Sea ice may be melting at record rates, but winter in the Arctic Ocean remains a formidable obstacle even for highly specialized ice-class vessels. In January Russian natural gas company Novatek sent two Arc7 ice-class natural gas carriers on test voyages to deliver liquefied natural gas (LNG) from its Yamal LNG plant in the Russian Arctic to China via the Northern Sea Route. Christophe de Margerie departed first followed by sister ship Nikolay Yevgenov a day later. In contrast to previous winter transits, the ships navigated independently without the assistance of Russian nuclear icebreakers.
Currently the navigation season on the NSR lasts from July until December. But Novatek and its shipping partners hope to regularly ship LNG to Asia year-round where natural gas prices are generally higher than in Europe, which so far has been the sole destination for winter shipments.
According to Novatek both LNG carriers encountered average ice conditions and traveled along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) at a record pace for most of the trip. However, part way through the voyage observers noted that Nikolay Yevgenov, owned and operated by a partnership of Teekay LNG and China LNG Shipping Holdings, slowed down to as little as three knots based on satellite-based vessel tracking.
At the time, Novatek and Teekay did not comment on speculations that the ship may have struck an ice ridge and suffered damage to its propulsion system. Shipping experts surmised that any damage could likely be resolved in port with the help of service engineers. The vessel subsequently did not return to the Russian Arctic via the NSR but began its voyage back West via the longer, but less challenging, Suez Canal route.
Back in Europe for repairs
Last week the vessel arrived in Brest, France where it will spend at least 20 days at the Damen dry dock to repair damage to the central of its three azimuth thrusters. In this type of system the marine propeller is placed in a pod which can be rotated horizontally allowing for greater maneuverability and negating the need of a rudder. This configuration is frequently used on ice-class vessels and icebreakers.
More than a month after the incident, Teekay’s chief executive, Mark Kremin, acknowledged that the vessel had sustained damage and needed repairs during an investor call. While in dry dock the ship will also undergo regular maintenance and repairs.
“It looks like we've got some damage. We've had it on one of the pods, which we use [...] for propulsion instead of normal propellers. So the ship will be in the dry dock starting tomorrow [February 27th] , and we'll get it fixed.” It remains unclear if the entire azimuth unit will have to be replaced, which takes about a month, or if it can be repaired.
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Insurance will cover damage
Kremin also answered questions about the financial impact of the damage. “It’s insured. And as far as deductibles go, we actually are currently not expecting that there'd be any liability for the owners.” The additional cost of insuring Arctic voyages, compared to a traditional trip via the Suez Canal, is frequently held up as a potential obstacle to regular and more frequent voyages in the region.
While Teekay’s CEO stated that the incident and the repairs are a “nonissue” it raises questions about the feasibility of regular unescorted winter transits or how to avoid similar damage during future voyages. Case in point, during a subsequent winter trip by Christophe de Margerie in February the ship was escorted by Roatomflot’s nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy. Similarly, planned shipments for April and May will also travel with icebreaker assistance.