“La Datcha” was delivered last November and in a short time, she captured the social media. By all means she is a beautiful yacht with intriguing technical novelties that rightfully attracted people’s attention. Her expedition capacity only adds to the general appeal, aligning with the human desire to explore new places, discover pristine waters and her ice class capabilities further expands those possibilities.
Expedition yachts appeared in the 1990s and among the first and larger expedition yachts was “Arctic P”, a converted ice breaker tug. At that time, there were several refits coming into the market, with the same approach of old ice class tugs reinvented as yachts. In a way this has been a good recycling method, taking advantage of reinforced hulls designed for polar areas, who’s service life ended and through the refit were given another potential.
By 2000 this trend is further amplified and purposely expedition yachts are built, like “Pelorus” and a strong segment is established. Reaching 2020 we see so many different proposals from different shipyards, in various sizes for all budgets.
Although expedition yachts are not necessarily designed to explore the polar regions, many are. It is interesting to point out that as per present rules a non ice class ship can enter sail in the region between 7/10 and 1/10 (classification of ice coverage) in the ice covered region with due care and many adventurers take their chances with it. Authorities have drafted regulations to moderate operations in the polar areas, such as the polar code. Yet the later is a combination of building philosophy and operations, permitting broad interpretation of the requirements. Ideally builders and operators have to collaborate while making the systems, to ensure that it can effectively work under harsh environments with the expertise of the crew, but in many occasions the operators are not involved during the design phase.
Looking from the explorers perspective, it opens possibilities for monumental experiences but what is the perspective of nature and local inhabitants? What do the indigenous populations say or what would wild life add, if it could?
Prime focus of expedition yachts is the polar areas, i.e. the Arctic and the Antarctic. These regions differ a lot, the arctic is surrounded by land & is affected by the onshore activities as well, while the Antarctic is amidst sea, hence more protected. The ice in the Arctic has been steadily decreasing since 1978 and is thinner by 40%. The ocean keeps getting warmer and the ice growth during winter period gets smaller. Past December is ranked in third place from the bottom in respect of ice. Past June in Verkonjansk the highest temperature of 38°C was recorded.
On the other side, the Antarctic is surrounded by sea, therefore is less susceptible to climate change. Sharp decline has been noted only south of South America. Yet larger variations of ice coverage have been noticed between winter and summer periods.
At this point I would like to point out some of the reasons necessitating to maintain the polar areas iced. They are white and reflect sun rays back to the atmosphere, unlike the ocean, where the sun rays are absorbed. So if the polar regions are covered with water, earth temperature will raise significantly. The water level is not affected by the melted ocean ice, but will be increased by the land based ice. For example melted ice from Greenland can endanger many coastal cities in the Atlantic.
Another adherent phenomenon with the thawing of permafrost is the release of trapped carbon, like CO2 and methane that have been stored there and upon their release will further accelerate earth warming by the greenhouse effect with adverse knock on effects.
Unfortunately we are all also aware of the possibility of an accident. In present regulations and procedures there are so many measures to avoid oil spills, yet they still happen and local communities are faced with their consequences, despite the prompt response either by the manager of the ship or national authorities. What can the response be for a sole ship crossing the northern route? According to IMO Resolution A.1024 (26) “The remoteness of the area makes rescue or clean up operations difficult and costly”.
Ships under the polar code are equipped to sustain their complement for days, till rescue comes. They have large storages for provisions, advances garbage management equipment and procedures and more spare parts for servicing onboard. It is designed to provide safety for the people on board. Yet how is it covering the indigenous people?
For them hunting & fishing is vital and as the transition period between summer and winter diminishes, their ability to stock up goes down the drains. As the ice gets thinner, snow mobiles are too heavy to slide on the ice and their transport relies only on helicopters that are not always available. Unexpected storms are becoming the norm, as the atmosphere changes. Generally their existence is threatened.
People are not the only inhabitants of the arctic. Many fish and mammals live on both polar regions and have seen their environment getting smaller, food opportunities disappearing, along with their survival.
I understand the allure of an expedition yacht, it can be a trip of a lifetime, but are we ready to risk another natural, manmade catastrophe? Norway, while a main oil producer, is considering to impose rules that accept zero CO2 emissions by 2026 in the fjords. Is it worth looking into similar principles for the northern route as well?