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Cold navigation: sailing in the Arctic

How many people want to sail only in a bathing suit, the white sails of their sailboat contrasting with a clear blue sky, while the comforting warmth of the sun caresses their matte skin?

Certainly a great many, just look at the number of sailboats plying the warm, crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean!

However, many are attracted by the opposite, cold sailing, traversing snow-whitened lands, and zigzagging between icebergs and sea ice.

Après les tropiques c'est l'heure de la navigation en eaux froides

After the tropics, it's time for cold-water sailing

After more than 14,000 nautical miles sailing in the warm waters of the tropics, I felt the call of the North, the call of Arctic navigation, and it was in the middle of February that this call became a reality: convoying a 68-foot Garcia from the Breton waters of Roscoff to the icy waters of northern Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle, at Bodø.

This 1,500-nautical-mile voyage took us through all kinds of atmospheres, with wet, hot, windy, calm, and icy days, and this is what I learned from it.


Navigating winter lows

Sailing the North Sea in the middle of February means keeping up with the passage of winter lows. It's not uncommon to have violent wind systems crossing this sea every 3 or 4 days, bringing with them very rough conditions and big seas. And in the North, when they do form, it's no mean feat.

We were at the northern tip of Scotland, and our next port of call was Florø, in southern Norway. We had a crossing ahead of us lasting around 3 days, but one low-pressure system followed another, leaving us little choice. After a few days of waiting, when we had a small 3-day weather window in sight, we jumped at the chance to cast off and cross the North Sea: the race against the clock had just begun.

The first day was marked by light winds and heavy, uncomfortable seas due to the residual swell from the low-pressure system that had just passed in front of us the day before. The second day was pleasant and sunny, and we took advantage of it to get some rest and prepare for the next stage, which promised to be more difficult. On the third day, as predicted, we were hit by a cold front which caught up with us during the night, just a few hours before the finish. 60-knot gusts and seas with 9-meter waves reminded us of the power of nature as we covered the final miles before finding a well-deserved refuge.


Navigation in the Fjords

Fjord sailing has its advantages and disadvantages.

The first advantage is obvious from the moment you enter the first fjord: it's magnificent, it's awe-inspiring, it's silent as your crew watches in awe as the cliffs fall into the deep fjord water.

The second advantage is the protection it offers. There can be a monstrous swell at sea, but in the fjords, you only feel a tiny fraction of it, and the difference is felt as soon as you step out of this protection. On several occasions, we went from pleasant, peaceful sailing to having to manage seasickness and crew when we had to leave the shelter of a fjord, expose ourselves to the sea swell, and rush to the mouth of the next fjord.

Un spectacle de tous les instants

A show to remember

That said, this type of sailing also comes with its drawbacks.

The first is the wind, which in most cases is unstable, non-existent, or, on the contrary, exacerbated by the venturi effect. The wind channeled by the fjord then follows its direction, leading to a full headwind, in which case days are spent tacking every 20 minutes, or a full tailwind (a situation rarely encountered in our experience of sailing up north).

In addition to this inconvenient wind direction, there are violent variations in wind strength, from a pleasant 15-knot breeze to 30-knot or more in the space of a bend in the fjord.

The second disadvantage, which follows from the first, is that navigation requires constant vigilance. Not only are there the radical wind shifts that call for rapid maneuvers, sail changes, reefing, and complete reefing, but also the structure of the fjords themselves, which form veritable labyrinths. Exitless lanes, narrow passages, pronounced current effects - beware of those who haven't done their homework on nautical charts!

Patagonian anchorage

Whether navigating the fjords or the cluster of islands dotted along the Norwegian coast, there are plenty of opportunities to stop off and enjoy a piece of paradise.

That said, to do so safely, it is often necessary to use the Patagonian anchorage, where long mooring lines are brought ashore on either side of the yacht. This technique is used when the seabed is too deep for anchoring, or when the anchorage is very narrow and the sailboat's movements around its anchor could cause it to end up on the shore.

L'ancre et trois amarres, de quoi dormir sur les deux oreilles

Anchor and three mooring lines, for a good night's sleep

Once the mooring has been studied, a highly coordinated dance ensues to bring the various mooring lines ashore with the help of the dinghy, while the helmsman maintains control of the boat throughout the maneuver.

An exercise in clear, two-way communication!


The equipment

It's one thing to be cold in the warm lands of the Caribbean, but quite another to be cold in the North. That's where equipment comes into its own.

While in the South, a bathing suit or flip-flops may be optional, a good watch jacket, gloves, and warm boots are essential.


For my part, here's my must-have equipment list:

- Thermal underwear: having a good warm first layer is a must. For the top, I use this Merino pullover, and I have to say that although I had my doubts when I bought it, I've never regretted it! Super comfy and warm, it made all the difference throughout my sailing.

-Technical pants: when the temperature dropped, for example during the night, I used pants like these to give me double protection.

-Down jacket: the comfort and warmth of a good down jacket is rarely a luxury. Whether indoors or out, it's always been with me. arement un luxe.

-Merino waterproof socks: nothing worse than cold or wet feet! I discovered these socks from DexShell during a previous crossing, and immediately fell for them! Water may accidentally get into the boots, but feet stay dry!

-Fishing gloves: these good fishing gloves may lack aesthetic appeal, but they'll be your hands' best friend! Waterproof and warm, they make all the difference.

-Watch jacket and watch dungarees: I used these dungarees and jackets, and was pleasantly surprised by the value for money! It's always nice to be able to equip yourself well without having to spend a fortune.

-Snow boots: the aim is to keep your feet warm and dry. For my part, I opted for 100% waterproof snow boots!

Un bon équipement fera toute la différence!

The right equipment makes all the difference!

And now you're ready to face the sub-zero temperatures of the Far North, because as they say, there are no bad temperatures, only bad-dressed people.

If you have any questions while reading this, let us know and we'll be happy to answer them!

On that note, have a nice day, and long live cold-water sailing!


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