An unusual high-latitude vessel


Most boats navigating above the Arctic Circle, or even for that matter above about 50° N, are purpose-built steel vessels with high freeboard, big engines and generators, and a bridge deck or pilothouse full of electronics. This certainly describes the icebreakers of the Arctic and the “Deadliest Catch” crab fishing boats of the Bering Sea. To a lesser extent it even describes most high-latitude pleasure craft. So it’s no wonder that curious onlookers in Nome, Alaska, found my vessel very out of place. Nome is a gold-rush town on the Seward Peninsula, one of the two headlands that form the Bering Strait. It’s the last provisioning stop before Arctic waters and the most northerly harbor in Alaska. My vessel Celeste is a 30-year-old sailboat made of cold-molded wood. 

Across the dock from Celeste lay the type of voyaging boat one imagines when thinking of high latitudes. She was a nearly brand-new aluminum motorsailer with twin 75-hp diesels, a heated pilothouse and freeboard high enough to enclose cabins and heads beneath the dining salon. Celeste, on the other hand, won “Best Sail” in the 1986 Vancouver Wooden Boat Festival. 

Francis Kinney of Sparkman & Stephens designed Celeste in 1985 as an independent project for a man in Victoria, British Columbia. He was an experienced bluewater sailor who wanted a wooden classic capable of ocean crossings. The result was a 1940s or ’50s style cutter-rigged sloop with long overhangs: 40 feet overall but only 28 feet on the waterline. Her narrow beam, low freeboard and classic sheer make her unusual in most harbors outside Maine — let alone in Alaska — and her wineglass transom, tapering stern and curved bow complete her lines.

This metal voyager is a more typical high-latitude boat.

Wood-epoxy construction
Celeste’s builder was Bent Jespersen, a shipwright from Denmark who immigrated to Canada and, when fiberglass began to dominate the market, opened his own yard focusing instead on wood-epoxy construction. He built Celeste’s hull with local Western red cedar — three layers laid up at opposing angles — and finished it with a fore-and-aft layer of mahogany. The result was strong, stiff and 1.5 inches thick. Celeste’s keelson is an immense timber, about a foot wide and a foot deep, through which her stacked mahogany fin keel is bolted. Her frames and deck beams are laminates and her deck is teak over marine plywood. The coach roof is also marine ply, and her cabin sides and coamings are varnished mahogany.

Celeste’s owner had asked Kinney for a fast but solid boat, and so the design incorporated a modern underbody of fin keel and separate skeg-hung rudder as well as an aluminum mast climbing 51 feet above the deck. The result, following her 1986 launching, was a 3,000-nautical-mile Pacific crossing in only 18 days — with a 28-foot waterline! Following Celeste’s maiden cruise through the South Pacific and Hawaii, she resided on Vancouver Island and sailed the Inside Passage. Eventually, though, her owner found he was using her less and less and, at age 82, decided to sell. It was serendipitous for both of us that my husband Seth and I — also classic boat offshore voyagers — happened to be looking for something like Celeste right then.

That isn’t to say Celeste wasn’t showing her age. She needed a fairly big refit when we bought her in 2013, but we were confident that she could go anywhere, including the Arctic, once it was complete. Heading the list was renewal of the hull’s epoxy barrier coat, a preventative measure against osmosis and consequent rot that must be done to both fiberglass and cold-molded boats about every 20 years. So Celeste spent that winter in a heated shed, drying out her hull (which had been stripped of paint) until a moisture meter indicated it was time for fiberglass and barrier coat. Cold-molded methods have evolved since Celeste’s construction and most hulls today are finished with a non-structural layer of fiberglass for abrasion resistance and increased waterproofing.

Though having classic lines, Celeste has a modern underbody.

Since we planned to take Celeste to the far north, she also got a strip of shrapnel-proof Kevlar around the waterline as protection against sea ice and glacier ice. (See ON #223, “Armor belted”) The rest of the refit dealt with systems: the smoking engine, the tangled and haphazard electrical circuitry, the dead batteries and the old plumbing. Finally, Celeste received upgrades: GPS, a radar and VHF that worked, solar panels, a low-draw desalinator and a stove-type heater. 

Although not a large purpose-built metal boat, Celeste was ready for high latitudes, and judging from events, she was ready. Over the course of the next two summers, she sailed 6,500 nautical miles, most of it in the Arctic or sub-Arctic. She navigated sea ice and glacial growlers, took on the brutally steep short-period seas of the shallow Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and rounded the northernmost point of the U.S. at 71° 24’ N. So despite her unusual appearance in these waters, Celeste worked well as a high-latitude boat.

What worked and what didn’t
Because Celeste is so unusual for this type of sailing, it’s worth examining what worked and what didn’t. Big metal high-latitude boats generally look the way they do for a reason. The farther north we went, the more I wished for that heated pilothouse. Instead we stood watch swaddled in three layers of long underwear, wool sweaters, down jackets and foul weather gear. Even still, we huddled behind the canvas dodger, sitting on the top step of the companionway with the hatch pulled up to try to keep as little warmth as possible from escaping the cabin. This also helped to keep us warm, or at least our feet. On the other hand, this wasn’t such a bad predicament as we can control almost everything from there: autopilot, wind vane or tiller itself; mainsheet and traveler; radar, GPS and VHF; and engine controls.

Celeste handles steep chop in the Chukchi Sea.

The heating situation was also less than ideal. Installing a stove-type heater (that does not use electricity) was part of the refit, and at anchor it warmed up the cabin nicely. Unfortunately, however, it didn’t work while sailing because it was either flooded with fuel or starved for it depending on the roll. So one needs a forced-air type heater. Celeste does in fact have one, but it requires a lot of electricity and Celeste does not have a generator. Instead all her electricity comes from solar panels or from the high-output alternator while she’s motoring (we don’t like to run the engine just to make power). This means that she’s a low-draw systems boat — LED lights and other modern equipment make this feasible. The forced-air heater is the only item for which we would have liked a generator. On the other hand, a generator requires diesel fuel, which is difficult to obtain in the Arctic. We were already carrying an extra 50 gallons intended to last us the whole voyage, and consequently wouldn’t have had room for more for a generator.

In terms of her design, Celeste’s low freeboard and narrow beam means that more spray comes aboard than it would on a taller and larger boat. This isn’t so much fun when the spray is near freezing. Running the halyards aft to the cockpit would ameliorate this situation, but nonetheless I would say that in this regard the big high-latitude boats have an advantage. A well-built metal hull also seems superior in terms of impact and abrasion resistance: I know of quite a few that have punched their way through moderate concentrations of sea ice. To do so also requires a large engine, even one more powerful than warranted by the size of the boat. While Celeste’s engine is more than adequate for normal voyaging it’s not intended for breaking ice.

Much more worked aboard Celeste, however, than didn’t. Although I concede that metal makes a better icebreaker, Celeste’s hull proved extremely strong and impact-resistant, even more so than I’d expected. She brushed up against bits of sea ice at about 4 knots without even scratching the paint, and the same was true with harder glacial ice. Perhaps the best test came well before the Arctic: In British Columbia, just south of Ketchikan, she hit a dead-head (a submerged, waterlogged and very solid log that had fallen off a timber boom) while sailing at 8 knots. The sound of it was frightening, but a close inspection revealed not the slightest evidence that she’d hit anything. Later I learned of a fiberglass boat that had hit a similar log at 7 knots: She was stove in and only survived because her owners drove her ashore.

Huddled in the companionway while on watch.

An often-overlooked advantage of wood is its insulating properties. Celeste experienced none of the condensation that plagues many high-latitude sailors. Only when she reached the sea ice did we see tiny beads of moisture below waterline. Usually our bilges were so dry that we could use them to store toilet paper, extra bits of wood, even tins of varnish. Wood is also light for its strength, which means that Celeste is a fairly light-displacement cruising boat. She rises to the swell easily, keeping the cockpit drier than one would think upon looking at her.

Furthermore, the low-draw systems approach to voyaging that’s inherent in a relatively small, simple boat like Celeste kept us independent from shore. It increased our freedom of movement and allowed us to take as much time as we wanted on the voyage. It eliminated the stress of scrounging for fuel and water in remote locations where there’s sometimes only enough for the inhabitants. This in turn made us more welcomed by the locals than many Arctic sailors experience, which made the whole voyage truly wonderful. I admit that primarily we accomplished this by sacrificing comfort. As mentioned above, we don’t have a generator, which meant we were mostly confined to our stove-type heater. At anchor, though, we were comfortably warm while burning little fuel thanks to the smallness of Celeste’s cabin (less space to heat) and to the excellent insulation of her wooden hull. 

Regarding the engine, Celeste’s 30-hp auxiliary burns about a third of a gallon per hour. Because she is faster under sail, we obviously sailed whenever we could. To provide you with an idea of our diesel consumption, we left Dutch Harbor with 100 gallons, replenished the 20 gallons we’d used by the time we reached Nome, and didn’t refuel again. When we returned to Dutch seven weeks and 2,300 miles later, we had 70 gallons left.

Low electrical draw 
Our low-draw systems eliminated the need to generate electricity from diesel fairly well. We have LEDs throughout the boat, including as navigation lights (although we rarely used any of these in the constant Arctic daylight). Our refrigerator (which we did use, especially at anchor when the boat was well heated) employs an ingenious magnetic compressor that uses at most four amps when running. We use the wind vane instead of the autopilot whenever possible and we have the benefit of today’s low-draw electronics. Finally, we have a Katadyn 40E watermaker that uses only four amps. Even in the Arctic where the sun is always at a low angle, we could run this on what our solar panels produced. In fact, several times the panels were able to bring our batteries to a complete charge even while we ran the desalinator. This was important because the Arctic is a desert and in some communities water is just as precious as fuel. So the low-draw watermaker freed us from worry and freed our interactions with the locals from transactional haggling. In those same seven weeks that we didn’t refuel, we relied entirely on the Katadyn 40E and yet never rationed our water; in fact, we took showers.

Finally, just like her outer construction and inner systems, Celeste’s design has advantages. Thirty years after launching, she’s still fast for her size, frequently averaging 7 knots over a multi-day passage. She’s weatherly, too, an important consideration in places like Alaska where an abrupt change in the wind can create a lee shore without warning. Her cutter rig with jiffy reefing and roller-furling jib is efficient and versatile: We can quickly go from a powerful full main and 130 percent genoa to a storm staysail, or anything in between. And finally, she’s beautiful to look at, no small thing for a crew who’s looked at nothing else but graybeards and the occasional bare rocky island on a 20-day passage from Alaska’s North Slope to the Aleutian Islands.

Ellen Massey Leonard and her husband Seth Leonard have circumnavigated and most recently sailed Alaska on the boat Celeste.

By Ocean Navigator