What was it like?

Nov 14, 2022

Having completed SKIRR Adventures debut Arctic Sailing Expedition we talk to crew onboard to hear their opinions.

Nothing really prepares one for the reality of a huge iceberg which is larger than some islands I have visited. The colours on the different faces and sides of the peaks, which rose to a height of over 300m, changed constantly, and the various hues of blue, until it became a pure glistening white, shone in the sunlight as we passed into the fog which is now our world. 

-Rich, crew member on this year’s SKIRR Adventures expedition

Two ocean-racing yachts, primed in some of the planet’s toughest conditions, have spent the summer on a 4,820nm expedition to one of the most remote places on earth, the Arctic Circle. For eight weeks, the adapted Clipper 68 yachts, no strangers to the world’s most remote locations, voyaged to the high latitudes, including the Scottish Isles, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland with its infamous Scoresby Sund. 

Created by Clipper Ventures, the organisation running the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, the SKIRR Adventures expedition brings together adventurers from around the world to explore the planet’s hidden corners under sail. On the inaugural voyage, 49 sailors, including some former Clipper Race crew, took part across the five legs, witnessing the raw beauty, exhilarating sailing and untouched wildlife that only the most remote areas in the world can offer. 

“There aren’t many opportunities to go into a wilderness, and the things that you see there are just exquisite.”

– Toni, crew member 

Climate change: seeing the impact whilst immersed in the wildest environments

Whilst the beauty of venturing to the most untouched corners of the globe is something extremely special, the reality is that these places are facing the rapidly increasing impact of climate change. The SKIRR crew members witnessed first-hand and up-close, the reality of the planet warming up. 

On the expedition, the crew marvelled at the pristine waters, stunning wildlife and of course, the enormous icebergs that dominated the landscape. However, melting ice was also a reality.

Witnessing first hand how climate change is affecting the world in different ways, Greg Glover, a crew member hailing from New Zealand says: “We saw the retreating of the glaciers in Iceland. We spoke to scientists who were studying the effects of solar flares on the atmosphere which was fascinating. It’s such a pristine place, and I think we should do everything we can to keep it that way, and behave in a way that makes the environment better, not worse, for the next generation. The take home message is that we sit in our nice warm home, and we think the world operates in the way that we live, where we have food, vegetables, and shops easily accessible.”

This enforces Clipper Ventures’ Founder, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s vision for SKIRR Adventures: “We can take people to see climate change for themselves and bring back the message to make change.”

SKIRR Skipper Bob Beggs adds: “Many of the crew will continue to raise awareness of climate change with events back home so it’s great to see the passion for environmental issues.”

Tom, a French crew member sailing on board, summises on the final leg of the trip, reminding us that these connections with Mother Nature are key in our want to protect the planet: “[This expedition] showed me how wonderful our planet is and also how vulnerable she is too. This massive giant left alone to drift on the sea is eventually going to melt and return into the ocean without leaving a trace behind to continue perpetuating an infinite cycle of life.”

“So I guess that humbleness and also connecting to Mother Nature, its beauty, its magic, its water beings is my module of the day.”

The Expedition:

Gosport, Hampshire – The Scottish Isles

On 1 July, the SKIRR yachts departed Gosport Marina bound for the Scottish Isles on the first leg. A mix of conditions from upwind to lovely beam reach sailing through the Irish Sea greeted the crew on their first passage of the trip. On reaching the Scottish Isles, the crew made a quick stop in Islay for the crew to sample a wee dram (or a few) at the local distilleries. On reaching Tobermory the next day, its colourful houses were a welcome sight after the “fruitest conditions so far” experienced in the passage from Port Ellen, as described by Skipper Jake Carter. 

Leg 1 was rounded off with some shoreside exploration and a sail to Oban via a couple of the Isles. Crew member Greg Glover, a farmer who joined for the entire expedition comments: “It was just amazing, I didn’t realise Scotland was so beautiful and mountainous.”

The Scottish Isles to Reykjavik, Iceland 

Leg 2 of the adventure saw the pair of yachts cast away from the Scottish Isles and head north for Iceland. 

“I’d already sailed into Antarctica and so going into the Arctic seemed a great way to complete some of the things that were my aspirations.These places are wildernesses. There aren’t many opportunities to go into the wilderness and the things you see there are just exquisite.” says Toni Wilson, from London, who completed all five legs of the SKIRR expedition and also raced in the Clipper 2017-18 Race as a Circumnavigator. 

She describes some of the incredible moments witnessed during the trip: “I was in a geothermal outdoor spa when I literally felt the ground move. It was a 5.4 Richter Scale earthquake. There was this huge rumble. And then the plate glass building looked as if it was liquid and there were earthquakes throughout the night. We knew that a volcano was probably going to blow over the next week and which it did. It erupted when we were in Greenland, so we went back to Iceland to see the volcano, and it was still spewing out its red-hot lava and that was an absolutely thrilling experience.”

Reykjavik, Iceland – Tasiilaq, Greenland – Reykjavik

The third leg took the expedition crew to Tasiilaq, the largest town on the East Coast of Greenland, set inside a fjord that is often quite full of ice. On this occasion, there was so much ice that it denied the yachts access to land based adventures, but instead offered some of the most incredible seascapes with huge majestic icebergs and impressive ice packs. 

Skipper Bob Beggs commented: “The conditions were harsh – we did get close to see the coast of Greenland, we could see the glaciers and the mountains but the ice proved to be too thick. It would be another week before the ice dispersed.”

Toni added: “I can never get enough of seeing sea ice – there is so much beauty in the colours and shapes that the wind and sea makes it into – it’s really sculptural. The icebergs have a scale to them that is really unimaginable until you see them.”

Reykjavik – Scoresby Sund – Isafjordur – Reykjavik 

Back at Reykjavik for crew changeover, the fourth leg of the adventure commenced, and, after some heavy weather systems passed through, a fortunate window of opportunity emerged for the boats to get clearance to head to Scoresby Sund – a 1,005 nautical mile route crossing the Arctic Circle. 

Chris Rushton, Principal of SKIRR Adventures, says: “The weather changes with the click of a finger and the forecast was looking unlikely that the boats would have a safe window for getting to Scoresby Sund. When I logged on to check the weather for the final time, I saw the perfect opportunity for the crews to get over there, enjoy half a day ashore and return before the next weather system came in.” 

During the very early hours of 4 August, the two SKIRR Adventures yachts crossed into the Arctic Circle, a line of latitude around the Earth, at approximately 66°30′ N. 

Bob remarks: “The reports were that the ice was going to be scarce so we were able to push through and get to Scorseby Sund which was relatively ice free.”

Liz Simons, from Derbyshire, who completed Leg 4 of the challenge says: “What really amazed me was my first ‘night watch’ starting at 23:00 hours this far north, the sun made a slow and gentle descent over the horizon and provided a warm glow across sea and sky but darkness never arrived.”

“We celebrated as best we could on ‘iced party rings’, biscuits supplied by Nigel’s wife – not necessarily appreciating how significant they were to become!”

Reflecting, Greg added: “As we got to the entrance of the sound, the fog cleared and there was blue sky everywhere, and we could see the whole of Scoresby Sund and the villages around the perimeter. The land was completely barren, there was nothing green about Greenland at all. We could see up to the mountains where there were glaciers. There were icebergs floating just off the shore of these little villages.”

Learning from the locals he says: “As we were walking along the village, we met a lady married to the local priest. She’d been there through the winter, she said she had never been so cold, and they were mostly locked up in their houses for the whole of winter. 

Bob adds: “The experience heightens people’s awareness of the village’s fragility of resources and what we are doing to the planet. People coming back will I’m sure have a renewed effort to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Reykjavik – Vágur, Faroe Islands – Gosport 

The final leg of the adventure saw the crews begin to head back to base, via Vagur, a small fishing town in the Faroe Islands, giving the crews the opportunity to explore coastal cruising. The weather and conditions forecasted meant the crews took the westerly route via the Irish Sea back to the south coast of England via the Scilly Isles.

Looking back on the past eight weeks Toni says: “This isn’t a race, it’s relaxed, you’re not being rushed. The Skipper and First Mates have made this trip the perfect adventure – the environment on the boat is warm and fun and it couldn’t have been better.

“We had a wide range of conditions – sometimes it was stormy and sometimes it was flat and calm. You hear so much – for example we heard a pod of dolphins alongside the boat before we saw them. At night, your senses are heightened. In everyday life, our senses are often dulled down because of the input of the noises around us – radio, tv, etc. What is nice about being in the wilderness environment is that you don’t have any of those distractions and you can be in the moment.”

Interested in becoming an Arctic Circle explorer – find out more here