Pen Hadow’s Arctic Mission – To Sail to the North Pole

Arctic explorer Pen Hadow trekked, and swam, from Ward Hunt Island to the North Pole in 2003. Solo and unsupported. He plans to return to the North Pole this summer, but on this occasion he’ll be sailing with a few companions. According to yesterday’s Sunday Times:

Pen Hadow launches bittersweet mission to sail to North Pole

For his new record attempt, Hadow and his nine-strong team will take two yachts on a 3,500-mile round trip from Nome in Alaska to the pole, using satellites to find a route through the ice and avoid getting stuck. He will fly to Alaska to join his team members on Saturday.

If all goes to plan, he will arrive at the pole between August 15 and early September, about 510 miles further north than anyone has sailed before.

Although the Sunday Times failed to mention it the expedition has a web site of it’s own. According to the Arctic Mission “About” page:

Arctic Mission sets off from Nome in Alaska (USA) in the first week of August. The expedition team will not see land again for six weeks. We will cover about 3,500 miles by the time they return to harbour at Nome in mid-September.

Our two 50 foot yachts, Bagheera and Snow Dragon II, are specially built to sail in waters with sea ice, and the four skippers, two on each boat, are exceptionally experienced in polar seas, and with navigation and safety procedures in sea ice.

The Arctic Mission team intend to do lots of science during their attempt to reach the Pole:

Our expedition is going to explore, discover and share the stories of the spectacular marine wildlife – plants, animals and even bacteria – that lives around the North Pole. Be prepared to be surprised!

We’ll also be doing essential scientific studies and sharing this information, so that our international policy-makers can decide how best to #protect90North.

The more we explore this unexplored ocean, the better we will understand how it works, which means we can make the best decisions to protect it for the benefit of everyone for ever.

We’ve met the two yachts in question before. In 2015 Bagheera and Snow Dragon II both successfully negotiated the Northwest Passage. However this voyage will be far more difficult. During their attempt to sail to the North Pole in the summer of 2013 Sébastian Roubinet and Vincent Berthet had to be rescued by the Russian icebreaker Admiral Makarov when the Central Arctic refreeze set in earlier than originally anticipated. Unlike the ice skating catamaran Babouchka, Bagheera and Snow Dragon II both have engines which will certainly help avoiding a similar fate. In addition perhaps the sea ice in the Arctic is less of an obstacle than it was in 2013? In an interview with the BBC World Service on Sunday Pen pointed out that:

Now 40% of the international waters around the North Pole, what we call the Central Arctic Ocean, are open water in the summer time.

When asked:

Do you think you’ll actually achieve this goal then?

Pen replied:

I think it’s quite possible, with the assistance of a US agency that have satellites that are going to be helping us each day pick the best route through these ever narrowing cracks, and it’s quite possible that we’ll reach the North Geographic Pole.

I also trust that the Arctic Mission team will be keeping a close eye on the Arctic weather forecast over the next month or so. Last August the crew of the yacht Northabout feared for their lives when caught in an Arctic cyclone in a sheltered anchorage on the Northern Sea Route. There is no such safe haven anywhere near the North Pole.

Pen concluded his BBC interview as follows:

If we can produce a visual image of a sail boat at 90 degrees north I think that could become an iconic image of the challenge that the twenty-first century faces. Are we serious about running this planet, which is actually what we need to start doing, and it’s biophysical resources on a sustainable basis, or are we just here for a laugh?

We wish him and the Arctic Mission team well. Watch this space for further updates, and possibly that iconic visual image! Meanwhile here’s a picture of Bagheera in the Northwest Passage in 2015:


plus an image from the Sentinel 1B satellite of the current state of the Arctic sea ice on the direct route from Nome to the North Pole:

Sentinel 1B image of Arctic sea ice at 86N, 180W
Sentinel 1B image of Arctic sea ice at 86N, 180W on July 24th 2017

There don’t seem to be many “narrow cracks” just yet.


[Edit – August 9th]

The Arctic Mission team have a new blog! In the latest post Pen Hadow says:

[This] brings us to the summer of 2016, and an idea I was mulling over. A rather Big Idea. Had the deterioration of the Arctic sea ice got to a point where switching from Spring-time sledge-hauling to Summer-time sailing was appropriate? In my solo journey from northern Canada to the North Geographic Pole in 2003, I had spent over 30 hours swimming open water stretches, out of the total 850 hours spent hauling my sledge while walking on skis across the sea ice. It had dawned on me then that global warming was the likely cause of so much open water. Since then, it has become highly unlikely that the ski route from northern Russia to the Pole will be done again, due to the absence of sea ice for most of the year off the Severnaya Zemlya island group. And the other classic route from northern Canada no longer has an aircraft operation to provide the necessary support for sea ice expeditions, due to the worsening quality of the sea ice. Both routes have now been lost to the Arctic Ocean’s fast-changing environment. And with this change, the Arctic Ocean with its hitherto frozen summer surface is now rapidly becoming open-access to surface vessels for the first time in human history.

Would it be possible to sail a small yacht to the Pole? Could that create a useful platform to share the unfolding situation with a global audience? Might this be the best way I could focus world attention on the merit of creating a new marine reserve in the international waters surrounding the North Pole?

It looks like we’re just about to find out the answer to those questions. The team have also announced another livestream from Nome, Alaska. This one is scheduled for 8 PM BST tomorrow, Thursday August 10th. They say:

Ahead of our Friday departure (weather permitting – there’s a nasty storm brewing over the Bering Strait that may prove problematic) we’d love to introduce you to the Arctic Mission team.

This is probably what they are referring to:

Significant_height_of_combined_w in multi_1.nww3.20170809-t12z_00027

A bumpy ride for Pen Hadow et al. is in store on Saturday, and some big waves for Utqiaġvik (Barrow as was) as well.


[Edit – August 13th]

An overly brief and (hence?) rather misleading article in the Sunday Times today. According to Jonathan Leake:

Sailing to North Pole will have to wait

Pen Hadow, the British explorer, is today due to start a sailing expedition across the Arctic Ocean to highlight the effects of climate change, including an attempt to reach the North Pole.

Scientists warned, though, that despite the rapid melting of the ice there was unlikely to be access to the North Pole via open water for some years.

Professor Mark Serreze, director of America’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre, said the North Pole was still surrounded by nearly 800 miles of solid pack ice as of last week.

Jonathan appears not to have a particularly good grasp of sea ice (thermo)dynamics during the latter stages of the summer melting season!

NASA Worldview “false-color” image of the North Pole on August 13th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite
NASA Worldview “false-color” image of the North Pole on August 13th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite

Whilst waiting for the waves in the Bering Strait to die down Conor McDonnell, Arctic Mission’s photographer, has recorded a video from the top of Bagheera’s mast, amongst other places:


[Edit – August 14th]

According to Pen Hadow Bagheera and Snow Dragon II will set sail in the small hours of tomorrow morning (UTC):

We have also been promised live tracking real soon now:


[Edit – August 15th]

The Arctic Mission live tracking map is operational at last. Here is what it reveals so far:


It looks as though Bagheera and Snow Dragon II left Nome on their voyage of discovery at 06:00 UTC this morning.


[Edit – August 18th]

Point Hope is now behind the Arctic Mission team:


Next is Point Lay. Much further north, there are significant gaps appearing in the sea ice up to around 83N:

NASA Worldview “false-color” image of the Central Arctic north of the Beaufort Sea on August 18th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite
NASA Worldview “false-color” image of the Central Arctic north of the Beaufort Sea on August 18th 2017, derived from the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite


[Edit – August 19th]

Bagheera and Snow Dragon II are obviously not heading for the Northwest Passage in 2017!


Plus further to a conversation on Twitter:


[Edit – August 21st]

Bagheera and Snow Dragon II are still heading due north:


They stopped for a few hours yesterday to perform their first round of scientific experiments:


23 thoughts on “Pen Hadow’s Arctic Mission – To Sail to the North Pole

  1. “The first storm of the summer appears on it’s way. August 3rd/4th. This pic is for Aug 4th. It looks like a low with a center of around 975mb.”
    ASIB comment.
    So storms on 4/8, 11/8 and 18/8.
    First sounds a doozy. Will they be underway by then?

    1. There have already been some storms this summer:

      That one was forecast to be sub 970 hPa four days in advance, but ended up bottoming out at a “mere” 980 hPa. Here’s the current ECMWF forecast for August 4th:

      I’ll believe it when I see it! As for Pen’s Arctic Mission, their departure date seems to be a bit vague. “In the first week of August” suggests they might be underway by the 4th, but they’ll still be an awful long way from the North Pole.

  2. 7/18/12 lowest thickness in satellite era compared to 7/18/17 new lowest thickness… In just 5 years we have virtually lost all the 3,4 and 5 meter ice folks and next month so goes the 2 meter ice… Get ready for the Clathrate Gun folks…
    This is a comment by 12Patrick from the 2017 melting season thread from Nevens forum.

    Even though a lot of the thicker ice has been lost in the last few years doesn’t this mission still count as extremely dangerous?

    1. I’m afraid I take anything 12Patrick might say with a large pinch of salt.

      Personally I’d class Pen Hadow’s latest Arctic mission as fairly dangerous, but then so was walking to the North Pole unsupported!

      1. I agree about danger. I hope he has made a large deposit somewhere to cover their costs of rescue. I’m not sure how effective the satellite help will be in the kinds of storms that can/have happened on that route.

  3. Another brief Arctic Mission article in today’s Sunday Times:

    A shark that lives to 500 years old and a whale that looks like a swimming unicorn could join the polar bear as symbols of the threat to the Arctic ecosystem.

    Pen Hadow, the explorer, who will attempt to sail from Alaska to the North Pole next month, said it was time for the world to wake up to the importance of protecting the region’s underwater mysteries.

    His expedition will highlight climate change and study the “teeming” ocean wildlife now threatened as the protective pack ice recedes.

  4. What kind of shark lives to 500 years of age?

    (Imagine how cranky that thing would be hehehehehehe!)

  5. A couple of my questions were answered in the Arctic Mission livestream from Nome yesterday.

    It seems a tracking map will shortly become available on the Arctic Mission web site.

    Pen also seems to be backing off a bit from the “North Pole” mission. His exact words were:

    Although the obvious goal, if you will, is to reach the North Pole. Whether we do or not is absolutely not the key, highest priority of the project. Just for your information, the highest priority that runs through everything that we do is to be safe as crew and looking after the vessels. We need to come back. So it is not a do or die, let’s repeat, not a do or die mission to reach the North Pole!

    1. Ah, right. It’s just for PR purposes then.

      Even if they make it to the North Pole (using engines exclusively), they’ll never make it back out again. I wish they could, but it’s a shifting labyrinth that freezes up at some point.

  6. I think it would have been smarter to say: We’re going to sail North as far as we can. If you then reach 86N, or even 87N, that would probably be furthest anyone has sailed without an icebreaker. That would already be pretty cool.

    But now it’ll be: Didn’t make it to the North Pole. Things probably aren’t that bad yet.

    1. Quite so Neven.

      The “Ship of Fools” appellation is already being applied by the usual suspects. The tracking map now refers to a “Voyage around the North Pole”.

      Even though Pen Hadow has been downplaying the North Pole goal recently, it will turn into an own goal when the (almost?) inevitable failure to achieve it transpires.

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