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Maersk’s recent Arctic voyage had the world’s tongues wagging

Last week Venta Maersk completed its first voyage, from Asia to the Baltic Sea. Usually a new building delivery voyage is barely noted, especially a small feeder vessel, even one that has significant ice-class because it has been earmarked for service in the Baltic Sea.

But what made the shipping world sit up and watch was because the voyage of this  3,596 teu vessel to St Petersburg in Russia was through the Northern Sea Route. There have been many vessels in the Northern Sea Route in recent years, and indeed many vessels operate year round in the Arctic Russian waters that make up the various passages that form the sea route.

But because the voyage was a container vessel – and these vessels are a shipping symbol of global trade, and because it was Maersk, the biggest of the container shippers, the mainstream press took note.

This voyage reflects the changing pattern of global trade as the Arctic defrosts due to global warming, many wrote. Headlines such as those from the UK press show where the public sentiment lies   Nearly all the images used portrayed giant containerships tearing through the water,  as the headlines insinuated global trade patterns shifting as shipping takes an immediate opportunity with the thawing ice.

But look closely. This was a small feeder vessel, with an extreme ice-class notation, so it was built for it,  sailing in the still small window of opportunity through the Russian Arctic when the yearly ice has broken and mostly melted. The fact there was some ice cover still during the open season is an important fact to bear in mind.

The vessel was not on a regular trading route, it was a trial route while it was on a delivery voyage from Asia where it was built,  and it was carrying only 660 containers – that’s under 20% of its nominal capacity. It is usual for shipowners to try and secure some cargo for a delivery or re-positioning voyage.

This voyage started on 22 August in the Port of Vladivostok and apparently entered the Northern Sea Route on September 6th through the Bering Strait and the company announced the successful arrival in St Petersburg after a stop in Bremerhaven on 28th September.

In its press announcement, Maersk Chief Technical Officer Palle Laursen said the trial voyage allowed  Maersk to gain operational experience, test vessel systems, crew capabilities and the functionality of a shore based support setup.

While the voyage was without incidence, the company does note that there are still patches of ice in the Northern Sea Route that required assistance from Russian icebreakers. Crucially the company notes this is a one off and Laursen is quoted in the Maersk press statement saying:”  “Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as a viable commercial alternative to existing east-west routes. In general, we plan new services according to trading patterns, population centres and our customers demand.”

“That said, we do follow the development of the Northern Sea Route. Today, the passage is only feasible for around three month a year which may change with time. Furthermore, we also must consider that ice-classed vessels are required to make the passage, which means an additional investment.”

Additionally, most commercial vessels, even with ice-class notations,  have to use icebreakers as escorts through the Northern Sea Route due to the risk of ice, and this clearly adds to the voyage costs.

Venta Maersk is the fourth of seven vessels being built of the same design, and due for delivery soon, and are designed for the extreme ice conditions of the Baltic Sea during winter, which makes them more suitable for sailing the Northern Sea Route.

They have sheltered forecastle deck for safe mooring operations in winter conditions and enclosed bridge wings for the ships navigation officers to remain sheltered when needing to take extra care during harbour and port operations.

 

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