You cannot talk about the change in conditions in the Arctic in North America without talking about being able to navigate the “Northwest Passage.”
Calling it a single “passage” is a misnomer – depending how many routes you carve out in Northern Canada, there are anywhere from seven to 11 potential waterways connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
As long as ships have been sailing the frigid waters of Canada, crews have been hoping to find that passage. Today, the attraction for shipping companies is saving money. It’s potentially a lot cheaper to inch your way through the Arctic as opposed to traveling way south through the Panama Canal.
In 2014, a massive cargo container ship from the Canadian Shipping company Fednav made it through the passage unescorted.
Icebreaking the Northwest Passage
Fednav agreed to take us on a trip from Quebec, past Nova Scotia, past Newfoundland, up to the top of Labrador to show us what their Polar Class IV ice breaker, the Umiak I, is capable of.
It is a massive ship — so large, I honestly never felt like I was on the water even when the water was relatively choppy.
The crew was a kind as they were professional. They took time to answer any question, and over our week on the ship they took us from stem to stern letting us really go anywhere.
It has every button and whistle you could expect, the most high-tech radar, and satellite images — because even though this vessel is as strong as any non-nuclear ice-breaker in the world, ice is the mariner’s nightmare and can damage or destroy any sell hull no matter how thick.
Aboard the vessel, crews told me that sea ice actually gets harder over time presuming it is kept below freezing. Sea ice is broken down into three groups: seasonal, second, and multi-year.
Seasonal sea ice freezes and melts every year. If it stays frozen all year, come next winter that ice is called second year ice. A third year, it’s called multi-year ice. Multi year ice is ridiculously strong. So even with all the high-tech apparatus on board, there is always someone poised with binoculars to keep an eye out for a wayward floating chunk of ice. Remember the Titanic?
The ship is not only the Cadillac of cargo container vessels, it’s also incredibly comfortable and leaves the crew really wanting for nothing. We all had our own rooms and three great meals a day. TV, a gym – it isn’t a cruise ship, but it is nice.
The two things I enjoyed the most were spending time on the bridge and being able to walk up and down the long cargo portion of the ship. Simply looking over the side, watching giant icebergs float by, or resting on the stern watching the Canadian flag flap in the wind as the sun set over the chilly water.
I don’t know what I expected the bridge to be like, but it was always calm and easy-going. And once the sun went down, it was so dark it took some getting used to. This was late spring, so we didn’t have to bust through any crazy thick ice. Still, it was pretty impressive to carve through what crews called “dead ice” like it was a knife through butter. Seriously — there wasn’t even the slightest jolt.
The Umiak I is three times as powerful as a traditional bulk cargo container, and costs three times as much. So this beast has to earn its money, by being sent to the worst of the worst ice. I would definitely jump at the chance if I got another opportunity to take a trip when ice thickness is measured in meters.
The Umiak can cut through the water at a top speed of about 22 knots. We chugged along at 8. Captain Michael Lee would have much rather cruised at 11, but Fednav had them pumping the brakes. The reason: Money. They save hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel just going a few knots slower.
Our trip ended at Voyseys Bay in the top of Labrador. The crew — which were not only all Canadian, but mostly from Newfoundland — went on to Spain after taking on a full load of copper ore.
Among the points I took away were that some U.S. reporters have been referring to the Northwest Passage as Panama Canal North. Even some cruise ship companies are beginning to go through the ice and water. That’s a mistake, according to the Senior Executive VP of Arctic shipping for Fednav, Tom Paterson.
He says even under the best of circumstances there will still be ice clogging up the passage. A massive ship like the Umiak I has a chance to make it. But Paterson worries that if there’s an accident, a spill, or even worse, an accident involving a cruise ship, who would come to their aid? What would that do to the future of shipping in the Arctic?
In Paterson’s mind, that would definitely mean more regulation.
I asked Paterson if the passage is opening up. “Not in my lifetime,” he said. “Maybe 50 years from now.”
So keep an eye on that area of the world. The question is, will they pay a big price for that gamble?