Tankers may now be able to transit the Arctic all year round, but ice operations still bring unique challenges in terms of vessel design, equipment, and the wellbeing of seafarers
For centuries, seafarers have attempted to shorten the length of time needed to transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans by taking a northerly route through Arctic waters. The Westward route, via Greenland and Canada, is known as the Northwest Passage, while the Eastern route, via Russia, is known as the Northeast passage. Countless expeditions were either forced to turn back, or as in the case of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus – the two vessels that comprised Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition – were lost to the ice. It was not until 1878-9 that the Northeast Passage was successfully navigated, while the first complete passage of the Northwest Passage was only made between 1903-1906.
Commercial shipping has been making use of these routes for more than a century now, but for much of this time they have only been navigable for parts of the year. Now however, decreasing sea ice levels mean that year-round transits of both routes is possible.
The second session of the Offshore Dialogue conference at SMM in Hamburg this year was devoted to ‘technologies for a responsible development of the Arctic’, with increased transit of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route high on the agenda. Wärtsilä’s general manager for market innovation Teus van Beek discussed the engineering challenges vessels face in Arctic operation, saying, “We need to find a balance between robust and clean while operating in the Arctic.”
A key issue Mr Van Beek highlighted is that most ships operating in the Arctic also need to be able to operate in open seas. This presents unique challenges as many of the design features required for ice operations detract from a vessel’s open-water efficiency. “On one side we have to make [the vessel’s hull] really thick and robust, and on the other side we want to improve the efficiency,” he said. “That’s a conflict of interest we need to balance.”
Additional challenges involve the manner in which seafarers carry out their duties. Mr Van Beek noted that when operating in ice and darkness for long periods of time it is difficult to maintain awareness and concentration, and to keep active. “We have been doing interviews with ice captains and the ones who are experienced all say they have broken a propeller – you are not experienced if you have not broken a propeller,” he said, noting that this also highlights the issue of the robustness of equipment.
“You are not experienced if you have not broken a propeller"
The environmentally sensitive nature of the Arctic is also a cause for concern. For example, if a vessel is operating behind an icebreaker, equipment such as engines will be operating under a low load for which they are not optimised. “This produces particle matter and soot in an area where we don’t want that to happen; if you use normal equipment there are a lot of elements that are not good for the Arctic environment,” said Mr Van Beek.
Using cleaner fuels and energy storage systems (ESSs) could help in this regard, especially as new battery technology comes on stream: “Developments in electrification help us to operate more safely in Arctic environments,” said Mr Van Beek. Hybrid solutions that combine batteries with conventional engines mean that batteries can help with operations when a lower than normal load is required. “That is a benefit we have now that we didn’t have 10 years ago because batteries were too expensive,” he added.
Also helping facilitate safe and clean operations in the Artic is the requirement to ensure vessels are designed with redundant systems, so that should something go wrong, there is a back-up in place. “I think we should focus more on redundancy in systems and this is not what today’s shipyards are doing… they are focused on reducing cost,” Mr Van Beek said.
Digitalisation too can also help facilitate safe operations. “Connectivity is a way forward that helps operations in the Arctic and makes them safer,” said Mr Van Beek, adding that technologies such as remote monitoring make it is possible for vessels to stay connected with shore staff to provide support. “We need to look at remote connections for asset management, especially in remote areas,” he said.
“Our thinking about a clean Arctic vessel is a robust combination of things,” said Mr Van Beek, detailing the core components as system redundancy, remote connectivity, and clean fuels in combination with energy storage systems to handle dynamic loads.
Different kinds of ice
Elaborating on the trends observed in recent years, Hamburg Model Ship Basin’s head of Arctic technology Nils Reimer explained that while in some areas ice has completely disappeared, in others the type of ice vessels encounter has changed from close ice sheets to open drift ice, which means vessels will experience wave motion that can influence their operations. “This is a challenge we must take into account when we design the ship and plan operations,” said Mr Reimer.
Formerly, vessels operating in the arctic tended to be dedicated ice ships, such as Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers and tankers plying Russia’s northern coastline between specific locations. Now however, a trend is emerging for vessels operating in the arctic at lower ice classes than previously was the case.
“We have to learn more about low-ice class vessels operating in the Arctic,” said Mr Reimer, noting that as the ice situation becomes more unpredictable there are more uncertainties. “Even though operations might be a bit easier in the summer, we might face problems that we have not identified yet.”
On this subject, Lloyd’s Register new ship construction consultant Robert Tustin noted that the traffic regime for the Northern Sea Route had traditionally envisaged commercial ships travelling in convoys assisted by icebreakers, but commercial imperatives are now making much larger vessels, such as the Yamal project’s ice-class Arc7 icebreaking LNG carriers, realistic options. “These very large ships may render unfeasible some of the tactics of escorting icebreakers in the current regimes,” said Mr Tustin, adding “As of today there are no suitable icebreakers to assist a Yamal heavy LNG carrier.”
Soon to join the LNG carriers in operation around the Yamal peninsula, Boris Sokolov is a condensate tanker built to an Aker Arctic ARC212 design to transport gas condensate to Europe and Asia from Sabetta. Launched on 15 June at Guangzhou Shipyard International in China, Aker Arctic said at the time of writing the vessel was nearing delivery.
“As of today there are no suitable icebreakers to assist a Yamal heavy LNG carrier”
The finished vessel will measure 214 m in length by 34 m in width, with a regular draft of 11.7 m and an ice draft of 12 m. Double-classed by both the Russian Maritime Register of Shipping and Bureau Veritas, it has an ice class of Arc7, equivalent to Polar Class 3. It has a Wärtsilä diesel-electric powerplant comprising two 12V32 units and two 16V32 units, with total capacity of 31.4 MW. Propulsion comes from two 11 MW ABB Azipod thrusters, giving the vessel a service speed of 13 knots. Boris Sokolov will have capacity for about 57,000 m3 of gas condensate or oil cargoes across five cargo segregates.
The vessel utilises the Double-Acting Ship (DAS) principle to break level ice of up to 1.8 m in thickness stern-first, allowing it to operate independently without a need for icebreaker escort. All equipment and systems are winterised to -50°C and the cold temperatures the vessel will be operating in have been taken into account to ensure crew comfort is maximised.