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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Meet the Author

John

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 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

34 comments … add one
  • Dick Stevenson May 10, 2011, 1:54 pm

    John, I am unaware of any fg sailboat, custom, semi-custom or production that can say they can hit a rock at cruising speed with the keel tip. That said I know of multiple vessels who were insurance write offs after the grounding described. Are there any fg vessels who could not sustain damage? Maybe some full keel external lead boats? But there are few of those being made now.

    • John May 12, 2011, 1:33 pm

      Hi Dick,

      A really good point on the fact that there are really very few FG boats that would pass my test above—probably no modern fin keel ones. Still a high speed grounding is the number one risk in the high latitudes (not ice or weather) and therefore I stick by my recommendation, at least for the places where charting is poor to nonexistent. Probably said criteria is overkill for places like the west coast of Svalbard or Greenland, at least if one is careful.

      Having said that, it would be a real drag to be stuck in either of those places with major keel to hull joint problems.

  • Dick Stevenson May 10, 2011, 2:05 pm

    I also want a quick aside about your throw-away line that your comments are just opinions and there is no right or wrong. I agree and know what you are saying, but would also want your readers to know you are speaking to one’s need to have a safe platform that allows for human errors and bad luck. Your willingness to take a stand on what you feel defines a certain question is very valuable data for those less experienced to formulate their own parameters for adventures, their wish to be to some extent protected (or cushioned) from bad luck or poor judgment. That continuum is where individuals differ markedly. Boats also differ markedly, but much can be said about their seaworthiness for particular endeavors.

    • John May 12, 2011, 1:35 pm

      Hi Dick,

      Again a very good point. I was just trying not to be dogmatic about my opinions—totally out of character for me, as Phyllis will tell you!

  • Doc Rob Aug 18, 2011, 5:54 pm

    If I was specifically choosing a boat for the north or south high latitudes I would prefer steel, insulation and a colin archer design. However, I would not hesitate to take my catamaran north or south, anywhere where floating ice is not an issue (and even that as long as the ice spread makes it avoidable – no pushing it). Condensation will be limited, since wet area is. Grounding is less likely, with a tiny draft. Grounding is also expected in some cats, mine has reinforced hull fins that can take the boats weight and protect the rudders. However, the idea of any vessel surviving a “full speed grounding” is dependent on the speed (my full speed is 16-22 knots) and the ground. Grounding at speed is Captain’s error. I grew up on a shoal draft schooner and spent many a day on the bow, lead line in hand, calling fathoms, rocks, coral heads and such to my skipper. In fact, the finest purpose of a 14yo is to assist their captain and his instruments either by lead lining or going up the mast to spot boat killers. Assuming equal sea worthiness, then the ultimate issue of F-glass in the high latitudes is one of sharp edges from ice or rock. Glass isn’t as good with this as metal. But also remember, no vessel is good with edges (Titanic?). Further, patching glass is easier and finding a place to ground and patch in a cat is very easy relative to other boats. Thus, it is as you say, all opinion.

    • RDE Aug 29, 2012, 8:46 pm

      Hi Doc,

      Since you are one of the rare catamaran fans that visit this web sit, I thought you might enjoy the story of Sierra Cloud, one of the early designs from my friend Kurt Hughes. The boat is built from three layers of doorskin, using Kurt’s cylinder mold method. A few years ago a jet ski rider drove a jet ski into the side at 40 knots. Used a chain saw to get it out! She still looks like new after 24 years, and is still USCG certified as a passenger vessel carrying 50 people at a time on day sails. http://multihullblog.com/page/7/

      Then there is Alii Nui, one of his most recent charter designs and a development from my Sunchaser project. At 21 knots under power she is only at 55% throttle.

    • RDE Aug 29, 2012, 8:48 pm

      The only thing better than surviving a grounding is not grounding at all—–.

      • RDE Aug 29, 2012, 8:53 pm

        Think 20″ draft, retractable daggerboards, kick up rudders, retractable drives, sacrificial bows, and double laminates on the bottom of the hulls.

    • John Aug 30, 2012, 8:36 am

      Hi Rob,

      All good points. I’m not one of those mono-hull sailors that looks down on multi-hulls. In fact far from it, although I have not had much experience with them since skippering a day-charter cat some 35 years ago, I have always been intrigued by the possibilities of two or three hulls.

      I would have no problem going north in the right multi-hull.

  • David mitchell Dec 5, 2011, 11:43 pm

    A good FB boat that can take a good grounding is the Ted Brewer designed Cabot 36. A shoal draft cutter rigged with full keel.
    Lots of fiberglass in all the right places. Boat made in Cape Breton, NS.

  • Bill Roesner Dec 24, 2011, 2:47 pm

    John Gore Grimes from Howth , Ireland made a series of high lattitude / arctic voyages to Svalbard, Zemyla Novola, West Coast Greenland and then East Coast Greenland, with a crew of 5 ( 6 in total ) on a Nicholson 31 ( a full keeled, heavy displacement, transom hung rudder, fiberglass sloop ) back in the late 80’s early 90’s, only suffering a broken port light in a knock down. He was awarded a prestigious Cruising Club of America Blue Water Cruising Club Medal for his efforts. ( and his ability to suffer the discomforts of such close quarters with that many crew ). It can be done in the appropriate vessel.

  • james peto Dec 24, 2011, 6:43 pm

    I would agree that a fibreglass boat is not a good choice for the Hinnlopen Strait if one encounters brash ice as from experience it is liable to abrade / cut through the gel coat:however we collided at over 6 knts with, we believe, a log in our Westerly Oceanlord “Aquayla” this year in Northern Norwegian waters and were able to sail safely back to the UK where it was found that we had shifted the keel and cracked the supporting fibreglass.Our Surveyor pointed out that had we had this accident in a modern light displacement vessel we would probably have sunk.
    Our next yacht will be an Ovni with extra insulation !

    • John Dec 26, 2011, 5:36 pm

      Hi James,

      Wow quite a story, glad you made it back safely. Your experience points out another danger to lightly built boats in the Arctic, particularly the Barents Sea, where there are so many huge logs floating around. As I remember, we saw at least a dozen on our trip to Svalbard in 2002.

  • Patrick Aug 28, 2012, 12:07 pm

    My question as one getting into sailing but looking to sail the high seas and not just sea coasts.
    What model sailboats and materials out of many out there, would be recommended for sailing the artic and antartic or around the horn of Patagonia?
    I’ve a list of about 14, nevertheless would love to hear what you and your readers recommend for any latitude.

    • John Aug 29, 2012, 12:46 pm

      Hi Patrick,

      For that sort of sailing, you would not go far wrong with a Boreal 47.

      Having said that, keep in mind that safe and successful voyaging to challenging places is a lot more about you and your skills and experience than it is about the boat and gear.

      • Steve Aug 29, 2012, 6:11 pm

        Hi John,
        This may be the wrong place for your thoughts on the Boreal 47.
        What are your thoughts between the differences of a Boreal 44 and the 47. Hope I’m not putting you in a bind, I’m just a boat design junky and your thoughts would be welcome.
        For us it was a tough choice between the two. We chose the 44 after much discussion between Tracy, (my wife) and myself about all we have learned from cruising and long passages on different types of boats. Both Boreals are amazing boats we would be happy with a 44 or 47. We are looking forward in June of 2013 to sail away to far off places once again.

        • John Aug 30, 2012, 8:26 am

          Hi Steve,

          Both boats are great, I’m sure you will be really happy with your 44. I’m really no expert on this, but I guess if it were me I might have gone for the 47 simply because I’m a water line length junky.

  • Patrick Mouligne Sep 25, 2012, 3:43 am

    From a very strict engineering (read “non emotional” point of view) there is nothing that a composite laminate cannot do better than steel or aluminum in marine environment.
    It is just a matter of proper choice of composite materials available.
    Any design is, of course, independant of the materials used…
    Cost might be a factor but that is another discussion…

    • John Sep 25, 2012, 9:12 am

      Hi Patrick,

      I’m no engineer, so I may be wrong, but I think that I’m right in saying that although a composite laminate can equal or even exceed (carbon) metals in terms of tensile strength, metals always win on the ductile scale. And it is the ductile nature of metals that makes them such a good material for boat construction since in the event of a grounding or collision with a floating object they will bend, but not puncture.

      It is also much easier to access the condition on a metal boat and to repair it in the event of an accident.

      (Matt, do I have that right?)

  • Nicolas Sep 25, 2012, 6:25 am

    Hi John
    Has Willie Ker written on his adventures, or has anyone written about them?
    Thanks.

    • John Sep 25, 2012, 9:18 am

      Hi Nick,

      Yes, Willie has written articles on his trips, but they were in magazines and the journals of the RCC and OCC, so I don’t think they are readily available

  • Giancarlo Sep 25, 2012, 7:00 am

    Ciao,
    my very good italian friend Enrico just spent the summer sailing Greenland waters on a fiberglass (big) boat without any problems.
    You can check is video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fL_Nfoqqvhw

  • Todd Huss Sep 4, 2013, 5:13 pm

    We’re currently looking at an aluminum frers designed 48 footer designed for the original owner to taker him around the world (but not necessarily into ice). We chose aluminum so we could go into areas with some ice.

    During the survey the plating turned out to be 3/16″ on the hull. Does that seem a little thin for aluminum plating on such a large boat? I would have thought 1/4″ at least.

    • John Sep 5, 2013, 7:39 am

      Hi Todd,

      I would agree with Marc’s comment below.

      What I would add is that aluminium construction does not protect you from the dangers of ice unless said construction is much heavier than standard scantlings and built specifically for ice work. Bottom line, if you hit a growler at speed you will be holed, whether the plate is 3/16″ or 1/4″.

      In other words, any normally built yacht, no matter the hull material, must be extremely careful in ice. This includes keeping a very careful lookout for ice at all times and heaving-to at night.

  • Marc Dacey Sep 5, 2013, 12:33 am

    I own a steel boat, but I certainly work with aluminum plate in the course of boat renovation. I would say that the question is nearly meaningless without reference to the space between the framing of the hull and other aspects of the scantlings.

    If the boat is framed with many relatively closely spaced frames, properly tied together longitudinally and with the plate and framing welded to a high standard, there’s no particular reason for the plate to be over-thick, and some reasons relating to ductility why it might *appear* too thin.

    Steel plate is generally thinner yet on sub-50 footers, but tends to have more massive framing, more widely spaced.

    You need to discuss this with a naval architect and perhaps a materials engineer to fully understand why a particular thickness was selected, but Frers-designed boats are generally held in high regard. Hope this helps.

    • RDE Aug 2, 2014, 1:39 am

      Hi Marc,
      Different approaches— The heavily framed and relatively thin skinned aluminum boats that I have been involved in building all suffered from welding induced plate distortion and required fairing bog to achieve a yacht finish.

      On the other hand my friend’s early Garcia 47 was built with 12mm bottom plate and 9mm topsides with very light framing. Plate shape was created on a giant roller. You could have shot paint directly on the bare aluminum and called it a yacht finish— and that after sailing to the high Arctic, Cape Horn and wintering in Alaska.

  • Todd Huss Sep 5, 2013, 2:07 pm

    Hi John and Marc,

    Thanks for the thoughtful feedback Marc and John, love the community here! I should have specified the frame spacing in my original post:

    Construction is 3/16” aluminum plating over aluminum formed frames and longitudinals. Frames are tee section sided 3”X 3/16” on 16” centers. Longitudinals are 11/2”X1/4” on 8” centers. All welding is to ABYC standards non continuous. Plating is 5058 aluminum with welded butt joints.

    John, you make a great point though, that a boat that’s not designed for ice, regardless of material, must always be especially careful around ice! I’m curious what size plate and frame spacing is used on Morgan’s Cloud?

    • John Sep 5, 2013, 3:46 pm

      Hi Todd,

      I really don’t remember what the frame spacing on our boat is, although the plate is 1/4″ in most of the hull with 5/16″ and 3/8″ in high stress areas. To be frank, I bought a boat designed and engineered by people I trust (McCurdy and Rhodes) and have not really ever thought much about it since.

      The bottom line is that only an engineer can, after not a little study and calculation, assess whether or not a boat is strong enough for its intended function.

  • Joey Aug 1, 2014, 10:20 pm

    For what it’s worth. I saw a Catalina 445 survive a direct hit to the keel (wing keel) at 8 knots on a large boulder in Georgian Bay, Canada. It wasn’t pretty. But the boat stayed intact, didn’t take on any water, and was able to be motored back to port.

    The keel was smashed up considerably, but it took it well being a fiberglass boat.

  • Dick Stevenson Aug 2, 2014, 3:12 am

    Dear Joey,
    Survive the boat may have done. And brought back its passengers to safety. Both laudable. However, I would be very surprised if a survey did not find damage. First, fg damage around the leading and trailing edge of the keel. Next would be the nearby bulkhead connections to the hull, especially the tabbing. Catalina likely uses structural pans which are very hard to survey once in place. Then there is the rigging which suffered a tremendous shock load. And I would suspect the keel has to come off to inspect the keel bolts. It is my take that similarly constructed production boats, especially those with a bit of age, such as the one you described are regularly seen as insurance write-offs after the survey report is in and damage repair estimates are submitted. It is also my take that fibreglass is not necessarily a plus in this kind of allision as you suggest. The material is far less important than the design and engineering.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Bill Attwood Aug 5, 2014, 7:53 am

    Google “DoDo’s Delight”, the 33 ft Westerly owned by the Rev Bob Shepton. He has sailed extensively in the high N latitudes, including one (or maybe two?) transits of the NW Passage.

    • John Aug 5, 2014, 10:04 am

      Hi Bill,

      Good point. I do have to say that although I know and respect Bob I do think that he pushes the safety envelope more than I am comfortable with. Or to put it another way, I would not recommend that others try the things Bob has done in a boat like his.

  • Peter Rousseau Nov 13, 2016, 3:48 pm

    Hi John,

    How much does size, displacement, and draft affect safety in high latitude cruising, especially in the presence of ice? For instance, would an aluminum, swing keel OVNI (LOA: 28 ft, Beam: 9 ft 8 in, Draft: 2 ft – 6 ft 4 in, Displacement: 7716 lbs) , comparably outfitted including forward scan sonar be less safe in high latitudes than Morgan’s Cloud due to size and displacement alone? I’m guessing there might also be size-unrelated reasons why the OVNI would be less safe in high latitudes.

    • John Nov 14, 2016, 9:29 am

      Hi Peter,

      An interesting question. First off, a larger boat is always safer from roll over in heavy weather, and that advantage goes up exponentially. For example, if memory serves, no boat over 45-feet was abandoned in the 79 Fastnet disaster.

      Larger boats can also carry more spares and fuel, both of which are important in the high latitudes.

      That said, bigger boats have larger loads and are more difficult to get under control and/or fix if something does go wrong, and the heavy weather track record of the Ovni boats is very good and plenty of Ovnis have done extensive high latitude voyages.

      I think in the end, whether or not you can take a 28′ Ovni to the high latitudes safely is more about your tolerance for discomfort and your experience and skill in handling her. If it were me, I would find 28-feet too small and would want to go up to at least an Ovni 365 for high latitude voyaging. More here on that boat:https://www.morganscloud.com/2011/07/03/morgans-cloud-in-nuuk-greenland/

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