Norwegians have historically charted unforgiving waters to establish trade routes - and the tradition continues today with one shipping magnate pioneering a new nautical passage to China.
Felix Tschudi, chairman of Tschudi Shipping, and explorer B?rge Ousland were in Hong Kong to outline an alternative trade route from ports in northern Scandinavia, along the north coast of Siberia, through the Bering Strait and to China.
Tschudi played his part in nautical history last September when he arranged with Russian authorities for the first foreign-registered ship to sail non-stop through the Arctic wastes to Asia.
The Hong Kong-registered Nordic Barents, led by a Russian ice-breaking vessel, transported 40,140 tonnes of iron ore concentrate from a Norwegian iron ore mine at Kirkenes to Qingdao. Tschudi says the 13,000-kilometre voyage took 21 days compared to 40 days via the 22,000km Suez Canal route.
The Norwegians and Russians want to help meet China's huge demand for raw materials by shipping minerals, iron ore and liquefied gas via the Northeast Sea Route (NSR). For shippers it would mean cost savings, cutting about a third off the voyage time and minimising the threat of piracy by avoiding the Arabian Sea.
Although the route is a boon for the mines, oil and gas fields of inland Siberia, there are limitations. The Arctic passage can only be navigated from July to November when enough ice melts for vessels with ice-breaking capabilities to navigate. Tschudi says this prevents the route being developed as an alternative sea-cargo route between China and Europe.
The Nordic Barents, which flew Hong Kong's bauhinia flag, rounded off a 500-year quest by seafarers to chart a northern route between Europe and Asia. Ousland told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club how over the years global warming has resulted in more of the Arctic ice melting, but the NSR would operate during a season when icebreakers were able to navigate anyway.
Ousland told how adventurers have met their end trying to conquer the Northeast Passage down through the centuries. In 1553, English explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby set sail, but he and much of his crew were found dead a year later. Some had frozen to death, while Willoughby and others are thought to have succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning in a futile attempt to warm themselves.
The former Soviet Union imposed restrictions on the route during the cold war and it was opened to international shipping in 1991, but not seriously used until seven years later when Finnish tanker MT Uikku became the first foreign-flagged vessel to sail part of the route.
Tschudi says in order for the route to be developed more vessels with ice-breaking capabilities will have to be built and more use made of convoys. He says the Russians are particularly keen to establish routes between inland Siberia and Asia-Pacific.
'There are bad roads in Siberia, so rivers are the best route to Siberia's interiors,' says Tschudi, who is also the largest shareholder of Northern Iron, the Australian ASX-listed owner of the Sydvaranger iron ore mine. 'Norway is a link to Europe and so shipping services can offer more possibilities for the North Sea route. Three to five months of summer known as the ice-breaking season and cargo can be generated two ways. Piracy is not the major factor in pursuing this, but it may be in future.'
- The number of days the North Sea route takes compared to the 40-day voyage via the Suez Canal