The Recreational Mariner's Guide

3. Svalbard


The information below is in addition to that presented in the Norway Preparation chapter; some of which also applies to Svalbard.

Most of Svalbard is protected and there are numerous regulations that govern where you can travel and what you can do when you get there. We highly recommend you start your research well ahead of time, as much as a year ahead, especially if you plan to hire a firearm for your voyage.

More on Rules and Regulations


We must emphasize that a small boat voyage to within 600 miles of the North Pole is a serious undertaking, requiring a boat and crew capable of coping with the extreme conditions the high Arctic can present at any time.

Ocean Passage

The passage to Spitsbergen, across the Barents Sea via Bjørnøya, though less difficult than those to Greenland or Antarctica, is not one to take lightly and boat and crew should be prepared. The waters between Norway and Svalbard are generally rougher than you would expect from the wind strength alone and a somewhat lumpy passage is usual. 


There are a significant number of logs, sometimes as large as 1 m in diameter and 10 m long, floating in the Barents Sea and in the coastal waters of Svalbard. These logs are very difficult to see unless it is quite calm, even if you keep a close lookout. They constitute a hazard which you must accept when sailing these waters. 


The cold will place stress, both physical and psychological, on you and your crew. You may have to shorten watches in really cold weather or have two on watch at a time in areas of dense ice or in fog. Except in very secure anchorages, an anchor watch for ice is often necessary, meaning a long stretch of nights of broken sleep. 

Cold and exhaustion, particularly if sea sickness is thrown in for good measure, can be a dangerous combination, leading quickly to hypothermia. 


Traveling in a place with very few services for boats and where you might not see another person for an extended time can also cause stress for you and your crew. 

An accident or bad weather may be much more serious and frightening in an Arctic environment than when it occurs in a place with services and support. 


The weather in Svalbard, as in any high Arctic environment, is highly variable and can change rapidly from benign to dangerous. 

Cold air is denser than warm air and therefore the wind will feel stronger for a given speed than in more temperate latitudes. 


Ice conditions can change rapidly and become dangerous without warning, even on the relatively benign west coast of Spitsbergen. “Ice happens quickly,” as Willy Kerr, a very experienced high latitude sailor, declared. 

More on ice

Polar Bears

In Svalbard, you are no longer at the top of the food chain. Take this situation seriously and prepare yourself properly. 

More on polar bears

Preparing The Boat

For the passage to Svalbard, your boat must be well found and able to handle a tough ocean crossing of several hundred nautical miles. There are virtually no services for boats in Svalbard and so you must be self-sufficient in maintaining and fixing anything that goes wrong with your boat.

Anchoring Gear

We recommend the Spade anchor, which can push through the thick kelp often found in Svalbard anchorages.

Ice Poles

As is shown in the picture, a boathook can do secondary duty as an ice pole; however, wooden dowels are another option if you prefer not to risk your boathook. We carry 2 dowels that we keep tied to the inside of the stanchions when not in use:

  • Length 4.25 m
  • Diameter 4 cm

When at anchor, it is gratifying to see how big the pieces are that you can push away. Amazing, that is, until you realize that in most cases you are actually moving the boat, not the ice! When tied to a wharf, however, the size of piece it is possible to move decreases dramatically.


A Navtex receiver is good for acquiring weather reports that are, by international convention, broadcast in English, as well as information on ice conditions. However, if you don’t already own one, it may not be a necessary purchase if you have some form of satellite communication. But, on the other hand, Navtex sends out important and possibly time critical Notices to Mariners that you would not otherwise receive unless you went looking for them (and who actually does that?!).

Should You Get a Navtex? at Attainable Adventure Cruising


The Barents Sea between Norway and Svalbard is known for fog, so having a radar on board and knowing how to use it will make your trip much less stressful.

Marine Electronics Recommendations—Radar at Attainable Adventure Cruising

Communications Equipment

The Sysselmester (The Governor) strongly recommends that boats have a VHF radio and a satellite phone when cruising in Svalbard. Note that Svalbard lies outside the footprint of many satellite communications systems, including Globalstar and several of the Inmarsat systems; however, Iridium works fine, in fact better than it does in the lower latitudes. There are several reports of sailors and locals in Svalbard finding adequate coverage using Starlink. As this is new technology, the usual caveats apply.

More on Communications


If you have an inflatable dinghy, make sure you haul it aboard whenever you are at anchor since a polar bear could chew on it, as happened to a friend of ours in Labrador—twice!

Weather Protection

We found that our dodger was sufficient when combined with cold weather clothing, though on the colder days we did envy those with cockpit enclosures or wheelhouses.


A cabin heater is necessary for comfort except for those with very rugged constitutions.

Safety Equipment

A boat venturing to the high Arctic should be fully equipped with a wide range of safety equipment. When thinking about what to add, the International Racing Federation Offshore Special Regulations is a good place to look for recommendations.

More on liferafts at Attainable Adventure Cruising

We carry waterproof insulated flotation deck (exposure) suits that are suitable to work in on very cold days, especially if handling shorefasts in the dinghy, as well as full immersion (survival) suits with integral feet and hands for survival situations.

More on exposure and survival suits at Attainable Adventure Cruising

The Governor stipulates that all visitors to Svalbard who are planning to travel outside Management Area 10 should carry an emergency beacon and register the ID number with the office before departure for Svalbard.

Preparing The Crew

When traveling in the Arctic, extra hands can ease the passage-watch and anchor-watch burden—particularly welcome when it is cold.

The decision of how many crew to take rests, of course, on your cruising plans and your level of experience sailing in the high latitudes.

When planning crew changes, it is best to avoid setting up tight schedules, which can lead to poor decision making. As the old saying goes, “the most dangerous thing on a cruising boat is a calendar”.


Although the temperatures in Svalbard are not as bitter cold as the latitude might suggest, the windchill when underway can be enough to require high-quality foul-weather gear. 

Make sure to bring cold-weather clothing, including warm ear and head protection, as well as warm waterproof gloves and insulated waterproof boots.