Two boating experiences in the Northern hemisphere stand out as the new frontiers for sea lovers: a yacht charter (bareboat or skippered) in Greenland and crossing the Northern Passage in North America.
Cruises and Yacht Charters in Greenland
A few days ago the US President Donald Trump asked the Danish Prime Minister whether she would consider selling Greenland to the US. The unprecedented move shone a spotlight on a region that is expected to be increasingly important as a maritime route and source of natural resources due to climate change.
Greenland is also an up-and-coming cruise destination. Holidaymakers are increasingly looking for unique experiences off the beaten track. Chartering a yacht in Greenland to spot icebergs has become the latest trend in adventure travel. According to CNN, Nordic Visitor, a travel agency and tour operation that covers the region, saw a significant increase in the number of users checking out its vacation packages after Trump’s idiosyncratic offer.
Increasing interest in Greenland cruises is not a flash in the pan. Destination Arctic Circle, a region around the Article Circle in West Greenland, hosted more than 28,000 cruise tourists this year, an increase of nearly 20% compared to last year, according to KNL, a local media outlet. Powerhouses of the cruising industry are also making inroad in this niche market. This August the cruise ship MSC Orchestra made a stopover in Nuuk before heading to Isafjordur in Iceland, marking the first time that a ship owned by the Geneva-based MSC Cruises, one of the world’s leading cruise lines, has visited Greenland.
Crossing the Northern Passage, a legendary route
Few passages have a more special place in the history of maritime exploration than the Northern Passage, a sea route connecting the world’s two biggest oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, through the Arctic Ocean. Vessels crossing the passage sail between thousands of islands dotted along the coast of North America.
Navigating this treacherous route is not for the faint-hearted. The passage was first crossed by boat only in 1906 by the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Today, it is still challenging to cross for a variety of reasons: harsh weather, particularly from early autumn to late spring, a host of necessary legal permits in an area whose sovereignty is contested due to its increasing importance for the shipping industry, and all sorts of unexpected obstacles such as glaciers.
Sadly, what has made the passage easier to cross for yachts is climate change and the resulting melting of the Arctic ices. Temperature rises of up to 5 °C in the Arctic are inevitable over the next few decades, even if the world community fulfills its commitments under the Paris agreement, research presented at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi last March. However, every cloud has a silver lining – in this case, the Arctic’s cold waters have become more hospitable to yachting aficionados looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
This does not mean that crossing the passage is a walk in the park, or more accurately, a normal boat ride. According to the prestigious yachting magazine Boat International, by 2018, only two leisure boats had crossed following the seven available routes. The region’s idiosyncratic weather conditions render the route accessible exclusively from July to September when air temperatures range between 5˚C and -5˚C. But even if you are not able to cross the passage, you can explore the surrounding areas and discover the region’s unique fauna, which includes walruses, narwhals, beluga whales and of course polar bears. If you are lucky you may also see the famous Northern Lights.
A trip to this part of the world with a cruise ship or a yacht charter must be organised well in advance to avoid any logistical problems that can be disastrous. Suffice to say that according to Boat International “only a tiny 10 per cent of the Arctic has been charted to modern marine navigation standards,” which means that boat trips in the region, as shoreline excursions, should be accompanied by a captain who knows the region and an experienced guard. This is after all the place where Franklin’s notorious expedition, aboard the aptly-named ships Erebus and Terror, prematurely ended after a three-year journey. The shipwrecks of Erebus and Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016, more than a century and a half after Franklin sailed away from Greenhithe, Kent.
Not every yacht can tackle the region’s adverse weather conditions and choppy waters. A commercial ice-class hull is a must, as are suitable electronics. Don’t forget that there are not many boats in the area, so you should be prepared to be as self-sufficient as possible. Private luxury yachts also need to obtain many permits and licenses from the local authorities. It’s also recommended to contact the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators for information on sailing in the region, as well read as its Arctic Yacht Guideline regarding environmental protection and contact with indigenous tribes.