top of page

The IMO - International Polar Code & Building Your Arctic Yacht

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Time was that sailing in high latitudes was essentially at one's own risk and inclination. That era is solidly over; with increased bureaucracy has come regulations covering such activity in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

I claim no expertise on the following subject but have previously worked within IMO, bringing with it some understanding of how they work.

Reading around the issue in a mild panic as it may apply to our Explorer Yacht and her intended voyages. In particular, I thank Skip Novak's writings, IMO's prolific publications, and a healthy steer from Magnus Day of Eyos Expeditions.


  1. Arctic: National and local governments in the Arctic region, such as Greenland, Canada, the U.S., Russia, and Svalbard, are adding new requirements annually. These affect all floating objects, including small yachts.

  2. Antarctic: Permits have become required for every vessel entering the Antarctic Treaty area (below 60°S). This responds to growing concerns about preserving the environment in these sensitive areas.

  3. Awareness & Compliance: Ignorance is no longer an excuse, and crews must be aware of permit requirements and be prepared for environmentally safe voyages.

Polar Code Introduction

The Polar Code by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a response to the increased ship traffic in polar regions. Phase I, which took effect in January 2017 for SOLAS vessels (those carrying passengers), focuses on safety and environmental aspects, including pollution issues in ice-covered areas. The UK disseminates this Code via UK MCA "MGN 637(M) International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters".

Phase II Concerns

Phase II intends to extend the Polar Code to non-SOLAS vessels like fishing and recreational vessels. The challenge is the diversity in types and sizes, making creating a unified set of rules difficult. In November 2022, IMO's Maritime Safety Committee approved, with a view to adoption at the next session, a first set of draft amendments to the Polar Code and associated amendments to the SOLAS Convention. This incorporated new requirements for certain non-SOLAS ships concerning the safety of navigation and voyage planning.

The amendments will apply to fishing vessels of over 24m in length, pleasure yachts of 300 GT and upwards not engaged in trade, and cargo ships of 300 GT and upwards.

Yachts Under 24m

To the extent of the latest proposed regulations, yachts under 24m have

squeaked an exclusion from the latest amendments. However, it is the nature of these things that regulation is coming for those vessels, albeit at the IMO's glacial speed; no pun is intended.

The Polar Yacht Guide is a concerted attempt to pre-empt legislation with a well-considered and well-documented voluntary code. It is written by experienced arctic sailors to provide guidelines without often more prescriptive legislation.


  1. For those contemplating a new build, constructing to the highest specification, such as UK MCA, MGN 280, is advisable.

  2. Our Explorer Yacht is being built to MCA Category (0) as covered by the requirements of MGN 280. We are good to go on such a basis and subject to additional conditions of local and national regulations and permitting. (for now!)

  3. Those with existing vessels planning to sail to high latitudes should not delay their plans, as rules could become even more stringent.

  4. Now read up on the Polar Yacht Guide!

Chris Leigh-Jones

Further Reading:

126 views0 comments
bottom of page