Eps 1717: Sailing in the Arctic

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Byron Dunn

Byron Dunn

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Obtaining Arctic operations consultation includes navigation, weather, sea ice, glaciers, wildlife, and other related areas. Read this itinerary as a guide only; exact routes and schedules vary depending on the ice, weather conditions, wildlife encountered, and captains discretion. Depending on itinerary, season, and weather conditions, adventure activities might include hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, float/skiff excursions, glacier watching, whale watching, and polar animal sightings.
Since Arctic explorer Robert Peary and Pearys first voyage, numerous expeditions have traveled to the North Pole--some flying there by plane, and many submarines going under the ice, and then breaking through to signal their arrival. Arctic explorer Robert Peary and his crew traveled over 400 miles across the ice to get from the USS Roosevelt to the North Pole. This time around, we did not actually make it all the way up the Arctic Ice Sheet, instead left wondering just how many polar bears were romping around on its edges, but the pure experience of traveling well past the 80th degree of latitude remains the high point in many a Firebird adventure.
For this ice-packing expedition, we chose the last week of August, which seems to offer the best opportunity historically to go far past 80degN without being a polar bear. While the precise position of the Arctic ice pack is unknown, reaching the ice edges of the Arctic has been the owners long-standing ambition.
Bear Island, or Bjornoya, located at 74deg29N, had been a navigational landmark since early whaling ships made their way to Spitzbergen, and local beliefs held that a mariner going swimming there would return safely home from the Arctic. Firebird is a custom-built Oyster 885 which has spent three seasons exploring Norways coast far beyond the Arctic Circle. Ittoqqortoormiit at Scoresbysund is the largest fjord system in the world, and has almost everything one would want when it comes to arctic cruising.
Along the way, we will be visiting some of Europes most untamed and remote places, as well as exploring the Norwegian north coast, all by sail. Now, we had two or three decades to get ready for the ice-free, blue-water, trans-Arctic sailing world. It is critical to remember that the sea-route through the North Pole is coming at the expense of the Arctic as we know the Arctic, as it has been known for millions of years.
When sailing the Arctic, it is particularly critical to take into account long distances, the rugged conditions, lack of infrastructure, and the need for self-sufficiency. When planning an Arctic voyage, it is essential that you are a thoughtful participant and that you pay particular attention to minimising your footprint.
It is also important that you are alert to the significant security risks of the Arctic, and that you show respect to the communities that you visit and to people that you encounter. All visitors to Svalbard should follow relevant laws and regulations, many aimed at protecting the environment of The Arctic.
The lessons of Svalbard, where years of shipping experience on the archipelago has allowed local communities to develop necessary institutions and regulations to assist with managing industry growth, can perhaps be applied more actively in places across the Arctic where larger vessels are emerging for the first time.
Ice-breaking vessels can also harm the ice that is relied upon by a number of Arctic species, from walruses to polar bears. If these types of ice-class vessels were strong enough, an ice-class vessel could travel from an Asian port directly to the North Pole, with no stopovers needed. At the port of transhipment, goods could switch from ice-class ships operating in the Polar waters and to open-water vessels heading to the South.
Each additional mile the ships could sail north made their arrival more likely. Sailing with three masts helped the explorers conserve fuel for their journey into the Arctic -- since they would need every bit of fuel they had to push through all of that ice.
Our Svalbard season allowed us to learn much more about Firebirds performance and vulnerabilities while sailing at higher latitudes. Detailed descriptions and expert recommendations are available in Arctic & Northern Waters Pilot, together with equivalent publications for East Svalbard and Norwegian Coast. That is why Bryan Black has nine seasons of Arctic ranging now from Svalbard in the east up through to Greenland, and, for those that might be similarly inclined, I can now offer his thoughts on where to go and the critical elements that must be considered.
The Arctic is characterised by large wild areas and diversity in terms of people, cultures, and communities. If you are starting out in British waters, and want to go and come back the same season, this limits your cruise region somewhere between the Norwegian Arctic and East Greenland.
Yes, this is the Arctic, and getting there can be brutally cold at sea, so be gentle, pack lots of layers, but keep in mind it may be relatively warm on land. For long transits through Arctic waters, deep freezing aboard makes sense, with meals prepared at home and kept frozen for times of need. There is a feeling of accomplishment when sailing in small boats out from Irelands gentle green shores to the wilds of amazing sights, and when you return home, you share a pint or two with the people you were with, changed forever by your experiences of the far North.
The Transpolar Sea Route first opens in a short window each September, when the annual minimum of Arctic sea ice is reached. Once opened, the TSR will constitute the third shipping route into the Arctic, beyond the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage.