A Guide to Arctic Sailing with Rubicon 3

The Arctic Circle is a unique region located at the top of the world. It includes territories of eight countries: the United States (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland. Covering only 4% of the Earth’s surface, the Arctic Circle is at 66.5 degrees north.

Definition of the Arctic Circle

The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line of latitude located at approximately 66 degrees 34 minutes north of the Equator. It marks the southernmost point of the Arctic, a region at the top of the Earth. This line signifies one of the five major circles of latitude that map the Earth, including the Antarctic Circle, the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer, and the Tropic of Capricorn.

What causes the Arctic Circle to exist is the tilt of the Earth’s axis about its orbit around the Sun. The Earth is tilted at an angle of about 23.5 degrees from the plane of its orbit. This tilt is responsible for the seasonal variations we experience throughout the year. The Arctic Circle defines the boundary within which, for at least one day a year, there are 24 hours when the sun does not set (around the June solstice) and a period of 24 hours when the sun does not rise (around the December solstice).

The Midnight Sun

The Midnight Sun is a natural phenomenon occurring in the Arctic summer, where the sun remains visible at the local midnight. This continuous daylight results from the Earth’s tilt, allowing regions within the Arctic Circle to experience sunlit nights for a period extending from late May to late July. The phenomenon provides a unique opportunity for extended activities and observations in the polar regions, significantly influencing the local ecology and human culture. The perpetual daylight also offers a distinct and surreal landscape, marked by enhanced vibrancy and prolonged golden hours, casting the Arctic in an ethereal light.

The Arctic Regions We Explore

Our Arctic season starts with the sail from Scotland to the Faroe Islands. They are not in the Arctic, but they’re well on the way. This route is a mixture of coastal sailing and exploring on the west coast of Scotland, a c. 2.5-day offshore sail to the Faroe Islands and more coastal exploration in the islands. The wildlife, extraordinary landscapes and culture make this a very special area. There are also routes we sail between Scotland and the east coast of Iceland that go via the Faroes. For those who love offshore sailing, the route from the Faroe Islands to Arctic Norway and the Lofoten Islands is the Rubicon 3 classic. It gives some exploration of the Faroe Islands, a 600-mile offshore passage that crosses the Arctic Circle at sea and makes landfall on the beautiful northwest coast of Norway. Looking for some coastal exploration in one of the most beautiful cruising grounds in the world? You have to come and sail in the Lofoten Islands. There is also our offshore passage from Northern Norway to Iceland. Both of these passages constitute qualifying passages for those looking to do their RYA Yachtmaster Ocean. For those looking to head far north to the polar regions, we have a passage that sails from Tromso in Norway to Svalbard, which is in reality a group of islands, the main one being Spitzbergen, and thereafter our exploration of the west and north coasts of Svalbard. Love glaciers, polar bears and walrus? This is for you. Perhaps the ultimate offshore voyage for those who love arctic sailing is the route from Svalbard to Iceland via Jan Mayan.

The Arctic Sailing Season

The Arctic sailing season spans from late May to early September. This period is characterized by reduced likelihood of severe weather and the retreat of sea ice, enabling us to navigate through previously inaccessible routes and you will find it less cold than you might expect. Water temperature however remains cold, ranging from around 18°C (64.4°F) in the south, down to 3.4°C (38.12°F) up in Svalbard. The Arctic Summer marks the unveiling of breathtaking landscapes and abundant wildlife and it is a delight to meet the local people. The near 24-hour daylight allows us to have as much time sailing and exploring as we want. The extent to which the pack ice retreats varies every year, so exactly where we can ail to and explore changes each season. Nonetheless, arctic sailing still has plenty of challenges, including less accurate forecasts, volatile weather conditions, sea ice, exposed shores, ancient charts and few if any facilities beyond what we have on the boat. By early September, the sun is rapidly retreating south and that marks the time for us to get south as quickly as possible and avoid the start of the nasty weather.

Arctic Wildlife

The northern waters are home to a variety of wonderful animals that have adapted to its cold, extreme conditions. Here are some of the most notable species found in this region:

  1. Polar Bears – Top predators on the Arctic ice, polar bears are adapted to a life of hunting seals and navigating vast stretches of ice and snow. You’ll likely see one in Svalbard.
  2. Arctic Foxes – Small, omnivorous creatures with thick white fur that help them blend into the snowy environment. They are known for their resourcefulness and adaptability. These are often seen in Svalbard and Norway.
  3. Walruses – Large marine mammals with distinctive tusks, walruses are adapted to the icy Arctic marine environment, feeding on the ocean floor. Often seen in Svalbard.
  4. Snowy Owls – These large, white owls are well-camouflaged against the snow, hunting for small mammals like lemmings. You will often see these in Norway
  5. Caribou (Reindeer) – Caribou are crucial to indigenous peoples’ livelihood and are known for their long migrations across the Arctic tundra.
  6. Narwhals – Often called the “unicorns of the sea,” narwhals are known for the long, spiral tusks that protrude from their heads, mostly males.
  7. Seals – Various species, including the ringed seal and harp seal, are common in the Arctic, serving as a primary food source for polar bears. You will see these in most of our Arctic locations
  8. Beluga Whales – These small, white whales are easily recognizable by their rounded foreheads and are known for their vocal behavior. These are commonly seen en route to Svalbard from Norway.
  9. Arctic Hares – With their white winter coats, these hares are well adapted to blend into the snowy landscape, avoiding predators.
  10. Lemmings – Small rodents that are a key part of the Arctic food web, experiencing population booms and busts that dramatically affect the entire ecosystem.
  11. Puffins – With their colorful beaks, puffins are seabirds that breed in large colonies on Arctic cliffs, diving into the ocean to catch fish. The Faroes are a great location for Puffin spotting.
  12. Musk Oxen – Prehistoric-looking animals with thick coats and large horns, musk oxen live in herds and are adapted to the harsh Arctic climate.

Legendary Arctic Sailing Expeditions

  1. John Franklin’s Lost Expedition (1845-1848): Perhaps one of the most infamous Arctic voyages, British Royal Navy officer John Franklin set sail with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage. The expedition ended in tragedy, with all crew members perishing, and the ships were lost until their recent discoveries in 2014 and 2016, respectively. The fate of Franklin’s expedition remained one of the Arctic’s greatest mysteries for over a century.
  2. Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram Expedition (1893-1896): Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen embarked on a daring journey aboard the ship Fram, aiming to drift across the Arctic Ocean, locked in the polar ice cap, to reach the North Pole. Although Nansen did not achieve his ultimate goal, the expedition made significant contributions to oceanographic, environmental, and polar research, proving that a drift across the Arctic Ocean was possible.
  3. Roald Amundsen’s Northwest Passage (1903-1906): The first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage was accomplished by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his crew aboard the Gjøa. This expedition marked a significant milestone in Arctic exploration by proving the existence of a navigable sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
  4. The Airship Italia Expedition (1928): Led by Italian General Umberto Nobile, the Airship Italia was an ambitious scientific expedition aimed at reaching the North Pole by air. While the airship did reach the North Pole, it crashed on its return journey, leading to an international rescue effort. The Italia expedition is remembered for its daring, its contribution to polar science, and the dramatic survival story of its crew.
  5. The Transpolar Flights of 1937: Soviet pilot Valery Chkalov led the first flight over the North Pole from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington, in a single-engine aircraft. This feat was soon followed by other Soviet flights, including Mikhail Gromov’s flight from Moscow to San Jacinto, California. These pioneering flights over the Arctic demonstrated the potential for commercial and military aviation routes over the polar region.
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