On the Job

The Dangers of Cruising in Sea Ice

16 November 2021By Kate Lardy
Courtesy of M/Y Pioneer

Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

Having to cut the $1.2 million sportfisher tender loose after getting trapped in ice while the boss stood by on the transom definitely stands out as Capt. Gareth Nicholls’s most memorable day during his last voyage to the Arctic.

The mothership, 46-meter expedition yacht Pioneer, had been cruising in the Northwest Passage. Since the boat needed to run 24 hours a day to dodge the ever-shifting ice, both rotational captains were on board for the trip.

They were on the bridge together as they headed into a bay, passing a huge shelf of ice where a polar bear stood. Thinking they would get a closer look at the bear, the other captain at the wheel turned around towards the ice. That was their mistake.

When asked what he would have done differently, Nicholls is quick to answer: he’d have taken a basic polar course.

“What we didn’t realize was the current runs underneath the ice so fast. So as soon as we turned sideways to the ice, it all came with us and we just got pushed up onto the side of the ice,” says Nicholls.

It didn’t take long for both Pioneer and Scout, their 38-foot custom sportfisher in tow, to come under siege by the sea ice. “Because the current was running under the ice, all the little bergy bits floating around start piling on top of you as well,” says Nicholls.

Their main concern was freeing Pioneer but they first had to deal with Scout. After unsuccessfully attempting to pull her closer — with the owner assisting — they came to the realization that they needed to let her go. They dropped the towline and got Pioneer out without too much trouble by pushing through the ice, says Capt. Nicholls.

But the whole time they were working on Pioneer, the ice had been building deeper and deeper around Scout. By the time they turned their attention to the tender, the scene resembled the famous images of the Shackleton expedition in Antarctica. At least it was flat calm. They considered putting the tender in the water but then asked their guide from EYOS Expeditions if he could walk on the ice. He agreed and, armed with a gun in case they ran into the region’s apex predator, brought two of the yacht’s crew with him. “They walked across the ice, and when they got to Scout, there was a massive pile of polar bear poo next to the boat!” says Nicholls.

Fortunately, the sportfisher has a metal striker plate at the bow and a lot of horsepower to tackle the ice. “It’s not all one big sheet; it’s lots of bits,” Nicholls explains. “They put quite a bit of engine on and they managed to push their way out slowly, and in the end we got it back.” It was a happy ending to a not-so-normal day of superyachting.

When asked what he would have done differently, Nicholls is quick to answer: he’d have taken a basic polar course. “I think if we’d done that polar course and it was fresh in the mind, we probably wouldn’t have made that mistake,” he says.

"The big ones will be on the radar no problem at all; they show up crystal clear. It’s the small ones — the growlers — that you’ve got to watch out for. You can hit something the size of your dining room table, but you don’t want to start hitting those the size of the car.”

But he points out that sea ice looks far more intimidating than it really is. “When you look through the binoculars and just see a wall of ice, it’s easy to think, ‘How the hell are we going to get through that?’” he says, “But there is always a way through.”

Understanding the ice is key to cruising the Arctic. Pioneer — no stranger to polar expeditions, having been the first superyacht to transit the Northwest Passage in 2001 as Turmoil — passed Greenland to the east as she headed north. This had them traveling through Ilulissat Icefjord, which is filled with icebergs from the world’s fastest moving, most productive glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq. The icebergs calved from the glacier can be immense, more than a cubic kilometer of ice, with only the top 10 percent visible. But those aren’t an issue, as long as you pass upwind of them, says Nicholls. “You shouldn’t go downwind of a big iceberg, because basically all the bits that break off will follow it. Traveling up to Greenland is foggy and you just have to go slow. The big ones will be on the radar no problem at all; they show up crystal clear. It’s the small ones — the growlers — that you’ve got to watch out for. You can hit something the size of your dining room table, but you don’t want to start hitting those the size of the car.”

Farther north, icebergs give way to flatter frozen sheets of the sea surface. Dropping anchor here is impractical as the ice is always on the move, coming and going with the wind and tides. “You just end up pulling up the anchor at three o’clock in the morning,” Nicholls says. Instead they would draw a box on the chartplotter and keep the boat inside it all night.

Capt. Nicholls has since taken a polar course with Maine Maritime Academy via correspondence during the pandemic as the yacht is heading to Svalbard next summer. EYOS, which assisted Pioneer on this last trip, has also developed a superyacht-specific Polar Code-compliant course with Simwave in Rotterdam, whose simulators model the Arctic and Antarctic passages that yacht officers are likely to encounter.

“As a captain, it really does test your skills,” Nicholls says. “Anyone can go and tie themselves to a tree in Turkey or Greece and sit there while the boss is out back swimming. But when you’re [navigating in ice]…you come out thinking ‘Yep, I am a sailor. I’m not just a glorified taxi driver.’”

This article originally ran in the November 2021 issue of Dockwalk.

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