On the 17th of this month CCGS Amundsen passed close by as she continued her own Beaufort Sea research.  She is the only vessel we have seen since departing Dutch Harbor in August.  Some of her work has been carefully planned in collaboration with the annual JAMSTEC Arctic oceanographic research program, some has been as part of this year’s ARCROSE meteorology experiment, and some has been for her own ARCTICNET based Arctic research activities.  It was quite an event for those onboard both ships.

Contrary to some reports, the Arctic is not experiencing “high traffic volumes”.  Most of the transits of the Northwest Passage have been by Coast Guard ships on annual Arctic summer deployment.  There have been a number of the usual adventurers, private vessels making “the voyage of a lifetime”, but little else.  There is no major hydrocarbon exploration work going on this year either.  Within the NWP, the usual destination traffic continues as Arctic communities are resupplied, small cruise vessels come in and go out, mostly in the Eastern Arctic, and the Canadian Navy sends up two or three vessels from their eastern base to participate in the annual training exercise and flag waiving.  But commercial transits through the length of the NWP?  Not a lot going on there.

But wait.  Privately owned Canadian shipping company Fednav has just announced that their newest high ice class bulk carrier MV Nunavik has departed Deception Bay in Northern Quebec (on Hudson Strait) en route to Byuquan China via the Northwest Passage carrying nickel concentrate.  MV Nunavik sails unsupported by Coast Guard icebreakers, herself designed and constructed as an icebreaker in order to independently operate in Arctic ice conditions.  Nunavik is built to Unified Polar Class PC4, that is, able to continuously break 1-meter ice and ram through ridges.  It is not surprising that Fednav is calling this the “first independent commercial voyage through the Northwest Passage”. 

Fednav has eyed transiting the NWP for many years.  Back when I was with Canarctic Shipping Company Ltd (then partially owned, now wholly owned by Fednav), they had plans to sail the first of the high ice class trio that now forms Fednav’s “heavies” through the NWP.  MV Arctic was built in the mid seventies and over the decades she has sailed in and out of the Arctic carrying in petroleum and other cargo to resupply mines and carrying out lead and zinc concentrates and then nickel from Polaris, Nanisivik, Deception Bay and Voisey’s Bay, and crude oil from Panarctic Oil’s Bent Horn terminal.  MV Umiak was Fednav’s next high ice class ship, but unlike the OBO MV Arctic MV Umiak is a bulk carrier, working the mines in Deception Bay and Voisey’s Bay.  Just last year, Fednav added the sister to the Umiak I, the Nunavik to their fleet.  Lessons learned from the years of operating MV Arctic and MV Umiak I, as well as the long list of other light ice class bulkers that make up their fleet incorporated were into their new Japanese built ship.

The interesting part of this story is that MV Nunavik is operating independently throughout her passage of the NWP.  No Coast Guard icebreaker is escorting her as was the case with last year’s Nordic Orion transit.  The Nordic Orion however was not in the same class as the Nunivak.  Not an icebreaker, but ice strengthened, it was prudent management that planned the voyage to have full icebreaker support.  It isn’t just on the water that MV Nunavik is on her own.  Fednav’s subsidiary company Enfotec is providing all the ice data information in the way of charts and satellite imagery via their own ice voyage management program IceNavTM, the latest version of the program developed by Canarctic  Shipping in the 1990’s.

MV Nunavik was not a cheap vessel to build nor is she cheap to operate.  No high ice class ships are.  That comes at a price.  What you get in ability to survive the ice conditions you lose in open water efficiency due to heavier construction and less hydrodynamic bow shapes.  The Finnish double acting concept certainly helps, building a ship with a conventional bulbous bow for efficient operation in open seas and a stern built for breaking ice, stern first.  But that design in and of it’s self is more expensive than a conventional ship.  Ship owners pay dearly for vessels that can take the ice and operate in the Polar Regions.

The end point with this is that we are still talking “firsts” when it comes to the Northwest Passage.  These voyages that are getting huge press are one offs still.  Will Fednav make this a regular run or is this more to prove that Nordic Bulk isn’t the only ship operator willing to try the NWP?  Incidentally, Nordic Bulk hasn’t followed their “first commercial transit of the Northwest Passage” with a repeat voyage as yet.  Shipping companies are not yet flocking to the Northwest Passage, they are still testing the waters.

I have to congratulate the management of Fednav for deciding to make this voyage.  I sailed in the ice with Captain Randy Rose years ago when we were both junior watchkeepers onboard MV Arctic.  He is a fine Newfoundlander with decades of high arctic ice experience.  As a Canadian, I like to see Canadian owned ships proudly sailing our waters, and that includes the Northwest Passage.  If you come our way in the coming days, give us a call Randy.  It’s still lonely up here, it’s just you guys and us and a few fulmars in our wake.