Saturday, September 4, 2010

Northern Freight Passages Hold Dangers For Cargo Shipping And Tankers Alike

Nuclear Icebreakers Aren't Always the Answer to a Pirate Free Transit
Shipping News Feature

RUSSIA – CANADA – In past articles we have charted the progress of the courageous (and profit hungry) souls who have risked opening up new ways to transit the dangerous frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean to the North of Siberia and through the Bering Sea. A year ago we pointed out how Beluga Shipping’s historic voyage carrying freight through the North East passage might open the sea route as a rival to the Suez Canal within a decade.

This season comes the news that the first supertanker to undertake the hazardous journey, the Baltica, left Murmansk, just East of Swedish territory to successfully venture out en route to Eastern China. The Sovcomflot gas carrier will cut her voyage by 9,000 kilometres and over 10 days by using the route compared with the conventional Suez passage, avoiding the additional hazard of pirates at the same time. She is due in Ningbo in the next few days having left Murmansk on the 14th August.

Obviously the voyage, the first of many according to Sergey Frank, Sovcomflot president, was coordinated with the close cooperation of the Russian Maritime Operations Headquarters, who monitored the conditions and coordinated the efforts of the four nuclear powered ice breakers necessary to facilitate safe passage. The 114,000 tonne Aframax tanker’s crew had been specially trained to operate in harmony with the phenomenally powerful ice vessels and, in a poignant ceremony, the men cast flowers on the waters of the Vilkitsky Strait in tribute to the many who have perished trying to navigate the route over the past five centuries.

In a vivid reminder of the dangers these Arctic waters hold the past month has seen several, less successful expeditions in the frozen regions. The MV Nanny carrying under ten million litres of diesel oil to isolated communities in Nunavut is small beer compared to the 70,000 tonnes of gas condensate on the Baltica, but she was the third ship in a month to run aground in the region, according to local commentators victims of the lack of current nautical charts for the area as ice volumes decline apparently due to global climate changes.

Of the historic voyage Sergey Frank, Sovcomflot President and CEO, said:

“The Arctic voyage of the tanker SCF Baltica has confirmed the possibility of operating large ice-class tankers along the NSR (Northern Sea Route). Statistics collected during the voyage will form the foundation of a unique data base, which will allow the preparation of similar voyages for large vessels in future. Sovcomflot is planning to send a Suezmax vessel of at least Ice Class 1A Super along the NSR, enabling it to pass through the fields 100 per cent covered with ice along the way.”

The latest expedition is bound however to raise again the controversy over who actually is responsible for the channel between Russian and Canadian waters. As we detailed in a previous piece, the rights of passage are a hotly contested subject between the two nations, both of whom see escort duties through the hazardous waters as a potentially a big money spinner considering the vast amounts ships of this size can save in terms of time and fuel and consequently revenue, not to mention those pirates.

Photo: Icebreakers cut a path for the Baltica