Cold Climate Sailing

Lands and Seas of the Midnight Sun – Comparing Iceland, Svalbard and Greenland

Are you tempted by a summer voyage in the High Arctic, or wilderness coastlines like Iceland or Norway’s Lofoten Islands that sit on the Arctic Circle?

How do you choose the best voyage? 

Debbie and Adam at Classic Sailing have explored Iceland and Greenland by sail and ashore, and we have listened to the feedback from the skippers and customers who have sailed there. Debbie has written this article to help you make a more informed choice if you decide an Arctic sailing holiday is for you. It includes her considered view on which is best for wildlife, winds, walks, polar bears or whales.

(We will post some of the text shortly as a series of Classic Sailing facebook posts so you are welcome to add your comments, photos or arctic experiences).

If you are one of the many that doesn’t quite understand why so many of our charter vessels are being lured ever Northwards towards the Arctic Circle and deep into polar regions, then is the article that could sway you.

We might need to bust a few myths first:


MYTH 1: Will I Get Stuck in the Ice ?

There are two magic words involved here – ‘Arctic Summer.’ This glorious window of light and warmth and tundra flowers is the time to go. Unless you are a masochist with an icebreaker, you can only enjoyably go sailing in the high Arctic to locations like Greenland, Jan Meyen Island or Svalbard in the summer, when the sea ice melts.

(Likewise in the Southern Hemisphere, the fjords and islands of the Antarctic Peninsula are locked in ice until the start of the Antarctic summer from November to March.)


Hildur in the ice
Hildur in the ice

MYTH 2: Far too cold for me?

If you love to maximise your outdoor time on holiday, then the natural response for most sailors and holidaymakers is to head South for reliable sunshine, wine and beaches.  Yes, we all need a bit of that, but you could be enjoying ‘some of that,’ and a whole lot more incredible outdoor experiences in Iceland or Greenland.

Firstly the daylight hours go on ‘for-ever’ up here in midsummer. It is amazing how your stamina increases to make the most of the Land of the Midnight Sun. Secondly, the further North you go, the more stable the weather. East Greenland enjoys light winds and cloudless sunshine for much of the summer due to the almost static Greenland High Pressure system. Regarding your sunset tipple, our vessel crews are far too canny not to have an expedition season supply of affordable wine and beer stashed below decks.

BBQ on the shores of Scorseby Sound in Greenland
BBQ on the shores of Scorseby Sound in Greenland


MYTH 3: Too Expensive to Get There?

Iceland is actually remarkably cheap to get to from the UK, Europa and North America with several budget airlines flying there.

However it is expensive to live and eat there, but if you are on a visiting sailing ship then your holiday includes all meals, accommodation, outdoor activities and professional crew as your guides.

In contrast to Iceland, East Greenland is NOT a cheap place to get to by plane. Don’t be deceived by the fact that it looks like it is on Iceland’s backdoor. It There are only 2 human settlements along the whole of the East Greenland coast and they are cut off by the sea ice for most the year. The only airport serving Scorseby Sound is an earth runway between the mountains with a portacabin rest room and a barn for aircraft servicing.

If you are ‘time-poor’ and can afford to fly into Greenland from Iceland then schooners Opal, Donna Wood or Hildur can be there anchored beneath you as you fly in over Hurry Inlet. Our Icelandic flight brokers can reserve your Greenland flight as soon as you book the voyage. They pack a lot into their 7 day Scorseby Sound voyages and the fjord system has the benefit of flat water everywhere.

If you relish a more challenging option, and alternative to flying in, then we have a 3 week long expedition sailing Tecla to Greenland across the Denmark Strait to Scorseby Sound, a week of anchoring and exploring Greenland ashore and the sea voyage back. The advantages of the Tecla Arctic experience are:

  • See the best bits of Iceland and Greenland and a lot of Icebergs and wildlife in between
  • You will get more Arctic sea time for your money
  • It avoids the expensive flight hop to Greenland
  • You will have achieved some impressive sailing and earnt proper Arctic sailing experience.
  • Skipper Gijs has navigated tall ships in Greenland, Iceland, Antarctica and South Georgia


Photo from Jet – The scenery that greets us as we arrive in Scorseby Sound on Tecla


tecla in greenland
First Greenland photos from Tecla

High Latitude Sailing – What Are my Choices?

It depends what you are looking for:

CHOICE 1: Time of year to sail

If you want to sail in sunshine amongst glistening icebergs between May and September, then this time window isn’t going to work for Antarctica. Australian school teachers may get to play in Antarctica during their school vacations, but for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere we should be looking North to the Arctic for our summer iceberg fix as it has huge potential for wilderness lovers.


Tall Ship Antigua in Svalbard
Tall Ship Antigua in Svalbard

CHOICE 2: Which Vessel is Where in the Arctic? (it’s a big place)

Classic Sailing currently has 6 vessels exploring the Arctic and Sub Arctic regions in 2018. It all depends how high latitude you want to go: (The Arctic zone is everything above 66.5 degrees latitude.)

Below 66 degrees latitude  – Exploring Iceland (gaff ketch Tecla or schooner Blue Clipper)

66 degrees North –  Iceland – Edge of the Arctic Circle (Tecla and Blue Clipper)

65-70 degrees North – Sail from Iceland to – Greenland – Scorseby Sound and Back (Tecla)

70 degrees North – Start your sailing in Scorseby Sound, Greenland (Opal, Hilda or Donna Wood)

78 degrees North – Start your sailing in Svalbard- Spitsbergen (Barquentine Antigua, Blue Clipper)

65-78 degrees North – Sail open ocean in the Arctic  – Iceland – Jan Meyen – Svalbard (Blue Clipper)

78-68 degrees North – Svalbard to Norway, Lofoten Islands (Blue Clipper)

CHOICE 3: Best for Wildlife

If you truly love watching all forms of wildlife, then Iceland is better and cheaper than Greenland or Spitsbergen. The seas around it are rich in fish. The fjords have gravel outwash plains and a seabed that attracts cetaceans from humpbacks to mighty Blue whales. The high cliffs like Hornstrandir have some of the biggest breeding bird colonies in the world.  The meadows, bogs and streams are home to a huge range of waders, ducks and scavenging skuas. Ashore a botanist can wander until well into the evening looking at flowers and mosses in the low golden light of the midnight sun. Arctic foxes and their cubs are a delight to watch around Isafjordur area.


Arctic Fox my Maria Cerrudo
Arctic Fox my Maria Cerrudo

Arctic foxes in Iceland NW Fjords are protected.

Scorseby Sound in Greenland is scenically superb with colourful tundra vegetation, but the sea life and bird life is pretty sparse. It can be so silent from lack of bird calls that you can hear an iceberg flip over half a mile away.  I have swum in the sea here (8 degrees C) and it tastes like fresh water, due to the ice melt. In a week I saw a Great Northern Diver, Ptarmigan, a seal, several musk ox, arctic hares and that was it. There are walruses but polar bear sightings are quite rare here. The fjord system is outside the huge Greenland National Park so the local Inuit can shoot polar bear. 

However, if you sail to Greenland from Iceland on Tecla, the wildlife opportunities are much more likely to fufill your dream of an Arctic adventure.  Apart from starting in Iceland with all the seabirds of the Hornstrandir National Park escorting you out to sea, there is typically a two day open sea crossing with good whale sightings. As you approach the Greenland Coast Tecla meets a lot of pack ice drifting down the coast as it breaks up. They have seen orca, narwals, and polar bear here amongst the flows. After all the ice excitement it is nice to get into Scorseby Sound for an easier life. There are still bergs but no waves. Now you can enjoy walking amongst the tundra flowers.

Maria Cerrudo of Tecla in Iceland
Maria Cerrudo of Tecla in Iceland

photo by Maria Cerrudo. spotted from Tecla – sailing in North Iceland

CHOICE 4: How badly do you want to see polar bears?

If your main aim is to see polar bears then Svalbard Archipelago is your most reliable bet as there are over 3000 polar bears on these islands.  They are mostly in the North and East in June, July and August where they hunt ring seal.  Tall Ship Antigua has been offering 8-10 day wildlife and photography voyages in Svalbard – Spitsbergen for over 10 years and her guides are very knowledgeable.  Blue Clipper is also visiting Svalbard and her skipper Chris is an experienced arctic sailor. All our vessel guides in the Arctic have to carry a gun for safety.

The other way to maximise your chances of seeing polar bears is to maximise your time sailing in high Arctic waters. Tecla’s 3 week expedition to Greenland or Blue Clipper’s big miles voyage between Iceland – Jan Meyen and Svalbard.

Polar Bear from Tall Ship Antigua
Polar Bear from Tall Ship Antigua

CHOICE 5: Mountain Walking in True Wilderness

For dramatic mountain backdrops and blue icebergs East Greenland would be my first choice.  Granite spires, tumbling glaciers, cloudless skies, and the ever present Greenland icecap hiding behind the jagged ridgelines.  The rock is glacier scoured clean but grippy underfoot and the vegetation is only inches high. Think Patagonia without the wind.

Svalbard would be a close second for spikey mountains and glaciers, but around the coast there are more signs of man with old coal mines and rusting whaling stations. The skies are generally more grey than Greenland, but on a good day it’s a photographers dream. The seas are warmer due to the tail end of the Gulf Stream.

The Icelandic coastal landscape is dramatic in a different way. Dark volcanic mountains with flashes of snow. Incredible cliffs, waterfalls, old lava flows and fertile meadows. Ancient Viking settlements, turf roofs and much more freedom to walk without major predators to eat you. Climatically it is a lot warmer, but with this comes more fickle weather.

Debbie Purser in Greenland
Debbie Purser in Greenland


Excited yet? Speak to Us

We would still love to speak to you in person. Becky, Debbie, Adam and Melissa are in a tiny rural office in Cornwall with 3 dogs and the Atlantic winds howling around the solar panels. Make our day and give us a ring about your possible voyage choices. We love to add to your enthusiasm, give direction to your adventure expectations, answer questions about kit, flights, and what each vessel is like to live on board.

0044(0)1872 580022.

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