News reached the ship today of the voyage of Nordic Bulk Carriers Nordic Orion with a cargo of metallurgical coal from from Vancouver, BC to Finland through the Northwest Passage.  The article says it is the first commercial bulk carrier voyage via the NWP.   I certainly could not argue whether that is actual fact or not, but I do know, having sailed extensively on one of the highest ice class cargo ships in the world, the MV Arctic (then owned and operated by Canarctic Shipping, now by Fednav), that bulk ships have been coming and going from the Northwest Passage for decades.  Is this the beginnings of the highway across the top of the world via the Northwest Passage. Not likely.

There is no doubt Nordic Bulk Carriers has a fleet of sound ice class vessels and has been willing to make news worthy one off voyages (they were the first to take a bulker through the Northern Sea Route in 2010), but these have been one off’s, almost expeditionary in nature.

Yes, they have been carrying commercial cargoes, but what savings were actually made?  The Northern Sea and Northwest Passage routes can be a very promising proposition when one thinks distance only, but what of the other variables?  On top of the fuel costs that are cheaper due to the reduced distance in SOME voyages, what are less often discussed are the additional costs.

First, because the ice remains a possibility even during the three to four month “navigation season” when the ice cover is reduced (and NOT eliminated), the ship must be built at least to minimum ice strengthening standards.  Second, more so in the Northwest Passage, circuitous routes through draft limited waters necessitate course and speed changes that combine with the   delays and diversions due to ice to add voyage time to the calculations.  That rules out anything like a regular liner service or a voyage tied to “on time delivery”.  Second, both routes remain coastal and require carefully planned and executed voyage plans, in areas that remain poorly charted and with limited support infrastructure.  Third, insurance rates climb dramatically for vessels operating “north of sixty”, then add the “icebreaker” fees charged by the Northern Sea Route that can approach $400,000 USD; and fourth, because of the threat of ice, additional personnel with adequate knowledge of operating in ice are necessary to ensure as safe and economical passage as possible.

Neither passage is yet a “highway across the top of the world”.   Discounting adventurers in small vessels, on average there are less than 12 transits of the Northwest Passage a year, and those are almost exclusively Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers and the occasional pre-positioning voyage of one of the pocket cruise ships that frequent the eastern Canadian Arctic in the summer.  Though much has been made of “huge increase” in number of transit permits applied for the Northern Sea Route for the 2013 navigation season, the vast majority are project based (in and out, or in support of Russian hydrocarbon exploration/exploitation).  Transits of each passage are counted in the tens, not the thousands that routinely transit the Panama and the Suez by ships far cheaper to build, man and operate than what is required to transit the polar routes, now and for a great many years to come.

Traffic will increase in the Arctic, of that there is no doubt.  But let’s be realistic, neither will ever replace the Suez and the Panama canals, but be will be seasonal additions to those two traditional routes and the bulk of the increase will be destinational, not transit voyages.

Capt David (Duke) Snider
Ice Navigator
RV Mirai