Exploration superyachts – the rise in polar tourism

By Marie Sundell, Legal Director at Clyde & Co LLP, IUMI Professional Partner,

The past decade has seen an increase in demand for "explorer" superyachts, with a new generation of owners seeking adventures and challenges outside the traditional cruising areas of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. The number of owners seeking out ice and remote wilderness in the Arctic and in Antarctica is increasing.

There is no universal standard for what constitutes an explorer yacht and the label "explorer" or "expedition" yacht does not necessarily mean that the yacht in question is capable of safely navigating the polar regions. Explorer yachts come in all shapes and sizes – from converted tugs and commercial vessels to, soon to be, purpose-built Polar Code compliant luxury superyachts. The extent to which the Polar Code, which came into force on 1 January 2017, applies to yachts depends on the yacht's intended use (private or commercial) and size. Most yachts will, likely, only visit the polar regions on an occasional basis and during the summer months. If so, Polar Code Category C ship classification may be sufficient. For those owners seeking greater navigational freedom, Category B ship classification may be desired, in which case the Polar Code requirements regarding design, safety measures and manning will be more onerous.

For insurers, many of the risks associated with polar navigation raised in the context of commercial shipping, for example treacherous weather conditions, lack of reliable charts, reduced GPS coverage and limited SAR and salvage availability, are equally applicable in the context of explorer yachts. However, the presence of crew and guests more accustomed to tropical waters may increase the human risk element. Consideration needs to be given to the adequacy of crew training and the need for (for example) an accompanying ice pilot. Superyachts also come with very expensive equipment including tenders, submersibles and toys, all of which may increase the financial exposure in the event of a loss. In the absence of historic data, pricing the risk with any degree of confidence may be difficult. In each case, insurers need to satisfy themselves about the preparedness of management and crew and the viability and safety of the proposed voyage.