Why do we like sailing with Icebergs? It’s not for the risk adverse, but they hold some strange draw. Glittering cliffs or floating icebergs the size of Belguim, playing Russian Roulette with half submerged growlers that the radar can’t see, the smell of ice, ice blink on the horizon, evocative photos of Shackleton’s last expedition by Hurley, a polar bear and cubs in the Arctic jumping the gap or a Weddell seal sunbathing atop an ‘Orca proof’ iceberg.
Pure, Pristine Wilderness
When we say ocean wilderness we really mean it. There are parts of the Arctic and Antarctic that are barely charted and your navigator is relying on a chart information that might be a line survey of soundings carried out by a freezing cold midshipman and crew with a leadline in the 19th century. Yes we can chart the ocean depths by satellite now, but only in seas without ice cover. As the ice shelf or glacier snouts retreat, new un-surveyed areas of ocean are revealed.
The light conditions in the Arctic and Arctic are incredible. Unpolluted, crystal clear and a feeling that you can see for hundreds of miles. You can sometimes ‘see’ ice before it appears over the horizon. A phenomenon known as ‘ice blink’ where the white is reflected in the underside of clouds and the horizon shows a white strip. The ice blink was used by both the Inuit and explorers looking for the Northwest Passage to help them navigate safely. It is even more beautiful at sunset.
As Icebergs move, marine creatures take advantage of the ride of the rest they provide. Seals, cormorants, penguins in the Antarctic and walrus, seals and polar bears in the North.
Icebergs – Fear and Wonder
Our ships are not double hulled icebreakers. Some are steel but we also have wooden schooners that have been safely exploring the Arctic for years. The summer sailing grounds we explore in the Arctic and Antarctic are only possible because they are open water and not frozen pack ice. The icebergs that break off the ice shelf or glaciers don’t read the rule book and a section of water that was ice free last week can very quickly become impassable. Being so fragile amongst such sculptural beauty and ever present danger requires a very professional and vigilant crew. On a fully participating sail training ship, the need for everyone to understand the risks, take their lookout duties seriously and a flexible outlook about itineraries is essential.
In the Arctic there are regular ice reports from aircraft to aid shipping. In the Antarctic every expedition ship has logged their intended routes and has AIS so your ship can see where other vessels are in their proximity and get an ice report or offer assistance. There are also scientific bases who can report conditions via Sat c or HF radio.
Each Iceberg Tells a Story
On the topic of sculptural beauty icebergs are a bit like dolphins….you can never get enough of them and each sighting brings out the photographers and we all stop and stare.
The older the ice, the less air in it and the deeper the blue. You can get turquoise icebergs, black bergs and ones striped like humbug sweets. Some are high and sail along at few knots like a square rigger. Others are deep and move with the current ever closer to your anchorage, even cruising upwind. Icebergs can be unstable. A bit drops off and a new waterline is established, creating new sculptural shapes or revealing once underwater fluting. Some Icebergs get stranded in shallow water and these are the safe ones you can get up close and personal with.
In the Wake of Polar Explorers – Antarctic
If reading the exploits of Shackleton’s or Captain Scott have lured you to the highest, coldest and driest continent in the world, then sailing around Antarctica on a tall ship will give you a much more authentic and romantic experience than being cocooned on a modern expedition cruise ship. The whole voyage is a team effort of professional and guest crew and much more like a polar expedition voyage that Scott or Shackleton might have run than being a passive passenger. Everybody helps haul the ships boats on deck and your crew mates are relying on you to keep a good look out for icebergs on watch.
Ocean Sailing Nearer the North Pole
In the Arctic you can get close to the Pole with Northern Spitsbergen being our furthest North latitude at 81 degrees North, but we are there in summer when the pack ice is at its least: The exact opposite of what a South Pole explorer would want but ideal for the North West Passage….Exciting news on this to follow for 2019.
Spending more time outside on deck, helping sail the ship, you can begin to appreciate what they had to endure on similar sailing ships in an extreme environment, the dangers that they faced. Sailing at 3-11 knots with the wind in your face and silence and vast icy landscapes all around you will also begin to understand why they were so magically drawn to the place.