This is no ordinary trip. What makes it special compared to sailing in other parts of the world is the weather and the nature of Arctic waters. Cold, ice-filled water demands a lot of boat preparation and there are significant differences sailing the Arctic compared to sailing coastal waters in a warmer climate. We prepared by making significant changes to the exterior and interior of the boat, keeping in mind safety and comfort.
“What makes it special compared to sailing in other parts of the world is the weather & nature of Arctic waters”
One of the first differences is sailing 24-hours a day. On local trips we normally stop at night but in the Arctic there simply aren’t enough places to stop every night and, because of the changing ice conditions, we need to keep a quick pace and a strict schedule. The passage from Iceland to Greenland alone will take over a week in open waters.
When I was a teenager I dreamed of sailing across the Atlantic to the West Indies. The idea was absolutely hooked into my mind but between family and work I never got the opportunity– life got in the way. Now that I have the opportunity, over 40 years have passed and that trip doesn’t interest me any longer. Back in those days sailing from the Canary Islands to Barbados was a big adventure. Now, in the age of GPS navigation and sate phones, fleets of hundreds of boats sail from Gran Canaria to the West Indies every year, aided by the trade winds and computerized navigation equipment. I want something more challenging.
“At times the water temperature can even reach below zero…”
As the departure nears we feel more pressure to make the DAX function properly. The very long, cold winter didn’t allow us to get the boat into the water until the end of April, putting us several weeks behind in the preparations. Our tight schedule has us leaving Iceland on June 23 so we can be in Canada by the beginning of August, which means we will be forced to do many things along the way.
Our first addition to the boat was a more powerful heater. The Arctic is obviously much colder than the temperatures we’re used to on the “lazy latitudes,” as we call them, so we installed a powerful heater that really pushes hot air to keep us warm and dry our clothes. Having dry clothes is important to have when sailing this part of the world. Sometimes the winds are so strong it’s like standing in an ice cold shower, and spaces below the waterline (in the lower part of the cabin) take on the same temperature of the water outside. At times the water temperature can even reach below zero because salt water freezes at a slightly colder temperature.
“We need to make sure that we can get to not only the first port but also the second port, in case the first one is blocked by ice”
The second thing we did was insulate the hull to prevent condensation because in those frigid temperatures the humidity from breathing and cooking condensates on any cold surface. We’re bringing 12 jerry cans of extra diesel for the engine and the heater. We will be dependent on the engine during the long distance between ports so we need to make sure that we can get to not only the first port but also the second port, in case the first one is blocked by ice. In total we will carry almost 400 litres of fuel (the boat tank only takes 120). Mechanically, there is no way you would sail this voyage without a functioning engine. At times with no wind and in places with high ice concentration your boat will be completely dependent on the engine.
The third, most indispensable thing we did to the boat is install a radar so that we can detect ice and improve visibility. In the past couple of years a new type of radar technology, which we installed on the DAX, has emerged. It’s called Continuous Wave. Compared to old standard radar, which works with impulses, Continuous Wave gives you better resolution and visibility at closer distances, and it also consumes significantly less energy. For example, a standard radar shows you nothing between yourself and maybe 50 meters away but with this one, you can almost see your toes!
“I have been sailing with the same boat since 1976; I know every nut and bolt in it”
We brought a satellite phone on the boat, an extremely important communication tool for Arctic sailors. Via the sat phone you can download ice data from the Canadian Ice Service, the Danish Meteorological Institute, and the US National Ice Center, which they issue every few days in the sailing season. Ice data shows sailors where passages are clogged with ice or opening up.
Something to keep in mind when sailing near the poles is the magnetic declination, which is caused by the difference in position between the geographic and the magnetic north poles. Declination can reach more than 60 degrees in some places making a magnetic compass useless and causing magnetic compass-controlled autopilots to behave strangely near the poles. The closer to the magnetic North Pole you are, the worse it gets. Luckily, modern autopilots can be controlled by a GPS receiver instead of a magnetic compass.
As for our personal gear, it is important that we bring Arctic-specific sailing equipment. A dry suit is most important in case you need to work on the boat below the water line. Watertight gloves, ski goggles, and warm watertight boots are also indispensable in low temperatures and wet snowfall.
The DAX has a water tank of 170 litres and an extra jerry can as a last resort, in case of a leak in the main tank; although as soon as we hit ice, it won’t be a problem anymore because we can melt it. We have a proper toilet and a small shower with a handle, so we can keep some sort of hygienic standard. Because of all these necessities the DAX is a couple hundred kilos heavier than normal but it weighs four and half tonnes normally, so the extra weight is not significant.
This boat was built in 1976. They used to say it could take more bashing than the crew, so I knew that it would be tough enough to make it through the Northwest Passage. I took over this boat from my father only after I decided to do the trip, but it felt good knowing I would use the same boat I have been sailing with since 1976. I know every nut and bolt in it.
This post is also available in: French, German