An ordinary boat can enable extraordinary things. Skier and sailor Juho Karhu has spent two winters in the Arctic Circle on board his Beneteau Idylle. David Pugh reports
Picture this: clad in a hat, down jacket and carpet slippers, a sailor sits cross-legged on the bow of his anchored yacht. In the background, across limpid, wintry water, a low tundra rises, rolling towards the snow-shrouded hills beyond.
The sailor is Juho Karhu, and the boat a 1986 Beneteau Idylle 11.50 named Sylvia. For the past year and a half, they have been cruising the waters north of the Arctic Circle, at times accompanied by friends. Juho, 33, grew up in eastern Finland and is a keen skier who honed his skills while living and studying in Austria and in previous visits to the Arctic.
“While skiing on the coastal mountains I always kept looking at the islands further out in the sea,” said Juho. “I could see there was good skiing, but it was inaccessible without a boat.” Sylvia is his golden ticket to sail, kitesurf and ski in some of the most remote spots on the planet.
Juho started sailing aged 23, from Finland’s coastal capital, Helsinki. “When I picked up sailing I really got into it and started racing immediately,” he explained. “I spent a season in Sydney sailing a Laser dinghy. I crewed on different kinds of boats, and we also had an active match racing team, which I skippered for two seasons. Although we did train a lot, it was never really that serious.”
But it was the purchase of Sylvia in 2017 which ultimately led to Juho spending two Arctic winters on board a largely unmodified production cruising boat. “Although I did plan to move into it, I didn’t originally plan to sail to the Arctic when I bought it.
“But when the idea of Northern Norway and Svalbard came to me, it also quickly became obvious that it would be easiest just to use the boat that I already own. Of course, budget restrictions were a part of this too,” he explained.
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Equipped for the cold
Juho moved on board in the spring of 2018 after a punishing few months refitting Sylvia for Arctic sailing. Alongside carrying out maintenance or repairs to the sails, rigging, engine and other systems, he fitted a Refleks diesel stove to warm the cabin in the cold weather, which provides a central dry heat in addition to an extra hotplate for cooking.
“Dryness is more important than heat,” explains Juho. “If your boat is dry and you have dry clothes then you’ll be comfortable. I always wear a layering system with merino underwear and Helly Hansen offshore series outerwear.”
The stove supplements the original forced-air diesel heater, and Juho reckons that the heating efficiency is roughly the same. A clever addition to note is the addition of a pair of fans to recirculate the heat from the stove, self-powered via a Peltier element from the temperature differential between the flue and the fans’ heatsinks.
Aware that warming an uninsulated boat is less than ideal for the environment and also a significant expense to a low-budget sailor, Juho keeps the heat to a minimum at night, allowing the temperature to fall as low as 5°C. Outside, night-time temperatures in winter can drop to -15°C on the coast, with inland temperatures down to -30°C.
He also makes good use of electric fan heaters when shore power is available. “It’s slightly more expensive than diesel,” he said, “but more sustainable.” Beyond heating, Juho has also fitted a careful selection of essential electronics to help him communicate and navigate in the sometimes-hostile waters.
“I chose Raymarine, primarily because they’re known for quality equipment that you can trust,” he said. “For me, durability is top priority. The stuff needs to be as maintenance-free as possible. In the north I don’t have an easy access to maintenance facilities, spares etc.” On board, Sylvia now boasts an EV-200 linear autopilot pack, a RAY70 VHF with AIS receiver, Raymarine’s Quantum radar and an Axiom 9in multifunction display.
“I did all the installation work myself, in fact I did all the wiring after already having left Helsinki, while we were anchored in the outer archipelago in Finland,” explained Juho. “All are connected to the Axiom screen, which is mounted on a 360° rotating base in the cockpit.
“This allows me to see all the necessary information and also control the autopilot while sailing from one central point. The EV-200 autopilot pack with the linear drive is essential for me. When sailing solo the autopilot is always steering – except when going in and out of harbour.”
Why sail in the Arctic?
The Arctic is no friend to pre-planned cruising – booking a week’s holiday months in advance is never going to pay off in this area. “In winter,” says Juho, “the weather is awful, to be honest, with low pressure systems coming from seemingly every direction. Then I only sail shorter distances, 20-40 miles per day, and I always try to wait for good weather to do so.
“You need time,” he continues. “When the storms roll in, it’s best to hunker down in a small fishing harbour or protected anchorage. If you go out when it’s freezing and windy the seawater spray will freeze on the deck immediately, making for a nice skating rink, so I try to avoid that as much as possible. Luckily, as I live on board, I can choose when to sail.”
In summer, however, although it’s not really warm – last summer only saw a couple of days when the temperature topped 12°C – the winds are easier and more predictable, making for some quite good sailing conditions. For Juho, the skiing is a powerful draw, as is the solitude, scenery and general ambience.
“It’s just more wild here,” he explains. “It’s something that you can’t get in the Caribbean. I’ve worked two seasons there and also spent half a year in Australia, and they feel a lot tamer by comparison.”
Not everyone would like Arctic sailing, but in Juho’s opinion some of the advantages of the area are overlooked. Where he is constantly asked about the cold by interviewers and followers on social media, people rarely ask tropical sailors about sweating and how hot it gets. “For me personally the tropics are just too hot, too uncomfortable,” says Juho. “So in many ways I find the Arctic more comfortable than the warmer places.
“If you’re thinking of sailing here, go for it. Norway itself is coastal sailing with a lot of protected harbours – there’s a good place to tuck in every 20-30 miles. If the weather is bad then you just wait. Your biggest resource should be time – you need plenty of that. And if you stay on for the winter, the ‘whale season’, when they come to the northern fjords to feed on herring, it is amazing.”
Navigating the frozen North
Juho sails half the time alone, and the remainder with his girlfriend, Sohvi, or other crew – who have shown a marked preference for visiting in the summer. Keeping the onboard systems simple makes single- and short-handed sailing easier, and ensures Juho has the best navigation information available.
“Sailing to Svalbard we had to carefully study the ice maps, especially because we crossed the Barents Sea in May: the normal cruising season begins in July. We sailed through the ice a few times, but only in calm conditions.
“The Quantum radar can detect the bigger bits of ice and this is certainly useful, especially because the southern tip of Svalbard is often covered in fog. We experienced this, sailing for two days in very thick fog. Despite the radar it was awful,” he remembered. “Up here in the north it’s not just the fog that can make your life difficult, but also the darkness and snow flurries,” he continued. “They can very quickly reduce visibility down to less than 100m.”
For passage planning, and as backup to the Navionics charts on the Raymarine system, Juho uses the SeaPilot app on his mobile phone and tablet. “Up here, where things are sometimes badly charted, I use them in combination with the other charts on the Axiom plotter and on my computer,” he explained.
“I like to have two different sources of map data, because inevitably all charts will have some kind of mistakes, so if I’m going somewhere sketchy – a new, badly charted anchorage, for example – then I like to check both SeaPilot and Navionics, plus satellite pictures if they are available.”
Choosing a boat
Sailing in extreme latitudes – especially during the winter months – will always pose challenges, but Juho remains upbeat. “A normal uninsulated fibreglass boat will handle the conditions in northern Norway perfectly well; the only problem can lie with the crew, but so far I’ve done just fine,” he explains.
“Things like a snow shovel, and a rubber hammer to knock away the accumulated ice on the deck, do come in handy – during the winter I think I use them more than the winch handles. I’ve had some other small issues with the boat as well, like the mainsail track filling with ice and the toilet hoses freezing.
“The worst problem I’ve experienced so far was that last winter my roller furling headsail refused to work. The lower unit was shot, allowing water to enter the bearings, where it would freeze when the temperature got below zero. This was potentially dangerous, because sometimes the unit would freeze while sailing, which would mean a lot of trouble if the sail was only half-furled, in which case I couldn’t furl the sail in, or lower it either.
“I had to replace the whole lower drum. Not really such a huge undertaking, but in -10°C, in total darkness during the polar night in December it was not a fun job, and perhaps one of the few moments when I thought: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”
Now a confirmed Arctic liveaboard, Juho has plans to change Sylvia for a more conventional expedition yacht for these latitudes. He said: “Next summer I want to transit the White Sea-Baltic canal through Russia, then spend the winter sailing the Baltic Sea.
In some ways, this will be more challenging than winter sailing in northern Norway, because large parts of the Baltic tend to freeze during the winter. I might try overwintering in the ice somewhere in the outer archipelago.
“The whole winter in the Baltic will be preparation for the future trips,” he continued. “I have my sights set on ideas like overwintering in Greenland, then transiting the North West Passage to Alaska. Overwintering in the ice is not possible in a fibreglass boat, so I’m actively looking for a 40-45ft steel or aluminium expedition-style boat that fits my budget.”
Life beyond sailing
Juho is a translator by trade, and, supported by good 4G mobile coverage in north Norway, he is able to work on board his boat. In addition, in between sailing, skiing and shovelling snow, Juho maintains a blog and several social media channels, and has actively assisted several scientific research projects.
“The Arctic environment is incredibly fragile,” he points out. “It’s not just climate change that affects this area, but also other human impacts, like extractive industries and tourism – such as us. Sohvi is writing her PhD on the impacts of oil and gas industry to human security here in the north.”
While in Svalbard, Juho collected snow samples for the Sval-POPs project, which is jointly run by Gdansk Technical University and the Italian Institute for the Dynamics of Environmental Processes.
The research uses snow chemistry to conduct spatial comparison of the distribution of persistent organic pollutants (POPs); man-made compounds that travel to the Arctic in various ways, particularly from long-range transport, and are already causing significant damage. Juho’s travels by sea and snow have provided the opportunity to collect samples from locations normally inaccessible to the science team.
In the spring of 2019 he also sailed and hiked to some glaciers that are only accessible by boat to take drone photographs of glacier tongues for the Glacier Atlas, compiled by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. The atlas is used by scientists to study the effects of climate change on the glaciers, and by other Norwegian authorities to inform hydropower projects and other infrastructure affected by glacier melt.
“I strongly believe we should trust the scientists, that’s why I think it’s important to support the scientific research that relates to nature,” he said. “Some of the glaciers that I photographed are a lot smaller than they are depicted on the maps, both in Norway and Svalbard.
“I’d like to use my boat more as a platform for scientific research, and that’s a definite consideration in choosing my new boat,” he concluded. “I’m also looking for a Baltic-related project to support next winter.”
Tips for northern sailing
Fishing is king in north Norway. There are few amenities specifically for leisure sailors, but basic facilities exist for small fishing boats, and mechanical services are easily found. Sailing equipment can only be found in the cities.
Small harbours can be found every 20-30 miles. The smaller ones are not suitable for big yachts, but boats under 45ft and 2.5m draught should not have any trouble. Diesel and water are available in almost all harbours, although water may need to be carried in cans during the winter. Boats can overwinter in larger harbours, such as Tromsø, Alta, Hammerfest and Honningsvåg.
Anchorages should be chosen carefully. Not many are suitable for all weather conditions: watch out for extreme depths and katabatic winds near steep mountain faces. Carry at least 100m of rode/chain, and a heavy anchor. The Gulf Stream keeps most of the coast ice-free through the whole winter, but sheltered waters may freeze. Watch out for a gel-like consistency in the water just before it freezes. A breeze will tend to clear the ice.
High season for visiting yachts starts at the end of June and continues to the end of August. Although the west coast remains free of ice for most of the year, sea ice can come around the southern end of the island and block the fjords at any time. Drifting glacier and sea ice form the biggest risk to visiting yachts.
Protection from polar bears should not be taken lightly. Signal pistols and rifles can be rented on Svalbard – just don’t be surprised if they are marked with swastikas, as the Nazis left plenty behind and they’re still in use.
Check out what paperwork you will need beforehand. The governor of Svalbard enforces various requirements on boats and their crew, including mandatory search and rescue insurance. You’ll also need a ration card if you wish to buy alcohol.
You can see more of Juho’s adventures at:
First published in the May 2020 edition of Yachting World.