On Polar Bear

Polar Bear is a Challenge 72, one of a set of a dozen or so 72-foot steel sailboats built for a now-defunct round-the-world race. Sixteen amateurs would pay 30,000 pounds for the opportunity to cram into one of these boats, take orders from a skipper and get their asses beat up by the southern ocean all while racing similar set-ups the wrong way around the planet. By “wrong way” I mean: against the prevailing winds. Yes, they surfed some big waves in the southern ocean, but most of the time these knuckleheads were heeled over at 45 degrees and pounding through big waves for weeks at a time.

That they succeeded attests to the capabilities of this boat. It really is built like a brick shithouse. Apparently last year’s captain, in an ever-escalating test of what the hull could withstand, sailed Polar Bear at 6-plus knots into an iceberg roughly half the size of the boat — and didn’t even blemish the outer coating on the hull.

So yeah, the boat is tough. What it’s not, however, is very comfortable. In order to accommodate 16 sailors, pipe berths are used for bunks. These consist, as the name suggests, of two pipes with a padded cloth platform strung between them and velcroed secure. The cloth platforms extend beyond either pipe and have three straps from head to toe that are strung overhead to create lee cloths, fabric walls that keep you in your bunk while the boat rolls around the ocean. The pipe berths are, to be honest, more comfortable than you might expect, though that might be due to the fact that when you crawl into yours, you’re so tired you could sleep on the side of a Southern California freeway at rush hour with no problem.

Polar Bear is also, as I’ve mentioned, made of steel — and there are no cushions in the cockpit area so your ass gets cold and sore pretty quickly. Also in the cockpit, the floorboards at the helm are angled so that when the boat is heeled at 45 degrees, your feet can be on a horizontal surface. If you’re not heeled at 45 degrees, as we rarely are, your feet are torqued at strange angles that never quite get comfortable.

The boat is also very demanding. A 72-foot, 50-plus-ton boat requires big sails to get it going. Big sails require a lot of effort to hoist and control. So the lines are big, the weights and forces involved are big and the spares required take up a lot of space.

All of which is to say that it’s not a boat made for cruising. Which, to be fair, in its current incarnation, is not really what it’s doing. Polar Bear is a bus, with stops at obscure, hard-to-reach places that are popular among climbers and kayakers. The goal is to cram as many people into the boat as possible for each trip, thereby maximizing profits. Hey, I’m a capitalist; I’m all for that.

What’s missing, however, is the acknowledgement by the owners that this is not an ideal platform for such adventures.

A power boat — say, an old, local fishing boat — would be a better vehicle for taking adventure seekers to Lofoten. You could fit hard-shell kayaks on the foredeck since there wouldn’t be any headsails or spinnaker poles in the way. Wind, or the lack thereof as we saw last week, wouldn’t be an issue, and diesel would be a fixed cost. Most importantly, you could get your clients where they wanted to go in half the time it currently takes; Polar Bear is a sailboat — with an undersized engine, no less — it’s not made to motor fast.

But there’s another way to make Polar Bear work as-is as a charter vessel: market to sailors.

Sailors familiar with the boat’s history — its use in the Challenge races, its later use by Dee Caffari to become the first woman to sail nonstop around the world in the wrong direction solo (wow, that’s a lot of qualifiers) — make it something that armchair racers would kill to experience…right down to the pipe berths. Sailors would welcome the opportunity to work hard and endure discomfort if it meant they could say they did it on a famous racing boat.

But that would mean different destinations than those currently on Polar Bear’s itinerary. It would mean doing things where there’s reliable, strong wind — places such as the trade winds and events such as the ARC, originally in Polar Bear’s 2011 schedule.

But sailing is not among Boy Wonder or his father’s interests; they’re climbers and kayakers who dabble in sailing. We’ll cover these two illustrious folks in detail in a subsequent post (pops needs a nickname, don’t you think?), but the bottom line is: Polar Bear is a magnificent vessel for what it was designed to do. It handles beautifully when it’s going to weather in big winds. It rockets downwind when it’s blowing like stink. It can take pretty much anything that can be dished out. And it does all of that very efficiently and with speed.

I’m grateful to have spent time on this boat and I’m looking forward to whatever time remains. But I would never want a boat like this. I wouldn’t even want to spend more than one season like this on board. It’s just too big with too many concessions made in the interest of sailing speed — speeds that aren’t reached often enough now because, frankly, it doesn’t sail enough because of its itinerary.

Polar Bear is a different platform for different folks. For me, it’s a learning platform, and it’s been educational even in what it’s taught me I DON’T want.

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