Comfort-cushioned adventures to the planet’s ice-bound limits

A new breed of polar expedition yacht is rugged enough to travel to the planet’s polar limits yet also fulfil the demand for adventure cushioned by comfort and style. James Henderson reports

The 77m ice-breaking superyacht M/Y Legend navigating the huge icebergs of the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica
The 77m ice-breaking superyacht M/Y Legend navigating the huge icebergs of the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica | Image: EYOS Expeditions/J Hoffman

It was a long-held dream, to ski right to the sea’s edge, but eventually I achieved it, on the island of Senja off the northwest coast of Norway. We skinned up in the morning twilight, a chiaroscuro world of snow and raging volcanic rock, and as the sun tinged the mountain tops we chased down a glorious run of new snow, screaming to a halt just metres from the charcoal-grey water of the fjord.

Wildlife watching is key to Pelorus expeditions, with the chance to see polar bears in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard
Wildlife watching is key to Pelorus expeditions, with the chance to see polar bears in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard

And at that moment another tantalising dream was formed: where was the yacht in front of us – cruising gently for the open water and heading north – going? Next stop… Svalbard? Was that even possible?

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Twenty years on, the opportunities for seaborne adventure in the icy reaches of the planet have expanded exponentially. There are the yachts to cope with the extreme conditions, ice pilots and captains with the necessary experience, and young companies eager to tailor to your imagination, whether that’s a picnic on an ice floe or a trip in a submersible. And all at the ice-bound limits of the world’s accessible regions, north and south. 

The M/Y Atmosphere has two onboard helicopters to ferry clients on skiing trips
The M/Y Atmosphere has two onboard helicopters to ferry clients on skiing trips

“At 80 degrees north, Svalbard is still a spectacular place to visit,” Geordie Mackay-Lewis, co-founder and CEO of new adventure company Pelorus, tells me. “The wildlife is key; it’s the reason the BBC Natural History Unit returns there so often. There are walruses, orcas and hundreds of birds. A polar-bear safari by snowmobile, with armed guides, is an unforgettable experience.” 

One of the luxury berths on M/Y Legend
One of the luxury berths on M/Y Legend

Travel in the north is limited by the weather and, of course, by daylight, to April to October (though interestingly Svalbard itself is available from March because of its skirt of sea ice). However, as we go into our long northern nights, Patagonia and Antarctica are opening up. M/Y Atmosphere, a 45m yacht, is currently winding up for exploration of the splurge of islands along Chile’s southern Pacific coastline. Its jet boats enable you to fish pristine waters and its two helicopters to ski virtually untouched slopes (nowadays, of course, you don’t need to make the climb yourself unless you want to).

Pelorus takes clients to Svalbard for snowmobile polar-bear safaris accompanied by armed guards
Pelorus takes clients to Svalbard for snowmobile polar-bear safaris accompanied by armed guards

Harry Hastings, founder-MD of Latin-American luxury specialist Plan South America, is offering weeks on Atmosphere this winter, and in Antarctica further south. He echoes the thoughts of many in the business: “There’s been a phenomenal increase in the appetite for expedition-style trips over the past four or five years.” As his clients become increasingly keen to explore further and further afield, he says, so the yachts that can handle the destination are coming available for charter. “[They] are looking for solitude in these spectacular new areas as well as a taste of genuine frontier adventure. Where before you were travelling as a party of 80 or 100 and waiting your turn for the rib, nowadays you can design your own trip and there is the flexibility and the equipment to enable it.”

With a range of 6,000 nautical miles, M/Y Planet Nine can travel almost anywhere, including Antarctica
With a range of 6,000 nautical miles, M/Y Planet Nine can travel almost anywhere, including Antarctica

M/Y Legend, for instance, a Polar Class 1 icebreaker now converted to top-notch luxury, is the first superyacht to offer Antarctic expeditions on a per-cabin charter basis, roving the peninsula from King George Island. At 77m, she has the bow of a beast and an elegant platform at the stern. There are berths for 26, a cinema, gym and spa and she carries snowmobiles for exploration ashore; meals are paired with top wines. 

A pod of humpback whales feeding in the sea off British Columbia
A pod of humpback whales feeding in the sea off British Columbia

If travel at the southern limits is confined to the tip of Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula, the northern side of the globe opens up several areas for exploration. Yachts are venturing further up the coast of Greenland and Canada, to Kamchatka and around the northern side of Alaska. And then there is the increasingly plied Northwest Passage. There are no hotels in these regions, of course, so boat access is really your only option.

The uninhabited Kuril Islands between Russia and Japan offer stunning sights to explore, including lava flows and volcanic craters
The uninhabited Kuril Islands between Russia and Japan offer stunning sights to explore, including lava flows and volcanic craters

“Ice class”, complete with abstruse marine vocabulary, is what distinguishes many of these yachts. Hulls are thicker and more strongly built – with more scantlings holding them together; pintles protect the rudder and propeller tips are strengthened. Ice class doesn’t mean that a yacht can break through ice (some yacht owners have been known to have an icebreaker standing by in case it’s needed), but is good if you are to approach within touching distance of an iceberg.

The newly launched 73m cold-weather expedition yacht M/Y Sherpa
The newly launched 73m cold-weather expedition yacht M/Y Sherpa

Time was, the only boats to make the trip were explorer-class yachts: hulks with all the style of a ferry, functional platforms for scientists and film crews. Now the boats that can take the climate are being designed with style in mind too. It started with repurposing working ships like Legend, but in recent years a new generation of what are loosely called expedition yachts have been built from scratch, and to bar-setting specs (though the hull may not be faired, the welding may be left intentionally visible, and the deck may not be highly polished teak).

Dog sledding through the icy wastes on a Pelorus trip
Dog sledding through the icy wastes on a Pelorus trip

Chris Cecil-Wright, who has his own top-notch yacht brokerage in London, has been involved in building yachts for years, linking together the chain of people needed to take a yacht from conception to cruiser. He has just steered a cold-weather expedition yacht into being: the 73m M/Y Sherpa, built by Feadship Royal Dutch Shipyards in Holland and launched earlier this year. “These new models are more rugged in appearance and look more purposeful and more in place in the extreme environment,” he says. “It may not even be necessary to build to ice class. Most yachts are robust enough to cope in the conditions at the time of the year you would want to visit.” 

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Crucially, though, they are much more comfortable. Until recently, expedition yachts tended to have fairly modest interiors and amenities, but the new breed is catching up with their Mediterranean counterparts. Design has been directed elsewhere too: yachts with fire pits and inbuilt infrared lamps to enable deck lounging in freezing temperatures, even open fireplaces in the saloon – all are coming online. “The biggest change is in the inclination of the owners,” says Cecil-Wright. “They are now building yachts that can take them almost anywhere in the world.” 

M/Y Planet Nine emerged from NCA Carrara Shipyard in Italy, also earlier this year. The 73m craft’s exterior was designed by Tim Heywood and its interior by Tino Zervudachi, who has emphasised the expanse of the living area with indoor-outdoor space and glass. She has a master deck and space for 12 guests, a helicopter with hangar, a cinema, beach club and outdoor Jacuzzi. And with a range of 6,000 nautical miles, she can take you almost anywhere – including the Antarctic over our northern winter.

A less obvious but vital feature of these new yachts is the increased storage capacity. Cold destinations demand everything from additional clothing, sports gear and fuel to covered tenders. And it’s one thing to have a helicopter on board, but to ski in safety in really remote country you need two, so one must be stowed. So vital is it that some yacht owners enlist a support vessel. Damen Shipyards, also out of the Netherlands, has been selling Yacht Support supply vessels off the shelf. They are used as a support vessel, to run errands and carry equipment and additional crew.  

And the foresight extends yet further. Even itineraries can be planned in, sometimes with a view to charter. Says Pelorus’s Mackay-Lewis: “We have been working with one yacht owner right from the design stage, factoring in a global cruising plan lasting two years; this in turn feeds into the yacht’s design, from the stowage capacity for water, waste and equipment – ski gear, cold weather scuba gear and Arctic-weather clothing – through to the rear platform and the type of tenders they’ll need for cold weather.”

It is this attention to detail, the personally tailored planning, that is the most vital ingredient. A picnic on an ice floe is a mite more complicated than one held on a Caribbean beach. Travelling to these remote regions can be challenging to organise. They tend to be highly regulated, so you need someone who can negotiate the permissions as well as the practicalities. Trips can take months of advance work to set in motion.

“Our real value add is that we open people’s eyes to the possibilities on offer out there, things they couldn’t possibly know about,” says Adam Sebba, chief executive of Cookson Adventures, the company that took the first private submersible to the Antarctic in 2013.

True adventure specialists like Cookson Adventures and Pelorus have a network of biologists, NGOs, conservationists and scientists to call on. Many remote areas are still being researched – if you are with a team studying orcas you are more likely to have sightings. And there are opportunities for clients to sponsor scientific research, which gives the privileged access but also a sympathetic investment into the project. 

“British Columbia is a fantastic area to explore by yacht,” says Sebba. “People might not think of it as a destination for autumn, but Desolation Sound is warm enough for swimming in September and October, and further north you can observe rare vanilla-white spirit bears plucking salmon out of rivers, pods of whales breaching and, of course, bald eagles. Most people will never see the United States’ cultural icon in the wild.” 

So where else is there to go? Mackay-Lewis has his sights fixed on the Kuril Islands – that line of volcanic peaks breaking the water between the downward-pointed finger of the Kamchatka peninsula and Hokkaido. There are 56 islands scattered over 1,300km, owned by Russia and Japan (some are still disputed). “Many have been uninhabited since the second world war. They are heavily controlled and most permissions are denied, but we have the contacts to allow us to visit. The weather window is short, but our expedition team will be exploring lakes within volcanic craters and a lava flow, fishing salmon in untouched rivers and viewing Kamchatka bears and pods of orca,” says Mackay-Lewis.

Who knows where that yacht I saw 20 years ago in Senja was headed. Perhaps they were off to surf that wave off Iceland, where the Jägermeister advert was filmed, or to scuba-dive and watch guillemots shoot past them to feed, or simply to enjoy moseying among the extraordinary colours and shapes of scattered icebergs. What’s for sure is there are many more places to ski to the sea’s edge in this world, but now they’ll be easier to reach – and you can do it in extreme comfort.

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