An Unquenchable Thirst For The Arctic. What every sailor need to know before making a passage to Svalbard

Svalbard. Photo by: Marcela Cardenas.

Svalbard. Photo by: Marcela Cardenas.

Svalbard is high up on the list of future sailing destinations for many yachtsmen and women around the world. And it is growing in popularity. There is good reason to believe 2018 will be another record year for the Norwegian archipelago in the high arctic.

Svalbard is part of Norway and the archipelago is situated to the North of the Norwegian mainland, in the Barents Sea. The largest community is Longyearbyen, one of the northernmost communities in the world (78 Degrees North). There are no roads connecting Longyearbyen and the other communities.

More than 60% of the archipelago is covered by ice, and the weather conditions can be quite challenging compared to most other places in the world.

During the dark and long winters the temperature can drop below -30 degrees celcius, and the average temperature in summer is approx. 5 degrees. Yet yachtsmen and women have an unquenchable thirst for The Arctic as sailing there is one of the biggest trends right now.

Are you curious if you and your yacht should go? Read on as we walk you through the list of things you must know.

First Port of Call: Longyearbyen

The Port of Longyearbyen is the main logistic point for the cruise industry, visiting yachts, research vessels and for cargo to the different settlements on Spitsbergen.

The port is located inside Isfjorden, close to the city centre and Longyearbyen airport with regular flights to and from Tromsø and Oslo in Norway.

The number of visiting yachts has steadily increased over the past few years. In fact, Norways travel industry is thriving on an epic interest in all things Arctic. Northern Lights, snow and ice, mountains, fresh air and a stable and safe destination are amongst the strongest trends in international travel right now.

The Port Authorities are even planning a new floating pier hopefully ready by 2020 to cater for increased traffic both from cruise ships, charters and private yachts. 

The planned floating pier in Longyearbyen. Designed by renowned Norwegian architects Snøhetta, famous for Oslo’s new Opera House and the New Library of Alexandria. Photo: Snøhetta

The planned floating pier in Longyearbyen. Designed by renowned Norwegian architects Snøhetta, famous for Oslo’s new Opera House and the New Library of Alexandria. Photo: Snøhetta

The Yacht Pier (for private yachts)

The floating pier is Longyearbyen’s public accommodations for visitors by non-commercial yachts. The pier is 45 meters long and fitted with shore power and fresh water. Boats are docked alongside the pier and outwards. Expect to have other yachts outside of you. 

Captains should be aware that boats tying up to this pier can be blocked in by shorelines from the cruise ships docked at Bykaia. So plan well ahead and talk to the Harbour Master or check the list over calling Cruise Ships. This is the Arctic and drift ice may occur. The locals advise to keep a sharp look out and to be ready to cast the lines and head out into open waters if the conditions dictates so.

Payment is completed by the GoMarina app or through the payment terminal at the pier as soon as the boat is docked and secured. Toilets, showers and washing machines are available at the service building.

A busy season in the Port of Longyearbyen. Photo: Port of Longyearbyen

A busy season in the Port of Longyearbyen. Photo: Port of Longyearbyen

Tourist Pier (for commercial yachts)

Turistkaia is Longyearbyens’ public accommodations for smaller explorer cruise ships, daily tour boats and other passenger boats with scheduled daily arrival and departure times.

Turistkaia is 220 meters long (2018) and can be docked from both sides. Ships up to 60 meters can request docking at Turistkaia. Guests and passengers pay a passenger tax for use of the tourist pier. Turistkaia offers shore power, fresh water and diesel.

Map over todays floating pier in Longyearbyen. Illustration by: Port of Longyearbyen

Map over todays floating pier in Longyearbyen. Illustration by: Port of Longyearbyen

Dock fees for private yachts are fair and cheaper than most European and American sailors are used too. Shore power and fresh water is not included, but is priced at NOK 80 pr cubic metre and electricity is NOK 3,15 per kWh. Make sure you read all the regulations before entering the port.  At the time of writing this article The Euro is 9,73 to the Norwegian Krone or 7,92 to the US Dollar. Using 10 NOK to the Euro or Dollar is easier.

Prices Longyearbyen

Tourist Pier (for commercial yachts) has its own set of regulations: 

  • The Tourist pier is a quay for commercial passenger ships in traffic.
  • The Tourist pier has dedicated zones for the various vessels in terms of size and type of traffic.
  • Some vessels with daily departures or several departures during the week have a reserved place at the pier.
  • Vessels without a permanent place at the pier assigned by the Port, are requested to contact the Port Control for the allocation of berth upon arrival. There is no advance booking of space at the Tourist pier.
  • The Tourist pier is an unsheltered dock and is unprotected from weather and drifting ice. Docked vessels must therefore have available crew to move the vessel at the request of the Port Control.
  • Inflatables or dinghies are not allowed to be moored to the vessel or dock when staying at the Tourist pier. In this case, inflatables will have to pay the minimum rate.
  • Vessels docking av the Tourist pier are required to register and pay for all arriving and departing guests aboard not included in the vessel’s permanent crew.
  • Vessels with a maximum length up to 24 meters, pay quay fees and other services by the ticket machine on shore side or by using app on smartphone. Payment is due within 30 minutes of arrival.
  • Larger commercial vessels, please contact the Port Control for payment.
  • Vessels that are docked at the diesel filling area for refueling for less than an hour, are not required to pay the quay fee as long as the Port Authorities are notified of this.
The abandoned Russian mining settlement, Pyramiden. Photo by:Marcela Cardenas/

The abandoned Russian mining settlement, Pyramiden. Photo by:Marcela Cardenas/

Polar Bears and Firearms

The Polar Bear is one on the world's largest predators and can be extremely dangerous for humans. You can meet them anywhere in Svalbard, all year-round. If you encounter one, do keep a safe distance, evading trouble. If this is not an option, you can try to scare it away. Shout, make lots of noise and so on. Only in a real life threatening situation you are allowed to shoot the Polar Bear in self-defense.

While carrying firearms within the settlements is prohibited, it is mandatory to carry firearms outside of the settlements to protect yourself from a Polar Bear attack. 

Firearms can be rented at authorized firearms dealers in Longyearbyen. There are different rules for private individuals and tour operators/research institutions.

Rifles used for protection against polar bears shall have a minimum calibre of .308W or 30-06 (7.62 mm). The ammunition shall be expanding, with a minimum bullet weight of 11.5 g. The required impact energy shall be 2,700 J, measured at a distance of 100 m. 

Shotguns used for protection against polar bears shall have a minimum calibre of 12, and should have a magazine permitting a minimum of four shots (automatic or pump-action shotgun). The use of slugs (shotgun ammunition comprised of one projectile) is recommended.

However, the Governor of Svalbard warns that most magazine-fed shotguns tend to have problems with icing and condensation, and require more preventive maintenance if they are to function in arctic conditions. Because of this, combined with the fact that shotguns have less precise sights and a limited range, the Governor of Svalbard recommends the use of rifles as the primary means of protection against polar bears. 

Polar Bears. Photo by: Roy Mangersnes -

Polar Bears. Photo by: Roy Mangersnes -

Handguns for competition and practice can legally be used in the field for protection against polar bears, provided that the Governor of Svalbard has granted a special permit for this. The ammunition must have a minimum calibre of 44 and have a minimum weight of 15.5 g and a minimum muzzle energy of 1,200 J.

Other scare devices 

The use of rubber bullets, pepper spray, flare guns, flare pens and tripwire alarms may be permitted, but check with the Governor of Svalbard before deciding what sort of protection is better for your trip.

Private individuals over 18 years of age that possess a Norwegian firearms permit, European firearms passport or other documentation that indicate permission to possess a firearm in his/her home country  hunting license is not accepted), may rent a rifle for protection against polar bears for a period of up to 6 months.

General requirements for applicants:

  • Sober and responsible
  • Minimum age 18 years
  • Necessary skills inn handling a firearm
  • Foreign citizens must provide a certificate of good conduct from their home country, translated into Norwegian or English

Valid ID with picture must be produced, along with the firearms permit, to the firearm renting agent. A foreign firearm permit must be translated into Norwegian or English.

Persons withot a firearm permit may apply to the Governor for a permit to rent a firearm. You can find the application form here.

Polar Bears are serious business in Svalbard. If you end up shooting one, it will soon become a matter of national interest and the case most certainly will end up on the evening news and may lead to legal prosecution. 

Make sure you read and understand all notifications, rules and regulations as to how to travel outside Management Area 10. Do not hesitate asking local officials if anything is unclear or for some good advice.

Notifications and SAR-Insurance Requirements

A map over area 10. Map by: The Governor of Svalbard with data from The Norwegian Polar Institute.

A map over area 10. Map by: The Governor of Svalbard with data from The Norwegian Polar Institute.

After safely arriving in The Port of Longyearbyen it is time to explore. But before heading out into the wild Arctic, there are a few requirements. This is important whether you are going by land or sea.

If you are planning on going outside of Management Area 10, you must comply to different rules applying to visitors, residents, tour operators and researchers

You are required to notify the Governor of Svalbard about your projected trip. Get in touch well in advance. When filling in the form, please state the names of other members of your party, as well as the type of gear you are taking with you and a description of your route. People travelling together in a group only submit one form. The Governor ask you to familiarise yourself with local regulations, particularly those dealing with environmental and safety precautions.

The notifications can be found here.

The Search and Rescue (SAR) insurance

When the Governor has received your notification, you will be informed of the size of the required SAR-insurance. Normally, the insurance sum will range between NOK 75 000,- and NOK 200 000,-. The insurance should cover the cost of potential search and rescue operations or the conveyance of patients (SAR), regardless of whether this is due to negligence or recklessness. Your ordinary travel insurance will normally not cover SAR expenses for trips in Svalbard. Most people will have to take out a separate insurance. Once you have obtained the search and rescue insurance, the Governor will require a copy of the insurance contract, in Norwegian or English, clarifying that SAR is covered. Save some time and make a few phone calls or check online if your insurance company offers added SAR insurance.

Majestic Svalbard. Photo by: Kristin Folsland Olsen

Majestic Svalbard. Photo by: Kristin Folsland Olsen

Registration Card

When the Governor has acknowledged your insurance, a registration card will be issued to you. If you come to Svalbard by air, come by the Governor's Office (open Mondays through Fridays, 8:30 AM-3:30 PM) to collect your registration card. Do not forget to bring documentation of your SAR insurance, unless you have sent it in advance.

If you are travelling by ship, the Governor will be able to send you a confirmation by e-mail, provided you have been in touch with them in advance, and sent the notification form and documentation of insurance. When you arrive in Longyearbyen you need to stop by the Governor's Office to collect your registration card. 


You must bring the registration card with you on your trip and be able to present it to the Governor's Field Inspectors. The card confirms that you have correctly carried out the notification and insurance procedures. 

Handing in the Registration Card

When you are back in Longyearbyen (or have left Svalbard's waters, if you are travelling by sea) the registration card shall be returned to the Governor, as quickly as possible. Please remember to fill in the information requested. Even if the Governor has not received your registration card by the time you were scheduled to have ended your trip, no search operation will be triggered. This is why you should have an agreement with somebody so you are reported missing if you fail to turn up within a set time.

Restricted Areas

Norway has high goals for the conservation of environment and Svalbard artefacts. For this reason, various restrictions apply to certain areas of Svalbard. 

Map over restricted areas in Svalbard. Map by: The Governor of Svalbard.

Map over restricted areas in Svalbard. Map by: The Governor of Svalbard.

For your own safety the Governor recommends that the sailboat is equipped with AIS receiver and transmitter, VHF-radio (25 W), iridium telephone and proper survival suits and life raft. Be aware of the fact that the drift ice might change your possibilities to maneuver within hours. Please seek information from experienced sailors or locals well ahead of your planned voyage.

Arctic sailors often bring a pair of long 2x4 wooden studs to push off any ice along the hull. 

 You can find ice charts here.

The article continues under the featured content.

Know your ice and glaciers

Ice at Svalbard on the of February 2018. Map by: MET Norway

Ice at Svalbard on the of February 2018. Map by: MET Norway

In the Arctic you will sooner or later encounter ice. Familiarise yourself with sea ice nomenclature and practice reading and understanding ice maps. Fast ice, pack ice and bergy water will play an important role in navigation around Svalbard. 

Keep a safe distance from glaciers. A calving glacier can swamp your yacht

Tidewater glaciers are glaciers whose fronts terminate in marine waters, either in fjords or directly into the ocean. The most noteworthy aspect of tidewater glaciers is that they lose ice at their fronts primarily through calving, the direct shearing off of large ice blocks. Tidewater glaciers comprise over 20% of the coastline of Svalbard, or about 1000 km. 

Glacier Galore in Svalbard. Photo by:Roy Mangersnes -

Glacier Galore in Svalbard. Photo by:Roy Mangersnes -

The Norwegian Polar Institute has, on request from the Governor, made a report where the main conclusions are that it is impossible to predict when an ice block will fall, how big it will be and how/ where it will land in the water. To avoid direct hits by ice and the biggest waves, 200m will, according the report, be a reasonable minimum distance. The Governor still points out that 200 m might be too close in certain cases, and that it is the captains and the tour operators duty to assess the risk at any visit to a calving glacier front. The minimum safety distance should be increased when visiting glacier fronts in narrow fjords, in shallow fjords and at glacier fronts higher than 40-50 meters. The Governor recommends the use of a rangefinder to assess the distance to the glacier front.

The Governor recommends that you read the complete report with recommendations from the Norwegian Polar Institute here

On photography in the Arctic

And lastly, a little on photography as this is probably a once in a lifetime experience and you want to keep as many memories as possible.

  1. Don't buy a new camera just before you leave. It takes time and practice to learn how to operate a camera. Make sure you know how to use the camera in manual mode.
  2. Why manual mode, you say? All cameras measures light in order to expose correctly. With snow and ice, the cameras light meters have a tendency to lead to underexposed images. Do a google search and lots of images from the Arctic are underexposed. Not every sensor or image file will let you lift exposure and shadows well in post production even if you shoot in RAW/DNG.
  3. Use a tripod or monopod for landscape shots in particular.
  4. Protect your camera and lenses or get one that is weather sealed.
  5. Learn how to clean your sensor. There is salt and dust everywhere.
  6. Bring several micro fibre cloths for wiping off your equipment after use. Most cameras will handle a damp cloth just fine. 
  7. When coming onboard or inside a heated building after spending time in the cold, put your camera in a bag of sorts. Condensation will form immediately and the fragile electronics needs to be protected.
  8. Bring lots of tested memory cards. And change them daily.
  9. If you take a lot of photographs or do video, it is smart to bring an external hard disc for backing up.
  10. The cold eats batteries so bring spare batteries. And keep them warm if possible. A trick is to keep all your batteries in your inner pockets near the body. 
  11. Focal lengths? Any length is alright depending on your subject. If you are after the Polar Bear, a tele lens from 200mm and upwards is smart to keep a safe distance to the bear. Polar Bears are incredibly quick and can outrun a person easily. 
  12. Do not spend the entire time hiding behind the viewfinder. Often photography can get in the way for some memorable moments.
  13. Try to be a little creative. Moving closer to the subject is often a proven technique. 
The Editors Leica M6 in the snow. Photo by: Daniel Novello

The Editors Leica M6 in the snow. Photo by: Daniel Novello

Sailing to Svalbard is an easy and life changing experience.

All the rules and regulations may sound frightfully much to remember and prepare. But, the truth is; it is quite simple. As long as you use common sense and play by the rules and regulations, a passage to Svalbard is an adventure for life and possible for everyone.

Many of our readers have asked if they need a special type of sailing vessel to sail to Svalbard. The answer is no. In fact, most cruising yachts visiting Svalbard in the summer are normal production cruisers of moderate size. Preparing for an adventure to the Arctic is part of the fun. More on this in a future series of articles coming soon.

There is lots of Arctic literature available. We recommend, apart from the classics, to read small boat solo sailor Roger Taylors adventures in the Arctic onboard MinMing I and II. The book MINGMING II & the ISLANDS of the ICE is a masterpiece and helps understanding the lure of The Arctic a little better.

Thank you to the Governor of Svalbard, Visit Svalbard and the Harbour Master at The Port of Longyearbyen for their help in writing this article.

Please check back soon for interviews and more articles about sailing in Svalbard and The Arctic.