The company worked in close collaboration with the NSR Administration and the icebreaker company Atomflot to conduct a feasibility study prior to conducting the trial voyage.
Maersk turned to the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code to ensure that the vessel and its equipment were up to the test. All crew members received special training and the captain and chief officers received ice navigation and Polar Code courses along with simulator training on how to navigate in ice. Furthermore, the crew of 25 was headed by Captain Søren Bruun and received further guidance by two Russian ice pilots aboard.
"Operations in the Arctic pose completely different demands on ships and their design. The passage is feasible for around three months during the summer, marked by a lack of obstructive ice. That said, ice conditions can vary and are in general difficult to predict. Thus, assistance by icebreakers which are around to support safe navigation all year will still be necessary," elaborates Michael Meisel, Senior Marine Specialist and project lead of the trial.
The company installed additional tracking and monitoring systems and stored extra equipment such as night vision binoculars, fuel, provisions and spare parts.
Icebreaker assistance doesn’t come cheap
The Venta Maersk passed through the Bering Strait on September 6 and entered Arctic waters in the Chukchi Sea the following day. After a few days of securing the vessel for frigid temperatures, including starting up heaters, the vessel made contact with the icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy to assist the container vessel through the icy waters of the East Siberian Sea.
The convoy followed a southerly route to avoid substantial ice accumulations north of the East Siberian island. Especially along the Sannikov Strait the icebreaker crew’s experience proved invaluable, as the Venta Maersk, loaded with 660 reefer containers of frozen fish, sailed with a draught of 11 meters, maxing out the recommended draught for vessels passing through the strait.
The vessel received icebreaker escort from Atomflot until September 11 across two out of the seven zones of the NSR, the north-eastern and south-western part of the East Siberian Sea. According to the fee schedule of the Northern Sea Route Administration this incurred fees of 11.2 million Rubles, approximately $171,000. In a statement to HNN Maersk said it'd be unable to comment on how much it paid for icebreaker services.
Using less-dirty low sulfur fuel
Maersk decided to use ultra-low sulfur fuel on par with marine distillate oil for its trial voyage. Together with the state-of-the-art engine of the brand new vessel this reduced Black Carbon emissions as much as possible. Nonetheless, the local emission of Black Carbon has become a growing concern as dark combustion particles from increasing amounts of shipping represent a growing problem.
This week the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 73) discusses the ongoing efforts to ban the use of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) across the Arctic. During the committee’s session in April the majority of IMO members agreed in principle to this ban.
Environmental advocates, such as the Clean Arctic Alliance, have pushed for a ban of this dirtiest type of marine transportation fuel. Hopes are that the IMO will refer the issue to the sub-committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR6) in February 2019 to study how to reduce the risks associated with the use and carriage of HFO by ships in the Arctic.
Will Maersk return to the Arctic?
While Captain Bruun and his crew would not mind taking the vessel for another trip through the Arctic Maersk remains steadfast that the Venta Maersk’s voyage remains a one-off trial.
The company confirms that the trial offered an exceptional opportunity to gain operational experience in a new area and to test vessel systems and crew capabilities, it does not currently see the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to the existing east-west routes at Maersk.
"New services are planned according to customers’ demand, trading patterns, and population centres. Many different factors are taken into account when planning shipping routes, especially trading patterns and populations centres," confirms Meisel.
Nonetheless, Maersk celebrated the arrival of the vessel in Saint Petersburg with a substantial party welcoming not only the crew and Russian officials, but also port booking agents from Asia. It remains to be seen how Maersk will utilize the experiences and business connections gained during this voyage.