Arctic Cargo Ship Violates Safety Rules Prompting Month-Long Rescue Operation

Sparta III
Cargo ship Sparta III traveling under tow after sustaining damage. (Source: Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation)

An Arctic cargo ship, Sparta III, violated safety rules and sailed into unsafe ice conditions. It took nearly four weeks, several icebreakers and rescue ships to escort it to safety. 

Safety violations continue unabated along Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR). The four-week saga surrounding the rescue of Sparta III, a general cargo vessel with a light-to-medium ice classification, is just the latest example of how shipping operators ignore established navigational rules in the Arctic and face little if any repercussions from government regulators. High North News previously reported that dozens of vessels have traveled into sections of the NSR for which they have not received a permit. 

The latest incident occurs against the backdrop of ambitious targets for growing cargo volume on the route. According to shipping experts there likely exists ongoing pressure from the Kremlin to reach President Putin’s goal of expanding traffic to reach 80m tons in 2024 and safety concerns may take a back seat to economic considerations. In 2020 the route saw around 33m tons.

Deviating from approved route

The Sparta III, a 13,000 ton and 142 meter general cargo vessel, deviated from its approved route at the end of November. The vessel, operated by Oboronlogistics, a transport service provider of the Russian Ministry of Defense, had received a permit from the Northern Sea Route Administration to sail without icebreaker escort from the western entrance of the route to the Port of Sabetta on the Yamal Peninsula and back. 

For unknown reasons Oboronlogistics decided to violate Sparta III’s permit and travel into the Gulf of Yenisei all the way to Dudinka where the vessel encountered substantial early season ice buildup. Similar violations have been recorded by the NSR Administration between 2015 and 2018 at which public record-keeping ceased

Sparta III’s NSR permit allowed for navigation up to Sabetta (green zone) but not for travel to Dudinka (orange zone). (Source: Author’s own work)

Lack of regulatory oversight and enforcement

Safety violations and a lack of enforcement point to the larger issue of who holds regulatory control over the NSR. In 2019, some elements, including the NSR Administration, who issues permits, were consolidated under the roof of Atomflot – the operator of Russia’s nuclear icebreakers. But the Ministry of Transportation continues to play a role, especially with respect to transport policy along the route. 

Furthermore, in an effort to drive shipping and allow more vessels to travel on the route, ice-class requirements were substantially reduced in 2019 as well. 

Frederic Lasserre, Professor at the Université Laval Québec.
Frederic Lasserre, Professor at the Université Laval Québec.
Frédéric Lasserre.

“The accident in itself may buttress the idea Russian authorities are much more tolerant, if not overtly lenient, especially since Rosatom took control of movements control and management. The fact accidents are no longer recorded gives credit to that theory,” explains Arctic shipping expert and Professor at the Université Laval Québec, Frédéric Lasserre. 

In a statement Atomflot condemned Oboronlogistics’ actions, but it remains to be seen if the operator will face sanctions.

“The cargo ship Sparta III headed towards the port of Dudinka without permission, and put the fulfillment of its voyage assignment above the safety of navigation and the interests of other companies operating in the water area of ​​the Northern Sea Route,” stated Atomflot’s general director Mustafa Kashka. 

Odyssey begins after deviating from route

After Sparta III deviated from its approved routing, Oboronlogistics hired local icebreaking tug Kigoriak to escort the vessel down the Yenisei. The tug, only suitable for near-coast operations was only allowed to operate independently – without real icebreaker support – until December 1. 

In previous years Sparta III concluded its work on the NSR at the end of September further highlighting how out of place its presence on the route was during the months of November and December.

Following the ship’s deviation, inquiries by Russian officials to the ship’s captain on November 23 and November 27 remained unanswered and the vessel continued to travel all the way to Dudinka along the Yenisei estuary and river. 

Following worsening weather and ice conditions the two-ship convoy found itself in difficult ice conditions in the southern part of the Yenisei Gulf by December 17 halting all forward progress. The navigation channel had closed up and the two ships encountered hummocks and ice ridges up to 70 centimeters thick.

Atomflot, which routinely operates icebreakers along the NSR during winter, received a request for assistance on December 15. After more than a week of negotiations Atomflot decided to divert one of its nuclear icebreakers, Vaigach, from regular icebreaking services along the NSR on December 24.

After 19 hours the icebreaker had freed Sparta III and Kigoriak from the hummock field and Vaigach returned to regular contracted duties along the NSR.

Requiring assistance a second time

Sparta III made way and navigated together with Kigoriak but less than 24 hours later developed steering control issues due to a damaged rudder, likely from having been stuck in ice for a week, upon exiting the Gulf of Yenisei in difficult ice conditions. Kigoriak was able to break free, leaving Sparta III bound in the ice for more than a week. 

On January 1 Vaigach again returned to assist once again and was joined by the diesel-powered icebreaker Admiral Makarov.

The convoy set off on January 2 with Vaigach breaking a channel through the ice and Admiral Makarov towing the damaged cargo ship. As Vaigach had to return to contracted icebreaking duties, Marine Rescue Service ship Rescuer Karev took over towing duties with Admiral Makarov breaking the ice.

under tow
Sparta III being towed through the ice by an icebreaker. (Source: Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation)

The rescue operation involved a complex tow setup using a 100 meter towing cable. As Atomflot experts explain, traditionally the towing distance should be much shorter as ice buildup in the channel between the two ships puts increasing load on the tow cable. But due Sparta III’s large bulbous bow, which could have damaged the icebreaker’s propeller and steering, this unusual towing arrangement became necessary. 

The Icebreaker escort was concluded on January 8 after traveling 410 nautical miles over the course of 6 days and Sparta III continues to be towed by a rescue ship towards the port of Murmansk.

Lack of transparency reduces safety

Over the past decade national regulators and international organizations, especially the International Maritime Organization (IMO), have debated and approved a number of safety measures to enhance safety for shipping in the Arctic. The IMO’s Polar Code went into effect in 2017 setting standards for equipment and crew training when traveling in the region’s icy waters. However, in the light of the rapid growth of shipping traffic along the NSR, from less than 3m tons 10 years ago to more than 30m tons last year, a more transparent and enforceable safety regime for Russian waters has yet to be implemented. 

“Rosatom says it is not happy with the Sparta III incident and that the vessel clearly was in violation of the regulations. The shipping company, in my understanding working closely with the military, reportedly did not have formal permission, which the shipping companies denies. Now who says the truth? Hard to say given the fact these players are unlikely to be very transparent,” concludes Lasserre.