World sailing

Polar Yacht Guide: Small Boat Safety | Security | Sailors | ISAF | World Sailing

The Polar Yacht Guide and why it is needed

There are many reasons why sailors sail in the polar regions. These include:

  • A (sometimes misguided) perception that global warming is making higher latitudes more accessible
  • Low latitude cruising has become overcrowded and commercialized
  • It is the “eco-tourism” destination par excellence
  • Cruising sailors, more than others, like to “push the limits” and explore

This has led to a large increase in the number of yachts sailing in Greenland, Svalbard, Alaska, the Northwest Passage, South America, the Southern Oceans and Antarctica. The following graph shows the number of transits of all ships and yachts using the Northwest Passage since it was first transited by Amundsen in 1906:

A similar story applies to yachts cruising or racing in the southern oceans and yachts planning to visit the Antarctic Peninsula.

Click here for the Polar Yacht Guide.

Safety and environment

Most of these expeditions have been carried out successfully by well-prepared yachts with competent crews. However, there were a number of exceptions which led to rescue operations and questions about potential environmental damage. This is a source of concern for maritime authorities, environmentalists, governments and local populations.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the global standards authority for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping. Its main role is to create a regulatory framework for the shipping industry. Inevitably, and for good reason, a number of regulations issued by the IMO (for example COLREGS) also concern pleasure craft. These craft are generally subject to simplified codes administered by flag states and many seagoing sailboats follow special (safety) regulations from World Sailing. Much of the success and safety of small craft management depends on the well-established concept of “educate not legislate” adopted by major sailing organizations.

Recently, some IMO delegations have proposed that parts of the IMO Polar Code be extended to cover “all ships on all voyages” (as in the application of COLREGS). This is a concern for boaters because:

  • it is seen as the creeping extension of mandatory regulation, and
  • the IMO regulatory system is designed for large ships, not yachts.

Ships of all types face a harsh and demanding environment in the polar regions, but their approach to overcoming these challenges differs.

The different polar regions share common problems: navigation in ice, poorly studied waters, limited SAR resources, fragile and precious environments and isolation. However, they differ in other respects. Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty system and has well-established protocols for visiting yachts, but the northern polar regions are administered by various sovereign countries with different rules. The southern oceans frequently experience extreme weather conditions in highly exposed waters while the north generally has more ports of refuge.

Since November 11, 2020, the world has been in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic and cruise ship sailors are advised not to visit the polar regions. In particular, yachts are not welcome in vulnerable communities which may have limited healthcare facilities.

Guide to polar yachts

A group of experienced high latitude sailors, aware of the concerns mentioned above, have written a voluntary code of practice called the Polar Yacht Guide. The PYG, which is specifically designed for yachts, is in three parts: (a) Safe navigation and voyage planning for all polar waters, (b) Arctic waters and (c) Antarctic waters. The PYG is intended to supplement the guides and pilot books. The authors and contributors believe that it will be more effective than compulsory legislation.

The draft document has been circulated for consultation to a wide group of organizations and individuals, including search and rescue organizations, experienced high latitude sailors, environmental organizations, yacht clubs, shipping institutions , representatives of the IMO and government agencies. It is now available on the World Sailing website at and on the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation website.