Wanderlusting with Pioneer

Few things in life can prepare you for your first ever sighting of a polar bear in the wild. But when it happens within three hours of arriving in the Canadian Arctic archipelago sitting on board your 46m explorer vessel watching an adult bear languish salubriously on a passing iceberg, it’s pretty hard to beat. For the owners and crew of Vripack-designed Pioneer, it remains unrivaled.

Vripack - Pioneer - Sports fisherman named Scout - Exploring the waterfalls and Wildlife

PIONEER FIRST YACHT TO CIRCUMNAVIGATE NORTH AMERICA

Pioneer at her best sailing the Northwest Passage

Pioneer is a private expedition yacht with an incredible 11,000-mile range and robust cruising capabilities. She was the first yacht to circumnavigate North America and has tackled many high latitude destinations, from Greenland to Alaska, and British Columbia to the Northwest Passage. Her shared ownership today between two owners and their families means the boat never stands still.

“The place I liked the most was Greenland just because of how beautiful it is and there’s some really interesting human culture there,” says Pioneer’s owner. “But the place where I felt the boat was at its best, where I felt without Pioneer that I would never get to see in this way, was the Northwest Passage. It’s the most remote place that I’ve been on the boat, reaching 75 degrees North latitude.”

WILDLIFE AND DELICATE FLORA & FAUNA

Cruising through the province of Nunavut, which is itself the size of western Europe with a human population of just 29,000, provided a window onto a bounty of fragile landscapes and wildlife. Starting off from Pond Inlet at the very top of Baffin Island, Pioneer nudged her way around glaciers and icebergs, navigating past Devon Island – the largest uninhabited island in the world – and finishing for the first owner in Canada’s Resolute, 500 miles from their starting point. The second owner and their family then completed the seven-day trip in reverse. An abundance of narwhals, walruses, whales, and polar bears were sighted set against a backdrop of delicate flora and fauna.

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"In the high latitudes, the boat was solid, we had no technical issues, and it’s just a fantastic platform.”

OWNER PIONEER

Vripack - Pioneer Journey - North America - Northwest Passage - Greenland - impressive nature - Icebergs
Vripack - Pioneer - Alaska - Boots - Journey of a lifetime

“Devon Island was amazing,” says the owner. “We only saw a small part of it, but we pulled into this bay on the Southern side and found a blessing of 30 narwhals that we followed over the course of two days. And there’s the ice, as well, of course. The calving glaciers and groaning sea ice are both fascinating and beautiful, not to mention nerve-wracking for the captains!”

CAPTAINS GARETH NICHOLLS AND NICK CUTLER

At the helm, Captains Gareth Nicholls and Nick Cutler worked on a rotational basis to support Pioneer’s shared itineraries. Being equipped with a large RIB called Lookout and a 10m sports fisherman called Scout that tows behind Pioneer proved to be invaluable when trying to access some of the more remote regions and wildlife, says Captain Gareth: “Going out for two hours looking for polar bears in one of our open tenders would have become tedious pretty quickly. The sports fisherman had the winter covers on, so it’s enclosed and heated. It means you can spend all day looking for wildlife and that was a game-changer for us. It meant we saw everything.”

For the owner, whose previous trips to the Arctic had been camping in the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the opportunity to experience the wildlife and landscapes of the high latitudes by boat added another captivating dimension. “Alaska looks very different to Greenland, and they both look incredibly different to the high Arctic in Canada. It’s a different landscape with different wildlife. There’s a certain type of light and energy you get during summertime in the high latitudes. It’s fantastic.”

PIONEER A FAMILY EXPLORER

Built in 1996 by Palmer Johnson, Pioneer combines sumptuous warm interiors with relaxing zen-like deck spaces, the perfect respite after a day spent exploring new destinations. The original helipad was replaced with a jacuzzi during a 2015 refit at Balk shipyard, a decision that has served her current owners well. While helicopters were hired to fly over stunning aerial vistas, such as the Greenland ice caps, the open-air top deck jacuzzi proved popular at the end of a long day exploring.

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"The place where I felt Pioneer was at its best, where I felt without Pioneer that I would never get to see in this way, was the Northwest Passage. It's the most remote place that I've been on the boat, reaching 75 degrees North Latitude".

OWNER PIONEER

Vripack - Pioneer - Alaska - Lamplugh - Journey

“There’s nothing quite like being in the jacuzzi while cruising past a huge mountain of an iceberg,” says Captain Gareth, who alongside the owners regards Pioneer to be an “outdoors boat”. Bought in 2015 with the Northwest Passage in mind, Pioneer ticks all the boxes for a family explorer.

“We never sit inside other than on the bridge,” says the owner. “The bridge is a great place for viewing with really comfortable seating for us to be with the captain. And we always eat outdoors. In the high latitudes, the boat was solid, we had no technical issues, and it’s just a fantastic platform.”

WEAVING THROUGH ICEBERGS

Sometimes clocking up to 120 miles between each destination, the fairly compact boat took the rigorous schedules in her stride. “The first iceberg we saw was when we pulled out of Newfoundland and were joined by humpback whales,” says Captain Gareth. “There’s not as much wildlife around the Disco Island area, but the glacier up there is the most productive one in the world. We spent our days weaving through the icebergs. When you’re sitting off of a glacier, it’s actually quite noisy. It’s crashing and creaking, and huge bits of ice keeps falling off. It’s pretty impressive.”

But while the ice itself does no harm to the exterior paint job, being trapped in among floating icebergs is a real danger, adds Captain Gareth. “My most memorable day was getting our $1.2million sports fishing boat tender trapped in ice and having to cut it free while standing with the boss on the back of the boat!”

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Vripack - Pioneer explorer yacht - Wildlife photography - Journey - Pioneer at a bay
CHALLENGES

“As soon as you put the anchor down an iceberg comes along,” he adds. “The sea ice is moving around all the time, it’s a challenge. Pioneer is relatively small compared to some of the bigger yachts in those areas, but we run with just enough crew to keep it really well maintained and service the owners. When you throw in 24-hour days it’s hard work for the crew, but everyone would do it again tomorrow, the rewards far outweigh the odds.”

FAMILY TIME

For the owners, the memories are priceless: “For me it’s great family time and to give the kids the experience of seeing something that so few other people have seen is incredible. I have always been the type of person who’s looked at the map and thought, ‘What’s going on over there? What’s around that corner?’ But there is also this sense that what we’re seeing won’t really be like that when my children are adults. We’re visiting places where wildlife is extremely fragile, and the glaciers are beautiful because they’re breaking up from climate change. Getting to see it now with the sense that it’s fleeting is amazing.”

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"Being equipped with a 10m sports fisherman called Scout that tows behind Pioneer proved to be invaluable when trying to access some of the more remote regions and wildlife. It means you can spend all day looking for wildlife and that was a game-changer for us. It meant we saw everything.”

CAPTAIN GARETH NICHOLLS

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