The 6,752gt Hapag Lloyd cruise ship Bremen made an eastbound transit without icebreaker assistance in September 2015 with 137 passengers from Murmansk to Port Provideniya.

Vast quantities of minerals and crude oil are currently shipped year round from Siberian mines and oilfields to Murmansk, and also in the iron ore trades from the Canadian high Arctic mines to European smelters. There are also two Arctic Sea routes that cut down the distances that ships currently voyage between the Atlantic and the Pacific and vice-versa. Firstly, by the Northern Sea Route (NSR) administered by the Northern Sea Route Administration (NSRA) of Russia, and secondly by the North West Passage (NWP) administered by the Canadian Government. The NSRA had granted permission for a total of over 340 voyages along the Russian Arctic coastline from 2009 to September 2016. There have been many commercial voyages by big cruise ships and some by fully loaded bulk carriers or tankers along the NWP route in the Canadian Arctic. The first commercial transit of the NWP had been the experimental voyage of the fully loaded Exxon tanker Manhattan in the Autumn of 1969. The NSR route has the very great potential of becoming a major trade lane in the future when oil fuel costs are high.

Northern Sea Route (NSR)

British explorers were among the first Arctic adventurers determined to find a passage between Britain and Siberia to exploit its known reserves of coal and minerals. Capt. Joseph Wiggins led an expedition in 1876 on the steamer Thames of 120 tonnes to the Yenesei river in Siberia. He ran the ship aground in the river where it froze to the riverbed, leaving it there until his return in 1877. He then explored further up the river but had to abandon his ship, which eventually sank in the Spring thaw of 1878. This was only one of many British expeditions that sought to find a passage through the Arctic to the Pacific, the last such British attempt was in the late 1890s. Russian divers recently found a small section of the steamer Thames in the mud of the Yenesei river. The first confirmed complete passage, from west to east, was made by Finnish-Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiold in 1878.

Today, the Arctic sea ice extent has decreased to its lowest ever recorded extent in March of each year, which then continues to recede at a fast pace over Northern summers due to global warming, according to the Global Ice Centre (GIC). The ice decreases to its minimum open state in September of each year, when most of the many commercial voyages are then undertaken. The Russian NSRA and the weather services of the Polar Routeing Service Inc. have been operating since 2009 to support vessels transitting the NSR. This route has long been used by Russian coastal shipping for domestic purposes, but with climate change reducing the levels of Arctic sea ice, the route has been used for through voyages from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea, Chukchi Sea, and the Barents Sea. Trade from European ports to Far East ports via the NSR has increased very dramatically in seven years, and this route reduces the distance between Europe and Asia by 40% compared to the contemporary Suez Canal route.

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is not a specific route but a multitude of passageways along the Russian Arctic, and thus covers thousands of square miles of the Arctic Ocean. Vast quantities of proven nickel, iron ore, zinc, crude oil and gas reserves are currently being exploited in Siberia, and shipped out from the ports on the Yamal peninsula as well as Nordvik and Tiksi. Millions of tonnes of crude oil was produced by the Novy Port oil field in 2016 for Gazprom and shipped out in Russian crude oil tankers, with the first cargo to begin year round shipments made on 13th January 2016 from the Arctic Gate terminal 30 kilometres from the shore in Ob Bay on the Yamal peninsula. The crude oil or liquefied gas condensate is transported in five days from the terminal to Murmansk, and the loading process takes one day with powerful tugs standing by to make sure the tanker remains firmly connected to the loading arm of the terminal at all times.

The 84,604dwt Arctic Auurora of Dynagas transported 67,000 tonnes of LNG from Hammerfest to Tobata (Japan) along the NSR route. She was built in 2013 by Hyundai at Ulsan.

The Murmansk Shipping Company has long experience of oil transportation in the Russian Arctic and has shipped oil since the 1990s from Tiksi, Kolguyev, Varandey and Ob Bay. The Novy Port field is one of the biggest Arctic oilfields, with production increased from 600,000 tonnes per year to 5.5 million tonnes per year during 2016. The VLCC tanker Umba, named after a White Sea town, of 300,000 dwt was stationed in 2016 in Kola Bay to operate as a storage and loading terminal for Novy Port oil. Three Arctic shuttle tankers of 45,000 dwt are under construction for Sovcomflot at a cost of $340 million. The Yamal LNG project will also see massive amounts of gas production in the future.

The total number of commercial NSR transits in 2011 was 41 carrying approximately three million tonnes of cargo, in 2012 it was 46 transits carrying approximately four million tonnes of cargo, rising to 71 transits in 2013 carrying approximately six million tonnes of cargo, and falling to 53 transits in 2014 carrying approximately five million tonnes of cargo. Figures for the 2015 and 2016 open seasons included transits by the Russian nuclear powered container ship Sevmorput (name means Northern Sea Route in Russian) carrying building materials to the new Russian military base on Kotelny Island and escorted by the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker Yamal. The Chinese bulker Yong Sheng of 19,150 dwt, owned by Cosco, made two transits in August and September 2015, the first with steel coils from Shanghai to Varberg in Sweden, returning with silver and lead concentrates to Busan in South Korea. Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian ships also made the transit, including the first commercial voyage westbound without icebreaker support by the anchor handling tug Tor Viking owned by Trans Viking of Norway. The latter entered the Bering Strait late on 28th November 2015 and reached the northern tip of Novaya Zembla on 10th December 2015. The Hapag Lloyd cruise ship Bremen made an eastbound transit without icebreaker assistance in September 2015 with 137 passengers from Murmansk to Port Provideniya. A heavy lift project cargo including wind turbines moved westbound on the Hansa Heavy Lift ship HHL Valparaiso in the same month from Tianjin in China to Gdynia in Poland.

The 20,646gt expedition ship Yamal of Murmansk Shipping. She was built in 1992 by Baltiyskiy Zavod at St. Petersburg, initially as an icebreaker but was converted into a passenger ship in 2007.

South Korean shipping companies Pan Ocean Shipping and Kukbo Transportation shipped project cargo east to west over the NSR route during the 2016 open season. The BigLift heavy lift carrier Happy Dover of 18,075 dwt was chartered by Kukbo Transportation to load a 1,100 tonne petroleum plant cargo at Ulsan for delivery at Sabetta on the Yamal peninsula, arriving there on 18th August 2016. The Pan Ocean multipurpose vessel Sun Shine of 16,715 dwt loaded 2,300 tonnes of LNG plant in Indonesia and Shanghai also for Sabetta on the Yamal peninsula, and delivered her cargo in September 2016. The build up of industrial plants on the Yamal peninsula has continued unabated since the heavy lift ships Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight delivered project cargo components in 2009 from China via the Bering Sea. The Russian expedition cruise ship Akademik Shokalskiy of 1,764 grt and built in Finland in 1982 made a 28 day cruise westwards along the full NSR route with 54 passengers on 1st August 2016, returning with a similar cruise eastwards starting on 30th August 2016.

Four shipping companies, three of them Russian, are leading the way in the transport of dry bulk cargoes of zinc, iron ore and nickel from the many mines in Siberia on the Yenisei river. These are Sovcomflot, the Murmansk Shipping Company, and Norilsk Nickel, together with Nordic Bulk Carriers of Denmark. During 2012/13, over a dozen transits of the NSR were made by bulkers of the Danish company, mostly carrying iron ore to Qingdao and Huangua in China. The Panamax bulker Nordic Oshima of 76,180 dwt owned by the Danish company was the largest vessel to transit the NSR during the 2014 season. Bulk cargoes of nickel, iron ore and zinc are also exported to Europe via Murmansk, in addition to cargoes of these commodities shipped eastwards to Asia. When the open navigation season is over at the end of Autumn, smaller ice reinforced general cargo ships classed to Ice Class 7 continue to transport these cargoes from the mines to Murmansk in up to 1.5 metre thickness of ice without icebreaker assistance.

The 4,391gt icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk was built in 1983 by Burrard Yarrows at Esquimalt as the Kalvik for Beaudril Limited, an oil-drilling subsidiary of Gulf Canada Resources Ltd. In 1997 she moved to Fednav and was renamed Arctic Kalvik. In 2003 she was sold to JSC Murmansk Shipping and was renamed Vladimir Ignatyuk.

The Kola and the Yamal Peninsulas yield apatites (phosphate minerals), coal, iron ore, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, crude oil, LNG, timber, fish and grain in summer, which are all transported by the Murmansk Shipping Company, founded in 1939 and controlled by the Russian Government since 1997. Several series of Ice Class cargo ships and powerful diesel electric icebreakers of different types e.g. Vladimir Ignatyuk, nuclear icebreakers of three generations, as well as the Suezmax crude oil tanker Nataly of 143,000 dwt and nuclear powered container ship Sevmorput have been specially built for Arctic transportation. Funnel colours are blue with a large white polar bear, and hull colours are black, grey or red with red boot topping. Norilsk Nickel have a fleet of five icebreaker cargo ships of 14,500 dwt built to Arctic Ice Class 7 during 2008/09 as Norilskiy Nickel, Monchegorsk, Zapolyarny, Talnakh and Nadezdha, as well as the similar ice classed tanker Enisey of 18,500 dwt completed in September 2011.

In 1997, the Finnish tanker Uikku of 16,420 dwt and owned by Neste Oil sailed the full length of the NSR from Murmansk to the Bering Sea to become the first Western ship to complete the voyage. The Aframax tanker SCF Baltica of 117,050 dwt of SCF Group made a loaded tanker transit of the NSR in August 2010, and the Russian Suezmax tanker Vladimir Tikhonov and her sister Aleksey Kosygin of 162,000 dwt made loaded voyages in 2011 from Murmansk along the NSR route to Eastern Asian ports. A trio of bow loading icebreaker shuttle tankers of 72,725 dwt with pronounced icebreaker bows, owned by Sovcomflot, are also used, named Kapitan Gotskiy, Kirill Lavrov and Timofey Guzhenko. Dynagas of Greece used two of their LNG carriers, Ob River and Arctic Aurora, to transport 67,000 tonnes of LNG from Hammerfest to Tobata (Japan) along the NSR route. Stena Line of Sweden in co-operation with Hyundai Glovis transported 43,000 tonnes of naptha from Ust Luga near St. Petersburg to South Korea via the NSR route. Two tankers of Reederei Nord of Germany transported liquefied gas concentrate from Murmansk to Inchon in South Korea via the NSR route. Two shuttle tankers of 123,000 dwt owned by Knudsen NYK Offshore Tankers, a joint venture set up in 2010, are employed permanently transporting crude oil from the Goliat cylindrical FPSO facility in the Goliat oilfield in the Norwegian Arctic some 53 miles north west of Hammerfest.

In 1997, the Finnish tanker Uikku of 16,420 dwt and owned by Neste Oil sailed the full length of the NSR from Murmansk to the Bering Sea to become the first Western ship to complete the voyage. She was built in 1997 by Nobiskrug at Rendsburg. In 2003 she became Varzuga of Murmansk Shipping. Photo: Fotoflite

The coastal waters of the NSR are generally shallow with depths of less than one hundred metres, and the narrow straits are occasionally blocked by pack ice even in summer. Some of these straits present draft restrictions, the most severe being the Kara Gate (21 metre depth), Sannikov Strait (13 metre depth) and De Long Strait (20 metre depth). This puts the upper limit for Arcticmax dry bulkers and tankers at 100,000 dwt, and for Arcticmax container vessels at 4,500 TEU capacity.

Russian NSR Tariffs

The NSRA provides long and short term ice cover forecasts, and from this it determines the necessity for icebreaker assistance along the planned route, given the ice classification of the transitting vessel. A light ice reinforced vessel to Ice Class 3 is allowed to voyage independently along the entire NSR route in open and mild ice conditions, but in medium and thick ice, a vessel would require the much higher ice class of Ice Polar Class 6. The Russian Federal Tariff Service decreased the icebreaker tariff costs to foreign vessels navigating the NSR on 21st April 2014 in order to increase the number of commercial vessels trading. Thus, the profit margin projections for foreign shipowners navigating the NSR became much more attractive, and the tariffs were based on the following four vessel specifications :-

  • Total gross registered tonnage
  • Ice Classification of the vessel
  • Date and Season of the voyage
  • Level of icebreaker assistance required

The basic icebreaking fee increases with the number of zones where icebreaking assistance will be necessary on the voyage, but is not related to the length of the icebreaker escort distance i.e. it is the same for 500 nautical miles as for ten nautical miles. Moreover, the icebreaker fee only applies when actually receiving icebreaker assistance, thus heavily ice reinforced vessels with a high Ice Class number can completely avoid transit fees.

Murmansk is by far the largest Russian port in the Arctic and is open all year round, with the ports of Sabetta on the Yamal Peninsula, Tiksi on the Kara Sea, and Pevek near the New Siberian Islands having moderately developed port facilities.

However, the distances on the route are vast:-

Murmansk to Dickson Island 1,953nm
Dickson Island to Nordvik 772nm
Nordvik to Tiksi 400nm
Tiksi to Ambarchik 723nm
Ambarchik to Uelen (Barents Sea) 720nm
Ambarchik to Petropavlovsk 1,992nm

The Aframax tanker SCF Baltica of 117,050dwt of SCF Group made a loaded transit of the NSR in August 2010. She was built in 2005 by Hyundai at Ulsan. Photo: Fotoflite

Petropavlovsk is on the Kamchatka Peninsular with vessels then continuing on to the Russian Far East port of Vladivostock. The two main rescue operations headquarters are located at Murmansk and Vladivostock, the latter operated by the Far Eastern Shipping Company. The Search and Rescue (SAR) equipment and oil spill response equipment along the NSR route are managed by two marine rescue co-ordination centres located at Murmansk and Dickson Island, with sub centres at Archangel, Tiksi, Pevek and Port Provideniya on the Bering Sea. These centres and sub centres are necessary because of the vast distances of the route. Fatalities can unfortunately occur in the case of an emergency due to these vast distances. The Russian Federation constantly works to improve the icebreaker, rescue and response cover, as well as the infrastructure and the port facilities along the NSR route.

Russian Icebreakers

The 5,128gt Russian icebreaker Ermak was built in 1899 by Armstrong Whitworth at Low Walker. She lasted until 1965 when she was broken up at Murmansk.

The design of specialist icebreakers includes a very strong hull with increased frames and thicker plating at the bow, which is a cutaway icebreaking bow so that the vessel rises above the ice when moving ahead and then crushes the ice by its weight. Very powerful engines are required, and the underwater gear at the stern of the vessel has to be strengthened for working astern in heavy ice e.g. tailshaft, tailshaft coupling bolts, tailshaft inboard bearings, stern gland, tube and bearings, propeller blades, hub and studs, and astern fairing cone. The tasks of the icebreaker include:-

  • The angled icebreaker bow and wide hull are necessary for convoying commercial ships through icefields,so as to leave a clearer wake for the ships being convoyed.
  • The laying down of buoys and navigation aids, and their lifting and repairing.
  • The provision of accommodation for scientific and medical personnel.
  • The transport of supplies and personnel to remote bases.
  • Search and rescue (SAR) work, towing and salvage.

Imperial Russia was the first country to build icebreakers, and the twin funnelled Yermak of 8,730 tons full displacement from the Tyne yard of Sir W.G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. Ltd. in 1898 was the first specially strengthened icebreaker in the world. She had a very long active icebreaking career in the Arctic of 66 years until finally broken up in 1964. During World War I, this Tyne yard built two more twin funnelled icebreakers to a design by Russian Admiral Stepan Makarov to include a curved ram icebreaker bow, and three powerful triple expansion steam engines driving triple screws. The strengthened hull of the first icebreaker was constructed at Elswick during 1916 and launched as Sviatogor and arrived at Murmansk in 1917. She worked in the White Sea and later during the inter-war years rescued the crew of the Russian vessel Chelyuskin in her failed attempt to become the first vessel to forge a west to east passage of the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

Sviatogor was renamed Krasin in 1928 after the Russian Bolshevik leader Leonid Krasin, and played an important part in the Arctic convoys of World War II. She was based at Murmansk in May 1942 after receiving anti-aircraft guns installed in America. She sailed in convoy from Murmansk on 29th July 1942 with the Newcastle tanker Hopemount, completed in 1929 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd., and another Russian icebreaker, Lenin, for the destination of Tiksi, half way along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Hopemount was chartered to the Russian Government and the convoy passed to the south of Novaya Zembla to enter the Kara Sea. A seaplane from the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer spotted the convoy but the Arctic ice and mist prevented the battleship from making an approach. Four other powerful twin funnelled ‘Stalin’ class icebreakers built during 1937/39 by the Nikolayev and Leningrad yards gave further strength to its Arctic icebreaker fleet.

The 23,439gt expedition ship 50 Let Pobedy of Murmansk Shipping was built in 2007 by Baltiyskiy Zavod at St. Petersburg.

The development of Siberia in post-war years included orders for eight powerful icebreakers of a new generation from the Wartsila yard in Finland from 1954 onwards, three icebreakers of the ‘Kapitan’ class and five icebreakers of the ‘Moskva’ class. The latter class had pronounced icebreaker cutaway bows, and powerful diesel electric engines developing 22,000 bhp to make them the most powerful icebreakers in the world. The age of the nuclear powered icebreaker arrived in 1959 when the Lenin was completed at Leningrad and powered by three Kirov type nuclear reactors driving four steam turbines to produce 39,200 shp. She could cut through ice eight feet thick at a forward speed of four knots, and after thirty years of Arctic icebreaking service, she became a floating power station with her nuclear reactors continuing to provide useful service.

The great success of Russian nuclear powered icebreakers led the Soviets to build eight more powerful vessels, six in Russia and two in Finland. Thirty conventionally powered diesel electric icebreakers have also been built to provide powerful icebreaking support in the Arctic. During winter, the ice sheets along the NSR route vary in thickness from 3.9 to 6.5 feet, and nuclear powered icebreakers can cut through the ice at speeds up to ten knots, with a top speed of 21 knots in summer open water conditions. Nuclear powered icebreakers are much more powerful than diesel powered icebreakers, and although expensive to build, the very heavy fuel demands and range limitations of the diesel powered versions make them much less economical to operate than the nuclear powered versions. Six double hull ‘Arktika’ class nuclear powered icebreakers form the bulk of the current Russian icebreaker fleet, with Arktika of 1974, which reached the North Pole for the first time in 1977, Sibir (Siberia) of 1977, Rossiya of 1985, Sovetskiy Soyuz of 1990, Yamal of 1993, and Ural laid down in 1995 and later completed under the name of 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory). Their specification is as follows:-

  • Length of up to 159.0 metres
  • beam of 30.0 metres
  • Draft of 11.0 metres
  • Height from keel to mast of 55.0 metres
  • Displacement of 23,000 to 25,000 tonnes
  • Maximum running speed of 22 knots
  • Cruising speed of 18 to 20 knots
  • Crew of between 138 and 200
  • Passenger accommodation for 100 persons
  • Two Nuclear Reactors, each of 171 megawatts
  • Propulsion power of 75,000 shp to triple propellers
  • Maximum ice capability of 3.0 metres
  • Endurance of 7.5 months at sea
  • Refuelling every four years

The 18,172grt nuclear powered icebreaker Arktika of Murmansk Shipping. She was built in 1974 by Baltiyskiy Zavod at St. Petersburg. From 1982 until 1986 she sailed as Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev before reverting to Arktika. She reached the North Pole for the first time in 1977. She is currently laid up.


A new ‘Artika’ class icebreaker was completed in December 2015 on dimensions of length 173.0 metres, and moulded beam of 34.0 metres and powered by twin nuclear reactors. All of the ‘Artika’ class have black hulls and bright red superstructure to make them easily seen at long range in the remote Arctic Sea. A new icebreaker of length 205.0 metres that can break through ice four metres thick and open up a fifty metre wide sealane behind her for ships in convoy is under construction. Russia currently has a fleet of 42 icebreakers in service, with another dozen under construction or planned. The fleet of nuclear powered Russian icebreakers act as local marine operations headquarters vessels, and have onboard rescue equipment and oil spill response equipment.

The Canadian Arctic and the North West Passage (NWP)

The 2,346gt Explorer was built in 1969 by Nystads at Uusikaupunki as the Lindblad Explorer. In 1984 she became the first cruise ship to navigate the NWP. In 1985 she was renamed Society Explorer and became Explorer in 1992. On 23rd November 2007 she sank off King George Island in the South Shetland Islands.

Baffin Island began mining and transporting iron ore on 8th September 2014 to the Milne Port shipment site, with the first cargo shipped out to European smelters during the open water season of 2015. The Mary River Project is located at the northern tip of Baffin Island in the Nunavut territory of the Canadian Arctic. Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation will ship twenty million tonnes of iron ore per year, employing nine Capesizes of 190,000 dwt with FedNav of Canada managing the fleet. Nordic Bulk Carriers of Denmark also won a five year contract to carry thirty cargoes of iron ore per year in four Panamax and two Handysize bulkers. This recently established big Mary River iron ore mine in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago will give a dramatic increase to transits along the North West Passage (NWP) route in the future.

The fabled North West Passage in the Canadian Arctic had been sought by several expeditions that failed to achieve a transit, including Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-1594), John Davis in 1587 who discovered the Davis Strait, Henry Hudson in 1609/11 who discovered Hudson Bay, John Cabot, Sir Francis Drake, Capt. James Cook, Sir William Parry, Sir John Franklin in 1845, and by Sir Robert McClure in 1850 while searching for Franklin. McClure actually discovered an open route through the pack ice, but it was Norwegian explorer Capt. Roald Amundsen with a small expedition during 1903/06 from Greenland to Alaska in the sloop Gjoa who became the first man through the NWP. Henry Larsen was the second man to sail the route, crossing west to east, leaving Vancouver on 23rd June 1940 and arriving at Halifax on 11th October 1942 in the ice strengthened schooner St. Roch, owned by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The United States icebreaking cutter Storis in company with her fleet mates Bramble and Spar became the first American registered vessels to have circumnavigated North America in late 1957. The transit of the Exxon supertanker Manhattan in the late Autumn of 1969 was only possible by the close escort of the Canadian icebreakers John A. Macdonald and Louis S. St-Laurent. The route was deemed non cost effective and the U.S. Government laid the Alaska Oil Pipeline instead of developing the sea route. Ranulph Fiennes and Charles R. Burton completed the transit in 1981 as part of the Transglobe Expedition. The expedition cruise ship Lindblad Explorer became the first cruise ship through the NWP in 1984, and was followed by the cruise ship Bremen in 2006, helped by satellite images of the pack ice locations. Three further big cruise ships transitted in 2009, and the residential cruise ship The World carrying 681 passengers transitted the 5,500 mile route in 26 days in August 2012, following the route of Capt. Roald Amundsen. A dozen transits of the NWP were made during 2015, and the 2016 open season started with the transit of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity.

The 68,870gt Crystal Serenity of Crystal Cruises became the largest cruise ship to travel the NWP when it did the crossing in 2016.

The Panamax bulk carrier Nordic Orion of 75,600 dwt made a NWP transit in September 2013, sailing from Vancouver with 73,500 tonnes of coking coal to Pori in Finland, her voyage being cost effective as the distance was shortened by over one thousand miles compared to a Panama Canal voyage. Fuel savings were $80,000 and she called in at Nuuk in Greenland before sailing for Finland. She is owned by Bulk Nordic Orion Ltd. of Denmark and was built in 2010 by the Oshima Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. at Saikai in Japan on dimensions of length 225.0 metres and 32.31 metres moulded beam. She is ice strengthened to Ice Class 3 and registered in Panama.

The NWP consists from east to west of passages through the Davis Strait and the Lancaster Sound to the north of Baffin Island, or alternatively through the Hudson Strait and the Foxe Channel to skirt the Melville Peninsula, and then through the Franklin Strait, Queen Maud Gulf, Coronation Gulf and Amundsen Gulf to reach the open Beaufort Sea in northern Alaska. This leads to the Chukchi Sea, finally reaching the Pacific through the Bering Sea. There is also a more northerly route through the McClure Strait to reach the Beaufort Sea, thus giving a combination of shipping lanes that are collectively named the North West Passage (NWP). The southern route has only a clear draft of ten metres but may be freer of the severe pack ice that drifts from the North Pole to cover most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago of islands. The large islands of the archipelago include Baffin, Ellesmere, Victoria, Banks, Prince of Wales, Devon, Somerset, the Parry and Sverdrup groups, and many smaller islands.

The Canadian Coastguard provides icebreakers, monitors vessel movements to valuable mineral mines in the Canadian Arctic and provides weather reports by radio. The Port of Churchill in Hudson Bay was the subject in post-war years of the annual ice race by general cargo ships in June or July of each year to be the first to arrive to load grain, the winner receiving the prize of a cane walking stick for her Master. There are no ports of any real size along the NWP route compared to the Port of Churchill, only Port Resolute situated on Cornwallis Island in the Barrow Strait. This is an Inuit hamlet in Nanuvut region, and is the second most northerly Inuit hamlet, with Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island as the most northerly Inuit hamlet. A population of only 229 people at Resolute services the Nanisivik Naval Facility and a Canadian Army survival training camp, as the average daily temperature is very cold at minus sixteen degrees Centigrade. Nunavut territory covers a vast area of the Arctic of 1.878 million square kilometres and is administered by a legislature assembly of nineteen members from an Inuit population of only 31,900.

The Panamax bulk carrier Nordic Orion of 75,600 dwt made a NWP transit in September 2013, sailing from Vancouver with 73,500 tonnes of coking coal to Pori in Finland. Photo: Fotoflite

Canadian Nickel and Copper Ore Trade

The Voisey’s Bay nickel and copper ore mine in Northern Labrador has used three bulk carriers to bring the ore to the St. Lawrence, one of which made a North West Passage (NWP) transit. The Ice Class 4 ore-oil bulker Arctic of 26,440 dwt was completed in 1978 by the Port Weller Dry Docks at St. Catharine’s, Ontario to serve the Polaris and Nanisivik mines in the high Canadian Arctic. After the mines closed, she then transported ore from the Voisey’s Bay mine and the Raglan mine in Northern Quebec. She has an angled icebreaker bow and is powerful enough to operate without icebreaker escort and is still in service.

Two sister bulkers were then completed in 2006 and 2014 of 31,992 dwt for the Voisey’s Bay ore trade as Umiak I and Nunavik. They are fitted with ice knives at their sterns to protect the rudder from ice when moving astern. They have dimensions of length 619.0 feet, moulded beam of 87.0 feet, depth of 52.0 feet, and loaded draft of 33.0 feet. They were built to Ice Class 4 by yards in Japan, with each bulker making twelve loaded voyages per year carrying 360,000 tonnes of nickel concentrate. A powerful M.A.N.-B & W diesel of 21,770 bhp gives a service speed of 13.5 knots at 35% engine output, with a cutting speed in five feet of ice of three knots at full power. The sisters have steeply angled and strengthened icebreaker bows to operate without icebreaker escort, and have three cranes of up to 50 tonnes capacity to serve their five holds. Nunavik also loads nickel and copper ore for the Nunavik Project in the high Canadian latitudes, and made an unescorted North West Passage (NWP) transit in September 2014, clearing Deception Bay on 19th September and passing Point Barrow in Alaska eleven days later, and discharged her cargo of nickel ore at Bayuquan in China.

The Canadian Coastguard icebreaker fleet stands at seventeen vessels with most based for icebreaking in the St. Lawrence, Belle Ile Strait, and off Labrador to keep the sealanes open to the valuable mineral mines. The Coastguard will respond to an emergency on the North West Passage, but may take half a day in average ice conditions to reach a casualty. When the NWP route is further opened up to exploit its natural mineral reserves, cargo ships will operate to the Canadian high northern latitudes with voyages between the mines and the St. Lawrence and Montreal to bring out the valuable ores and return with supplies.

The 22,462gt bulk carrier Umiak I of Fednav Ltd. She was built in 2006 by Universal Shipbuilding Corporation at Maizuru for the Voisey’s Bay ore trade.

Canadian Icebreakers

The first Canadian icebreakers doubled up as lighthouse tenders, buoy lifters, mail ships and yachts on the St. Lawrence river. Northern Light was in service for the Canadian Government from 1876 to 1890, Montrose from 1904 to 1942, and Miulia from 1916 until later sold to Russia. The first Canadian icebreaker to be built in Canada commissioned in December 1929 as Saurel of 1,252 grt at the Montreal yard of Canadian Vickers Ltd. She was twin screw with dimensions of length 200.0 feet, moulded beam of 42.0 feet and depth of 19.3 feet, and was powered by twin triple expansion steam engines supplied by the shipbuilder. She had a long career of 47 years before being broken up, and was followed into service a few months later by the twin funnelled N. B. McLean of 3,254 grt from Halifax Shipyards Ltd. She had dimensions of length 260 feet, moulded beam of 60.0 feet and draft of 20.0 feet and was again powered by twin triple expansion steam engines fed by four Babcock and Wilcox boilers. She was based at Quebec as an icebreaker escort for vessels on the St. Lawrence with an annual foray into Hudson Bay to clear a path into Churchill.

The Canadian Government made only very limited exploration of the vast Arctic coast during the first half of the twentieth century, their newest icebreaker Ernest Lapointe built in 1939 was confined to the St. Lawrence and is now a museum ship at the Maritime Museum of Quebec. The situation began to change in 1951 when a keel was laid at the Sorel yard of Marine Industries Ltd. for an icebreaker of 3,825 displacement tons, her plans being a modified version of the United States Coast Guard ‘Wind’ class that had just come into service. Eastwind, Northwind, Southwind, Westwind, Burton Island, Staten Island and Edisto were commissioned for the United States Coast Guard, and their sister Labrador was commissioned by the Canadian Government on 8th July 1954. They were built to Ice Class 3 on dimensions of length 269.0 feet, moulded beam of 63.0 feet, and depth of 29.5 feet, and were powered by six ten cylinder diesel engines of a total of 12,000 bhp to twin screws to give a maximum speed of 16 knots and a cruising speed of 12 knots.

Labrador was based at Halifax (NS), and she sailed from there on her maiden voyage on 23rd July 1954 for the Labrador coast and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. She sailed east to west through the NWP route, supplying Government outposts, taking hydrographic soundings and then made a rendezvous with her American sisters Northwind and Burton Island off the Melville Island coastline on 25th August 1954. The three sister ships continued through the NWP route to the Beaufort Sea, surveying together until the end of September 1954. Labrador then arrived at the Esquimalt base in British Columbia, and then transited the Panama Canal to arrive back at her Halifax (NS) base on 21st November 1954 as the first Canadian ship to circumnavigate North America.

The 11,345grt Louis S. St-Laurent in company with a United States Coastguard icebreaker became the first North American surface vessel to reach the North Pole on 22nd August 1994. She was built in 1969 by Canadian Vickers at Montreal.

Labrador then made three more Canadian Arctic cruises in the summers of 1955, 1956 and 1957 into the eastern part of the NWP route, recovering anchors, stores, boats and other useful items from the ill-fated expedition of Sir Edward Parry, left behind when H.M.S. Fury was abandoned in 1825 off Somerset Island. Labrador was transferred in 1958 to the Dept. of Transport of the Canadian Government, and then transferred along with other Canadian icebreakers to the newly created Canadian Coastguard in 1962. She continued to make periodic visits to the Eastern Canadian Arctic around Ellesmere Island, Cornwallis Island and Queen Maud Gulf until decommissioned in 1987 and broken up.

The Canadian icebreaker D’Iberville of 5,678 displacement tonnes was built by the Lauzon yard of Davie Shipbuilding Ltd. during the same period as Labrador, but she was bigger with a hull of length 310.0 feet, moulded beam of 67.0 feet and draft of thirty feet. She was of Ice Class 3 and named after French explorer Pierre d’Iberville, with a stem cut up angle of thirty degrees for her icebreaker bow, more usually only 25 degrees, and bow plates of 1.75 inches thickness. A full ice knife construction at her stern was not used, but a rudder stock coupling guard was fitted, as it was considered that when reversing into the ice the action of the propellers would fully weaken and break up the ice. She was powered by twin diesel engines of 10,600 bhp to give a service speed of sixteen knots, with a bunker capacity of almost 3,000 tonnes and a cargo capacity of 400 tonnes. She was based at Quebec and was the first ship to enter the new St. Lawrence Seaway in April 1959 with H. M. The Queen onboard as the honoured guest at the opening ceremony. She was sold for breaking up in 1989 in Kaohsiung along with icebreaker N. B. McLean of 1930 vintage.

John A. Macdonald of 6,186 tonnes displacement was commissioned in 1960 after completion at the Lauzon yard of Davie Shipbuilding Ltd., and was named after the first Prime Minister of Canada. She had a length of 315.0 feet, moulded beam of 70.0 feet, and draft of 28.0 feet, and was diesel electric powered of 15,000 bhp to three shafts. She was capable of breaking heavy ice, and went to the rescue of the Exxon supertanker Manhattan in Autumn 1969 when the latter was beset by ice. John A. Macdonald made a double transit of the NWP route during the rescue, from east to west and returned west to east. She broke her starboard propeller in heavy ice during the rescue, the propeller is now mounted on display at the Dartmouth Ferry Terminal in Nova Scotia. She made five partial transits of the NWP route between 1975 and 1988 and was decommissioned in 1991 and broken up in India in early 1994.

Louis S. St-Laurent of 11,345 grt and 15,324 full displacement tonnes was launched in 1966 at the Montreal yard of Canadian Vickers Ltd. and commissioned in October 1969. She is of length 393.1 feet, moulded beam of 80.0 feet, depth of 43.4 feet, and draft of 32.50 feet, and of Ice Class 4. She is powered by five diesel electric engines of 29,400 bhp to give a service speed of sixteen knots, range of 23,000 nautical miles and endurance of 205 days. She has a crew of 46 and carries twin helicopters at her stern and four workboats and Zodiac fast craft. She is named after the twelfth Prime Minister of Canada as the flagship of the Canadian Coastguard, and is based at St. John’s (NFL). She is still the flagship today with a capability of breaking up heavy ice as the largest icebreaker in the fleet. She escorted the Exxon supertanker Manhattan through the NWP route in Autumn 1969, and made a number of full or partial transits of the NWP route. She underwent a five year modernisation and lengthening refit at Halifax during 1988/93, and then in company with a United States Coastguard icebreaker became the first North American surface vessels to reach the North Pole on 22nd August 1994. She was deployed to the Canadian Arctic during 2016 to map the sea floor with an international team of scientists on board, followed by a 47 day return voyage to the North Pole.

The 124,000dwt tanker Manhattan was escorted through the NWP in 1969 by the icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent (above). She was built in 1962 by Bethlehem Shipbuilding at Quincy. On 15th July 1987 she was wrecked off the southern coast of Korea and broken up in China 2 months later. Photo: Fotoflite

Four icebreakers of 6,100 displacement tonnes to the T1200 design of ‘Medium Gulf and River Icebreakers’ were commissioned between 1979 and 1987 as Sir John Franklin, Des Groseillieurs, Henry Larsen and Pierre Radisson. They are of Ice Class 4 on a length of 323.0 feet, moulded beam of 64.0 feet, and draft of 23.5 feet, with a crew of twelve officers and 26 men, and tasked for icebreaking duty in the St. Lawrence, off Newfoundland, and for escorting the annual summer Sealift operation of cargo ships to remote locations in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Henry Larsen has twice been the subject of documentary films shot onboard for ‘Icebreakers’ and ‘Mighty Ships’ in 2004 and 2008, the latter occasion when she was on patrol freeing ferries and fishing boats stuck in the ice in Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland. All four sisters carry a helicopter for search and rescue, ice spotting and logistical purposes, as well as four workboats and Zodiac fast craft. Sir John Franklin was contracted in 1996 for four years to Canship, a Newfoundland based shipping company, for use as an accommodation vessel during exploration work for a nickel mine at Voisey’s Bay in northern Labrador. She was then decommissioned in 2000, and became a dedicated Arctic Ocean research vessel three years later after funding was received from Canadian universities and research centres as well as the Federal Government. She was renamed Amundsen but still serves as a Coastguard icebreaker in the St. Lawrence Gulf in winter months.

There are also a number of smaller icebreakers in the current Canadian Coastguard fleet, including Terry Fox of 4,234 tonnes displacement and commissioned to Arctic Ice Class 4 in 1992, Samuel Risley of 1,967 tonnes displacement, and Alexander Henry of 1,675 tonnes displacement, with some employed as icebreakers and buoy tenders in the Upper Great Lakes. The Canadian Coastguard had a total of fifteen icebreakers in 1998, with Sir John Franklin on charter to Canship Ugland Ltd., which also managed and operated two twin screw bow loading shuttle oil tankers of 127,000 dwt, Kometik and Mattea, for a consortium of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Murphy Oil.

The flagship, Louis S. St-Laurent, is due to be replaced by a larger icebreaker named John G. Diefenbaker in 2021. This vessel is building at the Seaspan yard in North Vancouver and will be of 23,500 tonnes displacement, length of 492.0 feet, moulded beam of 92.0 feet, depth of 44.0 feet and draft of 34.0 feet. She will have a maximum speed of twenty knots and will be powered by six diesel engines of 39,600 bhp, with a crew of sixty and accommodation for forty scientists, and have laboratories, a moon pool, one general cargo hold, multiple cranes, helideck and hangar for two helicopters, and space for special missions. When completed, she will be as powerful as the biggest icebreakers in the American and Russian fleets.

The 5,775gt Pierre Radisson of the Canadian Coast Guard was built in 1978 by Burrard Yarrows Corporation at North Vancouver.


The Arctic has already yielded up vast riches over the last century, and will continue to do so in the future. The coal mines of the Svalbard archipelago are Norwegian sovereign territory and permanent Norwegian, Swedish and Russian mining communities have existed there since 1900. Two coal mining companies continue mining today and export their coal to Russia and Europe. Arktikugol (Arctic Coal) of Russia has mined in Svalbard since the company was established on 7th October 1931, and so far over 22 million tonnes of coal has been produced. SNSK (Store Norske) of Norway has mined in Svalbard since the company was formed in 1916 and currently has two coal mines with a total output of 2.5 million tonnes of coal per year. The companies have their own big coal shipment ports, one at Cape Amsterdam to the south of the capital Longyearbyen, and one third of this mostly bituminous coal is used in blast furnaces for metallurgical uses.

The lucrative 19th century Greenland fishery of whaling and sealing finally ended in 1910 when the last two sealers sailed from East Coast U.K. ports for the Arctic. Minerals are today extracted from both the east and west coasts of Greenland, and are shipped out from the well developed port of Nuuk in western Greenland to Denmark, the United States of America, and Canada. The twenty five Russian mines producing vast quantities of nickel, iron ore, phosphates, zinc and other minerals on the Kola Peninsula and Yenisei river in Siberia will produce big shipping opportunities in the future. Russia has the icebreaking capacity to keep the Northern Sea Route (NSR) open all of the year, as the Russian Arctic is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world. Cosco of China will send bulkers and container ships along the NWP in the future from China to the eastern seaboard of the U.S.A. I wish to sincerely thank CBS Maritime and the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) for highlighting the commercial opportunities as well as the challenges to Arctic shipping.

The 6,166gt Henry Larsen of the Canadian Coastguard was built in 1988 by Versatile Pacific Shipyard at North Vancouver. She is still in service.



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