. “That’s not my game at all. We wanted manual winches because where we go there are no marine services,” Skip explains. “The other thing is with amateurs on board you cannot let them near electric winches or they will wind their fingers in. The boat will be doing sail training, so it has simple systems so people don’t get hurt.”

Manual winch power meant sail area had to be split into manageable chunks, which dictated the schooner rig. That has the added advantage that the identical mainsail and mizzen are interchangeable.

Where it is headed, this boat is not going to be fighting for light airs performance. “On Pelagic Australis we kept a detailed sail log and the amount of time that we had the full main on was less than 10%,” says Skip.

One of two Bombard C5s on davits above hinged ‘bomb bay’ doors above stern scoop. Photo: Paul Wyeth

“We wanted to be able to sail up to 60° apparent,” he adds. “We are playing the weather and not going upwind, not if we can help it – that is not part of the programme. There is also a lot of motoring in the [Antarctic] Archipelago and a 3-4m swell in the Drake Passage.”

Aluminium was an obvious material to build in, and KM Yachtbuilders in the Netherlands was the clear choice as specialist builders of rugged, expertly fitted out yachts such as the Bestevaer range.

“It comes back to maintenance. There is no need to paint aluminium, it is easy to maintain, strong, and suitable for building a custom boat,” explains Castro.

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Construction is in H321 seawater resistant aluminium with increased shell thickness at the stem, and above and below the waterline. The hull, deck and superstructure are insulated with 75mm of blown polyurethane foam.

The boat has a shallow draught fixed keel with a big bulb and a centreboard, so it can access shallow areas and even be dried out judiciously, “but it has to be flat and we would probably put halyards out to deadmen on each side,” says Skip.

Beam is carried right aft to maximise engine and machinery space and the saloon at the aft end of the boat, as well as load carrying capacity. “We will have a lot more film teams so we have a big lazarette and afterdeck area so they can hang a [gyrostabilised] Cineflex camera off the back end,” Skip explains.

Cockpit showing winches mounted on coamings. Photo: Paul Wyeth

“These film and scientific expeditions are ever more sophisticated, and there is a case for a bigger boat for dry labs, wet labs and so on.”

The twin rudders are not toed out for sailing efficiency but aligned nearer to the centreline to expose as little as possible to impact with ice. The high hull sides have pronounced tumblehome to protect stanchions when berthed and rolling alongside rough pier walls.

Secure cockpit

Barring the mizzen staysail, all Vinson of Antarctica’s sails are permanently rigged, “so we don’t have to rig a storm sail in the middle of a gale,” Skip explains. The three headsails, a 135% high clewed genoa, a 100% high clewed yankee and a bladed staysail that doubles as a storm sail are on manual furlers.

The foremain has four reefs (the fourth the size of a trysail), and the mizzen three. Ullman Expedition sails in woven Spectra and Dyneema have been developed specially with Skip and have reefing points with webbing handles and wide seams with extra rows of triple-step stitching.

The cockpit is flush with the deck rather than sunken, but flanked by substantial coamings. A bank of four winches for furling lines and sheets are mounted on each side of this, so crew operating on the leeward side are well protected.

Within the cockpit there is a table and bench seating, a liferaft stowage box and a large cuddy. Six to eight people can comfortably shelter without needing to put on full foulweather gear. Even on our test sail, most of us ended up gravitating there to sit and talk.

The wheel is centrally placed with a step for the helm position to give a view over the coachroof. A plinth can be fitted to raise the helm higher for conning through ice.

Mid deck area with grinder. Photo: Paul Wyeth

At the aft end is a huge lazarette with dive compressor, 10 tanks, a freezer and stowage, as well as a gas locker big enough to hold 50kg, and a waste locker with sealable barrels to store garbage and food waste that cannot be jettisoned south of the Polar Front.

A large gantry at the aft end has davits for one of the boat’s two Bombard C5 inflatables, though these are deflated, broken down and stored in the forepeak for going to sea. Two ‘bomb bay’ doors at the stern lift up to access the stern platform, where two rope reels contain 150m of floating polypropylene line for tying ashore.

A feature repeated from Pelagic Australis is the mid deck layout beneath the foremain mast. In this safe operating area between two coamings there is a Harken 3-speed pedestal grinder, used for the initial hoist of the main and mizzen.

It can also be put to use for warping the boat, taking mooring lines through tunnels in the coamings and snatch blocks, and retrieving the anchor in case the windlass fails – nylon anchor rode is attached to the chain and winched in. Two more rope reels for bow lines are also fixed here, just forward of the pilothouse.

A second Bombard C5 inflatable can be stored inflated in this deck space and ratchet strapped to recessed tie downs. When the boat is rolling to a big swell, Skip prefers if possible to launch and retrieve the dinghies over the side using a gennaker halyard, rather than from davits.

The anchor is offset so that the boat can be motored ahead into an ice shelf and people can step straight off the bow. A nylon strop is attached to take the weight of the chain when anchored and stop the chain rubbing on the bow.

Set for a long tack

An idiosyncrasy that comes directly from the previous Pelagics are vangs/preventers on the foremain and mizzen. These are taken from strops at the boom midpoints to the rail and back to cockpit winches. Politely, they look something of a nuisance. It means two more lines to handle every time you tack, and the lazy mizzen preventer loops right across the cockpit at head height.

Heavy 900mm square forehatch. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Here the height of the pilothouse and the position of the coffee grinder don’t allow for conventional vangs to control leech tension, but Skip says he would always rig preventers anyway.

“A normal preventer for downwind would be from the boom end; we have a compromise with this. In a big swell I use [it] on all points of sail. Otherwise, if the wind is forward of the beam and the autopilot fails, the boat can go through the wind and the boom can wipe out the running backstays, break battens and so on.”

The inconvenience is presumably academic when your tacks are hundreds of miles. “No doubt there is an inconvenience factor,” he says, “but the pros outweigh the cons and it’s a better system. You do run the risk of breaking the boom if you dip it in, but our mainsails are high off the deck and the reef clews are cut high.”

Comforts below deck

At sea, the pilothouse with its lounge and navigation area will be the heart of Vinson of Antarctica. It has seating for six to eight people, and panoramic views from the helm seat and settee.

Skip once boasted that he had crossed the Drake Passage on Pelagic Australis without changing out of his slippers or donning foulweather gear, and the crew of this boat will be able to sail in pyjamas if they wish.

Warm, dry and protected, it is also a safe place when rolling at sea. Two full height ‘granny bars’ stored in the workshop can be installed to divide up the space, provide grab rails and sturdy panels to brace feet against.

Aft saloon and galley. Skip notes: “As the explorer Bill Tilman said: ‘Any old fool can be uncomfortable’.” Photo: Paul Wyeth

Forward there are six symmetrical cabins, three each side of a central corridor. The aftermost have double bunks with a hinged single above, while the others are twin cabins. All have big leecloths, boot storage, lots of practical canvas stowage pouches, and are heated by radiators using the boat’s wet heating system.

There are two large heads with rainfall showers. And herein lies the only battle Skip lost with the owner — electric toilets. I agree with him: an extra maintenance chore, and horribly noisy!

At the forward end is a workshop area and huge forepeak used for storing vegetables and fruit, stowage of outboards, dinghies, a chain locker for 150m of chain and 150m of nylon rode, plus barrels that will contain drysuits, hip waders and sharps for climbers such as ice axes and crampons.

The saloon and galley runs from under the cockpit to the transom. This is a comfortable communal area, handsomely fitted out in light honey coloured bamboo joinery.

There is seating for 14 people around two tables with leaves that lift to form one, a galley with a super deep sink, high fiddles, a custom made two-burner gas hob exactly sized for a pair of 12lt Lagostina pressure cookers (“all you need,” according to Skip) and electric oven. There is also a gravity-fed Refleks diesel stove, on which a kettle can be boiled, and this has a back boiler linked with the heating system.

Seaworthy galley with electric oven and custom hob. Photo: Paul Wyeth

The nav area to starboard has two facing seats so that science or film crews can work on laptops, with lots of power and USB sockets at hand. The boat has Inmarsat and Iridium satcoms and a wifi network for guests.

Usually shoehorned into minimal space, the engine room on Vinson is palatial and runs full beam athwartships under the pilothouse. Careful 3D modelling by Ben Pym of Engineered Marine Systems made sure that every item of machinery can be reached without needing to dismantle anything else.

There are twin 150hp Yanmar engines and a 9.5kW Onan genset to charge the 1,000Ah lithium batteries. The boat runs on a 24V system.

Fuel capacity is over 8,000lt, transferrable between four tanks. A 248lt day tank gravity feeds the engines and is topped up with an electric pump. This, Skip points out, “is not automatic. We want someone to come in here every four or five hours to look around, top it up and fill in the log. It can be amazing what else you see.”

Forepeak with 4m3 of stowage space. Photo: Paul Wyeth

All fuel filters are visible and easily accessed, and KM Yachtbuilders have done a lovely job building two enormous sea chest manifolds for all water intakes and outlets. This eliminates multiple through-hull fittings, and can be opened and cleaned at sea. A Kabola diesel boiler is the heart of the wet heating system and will run 24/7 on expeditions. There is also a heat exchanger on the port engine. “All this stuff is fairly simple and we have as-built plumbing and wiring diagrams,” says Skip.

Ready to go

Vinson of Antarctica will leave the UK in June to go north to Norway, where she will pick up a geological science team and continue to Svalbard. Skip himself will lead this expedition, but the boat’s permanent captain is Kenneth Perdigon. Skip will continue to be involved on occasional expeditions and by introducing guests from his well-established charter business.

The beam-to-beam engine room is a rare example on this size of boat, with standing headroom and ease of access for all functions. Photo: Paul Wyeth

The collaboration between Skip and Tony Castro has shaped an entire Pelagic range. The Pelagic 56, 63, 74, 82 and a Pelagic 24m motor yacht are all available for owners who want to tap into the pair’s deep experience. They can even offer an owner’s version of this boat, with master cabin and all the push button controls one could desire.

Vinson of Antarctica came to around €3.8m. It is a lot of boat for the money, and comparable to a new top-of-the-line bluewater cruiser of the same overall length. Not that you can compare. If ‘everything with ice’ is all you dream of doing, there isn’t any other boat that comes close.

Pelagic 77 specifications

LOA: 23.52m / 77ft 2in
LWL: 20.40m / 66ft 11in
Beam max: 6.31m / 20ft 8in
Draught: 4.30m-2.15m / 14ft 1in-7ft 1in
Sail area/displ ratio at full load: 1.05
Fuel tankage: 8,124lt / 1,787gal
Fresh water tankage: 3,137lt / 690gal
B/G Water: 1,115lt / 245gal
Utility/waste/oil: 943lt / 207gal

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