Q&A: Would You Sail In The High Latitudes In A Fibreglass Boat?

Question: Would you cruise the high latitudes in a fibreglass hull?

Answer: There are two parts to the answer: Depends on the fibreglass boat, and depends on the area of the high latitudes. (On this last I will restrict my thoughts to the Arctic and North Atlantic since I have no Antarctic experience.)

Given that the boat is a good offshore vessel capable of keeping the sea in heavy weather, we would want to see the following for high latitude sailing:

  1. The boat should be constructed strongly enough to withstand a full speed grounding. There are far too many fin-keeled fibreglass boats that will suffer catastrophic hull failure at the keel to hull joint in the event of even a slow speed grounding.
  2. The boat should be able to stand up to heavy weather at sea without leaking through the decks or hull. Many fibreglass boats are so flexible that as soon as they are really stressed offshore they start to leak from every port, hatch and chain plate. There are few things more unpleasant than coming below to a wet bunk after a long watch in cold, windy conditions.
  3. Water tight bulkheads (good idea for a metal boat too). Collision with ice—or, particularly in the Barents Sea, logs—is always a possibility and fibreglass, no matter how strong, tends to crack when hit, unlike aluminum or steel, which stretch a long way before rupturing, thereby absorbing much of the blow.
  4. Insulation. An uninsulated fibreglass boat will weep condensation in cold weather wetting everything below—miserable. Most metal boats are insulated with foam.

The where:

  • Svalbard (Spitsbergen), west coast of the island of Spitsbergen: Sure
  • Svalbard (Spitsbergen), Hinlopen Strait and Nordaustlandet: No
  • Greenland, west coast to Disco Island: Sure
  • Greenland, east coast: No
  • Baffin Island: No
  • Labrador: Sure

The places I have answered “No” to have high ice concentrations, poor or non-existent charting and little or no help is available to a damaged boat. Having said all that, fibreglass boats having few or none of the features mentioned above have made safe and seamanlike voyages to the high latitudes. The foremost example being Willy Ker who has made a series of incredible voyages to both the Arctic and Antarctic—that make ours in Morgan’s Cloud look like a walk in the park—in a standard Contessa 32. Like so many things in cruising there is no right or wrong answer, just opinions, of which this is ours.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 18 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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