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Transiting the Northern Sea Route

The 3D seismic vessel Polarcus Alima has successfully transited from Norway to the Asia-Pacific region via the Northern Sea Route - a first in the seismic industry, and an achievement which saves considerable time, fuel, emissions and cost
This article appeared in GEO ExPro iPad App 1 - 2012

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Delivered in the first quarter of 2011, Polarcus Alima is a high ice-class 12-streamer 3D seismic vessel built to the ULSTEIN SX134 design. She is amongst the most environmentally sound seismic vessels in the market with diesel-electric propulsion; a high-specification catalytic reactor; double hull; and advanced ballast water treatment and bilge water cleaning systems.

Polarcus Alima. Source: Polarcus Polarcus Alima was scheduled for a series of 3D surveys in the Taranaki and Great South Basins offshore New Zealand after completion of seismic operations in the Barents Sea, north of Norway and Russia. The traditional route for the transit to New Zealand is via the Panama Canal or, for some larger vessels, the Suez Canal. The 3,000 nautical mile (5,560 km) Northern Sea Route (NSR) through the Arctic Ocean along the north coast of Russia provides a much shorter route, but it is partially covered by sea ice throughout the year and almost completely in winter.

Under the Russian Federation’s 1990 Regulations for Navigation on the Seaways of the NSR, vessels sailing the route are required to hold an ICE-1A or higher ice class - a rating that is unique to the Polarcus fleet in the seismic industry. In addition, Polarcus has developed a wide-ranging set of procedures for operating in harsh environments, and was formally awarded a Statement of Qualification from DNV of its Arctic Procedures at the annual Arctic Shipping Summit in Helsinki, Finland in early 2011.

Planning the Voyage

About a month before Polarcus Alima completed her 2011 summer season in the Barents Sea, the company began a detailed investigation into the viability and requirements for transiting to New Zealand via the NSR, which could save substantial time, cost, and fuel. Advice was sought from expert organizations including Atomflot, a Russian provider of specialist icebreaking services and Tschudi Arctic Transit AS, a provider of transportation solutions in the region. Enquiries began with the Northern Sea Route Administration (NSRA) in Moscow, the agency responsible for managing sea traffic through the route.

Detailed study of recent and forecast ice charts over the proposed transit period indicated little risk of encountering pack ice along the planned route, and Polarcus was confident that Polarcus Alima was capable of completing the journey safely and efficiently. Administrative delays represented a potential challenge, as applications for the transit should normally be presented to the NSRA several months in advance of sailing. Tschudi AS assisted in getting the necessary approvals in time, so detailed planning for the journey began. A thorough risk assessment to highlight expected risks and prompt measures to mitigate the potential impact of these was undertaken. An extra Chief Mate fluent in Russian would sail as part of the crew to aid communications with the icebreaker escorts arranged by Atomflot.

The NSR took only nine days, achieving significant savings in fuel, emissions and time. Source: Polarcus

All ships must be equipped with ship-to-shore and bridge-to-bridge communications equipment suitable for the waters in which they will sail. The requirements, which depend on the regional availability of suitable communications channels, are defined in four bands, and ships operating in Sea Area A4, which includes much of the Arctic region, need to make extra provision. The ship already had the appropriate HF Radio and Radio Telex systems required, but to provide extra coverage, an Iridium Communications system was fitted. Based on a constellation of 66 low-earth orbiting cross-linked satellites, this system provides voice and data communication services in all parts of the globe including poles, oceans and airways.

Polarcus Alima arrived at Hammerfest in northern Norway on 14 September and commenced preparations for the transit to New Zealand. Captain Sergey Minchenko of the Murmansk Maritime Agency visited the vessel in port to perform an inspection on behalf of the NSRA. All issues on the inspection check list were found to be satisfactory and the permit allowing the NSR transit to take place was issued the same day. Everything was in place for the journey to begin.

The Northern Sea Route Transit

Polarcus Alima sailed from Hammerfest on 15 September 2011. Course was set towards the north end of the island archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, through the Vilkitskiy Strait and into the Laptev Sea, during which time she was escorted by NS Yamal, a nuclear powered icebreaker operated by Atomflot. Polarcus Alima then continued east along recommended routes, keeping in radio contact with Yamal, until on September 19 ice pilotage support was transferred to NS 50 Let Pobedy, the world’s largest icebreaker. The route then passed Pevek Point, where on September 23 radio contact was made with icebreaker Admiral Makarov. The ship then sailed on to Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost mainland point of Eurasia, and was through and out of the Bering Straits into the Pacific Ocean on the evening of September 24.

  • The view from the high-tech bridge of the Polarcus Alima. Source: Polarcus

  • The best shoreward views of the passage were on 23 September when passing 8 km off Shelagskiy Point, which provided memorable photographs of a dramatic and desolate landscape. Source: Polarcus

  • Source: Polarcus

Whenever air temperature dropped below zero, the heated deck walkway and railing systems on the vessel were enabled. The coldest conditions experienced were in the East Siberian Sea, where air temperatures fell to -3°C and sea water temperatures to zero. Large areas of shallow water were encountered, and even on the recommended routes, water depths as low as 15m were not uncommon. Away from the recommended routes there are large areas where charted soundings are 4 km apart, so it was essential to keep to the recommended routes to avoid risk of grounding.

To compensate for the quick passage across the meridians of longitude, it had been planned to change the clocks onboard by one hour every day; however this proved to be too rapid for most personnel, so it was decided to ease the time change to one hour every second day and by Shelagskiy Point, sunset was at 14:00 ship’s time.

The crew were keen to capture photographic memories of this unique voyage, but for the first five days there was moderate to thick fog. Groups of sea lions were sighted off Novaya Zemlya, but they quickly dispersed and it was not possible to get photographs of them. There was a marked increase in wild life when approaching the Bering Straits, including whales, but these were also too elusive to catch on camera. The best shoreward views of the passage were on 23 September when passing 8 km off Shelagskiy Point, which provided memorable photographs of a dramatic and desolate landscape.

Safe Arrival

The voyage from Hammerfest to the Bering Straits was completed in nine days, and Polarcus Alima arrived in New Zealand on October 17. The time saved by using the Northern Sea Route is estimated at 8 days relative to the Panama Canal route and 13 days less than using the Suez Canal. “The successful navigation of Polarcus Alima along the NSR has been achieved through the dedication and hard work of our in-house operations personnel, the NSRA, and our crew onboard the vessel,” said Rolf Rønningen, CEO Polarcus. “The result of this outstanding teamwork has been to achieve significant savings in fuel, emissions, and most significantly time during a milestone transit that effectively provides Polarcus with a viable new sea bridge between two important operational markets.”

Polarcus Alima. Source: Polarcus

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