Cold Climate Sailing

How Agile do I have to be to sail a tall ship in Antarctica?

UPDATED 28-10-19

Like all things in life, you get out what you put into an adventure, but sometimes you need to do your own risk assessment and honestly look at more than just your enthusiasm for seeing Antarctica in a romantic way by tall ship.

Europa Antarctic booking season 2020-21 opens on 29th October 2019 and Classic Sailing still has a few places on Tecla and one space on Europa this winter (summer in Southern Hemisphere).

If you are wondering if seeing Antarctica from the decks of a working sailing ship is for you, then hopefully this article will help you decide whether to apply,

There are a few more stringent health and fitness requirements for Europa bookings this time around, and now everybody applying over the age of 65 (and those younger who take medication or answer yes to any health conditions on the application form) will need to take a health statement to their doctor for a signature to say you are ok to sail in a remote place like Antarctica, as participating ships crew BEFORE they will allocate a place.

Europa is aiming to make sure that every Antarctic voyage has a good mix of ages, physical abilities, genders and nationalities, which necessitates a bit of a selection process. There will be people in their 60’s and 70’s on each trip, but you can appreciate that a whole crew of trainees over 70 years (or even a whole crew of youngsters with dodgy backs and asthma) would not be too smart.

Tecla is slightly different and will assess every application first, before requiring anything extra from a doctor.

More details & Europa Health Statement PDF


Will I be Physically Challenged Enough? 

If you are fearless and still in your prime, then you probably can’t wait to sign up to sail as guest crew on Europa or Tecla as it is one of the most adventurous and unique ways to experience Antarctica.

For experienced sailors who want to see the giant foam streaked rollers of the old black and white ’round the Horn films, you may need to do the longer 55 day trip on Tecla, or the longer South Georgia voyages on Europa,  to be sure of seeing the Southern Ocean at its finest and most challenging.

Everyone else signing up for a shorter 22 day Antarctic Peninsula voyages will be relieved to know that the Captain will be using modern weather forecasting to plan a fast 3-4 day Drakes Passage crossing, ideally between the great depressions that whistle through the gap between Cape Horn and Antarctica every 3 or 4 days.

However much the Captain will be trying to miss them, you may catch the tail end of a proper Southern Ocean gale and you will probably see big swell at some point and icebergs. 

For the gung ho types In Antarctica your only worries might be – will I have to wear gloves to climb aloft, can I get my jacket and safety harness on quick enough to help, and or will my boots dry quickly enough between adventures.

If you want physical challenge there will be plenty on an Antarctic Voyage
If you want physical challenge there will be plenty on an Antarctic Voyage

My Spirit is willing but is my body up to it?

If you are like the majority of us, and have reached a level of affluence to sign up to be a bold polar explorer, just as your body starts to creak a bit, then the decision gets a bit more tentative.

So how physical is it on each ship, and how agile do you have to be to just live on the ship, move around between decks, and get ashore safely?

The views in the article below are from the Classic sailing team who have spent extended time in Antarctica and South Georgia (on Europa) and sailed in remote places on Tecla.  
We want you to enjoy an Antarctic expedition but be fully realistic to what it means to live on board a tall ship and what you might be asked to do as participating tall ship crew.

Please ring us for a chat if you are not sure… 0044(0)1872 580022

Europa - eating on deck for lunch
Europa – guest crew eating on deck for lunch

Moving around the ship

Whether you are on steel or wood decks, if it is windy they will heel and dip and roll. Snow, hail, ice and sea water can make them slippery. There are many handrails and rope safety lines around shoulder height you can grab, or even clip onto. If the ship  lurches or rolls then you need enough strength in your arms, shoulders, hand grip to hold on. Generally sailing ships only roll in an unpredictable way when the wind is dead astern. We therefore always try to have the wind a bit on the side so there is  a more regular movement and the deck can be heeled steeply but often a more predictable way than a large motor vessel.

Europa has decks of different levels so there are more outdoor companionway steps to climb. For example you will regularly be climbing up steep steps from the main deck to the poop deck to steer or stepping up to the raised forecastle at the bow to be on lookout. Tecla has a main deck all on the same level, but you may need to step up onto the coachouse roof to stow sails. Tecla also has steepish main companionway steps between the main deck and cabin corridor to ascend and descend, many times a day.

Below decks Europa has at least 6 watertight doors in the main corridor with high threshholds to step over, but on both ships the corridors are narrow so you can use the walls to stay upright.

Tecla decks are all on one level
Tecla decks are all on one level


Living on board

These are not cruise ships. The only stabilisers we have are the sails. There are plenty of places you can take your meals to eat – both below decks at tables and al fresco. It can be lovely to be sitting on deck in the sun in a beautiful anchorage with snowy mountains all around…..or you can be wedging yourself in to a corner on the leeward or windward side of a table below decks and hanging on to your orange juice and breakfast plate wondering if a third hand might be useful.

Cabins on both ships have WC and shower in a washroom within your cabin. In the sheltered waters around the Antarctic Peninsula taking a shower or going to the toilet is easy. At sea you need to hold on for one and sit down for the other.

Getting into your bunk is another consideration. If you are on a top bunk (and someone has to be) there are no ladders – just a raised edge of a lower bunk or a desk to launch yourself from. You need to time it with the waves when you are at sea. If you have to get up in the dark to go on watch both Europa and Tecla have reading lights in each bunk so you don’t need to wake up your companions. For an Antarctic Peninsula voyage, the only bits of open water are about 3-4 days crossing the Drake each way and a few wide sounds to cross, but for a South Georgia voyage you have a lot of Southern Ocean continuous sailing. You may be at sea for upto 10 days between South Georgia and Tristan Da Cuhna. If it is too rough to land your time at sea could be another 8-10 days to reach Cape Town – although by now it is much warmer on deck. Even fit, young people find it tiring to live life on a ship in motion, even without taking part in the sailing. 

If you are a bird watcher, wildlife photographer or artist you need to think of a polar tall ship voyage as a expedition with jobs to do as well as sightseeing. Think of it like a mini ‘Frozen Planet’ photo assignment. It’s a team effort just to go about daily activities, even if helping with hoisting sails is something you only plan to get stuck into on a good weather day. We love volunteers. You will never be forced to do something if you don’t feel up to it.

In the library on Europa
In the library on Europa

The Sailing Duties

Europa has quite a large professional crew – both deckhands and galley staff. The bare minimum involvement is to be available to assist with sails when you are on watch. This doesnt mean being outside for 4 hours, unless you want to. There is a big deckhouse with windows all around. Whether your leap out on deck at every call for help, or only get up from your game of scrabble for an orca sighting or to attend a wildlife lecture is generally up to you, but you are strongly encouraged to stand lookout duty (who would want to miss the scenery anyway) or take a turn on the helm. In colder weather this might only be for 10-20 minutes at a time.

On Tecla the professional crew are smaller so expect to be needed for the physical stuff, whether it be hoisting a sail or bringing the zodiac on deck. When you are on watch expect to be on deck for longer. There is a warm cabin used for navigation near the wheel if you need to warm up on watch, and the galley- saloon area is always cosy. Steering Tecla is done by standing on a wooden grating about 12 inch from the deck, or sitting on the wooden box behind. It has a great view and feels quite heroic, but is probably only for the agile and those with good balance in rough weather.

Tecla ladies sailing around the Horn
Tecla ladies sailing around the Horn

Ashore in Antarctica

You need to have enough strength in your arms to climb down (and up) a short boarding ladder. The crew in the zodiac will help you and you will have lifejackets and your waterproof boots on. If there is a little bit of surf, then you need to follow crew instructions carefully to swing your legs out of the dinghy, before you try stepping out. If guests of all ages on expedition cruise ships can manage this to take penguin photos of their dreams, then the challenge to overcome is no different to a tall ship dinghy landing. Both ships have radiators to dry your socks and boots if you get it wrong.

Ashore you will not be allowed to wander off into the mountains like Captain Oates. The Antarctic Tourist regulators IAATO have strict rules for guides leading you, how to behave around the fearless wildlife, and where you can go. Basically this means that most walks ashore are easy beach walks, flat snow, or carefully supervised treks on steeper ground. If you can normally handle countryside walks in winter mud or snow at home without taking too many tumbles then you should be fine. You will get a briefing anyway before you go ashore.

Beach Landings in South Georgia
Beach Landings in South Georgia

Medical issues 

This is an incredibly remote place and any medical evacuation will be by ship and take days. There are only a total of 65 vessels registered to travel in the whole continent Antarctica by IAATO and they range from big ex icebreakers to yachts with 12 of less passengers (Tecla). The likelihood of you seeing another vessel is slim, but there may be other ships in the vicinity if you look on the ships AIS tracking system. This creates a certain level of rescue assistance…..but it could still take days to get back to South America, or the most medically trained crew member may have to deal with a medical emergency via radio advice.

We have to be absolutely sure that there is no medical issue likely to arise – other than the totally unexpected.  If you have answered yes to anything on the application form, or you are over 70, you will definitely need to get your doctor to sign a medical consent form for Europa (and probably for Tecla – depending on your application form answers) before they can make a decision on your application.

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