On the Job

How to Prepare a Yacht for Extreme Cruising

8 July 2020 By Kate Lardy
yacht in front of Antarctica glacer
Justin Hofman/EYOS Expeditions

Kate 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, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

“Most of my cruising as a captain has been Bahamas, New England, Great Lakes, and a little bit on the U.S. West Coast. I had never done anything far reaching,” says Capt. Jason Halvorsen of M/Y Marcato, fresh from completing a 15,000-nautical-mile journey from Fort Lauderdale to the remote ice fields of southern Chile. “So when we started talking about Patagonia, to me Patagonia was a store at the mall,” he laughs.

“There is so much that can go wrong in those regions; you are taking crews and vessels outside their normal daily routine and you have to be self-sufficient. You can’t become complacent about it. The moment you do, that is when it will all go very, very wrong...” 

In contrast to the milk run, skippering in out-of-the-way destinations is a wholly different job. Many times, there are no guidebooks to follow, Google is no help, and you might not see another vessel for days or even weeks. Patagonia is one such destination, as are the Arctic and Antarctic. While Ben Lyons, CEO of EYOS Expeditions, confirms that more yachts are tackling the polar extremes each year, that doesn’t make it routine. “There is so much that can go wrong in those regions; you are taking crews and vessels outside their normal daily routine and you have to be self-sufficient. You can’t become complacent about it. The moment you do, that is when it will all go very, very wrong,” he says.

Lyons adds that remote destinations in Melanesia also can be far removed from civilization. “Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are not easy places to operate,” agrees Capt. Christopher Walsh, who’s taken M/Y Archimedesto 90-plus countries since her launch 12 years ago.

Getting Started

“If we start to think that we’re going to go someplace a little out of the ordinary, what we do is look at basic planning charts, we do a little research on the history, we look at general weather and locations of airports that are usable, sea ports that are useable, and where might we get fuel or provisions,” says Walsh. This is how you begin to structure a trip: “You look at where can you go, where you can get people into and out of, and when is the best time to be there.”

Once the “where” is decided, then comes planning the “how.” “It’s not something you can just wing,” says Capt. John Crupi. “You have got to have a plan in the beginning as to regionally where it is you’re going to go, and execute it based on the constraints of the vessels, the general weather trends, and the mission at hand, whether that’s fishing or diving or cultural cruising.”

Crupi runs an unusual tandem program in which he has cruised globally with 148-foot Cheoy Lee Dorothea III and 63-foot Hatteras sportfisher Post One, which accompanies the mothership on its own bottom. Still, getting from point A to point B is the same for all, and Crupi shares that it’s not by accident that tens of thousands of nautical miles of his last 26-month voyage were down sea, downwind.

Getting info for off-the-beaten-path destinations, such as Crupi’s transit through Siberia from Japan to the Aleutians, isn’t easy. While unusual for superyachts, these passages are more commonplace for small cruising sailboats so Crupi turns to sail publications and the website Noonsite, where cruisers post firsthand information, to begin his research.

Crupi also hires meteorologists to do six-month climatological studies. Capt. Walsh prefers to handle this himself, pointing out that he has the advantage of observation to augment the data on scene. He learns in advance what resources are available and becomes familiar with the sites that offer them. “I start looking at weather months and months ahead of time,” he says. “I like the raw data; I compare different models, study them, and make good guesses.”

Justin Hofman/EYOS Expeditions

Getting Ready

Once a general plan is in place, prep begins, and captains unequivocally recommend starting early. Insurance can be tricky. “If you read your policy carefully, there are a lot of different restrictions in what is covered and when,” says Walsh. While his policy is for “worldwide cruising,” that doesn’t mean the entire planet. “Definitely study your policy beforehand and make sure you can get insurance, or if your owner is okay to go without having insurance, or if there’s an additional premium,” he says.

Walsh’s last voyage was to Antarctica. For his yacht with its “ice-strengthened” hull (as opposed to ice-classed), underwriters weren’t keen to write the policy. He couldn’t get insurance without first getting the Polar Ship Certificate, and without insurance he would be unable to get the necessary permits. “We started [working on] the Polar Ship Certificate the year before; it was quite a project,” he says.

Crew are another consideration — hiring distance-goers, as well as training for times when there’s no one to come to the rescue. “Finding people who have a genuine interest in being on the ocean and out doing extreme stuff for a long period of time is the hard part,” says Crupi. He looks for crew through strategic contacts and prefers when prospective crew who’ve heard of his program come to him. “My [hiring] process is usually two months of daywork, interviews, and crew integration.” It’s an effective technique — he typically doesn’t have turnover during his two-year-plus voyages.

Crew are another consideration — hiring distance-goers, as well as training for times when there’s no one to come to the rescue. 

Capt. Halvorsen’s top concern before his Patagonia trip was ensuring he and his six crew were up to snuff on medical training so they could handle an emergency. He worked with Medical Support Offshore (MSOS) to bolster their kit, which included adding an oxygen generator after he learned that the four oxygen bottles on board would only keep a near-drowning victim alive for 12 hours. A week before departure, an EMT spent three days on board augmenting their STCW basic training. “We got to make a cast on one of the crewmember’s legs; we learned how to do sutures, stitches, and bone injections; we practiced splints…” he says.

Capt. Walsh also recommends anyone heading to cold climates have the crew do the damage control and firefighting course that Resolve Marine Group offers. He points out that it’s quite a bit different fighting fires or fixing holes in freezing temperatures. “AIG helped us put the class together, and it was a lot of fun and a great team builder,” he says.

Justin Hofman/EYOS Expeditions

Preparing the Boat

Communications are an issue in the polar extremes, as some sat-com systems don’t work far north or south. Walsh’s solution was to add Iridium Certus, which gave him reliable Internet and voice communications, and he backed up his VSAT and Iridium with Inmarsat FleetBroadband. “We also bought a couple handheld units so when ashore we can communicate easily out of range of VHF,” he says.

Capt. Halvorsen, who has a salvage background, upped some of his pumps and brought in extra salvage equipment. This came in handy when an uncharted rock punctured a hole in his tender and Halvorsen was able to save it.

It’s okay to leave behind the shiny mahogany tender when headed to places where image doesn’t matter. The humble Zodiac is invaluable. 

For garbage storage, he procured an eight-foot chest freezer to sit on one of Marcato’s aft decks that guests don’t use. Reducing waste from the get-go is crucial, including throwing out all packaging before departing and installing a water fountain for refilling bottles so no plastic ones need to come aboard. Archimedes’s crew built a compactor — basically a receptacle with a big steel plate and pole, and treated the manual compacting process like a workout.

Capt. Crupi, who’s had almost no onboard technical support since he left Fort Lauderdale in January 2018, keeps several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of spare parts on board. “The two key features you need are the part to fix it and the knowledge to figure out what is wrong,” he says.

Finally, it’s okay to leave behind the shiny mahogany tender when headed to places where image doesn’t matter. The humble Zodiac is invaluable. It’s basic, but pretty much indestructible for rocky beach landings, says Lyons.

“The trifecta of tenders is air, sea, and land,” says Graham Dickson, president of Arctic Kingdom, which provides expedition services, including tender rental, for superyachts in the far north. So in addition to the Zodiac (he recommends one with a cabin for warmth), a twin-engine long-range helicopter and an amphibious off-road ATV are the ideal companions.

Justin Hofman/EYOS Expeditions

Learning As You Go

Halvorsen and his crew were psyched to see their first glacier. When the chart showed it was just around the corner, everyone had their cameras poised. So it was pretty anticlimactic when they rounded the bend and a lone iceberg floated into view. An hour later, they finally saw it. “It had moved seven miles up the fjord,” Halvorsen says. Getting used to a moving glacial landscape where charts and GPS could be wildly inaccurate was new for him.

Charts can be unreliable in many remote areas, confirms Walsh. “Chart updates are often commercially driven and data can be based on surveys from more than 100 years ago.” He suggests using Google Earth or other satellite images as well as drones, and when necessary, resorting to the age-old technique of sending the small boats ahead to scan.

Local weather phenomenon can also trip up newcomers, as Halvorsen learned in the fjords. “It might be blowing twenty and you get in what you expect is the lee and all of sudden it’s blowing fifty. That’s not something I’ve ever had to experience,” he says of the way wind that would roll over a mountain peak and increase in velocity as it came down the other side. The Antarctic also has its weather anomalies, says Lyons. “Weather can change quite dramatically and it impacts everything. Which direction the wind is coming from affects where the ice floats, therefore which landings are going to be open and accessible and which areas will be closed off.”

Getting Help

Local weather insight is an advantage with a guide. “When you have an agent or expedition company, they take some of the pressure off you,” Walsh says. He’s cruised remotely with and without assistance from EYOS, but sees the benefit in guidance. “Stumbling your way around is time-consuming and not always rewarding. These guys have been there sixty or seventy times; you’re going for the first time,” he says.

For instance, the Arctic is a vast desert with millions of square miles of emptiness, punctuated by hot spots of wildlife. “The trick is to know where to look,” says Dickson. Focused only on this part of the world, he and his guides tap into a local network for observations that lead to hot spots he calls the bubbling Arctic. They understand the ice conditions and where the areas of pack ice are to find the ecosystems that follow those. “It’s a huge shame when people self-isolate on the ship, do their best to navigate with a captain who may or may not know much about the special spots, and go home and don’t feel they’ve seen a lot,” he says.

Christoper Sholey/EYOS Expeditions

Lyons, whose company operates in the tropics as well as polar regions, adds that Papua New Guinea can be the safest or the most dangerous place on the planet. “You have to know the local politics and know how to read the local situation,” he says, which is why EYOS has a local woman on the ground there.

Agents are also very helpful. Crupi uses them almost everywhere he goes. “We’ve had great luck with agents. They’re priceless.”

Both Crupi and Halvorsen also have had much success with Weather Routing out of New York. You could practically set your watch by their predictions, Halvorsen attests.

Leaving a Lasting Impression

Yachts will always be attention getters — all the more reason to tread carefully. For instance, in the Northwest Passage cruise ships are required to have as many as 90 permits, while many yachts do almost nothing, says Dickson. They hide behind ignorance or their private status, he says, yet from the local perspective, there’s no difference between a large yacht and a cruise ship. “There are sensitive areas where communities don’t want cruise ships to go. When private yachts show up that weren’t known or announced, it can create issues,” Dickson says.

Every yacht makes an impression that affects all that follow. “If you go into Papua New Guinea and you approach the communities in the wrong way, it can have lasting effects on future vessels ... if it is a negative perception,” Lyons says. “It’s the same thing in Antarctica. If a yacht goes into one of these regions unprepared and something goes wrong, it’s going to destroy their industry.”

This feature is taken from the July 2020 issue of Dockwalk.


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