On 22 August 2018, the Maersk Line feeder ship Venta Maersk departed from the port of Vladivostok in Russia for its maiden voyage to northern Europe, where it will enter service in the North and Baltic Seas.
However, instead of taking the usual route through the Suez Canal, the Venta Maersk headed north to the Bering Sea. For the first time in the history of the world’s top shipping company, Maersk was going to take the Northern Sea Route heading to St. Petersburg, Russia.
For centuries, the Northern Sea Route has been of great interest to adventurers, scientists, and researchers. But with melting sea ice, maritime shipping companies are starting to look at the Arctic route as a viable shipping route, despite its challenges.
Maersk maintains the Venta Maersk’s transit of the NSR was a one-off passage done primarily for the purposes of data collection, research, and training. While Maersk currently does not see the NSR as an alternative to its usual routes, the company admits that it is following the developments of the NSR as more and more ships head to the poles.
Even with the melting ice, the passage of the NSR is only feasible for about three months a year, and for most vessels, Russian icebreaker assistance is still required through some portion of the route.
“While Venta Mærsk has not been the only vessel crossing through Arctic waters this year, approvals are not automatically granted by the Russian authorities,” explains Michael Meisel, Senior Marine Specialist and project lead of the trial.
“We made it our responsibility to take every possible measure to ensure that this passage was done with the highest considerations for the safety of our seamen and ship as well as with respect for the sensitive environment in the region and its global significance.”
To keep with environmental stewardship, Maersk turned to the IMO’s Polar Code for guidance. Entering into force in 2017, the Polar Code addresses key issues specific for ships operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters, setting mandatory requirements covering the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training and environmental protection.
Although not a regulatory requirement, Maersk also decided to use ultra-low sulphur fuel (ULSFO) for the trial. In combination with the new two-stroke engine of the vessel, emissions would also be limited as much as possible.
With all preparations in place, Venta Maersk Master, Captain Søren Bruun and his 25 crew members, along with two NSR Certified Ice Pilots from Russia, were ready to make the journey.
They passed through Bering Strait on September 6 and crossed the Arctic Circle the next day, entering the Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea. The weather was calm, with temperatures around 0 degrees Celsius and no wind.
During the journey, the aurora borealis made several appearances. “The memory that will last the longest for most of the crew will certainly be the undiluted experience of nature. Most had never seen northern lights and we had four days of perfect floor seats to this spectacular show,” said Captain Bruun.
Venta Mærsk adjusted her route slightly keeping further south to avoid the ice belt to the North of the East Siberian islands.
Before entering the East Siberian Sea, she was met by an icebreaker, which would assist her through the next sections of the route, including the East Siberian Sea and the shallow waters of the Sannikov Strait. Venta Mærsk had left the port of Busan with 660 reefer containers full of frozen fish, leaving her with a draught of 11 meters – the maximum recommended draft for passing ships.
On September 11, Venta Maersk and the icebreaker parted ways as the container ship entered the Laptev Sea, marking the western portion of Northern Sea Route.
Staying clear of icebergs, the ship proceeded unaccompanied through the remainder of the once-fabled Northern Sea Route, completing the journey on September 15.
Despite the success of the voyage, however, Maersk says the Northern Sea Route is still not seen as an alternative to the existing east-west routes.
“Operations in the Arctic pose completely different demands on ships and their design. The passage is feasible for around three months during the summer, marked by a lack of obstructive ice. That said, ice conditions can vary and are in general difficult to predict. Thus, assistance by icebreakers which are around to support safe navigation all year will still be necessary,” elaborates Meisel. “Furthermore, we also must consider that ice-classed vessels are required to make the passage. Going forward, there will be more dependency with the Polar Code which would also mean additional investments.”
Delivered July 11, 2018, Venta Maersk is the fourth vessel in a series of seven ice-class Baltic feeder ships to serve the North Sea and Baltic Sea for Seago Line, the intra-Europe and short-sea carrier of Maersk. The 3,96 TEU vessels are among the world’s largest ice-class containerships, designed specifically for operation in winter conditions (down to -25 degrees C).
The new ships have sheltered forecastle deck for safe mooring operations in winter conditions and enclosed bridge wings for safe maneuvering and harbor approach. Their propeller and rudder design has also been optimized to reduce fuel consumption. Additionally, the vessels use marine fuel which is fully compliant with the Emission Control Area (ECA) rules, established by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
Janina von Spalding of Maersk contributed to this story.