- CAPTAIN'S LOG / Antarctica
- 28 November 2019
FORBIDDING AND BEAUTIFULLY ETHEREAL, Antarctica is yachting’s final frontier. Unlike anywhere else on earth, a journey to the White Continent requires exceptional planning and adaptability, but the rewards are more than worth it.
Whales are in abundance and provide memorable encounters, whether you’re on the yacht or out in the tenders. The comical antics of penguins are sure to delight guests and crew alike, and the scenery – mile-long icebergs, hanging glaciers and sunsets that linger for hours – is best explored by sea.
Visiting Antarctica is an absolute privilege that few are able to experience. There are, however, few destinations more challenging than Antarctica.
Putting aside the paperwork challenges of permit applications for the time being, as captain you have to contend with poorly charted areas, unpredictable and severe weather, a lack of any facilities or infrastructure and, of course, significant ice concentrations. Expect long nights on the bridge and a crew that is often exhausted at the end of the expedition – both from the extra work responsibilities and their desire to stay up late in order to experience every magical moment.
Despite the challenges, Antarctica is a prime yachting destination for the well-prepared yacht. Below are some considerations before you set sail for the White Continent.
Many captains wonder – and quite rightly so – can my yacht safely make it to Antarctica? The reality is that a wide variety of yachts – from small sailboats to the largest expedition superyachts – have visited successfully. Generally, most yachts can reach Antarctica and deliver a safe and meaningful guest experience.
However, not all yachts are created equal, and not all experiences in Antarctica will be the same. The capabilities of your yacht will absolutely determine what you can do and where you can go when south.
True expedition yachts with a significant ice class will be able to push further and deliver unique experiences well away from other vessels.
Less robust vessels will be quite limited in the geography they can navigate and the season you can visit.
TendersLeave your limo tender behind! The combination of the ice and making landings on rocky bottoms means that conventional yacht tenders are simply not cut out for Antarctic operations. While it may not look elegant, the simple but sturdy Zodiac is a necessity for getting guests ashore. Be prepared to bring at least one on your expedition south.
Gone are the old Wild West days in Antarctica when hardly any ships visited and there was little defined process for getting permission to go. Today, there is a long permit process required, and the rules and regulations when you get to Antarctica dictate everything from waste management to wildlife interaction.
Countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty have seen the growth in private yacht visits recently and are paying increased attention to ensure that yachts that don’t get a permit or behave contrary to guidelines are properly prosecuted.
Conventional yacht toys such as jet skis are not within the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty and would not be welcome. Ensuring the guests know these limitations well in advance will help avoid unpleasant conversations and explanations once in Antarctica.
Don’t skimp when it comes to the permit process; you are visiting a pristine wildlife haven and an improperly documented yacht creates a bad and lasting impression for the entire industry.
Most yachts choose to begin their Antarctica expedition in either Ushuaia, Argentina or Punta Arenas, Chile. Both are true Antarctic gateways. Ushuaia has greater resources and is better equipped for superyacht requests. It is also a full day further south, so choosing your weather window to cross the Drake is easier. Its principal downside is cost: port and pilotage costs are significantly more expensive than in Punta Arenas.
The Drake Passage is infamous in reputation but in reality, most yachts will cross just fine with only moderate sea conditions (four-metre swells) with proper planning.
Leaving enough of a proper weather window is essential; vessels that get into trouble are the ones that create an overly rigid or hurried timeline. The storm systems are fierce but also move quickly; a willingness to delay passage by a few days will usually result in a much calmer crossing. Still, forecasts are not perfectly accurate and systems develop quickly, so always prepare the yacht for the worst.
While owners may like to know where the yacht will be at any given moment six months in advance, the reality is that in Antarctica, a fixed itinerary is impossible to define beforehand. Weather, wind and ice will invariably change the planned itinerary, or wildlife may force a change of plans. Even the commercial expedition cruise ships will impact your plans.
Have a high-level game plan set out in advance, but know that a final, exact itinerary will change several times throughout your time in Antarctica.
Antarctica is now a popular destination for expedition cruise ships carrying between 100 and 500 passengers. It is inevitable that you will see other ships, as almost 30 ships at a time are operating during the peak of the season. Working with an IAATO operator will ensure that you can coordinate with the other ships and that the required wilderness etiquette is preserved, with no two vessels at the same landing at the same time.
IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, sets out almost all of the guidelines that you will need to follow when in Antarctica. The organisation, made up of different operators and business associated with the continent, has helped define and manage tourism for 25 years and is considered a model for sustainable, responsible tourism models.
In addition to the regulations, IAATO operators work together to form a collective, mutually dependent Emergency Response Plan and implement a scheduling system to keep no two vessels in the same place at once.
Respect for the environment and leaving only a minimal impact on the continent should be a priority of every visiting yacht.
All yachts visiting Antarctica should work with a full IAATO member like EYOS that has been voted in as an Operator.
Despite the common perceptions of Antarctica, it won’t be that cold on the Peninsula during the summer months. Expect seawater temperatures around 0 degrees Celsius and air temperatures ranging between -5 to 5 degrees Celsius.
Weather can turn very quickly, however, with katabatic winds up to 60 knots or more suddenly materialising with little obvious warning – particularly to those new to interpreting Antarctica’s weather signals. Expect some days of cold and wind, but good expedition leaders can often still find places to tuck in and make a landing.
The commercial expedition industry in Antarctica generally runs from November until March. However, the peak times to visit are from mid- December through January. Then you can expect the longest periods of daylight, a plethora of wildlife, and toward the end of that time, comparatively ice-free waters.
If your yacht stays for a full-season deployment in Antarctica without frequent returns to South America, you’ll naturally worry about securing enough fresh provisions. A limited amount of fresh vegetables and goods can be brought down on the charter flights with the guests; your expedition provider can arrange this.
Items that are highly specific or particularly high-quality are not always going to be available at the last minute, so be sure to plan ahead.
Antarctica's top six
Transiting the Panama Canal