HK-flagged ship to blaze Arctic route

Keith Wallis

A cargo ship flying Hong Kong's Bauhinia flag and carrying 41,000 tonnes of iron ore will make maritime history this weekend when it sets sail from Norway on a voyage through Russia's Arctic wastes to China.

The bulk carrier Nordic Barents is the first foreign-registered ship Russia has allowed to make a voyage between two foreign ports via the country's northern sea route. The Scandinavian owner and charterer of the ship aim to prove that the route long called the Northeast Passage is a viable commercial alternative to southern routes from Europe to Asia.

The Nordic Barents is due to leave the small Norwegian port of Kirkenes tomorrow, less than a week after a Russian-owned tanker completed a 13,000-kilometre voyage from Murmansk to Ningbo. The SCF Baltica, owned by privately controlled company Sovcomflot, carried 70,000 tonnes of gas condensate, less than the 117,500 tonnes the ship was capable of carrying because of draft restrictions through Arctic waters.

If the Nordic Barents' voyage to Dalian , Qingdao and possibly southern China is successful it will effectively end a 500-year-old quest by explorers, shipowners and cargo owners to find a northern route between Europe and Asia.

Shipping and chartering companies, including firms in Hong Kong, are viewing the voyage with keen interest.

The Northeast Passage took on a legendary mystique, almost rivalling Canada's Northwest Passage, after British explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby first tried to find a route through the Arctic waters in 1553.

Climate change appears to have helped latter-day mariners achieve what Sir Hugh could not.

Felix Tschudi, chairman of Norwegian company Tschudi Shipping, which chartered the Nordic Barents, said a two- to-four month season has opened up for vessels to transit the northern sea route between July and October. 'September is the best month because the water temperature is at its warmest and maximum melting has taken place,' Tschudi said.

He said the route would cut at least eight days off the sailing time from Europe to China, saving around US$180,000 in fuel costs alone.

'If the ice conditions are very light, as they are at the moment, the sailing time could be even shorter.'

Tschudi said there would be more significant cost savings if ships were sailing to ports in Japan and Korea through Arctic waters than the traditional southern route via the Suez Canal and Cape of Good Hope.

There would also be commensurate savings in carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from ships because they would burn less fuel.

He said that with the threat of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Somalia Basin and Indian Ocean, the northern sea route would also provide a safer passage, a benefit 'that was not so easily monetised'.

Rob Grool, managing director of Hong Kong's Wallem Group, said that excluding the fuel savings, the cost of sending the ship through the northern route would be about the same as going through the Suez Canal. This is despite the need for nuclear-powered ice-breakers to escort vessels through the Arctic waters, especially for the 10 to 15 days in which the ice would be thickest.

Grool said that aside from generally much smoother sailing in calmer Arctic waters, 'the carbon footprint of such a voyage is certainly a lot less than taking the longer route - the ice-breakers do not put any exhaust emissions into the air'.

Wallem is managing the operation of the Nordic Barents through its IDWallem ship management subsidiary.

Tschudi said Rosatomflot, which operates Russia's fleet of nuclear ice-breakers, was keen to keep the price of ice-breaker escorts competitive as part of a wider move by the Russian government to open up the high north to shipping and investment.

He said the idea for the voyage first began at a seminar involving Norwegian and Russian organisations in April but it was only in early June that the commercial side, involving the sale of iron ore from a Norwegian mine to China, 'really got going'.

Tschudi said that among the drawbacks was the limited number of ships that could use the northern sea route because they would need to be ice-strengthened, with special precautions needed to protect sensitive equipment. They would also have to be escorted by ice-breakers in case of breakdown or illness among the ship's crew. There are also limitations on the size of ship that can use the northern sea route. The weight of cargo on board the SCF Baltica was limited to just over half of its capacity because of draft restrictions.

Grool said: 'This is early days - obviously this route will only really become competitive when it is an ice-free or ice-class-manageable passage. It is however a very exciting venture.'

His enthusiasm is shared by Jan Rindbo, chief operating office of Pacific Basin Shipping, which operates ships of a similar size to Nordic Barents, who said: 'We are watching with interest.'

But Rindbo also pointed out: 'I don't think it will be a high-traffic shipping highway for a long time to come.'

This is because the number of ice-strengthened ships in the global fleet is relatively small and although there are some bulk cargoes that need to be transported between Europe and Asia the volumes 'were not huge' as compared with other routes from Brazil, Australia and elsewhere.

Tschudi said while the Nordic Barents voyage was the only one the company would do this year, 'we will definitely look at it next year. We're very encouraged by the possibilities'.

New sea highway?

A maritime route along the northern coast of Europe linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans may soon be the shortest

How the Northern sea route was mapped

11th century Russians explore parts of the route

1553 Route first thwarts English explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby, whose crew froze to death

1596 Dutch navigator William Barents' ship is crushed and he lives in a driftwood hut until his death in 1597. The Barents Sea is named in his honour

1700s Russians explore the route

1878-79 Finnish-Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskioeld is the first to sail the Northeast Passage, as it was then known

1930s Russians establish shipping route

1991 Route opens to international traffic, but it is not seriously used

1998 Finnish tanker MT Uikku is the first foreign-flagged vessel to sail part of the route

2009 Two small German vessels are the first European cargo ships to use the passage

Aug 14, 2010 Russian tanker Baltica, carrying 70,000 tonnes of gas, leaves Murmansk for Ningbo and makes the passage, the first commercial supertanker to do so, in 11 days

Key advantages

Shorter distance Suez Canal: 22,000 km Northeast Passage: 13,000 km

Cost - Could be 80% cheaper in fuel and charter time

Safety - Free from pirates that plague the African coast - Giant nuclear ice-breakers with a crew of 100 clear the passage and escort ships