The world’s first ice-busting yachts open the High Arctic

But how will the polar-capable yachts stack up against new Canadian patrol ships?

The world’s billionaires are en route to Canada’s High Arctic—and judging by their luxurious, ice-busting rides, Ottawa may have trouble keeping up. In yet another example of how the once-foreboding Northwest Passage has landed on the itineraries of well-heeled global tourists, Dutch shipbuilder Damen wowed the Monaco Yacht Show’s attendees this fall when it unveiled its latest luxury toy: the world’s first polar-capable super-yacht. Called SeaXplorer, the “purpose-built luxury expedition yacht” boasts a double-acting hull that, when piloted in reverse, can crunch its way through nearly a metre of first-year sea ice. Other handy tools for venturing into the frigid Arctic include, on the biggest version: a pair of helicopters, two submersibles, several launch boats and a heated outdoor bar surface—so your highball doesn’t turn into a Popsicle under the midnight sun.

It sounds like something straight out of a James Bond flick. But Damen marketing manager Victor Caminada says the company’s Amels yacht-building arm is merely responding to requests from its well-to-do clients. “We see a demand among super-yacht owners, particularly younger people, to go on adventures and do different things with their yachts,” Caminada says. “They’re tired of just sitting around in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas.”

Billionaires aren’t altogether new to the Arctic, of course. Canada’s own Jim Balsillie, formerly of BlackBerry, was part of the Canadian team that discovered one of Sir John Franklin’s lost ships last year. In 2010, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 126-m mega-yacht, Octopus, was spotted in Pond Inlet, near the passage’s eastern entrance. But the fact yacht-makers are now building polar-ready leisure vessels, costing upward of $100 million, demonstrates just how popular the idea of an Arctic adventure has become among those who can afford one. It also underscores the need for Canada to build more infrastructure in the High Arctic—deepwater ports, search and rescue stations—to support the extra traffic as global temperatures warm and sea ice recedes. Yet another example: the cruise ship Crystal Serenity plans to become the first luxury cruise liner to complete a transit of the Northwest Passage in 2016.

Related: How Jim Balsillie plans on selling the North

The ballooning number of amateur Arctic explorers poses a particular headache for those charged with keeping them safe. Despite the lengthening navigable season in late summer, the Arctic remains an unpredictable and unforgiving place. Open channels quickly become choked with ice. Clear skies rapidly deteriorate into howling storms. And if sailors run into trouble, it can take hours for search-and-rescue teams to arrive above the Arctic Circle. “When cruise ships are trying to push through the North and are hitting the ice edge, and they need ice escorts, or go so far under their own power and are then forced to call in Canadian assets—the forces of last resort like icebreakers and the like, or search and rescue—that’s when we get concerned,” says Rear-Admiral John Newton of the Royal Canadian Navy. Case in point: the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier rescued a group of jet skiers back in 2013 after they ran into trouble near Gjoa Haven. The group had been attempting to complete the Northwest Passage—all while being filmed for a reality TV show.

Caminada, however, says Damen won’t send its wealthy clientele into the Arctic’s maw unprepared. Available in 65-m, 90-m and 100-m versions, SeaXplorer is designed to be fully compliant with the upcoming Polar Code, a set of international standards for ships operating in polar regions, and can comfortably operate for more than a month at sea with up to 30 guests and 50 crew aboard. That means carrying spare parts and plenty of food and beverages. “A normal yacht can go for seven days with its guests on board before the fridges are literally empty,” Caminada says. “SeaXplorer can take provisions up to 40 days—and good provisions, not dried space food or anything like that. It’s still a luxury yacht and you still need to cater at the very highest level for the luxury guest.”

To that end, SeaXplorer offers many of the usual super-yacht trappings, including well-appointed cabins, luxurious lounges and an outdoor Jacuzzi. But the ship also boasts several unique features designed specifically for polar tourism. They include: an observation deck at the bow of the ship—unusual on most yachts—since that’s where most Arctic wildlife tends to be spotted, and a commercial-grade tender launch system that can quickly lower a small sightseeing craft through a set of hull doors. “If a humpback whale pops up near the bow, you will want to get the guests very quickly from the luxury accommodations into the tender,” Caminada says. “We can actually launch the tender with the guests inside.”

All in all, it’s a remarkably functional design—so much so that some Arctic experts ask whether SeaXplorer will outclass the ships Canada is supposed to use to keep tabs on it and other Arctic sea traffic. Michael Byers, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, notes the 100-m version of the SeaXplorer is almost the same size as the Arctic offshore patrol ship, or AOPS, being built for the Canadian Navy. It also boasts “almost the same ice-capabilities, speed and range,” he says, and has room for a second helicopter, more small vessels and, of course, much nicer accommodations. “The important point is that the capabilities of the AOPS are being replicated on commercial vessels, which suggests they’re not very capable,” says Byers, who has referred to the AOPS as a “slushbreaker” because of its limited ice-breaking capacity. He argues Canada would have been better off ditching its $2.3-billion investment in five or six AOPS vessels and instead spending the money on a couple of full-fledged icebreakers for the Coast Guard and a few purpose-built navy patrol ships for the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Newton, however, says the comparison doesn’t hold water. Not only is the AOPS outfitted with tons of high-tech gear—and a 25-mm gun—it’s meant to function as part of a larger Arctic security and surveillance regime that includes several government agencies, including Coast Guard, border services and the RCMP. “The elegance of the hull is but one aspect of a ship,” Newton says. “Its capabilities, personnel competencies, command and control, sensors and sensor network and broader alliance of partners are what really make the difference.” Besides, the world’s ultra-wealthy don’t pose much of a threat in Arctic waters. Their eye-catching super-yachts stick out like sore thumbs and are piloted by professional crews who seek the necessary permissions and clearances. Put another way, if you’re wealthy and important enough to afford an ice-breaking super-yacht, odds are you’re going to take all the necessary safety precautions when sailing into dangerous Arctic waters. “They tend to work with us, not against us,” says Newton, adding the same can’t always be said of smaller sailboats and personal watercraft that venture into the Northwest Passage.

So when can we expect the first SeaXplorer in Pond Inlet? Caminada says Damen generally needs 36 months to build and customize a super-yacht, which means it would likely be early 2019 before the first one slides into the water. But make no mistake: it’s definitely coming. “We have several serious leads [from potential buyers] at the moment,” Caminada says. “So now we’re zooming in and developing the boat to specifications and costing those leads. It doesn’t happen overnight.’”

Good thing, too. The navy is scheduled to receive its first AOPS in 2018. If Canada is destined to be outclassed, if not necessarily outmanoeuvred, by a bunch of billionaires in our Arctic backyard, the least we can do is get there first.