I am off to London in the next few hours to attend IMO SDC 1 Sub-committee on Ship Design and Construction.   This is the first meeting under the re-engineered sub-committee structure.  There has been somewhat of a streamlining achieved with the previous number of sub-committees reduced to 7 from 9.  

My participation will be within the Working Group on Development of a Mandatory Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) as a member of the Nautical Institute’s NGO delegation.

During next week’s SDC1 my focus will be on Ice Navigator requirements and standards; however, much more will be discussed. Some of the diverse subjects to be covered include:

  • Reports of various Intersessional Working Groups
  • Draft text of the Polar Code
  • Application of the Polar Code
  • Determination of ice class equivalence
  • Requirements for a Polar Waters Operations Manual
  • Survival craft communications and stowage of survival gear
  • Reception facilities for oil and oily mixtures

We have seen much to and fro over the past decades on attempts to develop some sort of mandatory version of the Polar Code.  I was fortunate to participate in the team that worked to develop Transport Canada’s (TC) Ice Navigator proposals in the mid-nineties.  Canarctic Shipping Company Ltd. was contracted then by TC to produce the position paper titled “International Ice Navigator” that, as part of the phase II deliverable included a model training course for ice navigation.  Most of the detail outlined in that model survives today in many “Ice Navigation” courses conducted independently around the globe.  In spite of the voluntary and sparse uptake of the ice navigator training components, the Polar Code as it was laid out then otherwise became watered down (pardon the pun), and resulted in a much less than mandatory status.  The resulting document not only was paired down to cover the Arctic alone, carving off any Antarctic coverage as under the responsibility of Antarctic Treaty, but it was also relegated to non-compulsory “guideline” status as “The IMO Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice-covered Waters”.   Only in 2010 were the guidelines extended to cover the Antarctic waters as the “Guidelines for Ships Operating in Polar Waters”.

Steam ahead two decades.  Since 2006 we have had IACS “Unified Rules for Polar Class Ships” to standardize global ice classification specifications. We now see an incredibly intense focus on things “polar” as a result of global climate change and an increasing interest in operating ships in polar regions from operators and owners that have up till now precious little experience in these environments.  Is it finally time for IMO to step up to the plate and put down firm, mandatory foundation for polar shipping?  Without a doubt.

Will we see a mandatory Polar Code any time soon? This past summer the Secretary General of the IMO, Koji Sekimizu, made a much publicized 5 day voyage in the Russian Northern Sea Route onboard the nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy.  In an interview 18 October 2013 Sekimizu stated, “I really hope that we can settle all preparatory work for the Polar Code by next year [2014] so that we can adopt the Polar Code be the end of next year.  The new code will come into force in 2016 or in early 2017.  This is a possible and realistic target and I’m sure we can achieve that.”

I am going to take the glass half full attitude on this one.  With the Secretary General publicly supporting a mandatory Polar Code coupled with the increased interest in polar shipping, IMO may just finally move ahead and put in place a mandatory code.  Let’s hope that it does, that it isn’t watered down and that it will be meaningful and effective in ensuring the safety of Polar shipping.