Who better to ask about sailing in the Arctic Circle than a skipper who has spent much of the last 15 years sailing there? Sailsquare skipper, Stephane, started sailing at the age of 15 – and has now sailed in almost all of the seas and oceans in the world, with a particular desire to explore the Arctic and Antarctic. Here you can understand what a trip in such a climate is like, and get some invaluable tips for such adventure sailing.
Stephane first outlines what the two week-long journey from Ísafjörður, Iceland to Kulusuk, Greenland looks, and feels like aboard his sailboat. Finally – for those particularly curious about what specific elements must be watched closely on such a trip, in the second half, you will find 5 pro-tips for sailing in and around the Arctic Circle.
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Exploring the Forbidden Coast
Isafjörður, North West Iceland. Last checks on board, weather forecasts are good, pack ice in the Greenland Strait has cleared the way, and we set sails for one of the most remote and wild area of the Northern hemisphere. After 30 hours of a smooth crossing, spotting whales amongst the icebergs, and seeing absolutely no merchant ships, we reach the ominous Blosseville coast.
In their Arctic Pilot the British Admiralty says: ‘The stretch of coast between Kap SM Jørgensen and Kap Deichmann, is considered one of the most difficult in Greenland ; the mountains rise almost vertically from the sea to form a narrow bulwark, with rifts through which active glaciers discharge quantities of ice, while numerous off-lying islets and rocks make navigation hazardous’. However, such conditions are heavily rewarded.
It is the place where hundreds of glaciers are carving beautiful icebergs, then drifting slowly to the south, pushed by the East Greenland current. This is also a top priority oceanographic area, where the overturning flow of the North Atlantic warm waters generate the deep cold water for all the oceans, helping to cool down the climate of the northern hemisphere.
Dropping anchor in Nansen
We drop anchor in the Nansen Fjord, named after the famous explorer who was the first to cross the ice sheets with skis; the highest mountains of the Arctic lines the horizon, and the ice edge of the Christian IV glacier fills the end of the fjord. Some polar bears may swim or walk on the shore, looking for seals – we keep our eyes open!
As usual we decide to do a bit of exploring and try a new anchorage. This time we have our eyes on an unnamed fjord just north-east of the Nansen Fjord. The ice and fog has slowed us down but a friendly local(!) came swimming by to welcome us to his kingdom: a Polar Bear who leads us into our anchorage.
The Nansen Fjord has often proved elusive, with much sea ice blocking it completely. The great Christian IV glacier discharges huge quantities of ice into the fjord and makes navigation difficult (at times impossible). This time we manage to sail all the way to the head of the fjord where we came ashore, and hiked a little. A few narwhals swim close to the boat, among them a mother with a young calf.
Sailing offshore to reach our next anchorage, we enjoy the sightseeing of the Ice Cap, clearly visible above the sea mist which lends a very special ambiance to the sea. We sail quietly, protected by the summer arctic high pressure area, under a clear blue sky, listening to the blow of the numerous humpback whales swimming around us.
Dropping anchor in Kangerlussuaq
Then we enter slowly into the Kangerlussuaq, quite literally meaning the “big fjord”, located in Inuit. The Hutchinson Glacier on port is clearly visible on the other side of the Fjord, despite the distance; is it perhaps an arctic mirage? The ice cliff majestically oversees the calm sea, and hundreds of big tabular icebergs move slowly towards the high sea. We find a nice place to drop anchor and tie up to the land, in a little cove protected against winds and ice, surrounded by yellow granite stones.
Enjoying the quietness of the place, we spend some days hiking on the Kraemer island, to discover from the top of the gentle hills the stunning glaciers and high peaks all around us. Swimming and paddling in the refreshing sea under a warm sun is a stunning experience, especially when a smiling seal is enjoying it with us.
Then we move further inside the fjords, to the Kangerlussuaq glacier, here we explore and discover several natural wonders, more seals, icebergs, lights, coloured cliffs and stone.
But it is now time to start our voyage towards the South, and to a bit of civilisation.
Reaching the Hutchinson Glacier
First we will stop at the Aputitek island, where a weather station stands amongst the ruins, all in front of the huge southern side of the Hutchinson Glacier. Then a long passage, under the endless daylight, until the island of Milait and the Kruuses Fjord area, looking over to the shining icecap overhead. Humpback whales are feeding and playing around us, coming out of the water.
A big patch of thick sea-ice prevents us from reaching Nualik from the north. So off we go again, we drift off around the ice and decided to aim for Milait island instead. Very little ice is on our route, but again a narrow band of very concentrated ice stops us from reaching this anchorage. Same story repeats for another three potential anchorages along the coast!
Hiking at Kap Gustav Holm
We finally reach a quiet bowl anchorage just after the Kap Gustav holm, and we decide to do a full days hiking until we reach the top of the 1,000m mountain that stands above us; we are now above the two biggest glaciers of the coast, Steenstrup and Laube, the view is stunning and we stay there for hours to enjoy it – looking at the white tailed eagles, and the slowly moving icebergs that drift southward off the horizon. Finally, we decide to go back to our base camp – the sailboat – to share a meal and chat endlessly about the marvels of this forbidden coast.
This “forbidden coast” does have its smooth sides as well. Here we will spend time kayaking, hiking and snorkelling, as well as fishing for the delicious Arctic Char. Great feasts were cooked up in the boat’s galley with this lovely fish – fried, smoked, baked whole, made into sushi, sashimi or, ceviche – all recipes will be explored.
The north eastern wind has started to blow gently, after more than a week of dead calm. We seize the opportunity to jump to our next stop, and unfurling the Genoa we sail at good speed off the coast, to avoid the growlers ; we need to keep a constant watch ahead of us, to spot them well ahead and avoid them. We finally enter in a completely closed bay, where dozens of small rivers offer us plenty of fresh water to fill our water tanks. We can look now over more rocky than icy mountains, and the sea is becoming almost warm, allowing to do some snorkeling in a crystal clear water.
Reaching the last anchorage in Kulusuk
After another day of sailing, we enter the Ammassalik Fjord, and enter the bay of Tassilaq, the capital town of the East Greenland – welcomed by a red sunset and the concert of hundreds of husky dogs. The multi coloured village is ahead of us, quietly living at the southern end of this beautiful wild coast we have explored during these two weeks. In few days, after some sailing into the fjord, and visiting other small settlements with exotic names as Tinitequilaq or Kummiuut – we will anchor in Kulusuk, the airport’s harbour from where you will take a flight back to Iceland, with a last glance over the mountains, the ice and the sea, so blue under the summer arctic light.
The boat and her crew will soon start their next dreamy voyage around the mysterious north.
Tips for adventure sailing in the Arctic
1. Boats and ice
Sailboats and ice are not incompatible, as long as you consider solid and well build boats – numerous GRP boats are sailing in the Arctic and Antarctic, without any damages. It is amazing to see a “plastic” hull simply breaking a small growler. Anyway, when the ice is too thick or dense, whatever boat you have, you simply cannot go into it.
So we push the ice, we take forecasts and we observe. In every case, we make a situation assessment, and if it is too risky to go somewhere because of the ice, we go somewhere else – in the summer, depending on the winds and currents, the ice (pack ice as well as berry bits) can move very quickly, and are a very localised phenomenon. It is very unlikely that a whole fjord would be totally clogger by ice, and usually one side of the Fjord (most often the Eastern side) is relatively ice-free.
2. Sailing in the cold!
Cold becomes an issue when you do not have heating – imagine going skiing in the alps without properly heated homes and cars? It is the same for us, we keep constant heating into the boat, and we live in full comfort. However, Greenland in the summer is always above zero, sometimes up to 20°C. Even if water is “refreshingly” cold, it does not mean no bathing – with just a little training, swimming into a 3°C water is at the reach of everybody, and is actually a nice experience, especially if you have a warm shower after.
There is a high probability to encounter thick fog on the East Greenland coast. The fog gives a stunning ambiance to the surroundings – adding a lot of mystery in our expedition. However, this is an “advection fog”, so it clears several times a day, when the wind changes. Close to the land, it disappears completely, so there are no consequences on our ability to hike ashore.
When it is necessary to sail into the fog, our radar is very efficient and accurate.
Despite the lack of nautical information on this coast, several anchorages exists all along the way ; with a bit of logical thinking and experience, it is relatively easy to find a good anchorage, where you can be sheltered by the wind, the swell, and of course the icebergs. Most of the anchorages we found in the fjords or the bowls were really cosy and nice – much more comfortable than those you find in the Mediterranean or the Caribbeans – and of course, they are entirely deserted!
5. The katabatic winds
Sometimes the dense cold air above the ice sheet runs towards the sea in a Piteraq gust, where they can be sudden and strong – however, they are quite rare in the middle of the summer, and we have never experienced it. When at anchor, a good holding anchorage, properly set, is our best option – and when at sea, we can instantly reduce sails to avoid a knocked down.