June 21, 2024

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Sailing Uma talk sailing to Svalbard in an electric-assisted yacht

Sailing Uma talk sailing to Svalbard in an electric-assisted yacht

In their electric-assisted yacht two architects and YouTube stars, Sailing Uma, venture to the Norwegian Sea’s most remote and stunning fjords and islands

Eight years ago, Dan and Kika sold everything they didn’t need and bought their first sailing boat, a 1972 Pearson 36, for $3,000 in cash. The architecture students had just graduated and were keen not to ‘buy a couch’ and settle into the predictable evolution of life.

Since that day in 2014, they have sailed more than 28,000 miles, visited 28 countries and never motored for more than 30 minutes at a time. They make a living documenting their trips and promoting sustainability at sea, notably the ground-breaking use of electric engines.

Their story is one of adventure and true pioneering spirit. It is also inspirational, as witnessed by their 101,000 Instagram followers and 411,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel Sailing Uma.

‘Our boat is called Uma. Her name was inspired by the Portuguese word, uma, meaning first or primary. To us, she is more than just a number,’ says Kika.

Dan and Kika of Sailing Uma

Inspired to explore

‘In life there are many paths to choose; all require a first step, a first idea, a first choice to stand on, to guide you on your journey. We hope that our story will stand as an inspiration for those wanting to pursue their dream, to take their first step to discover their own Uma.’

Dan grew up in Canada and Kika is from Haiti; they met in Atlanta at university. ‘We realised that after five years in architecture we had spent a lot of our lives learning about other people’s ideas from books. We wanted to live our own experiences,’ says Kika. ‘We believe that architects have a strong possibility of changing the way people live and in turn change our world for the better. We knew we had to go out and study different cultures, experience different ways of living to search for the right solution. We felt the need to do so, not through textbooks but through people. And through our own adventures.’ Now their office is their sailing boat, which is also their home.

Dan and Kika are passionate about sustainability and are keen to seek and test cutting-edge solutions, ‘powered by the sun, wind and water. We want to be as self-sufficient as we can and share our passion for sustainability’, says Kika. They are working with manufacturers, testing their nautical equipment.

After buying Uma, Dan and Kika spent two years living on board in the shipyard in Florida while they repaired and refitted her. During this time, they replaced the original diesel engine, which had seized, and bought two 240W solar panels. ‘We spent $100 on Ebay buying an electric motor formerly used by a forklift truck,’ says Dan. He then spent many, many hours refining and converting the new engine to power the propeller. ‘We were not trying to replace the power of the diesel engine. We wanted the electric equivalent of oars, something that would guide us to a mooring or into harbour. It was new to us, a new system in general and we were testing it by sailing.’

Dan and Kika spent more than a year exploring the hundreds of coves and fjords on the Norwegian coast. Photo: Dan and Kika Sailing Uma

The couple first sailed to the Caribbean, spending six months in Haiti and another six months cruising through Curaçao, Martinique and many other islands. A second year was spent cruising between Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and the Bahamas. Dan and Kika then cruised up the American east coast. In 2019, the couple sailed over 2,200 miles across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Southampton. Taking more than two weeks, it was not always easy, with fog and gale-force winds. A large wave also knocked out some of the instruments and the electric motor at one point.

After arriving in Southampton, Dan and Kika spent a year in the UK, taking advantage of the shore time to upgrade their electric engine to an Oceanvolt system. At this time, electric systems were not widely available for yachts. ‘We were lucky. There was a catamaran with four engines that had been hit by lightning,’ says Dan. ‘They were replacing two of these with diesel engines and so we took one of those.’

Dan and Kika then decided to head north and cross the North Sea, just as the Covid pandemic was beginning to take hold in Britain. ‘The plan was always to go to Iceland,’ says Dan. ‘It is just that we found some great places on the way and of course we were looking at the wind patterns. A lot of our decisions are based on how the wind is.

Uma covered in snow. Photo: Dan and Kika Sailing Uma

‘The more we sailed the more we learned that timing can make or break a passage. While the North Sea, just like any other sea, can indeed be fierce and terrifying, it isn’t always storms and bad weather, and can make for some beautiful sailing, if one is patient enough to wait for the right wind. We believe it’s the sailors that are in a hurry to get somewhere that inevitably run into trouble.’

Just before lockdown in 2020, Uma sailed into Norway in what was the start of a two-and-a-half-year tour of Norway, Svalbard, Jan Mayen island and Iceland. ‘We were one of the last boats to be allowed into Norway before lockdown,’ says Dan. What started as a shorter trip aimed at being a jump off point for Iceland, evolved into over a year of cruising the Norwegian fjords. ‘We really loved Norway. We wanted to spend time in Norway so we sailed up the coast and into the fjords.’ Uma cruised up the coast, stopping at many of the hundreds of coves and fjords on the way, including the stunning Nærøyfjord, the longest fjord in Norway at 120 miles.

During the winter, prepping Uma for up to 50-knot winds became second nature as strong winds hit almost weekly and there was also snow and the hazard of the boat setting into the ice. ‘This far north, we get “snow squalls”. Just some non-threatening clouds on the horizon, but filled with blinding snow instead of rain. Oh, and they can happen at pretty much any time of the year.’

The couple made it as far north as the glaciers of Svalbard. Photo: Dan and Kika Sailing Uma

Not enough solar power

With fickle winds and very little solar power, there was also a need to charge the batteries. This, however, was easy with marinas every five miles or so. ‘As you know in the Norwegian winter, and sometimes even the summer, there is not too much light. You are so far north and there are the mountains that sweep down to the fjords – it is quite dark. Solar panels are useless covered in snow and ice so we plugged into powerpoints all along the coast. We didn’t feel bad doing this as almost all the energy produced in Norway is from renewables.’

Uma then sailed north into the Arctic Circle to the tiny offshore island of Myken, which has only 12 inhabitants. Then on to the Lofoten islands, through Raftsund and Trollfjord. ‘We anchored in the most lovely bay just outside of Raftsundet. We stayed there for a full week as the first signs of spring finally arrived around the end of April. It’s amazing how quickly the weather can change around here,’ says Kika. ‘In one fjord you get iced in, with 10cm of fresh snowfall, and just around the corner, you get a tropical white sandy beach surrounding your anchorage.’

Uma on the Norwegian coast. Photo: Dan and Kika Sailing Uma

After a year in Norway, Uma reached Tromsø in the spring of 2021. Dan and Kika decided to install a new, regenerative charging Oceanvolt engine system. ‘Ours had a folding prop which didn’t really provide any regen while we were sailing. And to us the entire point about going electric is that while you are sailing you can generate an unlimited amount of electricity.’ They also bought a portable Honda 2.2kW petrol generator which was useful for topping up the batteries on foggy days or in extremely remote areas.

To the Arctic circle

In July, Uma left Tromsø, heading 570 miles north to Svalbard, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. At above 74°, it is as far north as most sailors are happy to venture. ‘After five days offshore, our first sign of land did not disappoint. We arrived in Svalbard, 700 miles beyond the Arctic Circle, at 0100. When the fog lifted, the view was nothing short of spectacular,’ says Kika. Incredibly majestic, Svalbard has around 2,100 glaciers, some dated to be 4,000 years old, as well as polar bears, reindeer and Arctic foxes. ‘Sailing in front of a glacier will forever be one of our most magical moments on board Uma. ‘The vocabulary a glacier uses to communicate is complex and alive. We’ve never heard a sound like it,’ says Kika. ‘Freezing and thawing water has cracked and fractured the rocks over thousands of years, creating a landscape unlike any other we’ve ever experienced.’

Dan and Kika sailed Uma up to one of the 2,100 glaciers on Svalbard. Photo: Dan and Kika Sailing Uma

Svalbard on ice

Longyearbyen – the Longyear Town – is the world’s most northern settlement. As you approach it, you notice hundreds of white balls up on the mountain top. These belong to the Svalbard Satellite Station, which provides ground services to more satellites than any other facility worldwide. It has many clients, including NASA, the European Space Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Data is transferred to mainland Norway through a large, undersea fibre-optic cable.

Svalbard also hosts the world’s largest secure seed storage: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores up to four million different types of seeds at -18° in a vast cavern inside a frozen mountain. Should a species become extinct in its native habitat, it can be revived from here.

Dan and Kika always sail, waiting for suitable wind rather than motoring. Photo: Dan and Kika Sailing Uma

Summer brings the midnight sun – sunlight for 24 hours a day. ‘This far north, this remote, satellite images and Google Earth aren’t updated very often and usually lack significant detail. Charts and guides are minimal, so we are often going in “blind” or at least with much less data than we are used to. But it all just adds to the adventure.’

Before venturing north, Dan and Kika also installed the main systems with backups. ‘We have a cooker that uses alcohol, we have a wood stove for warmth and we have a windvane to act as an autopilot.’ They had some questions about their electric engine too. ‘We took lithium batteries into the Arctic. We were not quite sure what to expect in terms of performance at such low temperatures – nobody has ever done that before.

Uma noses up the dramatic Trollfjord in Norway. It was too deep to anchor in. Photo: Dan and Kika Sailing Uma

Batteries have less capacity when cold. Once we got down to 20{18875d16fb0f706a77d6d07e16021550e0abfa6771e72d372d5d32476b7d07ec} we decided to just sail out of the port and tack south using the winds and the currents.’ The sailing season in Svalbard is short, even in summer, due to being so far north. ‘We wished we could stay for months, but after a short stay, it was time to turn south.’

Remote volcano

‘After six days of pretty favourable weather, we saw land – Jan Mayen.’ This tiny, remote island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, with no protected anchorages or harbours, is a very difficult place to stop at. ‘We were lucky enough to arrive with the best forecast you can ask for in this place – 24 hours of zero wind.’ Mostly uninhabited, Jan Mayen is 325 miles north of Iceland and hosts the glacier-covered, active volcano Berenberg at 2,277 metres high.

Iceland was the last stop before Scotland. ‘We arrived in thick fog. We hunkered down on board for a few days of pretty nasty weather, and when the fog cleared, we realised how majestic the coast was. Waterfalls dropping straight into the ocean, bizarre rock formations. Iceland is full of surprises.

‘Making our way so far north in our little fibreglass electric sailing boat was a journey like no other, and it also came with challenges like no other. From Polar bear watch, to ice watch, to constantly shifting weather, to the pressure of simply wanting to tell a good story, let’s just say we haven’t had a good sleep for months. But having the opportunity to admire all of these arctic wonders, from the deck of our home, was seriously worth ALL the effort!’

10 top places in the Norwegian Sea

Stavanger and the Lysefjord – One of our absolute favourites: all the little islands, free mooring bouys, and a huge jjord to explore. It’s a quick sail from the UK too.

Nærøyfjord – One of the narrowest fjords in the world is a great spot with a very narrow entrance and waterfalls right next to the boat.

Coastal Norway – All the coast of Norway is a perfect cruising area, because there are lots of inland passages. Even in strong winds you are protected from the swells.

Stad – This popular stretch of water (also called Stadhavet) can be very treacherous. The weather is so notorious that the Norwegian government built a 1.7km (0.9 mile)-long ship tunnel (an underground canal) so vessels can avoid the Stadlandet headland.

Lofoten – We went through the Raftsund cut to visit Trollfjord. There is a basic berth at the end but you can anchor inside a little bay just north of the fjord.

Senja – Senja is nice, but it’s not very protected so you need to pay close attention to the weather.

Tromsø – Tromsø is a great place with an awesome community. A good place to prep and to get your Arctic permits (ideally 2-3 months before your planned departure).

Svalbard – In Svalbard/Spitsbergen, we mainly stayed in Area 10 where Longyearbyen is. In high season, this is where the ferries and expedition boats stay.

Jan Mayen – Before anchoring there, you need to call on the radio to request permission to go ashore.

Iceland – There is always a current flowing clockwise around the island, and the weather is never with you. There aren’t a lot of protected harbours.

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